The Creationist Dream, Part II

What should public-school biology classes look like? A couple days ago, I shared an article from an evangelical magazine, c. 1967. It told a story of a creationist high-schooler who bravely stood up to her evolutionist teacher. As a result, the class put biology aside and had a spontaneous prayer meeting.

As one astute reader noted, it sounded like a fifty-year preview to the new film God’s Not Dead.

Whatever your beliefs about creationism and evolution, there was something dead wrong in the story. Something that just didn’t fit with the ways the creation/evolution battle really works. And this something was besides the hokey language and the Leave-It-To-Beaver creationism.

What was wrong? Was it

  1. No teacher really feels that gung-ho about teaching evolution?
  2. No student really cares that much about creationism?
  3. No parents would encourage their kid to publicly preach that way in a public school?
  4. There would never be that sort of religious revival in a public school? or
  5. A teacher would not likely be that clueless about the religious beliefs of her students?

Let’s take them one by one. In the story, the teacher was a mean-eyed evolutionist. She ridiculed creationist belief, while being stupidly ignorant of the fact that most of her students shared those beliefs. Could a teacher really feel that gung-ho about teaching evolutionism? Well, clearly the character was an utter caricature, but I think it is certainly possible for teachers in 1967 or 2014 to feel a passion for enlightening students with the truth of evolution. I would say that most teachers don’t feel this sort of mission, but some do.

What about number 2? Do any students really feel so intensely devoted to their creationist beliefs that they would risk public humiliation to express them in class? Just as with number 1, I think this would be unusual in the real world, but by no means impossible.

Would parents really encourage their kids to preach in a public school? Some would. Again, not likely in the same Richie-Cunningham tone presented in this story, but I don’t find it beyond belief that parents might want their children to stick up for their beliefs in public schools. Some parents likely encourage their kids to see their public schools as a sort of mission field. And there is a literature out there helping parents help their kids to evangelize properly in their public schools.

Could it work? As number 4 suggests, is this sort of religious revival beyond the possibility for a public school? Not at all. These days, for instance, public-school children are encouraged to meet at the flagpole of their schools one day in September. Just like in the story, this strategy promises “amazing transformations” of students and school culture.See you at the pole

So I agree with the sharp commenters who voted for number 5. It is possible, of course, that a teacher might have no idea that her students shared fervent creationist beliefs. But in general, that doesn’t happen much. As Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued in their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers tend to fit in with their communities. As they put it, “traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.”

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