Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Fighting the battle

There was an interesting paragraph in The American Street's review of What’s new at the DNC?:
According to Dean, Democrats must address people’s fears about raising their children in a difficult social environment. Children get sold a culture that often seems to be mostly about sex, materialism, and violence; it scares the hell out of parents (me included). Democrats need to acknowledge the difficulty because people are voting family interests rather than ecomonic interests.

He learned this from a DNC poll done by Cornell Belcher.

The former presidential candidate said issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion are not the major obstacles facing Democrats, but the impression that Democrats convey to these voters is that their answer to those fears is more government. "The message people hear is, 'Oh, we'll raise your children for you.' That's the wrong message," Dean said.

There's more, and I'm glad someone pointed me at that article. For now, let's focus on the relevance to the evolution battle. That language about materialism is what the creationists plant, and you see it in public comments all the time. I'm prepared to believe it's spontaneous.

Before I talk about materialism, I want to say one thing. The science side of things has been good at forwarding the economic argument. It's a good argument, but it doesn't address the other side of the equation. It's not the complete package.

What people mean by materialism is the amorality of society, education, and science, the focus on material goods and objectives, rather than metaphysical objectives. When people want to teach teleology, they want to teach that humans have some purpose.

I think we can all agree that life has purpose, and science doesn't have to supply that purpose. A modern philosopher could probably discuss how it's foolhardy to try to derive morality from nature, but I don't want to try to explain that to worried parents.

We need to offer help to parents in teaching morality. That's not what science class is for. And it's not the place of public schools to teach children the details of morality. I think that there is a middle ground. Schools should be more than vocational training, and they should focus on more than the immediate material needs of society.

But imagine if liberals showed up and started talking about how to teach morality. It'd be an example of that "Oh, we'll raise your children for you" perception Dean is fighting. So let's talk seriously, how can schools help ensure that community standards are passed on to all children?

This underlies the evolution fight, but also the battles over sex ed and drug programs. If science classes are just meant to prepare students to understand the scientific world, the current system is fine. If it should prepare children for some other purpose, maybe we need to rethink how science is taught. I'm not sure what anyone expects science classes to be instead, so I don't know if this could possibly go anywhere.

Sex ed is were I think the divide is most obvious, though. The evidence shows that comprehensive sex ed slows the onset of sexual activity and reduces STD transmission and pregnancy. Kids who go through abstinence only programs have more partners and are more likely to have abortions. If we take a "materialistic" approach, we can see that the practical consequences of comprehensive sex ed are far superior to the effects of abstinence only. But the fear is that the overall message is not sufficiently moral. To promote that moral message, abstinence educators will lie about the risks and effectiveness of condoms.

Clearly, abstinence only is not a solution because its practical effects are bad, and lying violates the Categorical Imperative. But there's a perception problem with comprehensive sex ed. The same conflict exists between "Just say 'No'" versus a more comprehensive strategy. And creationism is bad, dumb, fake science, but people think evolution doesn't do enough to promote morality.

Rather than manipulating the truth in sex, drugs, and science (a great name for a blog, or maybe a band), Democrats should find a way for local communities to discuss morality with their children in a public setting.

One idea I'll toss out there would be a series of moderated conversations on complex moral issues. Science classes would present the data, comprehensive sex ed would describe the risks of unprotected sex, and then the parents' forum would talk about the importance of saving sex for someone special, or start a conversation about what makes people special, and what life should mean.

This has several advantages, and any adequate solution should meet these criteria, at least. It gets parents involved in the education system, a noble goal if ever there was one. It lets communities set their own standards, so it's hard to imagine a legal problem emerging. It teaches the existing data and lets adults show how they interpret the data through their personal morality. The school doesn't force the morality on anyone, and competing views can be given equal time.

There's my suggestion. I can see some flaws in it (minority views in a community will get swamped, religious proselytizing would be hard to prevent). I think it's a way of responding to the concerns parents have without watering down education.