Teachers, Be Not Afraid

Across the US, representatives in state Senates and Houses of Representatives are attempting to legislate curriculum that would substitute mythology for science in biology classes by teaching creation instead of evolution.  By mandating curriculum in this way, Christian representatives could circumvent state boards of education, comprised of experts who set scholastic standards in our public schools.  The Christian base, preaching to their representatives, chant, “Teach the controversy,” demanding our schools be forced to teach creationism alongside evolution because they believe that their disagreement with experts is equivalent to a disagreement among experts.  It isn’t, of course.  No more than a high school classroom is the place to discuss scientific controversies (assuming, for the sake of the argument, a controversy existed).  It should be obvious—though it isn’t to everyone—that the place for that kind of discussion is in the field, or a dissertation, or a peer-reviewed journal, where cases are judged by experts on the quality of the evidence, not by laypeople on the circuity of the reasoning.

For an example of how fundamentalists in the US are attempting to legislate a creationist-friendly curriculum, I have to look no further than my home state, where late last year the chairman of the Indiana Senate Education and Career Development Committee introduced a bill to “amend the Indiana Code concerning education.”  In its earliest form, the amendment read, “The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.”  Though the bill went through multiple drafts, it never strayed from the issue of putting religion into science classrooms.  Thankfully, the bill was shelved by the state House of Representatives.

2011 saw similar bills introduced in nearly a dozen states, from New Mexico to New Hampshire.  And in 2012, conservative state representatives wasted no time in pushing their agenda; as early as January 11, the National Center for Science Education reported that five such “anti-evolution” bills had already been submitted in various states.

For the most part, our courts have kept creationism out of the classroom because it defies the first amendment to our constitution, which in part reads “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  Our courts, however, are neither designed nor equipped to judge the merits of high school curricula.  Court battles take time—during which the questionable material can continue to be taught, at the judge’s discretion—and courts evaluate the material’s constitutionality, not its factuality or even its suitability to a high school classroom.

Perhaps the gravest consequence of state representatives pushing this creationist agenda is the uncomfortable place into which our science teachers are put.  Because they can be seen to lack the support of the state, and because they too often lack the support of school administrators, teachers are forced to justify science curriculum to any parent whose religious belief is threatened by a discussion of evidence.  For a poignant example of how teachers sometimes deal with these confrontations, I need only turn to my wife’s high school biology textbook, where the pages of the sections relating to evolution were glued together—a decision made not by the school administration or a board of experts, but by an association between the parents and teachers.

According to a study done by Pennsylvania State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer (published in the journal Science on January 28, 2011), approximately 60% of high school science teachers in the States don’t teach evolution according to standards.  The study covered 926 schools and many reasons were given, including fear of embroiling themselves and their classrooms in time-consuming controversy, fear that in a confrontation with a parent they wouldn’t have the support of their administration, and fear that their knowledge on the issue wasn’t sufficient to deal with the questions.

Berkman and Plutzer concluded in their paper that this “cautious 60%…fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments,” and thereby may play a larger role in undermining science education than the smaller percentage of teachers who explicitly teach creationism.  Instead of denouncing creationist mythology as not-science and suggesting it be reserved for philosophy class, this “cautious 60%” handled the issue in one of three ways.  1) They treated evolution as though it only applied to microbiology.  2) They treated it as if it was something only to be memorized for a test but not fully understood or “believed” in.  3) Or, they taught creationism alongside evolution as though creationism were a valid scientific theory, and then asked their students—the very people who look to the teacher for guidance, the very people who need the teacher to help them learn to think critically—to decide which was right.

Across the US, creationists are actively watering down science in the classroom, keeping children ignorant of what science is and how it works.  Too often, creationists are allowed to control either how information is passed to students—as when science teachers actively teach creationism alongside evolution—or what information gets through at all—as when sections of my wife’s biology textbook were glued together.  To undermine the quality of our educational system, creationists don’t need to realize their prayers of mandating creationism into science classrooms; they need only to continue doing what they’ve been doing, which is to keep that “cautious 60%” of our teachers afraid to teach.