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Ending the Evolutionary War

By Andrew J. Coulson — March 08, 2005 4 min read
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Every aspect of the public school curriculum, not just science education, is inherently political.

The “creation” controversy has splashed down in Gull Lake, Mich. Last spring, according to The Kalamazoo Gazette, a parent complained that two middle school biology teachers were giving the concept of “intelligent design” equal treatment in the classroom with the theory of evolution. The district told them to stop, and both teachers are now crying foul, appealing to the community for help.

Gull Lake parents are divided.

“Intelligent design” contends that the diversity of life on Earth and the complexity of some biological systems could not have arisen by means of evolution. To correct the perceived inadequacy, the theory stipulates that an “intelligent designer” authored the world’s species.

Proponents argue that intelligent design is a serious scientific theory and that, at the very least, its existence should be taught in biology classes. Opponents dismiss it as a superficially secular attempt to inject biblical creationism into public school classrooms—a Lamb of God in sheep’s clothing.

Michigan isn’t alone. All told, roughly 40 states are now embroiled in battles over the teaching of evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Pennsylvania parents objecting to their school board’s decision to teach intelligent design. As Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education told the Gazette, “By lobbying school boards to include creationism or weaken evolution in their science curricula, creationists are politicizing science education.”

But Ms. Scott understates the problem—and misdirects the blame.

Every aspect of the public school curriculum, not just science education, is inherently political. Decisions over what and how to teach are made by elected and appointed government officials. Because there is only one official state organ of education, everyone wants it to conform to his or her own views.

That is impossible.

In a pluralistic society, there are countless different and incompatible worldviews. Our effort to serve that diverse audience through a monolithic school system has not only failed in recent years to forge common ground, it also has bred animosity and discord.

This failure of compelled conformity is no cause for alarm, however. It is unnecessary to force all Americans to accept a single view on the origins of man. While there are certainly issues on which consensus is important in a free society—commitment to the democratic process, respect for the rule of law, and equal rights for all citizens, to name but a few—the origin of humanity is not among them.

Thanks to the separation of church and state, American religious life has avoided most of the political and ideological conflicts that have beset our official state schools.

Nor is it clear that centrally planned public schooling is the best means of nurturing societal agreement in those special areas where it is important. Research shows private school students to be as tolerant and civic-minded as their public school counterparts, and it also shows private schools to be, if anything, more meaningfully integrated than public schools.

Private schools, representing a universe of differing worldviews, coexist as peacefully as private churches. If every family in America had the financial resources to choose the public or private school it preferred, as would be the case under a universal education-tax-credit system, we could enjoy the same harmonious relations in education that we have experienced in the field of religion. Thanks to the separation of church and state, American religious life has avoided most of the political and ideological conflicts that have beset our official state schools.

And honestly, is anyone happy with the way schools currently handle this issue?

Adherents of intelligent design presumably aren’t. They must fight to have their views heard in the public schools, and when they succeed, they immediately face legal challenges. Even if intelligent design prevails in court (as biblical creationism did not), will science teachers present it in a way that will satisfy its advocates?

Adherents of evolution have nothing to cheer about, either. Virtually all biologists see evolution as the fundamental structuring principle of their entire discipline. By contrast, schools often teach it as a brief, isolated unit to avoid controversy.

Tellingly, after generations of public school instruction in the theory of evolution, a recent Gallup poll found that 45 percent of Americans believe humanity is the comparatively recent product of divine creation, while only one-third believe that evolution is a theory well-supported by scientific evidence.

These results must dismay most scientists, and they should cause intelligent-design advocates to question the wisdom of entrusting their own views to the public schools.

Back in Gull Lake, both sides are digging in their heels, and accusations of miseducation and brainwashing have started to fly. So long as we stick with a single official state school system, though, there will always be ideological winners and losers, and such antagonism will remain.

Wouldn’t we all be better off giving school choice a chance instead?

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Ending the Evolutionary War

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