Schools have a duty to promote evolution far more robustly

Schools have a duty to promote evolution far more robustly January 29, 2016

Atheist headteacher Tom Sherrington, above, earned praise from Richard Dawkins and others after he went on the offensive recently against the teaching of creationism in UK schools.
The head of Highbury Grove School in London revealed in piece on his Headguruteacher blog that he had been addressing the issue of evolution at assemblies in order to:

Give prominence to the idea of evolution by (non-random natural selection) and to present the range of areas of science that support our understanding of it …
For me, the story of evolution – the amazing, wonderful, fascinating story – is far, far more awe-inspiring than the religious stories …
Knowing the journey to our current situation as the race of humans we’ve become is essential to understanding the depth of our shared humanity. One Earth; One Family; Our Common Ancestry. It’s a message worth repeating loud and clear.

Sherrington’s article prompted a mainly positive response on social media with Richard Dawkins, biologist and writer, saying:

Any school would be fortunate to have a head like this. He deals, sensitively but firmly, with brainwashed students.

In his article, Mr Sherrington wrote:

Discussion of evolution – or any brush with Richard Dawkins – will present a massive challenge to students who hold creationist views.
In the past I’ve met highly intelligent students who were so heavily indoctrinated that the clash between their irrational young-Earth creationism and their rational understanding of the evidence from science actually caused mental health issues.

In a postscript to his article, Sherrington wrote:

I could tell that I had stirred up some animosity from some Muslim boys during my assemblies. This was confirmed by other students …
There may be teachers who fear that this has every chance of strengthening a sense of alienation or of rejecting certain Western values – two elements often associated with radicalisation.
Assemblies are important arenas for communicating ideas. I don’t think it’s tenable to treat some ideas as too sensitive to be aired in a high status public arena simply because ill-informed irrational views are widely held.
If anything we probably need to do it more often and address the faith-science conflict some students experience more openly and explicitly. The worst thing would be to be patronise them or humour them. It shouldn’t be remotely controversial to tell students that you are an atheist or that creationism is untenable given our knowledge of science.

Sherrington grabbed the attention of the media too because his article suggested  that Government’s Prevent strategy, introduced to tackle radicalisation in schools, is creating a “hypersensitivity” among teachers when teaching evolution and challenging elements of the Muslim faith.
Interviewed by The Telegraph after he published the article, Sherrington said there was a risk that schools could shy away from teaching evolution for fear of “provoking a reaction” in pupils with creationist views. And he warned that the Prevent programme has:

Added to the sense that you treat Muslim students as different.

The tone of the strategy, he claimed:

Makes any engagement directly questioning the faith position of Muslim students more challenging.

He added that schools should create inclusive communities, but that:

Science should be promoted as science. The antagonism that creationist students feel when their faith is challenged by science is quite extreme; it’s a big deal to tell them that they are wrong. It provokes a response that in the current climate could be misconstrued.

And he insisted:

It would be a big mistake for science teachers to teach evolution any differently, just because of this fear of alienating Muslim students through Prevent approaches.

But some critics suggested that teaching evolution as “fact” was as bad as dismissing religious teaching outright.
In a 2013 blog post, “Reflections of an Atheist Headteacher”, Sherrington wrote:

As a life-long atheist, growing up in a family where all religious people were lumped together dismissively as the ‘God Squad’, my world view has always been clear. As far as I am concerned science does a good job explaining the natural world including the emergence of a species of self-aware mammals capable of exploiting the resources of the lonely planet they inhabit in space. 
The evolved complexity of the human brain and of human social interactions account for everything we experience: our consciousness, our sense of morality, our hopes, dreams and anxieties, our sense of purpose and our emotions. And when we die, we die, shutting our biological computer down, living on only in the memories of those still living. 
We are capable of having spiritual experiences but these are just a form of emotional response created chemically and electrically in our brain cells.

Not only is there no God in my world, there isn’t a need for one to explain nature or to add any meaning. It may be terrifying to contemplate our lonely, precarious and unlikely existence in the vast enormity of space and time, but that’s the reality.
Actually I find it quite inspiring. It’s also inspiring to consider the human capacity for love, compassion, ingenuity, curiosity and learning..and the evolutionary process by which these characteristics have developed to support our existence and survival.

Hat tip: Peter Sykes

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  • barriejohn
  • H3r3tic

    It seems that at least on Headteacher disagrees, and has suffered for her beliefs…

  • barriejohn

    “The national curriculum requires more broad-based perception of evolution and a balance of opinions has to be struck so pupils can make up their own minds.”
    That statement is arrant nonsense, but if I were a comedy sketch writer it would provide me with stacks of material. Does he advocate allowing them to “make up their own minds” whether the earth is flat, or whether the world is carried on the back of a giant turtle?

  • Rob Andrews

    The national curriculum requires more broad-based perception of evolution and a balance of opinions has to be struck so pupils can make up their own minds.”
    That is bad enough for high schoolers even if tought alongside Darwinian evolution. But the article didn’t make clear what grade levels they’re talking about. I have a feeling they mean grammer schoolers. (below the 6th gradein the US)
    I’m for all religions to be taught in a class on comparative religion. This along with ‘civics’ and ‘government’ SHOULD be tought in our multi-cultural world.
    “Philosophy has questions that can never be answered; religion has answers that can never be questioned”.–forgot where I saw that. But I love it!

  • Broga

    What a pleasure it was to read Tom Sherrington’s comments. He put his case persuasively and without the usual ducking and diving to avoid offending creationist Christians or Muslims. I hope his comments encourage other teachers, and others outside teaching, to state their rational opinions openly as has Mr Sherrington.

  • Newspaniard

    Mr.Sherrington is a very brave man considering that our education minister is a born again, nutcase, creationist and he relies on her for a job.

  • AgentCormac

    Thanks for the link.
    ‘It is a Church of England school and as such I understand the teachings of the Bible are important.
    Precisely why the running of schools should be kept out of the hands of relgion altogether. Happy-clappy Christina Wilkinson may claim her tweet represented her personal views rather than those of her school, but she is headteacher.

  • Nogbad666

    Barriejohn –
    Interesting typo in the URL of that link:
    Read it carefully… Perhaps subliminally they knew the real truth all along.

  • barriejohn

    Nogbad: I detect the hand of Satan. Add all the digits in 13990 and they come to 22; 2+2=4; 4 is the number of man. What further proof does any intelligent person need?
    This has just arrived from Jerry Coyne:
    Very appropriate!

  • Broga

    I don’t think Tom Sherrington will be appearing on Thought for the Day anytime soon. He might encourage some Christians to think.

  • H3r3tic

    @Agent Cormac -she may claim her tweet represented her personal views but, despite the fact that her Twitter account has been deleted, it is apparent from her easily recoverable tweets that she has repeatedly used the account for work purposes, including contacting Ofsted. Thankfully nothing is ever truly “deleted” from the internet. Furthermore, the fact that her twitter name was “WilkinsonHead” suggests that this account may be more work than personal, unless of course someone else already her preferred name with “Dick” inserted between the other two words.

  • Angela_K
  • Broga

    @Angela_K: He is a Roman Catholic so we cannot expect a fair or balanced judgement from him. It would be interesting to ask him what influence his Christian belief has had on the thousands of paedophile priests.

  • RussellW

    This is so very depressing. Why are educators in the West still fighting this battle over creationism in 2015? The answer is probably the ideology of multiculturalism—we must never offend ethno-religious groups by treating their barking-mad superstitions with the disdain they deserve.

  • AgentCormac

    “WilkinsonHead” would indeed imply she was commenting in an official capacity. Either that or she is egotistical enough to want the world to know she is someone whose views should be respected – while the opposite is quite clearly the case. But as RussellW says, why the f**k we are still having these debates in the 21st century is as baffling as it is depressing.
    Weed them out. Expose them for what they are. Get rid of them all.

  • barriejohn

    The Bible clearly teaches that the earth is flat, yet we never hear Christians arguing that this view should have parity with the “Round Earth Theory” – I wonder why?
    Mr Wilshaw was forced by NI MPs to issue a statement promising that, in the name of “liberty”, Christian Sunday schools, camps, etc, would not be subjected to the same sort of inspections as Muslim madrassas:
    Sunday schools etc are a source to moral guidance and good direction for children, teaching them that their faith should make them good citizens and neighbours.

  • barriejohn

    Angela: Nice to see a large number of sensible comments appended to that article!
    More science and reason, less magic and fables.
    When did Christianity ever have anything to do with tolerance and understanding?

  • Broga

    @barriejohn: And also vulnerable to the priests and teachers who provide the source of “moral guidance.” What specifically is this “moral guidance” and the “good” in good neighbours.

  • barriejohn

    Broga: It’s a fantasy – just like “Islam is a religion of peace”. None of these “values” come from the Bible; they are humane, compassionate people who impose their own views upon their ancient prophets, despite what their holy book actually says. The dissonance is breathtaking , but as an ex-evangelical I can attest that you can brainwash yourself into thinking that what you are saying is the truth. In actual fact, we all know that religion encourages mistrust, intolerance and tribalism, and has no place in our schools.

  • Edwin Salter

    Yes to all this of course. Creationists often refer to “the Darwin theory”. This suggests it’s down to one man (evolution was already familiar – animal breeding; Buffon, Erasmus D, Lamarck, Cuvier… and vast evidence since including the genetic mechanism) and takes ‘theory’ in the everyday sense of a’maybe’ idea (compare hypothesis & theory in science).
    But there is the problem of getting the most rejecting people to hear rather than exit. How to get round this in practical situations? Take fossils – by scientific methods we can measure their age and it’s all very interesting … – if they want to reserve a belief that their god(s) deliberately contrive this, well…discuss in religion. Not likeable! Are there any better suggestions for such a case or is it always a confrontation?