Should the best high school students read Rachel Carson?

May 31, 2009

On the AP World History list-serv, a discussion on good books for a canon on 20th century stuff turned into a discussion on Rachel Carson, DDT and malaria.  That’s not the purpose of the list.

So, I offer this thread as a forum for that discussion, hoping some of the AP history teachers might participate.

Welcome, teachers!  Comments are open.


A different view of the California creationism in the classroom decision

May 10, 2009

Wired takes a different view of the California case in which an AP history teacher was found to have violated a student’s rights with comments about creationists — at least, different from the view I’ve articulated here.  It’s worth a look — and it shows that this case needs to be evaluated more carefully and closely.  Alexis Madrigal wrote at Wired’s website:

The teacher got into hot water because the creationism statement came outside the context of his AP European History class. In making the statement during a discussion of another teacher’s views on evolution, the court could not find any “legitimate secular purpose in [the] statement.”

However, Judge Selna found a second statement that Corbett made about creationism did not violate the student’s First Amendment rights, although it’s an equally pointed critique.

“Contrast that with creationists,” Corbett told his class. “They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

That statement was OK because it came in the context of a discussion of the history of ideas and religion. Thus, its primary purpose wasn’t just to express “affirmative disapproval” of religion, but rather to make the point that “generally accepted scientific principles do not logically lead to the theory of creationism.” One might expect that if creationism came up in the context of evolutionary biology, it would be similarly OK to say, “Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

The nuanced decision prompted the judge to append an afterword. Selna explains his thinking a basic right is at issue, namely, “to be free of a government that directly expresses approval of religion.” Just as the government shouldn’t promote religion, he writes, the government shouldn’t actively disapprove of religion either.

It seems to me, still, that the instructor was well within legal bounds.  For example, we would not ask a biology instructor to pay deference to the Christian Science view that disease is caused by falling away from God (sin), and not by germs, and consequently that prayer is effective therapy.  As a pragmatic matter, Christian Scientists don’t demand that everybody else bow to their view; but in a legal suit, the evidence of Pasteur’s work and subsequent work on how microbes cause disease would trump any claim that Pasteur was “not religiously neutral.”

We still await word on whether the district and teacher will appeal the decision.

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