Forget Benedict, It’s the DeVos Option

You’ve heard it by now: Rod Dreher is pushing a “Benedict Option” for religious conservatives. He wants the good people of America to pull back from mainstream society into purer enclaves. When it comes to our long-simmering creation/evolution debates, that sort of BO has never really been necessary. And Trump’s latest executive order makes it even less so. Why would creationists retreat when they’ve already won?

berkman plutzer REAL chart

Traditional schools, traditional teachers, traditional “science”

In case you haven’t seen it yet, President Trump has continued his charm offensive with America’s conservatives. In his latest executive order, he has promised conservatives something they have long yearned for: greater local control of public education. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos will conduct a 300-day study into the issue. She is charged to find ways to limit the influence of the federal government in local schools.

As DeVos crowed, this order gives her

a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached. . . . And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.

Obviously, there are enough dog-whistles in there to win an Iditarod. Conservative activists have long yearned to shackle the federal education bureaucracy. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, since the 1930s conservatives have looked askance at federal control of local schools. Time and time again, distant experts have advocated more racial integration, more evolution, and more multiculturalism in K-12 schools. Time and time again, state and local officials have pushed back, fighting for more religion, more segregation, and more traditionalism.

In the specific case of evolution and creationism, creationists have always worried that outside control meant more evolution. Back in the 1920s, for example, anti-evolution leader William Jennings Bryan railed endlessly about the infamous influence of outside “oligarchs” on local schools. The local hand that wrote the paycheck, Bryan insisted, must rule the schools.

Bryan wasn’t alone. In North Carolina, anti-evolution activists blasted their university president for pushing evolution into their flagship public state university. President Harry Chase, they charged, was nothing but a “damn Yankee,” messing up local schools by importing “modernists, Darwinian apologists, and Northerners.”

In the case of evolution education, though, creationists have always had the last laugh. Yes, conservatives have worried about the influence of outside experts. But in most schools, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, local values dominate. Local attitudes were the most important factor, they found, in determining how much creationism was taught in public school science classes. As they put it,

Traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture (pp. 199-200).

In communities that favor creationism, teachers teach it. In communities that are on the fence, teachers mumble about it.

So why would creationists ever want to retreat to Benedictine purity? They have already won. And, as Secretary DeVos promises even greater local control, creationists have even more cause to celebrate. As young-earth activist Jay Hall put it recently, “we support the efforts of the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice.”

More choice plus more local control equals more creationism.

So, though there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to head for the hills, evolution education ain’t one of em. Local schools have always allowed local creationists to dictate the goings-on in most science classes.

And Secretary DeVos’ new local imperative seems destined to only make local creationist control stronger.

What We Don’t Know about School Is Killing Us

If someone is running toward a cliff, what should you do?  You might grab them.  You might yell at them to stop.  If you had time, you might build a wall to block them from certain death.  What would a school do?  Make available a brochure clearly describing the dangers of falling off cliffs.

It’s a stupid analogy and I’m sorry about that.  But it is not too far from the truth about school and the dunderheaded way we Americans tend to think about the relationship between school and education.  People tend to think school is a place where students line up and receive necessary information.  They think that making information mandatory in school means that they have successfully educated the populace.  That’s not really how it works and our society’s ignorance about it is literally a life-or-death problem.

Here’s the latest example: According to Politico, several states have passed new laws mandating education in public schools about the dangers of opioid addiction.  No one doubts the dangers of such drugs.  Nor do we dispute the notion that government can and should take action to help solve the problem.  We don’t even argue that schools can’t play a central role.

Too often, though, even in these sorts of life-and-death situations, government officials think they can solve problems by simply cramming new mandatory topics into school curriculums.  They think that by mandating school-based classes about opioid addiction, they have successfully educated children about it.

Consider the efforts in Michigan, for example.  Like people in a lot of states, Michiganders are rightly concerned with the dangers of opioid addiction, especially among young people.  State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker has proposed a bill to introduce information about opioids into the state’s required health curriculum.  As she puts it, “Our youth, they need to become educated upon the addictive nature of opioids.”

Fair enough.  But Senator Schuitmaker and others like her seem to be stubbornly resistant to the depressing truth.  Putting information into mandatory school curriculums does not equal education.  Just passing a law requiring schools to deliver certain information does not mean that young people have been educated about it.

That’s just not how it works.

The evidence is obvious and irrefutable for anyone who bothers to look.

Consider the case from the world of sex education.  As Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his terrific recent book Too Hot to Handle, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s prompted a uniquely American response.  In Scandinavia, governments embarked on a broad program to encourage condom usage and discourage risky sexual behaviors.  In the United States, in contrast, governments mandated information about HIV be included in school health classes. zimmerman too hot to handle

It didn’t work.  And it won’t, because in spite of what so many of us think, school curriculums are not the same thing as education.  Where do people learn about sex?  Not—NOT—from their fifth-grade Gym teacher.  No matter how comprehensive a sex-education curriculum is, no matter how carefully a state legislature insists that sex-ed classes must include true information about HIV, most young people will learn far more about sex and HIV from other sources.

We could give more examples if we needed to.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found when it came to teaching evolution in public schools, mandating evolution in state curriculums was not the most helpful factor.  Rather, teachers tended to teach what their community believed, no matter what the state-mandated curriculum included.

Evolution Creationism Berkman Plutzer

The same is true with the equally desperate problem of opioid addiction.  Simply cramming mandatory information about the dangers of opioids into health curriculums will not do anything to address the real problem.  It is the equivalent to the stupid analogy I started with: printing up brochures about the dangers of cliffs when someone is running straight toward one.  Mandating that those brochures be made available to every student in every public school.

This does not mean that schools cannot play a vital role in real education about the dangers of opioids.  Consider the much smarter example of West Virginia.  In that state, school-reform efforts take a much wiser view.  How are Mountaineer schools responding to the dangers of opioid abuse?  For one thing, they are paying for programs that will educate more drug counselors and encourage them to stay and work in West Virginia.  They are funding programs that help addicts deal with the full complexity of their addictions.  They are even rehabbing old schools and turning them into comprehensive treatment centers.

Such programs are much more expensive than simply mandating “coverage” of opioid information in public-school health classes.  But unlike fast-and-dirty curricular solutions, such programs actually stand a chance of helping addicts and potential addicts.

When it comes to life-and-death problems such as opioid addiction, simply insisting that schools add new curriculum is a cowardly and ineffective approach.  It only serves to let lawmakers brag that they have addressed the issue, when in fact they have done nothing at all.

Alabama’s Fractured Evolution

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Here’s Why Public Schools Will Never Eliminate Creationism

If the spotlight-loving science pundit Lawrence Krauss really thinks public schools can eliminate creationism in one generation, he’s off his rocker. But he’s in good company. Through the years, all sorts of writers and activists have made grandiose plans to use public schools for one sweeping reform or another. Unfortunately for them, that’s just not how America’s schools work.

The original bus from hell...

The original bus from hell…

To be fair, in the Krauss quotation pirated here by the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, Krauss does not say that this will be a school thing. He only says that we can teach our kids—in general—to be skeptical. Clearly, in the conservative creationist imagination of the folks at AIG, this teaching will take place in the public schools.

This AIG cartoon illustrates the many ideological trends that they think are taught in the public schools. Evolution, homosexuality, abortion, . . . all these ideas are poured down the throats of innocent young Christians in public schools. Furthermore, AIG thinks, Christian belief and practice are banned and ridiculed.*

In culture-war battles like this, both sides made sweeping and incorrect assumptions about public schooling. If the schools teach good science, Krauss and his allies assume, then creationism can soon be eliminated. If the schools teach good religion, AIG thinks, then children will go to heaven, protected from evolution and other skepticism-promoting notions.

As I argue in my recent book, these assumptions are hard-wired into our culture-war thinking. Both progressives and conservatives tend to assume that the proper school reform will create the proper society.

In the 1930s, for instance, at the progressive citadel of Teachers College, Columbia University, Professor George Counts electified his progressive audiences with his challenge. Public schools teachers had only to “dare,” Counts charged, and the schools could “build a new social order.”

Decades later, conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler repeated these same assumptions. Conservative parents, the Gablers warned, must watch carefully the goings-on in their local public schools. “The basic issue is simple,” they wrote.

Which principles will shape the minds of our children? Those which uphold family, morality, freedom, individuality, and free enterprise; or whose which advocate atheism, evolution, secularism, and a collectivism in which an elite governs and regulates religion, parenthood, education, property, and the lifestyle of all members of society?

Professor Counts would not likely have agreed with the Gablers on much. But he would have agreed that the ideas dominating public schools matter. If the wrong ideas leach into the schools, then society will lurch in dangerous directions.

These days, both Professor Krauss and the creationists at AIG seem to have inherited these same assumptions. However, as this screenshot from AIG’s facebook feed demonstrates, public school classrooms are far more complicated places than any of our school activists have allowed. No matter what standards we write about science or religion, public schools will continue to function in ways that represent the wishes of their local community. No matter how daring they are, a few progressive teachers do not have the power to build a new social order.

Similarly, we cannot use schools to eliminate creationism. If we want people to think scientifically, then we need to wage a much broader campaign. We need to convince parents and children that modern evolutionary science is the only game in town.

Because even if we wanted to, we could never ram through any sort of school rule that would be followed universally. Even if public schools officially adhere to state standards that embrace modern evolutionary science, schools themselves will vary from town to town, even from classroom to classroom. The only way to change schools in toto is to change society in toto.

Chicken and egg.

As we see in this facebook interchange, one evangelical teacher claims she teaches with the “overwhelming support of parents and administration.” Another says she teaches her children in public schools to recognize the logical necessity of a creator.

These facebook comments are not anomalies. According to political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, about 13% of public high-school biology teachers explicitly teach creationism. Another 60% teach some form of evolution mixed with intelligent design and creationism.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Why do so many teachers teach creationism? Because they believe it and their communities believe it. As Berkman and Plutzer argue, teachers tend to embrace the ideas of their local communities. In spite of the alarmism of the folks at AIG, public schools just aren’t well enough organized to push any sort of agenda. Public schools will never eliminate creationism. They just can’t.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again: Schools don’t change society; schools reflect society.

*(Bonus points if you can explain why AIG is against saving the whales!)

Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

“Enablers of Doubt:” What Do Science Teachers Learn about Teaching Evolution?

Creationists have an easy task. They don’t need to disprove evolutionary science. All they really need to do in public schools is create a reasonable doubt in students’ minds that evolution is the best available scientific explanation. That’s the argument, anyway, made in a recent article by political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. More interesting, from their point of view, are the ways science teachers learn to create that kind of reasonable doubt.*

You may remember Berkman and Plutzer from their terrific book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. You may also remember that Professor Berkman will be making a trip up to scenic Binghamton University next month to address our Evolution Studies Program. He’ll be talking about the new research from his new article.

For those who can’t make it up to Binghamton on March 30, you can check out the argument in the pages of The Annals. In evolution education, B&P argue that anti-evolution forces have acted similarly to tobacco companies or climate-change denialists. In each case, they write,

determined political actors have been able to force a stalemate—or even achieve a victory—on an issue by calling into question scientific consensus.

In other words, creationists these days can win merely by playing strategic defense.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

In their earlier survey work, B&P discovered that a large minority of high-school science teachers (28%) teach evolution as the only science game in town. A smaller minority, around 13%, teach creationism as science. The big middle group tended to teach a mish-mash of watered-down evolutionary science mixed with creationism-friendly ideas.

Using a new batch of focus-group data, B&P asked new questions:

How is it possible that young people who major in a scientific field and desire to be science educators lack confidence in their understanding of a central principle of modern biology? Where do teachers develop their belief that they are obligated to be “fair” to nonscientific accounts of creation? And how critical is personal faith in the development of the pedagogical choices that they will make over many years in the classroom?

To find out, B&P conducted focus-group interviews at four different sorts of colleges in Pennsylvania. They interviewed groups of students who planned careers as science teachers.

Significantly, B&P found that pre-service teachers had a shaky hold on evolutionary science, even though they often majored in biology. When the teachers looked ahead to possible future controversies in their own classrooms, an overwhelming majority of pre-service teachers expressed confidence that they could handle any controversy by using better classroom management techniques, not better science. As B&P put it,

The impression we got is that classroom management techniques and skills to negotiate controversy were aspects of professional capital that students felt they needed to absorb, internalize, and have at the ready. They understood that the content of science was also critical in any encounter with a skeptical parent or community member, but they did not feel they needed to own the content in the same way that they needed to become masters of management techniques.

Even when they knew the science and wanted to teach it, many of the pre-service teachers B&P interviewed seemed nervous about provoking any sort of controversy. As student teachers and then new teachers, their main goal was often to avoid attracting negative attention.

If a controversy did arise, pre-service teachers imagined they could take shelter behind their state’s standards or their district’s curricula. Without exception, the teachers-to-be insisted they did not want to become culture warriors in their classrooms. As B&P put it,

their primary identification as educators rather than scientists suggests that they are relatively passive recipients of arguments and political communication from elites and groups trying to shape popular opinion.

In short, teachers are people. As B&P argued in their 2010 book, teachers’ values tend to reflect the consensus values of their school communities. If they teach in a town in which large numbers of people are favorable to creationism, teachers will also be favorable to creationism.

Perhaps more important, teachers are people with very public jobs. Contrary to culture-war presumptions that teachers are somehow trying to undermine or subvert students in one way or another, most teachers are concerned with avoiding controversy.

As Professors Berkman & Plutzer conclude in this article, we are stuck too often in a “feedback loop” of evolution education. Student teachers didn’t learn much evolution in school, because teachers tended to avoid controversial issues. They don’t wrestle with issues of faith and doubt at public universities, since such issues are largely seen as religious, not scientific. As pre-service teachers, students are more concerned with studying nuts-and-bolts classroom issues, not basic science. And when they do their student teaching, they don’t often see classroom teachers wrestle with evolution in their classrooms.

Teachers become “enablers of doubt,” in other words, because anything else might stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy.  And almost all teachers are more interested in getting along with students and parents than in provoking controversy.

*The article requires a subscription to read the whole thing. If you don’t have access to a university library, ask your local public librarian to scour their databases. Many public libraries these days subscribe to pretty broad academic journal databases. Here’s the full citation to look up: Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, “Enablers of Doubt: How Future Teachers Learn to Negotiate the Evolution Wars in their Classrooms,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 2015, vol. 658 no. 1: 253-270.

The Creationist Dream, Part II

What should public-school biology classes look like? A couple days ago, I shared an article from an evangelical magazine, c. 1967. It told a story of a creationist high-schooler who bravely stood up to her evolutionist teacher. As a result, the class put biology aside and had a spontaneous prayer meeting.

As one astute reader noted, it sounded like a fifty-year preview to the new film God’s Not Dead.

Whatever your beliefs about creationism and evolution, there was something dead wrong in the story. Something that just didn’t fit with the ways the creation/evolution battle really works. And this something was besides the hokey language and the Leave-It-To-Beaver creationism.

What was wrong? Was it

  1. No teacher really feels that gung-ho about teaching evolution?
  2. No student really cares that much about creationism?
  3. No parents would encourage their kid to publicly preach that way in a public school?
  4. There would never be that sort of religious revival in a public school? or
  5. A teacher would not likely be that clueless about the religious beliefs of her students?

Let’s take them one by one. In the story, the teacher was a mean-eyed evolutionist. She ridiculed creationist belief, while being stupidly ignorant of the fact that most of her students shared those beliefs. Could a teacher really feel that gung-ho about teaching evolutionism? Well, clearly the character was an utter caricature, but I think it is certainly possible for teachers in 1967 or 2014 to feel a passion for enlightening students with the truth of evolution. I would say that most teachers don’t feel this sort of mission, but some do.

What about number 2? Do any students really feel so intensely devoted to their creationist beliefs that they would risk public humiliation to express them in class? Just as with number 1, I think this would be unusual in the real world, but by no means impossible.

Would parents really encourage their kids to preach in a public school? Some would. Again, not likely in the same Richie-Cunningham tone presented in this story, but I don’t find it beyond belief that parents might want their children to stick up for their beliefs in public schools. Some parents likely encourage their kids to see their public schools as a sort of mission field. And there is a literature out there helping parents help their kids to evangelize properly in their public schools.

Could it work? As number 4 suggests, is this sort of religious revival beyond the possibility for a public school? Not at all. These days, for instance, public-school children are encouraged to meet at the flagpole of their schools one day in September. Just like in the story, this strategy promises “amazing transformations” of students and school culture.See you at the pole

So I agree with the sharp commenters who voted for number 5. It is possible, of course, that a teacher might have no idea that her students shared fervent creationist beliefs. But in general, that doesn’t happen much. As Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued in their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers tend to fit in with their communities. As they put it, “traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.”

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

No, YOU’RE the Weirdo

Do you have a smartphone? Does everyone you know have one? If so, that puts you in a small minority, even though you feel like you’re part of a vast majority. And that sort of presumption of normality has a lot to say about our continuing educational culture wars.

I came across the statistic in this week’s Economist. It seems over 1.7 billion people use smartphones. That’s a lot, but it leaves 80% of the human population phone-less.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

So what? We might notice this as more fuel for the WEIRD fire.  As in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argued a few years back that too many subjects of psychological tests came from this relatively restricted background.  The results of those tests, they argued, should really only be claimed to apply to people of similar backgrounds.

But I also think this is a good example of the culture-war dangers of what we might call “majority myopia.” The things to which we are accustomed sometimes seem as if they are common to everybody. With smartphones, for example, it might seem like an eccentricity these days to go without one.* But despite our perceptions, actually a vast majority of people share that “eccentricity.”

When it comes to public schooling, we see this sort of myopia time and again. When it comes to teaching evolution, for example, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that the most important question to ask–after teachers’ personal beliefs–is what the community believes about evolution. If the community tilts toward creationism, then teachers will, too.

As they put it,

traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.

In other words, there are some ideas that seem universally shared. Why? Because everyone we know agrees on them. With science teachers, they may certainly feel as if they are teaching the ideas that everybody agrees to be true. They are teaching the ideas that everyone in their community seems to share.

This spreads wider than evolution, of course. Back in the late 1960s, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond set out to investigate the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp ruling. In that ruling, an eight-to-one court decided that reciting the Lord’s Prayer and devotional reading of the Bible could not Constitutionally be part of a public-school day.

Dolbeare and Hammond journeyed into four municipalities in an unnamed Midwestern state. They found to their surprise that the Schempp decision had had virtually no effect. In schools that had prayed before, students and teachers still prayed. In schools that hadn’t, they still didn’t.

Most puzzling at all to the political scientists, none of this raised any whisper of controversy in any of the towns. For those who lived there, it simply seemed as if the vast majority of people must share their views about school prayer. Even if they knew what the Supreme Court had decided, their “majority myopia” made them see their own praying public schools as the norm.

I’m sure there are other cases out there. For some religious schools, I’m guessing it must seem as if everyone agrees on doctrines such as a young earth. And at some progressive schools, like the ones I attended as a kid, it certainly seemed as if everyone agreed on the basic principles of secularism and left-leaning social justice.

But as this smartphone statistic shows, even those things that seem most universal can really be part of a very small minority.

*Full disclosure: I’m smart-phone-less myself. Don’t judge me.

Save the Date, Evolution Wonks!

Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton!  Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work.  It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning.  Clear your calendars.

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS).  The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work.  I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.

Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers.  Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution.  Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science.  But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through.  This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.

But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught.  And teachers tend to fit in with their communities.  When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us.  But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists.  In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants.  Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.

As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.”  They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards.  Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented.  In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science.  Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).

So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening.  The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic.  Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences.  Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue.  Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.

I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then.  These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required.  I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out.  For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.

Hope to see you there!