Dissenters, Not Ignoramuses

[Editor’s Note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve just completed work on a new book about creationism and evolution education in the United States.  Based on that effort, the education editor of Anthropology Now invited me to contribute some thoughts about the implications of the creation/evolution controversy.  Below I’m reprinting that essay in its entirety, with the permission of Anthropology Now.  You can also find the essay in its original form in the April 2015 edition of that magazine. Thanks to Zoe Burkholder and Maria Vesperi of AN.]

Physical anthropologists have long been on the front lines of debates over evolution. In the Texas textbook tumult over the past decade, for example, Ronald Wetherington of Southern Methodist University has gone head-to-head with creationists over the content of science textbooks. There is no debate over the science, Wetherington has argued. There is simply no way humanity’s origins can be traced to two bashful ancestors in an idyllic garden, 6,000 years ago.[1]

Image courtesy of Scott Thurman, The Revisionaries

Wetherington thinking it over. Image courtesy of Scott Thurman, The Revisionaries

Yet the fight goes on. Creationists insist on including their religious beliefs in public-school science classes. Mainstream scientists protest. All too often, the debate has forced folks such as Wetherington to attack the scientific pretensions of creationism. How would it be possible, mainstream scientists insist, for the earth to only have a short history? For humanity to trace its lineage from the Garden of Eden? The genetics just don’t line up. The fossils don’t line up. Nothing fits.

This sort of back-and-forth about the possibilities of science goes nowhere. More false debates pitting mainstream scientists against creationist scientists in a choreographed and predictable non-dialogue about the proper nature of science are not needed. One side calls the other a bunch of ignoramuses. Creationists retort that they are the only real scientists in the room.

Creationists may or may not be ignorant about evolutionary theory, but there is a better way to understand creationism, as primarily a form of religious dissent. Of course, notions of religion and religious dissent have always played a part in creation/evolution debates. Court decisions, especially, have tended to reject creationists’ claims on the basis that they represent a religious viewpoint, not a scientific one. Even those decisions, however, have pushed creationists to insist on their status as scientific dissenters above all. For everyone’s sake, including that of creationists themselves, creationism should be viewed first and foremost within the tradition of religious dissent in the United States.

This approach offers hope for moving the long debates over creation and evolution in a more productive direction. In the end, centering the debate on religious dissent rather than on scientific truth could offer two promising new policy goals. First, it would require both sides to agree on different goals for evolution education. Public schools would be tasked with clarifying their expectations and demands. While students from every background must be helped to understand evolution, their beliefs about that knowledge are their own business. As religious dissenters, creationists have the right to preserve their religious beliefs. Second, for public-school teachers to teach dissenting students, teachers themselves must be taught some basic principles about cultural difference and inclusion. Here is where anthropologists can get involved. Teachers should study not only biology and geology, but also ethnography and principles of cultural anthropology. Science teachers must understand the cultural beliefs of religious dissenters in order to welcome those dissenters into science classes. And teachers should be trained to understand their own cultural perspectives, to see the dissent of their students as a cultural strength, not a deficit to be corrected or an ignorance to be attacked.

Anthropologists can be helped by historians. As every historian is well aware, the US educational system has a long, spotty record of handling religious dissent. All too often, public schools have crammed hegemonic notions of proper culture and theology down the throats of minority students and families. In the 19th century, as historian Carl Kaestle has argued, Protestant school leaders often pooh-poohed the objections of Catholic dissenters. In the 1830s, Protestant school leaders in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia dismissed Catholic complaints about textbooks that ridiculed the Pope and described Catholics as inquisitors and anti-Christians.[2] Even into the 20th century, as David Wallace Adams has shown, minority groups felt the heavy hand of the dominant culture. At Native American Indian boarding schools, Adams found, non-native teachers made it their mission to squash the religion of their native charges. School founder Richard Henry Pratt wanted to “kill the Indian and save the man.”[3]

As the 20th century progressed, religious dissenters scored some successes in major court cases. Perhaps most influential, the US Supreme Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) that students had the right to dissent from religious practices in public-school classrooms. Even if families were allowed to opt out of prayers and Bible readings, the Court decided, such religious practices involved the government too closely in private religious beliefs.[4] Other federal courts have underlined the rights of religious dissenters in public schools. One Tennessee district court ruling in 1979 spelled it out: “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.”[5] It is not enough anymore for public schools to allow minorities to attend. It is not enough to permit dissenters to share in parts of the public-school culture. Public schools, rather, must welcome dissenters and minorities as equal members.

That new consensus can be applied to the status of creationist dissenters. Their beliefs should not be mocked or dismissed out of hand. But while dissenting religious beliefs must be respected, religion should never inform the public-school curriculum. Students of all backgrounds, dissenting or not, must be exposed to the very best knowledge on offer. They should be helped to understand that knowledge, even if it contradicts their home religions. At the same time, they must not be forced to believe anything that they find theologically repugnant.

Although creationists and mainstream scientists have disagreed bitterly for generations, they have often agreed on one fundamental—but mistaken—notion. Both sides have repeatedly defined the struggle as a scientific one, rather than a religious one. Many creationists insist that their religiously motivated understanding of the origins of humanity represents a scientific vision. And many mainstream scientists engage on just this issue: Which model represents the better scientific explanation? These debates—fascinating but ultimately pointless and unproductive—roiled in the 20th century and continue into the 21st.

Monkeys and Modernity

The first generation of evolution/creation debates in the 1920s set the tone for those that followed. One of the leading anti-evolution voices of that generation, William Jennings Bryan, insisted that evolution was first and foremost bad science. Bryan proudly and pointedly maintained his membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the pages of the New York Times in 1922, Bryan insisted that his anti-evolution position represented a deep love of true science. “We do not ask,” Bryan told readers, “for the exclusion of any scientific truth, but we do protest against an atheist teacher being allowed to blow his guesses in the face of the student.”[6] Those who insisted on forcing such false ideas on America’s students, Bryan mocked, were nothing but irresponsible “pseudo-scientists.”[7]

"Are you know or have you ever been...an ignoramus?"

“Are you know or have you ever been…an ignoramus?”

Mainstream scientists met Bryan on the field of science. They often insisted that his was not real science, yet allowed the discussion to focus too often on such definitions. One of Bryan’s primary public antagonists in the 1920s was Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin. Conklin called Bryan a “non-scientific person,” someone utterly unqualified to assert the boundaries of scientific knowledge.[8] Conklin poured out a good deal of time, sweat and ink in his attempt to prove that creationism did not count as real science. Real science, he wrote, was the “freedom to seek and to find truth. . . . confident that even unwelcome truth is better than cherished error.”[9] Real scientists never shied away from uncomfortable conclusions, while Bryan’s sort—scientific usurpers—began with false conclusion and worked backwards.

Perhaps the defining moment of these battles over evolution and creationism came in the summer of 1925. The Scopes Trial in July of that year focused the world’s attention on the question of evolution and creationism, religion and science. Bryan battled famous atheist Clarence Darrow in the sweltering heat of Dayton, Tennessee. The trial brought public attention to the question, but did not do much to resolve the issues. Too often, debates still focused on questions of science.

For example, in the months following the trial, the first celebrity creation scientist from the United States debated the issue with journalist Joseph McCabe. In this debate, held in London in September 1925, leading creationist George McCready Price pilloried evolution as a scientific travesty. The theory made sense, Price told the assembled crowd, “for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century.” To real scientists, though, Price insisted that evolution could not hold water. Any believer in evolution, Price concluded, would “wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.”[10]

Price never mentioned the need to protect the rights of religious minorities. He did not argue in 1925 that evolutionary theory might outrage the religious sensibilities of dissenters such as himself. Yet it is without doubt that Price’s scientific vision emerged from his religious faith. Price was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, a denomination founded in the aftermath of William Miller’s failed 1844 apocalyptic visions. The prophetess of the denomination, Ellen G. White, founded the group largely on her visions of the beginning and end of time. In the beginning, White attested, God created the universe in six literal days. For orthodox Seventh-day Adventists such as Price, faith demanded a young Earth, a worldwide flood and a six-day special creation by God.[11]

Such debates at the start of the modern culture-war controversies over the teaching of evolution defined the issue mainly as one of science and science education. Not that activists did not also discuss the religious aspect of these debates—Conklin, for example, accused Bryan of pushing for “medieval theology” in place of real science—but too often the debates implied that the central questions were scientific ones.[12]

The More Things Change…

Contemporary debates feature similar definitions and boundaries. In February, 2014, for instance, today’s leading young-Earth creationist Ken Ham debated the prominent science-educator Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.” In that debate, Ham insisted that mainstream science had lost its way. Creationists such as himself, Ham told the crowd, had a better grasp of the impossibility of “historic” science. Real science, Ham informed Nye and the world, did not make leaps of illogic about past events. Mainstream scientists made a fundamental error when they limited themselves to the echo-chamber of flawed evolutionary reasoning.

Bill Nye played along. The simplest facts of real science, Nye insisted, proved the utter baselessness of young-Earth creationism. Nye referred to the local Kentucky limestone as just one example of the many that made the case. “We are standing,” Nye said, “on millions of layers of ancient life. How could those animals have lived their entire lives in just four thousand years?” The briefest introduction to the principles of geology or biology proved the power of evolutionary theory beyond any reasonable doubt.[13]

Even in the 21st century, creationists insist that their religious beliefs are better science  and mainstream scientists (and “Science Guys”) agree to define the fight as one about the proper boundaries of science. For their part, creationists these days are in a strategic pickle. Courts have ruled against teaching religious views in science classes. Most significantly, the US Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard specified that creationism could not be taught in public schools. Such beliefs, the court ruled in a 7-2 decision, represented religion, not science. However, the majority decision stipulated that dissenting visions of science could be taught if they represented better science instead of simply better religion.[14] Thus creationists can hope to include creationism in public-school science classes only if they can demonstrate that their science is better than mainstream teachings. Mainstream scientists, too, still hesitate to dispute creationism on religious grounds. After all, it is easier to attack the scientific pretensions of what philosopher Philip Kitcher has called “dead science” than it is to critique an opponent’s religious beliefs.[15]

While courts have repeatedly concluded that creationism is primarily a religious belief, both creationists and mainstream scientists have continued their endless rounds of debate. But embracing the definition of creationism as a form of religious dissent instead can reveal new approaches to the controversies. Dissenters in public schools have a contentious but clearly defined tradition of rights and responsibilities. They must be treated respectfully and knowledgeably, but their beliefs do not grant them the right to dictate curriculum for the entire school. Dissenters must be allowed to specify why they find curricular material offensive, but simply calling something offensive does not automatically guarantee that it should be excluded from public education.

Two general rules of thumb will help public schools walk this fine line, teaching evolution to everyone, yet respecting the beliefs of those who dissent for religious reasons. First, teachers should make their goals clear. When it comes to evolution education—or any other form of public education, for that matter—the goal should be for students to understand the material, not to adopt any sort of belief about it. In the case of evolution, all students from all backgrounds would be expected to learn the outlines of evolutionary theory. But teachers would be required to avoid implying that students should believe anything in particular about human origins or the age of the universe. And again, teachers would need to know more about the home cultures of dissenting students. Educating teachers about creationism in its cultural context would help smooth away unnecessary conflict between evolution educators and dissenting creationist students.

Creationists Get On the Bus

Along with their arguments about the superiority of their science, some creationists have long argued for their rights as religious dissenters. Most famously, in 1978, creationist scholar Wendell Bird argued for the rights of creationists as a minority in the pages of the Yale Law Review. “Exclusive public school instruction in the general theory of evolution,” Bird insisted, “abridges free exercise of religion.”[16] Other creationist activists and writers have similarly insisted on their rights as beleaguered minorities. In the mid-1980s, for instance, creationist Jerry Bergman complained that he had been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University due to his creationist beliefs. “A similar case might be,” Bergman claimed, “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”[17] Speaking in the mid-1990s, creationist activist Duane Gish took a similar stance. When he learned he was one of only two creationists invited to a scientific dialogue, Gish erupted, “I will proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”[18] No one believed more strongly in the definition of creationists as put-upon minorities than these creationists themselves. If the benefits of that position can be made clear, perhaps other creationists would embrace a definition as religious dissenters.

Even if they do, however, it remains a question whether it be possible for creationist students to learn about evolution without embracing it as a belief. Can students be asked to understand something if they are not asked to believe it? Some scattered evidence suggests this is already happening. Anthropologist David Long, for example, studied a small group of about 30 undergraduate biology students at a large public university. Many of them came from creationist backgrounds. Those students reported no trouble in learning and understanding evolution without changing their religious beliefs. One student told Long:

I take those really big classes, because it’s really easy to excel in those huge classes. I mean, I got like a hundred on every test. You have to be an idiot pretty much not to. If you just sit, and you listen to what they’re saying, and you know how to take tests, it’s very easy to do well in those classes.[19]

Of the students from creationist backgrounds in Long’s sample, only one abandoned her creationist beliefs while studying biology at a public university. And that student had already begun to abandon her faith before she left high school.[20] Learning evolutionary science, Long found, did not lead to religious conversions.

Similar results occur in high schools. One study of roughly one hundred public-school biology students found that a three-week unit on evolution did not force creationist students to abandon their beliefs. Indeed, though students in this study learned a good deal about evolution, many of them became more firmly convinced of their creationism by learning about evolution. After the unit on evolution, for instance, students improved their performance on a test about basic evolutionary principles. More of these same students, however, agreed or agreed strongly—after studying evolution—with the statement, “Genesis is the best account of how the Earth was created and populated with life.”[21]

Americans in general already seem to separate knowledge from belief when it comes to evolution. In 2012, the National Science Board (NSB), which is part of the National Science Foundation, experimented with the wording of its questions about general science knowledge. Only 48 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” But when the NSB prefaced that statement with the phrase, “According to scientists,” 72 percent of respondents agreed.[22] In short, significant numbers of Americans know what the science says about evolution. They simply choose not to agree that it is true.

Finally, students learn better when they feel some connection to their teachers. Teachers who can connect culturally with their students will have an easier time teaching anything, from evolution to arithmetic. As education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has argued, “Teachers who practice culturally relevant methods. . . . see themselves as part of the community and they see teaching as giving back to the community. They help students make connections between their local, national, racial, cultural, and global identities.”[23]

For teachers who come from non-creationist backgrounds, the effect of a short course in cultural anthropology could be profound. For one thing, it would introduce teachers to the idea that the world of creationism includes a vast kaleidoscopic array of beliefs and cultures. It would be useful to know how a Baptist creationist student might differ from a Seventh-day Adventist or from a Gulenist. More important, an introduction to the foundational principles of cultural anthropology can help science teachers understand that difference is not deficit. Simply because creationist students do not accept evolution, they are not necessarily naively ignorant about evolution. Indeed, as David Long has noted, many students from creationist backgrounds perceive any discussion of evolution as “troublesome or even dangerous.”[24] Good teachers want to help students, not terrify them. A primer on the principles of cultural anthropology can help teachers connect with creationist students more productively.

None of this will make creation/evolution controversies go away. There is no magic wand here. But by placing the educational discussion more squarely on the rights and responsibilities of religious dissent, we may drain some of the venom from our achingly repetitive school battles.  

Notes

[1] See Scott Thurman’s documentary, The Revisionaries (2012).

[2] Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Macmillan, 1983).

[3] David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 52.

[4] Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).  (accessed January 11, 2015).

[5] Wiley v. Franklin 474 F. Supp. 525 [E.D. Tenn. 1979] at 531.(accessed January 11, 2015).

[6] William Jennings Bryan, “God and Evolution,” New York Times, February 26, 1922, 11.

[7] William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York: Fleming Revell, 1922), 69.

[8] Edwin Grant Conklin, “Bryan and Evolution,” New York Times, March 5, 1922, 1.

[9] Edwin Grant Conklin, The Direction of Human Evolution (New York: Scribner’s, 1921), v–vi.

[10] George McCready Price, “Is Evolution True?” in Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Creation-Evolution Debates (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995), 160.

[11] See Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 91-93.

[12] Conklin, “Bryan and Evolution,” 1.

[13] Video of the debate from February 4, 2014 is still available at http://debatelive.org/ . See the author’s commentary and discussion at “Time for Ham on Nye!” I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, February 4, 2014,  (accessed June 2, 2014).

[14] Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 US 578 (1987)  (accessed April 14, 2014).

[15] Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8.

[16] Wendell R. Bird, “Freedom of Religion and Science Instruction in Public Schools,” The Yale Law Journal 87 (January, 1978): 518.

[17] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 43.

[18] Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 26.

[19] David E. Long, Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography (New York: Springer, 2011), 36.

[20] Ibid., 75.

[21] Anton E. Lawson and William A. Worsnop, “Learning about Evolution and Rejecting a Belief in Special Creation: Effects of Reflective Reasoning Skill, Prior Knowledge, Prior Belief and Religious Commitment,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29:2 (February 1992): 143-166.

[22] National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, “Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” National Science Foundation, February 2014  (accessed January 11, 2015). See also “Evolution in Science and Engineering Indicators 2014,” National Center for Science Education Blog, February 18, 2014  (accessed January 11, 2015).

[23] Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (New York: Wiley, 1997), 25.

[24] Long, Evolution and Religion in American Education, 15.

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Don McLeroy’s Long Game

What do Phyllis Schlafly, Moses, and country/western music have in common? They all get happy shout-outs in new history textbooks in Texas.  Or at least, that’s what conservative education leaders wanted.  As Politico reported yesterday, new history textbooks in Texas are causing a stir.  But this time, it is liberal activists, not conservative ones, who are denouncing the textbooks as biased and ideological.

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

The new textbooks were written to satisfy new standards approved years ago by the Texas State Board of Education.  Back then, conservatives on the board, led by the genial Don McLeroy and the obstreperous Cynthia Dunbar, pushed through new standards that warmed the hearts of conservative activists.

No one who watched Scott Thurman’s great documentary about these Revisionaries can forget the moments when the SBOE debated including more country-western music and less hip hop.  More positive statements about Reagan and the National Rifle Association.  More happy talk about America’s Christian past and less insistence on the horrors of racial segregation.

The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries

As Don McLeroy said at the time, “America is a special place and we need to be sure we communicate that to our children. . . . The foundational principles of our country are very biblical…. That needs to come out in the textbooks.”

Now those changes in the Texas standards have shown up in new social-studies textbooks.  As Stephanie Simons reports in Politico, liberals have complained that the new texts are woefully biased.  In some spots, the books apparently knock Affirmative Action.  They pooh-pooh the benefits of taxes.  They imply that racial segregation was really not so bad.

For those who know the history of America’s educational culture wars, this seems like a drastic turnabout.  Throughout the twentieth century, conservative school activists complained that they had been locked out of educational influence by a scheming leftist elite.  Textbooks and standards, conservatives complained, had been taken over by pinheaded socialist intellectuals.

In one of the most dramatic school controversies of the twentieth century, for instance, conservative leaders lamented the sordid roots of new textbooks.  That battle took place in Kanawha County, West Virginia, across the tumultuous school year 1974-1975.  Conservatives were disgusted by the sex and violence embedded in new literature textbooks.  But some of them weren’t surprised.

Conservative leader Elmer Fike told readers that the textbooks were bound to be rotten.  In Fike’s opinion, conservatives didn’t even need to read the books.  As he explained,

You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

As the Kanawha County battle ground on, California’s conservative celebrity schoolman Max Rafferty came to town.  Rafferty, too, told a crowd of West Virginians that they shouldn’t put any faith in textbook publishers.  Those publishers, Rafferty explained, only wanted to make a buck.  As he put it,

They have no particular desire to reform anybody, do anybody any good or find a pathway to heaven.

These days—in Texas at least—the shoe is on the other foot.  The conservative standards that the state adopted in 2010 have pushed market-conscious textbook publishers to come up with books that meet them.  And at least some conservatives are delighted with the success of their long game.  As conservative school board member David Bradley told journalist Stephanie Simon, liberals who complain about biased textbooks can lump it.  “They need to put on their big-girl panties,” Bradley crowed, “and go run for office.”

 

 

Save the Date!

Keep your evening free on Thursday, February 27th.  Here on the beautiful campus of Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York, we’ll be hosting a listening session and panel discussion about Trey Kay’s new radio documentary, “The Long Game: Texas’ Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom.”

Readers may remember Trey Kay’s earlier award-winning radio documentary, “The Great Textbook War.”  In that piece, Trey explored the 1974-1975 battle over schooling and textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  In that fight–a fight that is also the subject of a chapter in my upcoming book–conservatives worried that a new textbook series presented students with perverted values and distorted grammar.

In his new documentary, Trey looks at ongoing ideological battles in Texas.  As filmmakers such as Scott Thurman and activists such as Zack Kopplin have demonstrated recently, there has been no better field for exploring cultural conflicts in education than the great state of Texas.

The details of our upcoming February 27 event are not yet finalized, but the general plan is clear.  We’ll be listening to “The Long Game,” then Trey and NYU’s electrifying historian Jon Zimmerman will offer a few comments, followed by a general discussion and Q & A.  I’ll post more details as they come available.

Creationist Textbook Fight: A Progressive Victory?!?

Déjà vu all over again.  That might be the sensation for those of us who have followed Texas’ political battles over textbook content.  Recent politicking has demonstrated the continuing influence of creationists in textbook decisions.

But debate-watchers may not realize that these Texas-textbook headlines represent a progressive victory.

Here’s why: Back in the 1920s, states such as Texas adopted state-wide textbook adoption policies precisely in order to make the process more transparent.  Recent work by liberal watchdogs in the Texas Freedom Network demonstrates the long-term progressive success of those 1920s efforts.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As I describe in my 1920s book, debates over the content of Texas textbooks began way back.  In the 1920s, Texas officials insisted that textbook publishers produce “Texas” editions, with large sections on evolution cut out.  More than that, Texas officials demanded textbooks that ratified a Protestant-dominated vision of American history and culture.  Ever since, as I discuss in my current book, conservative activists such as the Gablers have been able to wield outsized influence on the textbook adoption process in Texas.

Yet this long history of conservative influence in Texas textbooks is not merely the story of conservative domination of Lone Star public education.

As Adam Shapiro argues in his excellent new book Trying Biology, progressives in the 1920s fought hard to ensure that these textbook decisions were made openly and publicly.  Previous textbook purchases had been made at the local level.  Sweetheart deals between publishers and school-district officials often left students with low-quality, high-priced textbooks.

Progressive reformers wanted more open discussion of textbook purchasing decisions.  In several states, including Texas, they passed state-wide adoption laws.  In Texas a state board selects a list of approved textbooks, from which districts can choose.  Those deliberations are public events, with legal requirements to share documents and content.

In a sense, therefore, recent headlines about creationist influence on textbook purchases represent a long-term victory for those early progressive reformers.  Liberal activists in the Texas Freedom Network have been able to monitor these deliberations.  The Texas board of education is legally required to provide public access to many of their discussions and debates.  As a result, concerned liberals and science-education types have been able to mount effective and informed protests over creationist influence.

Do progressives have a long history of winning culture-war battles in Texas?  Not really.  Conservative influence in Texas public education remains dominant, as Scott Thurman documented in his film The Revisionaries.  Indeed, the Texas Freedom Network has lamented the delays and obfuscations of conservative officials as the TFN has demanded access to public records.  Nevertheless, the TFN’s strong legal case—their insistence on access to those records—represents the hard-fought victories of earlier generations of progressive activists.

 

 

An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar…

Can skeptics and believers talk civilly to one another? Can creationists and mainstream scientists ever have a constructive dialogue?

Most of the time, the best efforts at culture-war mediation leave everyone only more bitter and more convinced of the “extremism” and “irrationality” of the other side.

Thanks to coverage from the Texas Freedom Network, we recently caught up with an illuminating intellectual exchange between a leading creationist advocate and a witty, informed science skeptic.  Neither one seems to have been “converted” by the argument, but the civil yet heated discussion demonstrated the possibilities of creation-evolution dialogue.

Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society, interviewed Texas creation activist Don McLeroy last month.  You can hear the full interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.  Also fascinating, you can follow the post-interview back-and-forth on Novella’s NeurologicaBlog.

As we’ve argued here before, trying to understand Don McLeroy is a great way to begin making sense of conservatism in American education more broadly.  As the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010, McLeroy spearheaded a campaign to overhaul Texas’ influential textbook guidelines.  In that fight, McLeroy cared about more than evolution.  He also promoted an emphasis on such disparate themes as the Christianity of the founding fathers, the beneficence of the National Rifle Association, and the civic value of country music.

In the May 8, 2013 interview, Novella and his colleagues asked mainly about McLeroy’s position on evolution education.

During the interview, McLeroy makes his case for teaching the scientific alternatives to mainstream evolution theory.  As Novella and his associates point out, McLeroy carefully avoids making a case for teaching creationism or any religious ideas in public schools. Instead, McLeroy consistently advocates only for teaching the scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Most of the discussion consists of a back-and-forth on the merits and weight of those criticisms.

Are there enough real scientific challenges to evolutionary theory to merit their inclusion in public-school science curricula?

One of the most intriguing points of the exchange was McLeroy’s insistence that religious thinkers are free to be more open-minded about the scientific claims of evolution.  Since religious intellectuals are open to the idea of both materialistic and supernatural explanations, McLeroy claimed, they have greater ability to weigh the evidence. This argument did not sit well with Novella and his colleagues.

Another fascinating discussion resulted from McLeroy’s defense of his anti-expert position.  During the 2010 school fight in Texas, as captured so movingly in Scott Thurman’s Revisionaries documentary, McLeroy argued that educators needed to seize control from “experts.”  Novella and his associates explained to McLeroy why this claim seemed preposterous to them.  Why should science curricula ignore the thinking of mainstream scientists—the real experts—and instead follow the inclinations of one dentist from Texas?

I was surprised to hear McLeroy’s willingness to waffle.  As I’ve argued before, McLeroy’s indictment of “experts” has a storied history, of which Novella and his colleagues seemed unaware.  For many anti-evolution activists, indeed for many conservative educational activists on a range of issues, the baleful influence of educational experts has long been assumed.  The recent trashing of CSCOPE in Texas demonstrated only the most recent emergence of this anti-expert sentiment.  I wished Dr. McLeroy had tried to articulate some of this broader anti-expert tradition.

More important than the details of the transcript, however, was the tone of the interview and post-interview exchange.  Neither Novella nor McLeroy apologized for their beliefs.  Neither held back from pointed and fundamental criticisms of the other, though as guest McLeroy tended to be more polite.  Yet the two sides managed to speak politely to one another.  McLeroy called Novella a “scholar and a gentleman.”

For his part, Novella called McLeroy

an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

Did either side walk away from this exchange converted?  Definitely not.  But was the exchange worthwhile?  Certainly yes, for several reasons.

First of all, for interested observers, this back-and-forth gave both sides a chance to make their own arguments.  Readers and listeners can see what intelligent advocates might say on some basic stumpers of the creation/evolution debate.

Second, in any tense culture-war standoff, elaborate courtesy and face-to-face meetings help defuse the tendency to demonize the opposition.  For evolution believers like me, the contours of the debate change when I hear a friendly, seemingly well-intentioned leader of the creationist cause, if only to prove that both sides can include people of good will.

 

Revisionaries on PBS

The Revisionaries is coming next week to PBS.

In conjunction with Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program, we screened the film not too long ago.  At our screening we had a spirited discussion about the nature of science and the politics of education.  Now folks beyond the major metropolitan areas of New York, LA, and Binghamton will have a chance to see it.

Why would you want to, you ask?

For anyone interested in the teaching of American history, evolution/creation, the nature of American conservatism, or even just the functioning of educational and cultural politics, this film is a must-see.  Director Scott Thurman followed the goings-on at the Texas textbook review hearings of 2009-2010.  He spent time with conservative leaders such as Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar.  Thurman gave each of them a chance to explain their educational ideology.  The film shows the campaign for non-evolution to be included in science classes.  Viewers can watch the fight to change the standards for social studies, to include more Reagan and less hip-hop.

According to the National Center for Science Education website, The Revisionaries will be shown as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, during the week of January 28, 2013.  Check your local listings!

Revisionaries Screening Tonight

For all those in the Upstate New York region: a reminder that we will be screening Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries tonight on the campus of Binghamton University in Vestal, NY.

The film will be shown (with brief informal discussion led by yours truly) in Academic Building A, basement room G-008.  We will begin at 5:00.

All are welcome.  There is no cost and no need to register.

The Revisionaries Are Coming!

Good news for folks in the Binghamton, New York area!

We will be screening The Revisionaries for those of us who can’t travel to NYC or elsewhere to see it.  This documentary examines the intellectual world of Dr. Don McLeroy and his allies, c. 2010.  In that year, Dr. McLeroy used his control of the Texas State Board of Education to make some changes in the requirements for Texas textbooks.  Included in those changes were a renewed emphasis on the Christian nature of the Founding Fathers, a skeptical attitude toward evolutionary science, and a host of other conservative favorites.

For more on the 2010 Texas hearings, see Russell Shorto’s great article from a couple years back in the New York Times.

Or, for those in the scenic Southern Tier of New York, come on down to our free screening.  Thanks to Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program and its Graduate School of Education, we’re showing the film a few times in coming weeks.  All of the screenings will be free and open to the public.

The first showing will be on Monday, November 26, at 5 PM.  We’ll show the film on Binghamton’s Vestal campus, Academic Building A, G-008.  Yours truly will be leading a brief informal discussion before and after.

The campus will also be showing the film a few other times in coming weeks, details TBD.

The Revisionaries

I don’t often wish I lived in a bigger city.  But with the limited release of a new documentary, I’m wishing I had a chance to see it.

The Revisionaries has been released in a few cities and film festivals.  According to its producer, this documentary focuses on the intellectual and political worlds of Don McLeroy.

A short review in the New York Times emphasizes the “startling” way conservatives such as McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar injected partisan and sectarian ideas into the curriculum of Texas in 2009-2010.

As I noted in an article in Teachers College Record a little while back (behind a paywall, unfortunately, but the executive summary is public), Dr. McLeroy cared about more than just creationism.  As Russell Shorto pointed out in a New York Times article, McLeroy insisted that Texas schoolchildren be taught “two basic facts about man.  He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen.”  According to amendments proposed by McLeroy, Texas students should also learn more about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence”
and about the positive contributions to American history from such conservative icons as “Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”

I am looking forward to seeing the film.  I have a couple of worries.  Though this morning’s NYT review insists that producer Scott Thurman is “admirably evenhanded,” the clips available on the film’s website suggest that the documentary is yet another breathless expose of the deeply conservative ideas of McLeroy and his allies.

I hope not.  I think those of us outside of the intellectual world of activists such as McLeroy and Dunbar will benefit from a sincere attempt to truly understand their worldview.  After all, it is a vision of American culture and education that is enormously popular.  Another piece of journalism or filmmaking that hopes simply to mock or deride those ideas won’t help at all.  We KNOW we don’t agree with these ideas.  We don’t need to be reminded that some people hold these ideas.  What is really interesting, in contrast, are the arguments folks like McLeroy might make to support their beliefs in a young earth.

So, for those in Pasadena, NYC, Denver, Sarasota, or other screening locations, make some time to check out the film.  Be sure to send your thoughts, reviews, and comments to us here at ILYBYGTH.  Out here in the boonies, we’ll only wait for the film to get around to our neck of the woods.