Teaching the Flat-Earth Theory
by Ellen Wedum
> At some point in the debates over teaching Creationism or, more
> fashionably, "Intelligent Design," someone asks rhetorically, "So,
> shall we teach flat-earth theory?!" My answer is "Yes, we should teach
> flat-earth theory." But you and I may have different ideas about the
> purpose of, and the context for, that teaching.
> To a thinking person looking around their village three thousand years
> ago, it would be clear that the world was lumpy with hills and valleys
> but otherwise more or less flat. If they walked far enough in any
> direction worth walking, they would come upon water. Based on
> observation, it would have seemed reasonable to believe the theory
> that the world was a disk of dry land surrounded by water, at the
> center of God's creation, with the sun and moon and stars revolving
> around us.
> Why should we have considered anything else? Then how did it happen
> that, long before we had airplanes or even large hot-air balloons (let
> alone space satellites), educated people came to believe that the
> Earth is a sphere revolving around the Sun, and later came to believe
> that it is a sphere revolving around a tiny sun at the edge of a small
> galaxy in space, far away from the center of things?
> Getting students interested in asking these questions gets them into
> the history and philosophy of science and introduces them to the
> scientific method and a general discussion of how to reason about the
> validity of conflicting assertions, such as "the Earth is flat"; "the
> Earth is a ball"; "the Earth is an oblate spheroid."
> Similarly for chemistry: as any first-year college chemistry
> instructor can tell you, the old theory of four elements (Earth, Air,
> Fire, Water) was a lot more elegant than the Periodic Table of the
> Elements. What was lacking in the Four-Element theory of the Greeks or
> the Five elements of the Chinese that we now find the complexity of
> well over 100 elements necessary?
> When it comes to the concepts of evolution, creation, intelligent
> design, etc., students can be stimulated by the comparison and
> contrast of controversial ideas. Or, as Gerald Graff put it in 1991,
> "teach the conflicts," such as:
> (a) Why should we believe in Creation or evolution? Why not a more
> Buddhist or Daoist belief that the world is as it has always been:
> uncreated, both constantly changing and unchanged? What are the data
> supporting the idea that the universe got started at some particular
> time? What are the implications of accepting any narrative of a
> universe with a beginning and, potentially, an end? Are the
> 'beginning' theories driven by the desire for an 'end?'
> (b) If we decide on creation instead of eternal beingness, then which
> creation stories seem truest to empirical data? Which work best as a
> fundamental basis for a culture?
> (c) When we compare different theories accounting for the origin of
> biological species, which seem truest to the data, which work best as
> an origin story? And what are other criteria one might use for judging
> scientific theories and origin stories?
> That ancient thinker could be confident in what Robert Ardrey, in
> chapter Six of his book African Genesis, calls "The Illusion of
> Central Position:" the perception that the world centers on ME. Much
> of an individual's growing-up process is learning that the world does
> not center around Me, or you. Much of the development of cultural
> wisdom may involve learning to see our Earth as far from the center of
> the universe, and human beings as homo saps (joke) instead of
> candidates for the Crown of Creation.
> Ardrey believes that if we were to "ever achieve the final, total
> truthful Disillusionment of Central Position" and truly understand with
> mathematical precision our place in the universe, we would simply give
> up and die from our insight into our unimportance. Or, I'll add as a
> positive alternative, become mystics.
> In more practical terms, thinking of ourselves as just another species,
> created by God or not, can lead to problems in finding the motivation
> to create, and live by, a coherent set of ethics. What are the
> differences between the kinds of people who can find sufficient
> inspiration to do good while at the same time believing in the
> insignificance of our species, our planet and our solar system in the
> immensity of the universe, and those who need the fear of hell and the
> desire for heaven to inspire them?
> We should indeed teach our students to reason through the pros and cons
> of these passionate, high-stakes conflicts of evolution vs. creationism
> vs. no beginning/end, by leading up to them with less
> emotionally-loaded topics such as the development of round Earth
> theory, the "Copernican Revolution," and the rise of modern chemistry.
> This approach helps American kids and young adults learn why the debate
> is so passionate and how they can take part in the debate as educated
> women and men, and sensible citizens.