Many of evangelicals’ attempts to insert creationism into the classroom over the past half decade or so have actually been based in the rhetoric of progressive education. The latest development in Indiana’s nascent creationist wars is just one more example of this. Confused? Let me explain.
After laws banning the teaching of evolution in public schools were struck down in the 1960s creationists began arguing that schools should teach both creation and evolution and then let students make up their own minds. You have to understand how very progressive the idea that children should be presented with multiple theories and allowed to make up their own minds is. Conservative approaches to education have generally been hierarchical and authoritarian in nature – the teacher teaches, the student learns – while progressive approaches have generally been more egalitarian and self-directed – the teacher is the guide, helping the student form his or her own knowledge.
Well, it just so happens that evangelicals are at it again, once again appropriating progressive ideas to promote creationism and challenge evolution in the classroom. Here is some background from historian Adam Laats’ blog, I Love You But You’re Going To Hell:
Apparently, having failed to promote a two-models creation/evolution bill in he last legislative session, [Indiana State Senator Dennis] Kruse plans to offer a bill that will encourage students in Indiana’s schools to ask teachers to back up ideas with facts.
According to the Indianapolis Star, Kruse defended his plan as a “truth-in-education” measure: “. . . if a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true.”
Kruse’s new strategy comes on the heels of new rules in New Hampshire and Missouri that will allow every public school student to recuse himself or herself from curricular materials he or she finds objectionable. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these laws just won’t work. Ideology and theology and biology aside, the classroom implementation of such regulations seems utterly impossible.
As the Indianapolis Star reports, critics have pointed out similar flaws with Kruse’s plan. Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, argued that teachers could be asked to supply proof of everything, from evolution to the moon landing. “It’s not workable,” Schnellenberger concluded.
The intention of such bills is clear: conservatives hope to protect students from indoctrination in ideas they find loathsome. In Kruse’s case, he takes a weatherbeaten play from the old progressive playbook to make it happen. If students can direct their own educations—challenging the classroom authority of their teachers on every point—then the chances of swallowing objectionable ideas decreases dramatically.
The idea that conservative evangelicals would encourage students to question and challenge their teachers is, on its face, extremely confusing. Interestingly, this is one of those weird places where you see a flip-flop in positions, as progressives overwhelmingly oppose attempts to “teach both sides” and likely Kruse’s proposed law as well. In other words, creationists (i.e. conservatives) are arguing that students should be able to make up their own minds and question their teachers while progressives are arguing that only one perspective should be taught and that teachers should teach and students should accept what they are taught.
What is going on here?
First, I have argued I have argued before that creationists are only adopting progressive arguments out of pragmatism:
When I hear the talk of teaching “both sides,” I can’t help but feel that if creationists had their way, they would never ask for teaching “both sides” at all, but would instead prefer to teach only their side. Creationists use the “both sides” argument both because they know that in today’s world there is no way to ban evolution from the schools entirely, and because it is a good rhetorical tool.
In other words, I have a hard time believing that those who believe their religion requires them to believe the world was created six thousand years ago are really okay with students making up their own minds on the issue.
When I was homeschooled by evangelical parents, for example, I wasn’t taught both sides, I was taught only one side – creationism. The same is true of the curriculum used in most (evangelical) Christian schools. Then, when I actually looked at both sides in college and made up my own mind on the issue, accepting the science behind evolution, my parents and church responded with grave concern and consternation.
Second, progressives generally trust the scientific community and see science as something that is objective rather than subjective. In other words, it’s one thing to let students make up their own minds about the significance of a line of Shakespeare in English class and something else entirely to let them make up their own minds about the age of the earth. I’ve often heard progressives argue that children simply do not have the knowledge needed to judge scientific arguments on issues like evolution. Thus, acting like there is a scientific debate over an issue like evolution when there is not, and then leaving it up to children to make up their own minds on it, is simply not seen as an effective way to approach science education.
Unfortunately, I think progressives’ approach can create some confusion for evangelicals, because it looks from their perspective as though progressives are okay with skepticism when it comes to things like religion or the Bible, but not when it comes to science. I remember hearing growing up as an evangelical that evolutionists had simply replaced faith in the Bible with faith in scientists.
I wish I knew how to fix these disconnects. The two sides are talking past each other. As a progressive myself, it would be easy to just dismiss the creationist side entirely, but I can’t do that. I grew up in a young earth creationist family in a young earth creationist church. I can’t just dismiss them all as disingenuous or impermeable to communication.
Part of me wonders whether there is a way to take creationists at their word on things like Indiana’s proposed “Truth in Education” bill. Perhaps being more open to discussing such questions in the classroom, and to teaching not just what science says but also how to do science, would help answer the claim that evolution is a dogma that is not open to questions and also result in students having a better understanding of both science and evolution. Then again, Laats is right that the law tends toward educational anarchy, and I know very little about everything that goes into teaching science to students in public schools.
Still, I’d like to think there is a solution of some sort out there.