Why teach biology in public school?

Prolific commenter Robert Little asks:

Praj, you asked why understanding biology should even be the goal.

Let’s take it a step further. Why study biology in public school? Why study science there? Heck, why bother with public school at all? That’s how your question strikes me.

Well it seems I accomplished my goal! In one sense, that’s exactly how I wanted my questions to be received. To put it another way, I want all of you to wrestle with these types of questions. The answers are not obvious.

In some way you have to resolve the tension between parental and societal interests in public education. It’s a tension that has vexed philosophers and political theorists for thousands of years. My personal stance has been deeply influenced by William Galston and Amy Guttman (both of whom I believe I’ve quoted before). Here’s a passage from Liberal Pluralism that I like (emphasis added):

Contemporary debates about education in the United States occur within a context that we take for granted without much thought, as follows: The government has the right to require the education of all children up through the midteens and to regulate some basic features of their education. Parents bear principal responsibility, but have the right to choose among a wide range of options.

Now people can reasonably disagree on what ‘basic features’ and ‘wide range of options’ means. But that’s exactly my point! People can reasonably disagree. My suggestion that practical knowledge may be a legitimate goal of science education is hardly groundbreaking. Heck, it’s even in the peer-reviewed literature.

Robert (and many others) simply assume science education must be about “understanding”. I’m not sure it should be. Deep understanding could be one goal. But it doesn’t have to be the only one.

Why is it more important to understand how biologists arrive at their conclusions rather than, say, cultivating future bioengineers? Why not have a project based biology curriculum where you explore human anatomy the entire year? Why, as I’ve asked before, do we think a survey course in biology is the only possible curriculum?


  1. Praj, it’s not an “assumption” that science education must be about understanding. Rather, that follows from the definition of science, which in this context is necessarily a pursuit of understanding natural phenomena.

    In general, we’re currently providing a basis in high schools for more advanced training in fields such as bioengineering. Bioengineering often incorporates evolutionary theory in its methods; Kenneth Miller provides an example of such engineering in his book “Finding Darwin’s God.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *