Darwin in the classroom
This paper was written for my Principles of Secondary Education class in the Spring of 1997.  I honestly don't know what happened to the references for this paper.  Apologies for the ambiguous citations.

In the past, a teacher could get fired or fined for teaching evolution in a public school system as in the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.  Today the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is undoubtedly a science teacher's best defense against infringement upon the academic freedom granted in this profession.  John Thomas Scopes was found guilty, though fined the minimum charge of $100.00 and odd court costs for his teachings (the "crime" carried a maximum fine of $500.00).  He inspired members of his profession in his day as now when he promised to oppose the "unjust law," as he declared it, in any way he could at the reading of the verdict (Grebstein 176).

The point of this report is not to argue for or against teaching Creationism or Evolution, rather to explain the implications of teaching either.  There are literally hundreds of volumes of text arguing both indirectly and explicitly for these two issues, nonetheless, beware, virtually none of these sources is anything less than conspicuous biased.  For example, certain sections of Did the Devil Make Darwin Do It? mark with quotations everything not purely of fundamentalism, giving entire pages a mocking tone.  (The book is composed of contributions from fourteen individuals of varying educational backgrounds representing both Christian and secular colleges).  Even texts that simply chronicle the legal battles between the factions can bias by selective omission.

Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, California notes that almost all seminary trained rabbis and ministers from most Christian denominations accommodate evolution.  Only biblical literalists are genuinely conflicted by Darwin (Beardsley 12).  Recently, the Pope accepted evolution as God's really "long miracle" as Bert Cates calls it in Inherit the Wind (Lawrence 3).  This may make Catholic schools at least one safe haven for Darwinian instruction.  If an teacher presents evolution in a Catholic school today, parents are more likely to think that he is following the word of the Pope than recklessly exercising a civil right to teach what the state deems acceptable.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, prospective teachers in fundamentalist schools often are required to sign an oath of allegiance to their faith prohibiting the presentation of any material contrary to that faith.

In the 1990's the administration under George Bush announced a plan to make federal money available to parents in the form of "vouchers" allowing them to send their children to any school they wished.  Private schools were encouraged that they could at last draw large numbers to their institutions.  With the election of Bill Clinton, a pro-homosexual, pro-abortionist liberal, religious groups were disappointed and renewed calls for organized school prayer, textbook and library censorship, and the teaching of creation science (Webb).

One historical cause for creationism gaining ground in legislation is that Congress is no more scientifically aware than the rest of the population of the United States.  When creationists paraded their scientific credentials and employed technical jargon in discussions, their arguments seemed as scientific as those presented in by scientists in major universities.  With no basis for evaluation of any of the evidence presented, aides frequently recommended political solutions to the problems presented by the creation-evolution clash (Webb).

However, The First Amendment of the Constitution begins, Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof.  This is known as the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and is most widely interpreted legally as the requirement of the separation of church and state.  This country has historically been a refuge from religious persecution (the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and in this century, Jews) and this clause prevented the establishment of any religion mandated by the state.  Madison, who authored the Clause believed that it meant "that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience."  This effectively prevents the government from 1) establishing a national church or 2) showing favoritism to one religion or another (Donohue, 95-97).  In requiring the teaching of creationism, a doctrine with a clear Christian basis, both restrictions were broken.

In 1968 in Epperson vs. Arkansas a science teacher challenged her state's anti-evolution law in the Supreme Court because she feared prosecution if she used the science text books her school district had adopted.  These texts were produced by the American Institute for Biological Sciences and used evolution as the major unifying theme.  The law was unanimously stuck down on grounds of the First Amendment (Wilson).

In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled seven to two in the case of Edwards vs. Aguillard (a Louisiana science teacher) that the Louisiana Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public Instruction Act was unconstitutional concluding that the purpose of the act was "to advance a particular religious belief." (Alley 256)  This was a reference to the Lemon test, a "three prong" inquiry into legislation to ensure that it does not violate the separation of Church and State.  The test requires that 1) the challenged act have a secular purpose, 2) the challenged act must have a principle or primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and 3) the challenged act not result in excessive entanglement of government and religion (Levy).  One could imagine that within a few years, had the Edwards vs Aguillard ruling not been handed down, every major religion would have representatives fighting for the introduction of their faith in the science curriculum.

Creation-scientists have frequently tried to incorporate their beliefs into text for school consumption.  An example from 1975 is Biology: A Search for Order in Complexity, a book which claimed to given equal time to creationism and evolution, but presented biology "reminiscent of a century or more ago" (Simpson 438).  More recently, in 1995, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins was released, a book which credits life's complexity with a master intellect, but may elude the 1987 Supreme Court ruling by avoiding suggesting divine creation (Beardsley).

Most scientists believe the creationism science proposed to be taught is unscientific.  Science requires that a phenomenon be measurable, repeatable, testable, etc.  Webster's Dictionary defines science as "the study and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena in an orderly way; knowledge acquired through experience" (154).  A belief derived untested from a religious belief does not satisfy this definition.  Evolution is regarded by most science educators as the most unifying of all principles of biology.  In both the first and second editions of the Biology Teacher's Handbook the importance of evolution has been clearly stated: "It is no longer possible to give a complete or even coherent account of living things without the story of evolution" (Simpson, 436).

One problem of the widespread acceptance of a concept as involved as evolution is that it simply is quite difficult to grasp.  As a result, many who argue against evolution do so with an obvious misunderstanding of the implications of this theory.  Most rebuttals by scientists are filled with complaints that creationists are only seeing half the picture or that they simply have not grasped the basic concepts upon which evolution is built (Bennetta).

Creationists cannot be challenged by rational arguments as their beliefs are based on faith, not logic.  To challenge the worldview of a Biblical literalist on the matter of evolution is to contest all that is stated in the Bible.  Arguments that the Bible is a work translated many times through the millennia and, hence, prone to human error are heresy to creationists.  The faith of student who has been raised in a fundamentalist family will be supremely challenged by a discussion of evolution.  Dr. Cummins suggest that teachers approach the subject by pointing out that faith in God and all manner of miracles need not be challenged by evolution, only that the first book of the Bible not be interpreted as literally as it has been historically.  In the 1925 trial of John Scopes, the defense makes the point that the first days were not specified to be twenty-four hours and could in fact have been six days or six years or even six billion years by the testimony of the prosecuting attorney Mr. Bryan.

The greatest difficulty in evolution gaining acceptance lies in the fact that the theories of evolution and natural selection, the mechanism which conveys the process of evolution, require an understanding and working knowledge of 1) and old earth, 2) gradual changes occurring on this earth, 3) random occurrences through natural selection, 4) a common decent of organisms, 5) a view of a species as a collection of variable individuals, and 6) a view of humans existing as a part of the biological realm (Cummins).  In addition to the fact that many of these concepts in one way or another fly in the face of fundamental Christian beliefs, they seem even to be out of reach for most high school students.  In John Settlage's paper Conception's of Natural Science: A Snapshot of the Sense-Making Process, he summarizes that some educators "have proposed that the concept of evolution is such an abstract topic that high school students, most of whom still think at the concrete level, cannot realistically be expected to construct solid understandings of the topic."  Settlage concludes his own study by encouraging teachers to persist in their attempts to teach these concepts throughout the school year and not confine such an all-encompassing concept to its isolated section in the textbook (Settlage).

Nonetheless, by the very nature of science a teacher should teach the faults of evolution theory along with everything else.  Students should get the whole package, not just an idealized version.  One of the fundamental qualities of the scientific approach is that every aspect of a theory must be tested constantly and students must realize that the first step in fixing a problem is being aware of its existence.  There are still quite a few "nuts and bolts" problems in the theory of evolution, though they do not seriously diminish its importance.  However, elevating this idea to the status of Law (defined as "a model validated in all possible ramifications of accuracy"; Glassman, 280) requires that all these "nuts and bolts" be tightened to the fullest.

Concerning teaching creationism, a teacher cannot be expected to teach a theological dogma for several reasons.  From the point of view of science, theology is not science nor even scientific.  Science requires that phenomena be testable.  That which is not testable or is obtained in an unscientific manner cannot be considered in the realm of science.  Theologians should concern themselves with the fact that the common science teacher is trained in science, not in theology.  Creationists put far too much faith in the average science teacher's ability to instruct from an area he has had no training in.  The average parent would no more demand that his or her child be taught science by a priest with no instruction in that field than the converse, yet that is what fundamentalists actively demand.  Finally, from the legal standpoint one cannot put forth the belief of one faith as science in a public institution without going against the separation of church and state.  To do so would inevitably incur the outrage of members of the disparate faiths who are excluded in this special treatment.

The framers of the Constitution demonstrate their wisdom in the anticipation of this and other conflicts that would arise between religion and secularism.  The fact that the Courts have increasingly ruled against the placement of religion in the public classroom should give encouragement to teachers that the law will protect them where they choose to teach true to their profession no matter what the opposition they face.

Follow-up: Less than a year after I wrote this paper, I actually met Mr. (now Dr.) Aguillard of Edwards vs. Aguillard fame.  He was working on his Ph.D. at LSU at the time, and stopped by the lab school which I was student teaching on campus to pass out questionnaires .to teachers as part of his research.  He was a nice guy, and I'm grateful to him for setting aside his life for several years to be a part of this case.

All contents copyright Alexplorer.
Back to the Articles