Controversy on the Class Room Floor

Hollow or Not? Teach both sides.

About four years ago in Federal Way, screenings of an Inconvenient Truth, were restricted when a science teacher in middle school showed the film to a class. An evangelical named Frosty Hardison had a daughter in the class, and he complained. Because of Policy 2331/2331p, which states that both sides of controversial issues need to be presented to classes, and this hadn’t been done, then a moratorium was placed on the film.

As an evangelical Frosty lives in a mythical world filled with a number of beliefs dictated to him by his faith. He doesn’t believe that global warming is caused by human activity but if it is true at all it is the result of divine intervention. He believes the end of the world is coming and heat will contribute to the end of time. He believes that an omnipotent deity who is human shaped and has a beard watches over all human activity. He believes that this deity created the Earth 6,000 years ago. In fact many of Frosty’s articles of faith or myths or whatever you want to call his deeply held convictions are “in conflict” with the teaching of science, biology, and history. To juxtapose his beliefs and the canonical text he holds to be absolutely true — The Holy Bible — with a science textbook is to find a great deal of controversy.

Which is true?

A lawyer named David Larson was quoted by the PI as saying:

“Somebody could say you’re killing free speech, and my retort to them would be we’re encouraging free speech,” said Larson, a lawyer. “The beauty of our society is we allow debate.”

The question isn’t do we allow society to debate issues, which we already do, the question is does an ideological battle between science and faith belong in a science classroom? I don’t believe that it does. I think it harms the instructor’s ability to teach science, and that the Federal Way School district policy allows a loophole for external organizations with an agenda other than the education of our students to influence the curriculum.

At the time I wrote to the school board, but they were being flooded with information from irritated parents. These parents, I presume, shared my irritation that they were sending their kids to a school district who were presumably educating their kids for professional and middle class jobs as teachers, doctors, lawyers, software engineers, and electrical engineers rather than rank and file followers living in a Branch Davidian compound. Professional jobs require firm critical thinking skills grounded in a framework of the current knowledge in their respective disciplines. The response I received from the school board was harried and not very helpful. I considered an essay something at the time, but realized my motive was more to contribute to the mass of amusement and ire sticking to Frosty then to actually change the source of this nuttiness which was Federal Way School Policy 2331.

So I kind of let it drop.

This last summer I became frustrated in the response of what I see as otherwise sensible people to the figures of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Both Palin and Bachman hold similar beliefs to Frosty. They are outspoken, and have found a wide audience. I can’t believe that the vast majority of their audiences do not believe in dinosaurs, for instance. I also have difficulty believing that they really hold stock in the idea that the earth is six thousand years old. These are the particular details that drive my friends nuts. On Facebook occasionally some friend will go into a tirade about Bachmann for instance. At the root of it they are contributing to a frozen and polarized discourse that has nothing to do with the fact of the age of the earth, but more how fact can be “controlled” by authority. Bachmann for some reason can speak and seem credible. She is not credible to me because she is not fluent in the current body of scientific knowledge, and yet for some people she is credible. Why? I think understanding this question could create a ground for proper discourse. A polarized discourse freezes any ability for advancement in understanding and public policy. Instead political power moves things forward, and political power only moves forward in terms of acquiring more political power. Rationality cannot enter into this argument.

I remembered then the teach both sides of the controversy policy at Federal Way, and realized it introduces this same mode of discourse as an official mode of conversation into the classrooms under the guide of public debate. We hire our teachers to be rational and to be experts in their respective disciplines. It would be unproductive to learn biology form Frosty Hardison or his daughter. I certainly couldn’t prepare myself to become a scientist by taking classes from Hardison’s daughter. Instead, I would enroll in a class with a scientist.

Why then was the policy on the books in the first place? It only serves to introduce ideological points of view into a classroom that should be dedicated to rational thought, to presenting the current and relevant body of knowledge for a specific discipline, and guided by an skilled instructor who has already planned the course to most effectively teach the skills her students will require.

Frosty’s injection of irrelevant and ideological information can only disrupt this process.

But the term itself, “controversy” is very vague. The policty itself does not define the test of a controversial subject. In the 2007 PI article, the school board is quoted as adopting a standard of “credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented,” but even this is fuzzy. Any piece of information presented in a subject has been arrived at through a process that involves discovery, testing, and validation. At one point the existence of America was unknown and then controversial, and finally an obvious and undeniable fact. But this is a purely European-centric point of view. America’s existence is controversial when taken from the point of view of a member of the Salish tribe. A primary school education is based on learning facts. That these facts depend on a framework that is sometimes contextual and depend on cultural context is outside of the prevue of a primary school education. At the point at which students learn that 1492 is the year Christopher Columbus discovered America is not the point at which to begin to address the epistemological problems in that claim. The history of the Americas depends on that fact. To learn Western History is not just to learn naked faked, but it is also to learn the framework on which those facts are organized, this framework constitutes the ideology of the discipline.

Every discipline is built of facts and the organization of those facts into a system. Each of these facts is controversial to someone credible and legitimate but external to the discipline being taught.

A purely Dadaesque project would to be use the Federal Way school district policy to create a curriculum of confusion. If each side of the controversy must be taught, and nearly every fact is controversial, then every angle of controversy must be taught. Eventually this would resemble a vast fractal pattern of noise in which the only knowledge that could be taught would be confusion.

For instance, take something as simple as the “to be” verb. This is in fact controversial. Some English idioms drop the verb in particularly constructions because it really is a kind of useless grammatical construction, and in the worst sense the to be verb can be artfully used to remove the actor of a sentences, such as that “the population of the small island was killed,” rather than “the united starts Marine Corp killed the inhabitants of the small island.” In reaction to the misuse of this verb, there is a movement called “e-prime” to remove the “to be” verb from English. There isn’t just one side to this controversy then. There are the pro “to be” verb-sits, the pro-idiomatic dropping of the to be verb-sits, and the e-prime folks. And likely then each statement of fact in each of these sub-groups has their own controversial stands, and these nested controversies will need to be presented as well, and so on.

So picture a composition teacher in second grade trying to define the concept of a to be verb as having the ability to assign meaning from one to another. The truck is red. And then this teacher needs to begin to unpack that statement, “the truck is red,” for the idiomatic. “Truck so red,” maybe. And then the e-prime’s, “red truck.” Now the teacher would be obligated to teach how the e-primers had arrived at the construction of “red truck,” over “truck red,” or “truck=red,” and so on. At the end of the entire day dedicated to this construction our second graders are packed off to go home and fill out worksheets that present the to be verb construction as we know it but the various other contenders for this construction.

This is just the “to be” verb. Issues such as evolution, the geography of the earth, or the history of the United States are fertile fields of controversy.

The policy as it currently stands is open to any contender for a controversy.

Perhaps that was not the intent. Perhaps the intent was only a wildly-held controversy rather than just credible and legitimate. It is unclear how widely-held this controversy must be. For instance, Frosty believes the age of the earth is six thousand years old. He is a person of faith and an Evangelical. As an individual who belongs to a group like this he has an ideology. An ideology is defined an orientation that defines a group or a nation. For Frosty, the age of the earth is an article of faith and important to his definition as a member of this group. It is natural, I think, that the Frosty would want to challenge a science teacher on anything that conflicts with his ideology. It has the potential of undermining his sense of identity.

Evangelicals are a community and as a group have their own ideology. If I wanted to be a member of that group I would learn the facts that define the group, such as the age of the earth and I would become fluent in the ideological structures of the evangelical community. I would attend classes. I would practice speaking in evangelic terms. I would learn where fossils came from since they didn’t come from dinosaurs.

Conversely the scientific community is a defined group and has its own ideology. When a student is learning the facts of science in a science class they are in fact learning both the facts but also an ideology. If I am a student of science, I will need to learn not only the facts, but also the ideological structures of the profession, especially if I would like to become professional scientist, or even if I am an educated member of our society who would like to stay abreast of current scientific thought.

What Policy 2331 does is open the classroom door to ideological battles. These battles are played out using our children. And these are battles that are futile (and therefore a waste of time) and in some cases unconstitutional.

Ideological battles are futile because ideology cannot be removed from the classroom or even counter-balanced by an opposing ideology. I think the policy may have the premise that ideology has no place in school. This is I guess an admirable goal, but it is naive. It assumes that it is possible to remove ideology from knowledge. This is not possible. As we have seen every fact is inflected by its position in an ideological framework, and in fact, in learning science or history the student is learning two things, 1) facts; 2) the ideological framework of the discipline. First facts in a discipline are sometimes hypothesis and the ground on which the discipline is built. They are organized, and presented so that additional knowledge may be built on them. Their organization and relationship to each other both determines and is determined by the ideology of the discipline. To remove that organization is in fact to remove the discipline. Science taught without the ideology of science is not science. To free a science classroom from the ideology of science is to free the classroom of the teaching of science.

Ideological battles in the classroom go against the grain of our government support of a separation of church and state. When a fact such as the age of the earth being six thousand years old is inserted into classroom discourse, this is a faith or church-based fact. It isn’t something supported by any credible scientist. It is only a tenant of some churches. It is a long-standing tradition that a state supported school does not teach the ideology of a particular church.

So my objections to the policy are three folds:

    1. The current policy as it stands does not adequately define controversy.
    2. Inserting controversy into the classroom turns the classroom into an ideological battleground and does damage to the teaching of the course subject.
    3. When the controversy is faith-based the controversy has no place in the classroom because concept of separation of church and state.

Given this I wondered how I might be able to simply remove the policy from the school manual. So wrote my member of the school board to find out, and found out I could just contact the superintendent and request that the policy be removed.

In the early summer, I did that, and I was told to justify why it needed to removed, so I wrote an essay and asked for it be removed.

About two months later I receive a note from Mark-Davidson that it would not be removed because. His e-mail:

From: “Mark-Davidson -ESC”
Subject: Fwd(2): Re: Your Request Regarding Policy 2331
Date: August 23, 2011 3:53:04 PM PDT

Good Afternoon Mr. Briggs,

Thank you again for your request to remove Policy 2331 (Controversial Issues – Teaching of) as a Federal Way Public Schools policy. Thank you again for providing your rationale, as well as other information. I have reviewed the policy, accompanying procedure and the information you provided. As a result, I have decided that the policy and procedure should remain. The last paragraph of the procedure (2331P) which I have quoted below, is important:

When handling controversial issues, the teacher may not present his/her own personal position as the only acceptable position which may be taken on that particular issue. The teacher shall not seek to bring about a single conclusion to which all students must subscribe, but rather encourage a problem solving environment. The teacher shall not suppress a student’s view on that issue as long as the expression of that view is not derogatory, malicious, or abusive toward the other students’ views, nor shall one student be permitted to dominate the discussion.

Thank you again,

While I agree that discourse in a class should be civil, and that the teacher should moderate the discussion so that a single individual doesn’t dominate classroom discussion, it is a very odd to classify the subject the teacher is instructing their students on as a personal position. Ideally the teacher’s personal position does not play into it, but rather the teacher is obligated to teach the subject. For example, climate change is not a personal position but rather a hypothesis that is widely accepted by the scientific community. In the Federal Way school district, a teacher teaching about climate who teaches about climate change is not expressing their personal opinion but the received knowledge of her discipline. However, using Policy 2331 as justification because people of faith such as Frosty Hardison believe that climate change is a result of the world nearing the apocalypse, Frosty’s children can introduce this alternate, non-scientific view into classroom discourse. This is also not an opinion, but rather an article of faith. Opinion is not at play here, but rather a clash of competing ideologies. The ideology of a particular sect has no place in a public school science classroom.

Nevertheless, Mark Davidson’s response failed to address my principle concern that is the vagueness around the term controversial. The policy does not define the term. I believe that there is no way to accommodate the term controversial without turning classrooms into ideological battlegrounds.

So I asked if I could challenge Davidson’s defense of the policy. And now I will have a meeting with the superintendent. Given that the Mark Davidson didn’t really respond to my essay, and just cut and pasted the policy in response, I don’t have high hopes for removing the policy. I hope my pessimism is unwarranted.

I have been contemplating what my next step should be if that is removed. I guess I will need to request course syllables for all courses in Federal Way to audit them for teaching both sides of every single controversy.

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One Response to Controversy on the Class Room Floor

  1. Cat Rambo November 23, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    It seems absolutely INSANE to me that we are letting people whose scientific views are based on the equivalent of the prophecies of Nostradamus influence how science is taught, let alone treating their run for public office with any sort of seriousness.

    This is something I’m going to quote you on, I think it’s a great point — “The question isn’t do we allow society to debate issues, which we already do, the question is does an ideological battle between science and faith belong in a science classroom?”

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