Social Studies

Some Schools Adding Evolution ‘Alternatives’ to Social Studies Class

By Sean Cavanagh — September 19, 2005 5 min read
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Greg Lewis freely admits it. He talked about intelligent design in his high school class. Creationism also received its due. He discussed the theory of evolution at length, too, as well as accounts of human origins from different cultures, from Navajo and Hindu traditions to Greek mythology.

Under some circumstances, the teacher might have worried about facing a lawsuit for commingling scientific theory and religious belief.

Greg Lewis, a teacher in Columbus, Ind., helped craft a social studies elective on human origins after community members asked whether creationism and intelligent design were getting their due.

But those highly charged topics were presented as part of a carefully crafted, elective social studies class, rather than as science. Mr. Lewis and administrators at Columbus East High School, in Columbus, Ind., believed that setting was appropriate from both legal and educational standpoints.

“It was determined pretty quickly that science was not the place for it,” said Mr. Lewis, who designed the Human Origins class that was offered the past two school years. “I’ve talked to virtually no science teachers who’ve said, ‘We could do this successfully.’ ”

As debates over the legitimacy of intelligent design and other so-called alternatives to evolution erupt across the country, some school and elected officials are suggesting that social studies, humanities, or comparative-religion classes offer the best venues for those discussions.

For years, courts have rejected the teaching of religious-based views, such as biblical creationism, in public school science classrooms, or efforts to give those views equal time alongside evolution. Evolutionary theory, as advanced by Charles Darwin and accepted by the vast majority of scientists, holds that human development has resulted from natural selection and random mutation.

Legal experts say it is permissible to have discussions of religious views in public schools—even in science class—as long as no effort is made to promote one set of beliefs or to describe nonscience as science. But they also say moving such topics out of the realm of science study may be the best legal option.

“Our general advice [is], you may be better off addressing this in social studies than in science,” said Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

A Legal Distinction

The social studies option has been considered by public officials or school board candidates in a number of states, including New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Utah. So far, though, the appeal of that option has been limited, and most debate about how to teach life’s origins has focused on science classrooms.

But Mr. Hutton and others warn that discussing intelligent design or creationism even in social studies will not pass legal muster if teachers present those beliefs as science. The courts, they note, tend to look closely at the context in which religious views are presented in government-sponsored settings.

“If a teacher said, ‘This is a scientific alternative,’ that will be challenged,” Charles C. Haynes, an Arlington, Va.-based senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said of intelligent design.

Such distinctions are likely to come under scrutiny later this month, when a federal court is expected to hear a case about the Dover, Pa., school board’s decision to introduce students to intelligent design in biology class.

Intelligent design posits that an unidentified guiding force has directed the development of the natural world, including human life. Many backers of intelligent design say it is legitimate science, and to discuss it in other classes diminishes its status.

The nation’s leading scientific organizations, however, reject

intelligent design as science, in part because it is not testable by the rules of science.

Al Teich, the director of science and policy programs at the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, does not oppose teaching intelligent design in social studies class—if it is characterized accurately. “It should not be taught as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution,” he said.

Susan Griffin, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, voiced doubts about whether intelligent design belongs in that discipline. Although her Silver Spring, Md.-based organization recognizes that discussions of religious views and movements should be a part of social studies, the subject’s primary focus is on areas such as public policy and economics, which promote civic competence.

“We don’t really feel intelligent design would fit into that,” Ms. Griffin said.

School officials could ensure that different views of life’s origins were discussed accurately and fairly in social studies by putting those details in the curriculum, Mr. Haynes said. While public concern may arise about teachers’ promoting one view, he pointed out that social studies classes have long hosted discussions of divisive issues. “They’re used to being the fair, honest brokers,” Mr. Haynes said.

John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle, which supports intelligent design but not mandating its teaching in any forum, speculated that social studies teachers were more likely to equate, wrongly in his view, intelligent design with religious belief than to try to convince students of its legitimacy.

majority view is hostile,” said Mr. West, who hoped social studies teachers could address what he sees as intelligent design’s unfair exclusion from academic discussions and scholarly journals.

Walking a Tightrope

Teachers and administrators at East Columbus High School, in the 11,000-student Bartholomew Consolidated district, began crafting a social studies course on human origins in 2002, after community members questioned whether alternatives to evolution theory were receiving adequate attention, Mr. Lewis recalled.

The teacher gathered ideas about structuring the class from such disparate sources as residents with an interest in creationism to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. He began teaching the semester-long elective in 2004 without a textbook, relying on printed resources, the Internet, and religious texts.

Roughly half his 26 or so students had “rock solid” beliefs about God’s role as creator, though other students’ views were less firm, he said. Class enrollment dropped in 2005; because of declining interest, Human Origins is unlikely to be offered next spring. It remains in the curriculum, however, and Mr. Lewis expects it will be taught again. He attributes the waning interest mostly to the popularity of more-established social studies electives.

Community reaction to the class has been minimal, according to Mr. Lewis. But he suggested that other social studies teachers who tried to create similar classes would face public scrutiny—and go through many moments of self-examination.

“I tried to walk a tightrope,” Mr. Lewis said. “Any time I made a statement, I had an internal need to balance it with what the other side said. It was an intellectually demanding course to teach, from that perspective.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Some Schools Adding Evolution ‘Alternatives’ to Social Studies Class

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