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Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as One Misstep for Kansas; One Quantum Leap Backward For Its Students


One Misstep for Kansas; One Quantum Leap Backward For Its Students

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On Aug. 10 of this year, the Kansas state board of education made a far- reaching decision for students in its state by deciding to eliminate essentially all reference to evolution in its recommended science curriculum. Kansas, unfortunately, is not alone in this retreat into the 19th century; other states have, in varying degrees, watered down the teaching of evolution in recent years.

This action by the Kansas board was a clear bow to pressure from Christian fundamentalists, who have stepped up efforts nationwide to have evolution deleted from state curricula or to have creationism taught as an alternative explanation for the origins of life on earth. ("Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution," April 28, 1999.) The decision, ironically, came just a month before the nation's governors were scheduled to meet to push forward the national education goals for 2000, one of which calls for American students to be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."

When it comes to the science education of their students, states cannot, unfortunately, have it both ways. They cannot provide a world-class education in biology at the same time they command biology teachers to turn a blind eye to what most biologists regard not just as a possible theory, but as biology's cornerstone.

The tragedy, of course, is that none of this is necessary. For theologians and biblical scholars of most mainline Christian and Jewish denominations, the conflict between the scientific understanding of the origins of life and the creation account in the Book of Genesis became extinct a long time ago. Just as the Roman Catholic Church ultimately realized that a geocentric universe was not a crucial tenet of Christian faith and that the discoveries of Galileo were therefore no threat to its edifice, likewise have biblical scholars pointed out that the creation story in Genesis was never intended to be a scientific account of the origin of life, but a religious vision of the relationship between God and the world.

By bowing to pressure from fundamentalists, whose interpretation of the Bible is as questionable as their understanding of science, the Kansas state board of education will not only hobble its students' science education, but may, in a curious twist, be nudging them toward the ranks of unbelievers. For in their zeal to keep evolution out of the high school classroom, these well-meaning but myopic individuals are sending a strong message to students that scientific truth and religious faith are incompatible. And some day, in a university lecture hall where boards of education mercifully do not hold sway, these students will encounter a version of science that has not been eviscerated and may erroneously conclude, as their state school board already had, that religious faith and the search for scientific truth are mutually exclusive.

Just how damaging the effect of such policies will ultimately be for the scientific education of our students is not clear. What such actions have done, however, is cast a glaring light on three disturbing truths: first, that in a number of states, a true separation of church and state is in grave peril, at least in matters of education; second, that placing the education of our students in the hands of elected boards of education needs to be seriously questioned and perhaps abandoned; finally--and perhaps most disturbing of all--that as we move at warp speed into the new millennium, we are not leaving the Dark Ages behind.

Tom Bonnell is the middle school director of the Dalton School in New York City.

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 49

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