Creationist Bogeymen

Say, did you hear what happened to Senator Kruse’s “Truth in Education” bill in Indiana?

Unless you’re a close personal friend of the Senator, I’m guessing you haven’t.  The career of bills like this one can tell us a thing or two about the cultural politics of creationism.

Senator Kruse garnered some headlines six months ago for his plan.  Kruse, the chairman of the Indiana State Senate Education Committee, promised a new law that would guarantee students’ right to challenge their teachers’ pronouncements.  The barely disguised goal was to allow creationist students to confront evolutionary teaching.

At the time, pundits and scribblers announced Kruse’s plan as the latest offensive in a creationist juggernaut.  Reporters noted the connections to Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the leading intelligent-design think tank.  Progressives lamented this latest power play by religious conservatives.  One commenter called the bill the latest effort to “march the education of American children toward the 19th century.”  Another explained Kruse’s new effort as an end run around evolution.

But here’s the problem: Kruse’s bill didn’t do any of those things.  It didn’t do anything.

Kruse’s bill died the quiet death of most legislation.  As House Bill 1283, Truth in Education went nowhere.  But no one reported on that. [**DOUBLE CORRECTION: First, HB 1283 was not introduced by Senator Kruse, but by Kruse’s ally, Representative Jeff Thompson.  Second, the National Center for Science Education, that tireless watchdog of all things creationism, did in fact report on the fate of HB 1283.  Thanks to Glenn Branch of the NCSE for calling our attention to it.]

To be fair, several of the journalists who talked about the looming threat of Indiana’s latest creationist bill wondered if the bill would ever get anywhere.  But a casual news reader could be forgiven for assuming that creationists pass laws like this all the time.  The news media’s hunger for the sensational feeds a skewed perspective on what is and is not legal in America’s schools.

This is not new.  In 1942 Oscar Riddle and his colleagues conducted a survey of high-school science teachers.[1]  They asked teachers if they taught evolution or special creation, and why.  Those answers were illuminating.  Over three thousand teachers responded to the questionnaire.  Those who claimed not to teach evolution gave a wide range of reasons.  One teacher from North Carolina explained that evolution education was “a taboo subject to most people” (73).  A Nebraska teacher said she avoided evolution education mainly due to “Lack of time.”  One California teacher added, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers” (74).  In the stereotype-shattering department, another California teacher from a “large city” explained that he or she didn’t teach evolution because the “Fundamentalist beliefs of majority of our students may not be attacked (negro and Mexican)” [sic] (74).

Most relevant here, lots of teachers incorrectly believed evolution education was illegal in their states.  Since the 1920s, as I detail in my 1920s book, a handful of states really did pass anti-evolution laws or education-department rules.  But a significant percentage of teachers in the 1940s believed incorrectly that their states had also done so.

Why?  My hunch is that anti-evolution bills get much more attention than they deserve.  Any conservative religious lawmaker can earn quick points for introducing a bill destined to go nowhere.  This was the case in the 1920s, the 1940s, and it is the case today.  Senator Kruse’s bill did not change anything for any students in Indiana.  But it did contribute to a widespread notion that creationism is on the march all over the country.

[1] Oscar Riddle, F.L. Fitzpatrick, H.B. Glass, B.C. Gruenberg, D.F. Miller, E.W. Sinnott, eds., The Teaching of Biology in Secondary Schools of the United States: A Report of Results from a Questionnaire (Washington, DC: Union of American Biological Sciences, 1942).

Kruse-ing to Conservative Schools

For those of us who follow conservative education policy and ideology, Dennis Kruse of Indiana has been one to watch lately.  Senator Kruse chairs the state senate committee on education and career development.

In December, Kruse attracted our attention with his promise of a new “truth-in-education” bill.  This bill would allow students to question their teachers on any controversial subject.  Teachers would be legally responsible to provide evidence supporting his or her classroom content.

Recently, we discovered a helpful way to track the legislative ambitions of this conservative leader.  The Indiana State Senate website allows anyone to view legislation introduced or sponsored by any legislator.

A review of Kruse’s 2013 activity shows us the educational vision of this particular conservative, at least.  For example, this busy senator has authored bills to support prayer in charter schools, to declare that parents have supreme rights concerning their children, and even to mandate the teaching of cursive in Indiana public schools.

Of course, many of these bills will never see the light of day; many are simply political discussion starters.  But even as such, the vision of America’s schools demonstrated by Senator Kruse’s ambitions can tell us a great deal about what conservatives want out of education.  If somehow Senator Kruse became Supreme Emperor Kruse, we can imagine an education system in which religion played a leading role.  It might also be a school system where students learned traditional skills such as writing cursive.  Parents might be empowered to insist on curricula friendly to their religious backgrounds.

Kruse’s 2013 legislative record also demonstrates the tight connections—among conservatives like Senator Kruse—between educational conservatism and a broader cultural conservatism.  In addition to his school bills, Senator Kruse has supported bills to have mandatory drug testing for all state assistance recipients and to provide every abortion recipient with explicit information about the dangers and risks of abortion.

This tightly bundled conservatism demonstrates, IMHO, the need to understand conservatism broadly.  Too many commentators focus on high-profile issues such as creationism or school prayer in isolation.  By instituting better science standards, for instance, some progressive types think they can derail conservative policy.  Such one-issue reforms will not have much impact unless they recognize that educational conservatism is bigger than any one issue.

So what do conservatives want out of America’s schools?  In the case of Senator Kruse, at least, outsiders like me can see an explicit legislative program.