Required Reading: Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms

For those who care about creationism, evolution, and America’s schools, stop reading this shine-ola and go get your hands on a copy of Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 2010).  Not only is this the best “street-level” analysis about the way real teachers teach evolution and creationism, but the authors’ approach sheds light on schooling and culture far beyond the bounds of biology instruction.

Image source: Cambridge University Press

The same authors released some of their survey data in an article in Science in January 2011.  That National Science Foundation-funded survey of 926 high-school biology teachers from across the United States offered dramatic results.  A full 13% of respondents taught creationism or intelligent design in their public-school biology classrooms.  Twenty-eight percent taught recognizably evolutionary biology.  The rest, roughly 60%, muddled through in the middle, teaching neither or both evolution and creationism.  This book is built around the same survey responses, but it contains much more.

The authors argue compellingly that the evolution/creation deadlock involves three moving parts.  Berkman and Plutzer label these the procedural issues, the substantive issues, and the issues concerning the autonomy of teachers.  In other words, the tangle of evolution includes issues of who decides what gets taught, the science and religion involved, and the final decisions of teachers themselves.

Not surprisingly, these political scientists conclude that the real question here is political.  More than simply science, more than just religion, the contest is at heart “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (31).

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing part of the authors’ Science article in January 2011 was the sheer volume of anti-evolution education that went on in American public-school biology classes.  As they argue in the pages of the book, their 13% number as a mark for the number of teachers who actively teach creationism or intelligent design is actually a lowball.  The real number may surge more toward 21% (138).

For those like me who want more evolution taught in America’s schools, Berkman and Plutzer’s findings may be profoundly disheartening.  For instance, in addition to the very high numbers of teachers who omit evolution, teach both ideas, or teach explicit creationism, the authors conclude that teachers don’t care too much about changing state standards in science (160).  Thus, while evolution promoters may work hard to improve those standards, the authors here suggest that actual classroom practice will likely not be much affected.

The most important factor in teachers’ choices about evolution education, Berkman and Plutzer conclude, remains teachers’ personal opinions.   Although some factors, such as a full-semester college course devoted to evolutionary biology, may tend to improve the quality and amount of evolution education offered by teachers, such changes pale in significance compared to teachers’ beliefs.  Dwarfing every other factor, if teachers don’t believe evolution, they don’t teach it (186).

Another powerful contribution of the book is the authors’ application of the notion that teachers function as what political scientists call “street-level bureaucrats” (149).  Like other such functionaries, teachers often teach what their communities want them to teach.  In the United States, despite the chagrin this causes among evolutionary scientists, large majorities want their public schools to teach both evolution and creationism, or even creationism alone (49).  This is true even among those American adults who agree that mainstream scientists have agreed on the veracity of evolution.  Berkman and Plutzer analyze a fistful of polls and surveys to conclude that, even among the 52% of adults who agree that mainstream science has embraced evolution, only 20% want only evolution taught in their local public schools.  You read that right.  Even when Americans acknowledge the scientific consensus in favor of evolution, they still favor teaching both evolution and creationism, or even creationism alone.

As “street-level bureaucrats,” teachers tend to fit in with their local communities.  Among the 926 teachers who responded to Berkman and Plutzer’s survey, most agree with the attitudes in their area.  For instance, among the 136 “most cosmopolitan” school districts, only 4% of teachers taught young-earth creationism.  On the flip side, among the 139 “most traditional” school districts, a whopping 37% of teachers taught young-earth creationism (198).

The book contains chapter after chapter of survey analyses like these.  If you’re like me, you’ll want to buy a copy to keep on your desk as a reference for all the different surveys and multivariate regression charts the authors include.  But the survey and polling data are not the only strength of the book.  Also extremely helpful is the authors’ sketch of the structure of the durable evolution/creation controversy.  As they point out, we will never make heads or tails of it if we understand it as mainly a scientific or religious dispute.  Those “substantive” issues are very important, but they are not the whole problem.  This is why, for instance, many mainstream scientists will insist that there is no controversy over the teaching of evolution.  They mean, of course, that the scientific community does not dispute whether or not evolution should be taught.  If we end there, however, we will remain hopelessly flummoxed over the nature of the continuing controversy.  Because, of course, there is a controversy.

The authors suggest two other important dimensions.  First, we need to get our heads around the “procedural” elements at play.  Where do decisions about teaching get made?  By courts, to protect minorities?  By legislatures, to represent majorities?  By professional bodies such as the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, to ensure superior expertise?  If we ignore these crucial questions we’ll never understand the nature of the impasse.

Also, Berkman and Plutzer inject a new element into these discussions.  Unlike the generations of historians, scientists, theologians, and political scientists that have preceded them, the authors emphasize the critical importance of the “autonomy of teachers” (29).  Teachers can and do consistently make daily decisions about the kind of instruction that goes on in America’s public schools.  Without looking at the impact of those decisions, we will never be able to wrap our heads around the true contours of this culture-war debate.

The authors conclude that these questions remain, at root, a fundamental “political struggle over who decides” (31).  This insight alone makes a significant contribution to stale discussions over the nature of evolution/creation.  Some of our brightest minds have foundered over this simple truth.  In a recent book, for instance, philosopher Philip Kitcher implies that the conflict has lasted so long primarily because the two sides have not adequately understood one another.  In Living with Darwin (2007), Kitcher writes, “detailed replies” to creationist challenges have calmed the controversy temporarily (3).  Yet, due to lack of understanding by creationists, Kitcher suggests “we shall not escape the cycle of controversy until it is completely clear what lies at the bottom of it all” (xi).  Clearly, Kitcher knows the science involved.  He knows the theology involved.  But his implication that a clear enough explanation will somehow clear the air ignores Berkman and Plutzer’s convincing point: this is not about understanding, this is about power.

No matter how brilliant and erudite Kitcher’s explanations of evolution, no matter how clear and cogent his arguments, Kitcher and his ilk will ultimately have little effect on the course of the creation/evolution debates.  Of the teachers who teach creationism in Berkman and Plutzer’s survey, 32% had completed a college-level semester-long course devoted entirely to evolutionary science, 55% held a bachelor’s degree in science, 13% held a graduate degree in science, and 49% had earned 40 or more college credits in biology courses.  It is not that teachers of creationism don’t know the evidence for evolution.  They simply reject it (186).  After all, how clear and convincing would an argument based on the Old and New Testament have to be to convince Kitcher of the truths of creationism?

For all its explanatory power, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms includes a few minor hiccups.  First of all, the authors insightfully note that the essence of the evolution/creation struggle has been a struggle for control of educational decisions.  But among the groups involved–“Federal judges, scientists, education policy makers, and teachers” (13)—the authors curiously omit parents as direct curricular decision-makers.  Since at least the 1920s, activists have insisted on the rights of parents to control the curriculum for their own children.  Recently, in places such as New Hampshire and Missouri, as I’ve argued in these pages and in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, state laws have changed the playing field.  These new laws have finally introduced what Berkman and Plutzer might call direct curricular democracy.  Not only can judges, scientists, policy makers, and teachers take part in this durable battle, but parents can and have successfully exerted their significant political influence.  The authors’ failure to include parents as interested and influential parties is a puzzling omission.

In addition, as political scientists, the authors overlook some simple historical errors.  They date the end of the American Civil War, for instance, to 1869 (66).  In a similar slip, they refer to the leading creationist Seventh-day Adventist Church as the Seventh Adventist Church (91).

But such minor quibbles do not detract from the overall argument.

The authors will likely continue to attract the most attention for their original survey data of biology teachers.  And those data are indeed compelling.  But far more important to understanding the nature of the creation/evolution debates are the authors’ arguments about the inherently political and deeply local nature of those debates.  They are not decided in state houses, but in school houses.  They are not decided in courtrooms, but in classrooms.


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  1. ILYBYGTH in the Chronicle of Higher Education « I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. Creation? Evolution? Both? Neither? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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