Monday, February 20, 2006

The chinuch danger of the anti-evolution crowd

My son has come home from school a few times telling me that his classmates believe evolution is a big hoax and the world cannot be older than 5766, etc. That simplistic thinking spills over to other areas, whether intended or not by his esteemed Rebbeim. I try to learn mishnayos with him semi-regularly - we recently learned a Mishna in Eiruvin which says the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is 3. I asked my son, "But didn't you learn in math that the ratio is pi, which is 3.14..."? He promptly came to the only logical conclusion possible, namely that pi is a hoax and the Mishna must be correct. I wish I were making this up!!!!


  1. Anonymous7:30 PM

    Personally I find this amusing. The age of the world and pi are not similar and are not treated similarly by Chazal.

    1) You will find the Gemarrah is quite clear that ratio of circumference to diameter is not exactly 3 but close. In the discussion on the yam shel shlomo, if I remember correctly, the gemara gives a closer approximation to pi than 3. In many cases, not just pi, the gemarrah often uses the expression "lo dak", i.e. in modern parlance "close enough for government work". At the end of demai on the hand, the Yershalmi carries the calculaton out to 4 significant figures when discussing the proper amount to set aside in order to be mesaken demai in particularly complicated example. So the gemarrah puposely chooses what precision it feels is appropriate for each situation.

    2) When it comes to the arguments on the age of the world, no one is talking about precision (how many significant figures needed to accurately represent it). Different gedolim have different approaches to this issue.

    Would you have preferred that your son answered simply that the mishna is "sloppy" when it comes to figures?

  2. I would have preferred that my son's teachers teach him a more sohpisticated approach to considering questions other than either/or. The either/or thinking on evolution when taken to its natural extreme leads to that knee-jerk response on the pi question for a 6th grader - unfortunately, once ingrained in 6th grade it becomes hard to grow out of.

  3. Anonymous12:09 PM

    For some reason, evolution/age of the universe has become a highly contentious issue these days. I don't remember that it was so 40 years ago when I was in high school (it was an orthodox hebrew day school). Even today I have trouble understanding what all this excitement is about.

    But given that some sophistcated people have found themselves in rather hot water when taking the "wrong" side on this question, it not surprising that teachers take the tack you mention. It is the path of least resistance. One may hope for something better perhaps, but usually this has to be inspired by very vocal parents.

  4. I partially disagree. Most parents are not involved enough to have a strong vocal opinion. The school leadership and administration has to take a stand. (BTW, I don't mean take a stand on the issue of evolution - I mean take a stand on open-minded creative thinking and tolerance for views outside the straight-jacketed mainstream. If after careful review students end up thinking too far outside the box of tradition, then our mechanchim should be able to explain why and what the parameters are in a meaningful and thoughful way.)

  5. Anonymous2:43 PM

    What you describe would be ideal. Most schools do not like to allow too much "creative thought" as it often involves relinquishing authority. Some times it leads to questioning of authority.

    1) It is difficult to handle "bad ideas" off the cuff in an effective manner, since they were not prepared for by the teaher. So a good answer is not always immediately forthcoming. Asking the class to stay tuned til tomorrow is very embarrasing.

    2) Even with a good response in hand there are problems. This is due to the 10% rule, that is, 10% never get the word. Student A says something unacceptable let's call it a "bad" idea. The teacher explains very well what is wrong/unacceptable, why and what is a better approach. 10% will go home remembering only the "bad" idea and forget the teacher's response. 5% of the class will actually go home and say that it was the teacher that espoused the "bad" idea.

    3) Different people have different tolerance levels for where the boundary of "out of the box" thinking lies. You can be sure the most restrictive viewpoints (or least creative) usually have the most vociferous advocates.

    Rigidity 3 Creativity 0