We Don’t Disagree about Evolution—We Just Hate Each Other

Why can’t we stop fighting about evolution and creationism?  As I put the final touches on my new book about American creationism, one obvious but counterintuitive point keeps presenting itself: Creationists love science and want their kids to learn evolutionary theory. So why the endless battle? This morning at Heterodox Academy, Musa Al-Gharbi makes some points about culture-war confrontation that help explain the problem.

ebenezer-exhibit

We all love science, we just hate each other.

Al-Gharbi reviews some of the literature on the futility of culture-war shouting matches. We might think a reasoned, sensible argument will convince anyone who isn’t absurdly prejudiced. It seems the opposite can be true. Studies have found that stubbornness and intractability can increase when people are moreintelligent, educated, or rhetorically skilled.”

Why? Intelligent, informed, sophisticated people are more likely to be committed to ideas and ideologies. They are more experienced at the kinds of mental gymnastics that can help justify and rationalize seemingly illogical positions.

What can be done? Al-Gharbi suggests three general suggestions for improving real communication:

#1: LOWER THE PERCEIVED STAKES OF THE DISAGREEMENT OR CONFLICT

#2: APPEAL TO YOUR INTERLOCUTOR’S OWN IDENTITY, VALUES, NARRATIVES, FRAMES OF REFERENCE WHEN POSSIBLE

#3 LEAD BY EXAMPLE. MODEL CIVILITY, FLEXIBILITY, INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY, GOOD FAITH IF YOU WANT OTHERS TO DO THE SAME

Could these suggestions help creationists and non-creationists talk to each other more productively?

Consider a few obvious points.

First of all, it may seem like a tired old idea to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, but some people out there still don’t get it. Creationists aren’t anti-science. Not even the most extreme sorts of young-earth creationists are. As we’ve seen in these pages, young-earth creationists spend millions of dollars to give their creation museums the look, feel, and intellectual heft of mainstream science museums.

And, as trenchant critics Bill and Sue Trollinger point out, the Creation Museum doesn’t oppose science. To the contrary, the creationists at Answers In Genesis took pains to create something that looks like a “cutting-edge, state-of-the-art natural history museum.” In Kentucky, at least, radical creationists might not agree with me about the definition of good science, but they definitely love science itself.

righting america at the creation museum

We don’t have to agree with creationism to do a better job of understanding it.

Even when it comes to the science of mainstream evolutionary theory, creationists and non-creationists agree on big questions. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve heard from creationist homeschool moms who read Richard Dawkins to help teach their kids about evolution. And we’ve noticed ardent Texas creationists who want schoolkids to read the latest evolutionary science.

If we all want the same things—though maybe for different reasons—why do we keep fighting about evolution?

At least in part, we non-creationists need to take a good hard look in the mirror and see if we’ve been following Al-Gharbi’s advice. Have we tried to lower the perceived stakes of our conflict? Have we tried to really understand creationism and creationists? And have we spoken civilly and humbly to our creationist neighbors?

Too often, the answer is an angry no.

Consider just a few of the most famous examples.

Our most famous evolution mavens tend to speak angrily and ignorantly about creationism. They tend to do what they can to increase the stakes of our disagreements.

Richard Dawkins, for example, repeatedly blasts creationists as nothing but ignoramuses or worse. He tells anyone who listens that a profound understanding of modern evolutionary theory is the best way to cure religious people of their “god delusion.” As he promised about his book of that title, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

It’s hard to imagine a better way to raise the perceived stakes in our creation/evolution disagreements than to insult all creationists and promise that evolutionary theory will lead them to atheism.

It’s not just the irascible Dawkins, though. The friendlier Science Guy Bill Nye also tends to muff his chances at better communication. In his recent book Undeniable, for example, Nye lambastes creationists as people “casting doubt on science and unbelievers.”

As we’ve seen, though, creationists love science. It’s the unbelievers they’re chary about.

What’s the takeaway here? When it comes to our creation/evolution battles, those of us who want more and better evolution education will be wise to avoid these sorts of unnecessary and unhelpful blunders. We should work hard to understand creationism better. We should try to build on our vast areas of agreement instead of focusing on the things we won’t agree about. And we should avoid preaching to our own choir with gratuitous and inaccurate insults of our creationist neighbors and friends.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed news stories you might have missed:

Pro-lifers love the new science, by Emma Green at The Atlantic.

What happened to Crusade University? David Swartz tells the tale of the evangelical flop at Anxious Bench.Bart reading bible

Ohio teacher suspended for telling an African American student he would be “lynched,” at NYT.

How can universities promote intellectual diversity? Some presidents are hanging out with campus conservatives, at IHE.

UK report: Evolution acceptance lower among less-talented students. HT: VW.

What does Queen Betsy think went wrong? Politico describes her latest address.

The danger of homeschooling: LA finds “emaciated children chained to furniture,” at NYT.

Cultural bridge or soft censorship? UMass Boston protests against Confucius Institute, at Boston Globe.

Continuing crisis at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute:

A new Bible bill for Iowa public schools, at Des Moines Register. HT: MC

Who can still love Trump?

Wait…ARE Creationists Just Dumber?

If you ask the Richard Dawkinses and the Bill Nyes of the world, creationism is a pretty simple problem. Those who won’t accept the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory must be “ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked…)”. Those of us who know better have always pooh-poohed such simplistic science chauvinism. We argue instead that creationism is not mainly a question of knowledge, but of identity. A new study from the UK seems to challenge our assumptions. Maybe people who don’t accept evolution simply aren’t understanding it.

Here’s what we know: A group of researchers at the University of Bath studied over a thousand teenagers. Unlike studies in the USA, these teenagers showed a strong correlation between academic knowledge and acceptance of evolutionary theory. That is, students who understood evolution better tended to accept it more readily. Students who didn’t understand it as well tended to dismiss evolution or to say that both mainstream evolutionary theory and creationism could somehow both be true.

Here’s how the authors describe their conclusions:

before teaching, students with low acceptance had lower understanding of both evolution and of genetics; the low-acceptance students sat disproportionately in the foundation (rather than higher) science classes; low-acceptance students showed lower increments in the understanding of genetics; and student gain in the understanding of evolution correlated positively with gain in the understanding of genetics. We find no evidence either for a role for psychological conflict in determining response to teaching or that strong rejectors are more commonly of a higher ability.

We don’t want to jump to any grand conclusions of our own, but it seems for these students at least, better understanding and knowledge of mainstream evolutionary theory really did lead to greater acceptance.

understanding evolution

T’aint natural…

Does this mean UK creationists just don’t get it? I don’t think so. But I think it does underscore the notion that mainstream evolutionary theory is not a particularly intuitive thing. It is difficult for us to comprehend central notions of deep time and population genetics. As people such as Kostas Kampourakis have pointed out in detail, our intuitions seem to point us away from a thorough understanding of concepts such as natural selection.

Are creationists dumber? No. For these students, though, a passing acquaintance with mainstream evolutionary theory apparently led them away from it, not toward it.

HT: VW

From the Archives: Take the Creation Museum Challenge

The Challenge: Can you tell creationism apart from mainstream science just by looking?

[Editor’s note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m almost finished with my book manuscript about American creationism. In this book, I’m trying to help my fellow non-creationists understand the complexities of real creationism. For example, in my final chapter I’m arguing that creationists–whether they are radical young-earthers or mild-mannered BioLogians–can’t fairly be accused of being anti-science. Yet smart, well-informed outsiders keep insisting that they are.

[As I polish up this final chapter, I stumbled across the following ILYBYGTH post from a few years back. I thought I’d run it again to see if anything has changed. So here’s the question once again: Whether you’re a creationist, anti-creationist, or other, can you tell radical creationism apart from mainstream science just by looking?

[Please…take the challenge and let us know how you fared!]

Take the Creation Museum Challenge

We can gnash our teeth.  We can pull our hair.  But no matter what we do, the Creation Museum of Answers In Genesis has pulled it off.  With its new $1.5 million dinosaur exhibit, the flagship museum of young-earth creationism has successfully mimicked the outward appearance of mainstream scientific museums.

Big Valley Creation Science Museum

It used to be easy.  Creationist museums used to be only sad little affairs.  They used to look like this one from Alberta, Canada.  The Big Valley Creation Science Museum, pictured here, may do a great job in spreading the creationism gospel.  But no idle tourist would be likely to confuse it with mainstream museums such as the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History or Boston’s Museum of Science.

It used to be easy for outsiders like me to mock the lame pretensions of the many creation museums that dotted our great land.  And Canada.  As one angry visitor noted, even the bigger creation museums used to have strange, sad displays like this one from San Diego’s Creation and Earth History Museum.

Not a Lot of Big Bang for your Buck

But here’s the new challenge: Can you tell which of the three pictures below comes from Kentucky’s Creation Museum display and which come from the Smithsonian and Boston’s Museum of Science?  As arch-creationist Ken Ham explained gleefully recently, his new display of a million-dollar Allosaurus fossil puts Ham’s Creation Museum in the same league as those mainstream museums.  As Ham put it,

For decades I’ve walked through many leading secular museums, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and have seen their impressive dinosaur skeletons. But they were used for evolution. Now we have one of that class, and it will help us defend the book of Genesis and expose the scientific problems with evolution.

So take the Creation-Museum challenge.  Just by looking, can you tell which of these images comes from a young-earth creationist museum and which come from mainstream ones?  (Don’t cheat.  But once you’ve given it a try, you can click on each image to see its provenance.)

Field museum exhibit

Is this “real” science?

Or Is It This One?

Or Is It This One?

dinosaur hall smithsonian natural history museum t rex 550

Millions of year? …or millions of dollars?

 

This successful mimicry is important.  In creationism’s twentieth-century struggle to establish alternative educational institutions to rival those of mainstream science, young-earth creationists often wrestled with significant disadvantages.  Not least of these were questions of funding, as historian Ron Numbers described in his must-read book The Creationists and I detailed in my 1920s book.  In the case of this priceless fossil, rich creationists Michael and Stephen Peroutka donated it to help the Creation Museum with its work.

It would be nice to think that America’s public would make its decisions about the age of the earth and the origins of humanity by weighing evidence and considering counter-claims.  To people like me, the Creation Museum’s claim that this well-preserved fossil serves as proof of a worldwide flood 4,300 years ago seems absurd.

But I don’t think we need to be very cynical to guess that appearance matters.  As Dan Kahan argues, what people believe about creation and evolution usually has more to do with their cultural identity than it does with scientific evidence.  If Answers In Genesis can make their museum LOOK like the Smithsonian, many visitors will assume it is just as good.  And if Answers In Genesis can crank out peer-reviewed science publications that attest to the scientific veracity of their claims, many readers will assume their science is just as good.

So take the Creation Museum challenge.  If you can’t tell the difference, how can you expect anyone else to?

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

Heading for the beach? Be sure to take along some classic beach reading: Chapter Three of our Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation!NCSE TECN excerpt

The National Center for Science Education has posted an excerpt from our book on its website. I hope this brings in some new readers.

Now all you cheapskates out there can get a taste of our book without plunking down twenty bucks to read the whole thing.

In this chapter, I make my case that the crucial period in our twentieth-century battles over creationism and evolution education was not the 1920s with its Scopes Trial, or the 1960s with its flood of young-earth creationist activism. Rather, if we really want to understand the creation/evolution debate, we have to understand what happened on both sides between 1930 and 1960, when the battle moved out of the headlines.

At least, that’s the argument I try to make in this chapter. It’s no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, but I firmly believe that both sides in our current creation/evolution debate will benefit from understanding a little bit more about each other and about the history of their disagreement. And now, thanks to the National Center for Science Education, maybe a few more science geeks and teachers will check out our book.

The Real Intelligent Designer

Does it matter? Who cares if a gold-medal-winning engineering breakthrough came from a young-earth creationist? When it comes to understanding our creation/evolution debates, I think it matters a lot, especially for those of us who want more and better evolution education in our public schools.

Here’s what we know: Recently, young-earth impresario Ken Ham has crowed about the accomplishments of Professor Stuart Burgess. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.

team-great-britian-olympic-bicycle-display

Reducible Complexity

SAGLRROILYBYGTH and others who share my obsession with all things creationist may wonder why we have to bring up this old chestnut yet again. We all know the script here. Young-earthers will trumpet the few engineers and doctors who hold young-earth beliefs. Mainstream scientists will point to the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve. If there are a few science-y creationists, there are bajillions more science-y non-creationists.

We’ve all been around and around this debate before, but I think it’s worth bringing up again. As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand American (and UK) creationism, we have to abandon the satisfying but false notion that creationism is a product of mere ignorance.

Or, to be more precise, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that there are vastly different forms of ignorance. In some cases, people simply don’t know things. In other cases, though, some types of knowledge are blocked by competing types of knowledge.

Creationists can certainly display both sorts of ignorance. Some of them might just have never heard the arguments of mainstream evolutionary science. But the fact that there are any young-earth creationists who have scored big successes in science-y fields helps prove that the real difficulty results from the second type of ignorance. Creationists can be very successful in society, even in science-related fields, even if they “know” that mainstream evolutionary theory is bogus. Even if we don’t want to admit it, Ken Ham is correct in boasting that “Professor Burgess is definitely both a real scientist and a creationist!”

We don’t need to tangle with the endless debate about whether creationism is real science, dead science, or zombie science. We don’t need to gnash our teeth and exclaim that Burgess’s scientific accomplishments happened in spite of, not because of, his creationist beliefs. The point here is different. The fact that engineers like Dr. Burgess are both successful mainstream practitioners and convinced young-earth creationists matters for different reasons.

Why does it matter? Because it reminds us that creationism is not simply the product of isolation from modern knowledge. Creationists aren’t people who simply haven’t heard about evolutionary theory or modern science. Since that’s the case, we won’t spread knowledge of evolutionary beliefs merely by making it available. We won’t successfully teach evolutionary theory to Americans unless and until we recognize the fact that creationism is more than a deficit hoping to be fixed, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a naïve lack of knowledge seeking the best modern knowledge.

As I’ve argued in my recent book (co-written with philosopher Harvey Siegel), if we really want to teach evolution in this creation nation, we need to start by understanding this central fact about American creationism.

The fact that creationist engineers like Dr. Burgess can have outstandingly successful technical careers serves as more proof that creationism is something other than a lack of knowledge about evolution. When we’re designing bike chains, it doesn’t really matter how old the earth is. It doesn’t matter that mainstream evolutionary theory offers by far the best current explanation of the ways species came to be different from one another.

What does matter—at least for those of us who are trying to understand creationism as it really is—is that creationism is not a leftover from hillbilly isolationism. Creationism isn’t the result of a lack of exposure to modern ideas. Creationism, rather, is a different way of being modern.

The Surprising History of Turkey’s Creationism

A devilish Jewish conspiracy? A beloved Christian import? Recent news from Turkey builds on the surprising evolution of creationism in that country.

Here’s what we know: Alpaslan Durmus, the Turkish education minister, denounced evolution as “beyond their [students’] comprehension.” It will be removed from K-12 textbooks. Durmus explained that the government thought evolution was too “controversial;” that students “don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend.”

Turkish education minister cuts evolution

Evolution’s out

That’s not the surprising part. After all, even when Turkish official textbooks did discuss evolution, they were hardly fair, balanced, or free of religious bigotry. According to The Financial Times, earlier Turkish textbooks warned students that Darwin “had two problems:  first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and misshapen teeth.” The books mocked Darwin’s lack of formal education, noting strangely that he preferred to spend his time with monkeys in the zoo.

For a while, then, Turkey’s public schools have catered to popular bigotry about evolutionary ideas. Turkey is hardly alone. Evolution is deeply unpopular in many Muslim-majority countries. According to Salman Hameed of Hampshire College, fewer than a fifth of Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis say they think evolution is true. Only eight percent of Egyptians do. Turkey is no exception. Just as in the United States, evolutionary theory is widely denounced, even if it is not widely understood. Anxious leaders curry favor with conservative religious populations by throwing Darwin under the bus.

It is not news, then, that Turkey’s government is trying to win support among religious voters by eliminating evolution from textbooks. We might be surprised, however, by the history of cross-creationist connections that have long linked Turkey’s Islamic creationists to San Diego’s Christian ones.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

A worldwide flood of creationism

As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421).

The relationship between powerful Turkish creationists and American creationists thrived. In 1992, a Turkish creationism conference invited ICR stalwarts Duane Gish and John Morris as keynote speakers.  Professor Numbers also describes the founding in 1990 of the Turkish Science Research Foundation (Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or BAV).  In Numbers’ words, “For years BAV maintained a cozy relationship with Christian young-earth creationists, feting them at conferences, translating their books, and carrying their message to the Islamic world” (pg. 425).

However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

It’s not shocking, then, that Turkish and American creationists keep one another at arm’s length, in spite of American outreach to Turkey and lavish and expensive efforts by Turkish creationists to woo American scientists.

Here’s the last question: Will Turkey’s recent move finally convince pundits to stop saying that the United States is the only country in which creationism thrives? Will creationism finally be seen as the world-wide conservative impulse that it really is?

HT: V(F)W; JC

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

Why Bill Nye Won’t Save the World

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show with my kid. He’s great. I wish he would call me up and we could go eat french fries together. But he won’t save the world, for two main reasons.

On his new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, Nye repeats the same errors about creationism that he has always made. At heart, Nye seems to believe that the main trouble with America is its lack of knowledge about science, our “science illiteracy.” Nye plans to save the world by clearly explaining real science. It won’t work.

On episode five, for example, Nye gives a quick description of the long history of our planet. He even goes out of his way to ridicule the notion of Noah’s ark. Where did life on this planet come from? We don’t know, Nye clarifies, but possibly it blasted in from Mars.

This sort of approach will have only a negative impact on our continuing creation/evolution squabbles. It will do nothing to bring good mainstream science to the creationist multitudes. Its only effect will be to cement them (most of them, at least) even more firmly in their dissident notion of young-earth creationism.

Why will Nye’s approach be so counter-productive? Not only because it is so hokey and strained. As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the main problem comes from two common and related mistakes.

First, Nye falls prey again to the lamentable missionary supposition. Like many science wonks, Nye assumes that the truth—the scientific truth—is so powerful that mere exposure to it will convince people of its truth.

The notion is so remarkably naïve that it is difficult to know where to start. Consider the similar case of vaccinations. If people are simply unaware of the existence and benefits of vaccinations, then providing information will help. Especially if we do it in a fun, entertaining way. But if people already believe that vaccinations are dangerous, and, more important, if they believe that vaccine-promoters will be targeting them with fun, entertaining falsehoods, designed to confuse and beguile them…then we need a different approach.

Creationism, especially in its American young-earth variant, is not merely an absence of knowledge about evolution. Creationism is not a deficit. Creationism is an alternate, dissenting social system, complete with its own schools, textbooks, museums, conventions, TV shows, and celebrities.

And that brings us to the second, related problem with Nye’s approach. Not only is his show not spreading knowledge, it is actually building resistance. Like a lot of science pundits, Nye heightens the religious stakes by talking about “saving the world.” Instead of presenting this as a question of cool-headed deliberation and policy discussion, Nye’s apocalyptic attitude reinforces religious resistance.

In other words, by talking in all-or-nothing terms, Nye gives credence to religious dissenters who insist that religious people have to choose between their religion and mainstream science.

What should he do instead? He should not water down his I-F*$%&@9-Love-Science message. He should not imply that different views are all equal. He should not truckle to religious sensibilities by suggesting that all scientific ideas—even creation-science ones—have the same merit.

But he should learn more about creationism and American creationists. If he did so, he’d find out that there are plenty of creationists out there who also love science. Real, mainstream science. He should establish working alliances with those creationists to marginalize radical notions about creation and evolution. He does not need to endorse any particular view. All he needs to do is point viewers to religious people who agree with him.

Otherwise, he won’t save the world.

Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

sexual assault at school

A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.