4 July ????

A new Marist poll provides some stunning figures. Presumably, every American knows that 4 July is Independence Day, but only 58% of Americans know which year America declared its Independence. Among American adults younger than 30 years old, that figure drops to 31%. Overall, about a quarter of Americans don’t know from which country America declared its Independence.

What have public schools been doing for the last 40 or 50 years? In 1971, the year I graduated from high school, nearly any high school graduate could associate events for numerous years. Just naming the year was sufficient: 323 BCE, 44 BCE, 476, 1066, 1492, 1588, 1776, 1812, 1815, 1854, 1860, 1876, 1914, 1929, 1939, 1941, just to name a few.

In 1971, an average high school student would have been able to associate significant historical events with at least a dozen of those years, if not all of them. In 2011, I doubt that public high school graduates from the last ten years could, on average, associate significant events with a quarter of those years, if that many.

It would be interesting to do a simple comparison using such a metric between public high school students and homeschooled students. I’d predict that the homeschool students would kick ass.

Science kits for religious versus secular homeschoolers

When we announced the CK01 homeschool chemistry kits on the MAKE blog, Geek Dad, and so on, we immediately started getting critical responses and emails about how we positioned the kits. The relevant part of the announcement was:

“The kit can be used with a religious curriculum or a secular curriculum …”

And a typical criticism started out:

“Pray tell, what religious curriculum requires a modification to a science chemistry set that would not first render all basic science moot in the first place?”

Fair enough. So I posted the following response:

“Religious home schoolers are often concerned that a secular science kit, such as this one, may include explicit or implicit criticisms of or hostility toward their religious beliefs. Although our company (and we) are secular, we wanted religious homeschoolers to know that nothing in our chemistry kit should be offensive to their religious beliefs.

As another commenter noted, this situation is particularly common with geology (and biology) materials that might contradict the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, particularly Young Earth Creationists. We have many science kits planned for future release. Some of those, such as forensics and physics, are unlikely to offend anyone regardless of their religious beliefs.

Other kits, such as earth science and biology, will be secular and may indeed offend the sensibilities of some (not all) religious homeschoolers. We will flag those kits prominently to warn anyone who is concerned about their content that these kits may not be suitable for some religious homeschoolers.”

Now, as my regular readers know, I’m 100.000% secular, but they also know that I’m 99.44% pure libertarian and 100.000% pro-science. I don’t care what people choose to believe, whether it’s in Apollo or Thor or the Tooth Fairy. But I do care about as many kids as possible getting hands-on exposure to real science. And that’s what the kits are about: not ideology or politics or anything other than pure science.

In reality, none of our kits may contain anything offensive to anyone’s religion. We may or may not cover issues in earth science that Young Earth Creationists would object to. In biology, the issue is of course evolution. As the great biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, himself a devoutly religious man, famously stated:  Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. No serious scientist disputes that.

So it might seem we’re going to have a problem with our biology kits, but in fact I don’t think we will. Even religious fundamentalists acknowledge the reality of micro-evolution, which is evolution within a species. They have no choice. We can actually watch it happen. Their problem is with macro-evolution, or one species evolving into another species.

Scientists consider micro-evolution and macro-evolution to be one and the same. The former typically occurs over relatively short periods, and the latter typically over longer periods as accumulated evolutionary changes in one organism lead to speciation, or the original organism evolving into an entirely new species.

The thing is, a micro-evolution lab session is perfectly reasonable for a high-school biology course. For example, we might do a lab session on repeated culturing of a bacteria species with forced selection to develop resistance to a particular antibiotic. That won’t offend even the most fundamentalist religious parents, because everyone admits the reality of evolution on this scale. Conversely, macro-evolution is not a practical (or even possible) hands-on lab session topic for high school biology, so the issue is moot.

It would be very different if we were writing a general biology textbook for homeschoolers, because then there would be no alternative but to present evolution in all of its aspects as absolutely true beyond question, verified by millions of observations and experiments over the last 150+ years, and further confirmed by new developments such as molecular biology and DNA analysis. If we ever write that textbook, you can be sure that it will be the best science we can do, and let the chips fall where they may. But we’re not in the business of writing lecture textbooks.