Let Academic Freedom Ring


Unless we liberate science from political and religious forces,our students don't stand a chance in the global workforce.

Christina C. SchallerIT'S PREVAILING OPINION in the United States that in order to hold on toour economic standing internationally, our workforce needs to grow moretech-savvy. To that end, our students need rigorous science, technology,engineering, and math (STEM) training. But first, we have to stop politicaland religious pressures from threatening children's education in thebasics—such as knowing what constitutes a theory and applying the scientificmethod—in schools and in society at large.

If those principles were understood and accepted, then, for example, a docent at Grand Canyon National Park who is asked by an inquisitive child how old the Grand Canyon is could answer that, based on geologic evidence, we can conclude the chasm was carved out by the Colorado River roughly 5 million years ago. Instead, park officials are instructed not to comment on the canyon's age. Why? Because the National Park Service is deferring to the wishes of religious fundamentalists who believe the Grand Canyon was created by a flood, as described in the Bible's account of Noah's life, only a few thousand years ago.

A literal interpretation of the Bible also may be taught alongside the theory of evolution in, for instance, Kentucky, where law states that teachers may tell students "the theory of creationism as presented in the Bible." And in Pennsylvania, the school board authorized teaching "intelligent design" in high school biology classes. Fortunately, that initiative ran aground when a federal court ruled that it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Enough Americans discount evolution that, in a recent survey of 34 countries published in Science magazine, only Turkey ranked lower than the United States in its acceptance of the theory. Follow-up research indicates that our nation's poor grasp of biology, specifi- cally genetics, is to blame for our ranking.

At least we're closer to the mainstream in our recognition of global warming. And our high schoolers are rightfully alarmed. In an international survey by Merrill Lynch, 94 percent of the teenage respondents say our country should do more to address global warming. Yet how can our future leaders solve global warming problems if they aren't allowed to develop enough STEM skills to take up the challenge?

- Christina C. Schaller, Managing Editor

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.