Science in Christian Perspective



A Values Framework for Teaching Global

Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
Austin College
Sherman, Texas 75091

From: PSCF 40 (December 1988): 204-209.

Science educators are beginning to include the issues of global resources and environment in secondary science curricula, specifically the "science, technology and society" curricula (STS). The author argues that STS education may legitimately be influenced from a biblical perspective by introducing the subject of values. One way of accomplishing this is to use a values framework which subsumes the conceptual themes of the STS curriculum. For example, the themes of conviction, mutuality, orderliness and finitude can be subsumed by the values of self-benefit, the common good, and restoration-conservation.

In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and within three months 100,000 copies were sold. Six years later on April 22nd, America's first "Earth Day" celebration was held. On January Ist, 1970, President Nixon signed the National Environment Policy Act. Americans were beginning to take natural resources and environment issues seriously. Christians were equally enthusiastic over the new issues, if not a little embarrassed. Evangelicals especially had been stung by Lynn White's article (1967), "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." He claimed that the cause of the irresponsible exploitation of our natural resources was to be found in a Christian theology based on Genesis 1:28. Partly in response to criticism, but I think mainly in response to the Gospel, a number of Christians have written about Christian positions with regard to natural resources and environmental issues. An early example is Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man (1969). Later examples are Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources (1980) and Tending the Garden: Essays on the Gospel and the Earth (1987), edited respectively by Wilkinson and Granberg Michaelson.

A major result of this aroused interest in natural resources and environment issues is that these issues have found their way into secondary school and college curricula. I find this altogether proper, and my subject in this article is the presentation of these issues in the classroom. Specifically, I comment on current education practice, potential areas of conflict with Christian beliefs, and give a few thoughts on how educational practice might legitimately be influenced from a biblical point of view.

It is important to bear in mind that there are both legitimate and illegitimate ways of bringing a biblical influence upon public education. An example of the latter would be an attempt to bring sectarian doctrine into the public school classroom. A legitimate influence would be to encourage the teaching of values, especially those Christian values which also have been traditional values in our society.

Since I am writing about educational issues, I have chosen to use the educational terminology "global science" and "science, technology, and society" (STS), which include the subjects of domestic and global natural resources and environment protection.

Current Events in Global Science Teaching

Teaching global issues and awareness is not a new idea. Secondary schools have for years offered world geography courses which include material on global resource distribution, the study of climate zones, foreign cultures, and political systems. In more recent years environmental issues have also been included. Educators understand that the events of today's world are unintelligible to the citizen who knows little about natural resources and environmental issues. We are reminded of this by television virtually every day. The President of the United States visits Canada and is confronted with "Acid Rain" protestors. And even more heart-wrencbing was the picture of 37 flagdraped caskets; the casualties from the missile attack on the USS Stark, stationed in the Persian Gulf to protect vital oil resources. The events of today's world literally demand that we teach our children more about these issues.

There is another reason educators have been paying more attention to global resources and environment. Traditional science courses taught at the secondary level are coming under increasing attack as being irrelevant for most students. The typical secondary science class is taught for the 3 percent who will go on to be science majors in college. The other 97 percent of the students are largely uninterested (Yager, 1987). For these students, the alternative science courses have always been health science or watered-down biology, which often lack academic credibility and seldom are any more attractive than regular science courses.

In recent years the importance of global resources and environmental issues has opened other, more credible alternatives to the traditional science class; that is, the "global science" and "science, technology and society" courses-both commonly referred to as STS courses (see Bybee, 1985; Patrick & Remy, 1985). The proponents of these courses hope that the typical student will become more interested in science because of these courses and will generally be better informed about the world in which be or she lives. Their hope that these courses will be of greater interest rests on the broader scope of STS courses, which includes social science and current affairs material. The STS movement shows great promise, but it also contains some content in need of revision.

The Presuppositions of Curriculum Writers

The Christian encounter with public education these days always seems to be negative. It takes the form of legal suits such as the recent ones in Tennessee (Mozert vs. Hawkins County Public Schools, 1986), Alabama (Smith vs. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, 1987), and Louisiana (Edwards vs. Aguillard, 1986), or the withdrawal of students to alternative private schools. The conservative church is known more for its criticisms of public education than for any interest or support. I am not saying that there are no just causes for criticism, only that it is unfortunate that the most salient aspect of church/education relations is a negative, hostile one. That ought not to be the case with "global" issues; mainly, because of the church's great interest in foreign missions. As Bernard Ramm has written: "Being world-minded and missionary-minded is considered a necessary feature of a healthy Christian mentality" (1954, emphasis added). I would not be surprised to find that high school students from conservative churches are more likely to recognize a place such as Gabon or Uruguay than their unchurched friends. I know that my own knowledge of world geography has been enhanced as a result of the many missionaries I have heard speak in church.

It is unfortunate that the most salient aspect of church education relationsis a negative, hostile one.

Given the conservative church's interest in foreign missions one might predict that these churches would support teaching for global resource and environment awareness, if for no other reason than to improve their children's knowledge of the nations that compose the American church's foreign mission field. However, to say that the teaching of a given subject is favored is quite distinct from supporting a particular curriculum structure and values used in the classroom to actually teach that subject. Support here requires agreement with a particular philosophy-herein is the source of conflict.

Most people who write curriculum materials for public schools are not known for fundamentalist Christian values or conservative political leanings which are so often allied with Fundamentalism. With respect to STS curriculum materials, one is likely to find that writers:

1. value environmental conservation above resource development (e.g., object to the harvesting of timber in a wilderness area);

2. value clean energy above economical energy (e.g., solar energy over fossil fuel energy);

3. generally accept zero-sum economics, (i.e., one nation's wealth is another nation's poverty);

4. accept conservative estimates of available resources (e.g., Club of Roifie estimates);

5. tend to be less critical of communist and socialist regimes than of other authoritarian regimes because distribution of wealth under the former is perceived to be more equitable;

6. knowingly or not, espouse a materialistic philosophy in their work.

These points-values in a broad sense of the wordare reflected in the material the writers produce. And in addition, the publishers (especially of textbooks) are concerned with marketability. Beside the many things that go into making something marketable, there are the things better left out. In fact, when it comes to controversial subjects such as religion and values, many publishers follow the rule "when in doubt, leave it out!" The result is that these topics are often downplayed or completely ignored. The absurd extremes to which this kind of thinking can be taken was evident recently in a public school district newsletter in Washington, D.C. In an article about the origin of the Christmas tree tradition, the writer referred to Martin Luther as a German clergyman. In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, a parent commented that this kind of revisionist history made about as much sense as referring to Abraham Lincoln as an attorney from Illinois! (Further examples of this can be found in Paul Vitz' study of religion in school textbooks, 1986) The point is, textbook writers tend to be politically and morally liberal and their publishers tend to be pragmatic. The combination virtually assures the elimination of traditional values and religion as topics in the textbooks.

When it comes to controversial subjects such as religion and values, many publishers follow the rule "when in doubt, leave it out!"

I am not implying that the values listed above are necessarily unchristian, with the exception of materialist philosophy. I would imagine that many ASA members hold some or all of these values. But these are not values espoused by conservative church members, even less so by hyper-orthodox church members.

Two Curriculum Resource Examples

To illustrate the above general statements, I would like to briefly discuss two curriculum resources that include material on global resources and environment, materials that might be used in an STS course, though strictly speaking these are not STS programs. The first has already come under attack. The University of Denver sponsors the Center of Teaching Internationa Relations (CTIR). Among its many activities the Center produces resource materials for the general field of global education. Most educators consider the material well-balanced. If in fact the CTIR curriculum writers hold to the above six points, they show few signs of it in their work. Their materials are of the type supported both by William Bennett and Terrel Bell, the current and former United States Department of Education Secretaries. However, the Center's global education material has recently been attacked by several people, including Phyllis Schaffly, as being pacifistic because it discusses the horrors of nuclear war; capitulationist, because it discusses the nuclear freeze issue; and socialistic, because it discusses the problem of Third World debt. The critics of CTIR have not chosen their target very well. There are groups with specific agendas for global education which do deserve criticism, but CTIR has exerted great care to develop balanced materials (see Crawford, 1986). 1 mention this case because I want to point out that some people, especially hyperorthodox Christians, are not happy with educational materials unless they are sympathetic to their particular positions.

The adjectives pacifistic, capitulationist, and socialistic could better be used to describe a global education resource book produced by The Institute for Peace and justice (IPJ). This Institute distributes several resource books for teachers on topics broadly defined as peace and justice issues. One titled Global Dimensions (McGinnis, 1984) includes material on global resources, distribution and use. Though this resource book is intended for use at various education levels including elementary and secondary, it is overtly radical. For example, it accuses the International Monetary Fund specifically, and all Western nations in general, of deliberately exacerbating and perpetuating Third World suffering. It openly advocates the large-scale redistribution of wealth and power. It ignores all forms of sovereignty and freedom except for economic freedom. Quite distinct from the writers at CTIR, the writers at The Institute For Peace and justice hold an extreme position on the above six points and openly support those points in their curriculum materials.

As a rule, textbooks treat fairly the relationship between humanity and nature ...

Are the IPJ materials likely to gain widespread use? I doubt it. Most school districts across the nation are conservative in nature. Typical school board members are not likely to favor such materials, and even if they did. the potential for trouble would act as a restraining force. This type of material is so obviously political in nature, so biased in presentation, that it literally shouts, --"Stay away from me!"

I am concerned that organizations such as The Instititute for Peace and justice feel that it is appropriate to promote their materials for use in public schools, especially when they make the false claim that their materials are fair and well-balanced. But I am much more concerned about the loss of Christian credibility that results from hyper-orthodox Christians lumping together very different organizations such as The Center for Teaching International Relations and The Institute for Peace and justice. I am also much more concerned that hysteria will divert attention from more realistic concerns about what is christianly acceptable in the public schools, and will divert energy away from constructive, constitutionally proper ways in which Christians can influence public education.

There is a long-standing tradition that values and morality have little place in science textbooks.
However, value-neutrality is a myth.

What is a More Realistic Concern?

Of concern should be the low status, to the point of irrelevance, given to traditional values and religion in textbooks and curriculum resource materials. We can see this in the typical philosophical statements that undergird curricula. John W. Christensen's textbook Global Science is a good example of the type of STS material appearing more and more frequently in secondary schools. One of the things I like about Christensen's book is that the major organizing themes are explicitly stated. You do not have to "read between the lines" to discover his philosophical position, and so his book makes for a good example. Christensen's global science themes are:

1. Humans are partners with nature.

2. The world we live in is orderly and law abiding.

3. The earth and its resources are finite.

4. The goal of society should be to achieve the highest standard of living that is compatible with our environment.

Let us examine these one at a time. I think that as Christians we would agree with theme #I: that humans and nature are partners, given that we and our environment are all a part of God's creation. As a rule, textbooks treat fairly the relationship between humanity and nature, but we should be watchful for the occasional teacher who would use this theme as a basis for an extreme environmentalist, political position or animal rights position. I would be concerned if this theme were used to diminish the high view of humanity that is held within the Judeo-Christian tradition. On the other hand, this theme presents an opportunity for a class to examine the origins of the Western view of humanity and nature. To do so would necessitate raising the subject of religion and religious influences. Unfortunately textbook writers seldom take such an opportunity, and the importance of religion continues unnoticed.

The second theme is that we live in an orderly and law abiding world. As Christians we likely will have little trouble affirming this-although there are students from certain neighborhoods who may find this a bit puzzling given their personal experiences. This is something teachers should bear in mind. Here again we find that textbooks say nothing about the philosophical and theological roots of this Western notion of orderliness. Certainly this is a good place, an appropriate place, for the non-sectarian teaching of how religion has influenced our ideas and behavior. By omission our schools teach that religion is unimportant.

While the first two themes are conceptual statements whose development has been influenced by many factors including religion, the third theme, that the earth and its resources are finite, is more a statement of fact. About it I will only say that our Christian desire for truth should cause us to be wary of unbalanced definitions of finite. Let us remember that "finite" is very much smaller for Willy Brandt than it is for Herman Kahn or Julian Simon!

While as Christians we can live with themes 1, 2 and 3, theme 4 presents a specific problem: "The goal of society should be to achieve the highest standard of living that is compatible with our environment. " This is a bald statement of materialism. Here we have a statement, one quite common in science education, that indeed does violate our Christian beliefs-in so far as the author purposely chose the wording "the goal" over 11 a goal"-and I think we must assume that he did. it should have read: "An important goal of society should be to achieve a modest standard of living without sacrificing long-term environmental health."

It is not surprising that materialism is the primary value in science-related textbooks. There is a lonestanding tradition that values and morality have little place in science textbooks. However, value-neutrality is a myth. And since science knowledge is about the material world, the value that most frequently surfaces is materialism. Note that when a textbook author wants to point out the benefits of science or reasons for supporting scientific research, material examples are always chosen. To be fair to the science textbook writers, I should remind us that materialism in a text is also a reflection of the materialism endemic in our society.

To deal with the neglect of values and religion in education some may wish to get into the business of writing textbooks. Others may find that producing a resource booklet such as the ASA booklet, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, is a realistic and effective approach. Of course if you teach an STS-type course you can implement your own ideas. Since I work in teacher preparation, I raise these issues with my students and give them examples of legitimate methods of dealing with religion and values in the classroom as explained in the following section.

Values as STS Organizing Themes

I suggest to my students that they organize their STS courses around values and then embed conceptual themes within these values. The values I use, expressed as infinitive phrases, are: to benefit ourselves, to serve the common good, and to restore and conserve for the future. I chose these values because they are appropriate to the STS subject matter. They also are values generally recognized in our society. And these values are not only compatib - le with Christian belief, but are an expression of Christian concerns-in fact I would say that they are recognized in our society because of a Judeo-Christian influence on our society.

Embedded within these values are four conceptual themes:

1. "conviction"-All human activity is based on religious and philosophical convictions (often held unconsciously).

2. "mutuality"-Tbere is a mutual interdependence in all of creation (humanity included).

3. "orderliness"-Tbe world is orderly.

4. "finitude"-The earth's resources are finite.

Conceptual themes 2, 3, and 4 are commonly held in science education. However, "conviction" is included as a needed corrective for the lack of metaphysical material in the typical science curriculum.

The framework is composed of three subsets of directional questions. These questions are designed to collectively support the course values and conceptual themes. They are intended to direct student attention to the organizing values and conceptual themes of the course, as well as directing the teacher's choice of curriculum materials and methods. For example:

Value #I: To Benefit Ourselves

Directional Questions:

I. How do we benefit from the earth's resources? Why do we consider it good to use the earth's resources to benefit ourselves? e.g., Why do we think it is a good idea to drill for oil, dig for coal, build reservoirs, experiment with efficient methods for harnessing the wind?

(Conceptual Themes: conviction)

2. What are our American resources? What are the resources of other nations? What are the potential resources?

(Conceptual Themes: mutuality, finitude)

3. What are our resource-use patterns? What are the resourceuse patterns in other nations?

(Conceptual Themes: mutuality, orderliness, finitude)

4. What are the consequences of our current use patterns? What are the consequences of the use patterns of other nations?

(Conceptual Themes: mutuality, finitude)

5. Can our value theme be corrupted? Has it been? By us? By others?

(Conceptual Themes: conviction, mutuality)


Value Theme #2: To Serve The Common Good

Directional Questions:

1. Why do we feel that it is good to share? What is the notion of

"the common good?" Are there limits to sharing? Are there priorities within the common good?

(Conceptual Themes: conviction, mutuality)

2. What do we have that other nations need? What do other nations have that we need? Do some nations at times benefit at the expense of others? How could we all mutually benefit?

(Conceptual Themes: mutuality, finitude)

3. How does our first value theme, benefiting ourselves, fit with the value of sharing?

(Conceptual Themes: conviction, mutuality, finitude)


Value Theme #3: To Restore and Conserve

Directional Questions:

1. Why do we feel that a Mountainside should be restored to near its original condition after a strip-mining operation has ceased? Why do we feel that it would be unwise to rapidly consume all of our petroleum resources?

(Conceptual Themes: conviction, finitude)

2. How do our resource-use patterns impact upon the availability of resources and our environment? How do the resource-use patterns of other nations impact upon the availability of resources and our environment?

(Conceptual Themes: mutuality)

To implement the framework, the teacher would go through the course textbook or syllabus noting all places appropriate for the use of the framework directional questions. When one of these places is reached during the class, the students would be engaged in a discussion or some other activity based on the directional questions. Thus, the content of the course is never separated from the course values and conceptual themes. Since the intention is to emphasize values, a teacher who used this framework would begin a course by focusing student attention on the issue of values. This can easily be done with discussion questions such as:

What are values? How do values influence us?

Where do values come from?

When we address the issue of the earth's resources, what values are pertinent?

What values are important to a person in society as opposed to a person as an individual?

What values are important to a person as an individual as opposed to a person in society?

Can you create a hierarchy of values important to people?

If all goes well, the teacher is able to pull from the discussion the central framework values and thus set the stage for the course. (Should it not go well, the teacher can always resort to a handout that identifies the central framework values in their historical and philosophical context.) Thereafter, the issue of values would be renewed each time a directional question was encountered. Although adopting this approach does not guarantee that materialism will not ultimately be emphasized by the teacher, it does guarantee that materialism will not gain centerstage by default.

In summary, the Christian responsibility in public education is to check the excessively unbiblical bebavior that undermines the faith of young students, while also encouraging an academic climate where values and religion are given their due, but non-sectarian, attention. One way of doing this is to impress upon teachers the importance of these issues and to provide them with ideas on bow values and religion may legitimately be taught in the classroom. I hope that my own values framework for STS courses is a good example of how this can be done.


William W. Cobern is an assistant professor of education at Austin College where he specializes in science and math teacher training. Before movingto Texas, he taught at the University of Sokoto in Nigeria for four years, where he was also a missionary associate with the Navigators. He obtained his B.A. degree in biology at the University of California, San Diego, and his Ph.D. in science education from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is an active member of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, and his scholarly interests are religious, historical, and cultural issues related to science education. This paper was completed during the summer of 1987, at New College, Berkeley where he was a Visiting Scholar, supported by a Sid Richardson Endowment Grant from Austin College.


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