Well, hopefully most people would say “Not a lot!”. For those of you who don’t, this is not the right blog for you.
However, this past week I came across some interesting articles which (shockingly) claim differently.
Number one shock was all over the New York Post on the 26th March 2012. The matter in hand was the New York City’s Department of Education’s selection of words and phrases that were ‘deemed unacceptable’ on tests for NYC pupils sitting English, maths, science and social studies tests for student progress as they might distress certain pupils. In this extensive list was included dinosaurs and prehistoric times, evolution and geological history. The full list can be found here. Funnily enough, creationism isn’t on the list, and personally I find that distressing.
The rationale for the list of banned words by the NYC DoE was that they do not want to upset pupils by including things that may induce feelings of economic sensitivity, or cultivate ideas of disrespect to authoritative figures, fellow pupils, family or animals.
Remembering my school exams, and the issues tackled in many of them, especially ones such as English or social/religious studies I find that many of those addressed were on important topics such as religion, equality and injustice. Prime examples would be when reading and writing about books such as The Great Gatsby, which tackles social inequality (economic sensitivity), alcoholism, post-war America and a host of other poignant themes. Another that sticks vividly in my mind would be Lord of the Flies, an epic novel that left me pretty shocked after reading it, but in truth is an educational phenomenon dealing with the internal conflict of humans in civilisation and savagery, the (incredibly quick) loss of innocence of the little boys who wear windbreakers. In answering and writing essay questions about these books, as staple parts of (at least a British) education, how can it be possible to omit the vast range of subjects outlined in the NYC’s selection?!
Another aspect would be education on topics such as the Second World War, and other wars and battles relevant to the country in question. Education on these world events is essential for students, at the very least to attempt make sure that as humans we don’t make the same mistakes again, to understand how they are so privileged to be having an education and to realise the difference between right and wrong in society.
The New York Post discussed what a Columbia University Teachers College professor Deanna Kuhn said, “If the goal is to assess higher-order thinking skills, controversial topics, for example, ones that are the subject of political debate, are exactly what students should be reasoning about.” I think this sums up very well one of the key arguments surrounding the exclusion of these words and phrases from papers. To have future scholars, politicians, teachers and almost every other profession you can think of it is essential that students can understand and discuss the crucial and most importantly controversial topics in the world well, building up logical arguments and being able to form educated opinions on topics.
On the subject of logical arguments, as I said earlier, creationism is not mentioned as a word that cannot be used, and neither is God – however religion is there. One of the things that bothers me the most is the fact that this list of topics banned can be interpreted in a way that implies that creationism is OK. Geological history AND evolution is apparently a ‘sensitive’ topic, implying that it is not science fact but an issue that can make some people upset. I see no other science listed, which to me points to the notion that chemistry, physics and biology are accepted facts that cannot be disagreed with, however geology and the geological sciences IS apparently to be disagreed with and this conflict of interest can therefore make people unhappy.
Fortunately, the NYC DoE retracted their clause on April 2nd 2012 with the City’s chief academic officer saying: “After reconsidering our message to test publishers and the reaction from parents, we will revise our guidance and eliminate the list of words to avoid on tests. We will continue to advise companies to be sensitive to student backgrounds and avoid unnecessary distractions that could invalidate test scores and give an inaccurate assessment of how students are doing. New York City schools teach the broadest, richest curriculum in the nation and we can’t let this distract from the important work going on our classrooms.” The clause has apparently been in effect for years however, but the New York Post published a report on the clause this year, sparking the uproar. Still, with the retraction of the clause I still feel that there is work to do when it comes to geological history and the apparent ‘ongoing debate’.
The second piece of news was slightly more recent, and in my mind was much more unexpected. The Museums Association published an article on 10th July 2012 addressing the National Trust’s inclusion of creationism in their new visitor centre at the Giants Causeway. When I saw this, I was really shocked. I respect the National Trust, and feel that the work they do is extremely important and valuable. In truth, I was not completely surprised to see something shunning ‘geological history’ come to the surface in America, but I was unaware that in Britain creationism had such a (possible) following to induce the National Trust to include it in their visitor centre. It may be something to do with the fact that the Giants Causeway is an international destination, and a much wider variety of people with differing views on the subject may visit it, but in my opinion this does not mean that the National Trust should have to bend to their beliefs.
According to the Museums Association article, the exhibit states: “creationists today have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science”.
and that “Young earth creationists believe that the earth was created some 6,000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis… Young earth creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth.” The full transcript can be found here.
I see no need at all to include these statements in the visitor centre. We have scientific evidence to tell us how the Giants Causeway was formed and that is based on scientific practice, experimentation and logic. There is no rational debate as to how the Earth formed or as to the age of the Earth. Just take a scramble down to Siccar Point, and if the journey down didn’t break your spirit (many an undecided 1st year university student has swapped course after that excursion) then the geology should convince you of the fact that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old (a good deal more than 6000).
More shockingly, the National Trust continues to defend the exhibit, stating: “The interpretation in the visitor centre showcases the science of how the stones were formed, the history of this special place and the stories of local characters…We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today. The National Trust fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago.”
I find this unfortunate, and no doubt do many others – as other interesting articles have discussed. However fortunately, there is a petition that you can sign to help rectify the situation. I would urge people to sign this petition, which at time of writing has just over 3,800 signatures out of the 5000 needed to take action.