Religion, meet science. Science, religion!


Last week, I wrote about how we're starting our first year of Big Spiral History. And boy, did I hear criticism from some of y'all on it! Yesterday, to explain the weirdness of our decision to open the history curriculum by telling multiple cultures' creation stories (the Norse, the Ojibwe, the Greek, the Hebrew, the Chinese, the West African, the Aboriginal, and the Mayan) right alongside the Big Bang account, I laid out our vision of our science curriculum.

To quote from yesterday:

We live in a society that has been built up by millennia of brilliant human discoveries. We’re in the midst of accelerating innovation, and are plunging into a future in which this innovation stands to harm us and to help us.

We can help children understand these discoveries, as if they were uncovering them for the first time. We can do so by tapping into our lust for vividly-told stories, and for solving riddles. 

But that doesn't address why we're putting religious stories next to scientific stories. And that, specifically, was what vexed many of you. I got more than one beautifully-written e-mail that ended up arguing, basically, this:

Science describes the world. Religion does something else. Don't mix them.

Or, as one friend put it:

Religion needs to stay out of science's living room, man. And science needs to stay out of religion's!

This, of course, sounds so wonderfully sensible!  I think it's also dangerous — one of the modern assumptions that we need to challenge, if we're going to cultivate Renaissance men and women in our schools.

We need to poke holes in all the disciplinary boundaries: religion, science, and everything else.

I recognize I may be wandering into treacherous waters, but I think I can convince you that this is the only way to go.

Let me explain.

In most schools, we ask students to swap out their brains every time the bell rings.

Going from math to literature? Forget all about those puzzles and algorithms you were toying with, and start thinking about novels!

Going from science to history? Banish all thoughts of observations and hypotheses, and get reading this first-person account of the Black Plague!

We tell kids: Don't think about now: think about y. Scoop out your brain, and plop in your one.

To many of us, this seems wrong, wrong, wrong. (And not just because of the "brain-scooping" metaphor!)

We understand that the world doesn't come in neat, pre-made categories. We want to find some way to connect the disciplines because, well, the world is a seamless whole. Chopping it up into "disciplines" (especially in grade school) seems to destroy what we want to study!

To quote the great educator and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead:

[We must] eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.

Chopping up the world kills the excitement it can arouse. It's as if we've dismemebered the world, and are surprised to discover that something seems to be missing. Yes: it's dead!

We need to find a way to bring all the world together — math, the sciences, philosophy, literature, and so on.

Only by doing so will we get the meaningful education we want.

But: how can we bring the world together? Three steps, I think.

1. We put kids in contact with as many pieces of the world as possible.

This, in a nutshell, is why our new kind of school has so many hands-on, knowledge-rich curricula: our curriculum of making lunch together, of Learning in Depth, of animals and plants, of dissecting technology, of drawing realistically, of considering a song a day, of watching a movie a week, of tackling really confusing math puzzles, and of interviewing adults.

As Andrew Ng — brilliant founder of Google Brain and creator of the AI that can recognize cat photos — said in a recent interview:

I don't know how the human brain works, but it's almost magical: ...when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing.

2. We develop a culture of geeking out.

If we just put kids in contact with pieces of the world, we'd be in danger of just loading up kids with inert facts. It's not enough for them to know stuff: they have to find joy in knowing, and to make meaning out of what they learn.

Kids in our schools need to take pleasure in finding things out, in asking questions, and in searching for answers. We need to find opportunities to puzzle, to argue, and to celebrate breakthroughs!

Or, to put it simply: we need to develop a culture of geeking out.

(Sidenote: wouldn't it be amazing to have a feast in honor of one student's breakthrough?)

For more on how we're accomplishing this, see our Philosophy for Children approach, as well as our practices of book-eating, question-posing, and answer-hunting.

3. We find a way of seeing everything together — an über-lens. 

It would be great to develop a culture of geeks — people who knit the pieces of the world together in their own heads. If we just do that, however, we'll not be living up to our ultimate calling: to help kids see how the world is already knit together.

There's an old joke: guy goes to college to study psychology, and discovers that psychology is really biology. No problem, he says — and switches his major. But then he discovers that, alas, biology is really chemistry.  But he can take it! Again, he switches his major — only to discover that chemistry is really math.

(At this point, he just says nuts to it all, and majors in business.)

The Universe began as a single point, and the diversity of things we see (atoms, molecules, cells, minds, societies) blossomed out of it. Hence why our Big Spiral History curriculum begins at the beginning of the cosmos, rather than at, say, the dawn of human civilization.

This blossoming outward in the physical world is mirrored by a blossoming in the intellectual world. Human understanding began as myth. The people who first attempted to systematically understand the world (by most accounts, the ancient Greeks) didn't draw up lines dividing the pieces of the world — they dubbed themselves philosophers: "lovers of wisdom".

That is: academic understanding began as a single discipline — "philosophy" — and the diversity of academic fields (physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology) blossomed out of it. 

This point is crucial: all of the academic disciplines grew out of philosophy. The first people who wrote about physics were philosophers; so were the first people who did chemistry. Biologists were called "natural philosophers" until the 1800s. Psychology and sociology didn't split off as their own disciplines until the late 1800s.

In our schools, we're repeating this blossoming.

Our species was born hearing stories of what the world is like. Likewise, each of us is born in stories.

Are those stories true? Perhaps, but perhaps not — it depends on which ones we hear!

Like the species as a whole, we each move from uncritically accepting the stories told by the people around us to a careful, systematic understanding.

As I wrote about yesterday, we can guide students to freshly experience humanity's the greatest breakthroughs. This is an opportunity — it's a gift!

But to do it, we need to be willing to help our kids think carefully about any idea that they bring into the classroom. We can't dismiss ideas simply because they've been dubbed "religious".

As the psychologist (and philosopher!) William James emphasized to his pupil Gertrude Stein:

never reject anything. Nothing has been proved. If you reject anything, that is the beginning of the end as an intellectual.

We want our schools to be vibrantly intellectual communities: we can't afford to exclude religious beliefs at the get-go.

My friend wrote:

Religion and science are baseball and tennis. Don't ask them to play on the same field.

Maybe! Or maybe not.

Maybe the world really is 6,000 years old. I want to be open to that possibility. Maybe the world is 13.7 billion years old! I want to be open to that, too. Maybe it's something else — maybe it's not "real" at all, but is just a projection inside a computer mainframe, created 15 minutes ago by a kid in an advanced civilization as a science fair project.

Maybe we're poised on the back of a turtle! Maybe we're in the midst of a cosmic tree, and Ragnorak is coming. Maybe a thousand other possibilities.

The point isn't to ignore evidence and reasons and remain open to all of these — not at all! (That would be intellectual death of another sort.)

The point is to begin open to anything, and then to feel the sheer joy of finding things out. 

To quote (again) my favorite line from educational theorist Kieran Egan, on whose thinking so much of our schools are based:

We represent the world to children as mostly known and rather dull.
The opposite is the case: we are surrounded by mystery, and what we know is fascinating.


As we start our curriculum, we're less concerned with disciplinary boundaries than with the joy of finding things out. All knowledge — science, religion, math, and so on — begins in philosophy.

Which is to say, in this situation, at least:

Religion, meet science. Science, religion. It's been a while. We're going to have some fun together.

How to teach evolution, creation, & the giant cow that licked the world into being


Where does everything come from? This is how our new kind of school has started off our year of Big Spiral History: by telling stories about the creation of the world.

That's stories, plural. Whose stories, you ask? As many peoples' as possible!

In order: we're teaching the Norse story, the Greek story, the Hebrew story, and the Ojibwe story. That's our first week.

Norse cow

(This is, of course, the cow that emerged from the primordial ice to nourish the first of the frost giants. Y'know, the bad guys in Thor? It's a pretty generous cow.)

Then, we're telling the creation stories of the Chinese, the West Africans, the Maya, and the Aborigines. That's the second week!

And the third week, we're slowing down to tell just one creation story: that of the Big Bang, and the evolution of multicellular life, up through us humans.

Go ahead: ask why!

First off, we're beginning at the beginning: the dawn of Life, the Universe, and everything.

The way that history is typically begun in schools, we think, is foolish. I've criticized this before, but the long and short of it is this: in grade school, kids don't begin with the beginning. Rather, they begin with the close at hand: their own selves, their own neighborhoods, their own cities. They're plopped in the middle of reality, and are held back from looking at the big picture.

This approach is designed around an outmoded theory of children's reasoning — that they can only understand things that they've actually experienced. (How these old theorists would have explained children's lust for a certain movie series that begins A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... — well, that I'd love to know!)

By the time the curriculum gets around to talking about any beginnings, it's already middle school. And the beginnings don't go back far at all — mine went back only to the Fertile Crescent. Fail! The Fertile Crescent was one particular origin of "civilization" — that is, city-centered state-level society — but not of humanity, in general.

And the origin of humanity? And of life? And of anything? Those are thought to be scientific questions, not historical ones. They're not part of the story of humanity — they're held apart in another class.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. Drawing a sharp delineation between "questions of history" and "questions of science" might have made sense two centuries ago, but at the start of the 21st century it's just foolishness.

The humanities and sciences have linked up, and we now possess an all-but-seamless narrative of all of cosmic history. This is the result of decades of daring acts of research — it's one of the great successes of human intellectual life!

Your atoms were forged in a supernova. The oxygen you just sucked in was breathed by Triceratops and Velociraptors. Life blooms, proliferates, and adapts. And you're part of it: your amazing qualities are the inheritance of millions and billions of years of biological experimentation.

But we don't let this paradigm shine in the curriculum. We don't use it to orient kids, and invite them to ask the big questions.

Instead, we bury it.

So the first reason we're doing this mad-rush through creation stories, is to follow the advice the King in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Begin at the beginning, and go on.

It's only sensible.

We're beginning at the beginning: the Big Bang, and all that.

But why all the other creation narratives? 

(Note: this is contentious. Political, even! We Americans love to hate each other's views on this. And, according to various polls, we're about equally split — 50% think the universe is about 6,000 years old, and 50% think it's about two million times older. I'll be treading boldly into this fray — but I hope, also, politely and kindly.)

So why are we starting the year with multiple creation narratives? Well, a host of reasons, actually!

  • We want to introduce kids to the awesome mystery of where the Universe comes from. (Approaching this question from a multitude of previous attempts helps kids appreciate the mystery.)
  • We want to expose kids to a multiplicity of human cultures and their stories. (Think of each story as a hand-shake to a culture they'll be hearing more about later.)
  • We want to help kids see that stories matter — that where we think the world comes from can inform how we think about ourselves. (Stories — origin stories in particular — shape worldviews, and worldviews shape lives.)
  • We want to get kids used to the idea that differences of opinion are the norm, and that they can be fertile grounds for great conversations. (A disagreement is a great opportunity.)

In my mind, though, there's one great reason that we're starting by luxuriating in a multiplicity of creation stories: to make kids question our authority when we tell them something is true.

In our schools, truth is rarely — if ever — handed down on authority.

If people in the real world disagree about something, then it's not our job to pick a side and tell the kids to swallow it. Rather, our job is to expose kids to multiple viewpoints, and help them reason through them.

Perhaps I'm speaking too blithely here — perhaps I'm coming across as if I think our schools should champion every idea equally.

No — quite the contrary! What I'm saying is that our teaching shouldn't champion specific ideas at all.

What I'm saying is: science.

There is a world outside our heads. We can approach it through observing carefully, interpreting carefully, and concluding humbly — and then inviting criticism of our conclusions.

A shorthand for this: the scientific method.

We're starting our school by putting all creation stories on an equal footing. We're not ending there!

All of the above, I think, would be a bad approach if it were performed in a school that simply Delivered Answers. But ours is not — we pose questions, we hunt for answers, we practice science and philosophy continuously. We splay ideas on the wall; we sit in mysteries and slowly unravel them.

I'm not advocating this curriculum for most schools: I'm announcing it for ours.

Allowing the world's true diversity of hypotheses to be considered honestly sets an important standard: we are a kind of schooling that is willing to ask the big questions, and to help children form their answers thoughtfully. 

And it's hard to do this with just one story. Differences spawn productive thinking! But setting up just two stories leads to tribal warring — "you're either with us or against us!" What we need is a plurality of stories.

I'll pause here to acknowledge something obvious:

Some of our parents will be evolutionists who fear (quite legitimately) that the scientific narrative will be lost amidst the flush of other origin stories.

And others of our parents will be creationists who fear (quite legitimately) that the Genesis account will be lost, too.

I owe answers to both groups of parents. And here it might be useful to disclose my own origin story. I'm convinced the story of Darwinian evolution is true — but I didn't used to be — and the story of how I got from there to here is a bit unusual.

I grew up in an evangelical home, but my childhood intellectual life was shaped more by dinosaur books than it was by Sunday school. (I was a dinosaur fanatic. Still am, sorta!)

I only became a creationist in 8th grade, when my (public school) science teacher decided to transform our classroom into a courtroom, and to put the theory of evolution on trial.

He himself, I believe, supported evolution. And I think he thought the evolution side would come out as the obviously true one.

He picked me to lead the prosecution: to argue against Darwinian theory.

And, as a result of that, I became a creationist: not because I was indoctrinated into it, but because I became convinced of the evidence.

(Note: looking back on this, the evidence against evolution that I was looking at was really terrible stuff — since then, I've seen many creationists criticize it, and criticize fellow creationists who use it. The much-mocked "teach the controversy" idea, I think, really is fantastic — but only in an environment in which kids are helped to develop a B.S. detector. Our schools can do this — and, I think, are!)

After we finished the debate, I kept reading. (It really was interesting stuff!) And, slowly, my conviction that the world was made six thousand years ago faded. The arguments (even the better ones) really weren't that strong. When I looked deeply into them, they were convoluted and riddled with holes, and seemed to depend on giving lots of weight to oddball discoveries — for example, what might be a Mesozoic-era human footprint, if you squint just right.

The arguments for evolution, meanwhile, seemed straightforward and robust. Given what we knew of DNA (and math), it seemed impossible that evolution wouldn't happen. And the evidence was everywhere. I realized, at some point in my freshman year of high school, that the earth almost certainly was very, very, very old, and that natural selection was the best way of explaining the evidence — maybe the only way.

And so I became an evolutionist. 

I came to my conviction the old-fashioned way: through personal exploration, helped along by a community of people. (Though, in my case, the community was mostly people who wrote books, and who posted online.)

I think this is a much better way to become convinced of evolution. Why? What does it matter how one becomes convinced of some truth of the world?

One reason is that approaching truth through doubt and exploration made me humble in my beliefs. I recognize that I've changed my beliefs before; I'm likely to do so again!

I said a minute ago that I'm an "evolutionist". I hate that word: the -ist suffix makes it sound like evolution is something I "believe" in. I suppose I do, under certain definitions of "belief" — but what's wonderful is that I'd upend these "beliefs" in a heartbeat if I found good evidence to the contrary.

This is a better way to hold a "belief": humbly, and carefully. The strange thing is that such beliefs aren't weak: they're actually very strong and resilient. 

A second reason I think it's better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: doing so allows you to see beliefs from the inside. And when you do, you see why people love them.

I don't think the Genesis story is true — but boy, do I love aspects of it!

Genesis paints a picture of original harmony — humans didn't slaughter animals; animals didn't even slaughter other animals! Pain and suffering weren't originally part of humanity — a state we can perhaps strive to reach again. And humans were designed to be careful stewards of the natural environment, not exploiters.

So often, in online debates, evolutionists portray creationists as stupid. What they fail to see is that creationism is a beautiful poem — one that can have wonderful implications for how we structure our society.

Our schools don't only seek to immerse kids in good scientific reasoning — they seek to make kids better at understanding all humanity.

Here's another reason I think it better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: by doing this, I became acquainted with what in-depth understanding feels like.

Exploring creationism and evolution meant learning a lot of science — paleontology, biology, geology, and some chemistry and physics.

Even better, it meant appreciating what really is good evidence and good reasoning — and what only seems to be.

I'm a deeper knower now — a much more careful knower — than I would have been without this.

Sometimes, when I feel really passionately convinced of something else (say, some political idea), I'm able to reflect on how that feels different. It feels ungrounded.

I'm not saying, of course, that our schools should lead kids through false beliefs before they get to true ones. (What an effort that would take!)

And I'm not saying that in-depth understanding can only come from leading kids through wrong theories. (Our Learning in Depth curriculum in particular will also aim to develop this sort of understanding.)

I'm only saying that, when a student believes anything to be true without good reason, we should be delighted for the opportunity to patiently lead them through thinking about it. Because on the other side of that patient reasoning lies actual, hard-won wisdom.

This is part of what good teaching is. We should look for more opportunities to cultivate it in our curriculum.

So what can I say to parents who fear the scientific narrative will get crowded out? Just this: that it's only when the scientific narrative is placed amidst the earlier narratives that we can really appreciate what makes it wonderful.

And what can I say to parents who fear the Genesis narrative will be crowded out? Just this: that in most public and private schools, the Genesis narrative is entirely ignored. And in evangelical schools, it is believed woodenly and thoughtlessly (something many evangelical thinkers are critical of). Both of these approaches are tragedies. The Genesis narrative deserves to be taken seriously, both scientifically and poetically. And the role of teachers in our school is not to direct students to this or that belief, but to help them think carefully about all beliefs.

There are, maybe, two other reasons I'm happy to not only tell just the Big Bang story of creation by itself.

First, this doesn't result in accurate belief.

Last summer I went to a presentation by evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker. He talked about how about half of Americans don't believe in evolution. That's bad, he said. But there's something that's worse: that most of the people who say they believe in evolution don't actually understand what evolution is.

"Believers" in evolution tend to think it's goal-directed, Pinker said. That organisms are trying to evolve "upward".

What they actually believe in isn't natural selection — it's something that more closely resembles the medieval "Great Chain of Being".

If you want people to understand evolution, I suggest, help them try to attack it. Help them be skeptical. Help them construct their own understanding of it — and point out where things don't make sense.

Second, telling the Big Bang story by itself — in a culture that believes lots of things (from young-earth creationism to alien intervention) — sets up a very stupid sort of rebellion.

As a teacher, there's something that terrifies me about many of my high school students:

They're so prone to conspiracy theories. 

Aliens, Bigfoot, evil government cabals that encourage vaccinations to murder people and keep the population down — you name it, I've seen kids believe it — worse, zealously adhere to it, even in the face of obvious, overwhelming evidence to the contrary!

And why are they so difficult to convince otherwise? Well, many reasons, no doubt:

Conspiracy theories

But one big reason seems to be that they see themselves as the rebels. They're stuck in a framework that sees common sense as "dominant, corrupt opinion" and see anyone who departs from it as a freedom fighter.

"Hey, I'm just being skeptical", it seems like they're saying.

No, they're not. They're being the opposite of skeptical: they've picked an opinion, and are zealously clinging to it against evidence.

They haven't realized that being skeptical means, among other things, being skeptical of yourself. As physicist, samba-player, and all-around-amazing-human-being Richard Feynman said in a commencement address:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

The way to teach evolution is to start by teaching it along with other stories, and to keep coming back to the question, "How would we know if any of these is true?"

And this turns out to also be a great way to get kids interested in many human cultures.

And to enjoy telling some awesome stories.

That's not it for our first few weeks of Big Spiral History — and it's certainly not it for teaching about the creation of the Universe (no, seriously — where does the Universe come from? what happened before the Big Bang?), nor about Darwinian evolution.

But this is a great place to pause, and seek out clarifying questions. Obviously, certain online communities can get pretty red in the face when it comes to talking about origins — I'm hoping that we can use a bit of that to help us fine-tune how we engage students in these questions.

One question on my mind: Is there a danger in our schools becoming too relativistic? What else would need to come later in the curriculum in order to avoid this?

A second question: does any of this run afoul of the church/state divide? Though we're starting this new kind of schooling with two private schools, we have our eye on eventually starting some charter schools. The church/state question isn't relevant for now, but it might be, later.

So, if you've got questions as to how, exactly, we're going to pull this off, please ask them! Join the conversation on our Facebook page. (And like us, to get updates!)

We're creating a civil community, and any posts that smell of dissing "the other side" will be deleted (ah, I'm sorry I even have to say that, but: the Internet!).

But every other piece of commentary will be appreciated, and considered!