"It certainly looks as though it's on the rise," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution and opposes allowing creationism in schools. "I think the increase can be largely attributed to religious conservatives getting elected to school boards," she says. "It only takes one or two creationists on a school board to generate significant controversy, especially if the science curriculum undergoes periodic review."
Religious right groups like the Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education have pushed hard to get right-wing Christians elected to local school boards in recent years. That's because school-board elections often elicit jaw-droppingly low voter turnout, making it easier for a small but motivated faction to elect its hand-picked candidate. School boards are also attractive to right-wingers because board members have -- or at least appear to have -- tremendous influence over what can and can't be taught in a community's schools.
Right-wing political activists also got a tremendous boost in 1994, when an electorate disenchanted with Bill Clinton voted an unprecedented number of Republicans into state-level and local offices. The legislatures in many states slid rightward literally overnight. Today, right-wing lawmakers are carrying out attacks on public education on numerous fronts, with an eye toward pushing a fundamentalist political agenda -- regardless of the wishes of most parents, teachers, and educators -- and eroding the separation of church and state that has long been the hallmark of public schools. In addition to creationism, major battles are being waged around the country on such issues as school prayer, school-sponsored religious activity, so-called "parental-rights initiatives," sex education, and vouchers. Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, has called these attacks on public education "one element of the Right's attack on the fundamental institutions and values of American society. In attacking the schools, the Right is taking aim at the fundamental notion of opportunity for all. ... What better way to deny real opportunity could be devised than to hamper the institutions that furnish children with an education?"
Examples of creationists trying to use their political might to foist their religious beliefs on public schools include:
* In Vista, California in 1992, voters elected a school board member who was also an accountant for the Institute for Creation Research. After the district's teachers rejected his suggestion to use the creationist book "Of Pandas and People" as a science textbook (see the related article for more on this book), he began advocating that teachers teach "weaknesses in evolution" whenever evolution was taught. Eventually, the board member and two others who had consistently voted with him on such issues were recalled.
* In Alabama in 1995, the state school board voted 6-1 in favor of a inserting a disclaimer into biology textbooks. Written by the right-wing Eagle Forum, it reads in part: "This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. ... No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." According to People for the American Way, Alabama Governor Fob James, who is president of the state school board, urged the board to accept the motion, saying: "If one wanted to know something about the origin of life you might want to look at Genesis and you can get the whole story, period." James also used his discretionary funds to purchase and send more than 900 copies of "Darwin on Trial," a creationist book, to all biology teachers in the state.
* In Hall County, Georgia in 1996, the school board adopted a resolution directing the textbook and curriculum committee to include materials in the science curriculum that explain and discuss creationism. The board rescinded this resolution after the state attorney general warned that this would be unconstitutional.
* In Tennessee in 1996, the Senate and House education committees both approved a bill that would have allowed schools to fire any teacher who presented evolution as a fact. A Senate amendment "defined" evolution as an "unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things." Debate over the bill continued for months, despite an opinion issued by the state attorney general saying that the bill was unconstitutional. It was finally voted down by the Legislature.
Wesley Roberts, an ecology and environmental sciences teacher in Nashville, got himself -- and his students -- involved in the struggle to kill the Tennessee bill. He attended several sessions of the Legislature during the debates, sometimes bringing students from his school with him. "I think they (the students) were smart enough to realize that their teachers were about to be censored," he says, "and regardless of their position on creation and evolution, they did not like that at all." The students "definitely had an impact on the debate," he says. "The media were all over them, interviewing them. They loved getting sound bites from angry kids and plastering them all over TV and the newspaper."
While the rejection of the bill was "a real victory," Roberts says, it will take much more to really pave the way for evolution to be taught in Tennessee. Many teachers, mindful of all the ill will focused on evolution for so long, "won't even mention it in class," he says. Even students in his advanced-placement environmental science class "have very rarely had any instruction in evolution." In fact, in a class Roberts teaches at a nearby college, "I always ask my students how much instruction they've had in evolution, and it's always the case that if they've had it, they went to a private school or they're from the North," he says.
This "chilling effect" stifles teachers all across the country, North as well as South. Even when creationists seem to lose a struggle, as in Tennessee, the controversy they generate can leave teachers wary to so much as mention evolution to their students. "There's a tendency for teachers to be noncombative," says Scott of the National Center for Science Education. "Generally teachers are not looking for a fight. ... If they perceive that a subject is going to get them in trouble, they may very well decide to just steer clear."
The Evolution of Creationism
Despite suffering some political and judicial setbacks, anti-evolutionists are not about to give up applying that pressure. Leaders of the creationist movement have been industrious and relatively skillful about repackaging and reintroducing their beliefs.
Take, for example, the creationists' response to the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision, known as Edwards v. Aguillar, which struck down the Louisiana law requiring teachers to give equal time to "creation science" whenever they taught evolution. The late Justice William Brennan, writing the majority opinion, made it clear that "creation science" wasn't science at all, but an endorsement of faith-based religious belief. He also rejected the idea that the Louisiana law was promoting "a basic concept of fairness" by requiring that both evolution and creation science be taught. "Instead," he wrote, "this Act has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting evolution by counter-balancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism."
Brennan delivered a powerful rhetorical blow against anti-evolutionists. But deep in his 3,800-word opinion, creationists found a single sentence that gave them something they could build on. Brennan had written: "Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction." And in the dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, they found another useful phrase: "The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools ..."
These two statements set the stage for the two most current versions of creationism: the so-called "theory of intelligent design" and the efforts to inject "scientific evidence against evolution" into school curricula. Both are perhaps best exemplified by the creationist pseudo-textbook "Of Pandas and People." Similar reasoning lurks behind the many efforts to slap disclaimers on science textbooks, reminding students that evolution is "only a theory" and not fact. This is a serious misuse of the scientific meaning of "theory," making it sound like a synonym for "guess" or "hunch." In fact, according to the National Association of Biology Teachers, "a (scientific) theory is not a guess or an approximation, but an extensive explanation developed from well-documented, reproducible sets of experimentally derived data from repeated observations of natural processes." In other words, just because the theory of evolution is subject to continued testing and examination in light of new evidence doesn't make it untrue.
The reasons behind such attacks on evolution are obvious, according to a statement written by Rob Boston, a spokesman for the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "They're shifting their attacks by trying to water down the teaching of evolution--put doubts in children's minds. They figure that if they can't get creationism taught in public schools, then the next best thing is to take the instruction about evolution and undercut it." ------------------------ Leon Lynn is an education journalist in Milwaukee. ----------------------- THIS IS PART II OF TWO PARTS. *************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org