Class over: Anti-evolution forces lose another round

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Have Darwin’s foes become their own worst enemy?

Consider the school board in the El Tejon Unified School District in rural California. On New Year’s Day they approved a monthlong course called “Philosophy of Design,” a thinly disguised attempt to challenge evolution by promoting intelligent design and creationism.

Last week — facing a lawsuit by 11 parents supported by lawyers with Americans United for Separation of Church and State — the district announced it would end the course early and never offer it again.

This latest setback for opponents of evolution comes less than a month after a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down as unconstitutional the Dover school district’s inclusion of ID in the curriculum as a scientific alternative to Darwin’s theory. Although proponents insist that intelligent design is not religiously based (ID holds that the complexity of life points to design by an intelligent force), the judge ruled that it is.

In the wake of the Dover defeat, even many supporters of ID now acknowledge that the Dover approach was a failed strategy – especially given the transparent religious purpose of the school board members who advocated the policy. Whatever one thinks about the ultimate fate of the claims for intelligent design as science, it seems clear that today’s courts are unlikely to allow public schools to teach ID as a scientific alternative to evolution.

But wait. If the science classroom is closed to intelligent design and creationism (as science), why not enter school through the back door of social studies or humanities? That must have been what Sharon Lemburg was thinking. She’s the special-education teacher (and wife of a local pastor) who proposed the now-abandoned “philosophy” course in the El Tejon district.

Well, why not? After all, social studies classes in public schools deal with all kinds of philosophical and religious issues. Who could object to a philosophy or history course that teaches the controversy surrounding the fight over evolution?

Put that way, there’s nothing unconstitutional about exposing students to the history of the many-sided debate in a course that considered the philosophical, religious and scientific issues in ways that are accurate, balanced and academically sound. No advocacy group — not the American Civil Liberties Union in Dover or Americans United in El Tejon — has argued that public schools can’t teach about philosophical or religious ideas or disputes in the curriculum.

In fact, a wide variety of philosophical and religious views are currently discussed in social studies classes nationwide. Moreover, some public schools have offered electives in world religions and philosophy for years without controversy. But to pass constitutional muster in a public school, a philosophy or religion course must be done right.

Unfortunately, El Tejon got it wrong. Susan Lemburg’s syllabus for “Philosophy of Design” raises so many red flags that it’s hard to understand why the school board approved it — unless, of course, board members had an ulterior motive.

Start with the fact that the teacher has no training or certification in the teaching of religion, philosophy or science. Guest speakers slated to appear were all advocates of ID. (Two evolutionists were on a list to be invited: One said he opposed the course, the other died in 2004). With one exception, the long list of videos to be shown in class advocated ID or creationism. Since the teacher has no academic preparation in the topics covered, students wouldn’t get any critical analysis of these presentations. Viewing one-sided videos in an intellectual vacuum is propaganda, not education.

Getting it right takes work. There’s plenty of material to choose from: Arguments for design have a long history in theology and philosophy. All of the world’s religions have something to say about human origins. And philosophy of science is a major field of study with a broad range of thinkers for students to consider. Readings from any or all of these sources could form the basis for an outstanding course of study. But to be constitutional, such a course must include a variety of perspectives presented in an objective manner by a qualified teacher.

Apparently, school officials in El Tejon weren’t worried about messy little details like academic rigor or the First Amendment. According to the complaint filed by the parents, the superintendent informed the school board that the district’s lawyers “had told him that as long as the course was called ‘philosophy,’ the district could, if it wanted, even present an unbalanced class entirely about intelligent design.”

Bad advice. Labeling a course ‘philosophy’ doesn’t relieve the district from presenting material objectively — using the best scholarship and assigning age-appropriate readings representing a range of views.

Like Dover’s, the El Tejon strategy is self-defeating. After this one-two legal punch, ID advocates are on the ropes. Any future attempt to “teach the controversy” — even if an effort is made to make it academically sound — will be met with much skepticism and a battery of lawyers.

What’s especially sad about these misguided efforts is how much they hurt education. In the best of all possible schools, students would be engaged in learning something about the history and philosophy of science, the ongoing dialogue between religion and science, and what religions have to say about creation and human origins. But that’s not likely to happen as long as school officials in places like Dover and El Tejon put their opposition to evolution above what’s best for the kids.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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