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The Evolution of Education

Naveen Sunkavally

My original lead for this column was going to be: “Tack another item to the list of Dumb Things going on in the world today. The Kansas Board of Education voted earlier this month to eliminate virtually any mention of evolution from the state’s school science curriculum.”

But after thinking a bit more deeply, I concluded that Kansas’s decision is not All Dumb. On one hand, the decision scares me both for its intrusion on my expectations of church-state separation and for its possible ramifications on students’ education. On the other hand, it does introduce a heavy and necessary dose of skepticism into schools that, in the end, may make us all better scientists.

The decision is not immediately binding. Kansas’s 304 school boards still have the final vote on whether to adopt the state board’s standards. However, the decision does mandate that, starting in the 2000-2001 school year, the state 7th-grade through 10th-grade tests will no longer ask about the big bang theory and the origin of the species.

Other states have taken similar measures. In Alabama, for instance, biology textbooks come with a sticker disclaimer that calls evolution a “controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things.” “No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact,” it continues.

What scares me about Kansas is that schools might suddenly decide not to teach evolution at all. Teachers might figure that, since the state tests are not covering material on evolution, that material is not as relevant nor as important for students to learn. Or teachers might figure, even though they know evolution is worth teaching, that it’s not worth the trouble confronting the creationist fundamentalists.

Or, worst of all, not only may teachers scrap evolution from the curriculum, but they may also decide to teach only creationism. Some schools in Kansas have already adopted textbooks that suggest an “intelligent designer.” And one Kansas teacher is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We’ve covered all views. We’ve read Genesis in the classroom.”

Excuse me? Genesis in the classroom? Exactly how many views do you think this teacher covered? Do you really think that students in Kansas really read from the Vedas or the Koran, or other religious texts? When creationists invoke the concept of an “intelligent designer,” it’s merely an attempt to foist the Biblical interpretation of the world on students in the classroom.

What’s also disturbing is the way the fundamentalist creationist lobby has modified its tactics over the years. More than a decade ago, a Supreme Court decision ruled that states could not force the teaching of creationism. Now I fear creationists, instead of trying to get their Biblical view of creationism into the classroom, are making it so that evolution cannot be taught either. It’s a case of a bully in the playground: “If I can’t have it my way, no one else can have it their way.”

Not teaching evolution, or only teaching creationism, is bad. But presenting evolution as a theory, corroborated by a certain set of evidence and contradicted by another set of evidence, is good.

As scientists, we often blur the distinction between theory and fact to such an extent that science itself becomes blind and religious. The Alabama textbook sticker, though extreme itself and brought about by the more extreme elements of society, helps to remind students to retain an objective, scientific attitude towards the world.

Students need to be taught to be critical of everything they learn. I hope that, once the Bible-thumping fundamentalist elements dissipate, schools in Kansas will encourage this type of skepticism.