The importance of education

Every now and then, I find myself so frustrated with the whole anti-evolution situation that I am tempted to simply wash my hands of the whole affair and walk away. After all, in the grand scheme of things, why does it really matter what kids get taught about biology. Most of them are never going to use the information when they grow up, and any creationism-induced knowledge deficits can be rectified later on in the education of those who are going to go on in fields related to the biological sciences. OK, so it’s nice to teach things that aren’t massively wrong, and all that, but is it really so important as to justify all this fuss?

Last week, I got a lesson on just exactly why all this really is so important.

Early last week, my advisor and I took some coral skeletons, a projector, a couple of PowerPoint presentations, and a couple of minutes of some cool video, and went to visit my daughter’s second grade class. After all of the time that we have spent exposed to students at the university level, what we found there came as a complete shock. These elementary school kids were actually enthusiastic and eager to learn. They were attentive, and they even asked creative, thoughtful questions.

Over the course of what was scheduled as a 30 minute presentation, and which actually lasted more like an hour, we were asked things that most of the undergrads taking intro classes don’t think to. For example, after we discussed the symbiosis between coral and the photosynthetic algae known as zooxanthellae, we were asked, “what happens if the little plants don’t want to live in the coral?” When we used the sea anemones from Finding Nemo as a basis for our description of a coral polyp, we were asked if they are so similar because they are related. Then we were asked if related meant “like family, or just kinda like each other?” The curiosity that these kids displayed was nothing short of amazing, and it reminded me of just how much of an intellectual crime we are committing if we do not reward curiosity with honest answers.

If we evade children’s questions because the answers aren’t easy to give, or because we are worried about how other adults might react to our answers, we are sending the wrong message. We are saying that our comfort level is more important than their need for an honest answer. If we avoid answering them because we are afraid of how the answer will affect their beliefs about other things, we are telling them that reality is relative. If we fail to answer their questions because we are afraid of how it will impact their understanding of other things, then we say, as Jack Nicholson so memorably put it, “You can’t handle the truth!”

None of those things is a good message to give to our children, and all of them are messages that are contained in the efforts of anti-evolutionists to dilute and distort the way we teach children about the world that they live in. But that isn’t the only reason that I drew from the second-graders. This week, we got thank you notes, and I got another reminder. Actually, I got several dozen more.

J.K wrote:

I learned that the fire coral has something inside and when you touch it it sting. Question: Where does the fire coral live and does it stay in the sunlight zone or twylight zone or darkness zone.

That note concluded with a request that we answer the question on the back and return it. (We did answer, but by email. For the record, although the fire corals are more closely related to jellyfish than to stony corals, they do normally contain zooxanthellae. This restricts them to the “sunlight zone”.) A couple of other students also thought of questions that they had forgotten to ask earlier, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we get another round of questions by email. Curiosity doesn’t always stop when the presentation does.

N.P. wrote:

When I grow up, I want to have a job just like you.

I.B. wrote:

I would like to know all about coral reefs and all the coral names. Maby I will do what you do at the place you work at.

Those two quotes give another reason that this is important. Children start to think about what they want to be when they grow up, and sometimes those early ideas actually result in later careers. (Of course, sometimes they don’t. I wanted to be a farmer when I was in second grade.) Interests are developed during childhood that can last a lifetime. When we show children just how awesome the world around them really is, and how much fun it can be to try and learn more about it, we might just be helping to develop the next generation of great scientists.

I guess that’s really the biggest reminder that I got from the second graders: Children matter. The students that we educate today are going to be the teachers and scientists of the future. They deserve nothing less from us than the best education that we can give them - and that means that we should encourage their curiosity, and provide honest answers to their questions. What they do not deserve is to have their education used as some sort of tool to gain leverage in a perceived “culture war”.