"We are the products of editing rather than of authorship.".... ...George Wald.
Commentary of the Day - May 31, 2002: Scopes Revisited? The Kansas Board of Education's 1999 Decision on Evolution. Guest commentary by Tina Blue.
In 1999 the Kansas State Board of Education (BOE) voted to alter the guidelines for state science tests, eliminating questions that pertained to macroevolution (the idea that through natural selection and adaptation new species arise over time out of already existing species), the Big Bang theory of the origins of the cosmos, and the vast stretches of geological time.
It is important to understand what the BOE did and did not do, because there has been a lot of confusion over that point, and some members of the board have used that confusion to obscure the intent of their action.
The BOE did not forbid the teaching of evolution (not even of macroevolution), nor did they introduce "creation science" into the state's testing standards. But it is a given that local curricula are to a large degree influenced by awareness at the local level of what a school district's students will be required to know in order to do well on state-level assessment tests. By eliminating macroevolution from the testing standards, the BOE signaled local school boards that it would be safe to eliminate it from local curricula if they chose to do so. As then BOE chairman Linda Holloway put it, they returned the decision to the local level.
Many small communities in Kansas, especially in the rural parts of the state, are deeply religious, and their religious beliefs often tend toward Christian fundamentalism. I have no intention of bashing those whose beliefs rest on a literal interpretation of the Bible, but it may well be that not all members of a given community are Christian, and even among Christians, not all subscribe to the idea that the Bible must be interpreted literally. As a government function, the public schools should not be used to promote any specific religious faith, and yet the new BOE standards would leave the door open for just such a scenario.
If the majority of members of a local school board believe that the story of Creation presented in Genesis is literally true, then they might well mandate that science teachers not present theories of macroevolution, or if they do, that they give equal treatment to "creation science," which is based on the literal interpretation of the Bible.
But some other religions also have their own version of how the universe came into existence, so if the Christian version of Creation is to be taught in science classes, then how could we legally -- or fairly -- deny equal time to those other versions? Besides, a curriculum based on "creation science" would never withstand a court challenge, and a lot of time, money, and energy would have to be diverted from educating children in order to channel it into arguing the court case.
Furthermore, the elimination of macroevolution from testing standards also entailed the elimination of references to the Big Bang theory and to the vast expanse of geological time.
The new standards were drafted with the aid of Tom Willis, who is the head of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America, a group that promotes the teaching of creationism in the public schools; and the BOE's intention, despite their diversionary tactics since then, really was to offer government sanction to the teaching of the Christian version of Creation, even if their approach was through a side door rather than in a full frontal attack.
In her primary campaign against moderate Republican challenger Sue Gamble, Linda Holloway said, "Well, the separation of church and state appears nowhere in the Constitution. I find it amazing that we keep going back to that."
The type of "creation science" referred to as "young-earth creationism" is based on the idea that the earth cannot be more than 6,000 years old, and that all species existing today came into being at the same time, during God's act of Creation. Explanations about ice ages, continent formation, and other aspects of geological development have no place in young-earth creationism.
Once the BOE's decision became known, a major national textbook publisher announced plans to remove the first chapter from their grade-school textbook on Kansas history. The chapter that dealt with Kansas pre-history, with the huge glacial sea that once covered this area, and with the world-famous Kansas fossil beds would be removed to avoid exposing Kansas youngsters to information their elders seem to prefer they not know.
In other words, the freedom of Kansas students to learn about Kansas pre-history and the processes involved in geological development would have been denied, simply because the new standards had stampeded textbook publishers into excising such material rather than risk losing a major market for their texts.
The decisions made by school boards in the largest markets (including, for example, California, Texas, and Florida) to a large degree determine what goes into the textbooks that are sold nationwide. Thus, a religion-based decision by state school boards in the Bible Belt could deny students in New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota, or any other state access to material on certain subjects.
Kansas students would want to compete for scholarships and for entrance into prestigious universities. But if they weren't even taught about ideas considered basic and essential by the most accomplished and respected scientists in the nation and the world, then they would not be prepared for what is, after all, a national competition for scholarships and for places at the most selective colleges and universities.
In fact, soon after the BOE changed the science standards, several universities around the country began to consider screening Kansas applicants more rigorously, to make sure they had studied evolution and the other subjects de-emphasized or eliminated by the new standards. Those students who attended schools that had not taught such subjects would have been placed at a great disadvantage, even if they were not themselves Christians! Some students would thus have suffered penalties for someone else's religion.
As it happens, none of this will occur. During the 2000 primary elections in Kansas, two of the BOE members (including BOE chairman Linda Holloway) who had supported the revised standards were defeated by opponents from their own (Republican) party. No matter which party took those seats in the general election, the winners would return the standards to their pre-1999 state.
The Republicans who won their primaries against the BOE incumbents campaigned specifically on that issue, promising to undo what the 1999 BOE decision had done. That is evidence that the revised standards were pushed through by a committed activist minority, while an apathetic majority simply was not paying attention.
Too many Americans discount the significance of local -- or even state -- elections, and vote only in prominent national races. But local and state elections are the training ground for those who will move into positions of power at the national level. And although national elections are important, those who hold political office at the local and state levels have a more direct and noticeable impact on a citizen's day-to-day life.
The Kansas Board of Education's decision was a wake-up call to Kansans of diverse political persuasions, and it got them to the polls to vote for BOE candidates who would restore macroevolution to the state's testing standards. But people are busy -- and perhaps a little lazy, too. The public will probably doze off again, until some other widely publicized political decision reminds them that it is dangerous to neglect our responsibility to participate in the political process.
©2002 Tina Blue
Tina Blue is a lecturer in English at the University of Kansas. She also publishes the "Teacher, Teacher" web site.
The Irascible Professor thanks Tina for her insightful comments on the politics of the Kansas Board of Education's decisions on the teaching of evolution. This is the third (and last) of our series of guest commentaries on the teaching of evolution in K-12 schools. Previous articles in this series included Beth Clarkson's guest commentary "Evolution and Education", and "Bad Science. Bad, Bad Science" by Beverly C. Lucey.
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