NPR logo The History Of Nature: Why Don't We Teach It In Our Schools?


The History Of Nature: Why Don't We Teach It In Our Schools?

When you first came upon the name of our blog — 13.7 — did you have a reflexive "Oh-of-course" response, or did you have a "Huh?" response? If you were in the latter group, you have lots of company. I've sometimes played the game of asking my kids' college-educated friends how old the earth is, how old the universe is, when life started up, when humans showed up, and the responses have been all over the order-of-magnitude map. When I mix in something like when was the American Revolution or Columbus's first voyage, I get 1776 and 1492 every time.

No surprise here. We all got regular doses of American history in school, and most of us also came away with some sense of Egyptian pyramids and the Roman Empire. But the cosmos? 13.7 billion years? Not so much.

I participated in reviewing the Science Standards of all 50 states a few years ago and, not surprisingly, we found a superficial coverage of biological evolution in most cases, and virtually no hominid evolution anywhere. More surprising, to me at least, was that the history of the cosmos and the history of the planet were often sketchy as well.

So what's taught in K-12 science classes instead? Well, there's coverage of good stuff to know, like the structure of the atom and the parts of a leaf. There are also efforts to teach "the scientific method," and to describe milestones in scientific discovery (Newton, Einstein), and, increasingly, to develop lab exercises that promote "hands-on learning." Sometimes these classes work well — there are some really dedicated science teachers out there — and sometimes kids become fired up about science even when their classes are dreadful.

Article continues after sponsorship

But every year, millions and millions of kids are alternately bored, alienated, or frustrated by their experience with science education. Nor, usually, do things get better after that. Timothy Ferris has a great quote along these lines: "Some people will do just about anything for the environment except take a science course."

Would things go better if we were also teaching the History of Nature in our schools? I think so.

Humans are narrative beings — we love a good story. We're unique in our use of symbolic language, where symbol usage encodes underlying meanings and understandings that we remember as language-based narratives. The very logic of explanations, descriptions, and instructions all take narrative form.

So it's my sense that science classes would get a lot more interesting if a time line were drawn around the perimeter of every science classroom, like there's a Periodic Table hanging on every wall, and at each grade level, in conjunction with how things work and who made which discoveries and how to work a Bunsen burner, stories were told about that time line. With atomic structure, the story of how there weren't any atoms until 400,000 years after the Big Bang because it was too hot for nuclei and electrons to associate. With leaf parts, the story of how ancient algae came up with leaf-part ideas before the move to land 450 million years ago. And indeed, in my fantasy school system, every high-school senior would take a capstone course in Big History that pulled together the whole story, Cosmos through Culture.

Sure, there'd be a lot of pushback from some religious groups. But a particularly curious objection to this idea comes up as well: some people express concern that material like the Big Bang and our common ancestry with "pond scum" is potentially disturbing, particularly to young children, and they shouldn't be told about "such things" until they're much older (at which point, of course, most have bailed out of science anyway).

Does anyone out there know of kids who are Big-Bang savvy and having nightmares about it? Every in-the-know kid of my acquaintance thinks the Big Bang is really cool. Methinks it may be the grownups who didn't hear about "such things" at their mothers' knee who are having the nightmares.