How old are the culture wars: For us, the most interesting thing in the papers this week are the letters in yesterday’s New York Times about what Marco Rubio said.
What Marco Rubio said to GQ about the age of the earth!
The letters appeared in yesterday’s Science Times section. For unknown reasons, they don’t seem to be available on-line. (Sigh.)
The eight letters were sent in response to an article in the previous week's Science Times. In the original piece, Nicholas Wade quoted what Rubio was asked, then quoted his full answer:
WADE (11/27/12): It was the standard political interview, about ambition and the right size for government. Then came the curveball question to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida from Michael Hainey of GQ magazine: “How old do you think the earth is?”“How old do you think the earth is?” Wade called that a curveball question. We might be a bit less flattering, leaning perhaps toward “gotcha.”
Senator Rubio, a possible contender in the 2016 Republican presidential race, gave the following answer: “I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians.”
He went on: “At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created, and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says.
“Whether the earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”
Was something wrong with that question? Sort of. Especially given Rubio’s answer, we’d be curious to know what he would say about the way certain science topics should be taught in public schools.
(For the record, you’ll note that Rubio didn’t saying anything in that answer about what teachers should be doing. He talked about what “people” and “parents” should be able to teach. Public school teachers weren’t mentioned.)
We'd like to know what Rubio would say about science in public schools. But after getting Rubio’s answer, Our Man from GQ moved straight to a new topic. To all appearances, he was mainly interested in throwing a curveball—a flashy question that would possibly get his profile some ink.
Hainey's question achieved that end. The liberal world swung into action, mocking Rubio for his exceptionally dim-witted answer. Indeed, that was Wade’s basic approach in the New York Times. At the end of his report, he described Rubio as a “rudderless politician” who “threw 15 back flips and a hissy fit when asked a simple question like how old is the earth.”
We really didn't hear it that way. This brings us to our own question and answer:
How old are the tribal culture wars? Perhaps a bit older than earth!
Good liberals stood in line to trash Rubio for his ridiculous answer. Some people linked to an earlier interview in which he discussed a bill in the Florida legislature about the teaching of evolution. Here’s part of what Rubio said in that earlier profile:
SMITH (2/26/08): The "crux" of the disagreement, according to Rubio, is "whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?"In the end, what does Rubio think about the teaching of evolution and other such topics? In the snark which followed the GQ piece, we saw no one who actually tracked his finished view of that question.
Rubio added, "And for me, personally, I don't want a school system that teaches kids that what they're learning at home is wrong."
For ourselves, we had a different reaction to Rubio’s statements. In part, that’s because we were teaching in Baltimore’s public schools at a time when some of the liberals who postured and snarked were off in the academy, leaving themselves surprisingly clueless about their nation’s politics.
Our reaction? We thought Rubio’s statements in that earlier interview went to the heart of a genuine problem in public education. It made us think of our own days in the Baltimore public schools in (let’s say) the mid-1970s.
At that time, we were teaching delightful fifth graders in an all “black” Baltimore public school. Their parents and grand-parents were also “black.”
By the norms of the culture, we weren’t.
When questions about American history arose, we tended to share our personal views with our students. (At some point, you can’t really have a classroom discussion if you keep your own views to yourself.) But if you’ve been in such situations, you may have realized, as we did, that you didn’t want to be imparting views with which your students’ parents might disagree—especially concerning subjects on which those parents might well have very strong feelings.
We were struck by Rubio’s sensitivity to this type of real world problem. Way back then, we would often say things like this:
BALTIMORE FIFTH GRADE TEACHER (1975): Well, I’ll tell you what I think about this. But just because this is what I think, that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to think it. Different people think different things about questions like this.For the most part, “Why did people ever take part in slavery” is a different type of question from “How old is the earth” or “Where did the allegedly human race come from.” But whatever you may think of people who reject key parts of modern science, Rubio was talking about an actual human problem.
As you get older, you’ll decide more and more what you think about this. But if you’re trying to figure this out, you should also check with your parents or your grandparents, because what they think ought to be more important to you than what your teacher thinks. Your parents are very important.
Do you want to be telling a ten-year-old child that what her parents deeply believe is wrong? Set aside the contempt you may feel for those parents because you’re brighter and better than they are. Is it hard to see that an actual human problem arises when public schools are teaching material that, in Rubio’s words, “undoes at the public school level” what children “are learning at home?”
What do you do about that problem? Our Man from GQ was too glib to ask (or to care). He got some publicity from his “curveball question” and we liberals took it from there.
For ourselves, we’d like to see what Rubio would say to that ultimate question. How should a public school system present the kinds of science which may conflict with what kids are taught at home? We never encountered that problem as a teacher. We assume the conflict may be a bit more widespread today.
How should a school system deal with that? Remember, you’re dealing with kids who are ten years old. And you’re talking about the deepest beliefs of their parents.
Granted, their parents are worthless and dumb. But how do you deal with the conflict?
We thought Rubio showed a good ear for an real human problem. It made us think of something we saw Bill Clinton do a few weeks after his 1992 election.
Clinton took a supervised stroll through Washington’s black community (Georgia Avenue). At one point, a youngish man who looked as if he may have been homeless approached him with a question.
The man in question wasn’t one of the swells. Watching on C-Span, we were thrilled when Clinton responded by addressing the man as “Sir.”
We were thrilled to see that Clinton knew enough to do that. Warning to triumphalist liberals: To our ear, Rubio’s sense of the human problem involved in this unrelated matter carried a bit of that feel. Our sense? We've mocked the way Romney talked smack about voters. Rubio won't likely do that.
Snarking liberals were very sure that Rubio was being a dope in that answer—that he was a “rudderless politician...throwing a hissy fit.”
For ourselves, we heard a slightly more advanced sensibility in his comments. That said, how would Rubio handle that conflict? How would he teach science in public schools?
Our Man from GQ didn’t care. Truth to tell, neither do we liberals.
Mommy, how old are the tribal wars? Among the pious and self-impressed, at least as old as the earth!
Goofus and Gallant/Age of the earth edition: From what he reads in his Bible, Goofus thinks the earth is only 4000 years old.
Gallant buys Stephen Hawking’s books and pretends he understands.