The Trauma of Evolution

Can we educate by banning ideas?  For one group of conservative Christian homeschoolers, proper education means banishing lots of ideas.  How can progressive educators like me understand this impulse to put up intellectual walls around young people’s minds?  I wonder if some creationists view exposure to evolutionary ideas as a form of trauma, an entirely harmful experience.

The Finish Well homeschooling conference, in the words of its organizers, “is designed to equip homeschooling families to confidently homeschool the high school years for the glory of God!”

One of the ways the conference promises to help attendees is by purging the atmosphere of any hint of evolution.  In order to secure a table at the conference, vendors are required to agree to the following statements:

“1) Scripture teaches a literal 6 day creation week, a young earth of approximately 6,000 years, and a literal understanding of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day. 2) The Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. It is inerrant and our ultimate authority in what we believe and how we live. Any speakers who contradict these two truths during their speaking session will be immediately asked to leave.”

Clearly, the goal of Finish Well is not only to keep out evolution.  Any other explanation about humanity’s origins will be verboten as well, including the evolutionary creationism of folks such as Darrel Falk or the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement.

This notion of proper education is one of the hardest intellectual nuts for progressive educators like me to crack.  How are we to understand this idea that good education means hiding important ideas away from young people?  My first reaction, my gut reaction, is that this is precisely the sort of totalitarian impulse that kills any real education.  This sort of intellectual protectionism smacks of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.  To me, and to lots of people, one of the first rules of true liberal education means opening intellectual doors, not bricking them up.  Real education, in my opinion, means allowing young people to explore a variety of ideas, to make up their own minds.

But in the conservative tradition, an important aspect of improving education has long consisted of the effort to remove “dangerous” ideas from the educational mix.  For generations, various types of conservative activists have insisted that simple exposure to certain ideas represented a danger—something from which young people had to be protected.

This idea played a big part in the first “creationist” controversies in the 1920s, as I explored in my 1920s book.  One of the public leaders of the anti-evolution movement of that decade was populist politician and former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan condemned the notion that good education meant a willy-nilly exposure to perfidious ideas.  In a battle with the University of Wisconsin over the teaching of evolution on campus, Bryan offered this sarcastic advertisement for the college:

“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 witness the spectacle.”  [SOURCE: William Jennings Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner (June, 1921): 3.]

For my current book, I’m exploring the longer history of conservative educational activism.  This notion of proper-education-as-protection echoed throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, Grace Brosseau, President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, argued that young children ought not be harmed by “the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.”  Such modern theories of education, Brosseau insisted, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of childhood and the responsibilities of education.  As she explained in 1929,

“One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.”

Instead, parents and teachers must give students only what students need to develop the “delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind.” [SOURCE: “The 38th Continental Congress, N.S.D.A.R.,” DAR Magazine 63 (May 1929): 261-271.]

More recently, the late Mel and Norma Gabler echoed this notion that proper education meant protecting young people from dangerous ideas.  In their 1985 book What Are They Teaching Our Children, the Gablers compared modern teaching to letting young children float in dangerous seas in flimsy lifeboats.  Modern teachers, the Gablers argued, too often allowed children to drift near sharp reefs and crashing waves, without offering any sort of guidance.  The teachers knew the rocks were there, the Gablers argued, yet these ‘progressive’ teachers did not see fit to warn the students.  Better for the students to ‘discover’ such dangers for themselves.  The Gablers asked, “Has the instructor gone mad?” (pg. 99).

For the Gablers, as for Bryan, Brosseau, and the organizers of the Finish Well conference, the notion that some ideas must be hidden from children made perfect sense.  For those like me who don’t agree, perhaps one key to understanding might come from the school controversies of the 1920s.  During that decade, many state lawmakers proposed bills that promised to keep certain ideas out of children’s paths.  One 1927 bill in Florida would have banned “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter” [Florida House Bill 87, 1927].

To the authors of this bill, evolution and atheism could be treated the same way as “obscene” material.  To those 1920s legislators, it made sense to keep obscene materials out of the hands of school children.

I agree that young people ought not be exposed to “obscene” materials.  And maybe this is the way for folks like me to understand the conservative impulse to keep some ideas out of schools.  After all, all of us—not just conservatives or fundamentalists—agree that some things must be kept from children.  No one wants young people to view a lot of hard-core porn at school, for instance.  Nor do we think that children should see graphic violence.  Exposure to such things seems traumatic.

Is this the key to understanding the conservative insistence on keeping certain ideas out?  For some young-earth creationists, mere exposure to evolutionary ideas represents a danger to their young children.  It might be that such conservatives view exposure to evolutionary ideas as an intellectual trauma, a theological trauma.  Such ideas might be ‘out there’ in the world, just like genocide, rape, and lynching might be ‘out there,’ but that does not imply that education must include graphic exposure to them.

Is this the way to understand Finish Well’s prohibition of any hint of evolution?  I’d love to hear from those who believe that young people should be protected from such ideas.