Missing the Boat on Creationism at the New York Times

It’s more than just a couple of minor goofs. A recent “retro” report about creationism and evolution education in the New York Times makes the usual huge mistakes in its description of American creationism.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m no creationist myself. I want more and better evolution education in America’s public schools, as I argued recently in my book with philosopher Harvey Siegel. But we won’t achieve that goal as long as we keep telling ourselves these comfortable/scary myths about creationism. If we want to fight the political influence of creationism, it is far better to understand creationism as it really is, instead of the clumsy monstrosity we usually imagine.

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Kicking ass for creation.

Let me start with the positives. The report did a good job of describing the basic history of anti-evolution legislation and court battles from the 1920s to today. As they describe, anti-evolution laws have been struck down by SCOTUS and other courts time and time again. They also did well to include the voices of both the smartest pro-evolution pundit—Brown’s Kenneth Miller—and leading creationists, including Answers In Genesis’s Georgia Purdom and a panel from the intelligent-designing Discovery Institute.

The problems with the report are not mere details or minor interpretative mistakes. No, the danger is that too many of us non-creationists woefully misunderstand the world of American creationism. As with this report from the New York Times, we will repeat misleading notions to ourselves and think we have a better picture of creationism. The real danger, of course, is that we will traipse off with our non-knowledge to make plans and policies, without a whiff of a sense that we are building on the wrong foundation.

As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the first goof most non-creationists make is to treat creationism as a large, scary, undifferentiated mass. In the NYT report, for example, the young-earth Georgia Purdom is cited alongside the intelligent-designing Stephen Meyer as if there is not an enormous difference between their two beliefs.

Why does it matter? For one thing, the suggestion that a huge army of creationists are massing to take control of public schools is scary. But the idea of a fractured and disputatious set of cranky creationists isn’t. And that’s much closer to the truth. Consider, for example, Dr. Purdom’s criticism of intelligent design. While some evangelicals might like the notion at first, Purdom has argued, in the end, in an ID universe,

God appears sloppy and incompetent, if not downright vicious.

For the young-earthers at Answers In Genesis, ID is not an ally but rather another danger to be confronted. In the end, there is no such thing as “creationism”—at least not the way the New York Times article suggests. Rather, there are many creationisms. And those different visions of science and religion often fight one another far more viciously than they fight against mainstream science.

Here’s my second beef. As always, this article and its expert talking heads refer to creationism as “anti-science.” It’s not. All of us love science. As anthropologist Chris Toumey put it in his underappreciated book, God’s Own Scientists, creationists are like all Americans. We all have deep faith in the

plenary authority of science; that is, the idea that something is more valuable and more credible when it is believed that science endorses it.

In other words, whether people are shilling toothpaste, NASA budgets, or creation science, they always dress up in lab coats to make their pitch.

Why does that matter? If there are two simple sides to these culture war fights—science on one side and anti-science on the other—then we would have a much simpler time convincing the antis to get on board. Instead, as we saw so excruciatingly in the Ham-on-Nye debate a while back, what we end up doing instead is wasting time with each side trying to prove just how much it loves science. We don’t need to have that talk again. If we all love science, we can have more productive conversations—even if we disagree—about how to teach science in public schools.


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Last and most important, we need to acknowledge the false and misleading myths about creationism’s history. This article is especially egregious in suggesting that creationism is making a bold new political advance, that fundamentalist armies are sweeping state legislatures in a frightening new show of creationist strength.

For example, the NYT report says that creationists haven’t scored a victory since the Scopes trial in 1925, until now. It describes menacingly that a “growing skepticism about science has seeped into the classroom.” I understand the reasons for alarm, but the notion of a huge uptick in creationist political power simply does not match the historical record.

The career of anti-evolution agitation has been one of steady decline in ambition and reach. For nearly a century now, anti-evolution activists have fought for a set of ever-shrinking goals. As I found in my first book, anti-evolution laws in the 1920s wanted nothing less than the imposition of theocratic rule on American public schools. In Kentucky, for example, a 1922 bill would have banned not only evolution, but atheism and agnosticism. An amendment would have pulled any book from a public library that might lead a student to question her religious beliefs.

Compare those bills to creationists’ efforts today. Please don’t get me wrong. I am in full agreement with Kenneth Miller and Zack Kopplin; today’s anti-evolution laws are terrible. But that doesn’t mean that they represent a bold new surge of strength for anti-evolutionism. They don’t. Rather, they are just the latest strategic grab at scraps of influence and power by anti-evolutionists.

Why does it matter? Well, I think I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will. If creationism is 1.) united, 2.) anti-science, and 3.) surging to greater and greater power, those of us who oppose religious imposition in public schools need to take drastic action. We’d need a wholesale reorganization of the decision-making process in public-school curricula. We would need to come up with radical ways to intervene in local educational decisions, as the US did with racial segregation to such mixed results.

If, on the other hand, creationism is shrinking, fragmented, and in agreement about the fundamental intellectual power of capital-S science, we face a much different environment. It won’t generate as much attention, but it would be better policy to simply continue our efforts. We should continue to do what we’ve been doing: Advocate tirelessly for more and better evolution education; explain and explore the real contours of American creationism; repeat that evolution is not a religious idea—it won’t hurt students’ religious faiths.


Kopplin, Creationism, and Liberal Book Burnings

A network of charter schools in Texas uses religious textbooks.  Bad religious textbooks.

That’s the accusation leveled last week by anti-creationism activist Zack Kopplin in the pages of Slate.

For anyone who has looked at the textbooks cranked out by conservative religious presses, as I have, the charges sound true.  But does this sort of expose rely too heavily on shock value?  Does it really tell us anything about what goes on in those charter schools?  Or does it rely on the dangerous mentality of the book burner?

Kopplin’s investigation uncovered the dodgy content of books used by Responsive Education, a network of charter schools that claims 65 schools and a plan to open more in the coming year.  Kopplin, a young but seasoned activist, found textbooks rife with creationist-friendly ideas.  Moreover, the textbooks promote a religious vision of history and repeatedly promulgate half-truths and lies as historic fact.  The books take a questionable tone about homosexuality and seem to embrace a distressingly patriarchal vision of proper family life.  Worst of all, Kopplin argues, these textbooks are used in public schools, schools that ought to be open and welcoming to all students, not just religious conservatives.  These slanted textbooks are peddling fake science, bad history, and sectarian “values,” and they’re using tax money to do it.

Let me repeat: Kopplin’s charges ring true to me.  I agree that public schools must not push theology.  But as I finish up my current book manuscript about the history of conservative school activism in the twentieth century, I can’t help but notice the disturbing echoes of Kopplin’s crusade.  His anti-textbook campaign seems to revive the worst elements of wartime book burning.

Sound outlandish?  Let me offer some specific examples.

First and most worrisome, Kopplin relies on the tried-but-false McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.  In his article, Kopplin points out that some ResponsiveEd schools might assign readings from the Patriots’ History of the United States, a skewed and partisan book.  To discredit the book, Kopplin notes that the book is beloved by conservative blabbermouth Glenn Beck.

More troubling, Kopplin tars ResponsiveEd schools with all the sins of every right-wing theocrat with whom they can be associated.  Consider, for example, Kopplin’s takedown of Oklahoma businessman and curricular contributor Tom Hill.  Hill, Kopplin charges,

is a follower of Bill Gothard, a minister who runs the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Christian organization that teaches its members to incorporate biblical principles into daily life. IBLP is considered a cult by some of its former followers. Gothard developed character qualities associated with a list of “49 General Commands of Christ” that Hill adopted for his character curriculum. Hill then removed Gothard’s references to God and Bible verses and started marketing the curriculum to public schools and other public institutions.

The values taught by Responsive Ed can often be found word for word on Gothard’s website. The Responsive Ed unit on genetics includes “Thoroughness: Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of my work or words if neglected.” The only difference is that Gothard’s website also adds “Proverbs 18:15” after the quote.

What does this really prove?  That some of the origins of ResponsiveEd’s curriculum can be tied to conservative evangelical Protestants?  Is that illegal?  Is that even worrisome?  After all, taken another way, Kopplin’s accusation can be taken as proof that ResponsiveEd’s curriculum has been DE-Biblicized.

This sort of guilt-by-association has a terrifying history in American educational and political history.  Too often, left-leaning or liberal groups earned labels of “subversion” by association with communist thinkers or organizations.  Consider, for instance, the widely circulated “spider-web chart” used by patriotic activists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  Any alleged association with leftist organizations, the chart accused, meant that organizations must not be trusted.

Image Source: Women's and Social Movements in the U.S.

Image Source: Women’s and Social Movements in the U.S.

In the late 1930s, a conservative campaign took off against a set of social-studies textbooks by left-leaning author Harold Rugg.  Time and again, those accusations were based on these guilt-by-association tactics.  Since Rugg taught at Teachers College Columbia, it was alleged, since he was a member of the Frontier Thinkers intellectual group, and since some members of that group had made statements or editorial decisions friendly to communism or Soviet Russia, Rugg was charged with treasonous intent.  His books were charged with all manner of subversive crime.  Just as anti-Rugg activists swung too wildly against Rugg’s books, so Kopplin seems over-ready to ban ResponsiveEd books based on questionable associations.

Another parallel between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning crusades is that Kopplin’s charges do not have much to do with actual classroom practice.  As Kopplin admits, he never actually witnessed the teaching in ResponsiveEd schools.  Rather, he relates that one classroom he looked at had the distinctive set up of an Accelerated Christian Education classroom.  Kopplin cites ILYBYGTH friend and guest writer Jonny Scaramanga as evidence that such classrooms teach terrible Bible-based schlock.

But here’s the problem: just as conservative book-burners in the 1940s gave too little thought to the ways Rugg’s textbooks might actually be used, so Kopplin does not offer any evidence about the actual goings-on in ResponsiveEd classrooms.  Anyone who has spent any time teaching knows that textbooks do not dictate classroom practice.  Take the most obvious example: What should we make of public-school classrooms that use the Bible as curriculum?  As religion scholar Mark Chancey has argued recently, the Bible can and should be taught.  But HOW it is taught makes all the difference.

I’m not saying that the ResponsiveEd curricular materials are wonderful.  But I am saying that jumping to conclusions about the practices at any school based mainly on textbooks is a fundamental mistake.

This is getting long, but here is one other creepy similarity between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning campaigns.  Like earlier campaigns, Kopplin’s charges have been passed along uncritically by allies seeking to discredit ResponsiveEd.  Intelligent, well-meaning critics such as Diane Ravitch, the Texas Freedom Network, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have trumpeted the conclusions of Kopplin’s expose.

None of these liberal organizations seems troubled by Kopplin’s sketchy evidence or guilt-by-association tactics.  As an historian who has spent the better part of the last few years stuck in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1930s and 1940s, this knee-jerk boosterism alarms me.  For many patriotic book-burners in the 1940s, Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network served as a similar sort of convenient sourcebook for denunciation.  Too many conservative activists—even intelligent, well-meaning ones—repeated outlandish charges and baseless accusations from Dilling’s book.  The fact that a textbook author such as Harold Rugg showed up in Dilling’s pages served as proof positive for many school activists that his books must not be allowed in America’s public schools.

Creepiest of all, Kopplin’s language often echoes almost verbatim the language of 1940s book-burners.  For example, Kopplin engages in a sinister sort of hermeneutic when he says the following: “Some of Responsive Ed’s lessons appear harmless at first, but their origin is troubling.”

In other words, Kopplin admits that the books themselves might not be so bad, but since they came from conservative religious sources, we must automatically attack them.  This smacks too much of what political scientist Michael Rogin has described as “political demonology.”[1]

Consider some of the similar language from the 1930s/1940s anti-Rugg textbook fight.  One of the leaders of that anti-book battle, R. Worth Shumaker of the American Legion, told a correspondent that the dangers of the Rugg books only became clear if one went “back of the scenes.”  Reading the books themselves, Shumaker admitted, made them seem bland and harmless.  But once an earnest researcher discovered Rugg’s leftist connections, the slant of the textbooks became obvious.

Another American Legion activist agreed.  Hamilton Hicks admitted in a 1941 article that “intelligent people” could read Rugg’s book and find nothing wrong with them.  “Dr. Rugg,” Hicks accused, “is far too adept a propagandist to disclose his real purpose in any one textbook.”[2]  Just as Zack Kopplin warns that the ResponsiveEd textbooks might seem harmless until we understand their origins, so anti-Rugg activists admitted that Rugg textbooks might seem fine until their sinister backstory was uncovered.

We verge from activism to hysteria when we denounce textbooks for reasons other than the textbooks themselves.  If textbooks seem harmless, the first appropriate conclusion is that the textbooks are likely harmless.

So what is a liberal to do?  Kopplin makes an important point: public schools ought not cram dead science and bad history down students’ throats.  As organizations such as Texas Freedom Network have done, this situation calls for more rigorous examination.  What really goes on in ResponsiveEd schools?  They should not be allowed to use tax dollars to teach sectarian religion and false facts.  It is important for all of us to remember, however, the profound costs of over-hasty accusations.  Calling for book burnings is never an appropriate tactic.

Kopplin has made some serious charges.  So far, however, those charges have not been backed up by adequate proof.  More is at stake here than just one charter-school network.  If we veer into hysteria rather than activism, we repeat the worst mistakes of our history.

[1] Michael Paul Rogin, “Ronald Reagan,” The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), xiii.

[2] Hamilton Hicks, “Ours to Reason Why,” American Legion Magazine (May, 1941): 6, 51.

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.