April 8, 2013
I was reorganizing a props closet recently when I found this fellow.
I got all of his strings untangled to try to see how he works; he’s a marionette, but seems to be missing the wooden handhold that would allow a puppeteer to operate his legs independently from his arms and head.
He’s beautiful, and also clearly not a toy or a prop. He looks like a traditional puppet of some kind. (In most cultures other than ours, puppet theater is a serious traditional storytelling form for adults as well as children.) And here’s my real embarrassment: I wrote my final paper for graduation with honors in college on the religious frameworks underpinning various East Asian puppet theater traditions…and I had no idea what this guy is.
He looks Indian or Hindu, perhaps, and preliminary image Googling reveals a resemblance to the string puppets of a tradition called Bommalattam, but those marionettes are described as being about 3 feet tall, and this one is only just over a foot, and also more detailed and ornate. I dug out a copy of my paper to skim through, but he doesn’t fit the description of anything that I studied.
It’s past my bedtime, but I’m a little obsessed now with figuring out more about him. I’ll have to resume research in the morning, though if anyone else is geek enough to have any idea, I would be thankful to know.
January 30, 2013
A friend sent me a link to this Radiolab episode (“Voices in Your Head”) from a couple years ago in response to a different inquiry altogether (having to do with certain experiences of schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations), but it was startling to me in an unexpected way.
Jad is talking to developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough about how he believes children learn to think by internalizing external verbal processes:
CF: I don’t think very young children do think.
JE: Like, think, period?
CF: I don’t think they think in the way that I want to call thinking.
JE: What he meant, is that thinking as he defines it, is just words sounding silently in your head, and before you have those words in your head, you can’t think.
Early in the episode, Fernyhough asks us to think of a parent and child solving a jigsaw puzzle together, and the back and forth dialogue between them in which, he posits, a child learns to think. The “thinking” here, he says, is happening in the interaction between parent and child, and not internal to one or the other at all. It’s by learning to make this verbal process internal, that we become thinking people, he says. “If you watch any kid with their parents, anywhere in the world, doing this kind of thing, you’ll see them thinking together,” he tells us.
Immediately I thought, “How insulting to non-speaking or non-verbal people,” or even to people whose primary intelligence is not linguistic, but spatial, movement-oriented, artistic, or musical?
But then I was even more stunned. Wait, I thought…Is this possibly why so many people cannot imagine that someone who doesn’t talk doesn’t truly think? Why people are so highly skeptical of the genuine intelligence of someone who can type but not speak? Because most people do, in fact, learn to think by speaking and can imagine no other way?
I never did engage in the kind of mutual narration described, or individual narration about what I was learning to do; being forced to engage in that kind of communication while trying to understand or carry out a task actually badly impedes my ability to do it. I have the damnedest time getting people to understand that I’ll be better off if they show me something once or twice and then leave me alone to get comfortable with it, rather than hanging over my shoulder and re-explaining and correcting until I’ve got it perfectly, which will never happen under those circumstances. It’s also one of the major reasons why I did so badly in cognitive-behavioral therapy: Because having to speak severely impedes my ability to think. I speak by translating and selectively externalizing my internal understanding; I don’t think by internalizing what’s external.
Even my memories of learning to write are hardly verbal at all; they’re very experiential, visual, and physical. I remember the pattern of it becoming intuitive more than the words themselves.
Frequently in my line of work, I find myself defending the intelligence of dancers to other people, explaining that you just can’t expect them to be able to communicate much of their intelligence verbally. It’s just not how they work best. It’s not the framework in which they’re approaching the world.
But look at their intuitive grasp of physics, space, movement, group dynamics, and the capabilities of the human body. That is just as much intelligence as anything you can measure on a standardized test, and it never stops being astonishing to me.
Or, in college I knew an art student who reported that when she’d been painting alone for a long time, she had a really hard time switching back over into speech…like if her roommate came home unexpectedly and said hello. I have a really hard time buying that in those preceding hours, she wasn’t thinking at all just because she wasn’t doing it in words, but in color, shape, and movement.
It’s incredibly arrogant, too, the presumption that because this is how you, or even most people, learn to think about the world, that that is how it must be done, and if it wasn’t, then those people aren’t really thinking at all…that thought itself cannot occur in a frame of reference radically different from the one that most people take for granted. Or that nothing of significance could be understood if it can’t easily be translated to speech or verbal language. And that’s not even taking into account all the conditions by which someone may in fact have a very verbal understanding of the world, but not be able to physically speak for whatever reason (like oral motor apraxia). The prejudice is to assume that they cannot think or understand, rather than to look for ways that they could make their understanding known.
What I’m starting to think is that it’s not the autistic who have a theory of mind problem.
I’m at my favorite coffee shop again, like I usually am on days when I don’t have to be at work till evening. Patrons are actually sitting outside this morning, because it’s sunny, calm, and 45 degrees instead of 10. A woman smoking at the table nearest the door pushes her last fragment of baklava—shimmering with honey—to the edge of the table for the sparrows to share, and as one alights on the edge of the table to seize it, the sun for just a moment shines through its widespread wings, turning both bird and pastry a translucent luminous gold…like the bird was solidified from light itself.
And though I write poetry, there are no words I can find sufficient for the sight…not really. Even the above paragraph feels and sounds klutzy and contrived compared to what it actually looked and felt like.
If I had even fewer words than this to describe it to you, would that mean that I didn’t truly see or feel or understand that moment? I don’t think so.
January 23, 2013
Speaking of characters who everyone gets wrong…
It’s always made me a little sad how few people appreciate that Danny Zuko is a great big poetry nerd. Specifically, that he’s a huge fan of e.e. cummings…but that, for instance (as far as we know), his English teacher never seemed to notice this, or harness it into keeping him more engaged with his academics.
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February 29, 2012
The whole time I was watching this:
…I was thinking of this:
The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. “You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful….”
Now would you like to see something incredibly eerie…?
How often do the people we say have no hearts, in fact have the greatest ones?
Who are the people who tell us that they’re not worth having?
January 29, 2012
“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie
So I got a Kindle for Christmas. I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.
I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect. A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked. Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.
I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50. Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.
So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum includes a note at the start of the book:
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900]. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me. Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.
But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery. Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for. The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.
There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.
Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.
It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children. Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.
When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things? And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?
Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage. Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does: examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.
I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.
And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.
The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.
In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties. Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger. Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous. There is no escapism here. Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache. Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.
If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside. It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets. And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise. (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)
When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.
What happens in a book can’t hurt you. What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it. People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to. Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time. That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.
“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature. But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.
December 23, 2011
While I gather my wits for a more substantial post, please enjoy this edition of “Headlines that should be from the Onion, but are not.”
“Despite careful calculations, the world does not end.” –New York Times, 5/21/11
“City strewn with perverts.” –AMNY, 6/15/11 (I know the situation isn’t funny, but the imagery is.)
“Girls Meet Bieber in Meeting Brokered by President Obama.” –gawker.com, 6/27/11
“China admits officials cannot levitate.” –New York Times, 6/30/11
“Cowboy monks quit the cattle business.” –New York Times, 8/14/11
“Bisexual men do exist, study finds.” –New York Times, 8/21/11
“Why do college students love getting wasted?” –Salon.com, 8/29/11
“Do we really need a national weather service?” –foxnews.com, 8/27/11 (i.e., the weekend of Hurricane Irene, which swiped the entire east coast of the United States from the Carolinas to Massachusetts and Vermont. Yeah.)
“White House Says No Evidence of Extra-Terrestrials.” –AP, 11/7/11
“Rick Perry fails to remember what agency he’d get rid of in GOP debates.” –cbsnews.com, 11/9/11
“Starbucks toilet mutiny exposes reliance.” –New York Times, 11/22/11
December 6, 2011
I just got home from the New York Public Library, where I went to hear to Josh Ritter, Wesley Stace, and Steve Earle discuss the relationship between music and writing. All three were lovely and marvelously intelligent, and though I went to hear Josh (of course), I think it was Steve Earle who said the most intriguing thing of the evening:
“What separates us from animals is not opposable thumbs; it’s that only humans make and consume art. That’s what separates us from the beasts.”
And while I don’t want to denigrate the quality or value of animals’ emotional lives…I suspect he may be right. I don’t tend to believe that humans are vastly superior to the rest of the animal kingdom in morals or capacity for empathy or emotional complexity…but I cannot think of another species that produces and consumes art for art’s sake.
August 25, 2011
Last summer, I wrote a post rather emotionally detailing my issues with the thinking behind a new reality show, NERD GIRLS, which was then in the casting process. That post (Real nerd girls; June 2, 2010) has by far and away generated the most page views to my blog of anything that I’ve written…though not always in the way I might’ve imagined or intended.
See, WordPress has this nifty feature whereby you can see which search engine terms are bringing readers to your blog. The following are some of the actual phrases that internet surfers have entered into search engines which brought them to my post “Real nerd girls.”
“real nerd girls” (Okay, fair enough.)
“actual nerdy girls”
“real pretty nerd ladies”
“hot nerd girl not real nerd” (Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint you.)
“sexy girl in renaissance dress fuck” (I admit to being particularly impressed by this searcher’s ability to spell “renaissance” correctly.)
“hot actual nerd girls?” (The tone of that question mark is just so forlorn….)
“nerd girls in short skirts”
“live nerd girls looking for me” (Uh, no.)
“romantic girls girls hot sexy just engineers real” (Dude… )
“fetish pics from women in waders” (……. )
But then there was one that actually broke my heart.
“I don’t want to be a nerd anymore.”
I have no way of knowing who the searcher was who made this request, and I rather doubt that he or she is still reading, obviously having not found the solution here. But, I don’t know, just in case…or in case anyone else comes looking…
At risk of sounding patronizing, which is not my intention…I know how hard it is. I really do. I won’t try to minimize what you’re going through, because I’m sure you’ve got enough people trying to do that. I remember only too well what it’s like to feel awkward, ugly, left out, and like no one gives a damn about you.
But I can’t tell you how not to be a nerd, because I don’t know…and I’m not sure I’d tell you even if I knew. Because here’s what I do know:
High school (or, god forbid, middle school?) is not the best time of your life. Do not believe anyone who tells you it is, or that it should be. Life gets far better for nerds after high school in most cases. The adult world is much, much kinder to nerds than the adolescent world is.
Nerds are not superficial beings. What makes you a nerd isn’t on the surface, so there’s nothing you can do to yourself cosmetically that will make you not a nerd. Not makeup or prettier hair. Not better clothes, cuter shoes, or any amount of waxing or plucking. Not mani/pedicures, piercings or tattoos. Some of the most sexy and attractive people I know are still nerds. If you’re a nerd, you’re a nerd all the way through.
Nerds believe that knowledge matters, that information matters, and that truth matters. You might manage to hide or suppress that belief for social convenience, for a limited amount of time, but I doubt you can make yourself unbelieve it.
Nerds are passionate. Nerds are intensely interested in how the world works. Nerds thrive in places where bottomless passion is valued rather than scorned. Nerds care about the world around them.
Nerds tend to be very, very good at what they do, and doing something they love, because they do it for its own sake and not for what other people think. (And we don’t just do science or technology, but also all the arts and humanities, teaching, politics…anything that takes passion and attention to detail. Don’t let anyone try to push you into science or math just because you’re smart if that’s not what you want. I know dancers and actors who are Ivy League grads with higher SAT scores than me. You don’t owe anyone whatever use of your intelligence they happen to want from you.)
Nerds are in touch with their own inner lives.
Nerds never lose the ability to be amazed.
Nerds are genuine. Nerds aren’t ashamed to be sincere.
Nerds aren’t embarrassed to take things seriously, but also know how not to take themselves too seriously.
Because nerds aren’t addicted to popularity or social approval, they’re better at standing up for what’s right, and standing up for other people, even when it’s unpopular.
And in my experience with people, because nerds remember how hard it was to be young, they make nicer adults.
So to not be a nerd anymore, you’d have to somehow smother your curiosity, your sense of wonder, your joy for whatever it is that you love, your empathy, sincerity, and inclination to think for yourself. Now, you MIGHT be able to accomplish that–again, I wouldn’t know how–but my strong suspicion is that, much like the making of a Horcrux, it might seem like a cool idea from the outset, but the actual process would do such violence to the integrity of your soul that it would be soooo not worth it in the end.
Please reconsider? At least just give it some time. Because all the happiest people I know are the ones who have figured out how to accept themselves for who they truly are. And most of the very most wonderful people I know are nerds.
March 13, 2011
I’ve had my first blog award, and now I’ve been tagged in a meme, by Rachel at Journeys with Autism.
I think at some point this meme was to post the books that were in actuality physically by your bedside, but for me, that would be all of them…since my bedroom is very small, so the bookshelves which occupy two walls of it are, necessarily, very close to my bed. Luckily for all, it’s now a more general “what are you reading” meme. And these are the rules:
1. Take a picture of the books you are reading currently and add them to your post.
2. Describe the books and if you are enjoying them
3. For every book you are reading, you have to tag one person.
4. Leave the person a comment letting them know you tagged them.
I used to have a personal rule that I couldn’t be reading more than one book at a time. At some point, I had two books (and I don’t even remember what they were) that I wanted to read with equal desperation, and my usual respect for delayed gratification was so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized that that wasn’t a real rule, it was one I made up, and I could be reading as many books at a time as I wanted. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading:
1. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle. An exhaustive but very readable history of the causes and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, this book contains much of the background and source material for the production I’m currently working on, a dramatic choral music piece called From the Fire in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event this year. The fire was New York City’s worst workplace disaster before 9/11/01, in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant girls, died because, for an evil confluence of reasons large and small, they were locked inside a dangerous factory. I loved reading this, both because I enjoy having a fuller understanding of the background and origin of the shows I work with, and because the Triangle tragedy was one of those things that I vaguely remembered being mentioned in passing in 8th grade history class, but we were never really taught its importance as a turning point in American history, for women’s rights and workers’ rights among other things.
2. A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. This is the first installment of a fantasy series which came highly recommended by a friend, and my intrigue was sharpened by the visually gorgeous previews for the forthcoming HBO series. I was totally hooked by the end of the prologue. It’s the story of a land on the brink of war where nothing and no one is quite what they seem at first, and Martin plays around very unsettlingly with big ideas about power, love and trust, morality, and what we think we understand about the natural world.
3. Rachel’s own book, The Uncharted Path. Rachel, I’m going to cherish this as part of my growing “survival manual.” Before I read this, I thought that I had actually hit some limit on my ability to be stunned by recognition of my own experience, or having to keep saying “good god, I thought it was just me.” Nope. Knocked speechless.
4. Saint George and the Dragon, by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. One of my favorite picture books as a child, it’s an adaptation of the most famous episode from Edmund Spenser’s Middle English epic poem The Faerie Queene. It had been on my mind a lot lately and I considered asking my mother to mail me the copy she still has, but then figured I might as well have my own since I could get it for $3 on Amazon. Its completely enchanting watercolor illustrations have not lost their power to entrance me in the 25 years since this book was first read to me.
5. 1776, by David McCullough. I actually haven’t started this one yet–it’s next up. My dad and I tend to like the same kind of history books, so he passed this one on to me after he finished it. He says it’s an intensely human, personal account of the first year of the American Revolution; it sounds almost impossible that I won’t like it.
6. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve made a habit of re-reading things I’ve loved to wind down before bed. This is the one I’ve gone to for much of this past year, and is a book that will amply reward re-reading. I love this book on so many levels, and it’s kept blossoming and unfolding to me the more time I’ve spent with it. Typically I say that it’s impossible for me to name one “favorite book,” because so many have meant so much to me but in very different ways or times or circumstances. But this one’s in serious danger of being my favorite book for a very long time.
And now, for my six victims! You! I want to know what you’re reading! Because I either like your writing or think you’re interesting, and not because I, like, need more stuff on my list of things to read or anything….
1. Amish, at The Trivedi Chronicles.
2. Amy, at experiment in a new life.
3. Jess, at This has become a weakness.
4. Leigh, at An American Girl in Cambodia.
5. Susan, at Three Cats on a Sofa.
6. Bruce, at Born 2b me.
Does anyone else find themselves quietly hoping that hyperlexic people are more likely to get reincarnated, because we need more time to read?
February 9, 2011
I’m not a big fan of mandatory schooling, as most of my readers will already know. Okay, I’m not a fan at all. But I’m starting to think it’s about time to require everyone to read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
And I mean everyone.
I read it myself last year, in a campaign of reading stuff that we should’ve been assigned in school but weren’t. I was a little bit (okay, a lot) appalled that as much as I thought I knew about evolution, I had actually attained a degree in biology without ever having read the seminal work on the subject.
If you need evidence that our schools are profoundly failing to educate, consider that. Most biology students never have to actually read On the Origin of Species.
Or that, according to a Times article (On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan) on a survey published in Science magazine last month, 86 years after the Scopes trial, only 28 percent of high school biology teachers are actually teaching the straight facts about evolution, the foundational principle of modern biology, while 13 percent are still explicitly teaching creationism.
The article shines a light on what the study calls the “cautious 60 percent” of biology teachers who in some way, shape or form, compromise on teaching evolution outright.
In what other discipline would it not be outrageous to allow 73 percent (the 60 who don’t teach evolution straight up + the 13 who openly teach creationism) of our educators to bow in deference to religious fundamentalism? But that’s what we’re doing in biology. Wouldn’t there be nationwide outraged panic if it were found that an authoritarian sect of some religion other than Christianity were managing to seriously compromise how our kids are being taught?
Yet this is what’s going on in the overwhelming majority of our biology classrooms.
One professor quoted, Randy Moore, doesn’t think that better science education for instructors will help. “They already know what evolution is,” he says. “They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them.”
But do they really know what evolution is? I doubt it. If nearly three quarters of biology teachers aren’t really teaching evolution or teaching it in a half-hearted way; or if they, like me, got through school as high-achieving biology students without ever reading first-hand the definitive books on the topic, then they really might not. And fundamentalist churches aren’t simply rejecting evolution; they’re lying about what the theory actually says and does not say. So when someone who hears about evolution in school but rejects it for religious reasons, are they honestly rejecting an accurately presented representation of evolution, or are they believing their pastor over their science teacher when it comes to what evolution by natural selection really is?
So I come down, cautiously hopeful, on the side of the slightly more optimistic Dr. Eric Plutzer, who says that “We think the ‘cautious 60 percent’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”
This is a cycle that can be broken, if educators know how to stand up for the facts.