The Wheel, part three and Live and Learn

The Wheel, part three and Live and Learn, Iran’s Not-So-Happy Face and Notes on Teaching Evolution Theory

The Wheel, Part Three

In an exchange that’s rooted in our story about the Homestead (Spring ’06 “Life on Earth”), Ross Studlar ’04 most recently asserted the Homestead’s eco-friendly, sustainable practices and their relevance to modern education. Here, a rebuttal:

I guess I have to add the third wheel to Mr. Studlars’ bicycle. Something that he should have learned on the hill rather than the Homestead: A liberal arts education should provide a broad spectrum of reality to enable one to separate fact from fiction.

A basic course in physics and the laws of thermodynamics should open everyones’ eyes to the fallacy of renewable energy sources at this time. Every alternative energy source now expends more BTUs than they create. Eliminate the government subsidies and there is no justification for ethanol, biodiesel, or solar energy.

Mr. Studlar has a valid point in building super insulated homes for which there is a economic payback. Straw, soil, and used tire houses are so labor intensive in construction that they bring no payback and are unsuitable for large scale use. Only financially independent people who have too much time on their hands can afford them.

A basic economics course should have provided Mr. Studlar with the economic tools to realize why we use fossil fuels. Simply, they are much less expensive. I’m not against solar energy because of political correctness. I am against it because it is not economic to convert sunlight into electricity.

Mr. Studlar should realize that the marketplace will provide alternative energies, not the Homestead. Mr. Studlar should realize that all of his technologies are a step back in time and a basic reduction in ones’ standard of living. He should also realize that our technologies are infinitely cleaner and better on the environment. Does anyone really want to go back to burning wood and coal? Go live in third world countries and see the disastrous effects their standard of living have on the environment.

The Homestead has one benefit. A perfect example of academia run amok, inmates running the asylum and pure folly.  

Thomas C. Howenstine ‘66 Hicksville, Ohio


Live and Learn

Given the emphasis on vocation in Kelli Whitlock Burton’s “Higher Education, Liberally Applied” (Winter ’06-’07), I was concerned by the lack of imagination around the term “vocation.” Specifically, Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), maintained that the relevance of a liberal education depends upon convincing people that it is “the best vocational training out there, with the understanding that we’re defining vocation in the broadest possible sense.” And the sources for this definition’s breadth? According to a report published by the AAC&U, business leaders shared in focus groups that they want college graduates who are “’360-degree people’ capable of adapting to changing circumstances in the workplace and industry markets.” On the surface, this label seems harmless. But let’s linger over what it might imply, and what’s missing.

How are our students truly served by a curriculum designed to mold them into “360-degree people”? Why is vocation’s meaning tethered to ensuring students have marketable skills, even ones augmented, as Dr. Schneider remarked later in the article, by the ability to ask questions about the social context and the civic implications of particular technical problems? Should we expect more? I think we must.

In its broadest sense, vocation is an invitation to explore how one’s passions might serve the world. As José Garcia has written, “What matters is that the world should touch the heart and that the heart should go out towards the world.” Not all of our graduates will take up the mantle of community activism. But a liberal education should invite them to confront difficult questions about identity, difference, meaning, and how to make a life upon a foundation of passionate stewardship.

The relevance of a liberal education always will be a contested question. Let us engage in the debate. But if we’re going to talk about the liberal arts and vocation, let’s call things by their right names. Not all students will undertake deep identity exploration. But students should graduate with the courage to ask hard questions of themselves and their world, and with the habits of mind to help them remain steadfast against a culture that would trivialize their curiosity and passion. We do them and the liberal arts a disservice if we give too much credence to focus groups crying for graduates so adaptable they can turn in any direction, but stand for nothing. 

Jeffrey D. Kurtz Associate Professor of Communication Denison University


Iran’s Not-So-Happy Face

Your article in the winter issue, “Catching Fish in Muddied Water” [regarding economics professor Sohrab Behdad’s three decades of research on Iranian social class structure] is false. The happy girls are not real pictures of what is going on in Iran. You have a distorted view about Iran. They are building nuclear weapons and just received a $700 million missile defense system from Russia to try to prevent the destruction of their nuclear developments by Israel so that they will not be able to blast Israel off the face of the earth like your smiling Iranian girls would like to do. The attitude of Iran is just like that shown in Germany in 1938.

Too bad your article tries to discredit the U.S. Since 90 percent of your faculty are cut-and-run Democrats, you probably don’t believe in the United States, either.

T. M. Roudebush ’52 Lenexa, Kansas


Notes on Teaching Evolution Theory

In the Winter 2006-07 Denison Magazine, Evelyn Frolking reports on the confrontations Mary Ann Barnett encounters while teaching evolution in high school biology and the activities of two Denison students who explored how evolution is taught. In the article, Ms. Barnett is quoted as saying that “My job is to teach the science.” I agree with that, but is she being intellectually honest in the way she teaches the science, or is she teaching a distorted, one-sided view of the science?

Most scientists like to talk and write as though evolution was a proven theory when, in fact, it remains an unproven theory with a number of problems. Some of these are:

1. Mathematicians have pretty well proven that the proposed evolutionary process almost certainly could not have occurred by chance within the time frame that it supposedly occurred. This means that if evolution really occurred, either a natural or supernatural force must have guided it. I have never seen a viable scientific explanation as to what that force might have been.

2. In nature, changes that occur naturally go from complex, high-energy entities to simpler, lower energy entities. If the proposed evolutionary process really occurred, then thousands, or even millions, of naturally occurring changes had to go from simple to more complex entities. I know of no scientific explanation as to why evolutionary changes should have gone in the opposite direction from those normally occurring in nature.

3. If a specimen of specie B were to somehow evolve from specie A, how does specie B reproduce? Science has pretty well shown that mating different species does not produce viable offspring. One possible resolution of the dilemma is that two specie B’s, one male and one female, evolved from specie A and that it occurred in close enough time and geographical proximity so that the two B’s could find each other and reproduce. The likelihood of this having occurred even once has to be extremely small, and the likelihood of it occurring thousands or millions of times is almost zero. Another possible scenario is that B was so similar to A that A and B could mate and produce viable offspring. Presumably, the off-spring would have a B-, which means that for every two steps forward you would have taken one backwards. This would require a multitude of evolutionary steps to get from one major specie to another, and there would be a multitude of missing links waiting to be discovered. This also seems highly unlikely.

4. Scientists like to claim that evolution is a provable scientific theory. It is a scientific theory, but is it provable? Let us assume that scientists today are able to reproduce the entire proposed evolutionary process. That would prove that evolution could have occurred, but it would not prove that it did occur. Until the scientists could prove that the conditions they used to reproduce the process actually existed at the time and location of the proposed evolutionary changes, they would not have proven that evolution occurred. Since I know of no way to prove what the conditions were at the time and place the evolutionary changes were supposedly occurring, it would appear that evolution will always be an unproven theory.

So, we are faced with a choice. We can believe in evolution, or creation, or something else. But for the time being, whatever we choose to believe in, we have to accept it on faith, because we have no way to prove scientifically what the correct concept/theory is.

Maybe if scientists and science teachers would include the above kinds of information when teaching, talking, or writing about evolution, the confrontations Ms. Barnett talks about would disappear.

William Barringer ’56, Ph.D. Pearl River, New York


I applaud the winter issue article by Evelyn Frolking, “Evolved Thinking.” I applaud even more the scholarship of the two Denison students, Lindsey Chrislip ’07 and Liz Doerschuk ’07, for taking on what is, but shouldn’t be, a controversial issue—especially in the field of education.

Their interest in how evolution and alternate theories is being taught in high schools led to a statewide conference called, appropriately, “Beyond the Media: A Conversation about Evolution and Science Education.” It seems to me that “conversation” is an apt metaphor for all education. The most important education I had at Denison 40 years ago was learning how to learn, including learning how to consider and converse about different ideas, learning how to develop my own ideas, and perhaps most importantly learning how to respect the ideas of others. I don’t recall learning there were certain things that shouldn’t be taught, i.e., certain ideas not worthy of consideration and debate. Absolutely nothing can be taught anyway, but much can be learned—learning being at the discretion of the person and brain engaged in that activity.

I spend more of my time around scientists and educators who accept the main principles of evolutionary theory than I do around those believing in creationism. I am consistently amazed, and actually appalled, when I hear cheers from the scientific community when school board members promoting creationism are defeated, or when courts overturn the mandated teaching of creationism.

How could educators be so closed-minded as to not even want these issues discussed? How could learning ever happen in such an environment? The converse is certainly true as well. Why would educators, parents, or students who believe in creationism not want evolutionary theory as part of the discussion? That discussion isn’t about the origin of life. It’s about the origin of species.

Every significant advance in knowledge isn’t a measure of how brilliant we are today, but actually describes how ignorant we were yesterday. Darwin was a creationist before the voyage of the Beagle. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was an evolutionist long before the grandson’s studies. Darwin’s wife worried that she and her husband would not be together in the hereafter due to his studies, but they remained loving and respectful of each other.

Most religions, including Christianity, have remarkably similar beliefs about creation. The Holy Bible is one of the most widely read books in the western world. What kind of conversations can happen in the learning environment if this is the one book to which censorship is applied?

Charles Darwin’s description of natural selection has influenced biological thought and research for 150 years. It would constitute educational neglect for students not to know about these principles, and more importantly not to be able to discuss these ideas in a respectful environment. Brains exposed to important ideas, such as creationism and evolution, will be more learned than if exposed to either one alone.

I do have a comment about the background illustration in the photograph of the two women. It depicts a rather antiquated version of human evolution as a linear process from a quadrupedal primate ancestor through Homo erectus to an anatomically modern human. The current thinking might best be illustrated as a bush, with many dead ends, and probably not including either Homo erectus or Homo neanderthalis, as they were likely on different branches of the evolutionary bush.

Ms. Chrislip and Ms. Doerschuk are excellent examples of what a Denison University education is about: respect, conversation, and learning. Thank you for telling their story.

 Douglas Kramer ’67, M.D., M.S. Madison, Wisconsin

Published August 2007