Alabama’s Fractured Evolution

So…will kids in Alabama learn about evolution? Depends on who you ask. The state just published its new science standards. If you listen to NPR or read the update from the National Center for Science Education, then the new standards are unabashedly pro-evolution. But if you read the Christian Post, then the new standards offer students a choice. This is more than a question of headlines. It helps us see the tricky nature of teaching evolution and other controversial subjects.



All parties concerned seem to agree that the new standards require more evolution. And they agree that the new standards will move students away from repeating rote facts. The goal of the new standards will be to allow students to get their hands dirty in the evidence itself. As the NCSE describes, [the new standards no longer seem available online], students will soon be expected to

“[a]nalyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection” and to “[a]nalyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution” (p. 48).

For pro-evolution folks [like me], this means kids in Alabama will learn more evolution. As Alabama science teacher Ryan Reardon told NPR,

“I’m gonna let the data smack ’em in the face,” Reardon says of his students. “I’m gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I’m gonna ask ’em what the ramifications are.”

To Reardon, the message of the new standards is clear: His students will be learning the truths of evolution and climate change. But for the editors at the Christian Post, the new standards mean something very different. The Christian Post reported that students would “Decide If Evolution Is Theory or Fact.” Decide. Allowing students to wade into the evidence themselves does not necessarily mean that they will conclude that evolution happened.

NPR wondered why these new evolution-friendly standards passed with so little “pushback.” Why have conservative evangelicals in Alabama seemed so willing to support these new standards? Perhaps the reason is more obvious than it seems. While teachers like Ryan Reardon plan to push students to see the truths of evolution, perhaps other teachers plan to push students to see for themselves the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued, state science standards are not the best predictor of the ways evolution is actually taught.

Alabama teachers like Ryan Reardon will likely guide their students toward a full understanding of evolutionary theory. But other teachers in the state will likely guide students differently. By helping students “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” many science teachers in the state will likely continue to teach a mix of religious ideas in with their state-approved science curriculum.



Certainly, readers of publications such as the Christian Post might not see the new standards as an undiluted victory for evolution. If students are allowed to “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” creationists will be able to claim a victory.

Are the new standards better? For those of us who want to see more and better evolution education, they certainly seem to be. But we need to be cautious about our expectations. These contradictory headlines show that teachers and schools will implement the new standards in contradictory ways.


Do You See Christian Students Acting Strange Today?

Are some students at your local public school lingering around outside?  Holding hands?  Circling the flagpole?

More to the point: If they are, should we be alarmed?

That depends, of course, on your feelings about the thorny issue of religion in public education.

If you see students gathering around the flagpole today, they might be taking part in “See You at the Pole” Day.  According to the Christian Post, this tradition started in Texas in 1990.  Christian students met in prayer around their school flagpole.  The point, according to Doug Clark, director of field ministries for the National Network of Youth Ministries, is to encourage Christian students to come together to ask for God’s blessing on their role as missionaries in their schools.

Clark hopes to see somewhere between 1-2 million public-school students participating in the USA and around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you see some at your local school.

If you do, what does it mean?  For those of us who work for pluralist, inclusive public schools, do we need to be alarmed?  Is this an abrogation of a Constitutional separation of church and state?

I don’t think so.  Though twentieth-century SCOTUS decisions made clear that teachers and schools must not force prayer or Bible-reading on public-school students, they also made it very clear that the religious rights of students themselves must not be violated.  It can get tricky when students lead prayers that seem to have the support of the school administration, as in the recent flap in Kountze, Texas.  Students have every right to wave Bible signs, but they don’t have the right to imply that such mottos are the official dogma of a public school.

In this case, however, students are demonstrating the private nature of their prayer by meeting at the flagpole.  They are leaving the school building, not using any of the school’s bureaucracy to encourage the prayer.  Students’ rights must be protected as they engage in religious activity of any sort.

But what about the “missionary” aspect of this activity?  Students here are not just praying, they are specifically praying for inspiration, praying for the power to convert their fellow students to their faith.  Or at least that is the hope of adult leaders such as Doug Clark.  What about the rights of their fellow students, students of different religious faiths—or of no religious faiths—who might be targeted for missionary work?

Even here, too, we must not fear.  It may be unpleasant for a student to be approached for aggressive evangelical efforts.  But such unpleasantness is not a matter for outside interference.  If a student wants to talk to other students about faith, he or she has that right.  As long as it does not disrupt school activities, the right to make one’s self unpleasant must be protected.  As long as it does not imply that the school itself supports that evangelical effort, student missionary work in public school must be protected.

It certainly makes me personally uncomfortable to think that religious students might target my daughter for outreach efforts as part of her public-school experience.  But I recognize that such outreach efforts are part of other students’ rights.  As long as there is no bullying, no coercion, no disruption, and no implied or explicit support of such missionary work by the school administration, my daughter cannot be protected from other students’ free speech rights.

So, for those like me who want to be sure public schools are inclusive public spaces for students of all backgrounds, if you see groups of students gathering in prayerful huddles around your public-school flagpole, don’t be alarmed.  Students in public schools do not abandon their rights to publicize their religion when they walk through the schoolhouse door.





Postmodern Creationism: A Better Story

Add a new category to the creationist bloc in America: postmodernists who don’t “believe” anything.

Journalist Virginia Heffernan has caused a mini-uproar this week by explaining why she’s a creationist.

In a recent essay on Yahoo! News, Heffernan argued that the stories of creationism are simply more “compelling” than those of mainstream science.  In her telling, she wanted to embrace science, since she loves technology.  But science just doesn’t have the right stories.  In her words,

I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Predictably, science pundits reacted with dismay.  University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne lambasted Heffernan’s “remarkable celebration of ignorance.”   University of Minnesota biologist PZ Myers noted Heffernan’s anti-science history: “every time she meets a scientist she opens her mouth and says something stupid . . . .”

Also predictably, evangelical Christians defended Heffernan.  In the Christian Post, journalist Leonardo Blair noted that Heffernan had become a “lightning rod for ridicule,” but that she has also won support from religious people for “standing by her beliefs.”

It seems to me, however, that both the fervent anti-creationist commentators and the evangelical pro-creationists ignore the central thrust of Heffernan’s essay.  Heffernan is not making a case for the truth of creationism.  Indeed, as she explains, “I guess I don’t ‘believe’ that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale.”  This is not a full-throated defense of Biblical creationism.  Instead, Heffernan is making a case for the plausibility of creationism.

And, as far as that goes, she’s right.  Creationism is more than just a religious belief.  It is a convincing and intuitive way of understanding humanity’s predicament.  This is why leading science educators have recognized that simply pouring more science on Americans will never convince them of the truths of evolution.

Heffernan’s attitude does not result from childhood brainwashing in the Bible.  Heffernan does not howl at mainstream institutions from the wilds of San Diego or Northern Kentucky.  She complains, instead, that it is hard to admit to creationism in New York restaurants, to acquaintances from her jobs, perhaps, at the New Yorker or New York Times.  With her handy PhD from Harvard, Heffernan’s attitude does not come from a lack of mainstream education.

Heffernan’s avowed creationism, instead, comes from an over-abundance of mainstream education.  Her attack on mainstream science comes not from Genesis, as she suggests elsewhere, but from Derrida.

Other creation/evolution commentators have made similar points, without going as far as embracing creationism.  Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, in his book Among the Creationists, admits that creationist explanations of life and humanity are much more appealing than the messy truths of mainstream science.

Unlike Rosenhouse, Heffernan takes the postmodern leap.  IF we have no Archimedean perspective from which we can judge competing truth claims, THEN we are forced to choose between competing narratives.  BECAUSE creationism has the better narrative, Heffernan concludes, she must call herself a creationist.

Plus, it generates better headlines to say “I’m a creationist” than to say “Creationism tells better stories of humanity’s origins, but I don’t really believe those stories, but you gotta admit, they are better stories, plus scientists can sometimes be jerks.”


Phyllis Schlafly Blasts the Common Core

Don’t do it, Phyllis Schlafly warned states recently. Don’t fall for the hoopla about the new Common Core State Standards.

Schlafly is often best remembered for her successful campaign to block the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. But as historian Don Critchlow has argued, Schlafly’s career was about much more than just the ERA.  An examination of Schlafly’s activism can tell us much more about the changing face of “conservatism” in the twentieth century.

Image Source: Christian Post

Image Source: Christian Post

Now Schlafly has joined the chorus of conservative anti-CCSS voices.  As we’ve noted earlier here at ILYBYGTH, conservatives join many progressives in lambasting the new unified state standards, but usually for different reasons.

Writing in the pages of the Christian Post, Schlafly offers conservative parents and voters solidly conservative reasons to get up off the couch and take an interest in their local schools’ new curricular guidelines.  “Common Core,” Schlafly warns, “means federal control of school curriculum, i.e., control by Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.”

The standards will not improve students’ academic performance, Schlafly argues. Nor will they achieve their trumpeted goal of making all students “college ready.”  Rather, these new standards represent only the latest left-wing drive to transform the United States into a “totalitarian government.” In Schlafly’s words,

Common Core means government agencies will gather and store all sorts of private information on every schoolchild into a longitudinal database from birth through all levels of schooling, plus giving government the right to share and exchange this nosy information with other government and private agencies, thus negating the federal law that now prohibits that.

Everything about the standards is “encrusted with lies,” Schlafly insists. The suggested content itself predictably indoctrinates students toward leftist ideas and policies. As conservatives have warned for decades, the suggested readings even veer into the “pornographic.”

So what is a conservative to do? According to Phyllis Schlafly, the new Common Core State Standards represent only the latest effort by leftist federal bureaucrats to seize control of children’s minds. Any red-blooded American must shudder at the implications.