Saturday, July 24, 2010

Now Is the Time to Support Science Teachers

Published Online: July 22, 2010
Now Is the Time to Support Science Teachers
By Jeniffer Harper-Taylor

There’s no better time to make the case for science education than right now. For months, we’ve witnessed the largest ecological disaster in U.S. history unfold, creating debates among scientists and engineers about how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be contained. This crisis has created an opportunity for American children at every grade level to become scientists while questioning and exploring the future of the nation’s energy challenges. Read more here.

I do think that the BP oil spill creates an opportunity for science. It also creates an opportunity for religion and theology. Like science, religion and theology address the mysteries of the universe but they also each foster a kind of lens that while distinct, also converges in the most exquisite and harmful kinds of ways.

On the positive side is the awe and wonder of creation. On the negative side, all tend to promote doctrinal understandings that we embody and live even if we aren't religious, per se, though we might be spiritual. That is, we inherit a particular construction of the cosmos, the universe, and our place in it. A confluence between science, religion, and theology occurs when we collectively view ourselves as separate from, and above, all of creation. This way of knowing is about domination and having power over creation rather than power with it. And this way of knowing plays out in the deep gulf, separation, and exploitative relationships that exist between rich and the poor nations and persons.

What the BP oil spill forces us to realize is that this is ourselves as a species on whom we are wreaking havoc and destruction and not just some hole in the ground in the middle of the ocean. And this havoc is fated to impact us not only for generations to come but also our unborn generations to come.

What can we do to inspire a much deeper sense of accountability, an "ancestral accountability," if you will, that really interrogates our attitudes toward the planet so that we can stop polluting and contaminating not only ourselves, but also our grand children and great grand children to come into oblivion? Why can't we as a community and nation lead by putting the very real threat of biocide and ecocide into our school, district, and state curricula?

What kind of epistemology, or way of knowing, allowed us to get so alienated from the earth that we thought that we could do this to her in the first place? We will hopefully eventually plug up the hole but how will we ever plug up the arrogance behind the narrow, market-driven rationality that created this colossal, atrocious mess in the first place?

We need to come to terms with our harmful, self-interested, and exploitative, ways of knowing that are destroying the planet—and science, in itself, will not get us to that place of knowing. It is generally too compromised to take us to that place of an authentic embrace of the universe.

Nor have the social sciences—or religion, for that matter—induced a spirit of relation beyond our narrow constructions of family, clan, and community. However, see Iain S. MacLean who investigates competing frames of globalization and indigenous "cosmovision" in Mayan struggles in his book, titled Reconciliation, Nations and Churches in Latin America (2006).

In anticipation of a simplistic and patronizing reaction to my argument about epistemology herein, I align myself with scholars like MacLean who thoughtfully and respectfully present through their research and writings the complex, indigenous world views of native people and how these get negotiated with churches and religion.

Westerners have much to learn about their orientations toward time, space, and the environment. Similarly, their histories, sense of human relationships, sociopolitical realities, mythic constructions, and how they view the universe offer immense food for thought on how we can both prevent and overcome environmental and planetary degradation and disaster. Unfortunately, our schools and universities teach so little of this that one generally has to seek out these texts and discourses on one's own. The good thing is that they are there for the taking.

The underpinnings of our mostly unquestioned epistemology is the "doctrine of separateness" that Western thought inherited from St. Augustine in the 4 a.d. Unless one studies the history of religion and theology, we cannot unearth the foundations of our very own thinking. Rather it thrives as a deeply-embedded artifact of Western thought that is unconsciously passed on from generation to generation.

So my point here is yes, we do need more and better science—science that is environmentally conscious—but we also need as a people, nation, and species to embark on a much deeper conversation about our relationship to nature and to each other. We have instead inherited a theology of separateness from all of creation and in losing this respect, we become threats to our own survival.

We can surely change policies to make them more environmentally responsive and we can expand scientific knowledge about the universe but if our world view remains the same, un-rehabilitated, we are destined to find ourselves in this same horrific situation anew. And how many bodies of water and how much sea life do we have to spare?



  1. How will you get buy-in from the business interests who control schools and curriculum through their support of candidates for policy making bodies?

    How will you carve out time in the school schedule for a topic not addressed in standardized tests?

    How will you get past the faith-based gatekeepers?

    My suggestion is that you expand your excellent proposal to include the answers to these questions.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Rosie. You raise a number of good questions. My interest at this point is just getting the conversation started. I feel that I do such diverse reading with ideas that tend not find their way across bodies of knowledge because of the way that our curricula are fragmentary and so I am trying in my own small way to be a bridge--and especially so at this juncture in history where so much is at stake. Thanks for your feedback.

  3. Check out this piece, too. Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee. There's some really neat principles and values expressed at the end of the piece that also offer a set of understandings on which to proceed.

  4. "No real progress can be made in environmental law unless some of the insights into the sacredness of land derived from traditional tribal religions become basic attitudes of the larger society." by Vine Deloria, Jr., Sioux