By Marguerite Ward
Photo courtesy of cutiepie company.
A group of advocates for teaching creationism in public schools have made their way onto the panel that will decide what science textbooks Texas will teach its students for the next decade. Considering that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional, as ruled by the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, what then explains the fiery textbook debate?
In the pursuit of what religious conservatives have coined “critical thinking”, proponents cite evolution and global warming as intellectually weak, unsound theories up for debate. To fill the perceived scientific gaps, they argue that creationism should be taught as alternative, or even a stand-alone scientific explanation. Promoting diversity of views, students under a new curriculum could be taught text from the Bible alongside Darwin’s research.
The thought has the scientific community up in arms. Lawrence M. Krauss, internationally renowned physicist and Director of the Arizona State University Origins Project, discusses the issue with BTR.
“There is no room for compromise between truth and falsehood… the virtue of science is that one side is usually wrong. Ideas that disagree with observation, or ideas have not led to any progress in our understanding of the natural world should not be a part of the science curriculum in high schools. Creationism in its various guises has the unique privilege of doing both,” he said.
For those seeking some sort of compromise, some say history or sociology classrooms may have room to teach the Bible and creationism under a cultural or historical lens. But does the science classroom – where experiment-tested evidence guides the curriculum?
Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative group Texas Values, says they do.
“Science is a field where there’s a lot of exploration, people like to ask a lot of questions – and I think that’s important. I think students should be allowed the opportunity to continue to ask questions and to have good critical thinking skills…” he said in interview with MSNBC.
Statewide education standards require teaching evolution in Texas. The curriculum standards explicitly require, “The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life.”
Nowhere is there mention of teaching alternative theories, but neither is there any mention of barring any alternative theories, leaving a regulatory opening for debate.
The Texas Education Agency oversees the statewide curriculum and manages the textbook adoption process. Commenting on the debate, a representative told BTR, “Our teachers and our curriculum standards call for teaching evolution. Every time we prepare to buy new biology books, activists on both the evolution and creation side come speak at our public hearings to try to sway the board. But the science curriculum standards have not been changed.”
Nearly as controversial as the creationism debate is the debate over whether or not to teach global warming, another theory that a few members of the deciding education panel reject In reaction the same community members and scientists are equally outraged, arguing global warming should be taught as a fact, just like evolution.
However, the Texas education standards on global warming are already set, and they are not likely to change. High school students are required to analyze the causes and effects of global warming, for example the role of pollution in global warming and global warming’s effect on ice-cap melting. However, students are also required to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming,” according to official statewide standards. Discussing the specific scientific details of global warming is mandated, and so is debating its existence.
The conservative push to question global warming comes at the same time as the release of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. After six years of research, the group of 200 scientists from around the world, their report only affirms global warming’s existence with that much greater conviction and again confirms the earth’s rapidly rising temperature.
As much as the education debate in Texas resembles the age-old fight of religion vs. science, the two issues are not as clear cut. Less audible in the debate are the opinions of religious people who don’t believe creationism should be taught in science classrooms. Father James Keenan, S.J. and professor of theology at Boston College says, “Among more fundamental Christians, the teaching of creationism is important… For Christians who read the Bible in some sort of context, [teaching creationism] is not an issue.”
According to Father Keenan, the fight to teach creationism boils down to how one reads the Bible. “[Fundamental Christians] read the Bible in a very particular way. They read it directly, without any appreciation of context, who wrote it, when it was written, any of what we call the historical critical question.”
The historical critical method in theology means understanding the context of when, who, and for whom a religious text was written.
The debate over what to teach Texas students did not begin in the past month. In fact, political tension between religion and education has been brewing in the Lone Star state for years. Steven J. Friesen, professor of religious studies and classics at the University of Texas at Austin explains the historic caliber of these arguments.
“What you have going on here is that over the last 10 years or so there has been a concerted mobilization of conservative Christians to elect people to the state’s education board as a way of exercising influence on the state level,” Friesen said.
The effect of this effort is what we’re witnessing today, as members of the education panel advocate for teaching creationism. “Under the radar, [far-right religious members] have developed a strong representation in the body that makes the education decisions,” he said.
Dr. Friesen has organized a workshop for high school teachers about teaching the Bible in public schools. Alongside a science teacher, Friesen educates teachers on how to facilitate conversation around the Bible and religion.
A starting point for many conversations is the following idea: “In a public school, we don’t teach people to be religious or not to be religious. That’s not our job,” Friesen said.
Instead, he and his team educate high school teachers about navigating the delicate balance between separation of church and state and the important role religion plays to many students. “The important thing is to understand 1st amendment issues, the legal issues and then to understand the sensitivity of the religion for the students they are talking with,” he said.
To keep afloat the day-to-day debate, The Texas Freedom Network has taken to the internet to live blog and comment on the textbook hearings. The Texas Freedom Network is a grassroots advocacy and watchdog organization that monitors far-right religious and social groups. Along with support of other progressive organizations such as The People For the American Way Foundation, The Texas Freedom Network has hosted public rallies in support of teaching science and not religion.
The debate in Texas holds regional and even national importance as the outcome will impact one of the largest education systems in the country. The textbooks the education panel chooses will impact what students learn for the next ten years. At the intersection of religion and politics, Texas is in a unique position to manage the difficult balance between different religious beliefs and evidence-based science. Civil dialogue on the issue could open the door to not only teaching the best, most advanced science research, but educating the next generation of leaders in cultural and religious sensitivity for all people.