Biology and funding matter to all students [column] | Local voices


“What good would a carpenter do for biology?”

That was the question John Krill, a defense attorney representing the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature, asked a school superintendent last month during the school’s landmark funding trial in Commonwealth Court. of State.

Ironically, the life sciences exemplify the long history of controversy over schools as potential drivers of equality. Biology was introduced into schools about a century ago with the express purpose of closing the educational, health and economic gaps that persisted between urban and rural youth.

But disputes over whether to teach it, and then how to teach it, saw the dreams of progressive education reformers vanish amid fabricated moral outrage that insisted schools were corrupt. young minds.

This recent audience question reveals a deeper ideological conceit about the very purpose of education and who schools are for.

No one is born a carpenter. But everyone is born needing food, clean and safe homes, and the means to coexist with other people, plants, and animals. At the start of the 20th century, these needs were particularly visible in the largest American cities, which were experiencing diverse population growth driven by both the great migration from the rural south and immigration from overseas.

Science teachers in major American cities began to develop a new way of teaching life sciences that better suited the needs of their students. They replaced the standard curriculum of separate botany and zoology semesters with a new way of teaching about the living world. They held “biology” classes that highlighted the common characteristics of plants, animals and people – teaching concepts such as cell theory, energy produced and consumed by metabolism, heredity and genes , and artificial and natural selection.

This new biology didn’t just happen because it was more “scientific.” It had explicit goals of public health and social reform.

Many teachers who contributed to the new pedagogy were influenced by John Dewey’s philosophy of education, and from these idealists came the idea that schools educated not just a future worker, but the whole citizen – a person who would have a career, a family, hobbies and a vote.

But it wasn’t just driven by ideology. The professors who revamped biology were motivated by what they saw every day in the classroom: urban students, many of them children of immigrants, undernourished and living in squalid conditions. They saw biology as a way to teach people to eat nutritiously, to keep their homes and bodies clean, to elevate themselves economically, and to avoid the spread of disease, whether airborne, food or sexual activity.

Over time, people recognized that these goals would also benefit students who did not live in big cities, especially as the country continued to grow and create new industrial jobs.

The old botany-zoology curriculum still made sense for people living and working on farms, but biology (and the new way of teaching science more generally) gave students the freedom to seek out new places to live. and new job prospects.

The parallels are clear. Equitable financing of education gives all students an equal chance to access this opportunity, as well as economic and cultural mobility. No one is born a carpenter, but with fair education funding, a carpenter’s son can become anything. Witnesses in the ongoing Commonwealth Court school funding trial have testified to the painful experiences of seeing the pupils they teach suffer with too few resources – underutilized, underfed, underprotected.

The political parallels are also clear. A century ago, rural conservatives came to lament the vision of an ethnically diverse and more equitable society that public education represented. Some of them latched onto the new biology and began to pressure schools and states to ban “evolution,” hiding their opposition to public schools under accusations that it undermined morality. .

A century later, the fabricated outrage against “critical race theory” seems remarkably similar.

The real question is not whether biology or history – or any other particular subject – is immediately useful to a future worker. At stake is whether schools will ever live up to an ideal that biology and history suggest is possible: that our students can reach their potential and have more freedom to choose the course of their lives if structural barriers to equality in education are removed.

Adam R. Shapiro, Ph.D., was educated in public schools in Philadelphia and is now a Lancaster-based historian. He is the author of the 2013 book “Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools”.


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