Briefing from the Evolution Mission Field


There is apparently more going on at the University of Kentucky than basketball.* Professor James J. Krupa has offered a description of his trials and travails as he tries to cram evolution down the throats of creationist students on that historic culture-war battlefield.

Teaching or preaching evolution?

Teaching or preaching evolution?

I’m all for evolution education. But Professor Krupa’s missive shows some of the dangers of an old-school attitude among some mainstream scientists, what I’ve called the “missionary supposition.”

First, though, let me acknowledge that I don’t have any street cred when it comes to science education. I’m a mild-mannered historian. My only experience teaching science came during one short year in which I taught middle-school science, along with reading, history, math, swimming, and camping. So when I critique Prof. Krupa’s approach, I have to do it with the full knowledge that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Professor Krupa shares what he calls his “relentless efforts” to teach introductory biology classes to non-majors at the University of Kentucky. As he notes, the university has had a long history as a front-line institution in the fight over evolution education. Back in the 1920s, Kentucky’s state legislature barely defeated an anti-evolution law. Prof. Krupa explains that the leaders of his school led the fight for evolution. He doesn’t seem aware of how much they gave away in that fight. The only reason Kentucky’s anti-evolution lawmakers agreed to let their bill die, as I related in my 1920s book, was because they received a solemn promise that evolution would not be taught in the state’s schools, even without the anti-evolution law.

That tradition lingers in Kentucky’s K-12 schools. Professor Krupa is quite right in his assertion that few of his students these days have had much evolution education. He shares his experiences with hostile students. Across the course of a semester, the door of his lecture hall often bangs shut as protesting students storm out.

Though I imagine he’d deny it, Krupa seems to derive some satisfaction from these creationist protests. He writes off the large section of his students whose

minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement.

More interesting to Krupa are students on the fence, students who are “open-minded” about evolution. If he can just explain evolution in all its power and beauty, Krupa implies, he can win those students for real science.

Krupa carefully avoids describing his mission as one to get students to “believe” evolution. Among many scientists, such language is frowned upon. After all, we don’t try to get people to “believe” in gravity or germs. Rather, since these things are inarguably true, the attitude goes, we only want students to “accept” and “understand” them.

This is just as it should be, sort of. As philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book, teachers too often seek to change students’ beliefs about life and divinity. It seems to make sense, at first, that if students understand evolution, they will come to believe that it is the best way to understand the origins of diverse species. But students’ beliefs should be beyond the purview of science teachers. The goal for evolution education should be for students to know and understand evolution. What they believe about it is their own business.

Professor Krupa nods to this distinction. At the end of his semester, he writes, he discusses the notion that evolution need not conflict with religious belief. Many Christians accept evolution. There is no need to assume that evolution somehow implies atheism, or leads to atheism.

So far, so good. But Prof. Krupa suffers in two ways from the missionary supposition among mainstream scientists. First, he takes it as his mission to preach the truths of evolution. As he puts it,

I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.

Krupa took the job, he explains, inspired by the mission laid out by biologist EO Wilson. These introductory classes, Krupa believes, might be “the last chance to convey to [students] an appreciation for biology and science.” And in spite of setbacks, Krupa maintains the clear-eyed self-assurance of every missionary. As have all sorts of missionaries, Krupa assumes that the truth of his message is so powerful that simply hearing it will blast away all resistance, at least among the “open-minded.” As he explains,

After a semester filled with evidence of evolution, one might expect that every last student would understand it and accept it as fact. Sadly, this is not the case.

Such a result should not be surprising to anyone who knows the history of missionary work. Too often, old-school Bible-toting missionaries plopped down among local populations and set to work enlightening them. The truth of the Bible, many felt, was so compelling that non-Christians only needed to have it explained clearly in order to convert.

Like these old-school missionaries, Prof. Krupa is well-intentioned but surprisingly naïve. He repeatedly notes his hostility toward creationism, yet he complains that creationist students and community members seem hostile back. He describes creationists as having their “minds sealed shut.” He notes that they “take offense very easily.” The explanations creationist students offer are mind-blowingly ignorant and laughably simplistic.

What does Professor Krupa want? In spite of his careful insistence that he is not trying to change students’ beliefs, he clearly hopes to do more than simply help students to know and understand what evolutionary theory says. He wants his students to get “an appreciation” for evolution, not just an understanding.  In some cases, he relates, his evolutionary lectures are “a message that . . . gets through.” One evangelical student came back to visit after taking Krupa’s class. Though this Christian student had resisted, he eventually thanked Krupa for “turning his world upside down.”

To Krupa, such moments savored of sweet success. Missionaries, after all, have the ambitious goal of changing worlds, of “opening . . . eyes,” and of blowing minds.

With those goals, it is no wonder that Professor Krupa has had a difficult time of it. He has suffered from more than just inadequate K-12 teaching. He has suffered, it seems, from his own missionary supposition.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach evolution to creationists. We should. But it does not help if we assume that creationists are idiots. Instead, we should endeavor to learn all we can about the creationists in our classes. As with all students, we should treat them respectfully and even lovingly.

Many of the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) have real experience teaching science at the college level. Am I off base here? To get students to understand science and evolution, do teachers need to share Krupa’s missionary supposition?


*For you nerdwads out there, that is a humorous reference to a popular sporting event going on right now, the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Kentucky has a historic winning streak going on.

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  1. David Long

     /  March 29, 2015

    Adam, I won’t rehash some of the old territory we’ve covered on this issue, but I would like to offer a different take on the nature of ‘understanding’ in regards to Jim Krupa. I conducted the pilot study for my book’s work in Krupa’s class, with Krupa’s students. To be clear–the later main study that became my book was not at UK.

    I observed Krupa’s class for 30 hours across the curriculum, along with many interviews with students. Some things I can say about Krupa’s class:

    ~ He’s an excellent lecturer–one of the best I’ve seen. Lecture is the nature of the huge sections. I have no doubt that a more active pedagogy might be more engaging for some (most?), but to the extent that he is expected to teach this way, he is consistently self-depricating to useful effect. He also gets consistently good teaching evaluations. And teaching awards at UK. He is well known for this. He’s won the NCSE freind of Darwin award for just this point. I also have no doubt that he is committing the missionary supposition as you have usefully framed it. But I also don’t think he’d disagree.

    ~ So let me offer a different perspective: From your ‘outsider’s’ perspective*, let’s consider ‘understanding’ not Creationists better, but Jim Krupa, and the work he does. Not the science per se, but enacting a evolution laden curriculum in a general political climate of red state culture where the church, for most students, is central in their lives. For Krupa, the kind of customary church state boundaries that you experienced in your face everyday growing up, in schools, at Wisconsin, at Binghamton, are quite different. Students bring with them, to class, an expectation that the church’s special creation narrative will NOT be challenged in class. We know, in part from my work and many others, that religious narrative is used as a tool to stop evolution from being learned. Even worse, it is used to structure the curriculum such that it never appears. Krupa works in a general climate where public discourse comes with it, for the majority, an assumption of shared conservative religious values* much like those at the universities you are currently studying.

    There is a distinctly different sense of the boundary and flavor of public-square civil discourse between Kentucky and New York. Krupa stands out for being the kind of person to take this stand. In many university settings (including Mason-Dixon State U.), faculty sometimes downplay evolution like high school teachers often do. Krupa is at the state flagship institution. Folks like Berkman and Plutzer, I suspect, have not thought to examine universities for the same phenomenon they described in their 2010 book, but I think they (ore someone else) might find some of the same, albeit to a lesser degree. Maybe a study needs done (wink, wink).

    As we’ve been over before, I can read the autobiography of Malcolm X, teach African American students, live in an African American neighborhood, etc…but my ‘understanding’ of being African American in the U.S. is inarguably, qualitatively different than being African American in a racist state. Understanding and believing work as formal distinctions (for example, for philosophers), but they break down and are not represented in practice when we closely examine the human, embodied phenomenon of what it means to learn something deeply. That kind of understanding, (the Creationist who aces their evolution exam in in bio class but rejects that the science supporting evolution as not adequate for them to believe) is such a limp kind of understanding that I must reject it. Yes, as you state, Krupa should be kind as a pedagogue. Overall, in my experience with him, he bent over backwards to do so, often staying very late after class to ensure student clarity and success as best he could.

    So, for your you, and your undoubtedly very attractive and intellectually promiscuous readers:

    Why is the maintenance and protection of stable belief (as your framing seems to force you) the most virtuous thing public education can do? Why is it protected above all other things? What is wrong about having beliefs examined, cross-examined, thrown into question, in the square of public discourse? Our beliefs change throughout our lives. Should formal, state supported education not be part of that phenomenon?

    * when I lived in Kentucky, I would often ask people to answer this thought experiment: If the state HAD to eliminate either “the church” or “college basketball” as an institution, forever, without appeal, which do you think a majority of Kentuckians would choose?

    Many heads exploded. Because understanding.

    • David,
      Thanks for the insightful reply. Let me offer just a couple of thoughts in response. First, it seems important that Dr. Krupa as a teacher is far kinder than is Dr. Krupa the Darwin-Defender. That is, as you describe him in person, he sounds like the kind of teacher most calculated to win over resistant students. Why, then, in this Orion essay does he take a more pugnacious tone? I would guess that many mainstream scientists emphasize their own aggressiveness towards creationists when they speak to their fellow mainstream scientists. And that seems to me like backwards thinking. We should be bragging about our kindness toward those with whom we disagree.
      Next, I appreciate your reminder that teaching evolution in Kentucky is far different from doing so in Boston or New York. And it might be useful in such a situation to adopt a kind of “village-atheist” persona. It might be helpful to give students who have never experienced an introduction to the intellectual satisfactions of profound skepticism a professor with whom they can have those interactions for the first time. To those like me who live in a skeptical world, it might seem over-done or redundant, but not if students have not had many interactions with that type of thinking.
      Last but not least, I’m not arguing that the first goal of public education is the maintenance and protection of stable beliefs. Not at all. Nor do I think that the defense of student autonomy and the rights of religious or cultural dissenters in public schools forces us into that position. Rather, we can simply suggest that teachers should teach with a full knowledge of the fact that religious belief does not imply a kind of intellectual deficit. We can acknowledge that many people who say they do believe in evolution don’t really understand it, just as we see that many people who say they don’t believe it also don’t understand it. Targeting understanding will look different than targeting belief.
      …okay, just one more addendum: I fully admit that in real classrooms, these distinctions might seem pie-in-the-sky. How is a tenth-grade biology teacher, or a large-lecture undergrad non-major teacher, supposed to impart knowledge and understanding of evolution while not implying that belief in evolution will be part of the package? To me, the answer lies in your descriptions of the real teaching style of Professor Krupa. Teaching as if you give a snit about your students as people goes a long way toward breaking down culture-war stereotypes of the sneering skeptical scientist.

  2. Great comment! And a great question.

    I would say “the maintenance and protection of stable belief” will always be a primary goal of states, churches, and other essentially religious institutions that seek to constitute and control a society based on a shared identity, history, and sense of purpose. Exceptional individuals within and outside these institutions will always advance them by calling out their more fatuous and self-interested deceptions. Better to have this messy plurality of conflicted views rather than a totalistic hegemon. Maybe even better to have a majority of existentialists with anarchistic leanings, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for us.

    • Dan, David’s too modest to plug it, but have you read his book? It is fantastic study of the ways some students experience the intellectual challenge of evolutionary ideas at a large public university.

      • No I have not. Looks like a great study! I thought he sounded like someone at work in your field, but absent a Gravatar I was unable to get the specifics. Thanks for the link: 🙂

        I’m puzzled as to how “maintenance of stable beliefs” could ever NOT be implicit within any institution’s self-preservation interests, especially educational institutions. There are stable beliefs and a core of material taken to be fact in every field that have to be communicated as such for education to occur at all.

        On “intellectual defect” of course it’s wrong to assume there is some type of innate disability connected with religious belief, but to say there is no “intellectual deficit” that should be assumed of people who resist evolutionary theory or cling to YEC is going too far. Two serious Catholic philosophers of high academic standing come to mind: Charles Taylor, who refers to the propensity of religions to resist their own flourishing in _A Secular Age_, and Alasdair MacIntrye who insists that thinking from a committed theistic faith in the Abrahamic traditions is and always has been to embrace a very difficult set of contradicting imperatives. On the one hand, there is the obedience (and self-limitation or boundaries) that faith demands, and on the other hand there is the imperative to ask questions wherein the very existence and idea of God is problematic. (This comes up in _God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition_ which is the book form of one of MacIntyre’s introductory undergraduate courses at Notre Dame.)

        I think you want to avoid the head-on antagonism of Richard Rorty whose comments have been taken up as fighting words by religious conservatives — just google this quote and check out the results: “I think [my religious] students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.” But the truth is, Rorty was not fundamentally wrong. You could say he over-identified religion gone bad with religion in general, but when it comes to subjects like evolution, all the reactionaries are representatives of religion gone bad — turned entirely against inquiry and their own flourishing. Or so I would argue.

  3. John

     /  April 17, 2015

    “The goal for evolution education should be for students to know and understand evolution. What they believe about it is their own business.”

    With that as a guide, might the most fruitful approach be to attack misunderstandings, such as the silly presentations of evolution as one animal changing into another and evolution being simply random when selection is anything but?,

    • “Attack” of any kind will not be fruitful. The tactful omission and polite dismissal of the “crocoduck” is all that’s needed to deal with that kind of foolishness. But I think we’d be better off too with a less narrow and in its own way dogmatic approach to science in schools.

      Suppose science curricula included the history and philosophy of science. One might study how a foundational thinker like Newton was both guided and inhibited by his theology or metaphysics. E.g., Newton’s model of physical reality, which can’t be dismissed as simply “wrong,” presumed an infinite and uniform “absolute” space with a center because it could not process (and thus impeded for centuries) the concept of relativity. But when Einstein had this breakthrough it was not simply the dismantling of a prior theory with theistic baggage, which is surely something a lot of 19th century science did have to do. Rather Einstein himself poses deep philosophical questions about the mathematical order of the universe and our intellectual access to it — its deep intelligibility.

      There are rich traditions of inquiry and dialogue about subjects like this by people with the highest academic credentials. Popular protestant pietists in the creationism demographic tend to know less about this material than they do about science, and the same goes for too many scientists. Problems like subject-object dualism and reductionism are real and valid parts of the full conversation on science, modernity, and humanity.


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