Guest Opportunity on Janet Parshall's America

I have been invited to be on Janet Parshall’s America, a national conservative talk-show, next Thursday between 3:15 and 3:30 CST. The producer Ron Stafford noticed a reference to me in a recent USA Today article, which said:

“Part of the job of the public school system is to make professional judgments about what children ought to learn,” says Jack Krebs, a teacher and vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science. “It doesn’t make any sense to give equal time to all these other ideas that are vastly unsupported. It’s misleading to kids.”

Ron was interested in the part about “professional judgments about what children ought to learn” in relation to the creation/evolution debate. As part of preparing for the show, he asked me to let them know “more [about] where you’re coming from with regard to the creation/evolution debate on how this should be presented in schools.”

I thought this was a good question, and I’ve let them know that I appreciate their inviting me to discuss this issue from the point of curriculum in the public schools. In response I wrote a short summary of some of the important main points, which I post below. I’m sure there is plenty of material here for them to ask me some good questions in the short amount of time we’ll have.

Where I’m coming from on teaching the creation/evolution debate in public schools

Comments about education in general:

1) The public school curriculum should focus on key knowledge and skills that students will need to be successful citizens: successful as workers in whatever careers they have, as parents and family members, as consumers, as community members, and as participants in our nation’s political system at all levels. Note that by skills I mean both specific content skills, such as writing well or being able to do algebra, and also personal and interpersonal skills, such as being responsible, honest, respectful, and so on.

2) School districts have traditionally had a great deal of local control over curriculum in our country. School boards usually assign the responsibility for designing curriculum to teachers and administrators who are expected to exercise their expertise in selecting curriculum content and teaching methods that will allow the school to meet the goals described in paragraph 1).

In particular, in designing curriculum teachers take into account:

a) the district curricular outcomes for graduating seniors,

b) the place in the sequence for their particular class (what have students learned so far and what will they need to know in the next grade or class),

c) what concepts and teaching methods are developmentally appropriate for the age group involved, and

d) how do teachers fit all that needs to be done into the allotted time with the available resources.

This latter point is quite important: there is much more to teach than we really have time for; therefore we have to balance covering essential content with teaching the students how to learn.

3) State and national involvement in education has also become increasingly important in the last 15 years or so. State accreditation processes, and now the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, have made school districts more accountable for meeting state standards by emphasizing high-stakes assessments.

State standards, such as are currently being revised in Kansas, outline the core curricular content that all schools should use as a foundation for building their local curriculum. State standards are not usually mandated; nevertheless standards are essential because the state assessments, which are used for NCLB and state accreditation, are based on those standards.

Note also that state standards by no means are meant to include everything that is to be taught. Therefore they do not restrict content to that mentioned in the standards. Standards are a foundation of core content, but not a complete curriculum.

The method for developing state standards is analogous to what happens at the local level. The state Board of Education appoints a committee of professionally qualified educators, those educators develop the standards, and then the state Board adopts those standards. Generally state and local Boards follow the recommendations of their appointed committees.

Now let’s look at the evolution/creation debate.

4) The theory of evolution is the mainstream explanation for the diversity of life on earth, accepted as a unifying principle of biology by virtually all scientists worldwide who have expertise in fields related to the subject. As such, it is what we should be teaching students.

5) The anti-evolution movement has two main branches, the young-earth creationists and the Intelligent Designists (IDists).

a) Young-earth creationists have made testable hypotheses about the physical world: the earth is about 6000-10,000 years old, all the different “kinds” of living things were created during a literal six days, a global flood was responsible for many of the geological features of the earth, and so on. The scientific community considers these claims to be unsupported by the evidence: they have no standing in the fields of biology, geology, or cosmology

Furthermore, Supreme Court cases have clearly declared that young-earth creationism is a manifestation of a religious doctrine, without scientific merit, and that therefore teaching it in public schools is unconstitutional.

b) Intelligent Design is a philosophical objection to a misunderstanding about the nature of science. Intelligent Design has made no scientifically testable hypotheses and therefore produced no empirical data. Intelligent Design at this point is not even science, much less tested and accepted science, and therefore does not deserve consideration as a part of the science curriculum.

6) Intelligent Design (and most anti-evolutionary views) mistakenly claim that science, because it seeks natural explanations for natural phenomena, is virtually identical to philosophical naturalism and atheism. However, millions of religious people, including millions of Christians, do not accept this view. They accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation for what has happened in the physical world, and they believe that God manifests His divine will through His active presence in every moment in ways that are beyond our comprehension (and certainly beyond our scientific scrutiny.)

However, the Intelligent Design movement does not accept that this is a valid Christian perspective. For example, Intelligent Design founder Philip Johnson has said, “Liberal Christians [who accept evolution as described above] are worse than atheists because they hide their naturalism behind a veneer of religion.”

7) The Intelligent Design movement has a well-funded, well-organized strategy, the Wedge strategy, for inserting their particular religious views into society, and they use public school curricula and policies as the vehicle for doing so. They are bypassing accepted ways of establishing science and education curricula as a means of establishing their religious perspective, a perspective which disenfranchises millions of people with other religious and a-religious views.

8) I can see a place for a discussion of these issues in public schools, although there are reasons why such a discussion might be hard to accomplish.

a) As part of a section in a social studies class on comparative religions, or comparative religious views, students might study and discuss the ways different religions view the relationship between the physical and metaphysical. For instance, Plato’s views clearly bring up the issue of whether ideas or physical reality “comes first” ontologically. Similarly, students could study, as part of their understanding of Western monotheism and Eastern pantheism and non-theism, different ideas about how the metaphysical acts upon and manifests in the physical. At some point in that discussion, students could address the Christian arguments over whether God is continually active or whether he has periodically intervened, which appears to be the position of the Intelligent Designists. However, this is all pretty sophisticated, and there probably would not be many teachers or courses offered that would go into the subject at this depth.

b) A second place these issues might be discussed would be as a “current event” in science. Good science teachers bring up socially important topics where science is involved but which also involve non-scientific considerations such as values and ethical judgments; a discussion of different religious perspectives about science and why they are so contentious would probably be valuable.

The problem here, of course, is that the subject is so contentious that many biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution itself as fully as they should for fear of arousing protest; trying to teach about why it is contentious is probably not a task many teachers would want to attempt. A second problem is that most science teachers don’t have the background to teach this, and good materials don’t exist. And last is the fact that the science teacher would not be teaching the anti-evolution views as being scientifically valid, but would be looking at them from a religious and sociological perspective. That is precisely what the anti-evolutionists don’t accept and don’t want.