Commentary

'Pressures' for Creationism To Be Resisted

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Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an earlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that Louisiana's "Creationism Act" was unconstitutional. This act forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by instruction in the theory of "creation science."

In affirming the court of appeals' decision, the Justices stated that the act lacked "a clear secular purpose" and therefore violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment; did not "enhance the freedom of teachers to teach what they choose"; evinced "a discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science and against the teaching of evolution"; had the "purpose of discrediting evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creation science"; impermissibly endorsed "religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind"; and had a goal of changing the curriculum "to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety."

Earlier court decisions had stipulated that the teaching of evolution could not be prohibited and that equal-time mandates for creationism were unconstitutional. Collectively, these rulings indicate that public-school teachers are free to teach evolution and that policymakers cannot lawfully mandate equal time for creationism.

Yet, despite the clear grounding of these rulings in constitutional principles, they have not altered the climate of public opinion that has allowed anti-evolutionists to weaken, and sometimes eliminate, the teaching of evolution in the public schools during this century. The presence of this strong public feeling, along with the growth of the number of unqualified individuals teaching science and the inertia resulting from the domination of traditional goals in science education, makes it seem likely that the teaching of evolution will continue to be repressed widely and that creationist tenets will be taught in many schools.

Public support for creationism stems from a misunderstanding of evolution and the nature of science, and from the persistent notion that fairness dictates the inclusion of creationism in the science curriculum. Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, raised the hopes of creationists by stating in his dissent that "[t]eaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."

Because creationist tenets are neither scientific nor theoretical, they cannot meet the criterion stipulated by Justice Scalia and the Constitution. In the 1974 edition of Scientific Creationism, Henry Morris, the director of the Institute for Creation Research, stated that "the creation model involves a process of special creation which is 1)supernaturalistic; 2)externally directed; 3)purposive; and 4)completed."

Mr. Morris's colleague, Duane Gish, one of the nation's foremost creationists, indicated in the October 1981 issue of The Science Teacher "that creation-scientists readily acknowledge that creation is not a scientific theory."

The creationist claim that today's organisms were created out of nothing 6 to 10 thousand years ago and that fossils are the result of the flood during Noah's time does not constitute a scientific theory. Creationist tenets cannot be included with "clear secular intent" in the science curriculum.

Despite the seductive nature of the argument that creationism should be part of the curriculum in order to be fair to its many proponents, a secular purpose would not be achieved by yielding to this view. In a nation that countenances many religious sects, each with its own version of "truth," fairness is not achieved by singling out particular religious tenets for preferential treatment in the schools.

Furthermore, the presence of creationist tenets in the science curriculum does not enhance the effectiveness of science instruction. It is dishonest to teach students that the earth is 6 to 10 thousand years old and that organisms originated as discrete species in a single burst of creation. Instruction in biology must help students understand the the mechanisms and cycles operative in the natural world now and in the past. Genesis 1 and 2, which provide both the framework and details for creationism, contain powerful theological messages, but no specifics that help students understand the functioning of nature.


Despite creationism's lack of status as science and the flaws in arguments for equal time, public opinion and educational decisions help creationists achieve their goals. A recent survey by Michael Zimmerman of Oberlin College indicated that 336, or 53 percent, of 730 Ohio school-board presidents thought "creation science" should be taught favorably in public schools. Mr. Zimmerman also found that one-third of the Ohio biology teachers in the survey favored the teaching of creationism, and at least 15 percent taught creationism in a favorable light.

A 1985 survey of 726 members of the American Association of School Administrators by Richard Dierenfeld of Macalaster College found that 42 percent of Southern schools and 30.3 percent of schools nationally had creationism taught alongside evolution.

With science enrollments increasing and the number of qualified teachers declining, the number of teachers in science classes who yield to creationist arguments seems likely to increase. Iris Weiss, director of research at Horizon Inc. in Chapel Hill, N.C., concluded, on the basis of her study of science education in American schools, that 7 percent of biology, chemistry, and physics teachers were "clearly unqualified." Ms. Weiss found that 78, 68, and 45 percent of the nation's biology, chemistry, and physics teachers, respectively, could meet standards that require six courses in the science being taught and five supporting science courses.

In a 1987 study of a sample of 198 Texas science teachers, I found that 13 percent of the teachers of introductory biology, 9 percent of the biology teachers, and 12 percent of the life-science teachers reported they had completed no collegiate coursework in the biological sciences. The vulnerability of these individuals to external pressures to avoid the teaching of evolution or to include creationism appears great.

The susceptibility of teachers, publishers, policymakers, and parents to creationist pressures and tactics is increased by the lack of a clear vision of what constitutes high-quality science education. Neither the critics nor the proponents of the teaching of evolution have done much during the last two decades of their steady debate to help sharpen the focus on what knowledge, skills, and values of science are important for students who will live most of their lives in the 21st century. There is a growing sense that much of the content of current science curricula is irrelevant.

As curricula are restructured to deal with current realities and emerging goals, increased conflict with religious doctrines and sects is inevitable. Individuals who are offended by the study of The Wizard of Oz and "Romeo and Juliet" cannot be expected to accept passively a curriculum that must prepare students to live in a world threatened by overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, the emergence of diseases such as aids, the continued possibility of nuclear war, and a host of science-related social problems.

This conflict will not be defused easily. If the science curriculum realistically reflects the needs of students and society, as well as the nature of science, however, and if there is widespread involvement of scientists, parents, and teachers in its development, favorable public opinion should be fostered, and conflict diminished.

There is a growing consensus that students should study the significance of religion in human thought and activities, both past and present. And while the schools cannot restructure the curriculum to reflect a particular sect's viewpoint, they can incorporate aspects of our religious heritage when such study would help make sense of topics under examination. For example, the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the abolitionist, pro-suffrage, and Prohibition movements should be emphasized. The study of music would be crippled if sacred music were not included. In science courses, creationist tenets could be studied as part of the history of science--they influenced biological thought until the late 1800's--but not as a valid explanation of the past and present state of the natural world.

Both science education and religious freedom in this nation will be enhanced if parents, teachers, and policymakers follow the recent Supreme Court opinion and resist pressures to have creationism taught as science.

Vol. 07, Issue 20, Pages Creationism, Darwinism, evolution, Louisiana, 28

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