Monday, 2 August 2010

Noah's Ark Redux: counter-educational school trips

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It must be about a year since I took an eye-opening trip to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, the creationist zoo on the outskirts of Bristol. Eye-opening, not in the sense that it opened my eyes to the truth behind the origins of life on Earth, but rather because it showed the extent to which people are willing to overlook insidious pseudoscience in order to admire some cute furry animals.

When I was there, the place was heaving with families ooh-ing and aah-ing at everything from alpacas to zebras, while seemingly ignoring or simply failing to spot the informative signs explaining the age of the Earth (100,000 years), why rhinos have very little hair (“it is likely that God’s earliest design for the rhino had both nose horns and hair, but these were lost in some species later”) or the reason birds sing (to "praise their maker", of course). It was the middle of the summer holidays, so there were no school trips when I visited, but dotted around the indoor picnic areas was plenty of evidence that such trips do take place during term time, with thank-you letters from teachers and students adorning the walls alongside explanations of why humans are clearly not in any way related to apes.

Not long after we published my account of a day at Noah's Ark Zoo, a scandal emerged that was, in a lot of ways, much more shocking than its subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to promote creationism to children. Undercover members of the Captive Animals Protection Society found evidence that the zoo had a breeding arrangement with the Great British Circus, the last remaining UK circus to use tigers, and that the remains of a tiger that died at the zoo had been buried on site, rather than disposed of in accordance with the law.

The allegations led to the expulsion of Noah's Ark Zoo Farm from the professional body for zoos, the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA), which you might have thought would have put paid to the zoo's prospects as a desirable destination for "educational" school visits. But try telling that to the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, an educational charity which seems unwilling to let the peddling of pseudoscience and a tarnished ethical record get in the way of recommending venues for the Learning Outside the Classroom “quality badge” which, as the Times Educational Supplement reports, is a government kitemark designed to assist teachers in choosing suitable places for school trips.

This is, of course, something the British Humanist Association have taken exception to, with their education officer James Gray telling TES:
“It is entirely inappropriate that it should support an establishment that advances creationism and seeks to discredit a wide variety of established scientific facts that challenge their religious views. Teachers and parents look to the council for assurance that children will experience high-quality educational visits that meet the relevant government guidelines. Awarding this zoo a quality badge risks exposing hundreds of children to anti-scientific dogma.”
As I reported in my own piece last year, Noah's Ark's proprietor Anthony Bush maintains that the zoo keeps its creationism out of the school trip programmes it provides, and therefore that his creationism and his promotion of his zoo as a venue for school visits are separate issues. It's an interesting viewpoint – the workshop leaders won't talk about their zany views, so it doesn't matter that the kids will spend the day surrounded by signs informing them that “Eating meat was allowed after the Flood” but “Before this most people might have been veggies", and that “All the people in the world come from Noah’s sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. Caucasian from Japheth, Semitic from Shem, and Negroid/Mongoloid/Redskin from Ham.”

And as for Council for Learning Outside the Classroom? Well, their deputy chief executive, Elaine Skates, doesn't seem to see the problem:
“We believe that an important aim of learning outside the classroom is allowing children and young people access to education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints.”
Ah yes, that old canard of "teach the controversy", even where no such controversy exists. If taking kids to a creationist zoo is what passes for challenging their assumptions and exposing them to range of viewpoints, then perhaps it really is time to despair.

What do we all think? Comments, as ever, are greatly appreciated.

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