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.


CSCOPE and the Dustbin of History

CSCOPE is dead.

Anyone who hopes to understand the sort of conservative crusade that killed CSCOPE should draw two lessons from the news.

First: Historians should be invited to more dinner parties.

Second: The question is not why CSCOPE was suddenly targeted, but rather why so many Americans are so deeply suspicious of educational experts.

But before we talk about such things, an update: As reported by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Freedom Network Insider, leading Texas politicians announced a few weeks back that the suddenly controversial curriculum management system would no longer be offering lesson plans for Texas school districts.

CSCOPE had come under attack from conservatives in Texas and around the country as promoting a witches’ brew of “progressive,” “Marxist,” “pro-Islam” ideas for Texas schools.  Liberals such as those at the Texas Freedom Network complained in exasperated tones about an irrational “witch hunt” against lessons that had been used without controversy for years.

What does any of this have to do with the loneliness of historians?  The book I’m now finishing looks at the 20th-century history of this sort of school controversy.  Again and again, conservatives discover that the teaching in their schools has been infiltrated by nefarious ideas such as evolution, socialism, progressivism, or filthy sex and violence.  In each case, once a set of textbooks or curricular program gained attention as an example of such ideas, it was quickly tossed out by conservative activists.

I hate to quote myself, but in this case an historian’s perspective makes this outcome seem predictable. As I noted a few weeks back, “CSCOPE might offer an ideologically balanced, pedagogically efficient way for Texas school districts to streamline their teaching systems.  But once it has acquired the reputation for leftist indoctrination, the writing is on the wall.”

This is why historians should be invited to more parties.  Especially if there is food.  Not because historians can predict the future.  Every case is different. But an historical perspective eliminates much of the surprise of unfolding events.  For those who know the 20th-century history of conservative activism in America’s schools, the anti-CSCOPE crusade seems remarkably predictable.

Another important lesson should be drawn from the premature death of CSCOPE.  The career of CSCOPE illustrates the profound cultural divide at the heart of America’s continuing educational culture wars.   Personally, I sympathize with the liberal critics of the Texas Freedom Network, who noted that many of the attacks against CSCOPE seemed “bizarre” or “paranoid.”  As a parent and citizen, I worry about the exaggerated attacks made on this curricular program.

Such attacks, however, must be understood as an irruption of a profound suspicion among Americans about what any outside interference in public school curricula.  Like other commentators, I am deeply skeptical about claims that CSCOPE was a vast conspiracy to subvert patriotic Christian values in Texas public schools.  But the important question is not why this particular program was targeted for attack after years of controversy-free use in schools. The question, rather, is why so many Texans jumped so quickly to join the anti-CSCOPE bandwagon.

This has been the case with every curriculum controversy in the past.  As historians Charles Dorn[1] and Jonathan Zimmerman[2] pointed out about the Rugg textbook controversy in the 1940s, though the Rugg textbooks were banished, similar books continued to be used widely.

In the Kanawha County blow-up of the 1970s, the same sentiment surfaced.  What had seemed like a humdrum approval process for a new set of reading textbooks became a violent struggle over the content of the curriculum.  In that case as in this, many observers scratched their heads and wondered why these particular books had suddenly become such lightning rods.

The depressing truth is that most Americans are deeply skeptical about the intentions of the people who write the books and lesson plans for our public schools.  With curricular materials such as CSCOPE, the Rugg textbooks, or the Interaction series adopted in Kanawha County, as soon as materials were accused of subversion, many Americans believed it.  As conservative leader Elmer Fike explained about the Kanawha County books, “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.”[3]

The sudden outrage against CSCOPE shows us this same dynamic at work.  In Texas as in the rest of our nation, a politically powerful plurality are willing to believe outlandish accusations against relatively bland curricular materials.  Though the books and lessons themselves may be moderate in tone, a significant number of parents and politicians are quick to believe they have set out to destroy America.

Why did CSCOPE meet such a sudden and violent premature death?  Because for generations, a significant proportion of Americans have looked with grave suspicion at the intentions of “experts” who write such classroom materials.  Parents are not surprised to hear that textbooks contain hateful language and shocking subversion.  Such accusations confirm what too many parents already believe.

We will not understand the CSCOPE story, nor the similar stories sure to come in future years, unless we grapple with the fact that many parents maintain an awkward ambivalence toward public education.  Many parents may approve of their local schools, but they feel a need to defend those schools from the control of grasping autocrats at far-flung universities and think-tanks.  At the bitter heart of the CSCOPE saga lodges the uncomfortable truth that Americans do not trust educational experts.



[1] Charles Dorn, “‘Treason in the Textbooks:’ Reinterpreting the Harold Rugg Textbook Controversy in the Context of Wartime Schooling,” Paedagogica Historica 44:4 (August 2008): 477.

[2] Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 79.

[3] Quoted in James Moffett, Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 70.

CSCOPE Blues: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Curriculum

**Warning: This post contains selections from textbooks that include potentially offensive language.**

Just when conservative Texans thought it was safe to go back to their public schools, they are told that a new curriculum will pervert their children’s values.

The culprit this time is CSCOPE, a curriculum “management system” designed in 2005-2006 and currently used in many Texas school districts.  The goal of the system was to streamline curricular decisions and align classroom teaching with state tests.

Recently, the curriculum has come under conservative fire.  Conservatives in Texas accuse the system of being President Obama’s plan to teach “our children how wonderful socialism is and that communism is even better.”  Nationally, pundits such as Glenn Beck have blasted the teaching system as a smear campaign against the nation’s founders.  The liberal Texas Freedom Network has publicized local attack ads that have accused CSCOPE of delivering “Communist, Marxist, Progressive, Leftist Dogma, Propaganda, and Indoctrination at the expense of taxpayers!”


Source: TFN Insider

The Texas Freedom Network complains that such accusations veer dangerously into the “bizarre” and “paranoid.”  TFN writers point out that many Christian schools in Texas have adopted CSCOPE.  The curriculum system, the TFN argues reasonably, has long been used without a whisper of protest, even in conservative private schools.

Unfortunately for liberals like me and the TFN crew, animosity against CSCOPE is about more than just one set of classroom lessons.  This conservative crusade is about more than just CSCOPE, but involves a long and intractable history of suspicion against curricular systems in general.  Throughout modern American history, conservatives have worried—often with a great deal of justification—that curriculum systems hoped to do more than educate children.  In many cases, curricula have hoped to inject dramatic cultural change into America’s schools.

Many of the accusations, like the newspaper ad from Marble Falls and Burnet, seem outlandish and irrelevant.  But such sentiments often reflect the rightward edge of a widely held notion that school culture seeks to pervert the morals of the young.  In those cases, reasonable protests like that of the Texas Freedom Network do not make much of an impact.  Once a curriculum has become an object of conservative ire, the issue has grown beyond the details of any specific school lessons.  It has become a fight over the cultural control of American schools.

We saw this same dynamic in the 1970s.  When the school district of Kanawha County, West Virginia considered a new set of textbooks, wild rumors spread about the content of those books.  In some cases, distributed fliers included materials that were not in the books under consideration.  One flyer included instructions on the use of condoms from Sol Gordon’s Facts about Sex for Today’s Youth (1973).  In that book—again, not part of the series under consideration—Gordon explained sexual ideas in a frank manner.  The circulated flyer included excerpts meant to highlight this frankness.  “Some ‘street’ words for vagina,” Gordon wrote,

Are ‘box,’ ‘snatch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘hole,’ ‘pussy.’  It is not polite to say any of these expressions.  However, since they are sometimes used, there is no need to be embarrassed by not knowing what they mean.

Many parents in Kanawha County objected to this sort of language.  The fact—as many liberals protested at the time—the fact that such language did not appear in any of the new textbooks did not change the political discussion.  Conservative parents objected as much to the tendency of school books in general as to the content of any specific books.  As conservative leader Elmer Fike wrote at the time of the controversy, “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.”

This sense that textbooks and school curricula might set out deliberately to change the morals of young people has a longer history, too.  The source of the cultural danger may have shifted, but at the start of the Cold War conservatives fretted about the threat from subversive communism in school books.  One pamphlet from 1949 Chicago asked, “How Red is the Little Red Schoolhouse?”

Cover imageA decade earlier, Harold Rugg had to defend his popular textbook series from charges of socialist, collectivist subversion.  As Rugg complained, many of his critics had never read the books themselves.  Conservatives, Rugg charged, would say, “I haven’t read the books, but—I have heard of the author, and no good about him” (Rugg, That Men May Understand, 1941, pg. 13).

Seventy-plus years later, Rugg’s books do not seem particularly subversive.  But just as CSCOPE’s critics bundle every anti-American rumor into the Texas curriculum system, so Rugg’s critics blamed him for every anti-patriotic sentiment of the day.

Most important, once school materials get a reputation for left-leaning propagandizing, whether it is Rugg’s books in 1940, or the Interaction series in Kanawha County in 1974, or the CSCOPE materials in 2013, the books seem sure to attract ferocious and effective political attack.  Sometimes, as in the newspaper ad from Marble Falls and Burnet, these attacks seem far-fetched.  But behind even such far-fetched notions lies a germ of uncomfortable truth.

Curriculum developers often DO want to introduce culturally challenging and provocative ideas into America’s schools.  Howard Rugg wanted his books to help along a sweeping “social reconstruction.”  One of the editors of the book series under consideration in Kanawha County dreamed that the controversial books might lead to “further innovations in schooling” [James Moffett, Storm in the Mountains, 1988, pg. 5].

Though CSCOPE insists it is “not designed to show favor toward any special interest group/ organization,” conservative critics can claim some justification for their worries.  For generations, curricula have been introduced to public schools that HAVE hoped to show favor to certain ideas.

CSCOPE might offer an ideologically balanced, pedagogically efficient way for Texas school districts to streamline their teaching systems.  But once it has acquired the reputation for leftist indoctrination, the writing is on the wall.

No matter how fervently the Texas Freedom Network or other supporters might protest, history has shown that in cases like this, among conservatives, school curricula are guilty until proven innocent.

Are Conservatives Facing Oppression in Texas’ Private Schools?

The Texas Freedom Network Insider gives us a look this morning at an intriguing and influential line of conservative educational thinking.  For several decades now, conservative educational activists have claimed to be fighting for their civil rights.

The TFN, a liberal watchdog group, denounced Texas State Senator Dan Patrick’s attempt to make this argument recently.

Patrick, as chair of the Senate Education Committee, made his statement in favor of Senate Bill 573.  The bill would allow homeschool and private-school students to compete in the state’s University Interscholastic League.

Patrick claimed in a recent hearing,

“When you say the UIL has functioned for a hundred years, and everybody’s been happy, if you were black in this state before the civil rights movement, it didn’t function for you. And now I feel there’s discrimination against Catholics and Christians in these parochial schools.”

The TFN columnist and several commentators did not buy Patrick’s argument.  After sharing pictures of a lavish private school and a cramped, inadequate African-American school (c. 1941), the TFN columnist asked, “Seriously, guys?”

Commenter Linda Hunter asked, “Is it possible he [Patrick] actually believes what he’s saying? If so, perhaps he received the standard whitewashed version of history in school. Oh, I don’t think even that explains his argument.”

Whether Patrick is sincere or not, this line of argument has long been a favorite of conservative educational thinkers and activists.

Gish fossils say noTo cite just one example, in the early 1980s the late creationist leader Duane Gish was invited to join a conference of mainstream scientists to discuss evolution and creationism.  At the time, Gish was a leading voice at the Institute for Creation Research and best known for his book Evolution: The Fossils Say No! (1973, 1978, 1979)

At the conference with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gish grumbled right away that he had been led into a trap.  He complained that only two creationists had been invited to face a bevy of evolutionists.  As he put it, he would “proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”[1]

Around the same time, the creationist academic Jerry Bergman protested that he had been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University due to rampant discrimination against his religious beliefs.  As Bergman claimed in his 1984 book The Criterion,

“Several universities state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’. . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices.  This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue.  But, a similar case might be 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.’[2]

Bergman the criterionFor Gish and Bergman in the 1980s, as for Senator Patrick today, as for the generation of conservative activists in between, the notion is a powerful one.  Many intellectuals and pundits have claimed that conservatives today face the same kind of repression that bedeviled African Americans in the run-up to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.

For those of us who want to understand conservative educational philosophy, the Texas Freedom Network’s question is not the point.  Whether or not conservatives really believe they are oppressed, pundits and politicians have found the claim of minority persecution effective.

Check out Senator Patrick’s speech on the TFN Insider.  They include a video so we can see this ideology in action.

[1] 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.

[2] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 44.

‘Pentecostal Hairdos’ and Teaching the Bible

Kudos to Mark Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer tells New York Times readers about Mark Chancey’s study of Bible-reading in Texas public schools.  For ILYBYGTH readers, there’s not much news there.

As we noted here weeks ago, Professor Chancey found lots of Bible evangelism going on in public-school Bible classes in Texas.  At the time, we opined that we shouldn’t be too surprised at those findings.

But Oppenheimer explored a little deeper, and spoke with Gay Hart, a 77-year-old Bible teacher from Eastland, Texas.  Hart offered the best Bible-teacher stereotype-busting quotation I’ve seen:

‘“I go to First Baptist,” she said. “I wear a Pentecostal hairdo. I play the organ at the Episcopal church. When I could sing, I was the alto at Church of Christ. I have taught in a Catholic school. I am 77, and I am not a little old lady with a 15-year-old car that has 3,000 miles on it. I sky-dived last summer. I have a life, and I love this class.”’

I don’t know about you, but I had to look up “pentecostal hairdo” to see if that was a real thing.  As usual, turns out I’m the last to know.  Thanks to Erika, I now know how to do it myself!

Teaching the Bible, Texas Style

A new report from the Texas Freedom Network warns that some public schools in Texas are teaching religion.  Not all religions, but the Bible-loving, apocalypse-watching, evolution-denying type of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

How do these public schools justify it?  According to the TFN report, public schools fold these sectarian doctrines into their Bible courses.  Public-school courses about the Bible are explicitly constitutional.  US Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark made very clear in his majority opinion in Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) that public schools can teach the Bible, if they did so in a non-devotional way.  As Clark specified,

“Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

However, the TFN report argues that many of the Texas school districts are using Bible classes to teach religious doctrine, including the notion that the Bible demands a young earth.  The report’s author, Mark A. Chancey of Southern Methodist University, reports that the courses are generally poorly taught, with low academic rigor, by underprepared teachers.

Professor Chancey includes excerpts from some of the teaching materials.  In the Dalhart Independent School District, for example, one student information sheet included the following information:

“Since God is perfect and infallible, an inspired book is absolutely infallible and errorless in its facts and doctrines as presented in the original manuscript” (pg. 28).

In the Bible courses of Lazbuddie, Texas, students will read the following:

“We should have an understanding of what happened in Noah’s day if we are to know when the coming of our Lord is near.  What are the similarities between the days of Noah and the days preceding the coming of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:37-39)?” (pg. 32)

In Dayton schools, students watch the Left Behind movie, fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye’s dramatization of the rapture and final days (pg. 19).

As Chancey points out, these doctrines are intensely sectarian.  They teach a specific interpretation of the Bible as eternally true.  Students in these public school classes would be told that the doctrines of conservative evangelical Protestantism are the correct and only interpretation of the Bible.

Are we shocked?

We shouldn’t be.

Here’s why not:

First of all, the numbers of schools and students involved is very small.  Professor Chancey found 57 districts plus three charter schools who taught Bible courses in 2011-2012, a small percentage of the 1037 districts in Texas.  Not all of these districts taught the Bible in such heavy-handed sectarian ways.  And of the districts that reported their student numbers, only three had more than fifty students enrolled in Bible class.  Six districts had fewer than five students in Bible (pg. 5).

Second, the practice of teaching sectarian religion in public-school Bible classes has a long and surprisingly uncontroversial history.  As I explored in my 1920s book, while public attention was focused on anti-evolution laws, between 1919 and 1931 eleven states quietly passed mandatory Bible-reading laws for public schools.

Finally, even after the anti-Bible SCOTUS ruling in 1963, many public schools simply continued the practice.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Philip Hammond found in their survey of schools in a Midwestern state, the Supreme Court rulings against public-school Bible reading made absolutely no difference in school practice.  Where students had read the Bible before, they continued to do so, without raising any controversy.

So Professor Chancey’s findings that a few students in a few public schools in Texas learn a sectarian interpretation of the Bible should come as no surprise.  As Chancey notes, similar Bible classes go on in several other states as well (pg. v).  Moreover, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have convincingly argued, public school teachers usually teach ideas that are locally uncontroversial.  In some places, that means teaching creationism as science.  In others, it means teaching the Bible as history.