Stop the fighting: Use ‘creation-evolution’ conflict as teaching tool

Sunday, April 14, 2002

If you thought the Supreme Court settled the “creation-evolution” conflict in public schools, think again.

Proponents of evolution continue to win the legal battles, but the longest-running war in public school history rages on.

This week a school board in Colorado seriously considered — then turned down — a proposal to require “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in science classes (an idea that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional promotion of religion in 1987).

A few weeks ago, the Ohio State Board of Education debated whether or not to allow the state science standards to include “intelligent design” — a theory that claims scientific evidence points to levels of complexity in nature that can only be explained by design (an argument that critics dismiss as creationism in disguise).

And in early March, a Pennsylvania school board cancelled a speech by a “creation science” proponent in the face of a threatened lawsuit. But such speakers pop up in other schools districts on a regular basis.

None of the efforts to promote alternatives to evolution is likely to succeed. After losing countless lawsuits, school board battles, and two Supreme Court cases, proponents of creationism appear to have little or no chance of getting into the science curriculum.

So why don’t creationists and other critics of evolution simply throw in the towel? Mostly for two reasons.

First, millions of Americans persist in believing what most scientists tell them nobody should believe anymore. Despite decades of teaching evolutionary theory (or at least a watered-down version of it) in public schools, many religious people still don’t buy it.

And second, polls suggest that most Americans think both creationism and evolution should be taught — as though they were competing scientific theories. Despite the fact that the vast majority of scientists dismiss creationism as unscientific, many people (most of whom have no idea what either “theory” is really about) see proposals to include both as a matter of fairness.

In the face of this stubborn support for “creation science,” most educators and scientists advocate shutting the discussion down. They appear to be convinced that the only way to ensure good science teaching is to keep the creationists (and intelligent-design advocates) out of the science classroom at all costs.

But this strategy isn’t working. Not only are millions of people not persuaded by what they learn from science textbooks, science education itself suffers from efforts to stifle the debate. Fear of controversy and creationists pushes many science teachers to avoid the “e” word — and to downplay the ongoing debate within the scientific community about various aspects of evolutionary theory.

Here’s a better idea. Since it’s likely to be dismissed by people on both sides, it may have merit.

Teach the controversy. This means doing at least three things:

  • Teach kids about the relationship of religion and science — one of the most momentous questions in modern history. Include something about the history of science and the philosophy of science. After all, students are unlikely to take science seriously unless they educated about the difference between scientific and religious claims — and are clear about how the domains of science and religion understand the world.

  • Let kids in on the debate. Why, for example, do many religious conservatives reject evolution? And why do many religious liberals accept it? We’ll never get beyond the creation-evolution fight until we help students understand the range of views — religious and non-religious — about the claims of science.
  • Teach kids good science. This means teaching the prevailing theories in science — and including scientific critiques of those theories. Evolution, the “big bang,” and many other issues in science are topics widely debated within science and between science and religion. Remember, science changes. What is “good science” today may not be tomorrow.

The Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment prohibits public schools from promoting religious ideas in the classroom. But no court ruling keeps schools from teaching the controversy. No court ruling bans teaching about religious as well as secular views of the world. And no court ruling prevents a fair, honest and open discussion of the debates within science.

The First Amendment isn’t about keeping people out. It’s about letting the voices be heard.