Fighting the good scientific fight in the educational trenches

There’s a Florida teacher out there by the name of David Campbell, and he’s my new instant hero. And a big part of the reason why is because he’s like my dad.

Browsing the net this morning I discovered this NY Times story about Campbell, which I urge you all to read. I’ll quote just a small bit here:

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

To explain a bit more why I thought of my dad when I read this story — Campbell’s a Navy veteran, an Anglican who regularly attends church services and a high school-level science instructor who teaches the evolutionary theory among other subjects. This is essentially my dad’s story as well, the only difference now being that he has since retired from teaching. Both men not only reconcile that supposed divide between faith and science, they embody the best values of both (admittedly I speak without direct knowledge of Campbell’s own practice of faith but I have a strong hunch it’s as thoughtful as his other work). In a slightly tangential way, it also puts me in mind of this excellent Discover magazine story I read the other week, “How to Teach Science to the Pope,” regarding the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and its related work, which among other things contains this lovely quote:

Expecting to hear a further defense of his faith, I ask [retired Vatican Observatory head Father George] Coyne what effect science has had on religion and, in particular, on the Bible.

“There is no science in the Bible. Zero, none,” Coyne says. “The Bible was written in different times by different people. Some of the books are poetry, some of them are history, some are stories.”

“Are you saying that the Bible should not be held up to scientific scrutiny?” I ask.

“That is correct,” Coyne says. “Absolutely.”

Returning to the subject at hand, this kind of work and thought that my dad did and that Campbell currently does is the kind of practical approach that enriches, extends and enlivens knowledge for a general population, education in the sense of continuing to learn. To my mind it is axiomatic, so to step back a bit and explain those axioms: when growing up, I did so learning in a household that implicitly encouraged knowledge of the Bible — I still remember reading adaptations of Biblical stories with my dad when I was eight or nine each night before going to bed, and I don’t recall doing so for any other reason than my own interest rather than being told I must learn — as well as scientific interests — I was a massive astronomy buff at around that same age, culminating but hardly concluding with the broadcast of that (literally) stellar encapsulation of deep physics and the structure of the universe, Cosmos, one of the landmarks of popular science. That its host Carl Sagan was well-known for his religious skepticism troubled my dad not at all, then again it never came up — I wasn’t raised in a household that divided the world starkly between a correct religious standpoint and an incorrect mundane one. For that I am grateful.

It should also be said that I encountered fundamentalism around that same time in a horrifyingly deceptive way — while I do not think she did so intentionally, a babysitter from down the street, the daughter of another Navy officer, once brought over some Jack Chick tracts with her. I believe she must have done so for her own reading, but seeing as they were ‘comics’ I guess I must asked after them and quite frankly got myself (and my sis, I think) all worked up, laden as they were with their melodramatic predictions of imminent doom. It was a fairly traumatic night to be introduced, very starkly, to that kind of mindset, with its combination of self-righteousness, sadism and that darkly American variant on the paranoid political style, the more so because the babysitter at no point questioned any of it, to my knowledge. I vaguely remember weepingly praying, in tears and shock, with her helping me along — and keep in mind again I’m nine years old!

Like I said, I don’t think she came over there that night with the idea of trying to convert me or anything — at least I hope not. I do remember hearing later that my parents and her parents ‘had a talk,’ as they say, and the situation did not repeat itself. Neither am I so blinkered as to think all fundamentalism expresses itself in the, shall we say, ‘imaginative’ fashion of Mr. Chick and those who think him a theologian. But almost certainly that’s where my sense of suspicion and, later, anger over this particular vision of the world grounded itself, as I was able to look back with a more thoughtful eye on what happened that evening. I had already confronted the simple idea of death itself a couple of years previously, when I was seven or so — I remember a series of evenings laying awake in bed starkly and sadly grasping it, and at least one sorrowful conversation with my parents about it — but this was something alien to me, something far harsher, and more to the point, as I reflected about it, something based in fear of the unknown, of the idea that there was something else out there other than stark moral simplicities. When confronted with larger possibilities — and advances in scientific knowledge kept expanding them for all over the decades and centuries — the result was regression and despair.

And yet — as noted, folks like Campbell, like my dad, like many others, denied that fear and regression, they incorporated and embraced and looked forward and out. Teaching on any level is a combination of the urge to share knowledge and the act of performing that knowledge, if you like — the discussion in the article about Campbell’s sense of how best to convey it to his students is familiar to me from my days as a TA back in the early nineties, on a much different level. It takes a certain type to always aim to be on, it’s a stressful job, however much one wants to think back to one’s own student days and remember little but being bored in a classroom on a hot early afternoon, say. It takes even more of a certain type to tackle what is still a touchy subject, to understate.

The construction of the article inevitably results in simplicities — Campbell and Haas are almost designed to be the central casting choices in a film version of this story, wise but concerned teacher deals with passionate, inflexible student — and inasmuch as upbringing determines type, it’d be easy enough for me to dismiss Haas if I didn’t note that, as the article says, he’s a fellow “whose parents had made sure he read the Bible for an hour each Sunday as a child,” and who had been struggling with his father’s passing the previous year and finding comfort in religion. Much different from my story, where my religious interest was encouraged but not required, and where I suffered nothing so traumatic at that age.

It would be easy enough for Campbell to dismiss Haas as well, if he were so inclined, but he does not do that — he is trying for something else, as he says at one point to the class as a whole in response to a challenge from Haas:

“Faith is not based on science….And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

“But I do,” he added, “expect you to understand it.”

Again turning back to that Discover piece, consider how Campbell’s quote readily and easily squares with this statement, a religious statement of belief that understands and works with science and the application of the scientific method and the results gathered rather than trying to pretend it does not exist:

As a scientist who is also a Jesuit brother, [Vatican Observatory worker/Jesuit brother Guy] Consolmagno suggests that science poses philosophical questions that in turn spark religious inquiries.

“A hundred years ago we didn’t understand the Big Bang,” he says. “Now that we have the understanding of a universe that is big and expanding and changing, we can ask philosophical questions we would not have known to ask, like ‘What does it mean to have multiverses?’ These are wonderful questions. Science isn’t going to answer them, but science, by telling us what is there, causes us to ask these questions. It makes us go back to the seven days of creation—which is poetry, beautiful poetry, with a lesson underneath it—and say, ‘Oh, the seventh day is God resting as a way of reminding us that God doesn’t do everything.’ God built this universe but gave you and me the freedom to make choices within the universe.”

Turning back to Campbell again, his message to his students, to me, is as key a statement of purpose as any on this subject, and in this life. I have no patience with those who choose not to understand, or if you prefer choose not to make the attempt to understand. If I may draw a somewhat specious but hopefully relevant comparison — it is like doing nothing but reading political blogs and news sources that only reinforces one’s own point of view, instead of looking at other sides, other takes, and trying to understand them. In my trying to understand hard-right/conservative points of view, I do not find my own basic beliefs and interpretations changed, but in many ways strengthened both by the differences and, strange as it may sound, the commonalities, sometimes surprisingly so (it is noteworthy that there are many conservative bloggers who are religious agnostics or atheists that argue passionately, and strongly, for evolution and the scientific method, for instance).

To do all this requires activity, action, and the desire to share knowledge and encourage its pursuit in others. I trust I don’t flatter my dad in saying he always aimed for this — to my mind it’s just the truth. I’m assuming the same of Campbell — and I hope he does so for a long time to come. His is the kind of story that makes me proud and happy — and he’s not alone in this world doing what he does. A good thing indeed.

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