How to handle controversy in the classroom...has just become controversial.
Today, a high school biology teacher in Kansas would be hard pressed to avoid controversy. There is:
organ transplantation, as with the recent French face transplantation
gender identity, and the biological basis for sexuality
birth control, abortion, and sex education in general
...and of course, evolution, a concept as central to biology as atomic theory is to chemistry.
At the university level, I have the academic freedom and the academic responsibility to prepare biology teachers to face these controversies.
Therefore over the last 20 years, I have invited to my methods class an array of speakers:
A pro-life doctor.
A principal from a Christian school who told us why we should not be teaching sex education or evolution.
An animal rightist.
A Roman Catholic priest who detailed the Church’s birth control position and explained how they had no conflict with evolution.
These are not debates to change biology teacher’s minds.
My students know their science.
But if I only give them the animal rights pamphlets and require they read a sample of the intelligent design literature– which I do–there is the danger that we will underestimate the other side. ...Like a group of like-minded fellows, back-slapping each other at the water cooler, and ridiculing the opposition. Only by directly facing true-believers can we appreciate the depth-of-feeling of our opposition, or understand what we are up against.
Part of the issue is legal.
Teachers must understand the Establishment Clause: religious advocacy does not belong in public school science classes. Advocates of equal-time-for-creationism ran it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987—and lost. Now the question on whether intelligent design is religion has been run through the courts of Pennsylvania and has been found to be motivated by religion too.
But part of the issue is also social.
Our biology teachers face a public where no more than 15 to 20% have enough science background to understand evolution. On the other hand, fewer than 20% of the public are literalist fundamentalists. That leaves well over half the public who are not committed to a position. Many will make their decisions based on their perception of respect, of politeness, of dignity, of who will listen and give a fair and reasoned response to their questions.
There is no law of nature that ensures that science will prevail. But if there is a law of human nature, it favors those who behave as ladies and gentlemen.