Do Teachers Have the Right to Be Wrong?

How do we draw the line? How do we know when to punish a teacher for being wrong and when to insist that teachers have a right to express their views on controversial topics? A new bill in Montana again insists that creationist teachers should have legal protection to teach their views. Nor is this simply a Montana question. From its headquarters in Seattle, the Discovery Institute has proposed a model bill for legislatures nationwide. From Alabama to Colorado, Florida to South Dakota, lawmakers have offered similar bills.

The basic argument is the same: Teachers must be allowed to teach the full range of ideas about evolution and the origins of life. Should they? And if they shouldn’t, why not?

These are not easy questions, though they might seem so at first. Opponents of these sorts of creationist “academic freedom” laws scoff that no teacher has the right to tell students things that aren’t true. Supporters, on the other hand, might insist that this is a simple question of teachers’ rights to academic freedom.

Neither of those positions captures the complexity of the situation, though. For those of us who oppose these bills, it seems obvious that teachers must not be allowed to tell students things that are not true. As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education put it, Montana teachers do not have the right to teach “bunk.”

The hard question, though, is who decides on the definition of bunk, and how. Historically, we’ve seen teachers persecuted for unpopular political beliefs. As historian Clarence Taylor has described, in the early 1950s eight New York teachers were fired for their leftist sympathies.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my new book, progressive teachers and school administrators struggled to protect their rights to their political opinions. These educators insisted on their right to hold controversial opinions. More pertinent, they insisted on their right to teach students about these ideas.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the rights of these teachers were egregiously violated. What’s worse, the climate of public education as a whole was degraded by these educational witch-hunts. Only a few teachers were actually purged, but a climate of fear pushed teachers and students to hew more closely to the patriotic party line. That’s not good education.

So creationists ask: Aren’t these bills protecting the same right? Don’t creationist teachers have the right to present all sides of scientific questions about origins?

Yes and no. As philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book, creationist teachers and students DO have enormous rights in public-school classrooms. Too often, evolution mavens get too wrapped up in winning culture-war battles to admit it. Far too often, science teachers imply that students need to believe evolution; earnest teachers want students to acknowledge the fact that real knowing means abjuring supernatural explanations of events. Creationist students have every right to dissent from such beliefs. If students want to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that the earth is a floating turtle, or any other sort of thing, they have every right to do so.

Public schools must welcome a plurality of religious beliefs. Creationists—teachers and students alike—must be defended in their quest to protect their faith from assault, even if that assault is only implied or suggested.

By that same token, however, these sorts of academic bills fail on two counts. First, students in public schools have the right to be protected from religious indoctrination. No teacher may preach religious doctrine. Though creationists might howl in protest, even the most intelligently designed creationist bills have religious goals. Instead of protecting teachers’ rights to teach controversial subjects, in effect these sorts of academic freedom bills protect a non-existent right to preach a certain religion-friendly doctrine in public-school classrooms.

Second, students in public schools have the right to learn the best ideas available. When issues are truly controversial, students must be exposed to those controversies. But when ideas are not controversial, students must not be forced to mull false ideas as co-equal to truer ones.

This is not only an evolution/creation idea. In history classes, for example, students should not learn that the South won the Civil War. Or that most enslaved people preferred bondage to freedom. These ideas are held by lots of people, but that doesn’t make them just as true as other historical ideas.

Teach the controversy?

Teach the controversy?

In science classes, the sorts of dissent that people such as Montana legislator Clayton Fiscus wants to protect are not equally scientifically valid. True academic freedom does not include the right to offer worse scientific ideas as equal to better ones. True academic freedom does not include the right to preach religious ideas as facts.

So do teachers have the right to be wrong? Yes, indeed. But they do not have a right to encourage students to believe any particular sort of religious belief. Nor do they have the right to pretend two sets of ideas are equally valid when they are not.

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  1. It sounds like your view boils down to this: Students can believe whatever they want, and so can teachers, but regardless of their beliefs the teachers must only teach facts and controversies that are not settled by reference to clear facts. So you could have a teacher who believes in a literal Adam and Eve, or who thinks the Pythagorean theorem is bunk, but as long as they censor their beliefs this is OK? At the same time the Creationist teacher would be free to teach a more general idea of Creationism as long as the ultimate origins of the universe remain mysterious and impenetrable to empirical science?

    Would it be impermissable “teaching of religious doctrine” for a teacher to say the cultural/theological controversy with science/naturalism is not between religious and non-religious viewpoints but between two functionally identical ideologies that make rival claims about the nature of truth, verification, and reality? Would it be impermissable if they said there is no conflict necessary at all between science and religion because they represent two incommensurate discourses or modes of understanding reality?

    I’m wondering what your take is on this; you seem to recognize the problem of making a fact/value distinction but still rely on that type of positivistic thinking even though it’s been abandoned for the most part by academic philosophy, including philosophy of science.

    Personally I suspect the real problem is the lack of any true “religious doctrine” at work in Anglo-American “creationist” thought — it’s always been a very ad hoc and mongrel “tradition” among relatively disorganized conservative protestant groups whose main issue is really with the critical study of texts and history. This would be evident if public schools still taught the texts and history that constitute the Abrahamic faiths, allowing teachers and students to ask what their meaning is as “literature” or for Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. today and in the past. This would be non-problematic and even welcome for many religious people; the problem cases are the fundamentalists who retain a pre- or early-modern mental frame about truth, fact, reality….

    • You raise a central problem when it comes to talking about what schools *should* teach. As you say, the notion that science can be clearly defined or bounded has been chucked out by academic philosophers and historians of science. But in spite of that, we still need to decide on what our public schools *should* tell students about the nature of science. I’m as hopeless in philosophy as I am in fashion, but in general I think you’re right that we do tend to retreat to positivistic attitudes toward public-school curricula. Not only out of haplessness but out of simple school realities. In most school subjects, including but not limited to science, we need to agree to teach the current best state of knowledge in the fields. At the same time, we *should* help students understand that these fields can and will change.


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