Education and Evolution

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A look at the influence of evolutionary theory in modern education.

The children’s science video began with a view of the vast night sky blazing with stars. A scientist described as a famous evolutionist appeared in a corner of the screen.

“When we examine the origin of the universe and the life that is in it," he said, "we find our source to be a cold, impersonal machine.”

I could almost feel a chill sweep into the room, and I shuddered. I thought of the opposite way in which the Bhagavad-gita describes the origin of everything—as Krishna, the all-attractive person who is the source of all warmth and our best friend.

What is the relationship between evolutionary theory and education? To answer that question, I'll first examine the purpose of education. I'll then consider how the teaching of evolutionary theory relates to those goals, and finally, look at four ways knowledge is transmitted and how evolution is taught in those four ways.

Why Are Children Educated?

Educational professor Joel H. Spring writes in his book American Education that private goals, or parents’ reasons, are generally vocational, social, intellectual, and personal. Governments, on the other hand, want an educated citizenry for political, social, and economic benefits.

The problem is that those apparently laudatory goals seem to degenerate. For example, the economic goals of a government generally imply classifying people for the labor market. That's different from a parent’s desire for a child to earn a livelihood through fulfilling work. Changes of ideology about work also affect how parents and government understand vocational goals. Five hundred years ago, work was a duty, with the results understood as divinely rewarded. Work was viewed as material security by the early twentieth century, and by the 1960s as a way to find personal satisfaction. More recently, work has become a means to satisfy greed and acquire sensory pleasure.

If we look at modern education in the light of Lord Krishna's teachings, we find that it falls short of its goals of individual and collective good because it fails to culture the mode of goodness to achieve them. For example, in the Bhagavad-gita Krishna says that true knowledge and happiness are possible only in goodness. That is because only in goodness does a person have “understanding by which one knows what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, what is binding and what is liberating.” People in the mode of goodness do work that helps themselves and society, “without false ego, with great determination and enthusiasm, and without wavering in success or failure.” People in goodness are wise, clean, honest, satisfied, self-controlled, and not unnecessarily violent. They speak only what is truthful and beneficial in such a way that others are not disturbed.

Most teachers and educational theorists would agree that an educational system that could produce such citizens would meet their stated goals. However, knowledge in goodness must include seeing all living entities as spiritual beings, by nature different from the temporary body. Someone in goodness understands all living beings to be equal in substance and worth. Without such vision, the other benefits of goodness cannot fully exist. Modern education seeks to imitate such equal vision by celebrating all cultures and abolishing bodily stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, gender, or ability. But without distinguishing between the soul and the body, such attempts are incomplete and may even encourage the mode of passion or ignorance.

A person influenced by the mode of passion, Krishna tells us, identifies the self with the body and thinks differences of body indicate foundational differences of identity. And a person controlled by the mode of ignorance thinks only of what's needed to satisfy bodily demands.

To see all living beings as spiritual, a person in goodness must know of the Supreme Spirit. The Sanskrit word for goodness, sattva, also means truth, and the Supreme Spiritual Being is called param sattva, the one who is totally, completely, absolutely true, without any falsity in Him.

Education in goodness results in people whose self, intellect, and body are illumined by truth and who know both the soul and God as distinct from matter. Such enlightened pupils develop personally, socially, vocationally, and intellectually in ways that truly benefit themselves and society.

Evolution Defined, and Evolution's Relation to the Purpose of Education

Evolutionary theory has two major parts: (1) The first living being was the product of a chance combination of matter, so there is no ultimate distinction between life and matter, and (2) from the original chance creation of one living cell, one species turned into another, going from simple to complex, from one kind to many kinds, getting better and better.

It is easy to see the harm—spiritually, morally, and socially—from the idea that what we call life is nothing but a random, temporary combination of matter. We then become merely machines. Desires, goals, purpose, values, and feelings are then no more than brief, meaningless blips of chemicals and electricity.

Though the harmful consequences of part 2 of evolutionary theory—the idea that one species of life turns into another—may be harder to spot, there are at least three of them: (1) It does away with the need for God, (2) it supports the conclusion that life is nothing but matter, and (3) it promotes competition for resources.

Let's look at these one by one. First of all, although God could theoretically direct a process in which one species evolves into another, such intelligent guidance is not necessary for this part of the theory to be true. Indeed, the scientific explanation is that it's all random chance—God might or might not be there, but He's not needed. And those who believe in God-guided evolution of species can be dismissed as clinging to tradition and sentiment.

Most people who teach any form of divine creation fail to spot the second consequence of accepting the evolution of the species—that it supports the conclusion that life is nothing but matter (part 1 of evolutionary theory). How? Consider this: If one species did not turn into another, then each species must have appeared independently. But no scientist would ever propose such a thing, namely that random physical processes—such as lighting hitting a chemical soup—could produce a fully formed tiger, eagle, or palm tree. Therefore, the evolution of species is the only support scientists have for the idea that life is nothing but matter. For a theist to accept the validity of that support is dangerous.

The third consequence of the theory that species change with natural selection to better adapted forms is that it promotes competition for resources. In fact, evolutionary theory states that ruthless competition with the elimination of weaker beings is the main cause of progress. It thus promotes greed and exploitation as ultimate social good.

In addition, evolutionary theory in general promotes pointlessness, which the Bhagavad-gita teaches is the opposite to symptoms of goodness—it is a symptom of ignorance, darkness, and madness. Evolutionists themselves openly admit that their theory propounds pointlessness. In 1967, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote, "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."1 In 1970, molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod announced that "the mechanism of Darwinism is at last securely founded," and that as a result "man has to understand that he is a mere accident."2

It is clear that the theory of evolution is contrary to the principles of goodness. Therefore the attractive goals of educational theorists will always remain incompletely realized as long as evolutionary theory underlies instruction. We should not be surprised that Prabhupada said, “The more we kick out Darwin's philosophy, the more we advance in spiritual consciousness.”

We will now examine how children are educated, first in general and then in regard to evolutionary theory in particular.

How Are Children Educated in General?

There are four levels of education. One is cosmetic and visible, one is substantive and visible, and two are substantive but almost imperceptible.

The first level is called the “planned curriculum.” It’s what a school or teacher or government office or school board claims to be teaching. It often consists of well-organized books and papers with charts, color-coding, and cross-referencing, all neatly numbered and sometimes annotated with research that supports it. The planned curriculum generally is created to impress. Many people make their livelihood from creating it, revising it, and appraising it.

It’s only when we get to the second level, the “taught curriculum,” that we find something substantial. This is what a teacher, book, video, computer program, or fellow pupil is overtly teaching. Sometimes the taught curriculum corresponds to the planned curriculum, and sometimes it does not. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

The third level is called the “hidden curriculum.” It is a powerful way to teach, and educational publishers use it deliberately. Most of the time, teachers probably use it unknowingly. The hidden curriculum deals with classroom rules, the types of illustrations used in books, the terms employed to describe things, and what is praised or mocked. It is mostly through the hidden curriculum that children learn values, beliefs, acceptable social behavior, and their own self-image.

For example, when I visited a classroom of twelve-year-olds during my work as an administrator in a government school, the teacher asked the children to name their favorite restaurant. She then turned to me. When I replied that I rarely eat in restaurants, the teacher was incredulous. The students made derisive noises and rolled their eyes, with no admonition from the teacher. I felt like a social outcaste. It is unlikely that a teacher would directly teach that it is socially strange to avoid restaurants, but the message was clear. In another example, a photograph in a textbook of someone plowing a field with oxen had a caption that read, “In undeveloped countries people still use primitive farming techniques.”

A hidden curriculum can be used in many positive ways. For example, while children’s reading books in America used to show exclusively Caucasian children, now publishers are careful to portray a wide range of races and ethnicities. No matter how much a teacher might speak of the equal value of all types of people, the hidden message will carry more weight if the materials show only one type as ideal or normal.

The fourth level is called the “null curriculum.” It is what is taught by silence. For example, although modern children’s reading books in America, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia show illustrations of a variety of races and ethnicities, almost all families shown are middle-class suburbanites. There are no very rich families, no very poor families, few families who live on farms, no families with more than three children. And while families are shown engaging in cultural activities, none are shown with a deep religious life, or almost any religious life for that matter. It’s as if those things not shown do not exist. Or, at least, they are not normal.

The null curriculum conveys strong messages about social desirability. And more than that, by omitting certain information throughout schooling, society gives a strong message that such topics are not worthy of study, or have some fault in them.

Evolution in the Planned, Taught, Hidden, and Null Curriculums

A search through planned curriculums will yield only short units that deal directly with evolution. It may appear for a week during a school year or, in some years of education, barely at all. Sometimes it might be taught directly for a month, but on the primary and secondary level that's rare. Anyone looking at planned curriculum would find little cause for concern over such a minor part of education.

In taught curriculum, the degree and form of instruction on evolution vary considerably from teacher to teacher and school to school. Many classroom books and videos have evolutionary content not listed in the planned curriculum, and teachers may teach aspects of evolution in the context of various subjects as a natural consequence of the flow of the discussion.

Evolutionary theory is pervasive in the hidden curriculum, even outside of science class. Children’s reading and history books are full of illustrations of imagined former ages, replete with club-wielding cavemen and battling dinosaurs. Characters in stories that are required reading speak about evolution as fact. Books and videos on science and history explain the incredible ways in which the bodies of various creatures are suited to their environment as the result of evolution. History and geography materials are full of assumptions of evolution, especially the idea that civilization is progressing. Civilization before industrialization is shown as grossly inferior to modern life.

All human traits, behavior, gender differences, and so on, are explained in terms of what renders us most fit for survival in various stages of development as imagined by evolutionists. Survival and competition are portrayed as the only purpose behind all physical features, psychological tendencies, and cultural norms. Living beings are characterized as machines, only gross physical bodies, with the self being equal to the brain. Religion, especially belief in a personal God, is mostly presented as something primitive people needed to explain nature before the advent of modern science.

It is perhaps in terms of the null curriculum that evolutionary theory has the greatest hold over modern education. If there is controversy over evolutionary evidence, generally only one side of the story appears in textbooks and teaching material. Evidence against evolution is never mentioned. Other theories about how and why anything exists are either not discussed or just presented as interesting myths of primitive cultures. Persons who have deeply spiritual lives are not included in the lists of great persons studied. If they are, their spiritual life is not described. Fictional heroes in literature are not religious. Evidence of advanced technological or cultural achievement in ancient societies is rarely discussed. Empirical evidence for the fact that we are something beyond the body is absent, even though, for example, there are many well-documented cases of out-of-body experiences and highly reputable universities such as Duke carried out years of experiments in clairvoyance.

Students quickly learn, without anyone ever saying so directly, that to suggest anything other than evolution is socially unacceptable and perhaps even a sign of mental instability. It is not surprising that even many religious people who have been through such an education system end up propounding an idea of evolution with God’s guidance.

I had a powerful experience with evolution in the null curriculum when I was teaching mathematics to gifted twelve-year-olds in a government school while the teacher was overseas. The students were learning how to find a common denominator when adding or subtracting fractions. We need the common denominator, I told them, because things have to be alike in order to add or subtract them.

I started with the common expression of not being able to add apples and oranges.

“We can do it if we call them both fruit!” one pupil suggested.

The class then thought of examples of apparently unlike things that could be added by finding a commonality.

“Are there things you can never add because they can’t be considered the same thing in any way?” a pupil finally asked.

“Yes,” I answered, without thinking of the implications. “You can’t add people and cars. They are intrinsically different.”

Oh, how the students argued with me!

“No, they are both things made of atoms and molecules,” they said with excitement.

I had thought that the pupils would immediately agree with my example. Their reaction caught me off guard, because then I realized I had ventured to give voice to something in the null curriculum. I tried to tie up things quickly and simply.

“A person is a living being, not just a thing. Life is different from matter. The body is a thing, like a car, but life is different from the body. A living being is driving the body like one drives a car.”

The students’ reaction to my explanation was striking. They were completely stunned. Because I was in a position of authority, they didn’t doubt that I was telling them the truth. Yet I was telling them something so strange and surprising that they didn’t know how to react.

Any idea of life as distinct from matter had been firmly part of the null curriculum for these students. They had never even considered the idea.

Modern Education Not Meeting Its Goals

Instead of awakening pupils to their spiritual nature, evolution teaches that they are simply matter, accidentally conscious for a brief moment of universal time. Instead of aiding children’s loving relationship with the Supreme Lord, Krishna, evolutionists such as the one on the film I saw insult Him by calling Him “a cold, impersonal machine.” Therefore it is not surprising that an education system permeated with this philosophy falls short of its stated goal of truly being good for individuals and society.

Notes
1. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345.
2. Jacques Monod, quoted in Horace Freeland Judson's The Eighth Day of Creation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 217.

About the Author: 

Urmila Devi Dasi

Urmila Devi Dasi (Dr. Edith Best) joined ISKCON in 1973 in Chicago. She received first initiation in 1973 and second initiation in 1975 from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In 1996, Urmila and her husband, Pratyatosa, entered the renounced order of vanaprastha. They have three grown married children and fourteen grandchildren.