I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor has been doubly distracted this week. My book about evangelical colleges is entering its final stages and I’ve been poring over copy-edits. Plus, we got to spend time with some long-lost family members. In the meantime, the interwebs kept spitting out stories. Here are some we might have missed, with extra history added in so you can follow along at home…

More trouble at troubled Bryan College. Long-time faculty member fired, anti-administration petition makes the rounds.

What’s wrong with Frances FitzGerald’s new book? Neil Young says it misses the real point of being evangelical.Bart reading bible

Peter Greene: Don’t believe the talk about a “teacher shortage.”

Is evangelical support for Trump a good thing for progressivism? John Fea wonders if Trumpist evangelicals are making their “Pickett’s Charge.”

From the archives: What did progressives think of William Jennings Bryan in 1945?

  • A taste: “The man who had never been a bigot associated himself with the most narrow-minded religious fanatics. The man who had been the apostle of democratic freedom and of public education had become an advocate of governmental restrictions on the freedom of learning. . . . And it’s high time some serious study was given to the social applications of Bryanism rather than of Darwinism.”

Teaching religion in Chicago’s public schools. Is the answer “religious literacy?” I’m still skeptical.

What’s the latest scheme for predatory faux-profit colleges? Fake Latin names.

From the archives: Glenn Branch gets his hands on a rare 1925 anti-evolution pamphlet.

What’s so “classical” about Classical Schools? At National Review, John Miller gives a short history and endorsement.

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.

Created in Nothing Flat

Okay, I’ll bite: What is the difference? News from Denver brings us back to an old chestnut: What is the difference between young-earth creationists and other dissident-scientists such as flat earthers? Certainly, there are differences in political power—we have a young-earther in the White House these days—but is there anything more than that? Or is it all just an accident of history?

The story from Denver’s flat-earth community points out some of the obvious superficial differences. At least in Denver, flat-earthers tend to be far more about government conspiracies than biblical hermeneutics.

And prominent creationists have always insisted that their beliefs have nothing to do with a flat earth. Back in the 1920s, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley fumed and fussed that his anti-evolution activism had nothing to do with “‘a flat earth’ . . . ‘an immovable world’ . . . [or] ‘a canopy of roof overhead.’” Those outdated scientific ideas, Riley insisted, were only used to poke fun at people who rejected the false science of evolution.

These days, too, young-earth creationists at Answers In Genesis insist that their scientific ideas have nothing to do with a flat earth. AIG’s Danny Faulkner admits that there are some similarities between the two views, since both have been ridiculed by people who don’t understand them. In the end, though, Faulkner concludes that most flat-earthers are either kooks or insincere.

Officially, AIG contends that since the spherical nature of the earth can be observed directly, the question of the earth’s shape belongs in the realm of “observational science.” That is, we can trust the mainstream facts in this case, even if we can’t trust scientists who speak ignorantly about “historical science.”

For those who know the history, though, the idea of a flat earth has had a remarkably similar history to the notions of a literal worldwide flood and a six-day creation.

As creationist-history guru Glenn Branch has described, in the 1920s the two movements had enormous similarities. Back then, most anti-evolution activists did not believe in a literal six-day creation. They did not insist that the earth was only about 6,004 years old. But a vocal minority did. Spearheaded by the indefatigable activism of George McCready Price, the ideas of a young earth and “flood geology” grew until they became in the 1960s key litmus tests for fundamentalist faith. (For more on that story, check out Ron Numbers’s masterpiece, The Creationists.)

As Branch describes, back in the 1920s flat-earthers also represented a small minority of the anti-evolution crowd. Like the young-earthers, flat-earthers could claim an energetic and charismatic spokesperson, Glenn Voliva. Voliva crusaded against the notion of a spherical earth. Like George McCready Price, Voliva insisted that he had the Truth, a truth evolutionists and round-earthers were too prejudiced to admit.

At the time of the Scopes Trial, Voliva hustled to Dayton, Tennessee to help prosecute John Scopes. Voliva’s hope, according to author Christine Garwood, was to “eliminate the twin heresies of evolution and a spherical earth.”flat earth garwood

But that’s where the two ideas went their separate ways. Whereas the outlandish notion of a literally young earth came to be accepted as true by large minorities of Americans, the outlandish notion of a flat earth became an internet quirk adopted by basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists.

So I ask again: What is the difference? I have a few ideas that I’m including in my current book about American creationism. In short, I think the answer lies not in dissident science, but in the mainstream world. By the 1960s, fundamentalist Protestants faced a new choice: Embrace mainstream evolutionary thinking and find a way to reconcile it with evangelical belief, or reject mainstream evolutionary science utterly and create a new creationist science.

When it came to evolution, the choice seemed simple, to many fundamentalists at least. Either kowtow to secular science or remain steadfast to young-earth beliefs.

Flat-earthers, though, never offered such a stark and simple choice. Belief in a flat earth (or a geo-centric solar system, for that matter) had always been embraced by some Biblical conservatives, but it never became a litmus test of orthodoxy.

At least, that’s the argument I’m trying to make in my new book.

What do you think?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A few stories from the interwebs this week that might be of interest to SAGLRROILYBYGTH:

Can a public university have a Christian chapel? East Central University in Oklahoma goes back and forth.

Culture-war category bashers: Pro-life feminists.Bart reading bible

Historian Chris Gehrz: Don’t forget about America’s tradition of Christian communism.

Celebration or segregation? A skeptical look at separate graduation ceremonies.

What do high-school students want? The Fordham Institute’s study of student types.

Ole Miss takes the plunge: Changing the name of Vardaman Hall & putting up slave-labor historical notices.

When Queen Betsy asked for suggestions, people listened. Politico tallies the comments so far.

Hobby Lobby Bible Museum hits a snag: Forced to return artifacts to Iraq.

Who was the first American philosopher to tackle creationism? Glenn Branch finds a new historical clue.

A week late, but still worth reading: Cara Burnidge compiles great takes on “America.”

Experts Agree…

I’m delighted to report that we’ve got some blurbs up for our new book, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.  I’m thrilled to see such great recommendations from two people who know the most about America’s evolution/creation debate.

glenn branch

You know it’s big when you have your own cartoon portrait…

First, some background.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I have a new book coming out in February, co-authored with philosopher Harvey Siegel.  In this book, we discuss the history of America’s modern evolution/creation debates.  We also explore the philosophical issues involved with teaching evolution and creationism.  Finally, we offer a recommendation or two for teaching evolution in a way that is scientifically credible and culturally sensitive.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

Have you read it yet?

Thanks to the work of our publisher, University of Chicago Press, we now have blurbs from Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education and Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. You may know Branch’s work on the Science League of America blog.  Or you may have read his book Not in Our Classrooms.  In any case, nobody has a better sense of the issues involved in today’s evolution/creation debates than does Glenn Branch.

And nobody knows the history better than Professor Numbers.  I’m biased, of course, because Ron was my grad-school mentor and he continues to be my friend and role model.  But you can ask anyone: Ron’s book The Creationists is the first and last word on the subject.

So of course I’m tickled pink to share their blurbs for our new book:

Glenn Branch, deputy director, National Center for Science Education
“What do you get when you cross a historian and a philosopher? If it’s Laats and Siegel, the answer is Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Thoughtful and provocative, historically detailed and philosophically informed, this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the conflict over evolution education in the United States.”
Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design
Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides not only a readable and reliable survey of past encounters but a sensible guide to future practices. Rather than promoting public-school classrooms as pulpits for converting skeptical students to evolution (which has rarely proved an effective technique in any case), they recommend helping students to understand the arguments and evidence for evolution. This book should be required reading for all evolution educators.”

Pshaw!

Creationist Credentials and the Toilet-Paper Doctorate

What does it take for a creationist to earn a PhD?  As arch-anti-creationist Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, not a whole lot.  Coyne looked at the embarrassingly weak doctoral work of young-earth creationist Kent Hovind.  This sham dissertation leads us to ask again about the paradoxical relationship between creationism and credentials.

patriot bible university

Hovind’s Alma Mater

It does not take a creationist-hater like Professor Coyne to find big problems with Hovind’s doctoral work.  Hovind cranked out a hundred awkward pages of claptrap about creationism under the auspices of Patriot Bible University of Del Norte, Colorado.

Intelligent creationists might cringe at this sort of hucksterism, with good reason.  It allows even the most accomplished creationists, such as Harvard-educated Kurt Wise, to be lumped together with this sort of snake-oil academic flim-flam.

Throughout the history of the creation/evolution debates, creationists have struggled to prove their intellectual bona fides.  It hasn’t been easy.  For the first generation of modern anti-evolutionists, it came as a surprise to find that their ideas no longer held sway at leading research universities and intellectual institutions.

As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education demonstrated recently, this 1920s revelation led anti-evolutionists to scramble for certifiable creationist experts.  The most famous anti-evolutionist of the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, groped awkwardly among scientists to find some who opposed “Darwinism.”

Bryan wasn’t alone.  As I note in my 1920s book, all the anti-evolution activists of the 1920s were obsessed with demonstrating that creationism[*] had expert support.  T.T. Martin, for example, who attracted attention with his eye-catching booth at the 1920s Scopes monkey trial, listed his expert supporters relentlessly.  In his book Hell and the High School, 67 out of 175 pages consisted of nothing more than lists of anti-evolution experts and their backgrounds.

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Another anti-evolution activist from the 1920s showed similar determination.  On a typical page of Alfred Fairhurst’s Atheism in Our Universities, Fairhurst included only 23 original words.  The remaining 107 consisted of quotes from “leading writers on evolution.”

Writing in 1922, Arthur Brown used the same tactic.  He piled up impressive-sounding lists of experts and scientists who disputed evolution.  Why should readers accept evolution, Brown asked, when it had been discarded by the likes of

world-renowned men like Virchow of Berlin, Dawson of Montreal, Etheridge of the British Museum, Groette of Strassburg University, Paulson of Berlin, Clerk Maxwell, Dana, Naegeli, Holliker, Wagner, Snell, Tovel, Bunge the physiological chemist, Brown, Hofman, and Askernazy, botanists, Oswald Heer, the geologist, Carl Ernst von Baer, the eminent zoologist and anthropologist, Du Bois Reymond, Stuckenburg and Zockler, and a host of others. . . .  It seems to be a fact that NO opinion from whatever source, no matter how weighty or learned, is of any account with those who are consumed with the determination to reject the Bible at any cost, and shut God out of His universe.

As I traced in my 1920s book, following the work of historian Ron Numbers, this impressive-sounding list did not really make the point Brown hoped it would.  The names he listed came from earlier generations or from scientists who agreed with evolution’s broad outlines but disagreed on details.  But Brown, like Bryan, Martin, Fairhurst, and virtually all other creationist activists felt compelled to establish the academic credentials of anti-evolutionists.

Hovind’s case reminds us of this peculiar conundrum of credentials among creationists.  One does not have to be an evolutionary bulldog like Professor Coyne to find Hovind’s academic pretensions silly and reprehensible.  Hovind’s work certainly gives skeptics such as Professor Coyne an easy route of attack.

For those of us who don’t care to attack or defend creationism, though, Hovind’s doctoral ouvre offers different lessons.  Once a dissenting group has been turned away from mainstream institutions, credentials become both more precious and easier to attain.  At least since the 1920s, that is, anti-evolutionists have scrambled to find expert backing for their beliefs.  But once creationism had been kicked out of elite research universities, it became far easier for creationists to claim credit for academic work at bogus universities.  If universities themselves are suspect, in other words, the ridiculousness of diploma mills like the Patriot Bible University becomes less damning.

[*] The term “creationism” is an anachronism here.  Anti-evolutionists in the 1920s did not call their beliefs “creationism” yet.  But I’ll use it just to keep things readable.

Holocaust Denial, Evolution Denial, and “Teaching the Controversy”

Should students learn to think critically in schools?  Should they learn about both sides of controversial issues?  This morning at the National Center for Science Education blog, Glenn Branch compares creationists’ fondness for “teaching the controversy” to an explosively controversial history lesson from California.  For those of us interested in conservative ideas about schooling, this recent flap again demonstrates the ways “conservative” and “progressives” have swapped sides on this issue.

In the Rialto (California) Unified School District, eighth-grade students were asked to evaluate the arguments for and against the existence of the Holocaust.  “When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence,” the assignment reads, according to the San Bernardino County Sun.

For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.

When the story came out about ten days ago, some conservative pundits tried to use this as proof of the moral monstrosity concealed in the Common Core State Standards.  The standards, some said, pushed school districts into adopting such terrible ideas as Holocaust denial.

Glenn Branch asks a different question.  How is this example of teaching “critical thinking” any different from creationist attempts to have students evaluate evolution and creationism side by side?  In both cases, students are encouraged to look at evidence.  Students are prompted to evaluate arguments and come to their own decisions.

But in the case of Holocaust denial, one side of the balance sheet has been thoroughly discredited.  It is not morally or educationally appropriate to ask students to decide whether or not the Holocaust happened, critics insist.  One of the sources students were given in this assignment stated the following:

With all this money at stake for Israel, it is easy to comprehend why this Holocaust hoax is so secretly guarded. In whatever way you can, please help shatter this profitable myth. It is time we stop sacrificing America’s welfare for the sake of Israel and spend our hard-earned dollars on Americans.

Offering students these sorts of false, hateful lies as “sources,” critics say, demeans the idea of pushing students to think critically.  If creationists thought that students should really explore every side of every issue, even sides with no intellectual or moral legitimacy, Branch argues,

then they should have been enthusiastically supporting the Rialto assignment. It’s to their moral credit that they weren’t, of course, but it proves—as if proof were needed by now—that “teach the controversy” and the like are merely rhetorical legerdemain intended to distract the spectator from the intellectual hollowness of the proposals they are supposed to support.

To suggest that schools ought to “teach the controversy” when there is in fact no controversy among mainstream scientists, Branch concludes, is just as bogus as having students evaluate the claims of Holocaust deniers.

The historian in me can’t help but notice the flip-flop we’ve seen over the course of the twentieth century.  In 1925, it was the pro-evolution side who pleaded with America to consider both sides in public schools.  Most famously, Scopes-trial attorney Dudley Field Malone begged the nation to allow the teaching of evolution.  “For God’s sake,” Malone implored, “let the children have their minds kept open.”  Ironically, as historian Ronald Numbers pointed out in Darwin Comes to America (pg. 91), later creationists adopted Malone’s plea as their own.

This is one of the themes I’m working with in my upcoming book.  Back in the 1920s, it was the conservative side of school battles who protested that these were false choices.  In 1929, for instance, the staunchly conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned DAR members that progressives sneakily insisted on teaching both sides of every issue.  Such choices, she warned, were false ones.  Even to ask the questions tipped students away from truth and morality.  As she memorably argued,

Flagrant cases of un-American tendencies have been brought to light and exposed.  Exotic theories are promulgated in the name of science.  Disdain for law and order, and contempt for our accepted form of Government are subtly injected into the teachings of history.  Such practices are defended by the advancement of the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.  This may be the proper system for the seasoned adult who presumably can, if he will, revoke his errors when faced with the consequences of an unwise choice.  With the young, the chances are too great, for there a dangerous inequality exists.  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, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.  Why then apply the very opposite theory when dealing with the delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind? (Emphasis added.)

With this historical lens, it seems doubly apparent that the argument for teaching both sides of any tricky issue has always been politically popular among Americans.  If there’s a controversy, many Americans have always agreed, let children hear both sides.

Back in the 1920s, progressives and evolution educators tried to make this case.  Let children hear about socialism and evolution, progressives pleaded.  At least allow schools to teach the controversy.  Back then, conservatives made the case that one side of those ideas was not equal.  To offer students both candy and cigars to choose from, as our DAR leader insisted, was a false choice, a false controversy.

Today, the sides have switched but the argument has not.  One side argues to let children hear both sides of a controversial issue and decide for themselves.  The other side insists that only one side has any truth, any intellectual legitimacy.

Me personally, I agree that Holocaust denial and evolution denial ought not be offered as equals to better history and better science.  But I know many readers might disagree.  How can creationists defend the legitimacy of “teaching the controversy” when most scientists agree that there is no controversy?  Is it like offering children a choice between heroin and citrus fruits?  Milk and coffee?  Candy or cigars?

 

Climate Change in Schools? Not If Fox News Can Stop It

How do conservatives feel about climate-change curriculum for public schools?  The only good climate-change curriculum, they might say, is a dead climate-change curriculum.

We saw a telling example recently of this sentiment.  Fox News host Stuart Varney warned viewers recently that the Environmental Protection Agency was filling kids’ minds with all kinds of climate-change malarkey.  The watchdog Media Matters included Varney’s warning in a compilation of Fox climate-change riffs.  (It’s the first video clip on the MM page.)

Varney was reacting to a new set of climate-change lesson plans made available by the EPA.  Bad enough, Varney exclaimed, that such pernicious ideas had penetrated public education.  But even worse was the fact that such notions had been peddled by a bloated tentacle of the federal octopus.

The problem with this sort of federal overreach, guest Monica Crowley insisted, was that “We are paying for the indoctrination of these kids.”

The federal government ought not use taxpayer money to fund such controversial anti-science, Crowley warned.  The science itself was ridiculous, she insisted.  But worst of all was the fact that the federal government used taxpayer dollars to undermine proper public education.  As she concluded, “We wonder what kind of propaganda they’ll be teaching our kids, on our time.”

Host Stuart Varney agreed.  “And it is propaganda,” he insisted.  “On our time and our money.”

What can this sort of school jeremiad tell us about conservatism and American schooling?  I have two comments and I invite others.

First, we can see from this brief clip how climate change stands poised to become the new contentious science issue in America’s schools.  Conservative traditions of opposition to evolution education seem to be retooling for an eerily similar fight over the science of climate change.  Science-education activists such as those in the National Center for Science Education have warned about this for a while now.  Indeed, the NCSE’s Glenn Branch recently called climate change the “second front” in the culture wars over science education.

Second, Varney and Crowley offer us a near-perfect demonstration of a long tradition in conservative educational activism.  We might call this the “Not In My Kids’ School” (NIMKS) tradition.  Just as protesters have often fought against bad influences in their own back yards, so have conservatives often presented cultural issues as a threat to young people.  This rhetoric hopes to energize conservatives to fight against educational programs on the threat that such programs will soon be spreading their dangerous tentacles into schools everywhere.  Bad ideas are bad enough, the thinking goes.  But such notions are far worse, far more menacing, far more likely to mobilize activists, if such ideas can be portrayed as meddling with the minds of innocent young people.