The Trauma of Evolution

Can we educate by banning ideas?  For one group of conservative Christian homeschoolers, proper education means banishing lots of ideas.  How can progressive educators like me understand this impulse to put up intellectual walls around young people’s minds?  I wonder if some creationists view exposure to evolutionary ideas as a form of trauma, an entirely harmful experience.

The Finish Well homeschooling conference, in the words of its organizers, “is designed to equip homeschooling families to confidently homeschool the high school years for the glory of God!”

One of the ways the conference promises to help attendees is by purging the atmosphere of any hint of evolution.  In order to secure a table at the conference, vendors are required to agree to the following statements:

“1) Scripture teaches a literal 6 day creation week, a young earth of approximately 6,000 years, and a literal understanding of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day. 2) The Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. It is inerrant and our ultimate authority in what we believe and how we live. Any speakers who contradict these two truths during their speaking session will be immediately asked to leave.”

Clearly, the goal of Finish Well is not only to keep out evolution.  Any other explanation about humanity’s origins will be verboten as well, including the evolutionary creationism of folks such as Darrel Falk or the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement.

This notion of proper education is one of the hardest intellectual nuts for progressive educators like me to crack.  How are we to understand this idea that good education means hiding important ideas away from young people?  My first reaction, my gut reaction, is that this is precisely the sort of totalitarian impulse that kills any real education.  This sort of intellectual protectionism smacks of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.  To me, and to lots of people, one of the first rules of true liberal education means opening intellectual doors, not bricking them up.  Real education, in my opinion, means allowing young people to explore a variety of ideas, to make up their own minds.

But in the conservative tradition, an important aspect of improving education has long consisted of the effort to remove “dangerous” ideas from the educational mix.  For generations, various types of conservative activists have insisted that simple exposure to certain ideas represented a danger—something from which young people had to be protected.

This idea played a big part in the first “creationist” controversies in the 1920s, as I explored in my 1920s book.  One of the public leaders of the anti-evolution movement of that decade was populist politician and former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan condemned the notion that good education meant a willy-nilly exposure to perfidious ideas.  In a battle with the University of Wisconsin over the teaching of evolution on campus, Bryan offered this sarcastic advertisement for the college:

“Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”  [SOURCE: William Jennings Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner (June, 1921): 3.]

For my current book, I’m exploring the longer history of conservative educational activism.  This notion of proper-education-as-protection echoed throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, Grace Brosseau, President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, argued that young children ought not be harmed by “the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.”  Such modern theories of education, Brosseau insisted, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of childhood and the responsibilities of education.  As she explained in 1929,

“One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.”

Instead, parents and teachers must give students only what students need to develop the “delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind.” [SOURCE: “The 38th Continental Congress, N.S.D.A.R.,” DAR Magazine 63 (May 1929): 261-271.]

More recently, the late Mel and Norma Gabler echoed this notion that proper education meant protecting young people from dangerous ideas.  In their 1985 book What Are They Teaching Our Children, the Gablers compared modern teaching to letting young children float in dangerous seas in flimsy lifeboats.  Modern teachers, the Gablers argued, too often allowed children to drift near sharp reefs and crashing waves, without offering any sort of guidance.  The teachers knew the rocks were there, the Gablers argued, yet these ‘progressive’ teachers did not see fit to warn the students.  Better for the students to ‘discover’ such dangers for themselves.  The Gablers asked, “Has the instructor gone mad?” (pg. 99).

For the Gablers, as for Bryan, Brosseau, and the organizers of the Finish Well conference, the notion that some ideas must be hidden from children made perfect sense.  For those like me who don’t agree, perhaps one key to understanding might come from the school controversies of the 1920s.  During that decade, many state lawmakers proposed bills that promised to keep certain ideas out of children’s paths.  One 1927 bill in Florida would have banned “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter” [Florida House Bill 87, 1927].

To the authors of this bill, evolution and atheism could be treated the same way as “obscene” material.  To those 1920s legislators, it made sense to keep obscene materials out of the hands of school children.

I agree that young people ought not be exposed to “obscene” materials.  And maybe this is the way for folks like me to understand the conservative impulse to keep some ideas out of schools.  After all, all of us—not just conservatives or fundamentalists—agree that some things must be kept from children.  No one wants young people to view a lot of hard-core porn at school, for instance.  Nor do we think that children should see graphic violence.  Exposure to such things seems traumatic.

Is this the key to understanding the conservative insistence on keeping certain ideas out?  For some young-earth creationists, mere exposure to evolutionary ideas represents a danger to their young children.  It might be that such conservatives view exposure to evolutionary ideas as an intellectual trauma, a theological trauma.  Such ideas might be ‘out there’ in the world, just like genocide, rape, and lynching might be ‘out there,’ but that does not imply that education must include graphic exposure to them.

Is this the way to understand Finish Well’s prohibition of any hint of evolution?  I’d love to hear from those who believe that young people should be protected from such ideas.

Leave a comment


  1. Patrick

     /  January 22, 2013

    The “totalitarian impulse” to “put up intellectual walls” and “hide away important ideas” surely isn’t limited to conservatives, as many having pointed out (i.e. Don’t many “secular” schools and educators also believe that certain ideas should be kept out of the classroom and off campus?

    • @ Patrick, Indeed. In fact, that is the question that motivated me to comment on the Finish Well Conference policy in the first place. My knee-jerk liberal response to a policy that bans all non-young-earth-creationist ideas was that such policies were bad, both strategically and intellectually. If we tell young people they can’t know about any subject, they will simply want to read about it all the more. And if the subject we ban is true, then the policy seems even worse. But then I reflected on the amount of idea-blocking that I have seen and done in “secular,” “pluralist,” non-“conservative” schools and classrooms. Perhaps most important, though, it seems to me that the kind of idea-blocking George Will describes in the article you cite justifies itself in an entirely different fashion than the conservative idea-blocking I’ve studied. “Liberal” or “PC” idea-blocking often justifies itself by some variant of the “fire-in-a-crowded-theater” argument. Free speech is limited when speech might cause harm. Calling someone a derogatory term is seen as that sort of speech. Conservative idea-blocking–at least in the young-earth-creationist case studied here–means to keep certain ideas away from young people. Not because those ideas are an attack on those young people, but because those ideas would hurt the religious or patriotic beliefs of those young people. Maybe I’m missing the point, but it seems that the distinction is a significant one between the reasons for blocking these ideas from young people. Is it because the ideas themselves are dangerous? Or because the ideas are seen as an attack on one group or another?
      A better analogy, it seems to me, is to things such as porn, drug use, and graphic violence. In theory at least, our society tries to limit young people from seeing these things in video games and movies. The implication is that some topics are “adult.” Exposure to such things is seen as harmful to young people. This seems like the kind of attitude shown by the organizers of the Finish Well home schooling convention. They see any evolutionary ideas as inherently traumatic, and therefore worth banning.

  2. Patrick

     /  January 22, 2013

    Thanks for the response–you address precisely which I was wondering about, which is whether the similar behavior among liberals and conservatives has the same or different motives.

    I’m not sure how far your analogy about evolution being inherently traumatic can be pressed, though, because what people at such conferences are trying to ban is not discussion of evolution per se, but what they see as a false perspective on evolution. According to the website, “this conference is packed with great teaching and hands-on workshops on Creation Science,” so I imagine evolution will be discussed quite a bit. In Bryan’s day it may have been sufficient to simply not talk about it, but since I would think that since the revival of the teaching of evolution in the 60’s and 70’s, and realization that it is simply not going away, that conservative creationists are actually more eager to talk about it so they can explain why it’s wrong. The restrictions come in because, were the wrong message about evolution distributed at their conference, it would cause confusion about the issue and possibly undermine their goal, which seems to be to provide reliable materials to parents. After all, I would think the primary (though not exclusive) audience at the conference would be parents, but children. Maybe this is more or less what you were saying, but the topic of evolution does not seem to be taboo as much as incorrect ideas about it are. And wouldn’t a mainstream science conference treat creationism the same way (if it came up at all)?

    Coming back to the conservative/liberal question–while both groups probably do engage in censorship for different reasons–restricting “dangerous” ideas vs. restricting whatever may be perceived as offensive–at some point, it seems to me, both make the identical mistake of establishing a stifling and unnecessary over-protectiveness in defending their respective orthodoxies, that is, Biblical literalism and multicultural pluralism.

    • Great line: “both make the identical mistake of establishing a stifling and unnecessary overprotectiveness in defending their respective orthodoxies”.

  3. I homeschool, I’m a YEC, and I really like this blog. I think Creationists have different reasons for trying to ban information. Some are afraid to teach their kids evolution for fear that they will stop believing in God. (I don’t have this fear). And others like myself just want to protect them from personally experiencing at a young age the hostility that some people direct at YEC’s. I want my sons to be in an environment where they can learn to think critically and to detect fallacies in their thinking. That means learning evolution, creation, and everything in between. I don’t want to ban information, I just want to ban the negative way in which information can be presented. When they go to college, I want them to know what they believe and why on a number of issues. I want them to feel secure now so when they leave the nest, they will be confident and competent people.

  4. Darren

     /  February 17, 2013

    Maybe for the same reason that creationist views are banned in government schools. Every question you asked regarding the views of one side could be asked of the other in the current environment.

  5. That’s a really interesting analogy, trying to understand the conservative impulse to censor evolutionary theory by comparing to harmful materials like hardcore porn. The assumption, of course, is that such things will be a “bad influence” on the kids. But you could extend your analogy to say that just as good Christian children, upon becoming adults, should be responsible to keep themselves away from pornography and other damaging materials, the YECs could also assume that an adult will be competent at keeping themselves from ever coming into contact with evolutionary theory.


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