Monday, December 7, 2009

In Which I Identify With Creationists

This weekend, I went home to see my family and assist with some early Christmas preparations. During my visit, I had a chance to examine my 14-year-old sister's world history homework, which was genuinely appalling.

Her teacher has adopted Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered America as a key text for their class and is, apparently, teaching it as factual information. Menzies' central argument is that a Chinese fleet commanded by Zheng He sailed from China in 1421, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed on to North America, eventually establishing a colonial settlement in modern-day Rhode Island. Menzies (who neither reads nor speaks any Chinese language either ancient or modern) bases his argument on a handful of maps, speculative interpretation of DNA evidence, and the existence of structures such as the Newport Tower and the Bimini Road. He claims that records of the voyage were intentionally destroyed by Chinese officials, but provides a wealth of very specific and uncited information about the expedition. In short, it is a crackpot theory.

In general, responses to 1421 have acknowledged its shortcomings. Even the most generous reviews recognize that Menzies, "offers no proof, only a great deal of circumstantial evidence marred by questionable scholarship." Many reviewers have suggested that the book might be a valuable teaching tool, but only because it provides a starting point for discussions about historical evidence and arguments

My sister's teacher (let's call him Mr. G.) does not appear to be using 1421 to kick off a conversation about evidence. From all I was able to glean from the assignment and from my sister, he is teaching this book as fact.

I can't tell exactly what is going on in that classroom, but I can comment on the assignment I saw. Students were to write a series of journal entries from the point of view of a sailor, fisherman, soldier, or lighthouse keeper who sailed with the 1421 fleet (my sister chose the lighthouse keeper). In these entries, students were instructed to describe various stops in India, Africa, the Caribbean, and New England. The final entry was supposed to deal with the settlement of "New China" near Newport, Rhode Island. The rubric attached to the assignment awarded points for grammar, completeness, and "historical accuracy." No part of the assignment indicated that students were being encouraged to critique either Menzies' argument or his evidence — in fact, they were required to parrot such "facts" as the Newport Tower's use as a lighthouse and the supposed existence of 15th-century Malayam writing on rocks in Cape Verde. I won't bother to debunk all of the "evidence" in this post — others have done so more thoroughly than I could in this limited space.

Now I know how creationists must feel. I spluttered, I fumed, but, eventually, I had to advise my sister to write the paper Mr. G. wanted and simultaneously do my best to convince her that he is full of shit. I generally have very little sympathy for creationists, especially those who insist that their fairy tales should be taught in Biology class, but I feel like I gained some insight into the problem of trying to teach your child one thing when the school teaches another.

I feel like I should write a letter to Mr. G. I never took a class from him when I was a student at Windham High School (he was a first-year teacher when I was a Junior or Senior), but I have met him a few times and he seemed like a reasonable person. It's a little tricky because the student in question is my sister, not my child, and I don't want to cause problems for her in her first semester freshman year.

Still, I would like to hear more about how Mr. G. is using this book in the classroom and whether students will be encouraged to critique its many, many faults. I guess I'm less worried that the students are being tested on their knowledge of made-up "facts" (I don't know how much of it they will retain in 6 months anyway) and more worried about the fact that they are not being taught how to evaluate evidence. I have to assume that Mr. G. is aware of the problems with Menzies' thesis — a 1-minute Google search would have alerted him — but he has chosen to present the speculation as fact, rather than as an exercise in critical thinking.

Perhaps this is where my identification with creationists and I.D. enthusiasts breaks down: I believe that a good education is one that develops a student's critical thinking skills.


Anonymous said...

I had a student in my survey course bring this up, once, and he did not take kindly to me criticizing the book. But that's another story.

I've thought about assigning this book in my historical research methods class as an example of how historical thinking skills and research techniques really do matter.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

That seems like an appropriate use of the book. It is engagingly written and will certainly get people talking.

geoffwade said...

Do suggest that the teacher and all his students also read the postings at to provide the counter-argument


geoff wade