Want to Teach Evolution? Ditch THIS Baggage!

It was never going to be easy. But if we want to do a better job of teaching evolutionary theory in America’s public schools, there is a simple, easy, and obvious step that we should start with. For a long time now, evolution mavens and science pundits have blithely adopted a missionary zeal. It’s not at all necessary and it makes teaching evolutionary theory much more difficult. This week, we notice another example of this awkward tradition.

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Do students see God at work? Or not? We don’t need to care!

The recent whoopsie comes from Michael Dixon, director of the London’s National History Museum. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, Dr. Dixon and I are generally in agreement about the nature of science and of science’s role in a healthy democratic society. We agree that public schools ought to teach evolutionary theory and only evolutionary theory in science classes.

In a recent editorial, though, Dr. Dixon repeated the old mistake, the missionary supposition that has hindered evolution education for no good reason.

In his article, Dr. Dixon wisely pointed out the creeping dangers of anti-evolution teaching. In Israel, Turkey, and India, Dixon notes, the political power of religious extremists has led to woeful watering-downs of evolutionary theory in schools. Dixon asks,

So how should we respond to overt or insidious attempts to undermine this vital scientific concept?

He offers three good answers and one bad one. As he puts it,

We must – of course – teach it in schools as the core part of any science curriculum. And we must speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate. But more than these things, we must inspire children with the sheer wonder and variety of nature, and ignite their curiosity in the world around them.

Teach evolution in schools? Yes!

Speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate? Yes!

Ignite children’s curiosity in the world around them? Yes, yes, yes!

But should those of us who want to teach more and better evolutionary theory “inspire children with the sheer wonder and variety of nature”? Sorry, but no.

Of course, it is not a bad thing to inspire children, but these days, phrases like this are packed with unnecessary and unhelpful religious importance. If we want to teach evolution in creationist nations, we need to get over our tendency to over-reach our true educational goals.

There is nothing religious about evolutionary theory. In spite of what so many radical young-earth creationists say, evolutionary theory does not function as a kind of crypto-religion for secular people like me. Children can earn a thorough knowledge about evolutionary theory and a deep understanding of its premises whatever their religious beliefs.

Phrases like Dixon’s, however, echo an old religious zeal among some exponents of evolutionary theory. There has long been an unhelpful tendency among science pundits to pooh-pooh religious thinking, to assume that people need to pick between their religious beliefs and their knowledge of mainstream evolutionary theory.

For example, in the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Darwin exulted in the religious implications of his theory of natural selection. Did it make for a bleak and loveless universe, as critics charged? No, Darwin argued. Once we really understood it,

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.

In later editions, Darwin made that statement more creationism-friendly, but Darwin’s followers did not. Fast-forward a hundred years, and we see the same sort of irrelevant speculation by science pundits. In the 1960s, for instance, one of America’s leading evolution propagators was George Gaylord Simpson. In his book This View of Life (1964), Professor Simpson went out of his way to bash religious belief. Instead of understanding the universe with “reality and reason,” Simpson lamented, instead “higher superstitions [were] celebrated weekly in every hamlet of the United States.”

These days, the unnecessary and unhelpful tie between atheism and evolutionary theory has been preached most famously by Richard Dawkins. As Professor Dawkins wrote in his book The God Delusion (2006), the goal of evolution educators is to free people from the travails of religious belief. As Dawkins wrote,

a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically—and inadequately—usurped.

Like Dr. Dixon’s, the assumption here is that evolutionary theory can perform the vital task of inspiring us, of making us grasp the infinitude of reality and our own humble place within it. I don’t get invited to their parties, but I would guess that people like Dr. Dixon, Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Simpson, and Dr. Darwin himself believe that young people need to be inspired by evolutionary theory in this sense.

They don’t, and the sooner we can separate out the good goal of promoting real science from the bad goal of interfering with private religious belief, the better off we’ll be.

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Penn Puzzles

Can anyone REALLY teach students how to know and understand something without believing it? That’s one of the questions that sharp students brought up yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania.penn gse logo better

Some context: I headed down to Philadelphia yesterday to talk about evolution, creationism, and the goals of public education. My friend and hero Jon Zimmerman had asked his class to read Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.

As usual, readers were generally more interested in the philosophical arguments of my co-author Harvey Siegel than with my historical chapters about evolution education. Is it really possible, students wondered, to teach students to know evolutionary theory in a deep way, to understand it, without insisting that they believe it?

Harvey and I make the case that it is, but as yesterday’s lively seminar proved, it is a difficult distinction to imagine in many cases.

For example, think about the reverse. What if a public-school history teacher wanted to teach students that American history should be understood as the triumph of “JudeoChristian” values? What if the teacher assured secular parents that he was not trying to force students to “believe” in any particular religious values, but only to “know” and “understand” the importance of Christianity in the forming of United States government and society?

Or consider the challenge for any person—especially a young person—of separating out her desire to please an authority figure from her personal religious beliefs. Is it really practical to tell teachers that they don’t want to influence students’ religious beliefs? That teachers should somehow be able to separate out such closely related concepts?

Most challenging, we considered yesterday other sorts of student belief that teachers DID want to challenge. What if a student in history class, for example, argued that her racist beliefs were acceptable, because they were her personal beliefs? Could a teacher really not challenge them?

I think a teacher not only can, but must. And I think a teacher can do that without therefore insisting that he must challenge every student belief with which he disagrees. As Harvey and I argued in TECN, and as I’m elaborating in my new book about creationism, even though such real-world challenges are intense, it is still vital to clarify our goals and our mission when it comes to creationism and evolution education.

It’s Not about Evolution

What makes young-earth creationists fight so hard against mainstream science? Hard as it is for outsiders like me to understand, it’s not really about evolutionary theory itself, as today’s headlines remind us.ham sex selection

Here’s what we know: This morning, young-earth impresario Ken Ham warned the twittersphere about the dangers of sex-selective abortions. And his warning helps us understand the real issue at stake for most young-earthers.

Ham was referring to a recent article about sex-selective abortions. As Ham fumed,

What a depraved world we live in. Many secularists want kids to decide their gender after birth, but in the meantime many determine biological sex before birth to specially eliminate girls! What a shocking mess when people abandon God’s Word!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will notice right off the bat, there’s nothing about evolution involved in these claims. Ham, of course, would likely say that evolutionary theory is lurking in the background of everything, but this morning Ham doesn’t actually talk about evolution. As usual, today the issue for Ham is not specifically the science of evolution, but something else. So if Ham and other YEC pundits aren’t really anxious about evolutionary theory itself, what are they worried about?

As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, radical young-earth creationism isn’t actually about evolution. It is about drawing a line.

As Ken Ham often points out, the dangers come from two directions. First, there are lurking “secularists” who are trying to deprive Christians of both their civic rights and their religious beliefs. Second, ever since the days of Bernard Ramm (1956), some conservative evangelical Christians have worried that any open consideration of the theological implications of mainstream evolutionary theory will lead to a galloping retreat from faith.

As they have since the days of The Genesis Flood (the 1961 book, not the event), radical young-earth creationists have argued that the only way to preserve true Christian belief is to draw a hard line against mainstream evolutionary science.

As today’s updates show, most of the arguments in favor of young-earth creationism are not really about evolutionary theory itself. Instead, they warn Christians about the likely results of considering the merits of mainstream science.

Instead of asking, “What are the theological implications of mainstream science?” YEC pundits ask, “Do you want to kill more girl babies?”

Religious Extremists Capture Major Political Party

Old news, right? SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear that the Republican Party is addicted to the political support of conservative evangelicals. These days, though, we have a sad reminder of the fact that both major parties can fall victim to special-interest lobbies, lobbies that put children in a terrible educational position.

yeshiva

Who is watching out for the kids?

For Republicans, this is nothing new. For a long time now, Republicans have been trembling at the thought of angering evangelical creationists. The most egregious example, IMHO, was the waffling of former Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, you may recall, was the popular governor of Louisiana who briefly made a bid for the GOP nomination in 2016. No matter what you might think of his politics, Governor Jindal is no dummy. He graduated from Brown with a degree in biology. He went on to Oxford, turning down acceptances at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School. He may not have made much of a splash in the 2016 presidential race, but we can safely assume that Jindal knows plenty about evolution and many other things.

Yet in spite of all his knowledge, when asked what he thought about evolution in 2014, Jindal hedged. Yes, he wanted his own kids to learn about evolution. When it came to public schools, though, Jindal defended the rights of creationists. If a local school district wanted to teach creationism as science, Jindal argued, that should be up to them.

Bad thinking, but good politics, I suppose.

We see a similar tragedy unfolding these days in Arizona. To win election in the Republican Party, it seems, candidates felt pressed to endorse a bigger role for creationism in public schools.

It’s been true for a long time and it doesn’t seem like it is going to change any time soon. The Republican Party forces candidates to ignore their own ideas and truckle to the desires of radical young-earth creationist supporters.

Recent news from my adopted home state shows that this is not only a problem for the GOP. The Democratic Party, too, seems to have entered into a deal with religious extremists. Just as Republican pandering hurts schoolchildren in Louisiana and Arizona, so too does Democratic deal-making hurt kids in New York.

Here’s what we know: Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of a sordid educational quid pro quo. He allegedly promised prominent Hasidic leaders that he would not interfere with their religious schools in exchange for a vital political endorsement.

If it’s true, it’s more than a shame. Politicians of every party have a duty to safeguard the educational chances of students. The schools in this case don’t seem to do that at all. As a lawsuit this summer charged, significant numbers of yeshiva students in New York aren’t adequately taught secular subjects such as English, history, and science. Their curricula for boys focus almost exclusively on studying ancient religious texts.

As the New York Times reported, the state has promised to investigate these schools.  As they wrote last summer,

In 2015, the city Department of Education said it was opening an investigation into about 36 private yeshivas to see if they were providing adequate secular education according to state law. But in the three years since that announcement, the city has not released any results. Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the investigation is still active and the department would deliver the report “soon.” The city has visited 15 schools so far, according to Ms. Rothenberg.

A year ago, when asked when the education department planned to release a report on its investigation, a spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the investigation is continuing. “We are treating this matter with utmost seriousness,” she said.

This month, Governor Cuomo was accused of promising the Hasidic community that the investigation would continue to languish in exchange for the political endorsement of an influential leader in the Hasidic community.

If true, the charges show how difficult it is to protect the educational rights of children. Children don’t vote.  Children don’t meet with governors to insist the law be obeyed. Children can’t promise a solid block of political support in exchange for special favors.

To be fair, I think the GOP problem is worse. But this story demonstrates that the problem is not only a “conservative” one. Rather, any political party risks being held in thrall to special-interest groups, groups that might not have the best interests of children at heart.

Should the Scientists Say It?

Okay, so you know about the ongoing frouforole in Arizona over its new science standards. Recent developments in the case leave us wondering: How should scientists make their case? Why wouldn’t they make it in the strongest way possible?

dobzhansky quotation

…here’s the most famous Dobzhansky line:

In case you’ve been napping, here’s a quick update: The political landscape in Arizona has led to some woeful watering down of the state’s science standards. Concerned scientists have weighed in, pleading with the state board of education to reject the shoddy new standards.

In their letter, the American Institute of Biological Sciences warns,

The proposed standards fail to properly address important aspects of evolution science and remove climate change science from the high school curricula.

Right on. Thanks to AIBS for weighing in. There’s no doubt that Arizona should maintain high-quality science standards.

This morning, though, we have to ask a question. To back up their point, AIBS offers two compelling reasons, but they leave out an obvious third one. Why?

I don’t think it’s because AIBS chose to stick only with science, their area of expertise. After all, one of their main points is economic. If Arizona wrecks its science standards, it will be shooting its economy in the foot. As AIBS puts is,

Arizona has made important investments in its universities. This has enabled companies throughout the state to hire skilled graduates who can leverage the knowledge generated by scientific research to create new products and expand existing markets. Importantly, in coming years, a growing number of jobs will require scientific expertise, even when those jobs do not require a college degree. Thus, it is important that science be properly taught to all students and at all grade levels.

According to the Arizona Commerce Authority, “Bioscience and health care in Arizona are thriving industries, treating patients and conducting groundbreaking research that will change the world. Arizona research institutions, industries and clinical care facilities collaborate in unique ways to create new products and improve care and outcomes.” The Authority reports on its website that bioscience and health care industries generate $21.4 billion in annual earnings for the state, and in 2015 were responsible for about 320,000 jobs in Arizona. Arizona will jeopardize its prior investments and future economic opportunities if it waters down science standards by eliminating essential scientific concepts and fields of study to placate political interests.

Exactly true. The economic knock-on effects of clamping down on mainstream science and science education will be huge. But that’s not the only reason AIBS gives for keeping good science standards.

As they argue, good education itself demands it. All of us should insist on the best for our kids, including the absolute best science education.

They cite the famous words of leading scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky,

“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky offered these words decades ago, but they still ring true. Evolution is required to understand biology . . .

So far, so good. AIBS is 100% correct. Good science education is good in itself, and to be good it must include real evolutionary science. It’s also good for practical reasons, such as booming economic benefits.

But why, oh why, did AIBS leave out the other, screamingly obvious, part of their argument?

Dobzhansky meme creationisst

…Why not use the second-most famous Dobhansky quotation, too?

They could easily have added that evolutionary science does not deserve its reputation as an attack on religion. They could have simply added that Dr. Dobzhansky himself identified as “a creationist and an evolutionist.”

Why would AIBS do so? Consider their audience. If they want to stick to the science, fine. But clearly they don’t. They use economic arguments to speak to all Arizonans. Why not use the obvious religious argument as well? Why not point out that lots and lots (and lots) of creationists have absolutely no religious problem with real evolutionary theory?

How Creationists Win

For those of us who want secular public schools and mainstream evolutionary science only in public-school science classes, the news from Arizona could be either a glass half-full or half-empty. Either way, though, it serves as a clear reminder of how creationism wins.

Here’s what we know: In Arizona, the superintendent of public instruction picked Joseph Kezele to serve on an eight-person board reviewing state science standards. Kezele is the president of the Arizona Origin Science Association. He is an ardent young-earth creationist. In his work on the board, he has nudged the standards toward more skepticism about mainstream evolutionary theory.

To this reporter, the story reveals the most important reason creationists win. As I’m arguing in my new book, it’s not really about evolutionary science itself. Before we get to that main reason, though, let’s look at some of the contributing factors:

1.) Creationists win by being polite.

Kezele’s fellow board members don’t like his radical creationism, but they do like him. As the University of Arizona’s William Roth told the Phoenix New Times, in all their interactions Kezele was “polite and thoughtful.”

2.) Creationists win by taking advantage of their grandparents’ work.

In this case, Kezele has credentials as a faculty member at Arizona Christian University. A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education specifically identified Kezele’s faculty status as the main reason for Kezele’s inclusion on the board.

Though Arizona Christian University itself was founded only in 1960, it is part of the evangelical higher education network I described in Fundamentalist U. Since the 1920s, creationists founded their own network of universities specifically, in part, to provide a home for creationist scientists like Kezele.

These days, creationists like Kezele can only have higher-ed credentials because of the work of their parents, their grandparents, and in some cases, their great-grandparents. The fundamentalists who stormed out of mainstream colleges and started their own schools built a network that is still providing credentials and paychecks to radical creationists today.

3.) Creationists win by not asking for much.

In Arizona, according to Professor Roth, Kezele never tried to “foist any kind of creationism” on the committee. As Roth put it,

I never got the impression that he was really arguing for the inclusion of creationism in the standard. . . . I think he was pretty aware of the court rulings that religion is not going to be taught in science class.

Kezele did nudge the committee, though. For example, Kezele put his feet down to insist that the language be changed. Instead of explaining evolution as “THE” explanation for speciation, the new standards call evolution “AN” explanation. It’s a huge difference, to be sure, but worlds removed from actually adding any specific creationist content to the standards.

Historically, compared to the anti-evolution campaigners of the 1920s who sought to impose theocracy on America’s public schools, today’s creationist activists are fighting for curricular scraps and crumbs.

4.) Most important, creationists win these days for reasons that have nothing really to do with evangelical theology or evolutionary science.

It’s just politics. The superintendent who appointed Kezele wants creationism and evolution both to be included in public school science classrooms. But if she had not been elected, someone else who also favors creationism probably would have. As Arizona Central reported, Superintendent Diane Douglas was re-elected sought re-election from among a field crowded with creationism-friendly candidates. [Thanks to GB for the correction!]

Of the five Republican candidates for the job, four ardently supported teaching some sort of creationism in public schools. They may have had their personal reasons for wanting it, but they also made an obvious political calculation. If anyone is going to be elected in Arizona, that is, she must promise to make public schools creationism-friendly.

The reasons the candidates gave for supporting creationism in public schools were all about culture-war politics, not theology or science.

Candidate Frank Riggs, for example, argued that students needed creationism to be good Americans. As he put it, high-school students

should know what our founding fathers believed and put in our founding documents . . . “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” . . . We can’t skip over that, or we do a huge disservice to our students.

Another candidate, Tracy Livingston, poured some unadulterated MAGA rhetoric into the mix. Why should public schools include creationism? In her answer, Livingston bemoaned the “fact” that

Schools don’t even allow Merry Christmas anymore.

Why support creationism in public schools? For candidate Livingston, at least, it was part of a culture-war playbook. To Make America Great Again, schools needed to give Christianity a special spot. Children needed to be taught in a vaguely Christian atmosphere, one that included creationism.

It’s not science. It’s not even really religion. Instead, the main reason for creationist victories is simple, ugly, culture-war politics.

How do creationists win? Lots of reasons. They win if they are polite. They win if they take advantage of the long work of previous generations, establishing creationist institutions that can provide credentials. They win if they don’t ask for much, but insist on a little.

Most importantly, though, they win because they own the Republican Party in some locations. To win election as state superintendent of public education, candidates raced to out-creationist one another. Creationism has become yet another culture-war red flag. It’s not really about theology or science, but about what side you want to be on.

Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

Creationists’ REAL Long Game

Let me be clear: I’m against pushing religious ideas into public schools. If they were wise, creationists should ALSO be against it. The real long game for American creationists—even radical young-earth creationists—should be to secularize schools, not jam more religion in there.

Here’s what we know: Writing for Americans United recently, Rob Boston warned secular folks like me,

The Creationists Are Playing The Long Game. You Should Too.

From my perspective, it appears Boston is preaching to the wrong choir. Instead of warning secular people about creationist schemes, Boston and his allies should be helping creationists recognize their own long-game interests.

Yes, Boston acknowledged, for the past fifty years radical creationists have experienced a series of crushing courtroom defeats. Nevertheless, creationist activists haven’t given up. As Boston pointed out, creationist and their political allies are trying to water down evolution education or cram creationism-friendly materials into public schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and two counties (1, 2) in Florida.

As Boston warned,

Mind you, this is just a sampling of stories from within the past few years. If you put words like “evolution” and “creationism” into AU’s web search engine, you’ll pull up many more stories going back years. I guarantee that some of the stuff you read will curl your hair.

It’s great that we win in court (although I worry that even that may start to slip if Brett Kavanaugh ends up on the Supreme Court), but the creationists are obviously not daunted by their legal losses. They aren’t going away, so you should not either.

I’m in full agreement with Boston in terms of public-school policy. There is no legitimate reason to squeeze devotional material into public schools, whether it is in the form of teacher-led prayer or religiously inspired science. However, I have two beefs with this warning:

1.) The recent activities of creationists in public school don’t represent a “long game,” but rather a disconnected set of hail-mary scrambles by local religious radicals. And

2.) The folks who try to jam creationism into public schools are not aware of their own best interests. They don’t seem to be aware of the advice of young-earth creationist leaders such as Ken Ham or Don McLeroy.

Again, I’m no creationist, much less a partisan of radical young-earth thinking. But if I were, I would advise my compadres to follow the thoughtful advice of young-earth leaders.

already-gone

Creationists warn creationists: The kids are not alright.

Ken Ham, for example, has made very clear his position that young-earth creationism is a dwindling, minority viewpoint. As Ham wrote in a 2009 book, for example,

six out of ten 20-somethings who were involved in a church during their teen years are already gone.

Too many creationist churches and Sunday-schools, Ham warns, are not actively teaching children an intellectually and spiritually substantial young-earth doctrine. As a result, when young people get the chance, they abandon young-earth thinking. Far from pushing creationist ideas into public-school science classes, Ham would recommend that ardent creationists focus on building their own churches. As Ham put it elsewhere, his job is to serve as a “Nehemiah,” building walls to protect young-earth creationist churches from moral and theological compromise. As Ham expressed the idea,

We at [young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis] are busy “rebuilding a wall.” We are equipping God’s people to defend the Christian faith, and I believe we are doing a great work for God. We are busy being “watchmen”—warning people of those who undermine the authority of the Word of God.

Far from plotting to take over public-school science classrooms, Ken Ham hopes his young-earth friends will build walls to protect the few remaining churches that still teach unadulterated young-earth beliefs. As Ken Ham eagerly tells anyone who will listen, young-earth creationism is a besieged minority position. Time after time (see here, here, or here for examples), Ham and his organization have protested against unfair discrimination against young-earth creationists.

So what? If any creationist stopped for a minute to think about it, he or she would recognize the obvious implications. If their religious ideas represent a minority position; if they are discriminated against by the wider society; if they are besieged wall-builders; if they are losing adherents . . . then their real long game in public education should be to promote a rigorous and unyielding secularism.

Just as other religious minorities throughout American history have been the most ardent adherents of secular public schools, so too should young-earth creationists adopt the long-game strategy of keeping all religion—including their own—out of public schools.

It just makes sense. If creationism is now a minority position, it stands only to lose if religion is imposed in public schools. In our society, majority decisions about school policy will win the day. Yes, in some places creationists can muster up a temporary, short-term, local majority to cram through their religion. That will fade, however. Over time, establishing the precedent of pushing religion into public schools will hurt creationists more than anyone else.

mcleroy

What is the REAL creationist long game, Dr. McLeroy?

I don’t ask creationists to take my word for it. As former Texas state school board chairman and young-earth creationist Don McLeroy told me recently, no intelligent, strategic creationists want public schools to teach creationism. As Dr. McLeroy put it,

All, and I mean all of my creationist friends welcome the mandated teaching of evolution and always have. . . . The number one misrepresentation of creationists is that we want to teach creationism in the public schools. You can search all my public comments and you will never find a statement advocating the teaching of creationism.

When it comes right down to it, the people who should MOST want religion out of public schools are religious minorities. These days, young-earth creationists are precisely that. If they were playing in their own best interests, creationists would hop on the secularism train.

What Are Radical Creationists Afraid Of?

What are radical young-earth creationists afraid of? One pastor’s tale about coming out to his flock as a creationist who accepts evolution gives us a few clues. As always, it’s not actually evolutionary theory people loathe, but something else.

The Rev. Matt Herndon shared his experience recently at BioLogos. Like a lot of creationists who accept mainstream evolutionary science, Herndon began his adult life as a radical young-earth creationist. As he put it,

I had grown up a young-earth creationist, even defending the position in college and my early days as a church planter. Slowly, though, I grew dissatisfied with the scientific credibility of young-earth explanations. Also, it gradually became less and less obvious to me that Genesis was intended to be read as a scientific description of events in natural history. And the scientific evidence for evolution and an old earth grew steadily more compelling.

None of this really challenged my faith, which is not rooted in a certain interpretation of Genesis, but (among other things) in the historical resurrection of Jesus and my personal encounter with divine grace. In fact, opening myself up to the scientific consensus gave me a new pair of glasses through which to see the beauty and truth of Christian doctrine.

Before he came out as an “evolutionary creationist,” his church had been split, he explained, between young-earth creationists, evolutionary creationists like himself, and undecided creationists. He thought that meant he could safely reveal—as a staunch Christian and creationist—his new acceptance of evolutionary theory.

AIG foundations

For radicals, evolutionary theory itself isn’t the problem. It’s what they think evolution supports that troubles them…

He was wrong.

When he recommended a book supporting evolutionary creationism on Facebook, his church splintered. There was gossip, anger, hard feelings, and eventually a sizeable faction of young-earthers left the church. Why?

In Rev. Herndon’s opinion, the young-earthers left because they were afraid of what their church would become. They were afraid of what would happen to any church without a firm young-earth pastor. As Herndon explained,

To them, evolution isn’t one issue among many that Christians should deal with. It is THE issue that Christians must NOT “compromise” on. For a pastor to “compromise” on a literal reading of Genesis is, in their minds, not a disagreement. It’s a heresy.

In the end, it was not the science or theology that the young-earth radicals were afraid of. After all, they had long been members of a church that was divided between different types of creationism. But when the pastor came down on the moderate side, the radicals left. They didn’t stay to debate the science of radical creationism or mainstream evolutionary theory. They didn’t try to help Herndon see the theological problems inherent in his new ideas about evolution.

To radical young-earth creationism, mainstream evolutionary theory is mainly a problem for what it implies, not what it says. For generations now, radicals have told one another that mainstream evolutionary theory is a gateway drug, a slippery stepping stone to a devil’s brew of pernicious ideas and trends.

Back in the 1970s, for example, in the Kanawha County (WV) school controversy I’ve written about in my book about educational conservatism, one of the creationist protest leaders explained what he disliked about a new set of textbooks. The Rev. Avis Hill explained to an interviewer that there was not just one thing wrong with the books.

Yes, the books were bad, Hill explained. They were full of “that garbage, that trash, that four-letter words.” They encouraged students to “act out a street riot.” They encouraged the sorts of delinquency Hill deplored,

students drinking and . . . smoking their dope. . . . leaning against the wall with their feet on the wall dirtying and defacing the school with initials and names all over it.

Some of the people who liked the new books, Hill admitted, were Christians, but they were the sorts of Christians who were friendly to “gays and homosexuals . . . and being proabortion.”

When pressed, the Rev. Hill had a quick shorthand that he thought captured all these dire cultural trends. In the end, Hill explained, the problem with the new textbooks was that they were contaminated by “attitudes of evolution and all that.”

Avis Hill was far from the only radical creationist to bundle together a host of cultural issues under the vague but all-encompassing label of “evolution and all that.” National young-earth leaders such as Henry Morris and Ken Ham do the same.

In a recent edition of his book The Long War Against God, for instance, Henry Morris argued that evolutionary thinking was bad science, but more important, it had

Practically eliminated the semblance of Bible-based behavior from American life.

Evolutionary thinking, Morris insisted, could be blamed for increased rates of

premarital sex, adultery, divorce, and homosexuality. . . .Unrestrained pornography. . . . Prostitution, both male and female, is at an all-time high, as is its attendant criminal activity. . . . [and] this rapid change in abortionism from criminality to respectability. . . . [plus] the modern drug crisis (rock music, peer pressure, organized crime, etc.)

Morris is not the only radical creationist leader to make these connections. As Ken Ham is fond of arguing, evolutionary theory is the foundation on which all other social ills are built. Unless creationists take a radical, fundamentalist stance against moderate forms of creationism, Ham insists, their churches will be lost.

Taking a firm line against Rev. Herndon’s evolutionary creationism, then, was likely about cultural issues rather than about actual evolutionary science. The radicals who left were likely asking themselves the questions they had been asked since the 1960s: Do you oppose homosexuality? Do you oppose abortion? Are you against crime? Drugs? Rock music? If the answer is yes, radicals have heard for decades, you can’t remain in a church under moderate creationist leadership.

Of course, none of those questions is really about evolutionary science itself, but together they give radicals a clear line of defense. Remaining in a church under moderate creationist leadership, radicals often believe, means supporting abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and even organized crime. The only option is to get out before the inevitable moral decline.

What are radicals afraid of? Not evolutionary science itself. They are afraid of slipping into a temptingly reasonable cultural position. They are afraid of being too soft on abortion rights, homosexuality, rock music, and drug use. The radicals who left Herndon’s church did not mind praying with non-radical creationists. But when their pastor came down against radical creationism, they felt they had to get out fast. Accepting mainstream evolutionary science, for many radicals, is not really about evolution, but about opening the door to a slew of cultural trends they find abhorrent.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?