Should the best high school students read Rachel Carson?

On the AP World History list-serv, a discussion on good books for a canon on 20th century stuff turned into a discussion on Rachel Carson, DDT and malaria.  That’s not the purpose of the list.

So, I offer this thread as a forum for that discussion, hoping some of the AP history teachers might participate.

Welcome, teachers!  Comments are open.

7 Responses to Should the best high school students read Rachel Carson?

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    From the AP World History list-serv:

    I feel it is imperative teachers NOT use the bully pulpit to dictate their personal philosophical perspectives. Influence peddling is a corruption of our profession.

    We must allow students to follow their own deductions either through Socratic Discussion, using ambiguous questions that allows for discussion of the various perspectives within the classroom. The classroom, in essence, is a microcosm of society and if teachers influence peddle it will have a serious disconnect between parent, church, self and classmates and is completely unprofessional.

    Right Wing Conservatives certainly feel that Rachel Carson has overblown the issues and Left Wing Liberals are environmentally more sensitive and yes there exists a issue of perspective in which we teachers must allow students to RESPECTFULLY DISAGREE.

    This is the essence of Historiographical Research that maps the terrain of thought on a given topic. Allow students to make their own decisions based upon their own research and not based upon a teachers misuse of the bully pulpit.


    Mr. Oscar Siflinger


  2. The Libertarian Buddhist says:

    I have no problem with students read her book (or any other that I disagree with) as it is a good exercise in looking at how an author uses evidence (and a look at the limits of her arguments). I would probably give them a counter to her book so they can see the other side of the issue.

    I think a lot of people have a problem with anything that is considered “left wing” or “right wing”. I am one of those people who has no problem reading and hearing ideas I disagree with. I just think it is important to give the students both arguments and allow them to decide for themselves.


  3. Abbass Zammanni says:

    The way I see it, the last article still advocates DDT use in Cambodia… I can see the authors side, but in your opinion, what is the best method to control the mosquitoes to reduce disease?


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    This comment on the AP-WH list-serv grabbed me:

    This is an interesting discussion.

    Visiting settlements of the poorest of the poor as a traveler rather than a tourist is a good way to add a dose of reality to the DDT-Silent Spring discussion. During the last five years with Teachers Across Borders, I’ve learned a thing of two.

    In Cambodia the poor live in places where mosquitos flourish. Why? Unhealthy places are empty. The poor live near pools of stagnant water to collect flowers sold at Buddhist Temples and markets each morning. Or they can be found near rice fields where they search for grains of rice after the harvest. Or they live at the dump. If they collect 50 cents a day from selling cans and plastic, that’s enough for water and rice for the day. (Hollywood’s version of dumps excludes the smells and reality of the incredible filth.) But the dump does have its rewards. The ice cream man shows up every afternoon to sell treats to kids who earned more than 50 cents. Mosquitoes are the least of people’s worries.

    The poorest of the poor are neither seen nor heard. There is little government regulation controlling where poor families settle. They move with the monsoon-dry season. During the dry season, drinking water is run-off from the highway, river water or pools of standing water. Water trucks sell expensive, unpurified water to slum dwellers.

    The Cambodian government does spray populated areas like Phnom Penh and the Siem Reap tourist sites. But Cambodia simply doesn’t have the money to dust the entire country with DDT. The result? Malaria and Dengue Fever. And the variety of species found only in Cambodia survive.

    The good news is that education lifts all boats. Last year Teachers Across Borders volunteers led workshops for 1000 Cambodian teachers who lack the benefits of our training. TAB’s goal is professional development. Volunteers come from 4 continents come, they pay their own way and they return their own classrooms far wiser.

    Education changes the lives of children, their families, villages and nations. Each year Cambodian teachers arrive at the workshops determined to learn content and good teaching practices. There is a new generation to be educated. One of those kids, fished from the dump and tutored by Cambodians and a TAB volunteer, placed #1 in math and #2 in science in a national test last year. He won a 4 year scholarship to US university once he finishes 4 years of high school.

    Teachers make a difference.

    Heidi Roupp
    Lesson Jamboree and World History Connected


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    One of my responses to criticism of the book was this post:

    I think this is the sort of material a good AP history class should cover.

    Jim said: “Actually, much of what Carson wrote had been shown to be without merit. What is NOT without question is that millions in Africa have died, and continue to die because of malaria that is no longer prevented because we stopped using DDT. In this case the law of unintended consequences turned deadly.”

    My challenge to the critics of Rachel Carson, over the past two years of debate, is to show me one science error she made in the book. Remember, she provided 53 pages of footnotes to her sources. She corresponded personally with most of the scientists she cited (and she knew several of them rather well from their previous work). Remember that President Kennedy asked the Nobel-winner-heavy President’s Science Advisory Council to check out the book, and they said her science was accurate but her urgency for action was not great enough.

    Show me the claim Carson makes that is “without merit,” and I will show you the merit of her claim.

    Remember that the recovery of the American symbol, the bald eagle, and the recovery of peregrine falcons, brown pelicans (now being hammered by some other pollutant), and osprey have all been attributed in dozens of studies in at least 20 different states to the reduction of residual DDT in the tissues of the birds. Remember that more than 1,200 studies supporting her work have been published in peer-review science journals (according to Discover magazine, November 2007).

    I know of one critic to whom every claim against her can be tied: Gordon Edwards, late entomologist from San Jose State. I cannot judge his work on bugs earlier, but I have checked each of his citations against Carson, and not a single one of them checks out. (You can find them at the “Junk Science” site, 100 things you should know about DDT). He claimed that eagles proliferated while DDT was in use, but no study he cites makes that claim; in fact, those that exist claim the opposite. Sadly, most of what he cites on eagles simply does not exist. I do not think that all of the articles he cited from Audubon Magazine could have gone missing from the three different libraries I have searched, and I have at length come to the conclusion that they simply do not exist.

    I have also corresponded with Socrates Litsios, the former head of the malaria fighting program at WHO. He disagrees with the idea that DDT could have saved any lives; Malcolm Gladwell’s history of the WHO program (in the New Yorker) notes that DDT had become ineffective against malaria carriers, due to overuse of DDT, by the middle 1960s.

    I think any fair person reading Carson’s book will quickly recognize the false claims in the campaign against her and her work, partly because it’s so over the top.

    The U.S. ban on DDT covered use on crops, chiefly cotton, growing in Texas and California, Arkansas and Louisiana. The U.S. ban on DDT was instituted in 1972. DDT has never been banned in Africa, nor in Asia, and is manufactured in great quantities in India and China today. It’s available for use to any nation that wishes to use it against DDT. Why don’t these nations use DDT? I do not believe for a half moment that Idi Amin was influenced by Rachel Carson to go green in Uganda, nor Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

    So, the claims that a U.S. ban on DDT sprayed in Texas and California in 1972 caused Africa and Asia to stop using DDT in 1965, and caused a subsequent rise in malaria 10,000 miles from Texas cotton fields, strike me as a bit fantastic. These claims demonstrate how a group with an axe to grind (“Point of View”) can make people remember history, sometimes remembering it falsely.

    And I think our kids should read Carson’s book to find out why. This is exactly the sort of damaging controversy education should prevent. I don’t think you can figure it out without actually reading the book, though. It’s a classic for a very good reason, and it’s regarded so highly by scientists for very good reasons. Check it out and see if you don’t agree.

    It is notable, I think, that there is no contrary book that has been so honored and revered, nor that is so well written. Sometimes its the story that makes the book, the simple recounting of accurate history, and not a political agenda.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Originally we were discussing AP World History. Personally, I think all 8th graders should read the book — I think that was the year I read it again after the first go ’round, when my reading was far below par for understanding (what can we expect for a pre-teen?).

    I had recommended the book as part of the canon that all AP-WH students should have at least cursory knowledge of, and one to be highly recommended. Others took issue, suggesting that she had erred.

    The discussion grew too heated for the AP-WH list-serv.


  7. Abbass Zammanni says:

    I don’t see why only the “best” students should read Rachel Carson. It would be a good to have all Honors Biology (assuming you have honors in Texas) students read it so as to expand their knowledge base and see nature with a tad more respect… AP Bio courses should perhaps have more advanced reading. I don’t know if this was only for teachers… If so I apologize.


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