Friday, November 7, 2008

Evolution, education and the University of Birmingham

The Guardian video podcast Teachers TV has just released an interesting documentary The creationism controversy in the classroom on the teaching of evolution in British schools, available via The Guardian website or via iTunes.

I was particularly pleased to see colleagues from the my own university, the University of Birmingham, Jerry Pritchard and Susannah Thorpe, taking a prominent role in the video. And the skulls you see are the same skulls that Susannah let me use in the videos from The Origin of Species in Dub!

In fact, as Jerry has pointed out to me, the links between our university and Darwin's time go deep: Thomas Huxley laid the foundation stone of Mason College, which was the forerunner of our university. Huxley's speech on opening the college makes for interesting reading, stressing the importance of a scientific over a classical education, but curiously, towards the end, making a plea for sociology to be taught at the new institution. The last lines should be brought out at every graduation ceremony:
"In conclusion, I am sure that I make myself the mouthpiece of all present in offering to the venerable founder of the institution, which now commences its beneficent career, our congratulations on the completion of his work; and in expressing the conviction that the remotest posterity will point to it as a crucial instance of the wisdom which natural piety leads all men to ascribe to their ancestors."
Also, each year the university holds a Huxley Lecture--a tradition which goes back over a century (see this reference in Nature from 1915). Curiously none of these historical links feature on the university's web pages!

In fact, we have Darwin built into the very fabric of our university, in that he is one of a handful of figures from the history of Western Civilization to stand above the entrance to the University's most imposing building, the Aston Webb building. But again, I can find no information anywhere on the University's web site as to who decided to put Darwin there and why or who created the statue and how, which is surprising given that the university has badged 2009 the Year of Darwin

I guess, in time for Darwin200@bham (ignore typo as to year on web site), our bicentennial Darwin Day, Jerry and I will have to dig into the university's archives and find out more about these links!

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