When The Times last month shouted out, “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools,” asserting that Michael Reiss, a biologist and an ordained Church of England clergyman, had explicitly advocated that state-school biology classes teach creationism, a long-standing debate was but waiting to be ignited.
The background to the headlines was a lecture at the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s Annual Festival, where Reiss had articulated his now public position: The teacher should explain why creationism is not science and why evolution is, when students from a creationist background raise this issue. Given the wide media exposure, the Royal Society moved swiftly to axe Reiss from the society’s rolls arguing that the media’s misinterpretation had “led to damage to the society’s reputation”.
While we could debate the merits of the Royal Society’s knee-jerk reaction and the ethics of responsible reporting till apocalypse occurs, the issue at core is the more critical task of dealing with young minds at a formative stage in school.
I was not present at Reiss’ lecture, but what occurs to me was that rather than making a pitch for teaching creationism, he was advocating a stance which does precisely the opposite.
The inculcation of scientific temper and the analytical ability to discern between science, fiction and legend from an early stage of one’s development could only advance the cause of science. In a sense it would be far better to confront superstition head-on rather than pretend it does not exist.
In this battle between creation and evolution raging in the Western world, I do believe Indian educationists need to sit up and revisit the teaching methodologies being applied across the spectrum of schools.
The heart of the issue which needs to be dealt with is really how to respond to students who have been steeped in scientifically untenable beliefs due to their family or community backgrounds when they ask about those beliefs in classes.
There are a class of people who argue that allowing discussion of scientifically untenable beliefs such as creationism in class confers it legitimacy. The solution, according to this group, is to firmly direct students to take such questions elsewhere. A shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere response from a teacher will only serve to perpetuate unscientific beliefs and do the greater community a great disservice by not equipping a student with all the tools to effectively debate such issues and arrive at a conclusion.
The reactions fuelled by Reiss only serve to bring back a very old debate which the education boards in India have been trying to tackle for a very long time now, with limited success— that of rote learning versus application-based learning. This is a fresh opportunity to not only revamp the examination standards but also to focus wholeheartedly on the teaching methodologies in vogue.
In the end, here’s the statement from the Royal Society that hit the same media rooms in London days after Reiss’ exit: “Creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.”
I cannot help but recall T.S. Eliot’s verse, which probably best sums up the Royal Society’s position:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Saionton Basu is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org