Saturday, April 28, 2007

Teaching Creation, Evolution, Abortion

About ten years ago, a new principal came into my room and said, “I hope you’re not going to teach your unit on evolution and creation this year.” I was surprised. He had just been hired and the school year was just about to begin. I was setting up my classroom in preparation for the first day of school.

“I was planning to,” I responded. “I’ve been starting the school year with it for quite a while now. What’s the problem?”

“Some parents came to see me who are concerned about what you teach,” he said. “And I’d just as soon not have to deal with the controversy if I don’t have to.” He wouldn’t tell me who the parents were because they requested anonymity. I argued that it was worthwhile to begin the year by teaching students that Americans have different concepts of how everything began. That those fundamental differences in thinking tend to affect how they think about other issues in history, how they behave, and how they vote. I persuaded him that students were free to decide for themselves what they wanted to believe, and that I only wanted them to understand how people think.

With a long sigh he relented, and I went ahead with the unit. Later, he told me that he was getting heat from parents on both sides of the spectrum. Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t want their kids exposed to ideas about evolution, and secular-humanist parents objected to what they perceived as my creation bias. I’d been publishing columns in local newspapers and many were written from a conservative or Roman Catholic perspective; sometimes both.

Students would ask me during the unit what my view was. I said I would tell them at the end if they couldn’t figure it out before then. Most couldn’t, and when we were done I told them that I didn’t see evolution and creation as mutually exclusive, that I borrowed from each to construct my personal view.

About eighteen years ago, another former principal invited me to her office to introduce herself. Placed prominently, so that it was the first thing to be seen by anyone sitting there, was a sign proclaiming: “Scientists discovered something to do the work of ten men: One woman.” She sat in her long, loose-fitting dress and large, brightly-colored, shawl-like scarf with the end thrown over one shoulder - a uniform I’ve associated with radical feminists ever since. I leaned forward to read the sign. I said, “Hmm,” and then sat back. She paused, as if waiting for a comment. I didn’t make one.

Later, she visited me in my classroom to question what I was teaching. It was my habit during those years to conduct at least one debate in each US History class. Students would brainstorm topics and then choose one by majority vote. Three classes chose abortion that year. She told me she was concerned about the debates and I asked her why. She said fourteen-year-olds were too young to discuss such a controversial and delicate subject. I told her it was their overwhelming choice in two classes (others chose gun control). Again, she said they weren’t sophisticated enough.

“That’s curious,” I said. “They’re old enough to have abortions, right?”

She didn’t answer.

“Some girls in this school quite possibly have abortions you know.”

“I know that,” she said.

“So you’re suggesting that it’s okay for them to have abortions, but not to debate them?”

Again, she didn’t answer. She was called away at that point to handle another matter and I went ahead with the debates. Parents had been invited and students conducted themselves quite well. Each side presented the classic arguments we hear whenever this issue is debated and students made up their own minds at the end.

These topics have been controversial for a long time. In 1925, for example, Tennessee passed a law outlawing the teaching of evolution. A high school science teacher was charged with violating the law and he was defended by the most famous trial lawyer of the time. The prosecutor was a three-time presidential candidate and Secretary of State. The trial was dramatized the classic movie “Inherit The Wind.” Clearly, some creationists were intolerant of conflicting views at the time.

Last month (in 2005), after a local school board in Georgia put stickers in high school biology texts advising students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact,” a federal judge ordered it removed. The school board is appealing. Clearly, some evolutionists are intolerant of conflicting views today.

Intolerant creationists think evolutionists are damned. Intolerant evolutionists think creationists are dumb. Strict creationists believe God created everything and life has a divine purpose, so it logically follows that they tend to believe abortion is murder of a person created by God. Strict evolutionists believe everything happened by chance and doesn’t necessarily have a purpose; it just is. It’s easy to understand why many tend to believe abortion just removes a lump of cells with no particular significance except that it would be problematic in some way if it continued growing.

Both sides can be intolerant, but does that mean we shouldn’t debate? Quite the contrary. If we’re going to understand and live with our fellow citizens in these United States, it’s essential. How else can we function in the constitutional republic our founding fathers designed?

First published in February, 2005


Nathan said...

I understand the importance of teaching both sides of an issue, and I disagree with people (especially parents) shielding their children from a certain point of view. I congratulate you on your debates, in which you let your students present the evidence and decide for themselves.

On the other hand, there are some issues that don't (or shouldn't) have another side, and the one to which I am referring is teaching evolution vs. creationism. Evolution frequently gets attacked as bad science, but in reality there is an overwhelming amount of evidence, and because of this it has become cornerstone of biology. To use the actions of a deity whose existence can not be proven (as admitted by even evangelical scholars) is bad science. I am a science teacher (even in your district, Tom), and this is something about which I feel very strongly: creationism and intelligent design do not meet the requirements to be called science, and should not be taught as such.

I'm not saying people shouldn't believe intelligent design or creationism, but please don't call it science, and don't teach an "alternate" side that has no scientific proof.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks for the feedback. I don't teach science. I'm a US History teacher and I'm supposed to teach current events as well.

Any such thing as creation science? Not in the experimental sense, but Einstein died searching for a "unified field" theory to explain the origins of the universe and how it functions. There is a place for the concept of creation in any discussion about the search for truth unless you're a nihilist.

To understand the founding document of our nation and how the founders understood the origin of us all and the origin of all our rights as Americans, I have to discuss creationism. They believed " . . . that all men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator [emphasis in the original] with certain inalienable rights . . . "

For a US History teacher, that's as fundamental as it gets. I also believe what the founding fathers believed about such things. Do you?

Nathan said...

I understand teaching the creation vs. evolution debate as current events or a cultural study, but I believe there is no debate when it comes to science. Einstein's search for a unified theory was one to pull together the theories of gravity and electromagnetism, the way electricity and magnetism had been combined into a single set of mathematical equations by James Maxwell in the 1860s. His search was not one for ultimate truth or meaning or anything spiritual, simply to mathematically combine two areas of physics that were separate.

The scientific search for truth is different from the philosophical search for truth: science searches for mathematical explanations and predictions for observable phenomena. For this reason I don't like to call string theory science, because at this point no one has the faintest idea how to even design an experiment to test some of its (infinite number) of hypotheses. Let philosophy handle ultimate truth, but scientific truth is a very different beast. I've said that science and philosophy (religion, if you prefer) answer two very different questions ("what?" vs. "why?"), and troubles arise when people try to combine the two.

As for my beliefs, I agree with the founding fathers that every person is entitled to the rights as spelled out in the Constitution; as far as those rights being endowed by a creator, I disagree with them there. I also don't see how you "must" discuss creationism to understand the Declaration of Independence or Constitution; indeed the latter document addresses that there is no specific religious viewpoint one should have to live in this country, and creationism is certainly specific to one religion.

And by the way, there's nothing Christian about this nation or the men who founded it; most of the founding fathers were deists or Unitarians, not Christians, and fought to keep the people free to choose.

Tom McLaughlin said...

I don't disagree with anything you wrote in the first part of your last post on the roles of science vs philosophy (or religion) except where you say: "I also don't see how you 'must' discuss creationism to understand the Declaration of Independence or Constitution; indeed the latter document addresses that there is no specific religious viewpoint one should have to live in this country, and creationism is certainly specific to one religion."

Only lately have I had students who never heard of Adam and Eve. I must at least tell them what so many of their fellow Americans believe, so they can know what creationism is. Then they can know what they're accepting or rejecting.

And, you're way wrong about creationism being specific to one religion. Jews, Muslims and Christians share the same creation story. Buddhists have one too. So do Taoists, Hindus, and virtually every primitive religion from every American Indian tribe to the most obscure Pacific Island culture. The most striking thing about them is that the sequence in each of what was created first, second, third, etc. is nearly identical to the sequence scientists claim about the origin of the universe, earth, and life on earth.

At the end of the post you say: "there's nothing Christian about this nation or the men who founded it; most of the founding fathers were deists or Unitarians, not Christians . . ."

Come on Nathan. Most of the thirteen original colonies were founded by one Christian sect or another which were persecuted by Anglicans in England. That's why they came here in the first place. Separatists and Puritans in Massachusetts; Quakers in Pennsylvania; Catholics in Maryland, etc.

According to a 1962 speech by Robert Byrd to the US Senate: "[O]f the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 29 were Anglicans, 16-18 were Calvinists, and among the rest were 2 Methodists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 lapsed Quaker-sometimes Anglican, and only 1 open Deist — Benjamin Franklin who attended all Christian worships and called for public prayer."

I agree with your very last point that the founders "fought to keep the people free to choose." The Bill of Rights is written to safeguard our God-given rights. You have to right to believe as you do, but you can't deny that the men who guaranteed your right were mostly Christians.

Nathan said...

Don't try to kid me Tom, when you say creationism you mean, like 90% of the people in this country who use that term, of the biblical creation story common to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. Of course every culture has their creation stories, but most Americans study them as myths except for the one laid out in the bible. Granted there are different versions of creation even among Christian believers, but when they say creationism they're speaking of the Judeo-Christian version.

I also have to disagree with this sentence about creation stories: "The most striking thing about them is that the sequence in each of what was created first, second, third, etc. is nearly identical to the sequence scientists claim about the origin of the universe, earth, and life on earth." May I point you to the Genesis account, in which the Earth, seas, and plant life came into existence BEFORE the Sun, which is quite a different order than the scientists have told us.

The few minutes of research I've done found some very big names among the founding fathers who were in their own words not Christians: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry. While not a founding father, Lincoln was also an open denier of Christianity. Others may have been Christians, but it's just wrong to say that they were all, or nearly all Christians when so many of the big names certainly weren't.

I do recognize that those who guaranteed me the right to believe them were educated and reasonable men whose worldviews didn't necessarily fit with an established religion. What I really respect them for is their assertion that people should be able to make their own choices if they so desired.

The important point is that they did agree with the idea that religion should be completely separate from government, and like it or not Christianity is a religion, just like Buddhism or the ancient Greek pantheon. It should be taught from a cultural point of view because of the impact is has had on history, but to be taught as fact in a public school is unconstitutional.

Keith said...

Sounds like Nathan needs a history lesson. Either Washington was one of the best liars in the country or Nathan is correct. Nathan, you obviously have some kind of personal hidden agenda here which I assume has atheism at its core. I would suggest you get the book called, of all things, "George Washington the Christian" written by William J Johnson. Tom, may I suggest as a history teacher that you stay away from scientific discussion and just stick with the historical perspective. Have your students read selective passages from The Descent of Man for starters. Show them what a racist that Darwin really was. Start with the end of the book, with Darwin's epiphany at 22 years of age aboard the Beagle upon seeing the people of Tierra Del Fuega. His immaculate revelation, his ah hah moment, that guided all of his future work, which came to him when he realized that the "higher races", meaning Anglo Saxon, had once passed through a stage of evolution that the "lower races" then occupied. Teach them about Social Darwinism and W.R. Greg, and the distance that revisionist historians try so desperately to place between Spencer and Darwin. Tell them how Darwin predicted that the "civilized races" would "almost certainly exterminate" the "savage races." Ask your students to try to figure out who Darwin was referring to in the title of his first book, the name now dropped by the politically correct, you know the "favored races." Teach them about his cousin Francis Galton and the wonderful science of Eugenics. Teach them about Darwin's use of skull sizes to prove his theory for the superiority of Europeans over all other races. Tell them about the less favoured races, you know those "reckless, degraded and often viscous member of society," you know the "careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishmen" that multiplied like rabbits. Leave creationism out of this, just give them a real good history lesson! Teach them how John Wesley Powell followed Lewis Morgans uni-linear evolutionary beliefs, taken right from Darwin's own writings, to prove that the American Indians were an inferior group of people and how the Smithsonian squashed any discussion or debate which suggested that the Indians may have actually once had a more highly advanced culture. The Smithsonian's 12th Annual report was determined to show that all the evidence for an advanced culture was either misinterpreted by all the earlier observers or based on fraudulent data. Such an idea of advanced Indians ran counter to evolutionary thought, savages could not have descended from a more advanced group, impossible according to evolutionary dictates. The advanced people always descend from the lower forms of life. The clearly superior Englishmen were once like the Fuegians, not the other way around! Teach them how evolutionary theory provided justification for the displacement and eradication of the American Indians. You know Tom just give your students a proper perspective of history and how evolutionary theory absolutely affected mans views of each other. Teach them about scientific racism and Darwin rankings of different groups of people. Now that's a history class I would like to send my kids to.