teaching evolution, creationism, Intelligent Design

At yesterday’s Berkman Center forum on Civic Education in a Connected World, Jonathan Zittrain proposed that we should teach the controversy about evolution in science classes as a form of civic education–to teach kids to deal with disagreements.

That’s actually a proposal that I have made on the blog. It means introducing students to the perspectives held by their fellow American citizens: evolution, creationism, and Intelligent Design. It is a controversial suggestion from several angles. It implies teaching students that something is a controversy when it’s not controversial among academic scientists. It means subjecting all three theories to critical review, which could be detrimental to Intelligent Design. (I presume that creationism is somewhat immune because it can rest on faith and revelation.) Finally, it means introducing two theories whose basis is theological into public school classrooms, notwithstanding the First Amendment.

But I think the alternatives are worse. We can restrict all discussion in schools to evolution, implying that the state is committed to a scientific way of thinking about the world, and the state’s agent (the teacher) is unable to respond to arguments in favor of alternatives. Or we can legally require the schools to teach that evolution is correct and creationism and Intelligent Design are false, thus taking a side in a basic debate about faith. Among the other unfortunate consequences of that strategy would be alienate large numbers of people from the public schools.

Yet another alternative is to keep creationism and Intelligent Design out of science classes but introduce them in social studies/civics. Indeed, that is a trend.* I don’t think it solves any problems (because the distinction would be lost on most students) and it creates the problem that social studies teachers would have to deal with yet another hot button topic for which many are are not well prepared.

One colleague at the Berkman event said that to teach creationism as a controversial theory would be like teaching astrology as an option for students to consider. I’d offer a different analogy. If you start with the assumption that schools should teach science and deprecate all supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, then you should conclude that schools ought to teach atheism.

Hardly anyone cares about astrology, whereas large majorities are committed to theistic religions. Clearly, large majorities can be wrong, and students should learn the truth. But if people have moral standing as fellow members of our community, then the fact that many of them hold a given view is a reason to discuss it with some respect. To say that students should only study and discuss the truth in public schools is all very well–if you are certain you have the truth. Fundamentalists are prone to think in those terms, and we denounce them as uncivil.

One could develop a curriculum that was entirely scientific, meaning that everything to be discussed had or could have strong naturalistic evidence. In that kind of curriculum, we would not teach creationism or Intelligent Design (or theism). Nor would we teach that human beings have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–for what evidence do those rights rest on?

I am not a moral relativist or moral skeptic: the ethics of the Declaration of Independence are far superior to the ethics of the Fascist Party. But I am also not a naturalist who believes that everything true can be based on observation and experiment. Moral worldviews seem to me complex networks of commitments, emotions, traditions, and beliefs. Some of the worthy worldviews are theistic: a story about God plays an important role. The ones that are not theistic have their own faith commitments. We ought to teach ethics and we certainly ought to encourage the discussion of ethics in schools. But if that’s true, we cannot have a curriculum reduced to science.

In a subtle and thoughtful essay on the same topic, the University of Virginia biologist Douglas Taylor recalls an episode from one of his college classes. He had just presented very strong empirical evidence for evolution and remarked:

I found it difficult to understand how given such clear narrative evidence, anyone could doubt the existence of the evolutionary process. “Of course,” I reassured the students, “I am not insulting those among you who don’t believe in evolution,” But then I paused and said, “Wait, what am I saying, yes I am!”*

Taylor thinks scientists should boldly teach evolution as superior to the alternatives. That implies open discussion of the issue, but no neutrality on the teacher’s part. He rejects stereotypes of rational, intellectual academics versus the ignorant public, noting that universities act badly, and in any case, stereotypes would violate the scientific spirit. He tries to steer a course between two false ways of teaching about evolution and other important issues: “I have the answer” and “There is no answer.” The former is a misconception of science, which is about creativity, skepticism, and change. The latter emerges “from within the intellectual establishment,” which has supported various invidious forms of relativism and skepticism.

Taylor writes, “It is neither plausible nor desirable to make everything and everyone scientific, but an appreciation of reason and evidence as means to arrive at one’s convictions is part of the basic skill set for an enlightened culture.”  Right, but “skill sets” can be used for good or evil. Knowing the good is not itself a scientific achievement; and therefore not everything we teach can be science. That doesn’t imply that we should introduce creationism into high school biology classes, but it suggests that the issue is at least complicated. And therefore maybe we should let our kids wrestle with the complications.

*Hess, Diana, “Should Intelligent Design Be Taught in Social Studies Courses?” Social Education 70, no. 1 (January/February 2006).

**Douglas Taylor, “Science, Enlightenment, and Intellectual Tensions in Higher Education,” in Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry Lewis, What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education (Teacher’s College Press, 2012)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.