Round Peg, Square Hole

What is the proper role for religion in American public schools? That’s the question historian Ben Justice asked us yesterday at the American Educational Research Association meeting. I’m still stumped. I can’t see an easy way to reconcile the fundamental tension between two contrasting goals.

round peg square hole

It ain’t gonna fit.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the first episode. If you don’t, here’s the catch-up: Historian Ben Justice put together a panel to wrestle with the proper role of religion in public education. Religious studies scholars Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey joined in, as did philosophers Colin MacLeod and Harvey Siegel. And me.

Our panel agreed—public schools need to teach about religion without teaching religion. And public schools need to be inclusive religious spaces. That is, public schools need to welcome people of every faith and none, but they can’t themselves promote or denigrate any specific religion. Sounds simple enough.

But there have always been disagreements and likely always will be. How do we solve them? As Colin and Ben wrote in their recent book, when it comes to questions of majority rule and minority rights, we’re not all going to agree on every problem. Our goal, instead, should be “legitimacy in the face of religious pluralism.”

In other words, people don’t have to agree with various school policies. If they see them as fair, however, as legitimate, then they will go along with them. And that brings us to our dilemma.

For some religious people, the notion of “inclusive” public schools is not a way to talk about the proper role of religion in the public square. Rather, for many Americans, “inclusivity” is itself a religious idea. So instead of having conversations about how we can all be welcomed in our public schools, we end up with a fight between two religions, only one of which admits to being a religion.

Clear as mud.

But it seems a little clearer when we look at examples. We see it everywhere we look. Consider a class in the history of religion, for example. In an inclusive school, a teacher might teach kids about the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She might explain to kids—trying to be neutral, trying not to favor any religion or non-religion over another—about the ways different people at different times believed different things about God and humanity. She might describe the ways Christianity grew out of Judaism, the way different Christians came to disagree with one another. Her goal, she would probably tell you, is not religious. She doesn’t want to preach; she only wants to teach.

For some parents, students, and activists, though, such a curriculum is not neutral at all. They might reasonably want their children to share their belief that their religion is true. For many religious people, the universal claims of their religion are absolutely central. That is, many religious people need to understand their faith as True with a capital T, not only true for them at their specific historical moment.

For religious people like that, a school curriculum that thinks of itself as neutral is not neutral at all. It is teaching, instead, the intensely religious idea that religion is a human invention rather than a divine revelation.

This is more than just an abstract game of what ifs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, in the last hundred years American Protestants split on exactly this sort of disagreement. Liberal Protestants often embraced the notion that their religion was a human creation, or, to be more precise, that their own understanding of religion was a human thing. Conservative Protestants, including those that mobilized as “fundamentalists,” disagreed. Vehemently.

For evangelical Protestants, the notion of an inclusive public square has always been the enemy. It has always been the rallying cry of their religious enemies. As I’ve argued in my 1920s book and my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives—especially but not only conservative evangelicals—have learned for generations that the fight against “inclusion” was a religious fight against a religious enemy.

So how can we get people to think of “inclusion” as a legitimate goal? It will never be seen as legitimate if it is seen as a strategy by a competing religion. What then?

What Should Religion Do in Public Schools?

With apologies to Yogi Berra, I’ll steal his line in this case. I’m heading down to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio. It’s the big one for education wonks and nerds. And it’s a zoo. Like Yogi said, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

crowd

Pardon me, sir, you’re stepping on my PhD.

Why would anyone brave such crowds, heat, and academic foolery? In my case, I’m going because we’ll have a chance to wrestle with the most interesting question in the world: What is the proper relationship between religion and public education in the United States?

A panel of experts was put together by one of my all-time favorite ed historians, Ben Justice. He and his co-author Colin MacLeod just published a terrific book about religion and school. They invited me and my recent co-author Harvey Siegel. We rounded up a few more experts, including Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey.

have a little faith

And you got your church all over my school…or did you get your school all over my church?

I’m looking forward to the discussion. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, these are questions that keep me up at night:

  • Is it fair to creationists to force their children to learn an idea that they find religiously objectionable?
  • Do conservative evangelical Protestants have any special rights in public schools? If everyone in a town is the same (evangelical Protestant) religion, is it okay for the schools in town to lean that way, too?
  • Are public schools really hostile to religious belief? Conservatives often howl that schools are cesspools of “secular humanism,” but are they really?

And so on.

Each of us only gets a few minutes to say some things, then we’ll open up the room to a wider discussion. I’ll have a hard time keeping my opening presentation short, but I’ll try.

Watch this space—I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it all goes down.

Do You APPRECIATE Evolution?

HT: MM

I don’t often wish I went to Yale. To my provincial mind, Yale = The Bad Guy from Back to School. Me, I’m more of a Thornton Melon type. But Professor Dan Kahan’s class on the science of science communication at Yale has me wishing I was there.

Indubitably...

Indubitably…

Happily, Professor Kahan is sharing his current syllabus and reading list on his Cultural Cognition blog. This week, he asks probing questions about the relationship between “knowing,” “understanding,” “accepting,” and “believing” evolution. I’m starting to wonder if we need to add a new word to this list: “appreciating” evolution.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are painfully aware, I’ve got a new book on the subject coming out soon. In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue that science teachers need to be aware of Professor Kahan’s questions. Specifically, teachers need to be aware that there can be an important difference between “knowing/understanding” evolution and “believing” evolution.

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

In a nutshell, we argue that teachers must insist on student knowledge and understanding, but remain intentionally and explicitly neutral on the question of student belief. As sharp critics have pointed out, this might be an impossibly delicate task for classroom teachers who have their hands full with more prosaic questions. As a colleague of mine put it, the most common question most real-world teachers ask is not “Am I crossing a line into ‘belief’ when I should be more concerned with ‘understanding’?” Rather, most real-world teachers are asking questions like, “Is Bob sleeping back there?” and “How can I make this more accessible to students?”

Professor Kahan’s blog reminds us of another difficulty with these distinctions. The belief/understanding split has one meaning among mainstream scientists, but it has a very different meaning among the regular joes in K-12 science classes.

Time and again, smart science types have pointed out that NO ONE ought to “believe” in evolution. That’s not how science works. As FrankL commented on Professor Kahan’s recent post (scroll down to the first comment):

I think it’s entirely possible to understand evolution without believing in it. Asking me “do you believe in evolution?” is, in my mind, like asking me “do you believe in your hammer?” or “do you believe in your computer?”. The answer is no, they are just tools. If they work, I keep them, if they do not, I try to fix them, if they are unfixable, I throw them out. The theory of evolution is just a tool, it should not be deified or demonized or “believed in” or not. Part of understanding evolution is understanding its domain of usefulness. I don’t use my computer to hammer nails, and I don’t ask my hammer for my email. That doesn’t mean they are broke, it means that my tools have limited domains of usefulness. Using the theory of evolution to establish or deny the existence of God, or to determine who is “smarter” is so absurdly far from its domain of usefulness that it would be laughable if it were not so sad, because that’s the approach that the partisans take.

FrankL is not alone in pointing out the central undesirability of “belief” in evolution, even among evolution’s most fervent supporters. A few months back, Keith Blanchard offered a similarly smart argument in the pages of The Week:

So if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t.

To my mind, Blanchard and FrankL have offered wonderfully clear articulations of the difficulties of “belief” from the perspective of mainstream scientists. But that is not the perspective in which we are really interested. What we really care about are the resistant students who fill America’s K-12 public-school science classrooms.

What do we want from those students? We agree with Blanchard and FrankL that no one wants to push “belief” in evolution. But we mean it in a different sense. We are concerned about students for whom the central ideas of modern evolutionary theory have an intensely religious meaning. For those students, to “understand” evolution in the Blanchard/FrankL sense would roughly equate to “believing” it. That is, if creationist students “accept” that evolution is simply the truth about what is unquestionably happening, they must wrestle with a theological crisis.

We hope instead to allow students for whom evolution presents a religious problem to sidestep questions of belief.  Or, to be more precise, we want to move those questions of belief out of public schools and into homes and churches. We want students to “understand” what FrankL and Blanchard are saying. We want them to “know” why evolution has become the intellectual coin of the realm in modern science. But we also want to protect their right in public schools to dissent, to say to themselves, “But it’s not really the truth of existence.”

And perhaps for that we need a different word. A recent lecture by a colleague about the history of literary appreciation got me thinking. Maybe we want to push for student “appreciation” of evolutionary theory. The word “appreciation” might be closer to our educational goal for K-12.

After all, we want something more than for students to just parrot back, “Scientists say that species evolved from a common ancestor. [But only because scientists are deluded.]” We want them to “know” why scientists embrace evolution. We want them to be able to “understand” the idea of evolution well enough to see why it has come to dominate modern thinking in biology.

Do you "understand" this?  Do you "appreciate" it?

Do you “understand” this? Do you “appreciate” it?

When my co-author Harvey Siegel uses the term “understand,” it includes these meanings. Professor Siegel does not argue that students should be encouraged to skate by with a surface knowledge of evolution—one that is enough to pass any state test, but does not properly engage with the idea. Rather, for Professor Siegel, “understanding” evolution must mean grasping the deeper implications of evolution as well.

Perhaps “appreciation” would be a better match for the way most people think of these things. After all, we can all “appreciate” a painting, even if we don’t like it. We can understand where it’s coming from, understand why it has become a famous work of art. We can do all those things—get a profound understanding of the painting—and then say equally truthfully, “I don’t think it’s good.”

Isn’t that what we mean when we say we want students to “know” and “understand” evolution, but not (necessarily) to “believe” it?

Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

What do we want out of America’s schoolchildren? . . . out of America’s creationists? I’m tickled pink to announce that my co-author Harvey Siegel and I have just sent in our final manuscript for our new book, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. In this volume, we tackle these difficult questions head-on.

As we’ve explored in these pages, Harvey and I review the historical and philosophical issues involved in America’s long culture-war battle over evolution and creationism. Historically, I argue, creationism (in most of its religiously inspired variants) has worked like other forms of religious and cultural dissent. Philosophically, Harvey reviews the tricky definition of science, as well as the most common objections to evolution education.

In essence, we argue that the best way to understand creationism is as a form of educational dissent. By defining creationism that way, we can see some directions in which classroom policy should go.Jack chick Evolution

Most important, we argue that the proper aims of public-school evolution education should be to inculcate a knowledge and understanding of evolution. No creationist-friendly variants should be allowed in science classes as science. But dissenting students must be allowed and even encouraged to maintain their dissent. We can’t insist that students believe this or that about evolution. Not in public schools, anyway. We must insist, however, that students know and understand that evolution is the best scientific explanation of the ways life came to be on this planet.

Among the tricky questions raised by our book are these:

  1. Is “belief” an inherent part of good evolution education? That is, should children in public schools be encouraged not only to know and understand certain facts about evolution, but to believe that evolution is really the best way to understand the roots of our species’ existence?
  2. Does it water down evolution education to allow dissenters to maintain their dissent, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence?
  3. From creationists’ perspectives, is it too much to agree that mainstream evolution science really is the best science? Will creationists agree that their ideas are more religiously inspired belief than legitimate scientific dissent?
  4. Can teachers in the real world walk this line between teaching facts about evolution and teaching belief in evolution?

There’s one important question that is less difficult: When will this baby hit the bookstores? Our editor at the University of Chicago Press tells us our baby will be like a real baby: it needs to gestate for at least nine months before it’s ready to get slapped around.

And I’m confident it will attract plenty of slappers.

I Don’t Know What to Believe…

I don’t even know what to know, or what knowing means, or what believing might mean.  The good news is that I’m not alone.  No one seems sure of these things, especially not when it comes to touchy subjects like evolution. But I’m still confident of our argument that the best approach to teaching evolution is to encourage a separation in science classrooms of the need for students to KNOW evolution from the need for students to BELIEVE evolution.

It’s a tricky distinction, and I’m sympathetic to criticism that it may not make a real difference.

Some recent survey results make me wonder if this distinction might not even be a workable one in public schools. In the blog of the National Center for Science Education, the prolific Josh Rosenau notes the results of some survey work from the University of Alabama. In short, the researchers found that the more college students accepted evolution, the more they knew about it. Now, this confounds claims by cultural-cognition guru Dan Kahan that “knowing” evolution says more about who you are than about what you know. It is more a measure of belief than of knowledge.

For a mild-mannered historian like me, these conflicting survey results leave me scratching my head. Not only are we not sure if people need to “believe” evolution to “know” it, but we’re not even sure if we “know” that “believing” and “knowing” go together!

But I can’t just throw up my hands and go back to the archives. This question of knowledge and belief is central to all of us who care about evolution education. In my upcoming creation/evolution book with talented and stylish philosopher Harvey Siegel, we argue that public schools must teach evolution, but they must teach it in a way that separates claims of knowledge and belief.

Because there is one thing I do know, as a historian: Creationism is a religiously driven belief system. It is not exactly science, but this whole foofaroll about evolution education stems from the fact that creationism is a religiously driven belief system with claims to scientific legitimacy.

When it comes to educational policy, we have to make a delicate distinction that is usually lost in all the hot air. Creationists’ claims to scientific legitimacy do not carry any weight outside of their own religious circles. But that does not mean creationists do not have a right in the public square to believe in their own scientific legitimacy.  It means creationists have a right to public schools that do not force them to perform religious acts. Since affirming the truth of mainstream evolutionary thinking would be a religious act for many creationist students, public schools need to be more careful about insisting on such things.

In practice, in public schools, this means we face a situation that makes everyone unhappy. Creationism has no legitimate claim to a place in public-school science curricula, since it is derived from religious beliefs. But public-school science classes (and history classes, and math classes, and literature classes and gym classes) have no right to push creationist students to engage in religious acts, either.

Rather, to be more precise, public schools may teach ideas that tend to denigrate religious ideas. Schools shouldn’t do so casually or glibly, but if there is an important reason, they may do so. However, public schools may not force (or even encourage) students to engage in the (possibly) religious act of denigrating creationism themselves. In short, public schools CAN expose students to ideas students find religiously offensive. But public schools CAN’T ask students to do religious acts. If affirming the truth of evolution is a religious act, then public schools cannot insist upon it, or even imply that such an affirmation is desirable.

Creationists may hate this conclusion. Since the 1920s, anti-evolutionists and creationists have insisted that their beliefs are better science, true science. In court case after court case, however, experts have demonstrated the intellectual paucity of this belief. Creationists may not admit it, but they might recognize that their claims to scientific legitimacy don’t convince people outside of their own religious circles.

And for public education, that’s enough. My religious beliefs do not carry weight—as religious beliefs—in public schools. Even if my religious beliefs insist that they are better science. Or history. Or literature. Or physical education.

But traditional science-ed types will also hate this conclusion. As a set of religious beliefs, creationism is entitled to special consideration in public schools. Though the case law is somewhat mixed on this point, the moral case is compelling: Children of any religious or cultural background must be made welcome in every public school. Their beliefs may be challenged by the curriculum, but students cannot be asked to perform religious acts in those public schools. And acts that might not seem religious to me might be religious to religious people, or even to an imaginary “objective observer.”

Conservative Christians have had mixed results trying to make this case in court. Perhaps most famously, in 1987’s Mozert v. Hawkins, an appellate court ruled that conservative parents could not ban curricular materials they found offensive. The conservative parents had argued that textbooks with references to occult practices, evolution, and impolite children infringed on their rights to religious liberty. The books, the parents believed, hurt their children’s ability to freely practice their religion.

The constitutional complexity in this case was demonstrated by its tortuous path through the court system. One district court judge agreed with the parents on one point: textbooks that say there are multiple ways to worship God really are teaching religious content. In the end, the appellate court disagreed.

Other federal courts have made this difficult point. In another case from Tennessee, Wiley v. Franklin (1979), the court decided that

if that which is taught seeks either to disparage or to encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs, it is constitutionally impermissible in a public school setting.

The rub in these cases, it seems to me, is that courts have trouble defining the boundaries of religion. The final ruling in Mozert relied on the fact that the conservative children didn’t have to do or say or affirm anything about religion. They were only exposed to ideas that their parents considered offensive.

And that seems telling for our case here. Though I may find it a simple statement of fact, the notion that there are many paths to religious salvation has profound religious implications for many people. And though I may find it a simple statement of fact, the notion that the earth is bajillions of years old has profound religious implications for many people. Public schools should expose students to these ideas. But public schools cannot force creationist students to engage in the religious act of agreeing with these ideas.

The fact that affirming evolution is not a religious act for me does not mean it is not a religious act for anyone. For many creationist students, saying that evolution is true is a religious act. Schools can’t insist upon it. But understanding the basic concepts of evolution is not. Public schools must insist upon that.

Though this post is already too long, let me add one caveat. This argument does not agree with creationists’ insistence that evolution is a religion. Rather, it simply says that evolution is an idea that some religious people consider religious. This is a hugely important distinction.

Public schools cannot force students to do religious things. For many students, affirming that evolution is true would be a religious act.

At the same time, public schools must teach the best available knowledge. In science classes, the modern evolutionary synthesis is an example of that sort of knowledge.

So here is our goal: Separate out our demands on students. It is not as complicated as it may seem. Adding two or three little words can do it. Instead of asking students to say, “The earth is millions of years old,” we ask students to say, “Scientists say the earth is millions of years old.”  Instead of asking students to say, “Humans evolved from other forms of life,” we ask students to say, “According to scientists, humans evolved from other forms of life.”

Do I know that this will work? No, but I believe it will help.

Do You BELIEVE in Evolution?

It’s a deceptively simple question and it lies right at the heart of the creation/evolution controversies.  Unfortunately, Keith Blanchard’s recent opinion piece on the subject seems to miss the point.  Not because Blanchard doesn’t understand the issues, but because he deliberately hopes to change the conversation.  But it’s not that simple.  In at least two important ways, we need to wonder more deeply what we mean when we say we “believe” in evolution.

Can you BELIEVE this???

Can you BELIEVE this???

Blanchard writes from the heart of mainstream science.  We shouldn’t say we “believe” in evolution, Blanchard writes.  As he puts it,

if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t…

Of course, we see what he means.  I even agree with his position.  But IMHO, this line or argument is nearly entirely beside the point.  It puts us evolution-supporters in the silly position of insisting that there is no debate about evolution.  Like Blanchard, we mean that the scientific facts of evolution are not open to debate, any more than is the fact of gravity or the fact of blue.

But so what?  How does that position get us anywhere?

Because there IS a debate about evolution, obviously.  Lots of influential people do not accept the facticity of evolution.  They do not accept that evolution explains the deep history of species on this planet.  Therefore, it matters to say that we believe in evolution.  Saying we “believe” in evolution, politically, means taking a stand about educational politics and cultural politics.

On a more basic level, too, saying that we believe in evolution has a value beyond Blanchard’s knee-jerk empiricism.  After all, in our society, we believe all sorts of things about which we only have a tentative or tenuous understanding.  For instance, when we have a serious medical malady, we trust in what medical experts tell us.  Not blindly, of course, but we talk to several experts and decide on a treatment course that seems to make sense to us.  We don’t necessarily understand every jot and tittle of the medical science.  But we take the life-or-death advice of doctors.  When it matters, we trust our experts.

And that is also the case here.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means something different than saying we understand its meaning.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means we trust a certain set of authorities over others.  Not blindly, of course, but in general outline.  So, for instance, when the National Center for Science Education mounts its Project Steve, I’m convinced.  The sheer numbers of mainstream scientists who publicly announce their “belief” in evolution convinces me.

After all, for educated folks these days, the un-interpreted evidence of our senses has long been suspect.  Blanchard writes that we should all trust the “evidence of [our] own senses.”  If we do so, he concludes, we’ll be convinced about the fact of evolution.  But educated people know that their senses might mislead them.  After all, the intuitive case for creationism is very strong.  Things seem to have been created according to some system, some plan.  Creationists might regularly appeal to people’s senses to prove their point, along the lines of Paley’s watchmaker.

As careful studies have proven, people who reject evolution don’t necessarily have a spottier understanding of science.  Contrary to what Blanchard says, people can and often do understand evolution yet reject it.  Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for example, concluded from their large-group study of science teachers that creationists have an edge beyond the logic of folks like Blanchard.  Even among those Americans who understand that mainstream scientists agree on evolution, Berkman and Plutzer found, a large majority prefers that public schools teach both evolution and creationism.  That’s right: Even those Americans who know what mainstream science says about evolution still want schools to teach creationism.

In a world like that, Blanchard’s argument seems at best irrelevant.  Insisting that evolution is a simple fact, either to be understood or not understood, makes no sense in these circumstances.  On the other hand, if we say we “believe” in evolution, we’re doing something important.  Something with necessary political weight.

But there is one sense in which we should not try to “believe” in evolution.  Not Blanchard’s sense, but a more nuts-and-bolts kind of meaning.  As I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel, public schools need to get out of the belief business when it comes to evolution education.  That is, the goal of evolution education must not be to convince students to “believe” in evolution.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure all students understand it.

In a way, this is what Blanchard is saying, but I wonder if he would recoil in disgust from the implications.  Blanchard wants people to understand evolution.  We don’t “believe” in something that is obviously true.  We don’t “believe” in facts of nature.

In contrast, our prescription for public schools is that teachers adopt the goal of leading students to an understanding of evolution, and no more.  Students should be led to understand the principles of evolution, its mechanisms, and its evidence.  If they then choose not to “believe” evolution, that is an entirely private matter, beyond the realm of public school goals.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this sort of “understanding-not-belief” is not what Blanchard has in mind.

What about you?  Do you “believe” in evolution?  What does it mean to “believe” it, rather than to just “know” it?  Or, from the other direction, what does it mean to “dis-believe” it, even if you understand it?

 

Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?

 

Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Okay, so here’s a deal: If science educators in public schools agree to remain neutral about creationists’ beliefs, will creationists allow teachers to teach their kids evolution?

I don’t rule the world, but if I did, that would be my cure for our creation/evolution battles.  Let me try to spell it out in a little more detail:

I’m working on a short book with philosopher Harvey Siegel, tentatively titled Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives.  Why would we attempt such a thing?  It wasn’t our idea.  Our little book will be part of a series cooked up by historian Jon Zimmerman and philosopher Randy Curren.  What if, they asked, what if we could get philosophers and historians talking to one another about educational issues?

This past weekend, the authors of these books gathered for a workshop at New York University.  Harvey and I made our case.  The high-caliber intellectual firepower gathered around the table asked lots of difficult questions.  Hardest of all, IMHO, was the one above: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

In essence, given the long history of cultural battles over the teaching of evolution and creationism, Harvey and I make the following argument:

  • Creationism may or may not be science, but it’s not the best science out there.  Students in public schools must be taught the best science available.  At this point in history, that means the modern Darwinian synthesis.  (Bear with me for a minute here.  I know we can argue about what we mean by this, or whether or not that is the best name for mainstream evolutionary theory.  But for the moment, for the sake of argument, let’s proceed.)
  • Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds.  If we consider creationism to be a form of religious dissent, that sort of attitude among mainstream scientists seems both cruel and pedagogically ineffective.
  • Teachers in public schools, therefore, must teach evolution.  Real evolution, not watered down with bogus religiously inspired alternatives.
  • But teachers must not make any claims on the religious beliefs of their students.  If students acquire a reasonable knowledge of evolutionary theory, their teachers will have succeeded.  Full Stop.  Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.
  • In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

One of the big issues that came up in our weekend workshop was whether or not students and teachers could really walk this line between understanding and belief.  How practical is it to ask students to “know” something they don’t “believe?”  But let’s leave that aside for a moment.  The question I’d like to ask this morning is different.

Assuming teachers could embrace this goal of “understanding-not-belief,” do you think young-earth creationists would go for it?  That is, would creationists who hold ideas that differ radically from the mainstream scientific consensus agree to allow their kids to learn evolution, IF the public schools agreed not to meddle with their children’s religious beliefs about evolution?

Smart people are skeptical.  With good reason.  At the recent blockbuster debate between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and science popularizer Bill Nye, for example, Ham did not take the role of a religious dissident, but rather insisted that creationism meant superior science.  Creationists have always insisted that their beliefs are better science, not just a religious dissent from good science.

So I ask again: Will creationists accept public education that teaches real evolution—and only real evolution—in science classes, IF that education remains stubbornly neutral about related religious beliefs?