Here’s Why Public Schools Will Never Eliminate Creationism

If the spotlight-loving science pundit Lawrence Krauss really thinks public schools can eliminate creationism in one generation, he’s off his rocker. But he’s in good company. Through the years, all sorts of writers and activists have made grandiose plans to use public schools for one sweeping reform or another. Unfortunately for them, that’s just not how America’s schools work.

The original bus from hell...

The original bus from hell…

To be fair, in the Krauss quotation pirated here by the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, Krauss does not say that this will be a school thing. He only says that we can teach our kids—in general—to be skeptical. Clearly, in the conservative creationist imagination of the folks at AIG, this teaching will take place in the public schools.

This AIG cartoon illustrates the many ideological trends that they think are taught in the public schools. Evolution, homosexuality, abortion, . . . all these ideas are poured down the throats of innocent young Christians in public schools. Furthermore, AIG thinks, Christian belief and practice are banned and ridiculed.*

In culture-war battles like this, both sides made sweeping and incorrect assumptions about public schooling. If the schools teach good science, Krauss and his allies assume, then creationism can soon be eliminated. If the schools teach good religion, AIG thinks, then children will go to heaven, protected from evolution and other skepticism-promoting notions.

As I argue in my recent book, these assumptions are hard-wired into our culture-war thinking. Both progressives and conservatives tend to assume that the proper school reform will create the proper society.

In the 1930s, for instance, at the progressive citadel of Teachers College, Columbia University, Professor George Counts electified his progressive audiences with his challenge. Public schools teachers had only to “dare,” Counts charged, and the schools could “build a new social order.”

Decades later, conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler repeated these same assumptions. Conservative parents, the Gablers warned, must watch carefully the goings-on in their local public schools. “The basic issue is simple,” they wrote.

Which principles will shape the minds of our children? Those which uphold family, morality, freedom, individuality, and free enterprise; or whose which advocate atheism, evolution, secularism, and a collectivism in which an elite governs and regulates religion, parenthood, education, property, and the lifestyle of all members of society?

Professor Counts would not likely have agreed with the Gablers on much. But he would have agreed that the ideas dominating public schools matter. If the wrong ideas leach into the schools, then society will lurch in dangerous directions.

These days, both Professor Krauss and the creationists at AIG seem to have inherited these same assumptions. However, as this screenshot from AIG’s facebook feed demonstrates, public school classrooms are far more complicated places than any of our school activists have allowed. No matter what standards we write about science or religion, public schools will continue to function in ways that represent the wishes of their local community. No matter how daring they are, a few progressive teachers do not have the power to build a new social order.

Similarly, we cannot use schools to eliminate creationism. If we want people to think scientifically, then we need to wage a much broader campaign. We need to convince parents and children that modern evolutionary science is the only game in town.

Because even if we wanted to, we could never ram through any sort of school rule that would be followed universally. Even if public schools officially adhere to state standards that embrace modern evolutionary science, schools themselves will vary from town to town, even from classroom to classroom. The only way to change schools in toto is to change society in toto.

Chicken and egg.

As we see in this facebook interchange, one evangelical teacher claims she teaches with the “overwhelming support of parents and administration.” Another says she teaches her children in public schools to recognize the logical necessity of a creator.

These facebook comments are not anomalies. According to political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, about 13% of public high-school biology teachers explicitly teach creationism. Another 60% teach some form of evolution mixed with intelligent design and creationism.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Why do so many teachers teach creationism? Because they believe it and their communities believe it. As Berkman and Plutzer argue, teachers tend to embrace the ideas of their local communities. In spite of the alarmism of the folks at AIG, public schools just aren’t well enough organized to push any sort of agenda. Public schools will never eliminate creationism. They just can’t.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again: Schools don’t change society; schools reflect society.

*(Bonus points if you can explain why AIG is against saving the whales!)

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  1. Some evangelicals believe that people who want to save the whales are more interested in the survival of non-human species, than they are about saving human lives. Especially when it comes to abortion. When Cecil the lion was killed, my fb page was inundated with pro-lifers complaining that people were more upset about the lion than the unborn. It’s really ugly out here in the trenches of the culture wars, especially if you are more of a progressive Christian surrounded by friends and family that are in line with AIG. That’s my situation. I have both Protestant and Catholics concerned about my eternal fate. sigh

    • Bonus points! ***********
      Also, some young-earth creationists disapprove of an atheistic conservationism in which humans are the main cause of environmental damage, and in which humans are the only source of fixing the environment. The folks at Answers In Genesis, for example, warn of “faddish” secular environmentalism. Only God can heal the planet, but humans are charged with caring for it and taking dominion over it. As one AIG article explains,

      Caring for the earth should never be a cause célèbre (as it sadly has become). The command God gave us in Genesis 2 was given for all humanity through Adam. This world is God’s, and we have a responsibility to do all things (including taking care of His property) as if we were doing it for Him (Colossians 3:17). Sadly, we Christians have not always heeded this.

      The atheistic evolutionary worldview can provide no real foundation for taking care of the earth. Life has no more value than non-life—other than the selfish desire to live. When evolutionists speak out about saving the planet, perhaps we should ask them what difference it makes. Without God, our planet is nothing more than another chunk of space dirt destined to be absorbed by the sun one day. No matter what we do, there is no ultimate hope.

      With God, however, our planet is the focus of His love, and our future can be secure.

      • As one who grew up in the “Rapture” theology, the belief was that, since Jesus will reign for a thousand years, the future of the planet is safe. God won’t allow it to be destroyed, so that Jesus will get that millenial (sp?) reign. The reasoning is so circular. What schools need to focus on is critical thinking skills.. Still, as long as families display an aversion to plain old common sense, I wonder if that’s possible. My nephew recently posted a “Second Coming” rapture comment. I asked him if that didn’t point to a third coming, when Jesus sits on the literal throne here on earth. No, he says, because in the Rapture, Jesus’s feet don’t touch down on earth. It’s absolutely maddening.

      • What if he has a recliner throne, or a carpet under it? Then his feet won’t touch the ground then either.

  2. Schools reflect society because they are society. Subcultures and minorities with chips on their shoulders have a hard time seeing this, even in their local communities, because their protest identity depends on having secular antagonists as foils. They may even gain an outsized influence, but nothing short of total control will satisfy them. And once they have total control over an institution, they find diversity and dissent in their own ranks, which leads to purges and splits and perpetual, fissiparous, aggrieved minorities. They can’t be happy any other way.


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