Guest post by Brandon Haught, author of Going Ape: Florida’s Battles over Evolution in the Classroom
My work on Going Ape was a thrilling five-year research and writing journey. I discovered hundreds of documents, from newspaper articles to school board meeting minutes, revealing Floridians’ opinions on how evolution should be taught in public schools. I already knew before I wrote anything that public opinion on the subject was often explosive, but it was still fascinating to learn how often the debate caught fire across the state. One outraged parent crusaded against biology textbooks that he said were “un-American, atheistic, subversive and Communistic.” Others said that learning about evolution led to rises in college campus suicides and immoral behavior among our state’s youth. Since so many adults felt that learning about evolution would be harmful in some very real way, I wondered what students themselves thought. Do any feel animosity toward the subject? Are they apprehensive when the biology teacher introduces the evolution unit? During my research for Going Ape, I found that the students’ opinions were rarely sought.
But I recently gained valuable insight through personal experience: I’m a new biology teacher. This year I switched careers. After years of being an outside observer I finally got to see what was going on in the classroom—what students think about evolution.
“Jesus is the answer” was a joking response I got from one student to many of my lessons’ questions. Was there underlying seriousness to his clowning? I could never be sure. Another class featured an impromptu debate between a girl and a boy. It was sparked by my lesson on experiments scientists conducted concerning how life might have first started on earth. The boy didn’t buy it and said so. The girl responded before I did, asking him how else he thought it might have happened. I expected students might challenge me at some point, but I hadn’t expected them to challenge each other. A few fast retorts between them ended with the boy stating, “Do you really think you came from nothing? Because I sure didn’t.” I then stepped in and brought them back to the lesson at hand. The exchange had only lasted a few seconds, but it was clear evidence to me that some students walk into the classroom with strong opinions already formed. They may not always express them, but they’re there.
Among the rest of my 150 students, though, there was little else in the way of controversy. There were no other protestations or debates. At face value, the silence seemed to show that the students treated evolution much like photosynthesis or the lobes of the brain. It was just another thing to learn. However, many students struggled more with some of the main evolutionary concepts than with other topics. I was constantly asked: “How does an animal know when to adapt or change?” When I responded that the animal doesn’t know—its population either survives and produces offspring or its population dies out—they never seemed satisfied. “If man came from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” was another frequent question. They weren’t being contrary in the same way that many adults had been during the debates I depicted in Going Ape. The students were sincere in wanting to know. I gave them answers as best as a novice teacher could and I hope I helped them make sense of the issues they were wrestling with. These are tomorrow’s adults, after all. They could be leaders in the next battle over teaching evolution.
Brandon Haught received the 2014–2015 First Year Teacher Award from University High School, Orange City, where he teaches biology. He is a founding board member and volunteer communications director for Florida Citizens for Science.