Few topics strike terror in the hearts of K-12 school administrators like the evolution v. intelligent design debate and with good reason.
School board members in Dover, Penn., found themselves blinking in the national spotlight when a federal judge ruled the district couldn't mandate intelligent design as part of the curriculum in December 2005, thanks to a lawsuit parents filed against the practice. Testimony revealed that a janitor even dragged an evolution mural in one classroom out and burned it, earning two school board members' approval.
In November 2005, 36 Republican state representatives in Indiana, based on a questionnaire sent to constituents asking for input on the topic, said they wanted to make intelligent design a mandatory part of the science curriculum for Hoosier students. Despite the survey result's implications, comments posted at the Indianapolis Star Web site ran strong in the opposite direction: "Move over Kansas! We want to bask in some of your notoriety! And hey Fortune 500 CEO's, bet you're looking to locate here now! Hurry and get your kids enrolled while there's still room in the church ... er, I mean the school."
Kansas, of course, has been the firestorm capital of the struggle surrounding evolution teaching in this generation even though its new science standards approved in November 2005 do not even advocate intelligent design per se. They merely teach evidence for and against evolution, sums up Casey Luskin, the program officer in public policy and legal affairs at the Seattle-based
Discovery Institute, who cites Kansas and Ohio as having the two best policies in the country. He blames the media for the hoopla. "It's a very reasonable position. Unfortunately, it has been misreported greatly in the process," he says.
Gerry Wheeler is a nuclear physicist, not a biologist, but he can pinpoint the problem in a heartbeat. "It's an emotional topic. If we have any ounce of spirituality in us, these are high-stakes questions and we have to honor everybody on the spectrum of the debate," says Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Washington, D.C.
Complicated, Contentious and Compulsive
Legally, the issue couldn't be simpler, maintains Nick Matzke, the public information project director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California: The Constitution prohibits the states from endorsing or promoting a religious view. This foundation struck down the Dover Area School Districts' approach, as U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declared, "The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism." Later he wrote, "No serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed by members of [ID], including defendants' expert witnesses."
But the evolution v. intelligent design battle gets murky when experts like Luskin point out that the Supreme Court has already ruled you can critique prevailing scientific theories. Now comes the question: Is intelligent design a legitimate scientific theory? Not in Matzke's book. "It doesn't have any significant scientific support," he ticks off. "It is not really a philosophical view. It is a particular religious view. The only reason they don't say the words 'miracle' and 'God' is because those have already been tested in court and it's been found you can't teach them in a science class."
So, adding ID to the curriculum would mean also teaching astrology during astronomy and alternative medicine in health courses, in Matzke's position what will administrators cut from the curriculum to make room for such balance? "You have to give kids the basics and the best that is available from the scientific community. That means teaching the foundational central ideas in the field and not every wacky fringe idea that seems good to somebody," he notes. "It's not a matter of fairness. It's preparing people for college and the world economy that's really what the game is."
Finally, evolution is indisputable, Matzke points out as well established as the germ theory of disease and the atomic theory. "Critical thinking is important but you won't promote critical thinking by misinforming students, which is what you do if you pretend that evolution is not scientifically solid," he adds.
The experts with the opposite viewpoint can counter every statement. The Discovery Institute, for example, insists it is bad policy to mandate intelligent design as a curriculum point. However, individual teachers should be allowed to choose this topic as part of their Constitutional right, Casey says. The official ID definition: certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Its intellectual roots can be found in Plato's and Aristotle's teachings as opposed to Genesis in the Bible, which makes it a more agnostic viewpoint. And as for unproven, the list of supporters include doctoral scientists, researchers and theorists at universities around the country who have published in peer-reviewed journals.
The one faction the two sides do agree on, however, is that school administrators can't avoid the conflict by declaring they'll teach neither. If the state science standards include evolution, Matzke maintains, you have to teach it to qualify for the No Child Left Behind standards. Besides, adds Luskin, removing evolution is most likely an unconstitutional move as Epperson v. Arkansas hinted in 1968 not to mention bad educational policy. "We think students should learn it. It's a very influential theory in modern biology, and students need to understand what it is," he says. "What hurts them is if you teach them to just absorb and swallow evolution as uncritical fact."
Starting Off on The Right Foot
Welcome to science 101. Controversy isn't new to this field Americans still say the sun rises and sets even after Copernicus disproved that notion in 1530. Before Copernicus turned astronomy on its ear (and got his followers tortured, imprisoned and burned at the stake for blasphemy), Claudius Ptolemy was the undisputed word on the Earth's status in the universe.
Gallup polls consistently show a plurality of Americans say they believe God created human beings in basically their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so. More than 70 percent told Gallup in 2000 that they prefer to see Creationism taught side-by-side with evolution in public schools. On the other hand, insiders emphasize, only 5 percent of scientists agree with Creationism. The poll results have not shifted appreciably in the past 25 years.
"It's not the business of public schools to inculcate belief, but with half the people opting out, the amount of anxiety in a great number of our students just learning about evolution is a problem. That is really a hard sell from the teachers' standpoint," says John Angus Campbell, president of the American Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology and senior faculty at the University of Memphis.
But an administration's first mistake could very well be in stereotyping its biology teachers, Wheeler says. "Be aware that your own teachers may be misinformed and part of the controversy. That is the dirty little secret we don't like to say too often: When the surveys are done, a good third of the high school biology teachers believe that creation is an intelligent design and at least deserves equal time," he notes. Knowing their attitude today can avoid sabotages tomorrow.
Second, take the community's pulse, Wheeler recommends. "I'd argue if it's going to be an issue, checking gives you a sense of urgency on all the other steps you have to take," he explains.
Matzke offers several potential tacts for the public announcement:
The superintendent could pass the buck and blame the state standards. Just be sure to reference that top minds at the National Academy of Sciences have recommended evolution as 21st century science.
Such an authoritarian stance, however, grates on some people who are used to America being the land of equal time for both sides. "It is fair to require students to understand something but there is a difference about learning and believing," Matzke says. So be prepared to emphasize that students retain complete freedom of conscience they do not have to give up their faith.
Then, taking it one step further to stress that evolution does not imply atheism is extremely important, he adds. "Science by definition is a self-limited focus on the natural world. It cannot tell you about the supernatural one," says Matzke. "That's why people of all different religious faiths can be scientists." One common theological way of reconciling the two: evolution doesn't disprove God, it tries to prove how He did it.
Finally, bone up on the topic yourself, Wheeler advises. After all, most administrators don't have a background in the life sciences to grasp the subtleties of the debate. So read the mission statements of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Biology Teachers, then ask a local resource to sit down and go over the materials with you.
"The good news is that most of the confusion and controversy lies in people not understanding the terms. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or biologist to get to the level of an informed amateur," Wheeler says.
If Campbell, a communications scholar by trade, was asked to teach the evolution dispute, he'd naturally approach it as a fight. "Whatever else science is, it is also the history of great arguments over important scientific questions," he says. He advocates teaching all science in a point-counterpoint style to normalize differences of opinion. "Then people can raise questions about ID without embarrassment. People disagree. So what?" is the resulting framework.
He'd further defuse the issue by actually handing students copies of The Origin of Species to study firsthand. (In its prime folks purchased copies at the railway station.) Its front piece in particular surprises many readers and would likely get the book thrown out of public schools today for stepping over the line by bringing theology to the argument. "If you look at The Origin of Species, assume a different relationship between religion and science than we have today," Campbell warns. "I'm not arguing for religion. I'm not arguing for intelligent design. I'm arguing for context."
This dovetails well with the critical analysis approach Luskin advocates. He sends seekers to lesson plans available on the Ohio Department of Education Web site, which spell out critical questions to ask, comparisons to weigh and how to score tests.
The only drawback Campbell sees is that the run-up to this mindset won't happen overnight. Argument-centered approaches to teaching science requires educators skilled in how to frame issues so that people can deal with one another in a civil manner. "That is part of the secret of the rhetoric. I've had 38 years teaching controversies in class. I think it is wonderful, but it does raise the bar for teacher qualifications," he sighs.
A more immediate solution might be to reclassify the intelligent design discussion within a social studies or philosophy class, says Wheeler. Educators like Matzke give that the stamp of legitimacy as long as the lesson plan sticks to outlining the basic tenants of major world religions without labeling one wrong and another right. And you'll never go wrong bringing in a lawyer to read over your course materials, no matter where you drop in the intelligent design topic.
But the good news is that it's easy to avoid a lawsuit by exercising a bit of restraint. "The fundamental thing is not to promote religion even if you want to. That's usually the thing motivating this intelligent design stuff, and it gets them in trouble," says Matzke. "It doesn't matter what you call it. There has to be some self-examination."
And while the court cases strike fear into administrators, Wheeler takes heart in the sheer number of school districts that dodge the cacophony. "Clearly a lot get through the issue without the drama," he says.
Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.