Respectful Insolence

Via Red State Rabble, I’ve become aware of an incredibly depressing story about science teachers in Arkansas explicitly censoring themselves when it comes to teaching evolution (the “e-word,” as they call it) or in geology class teaching that the earth is 4.5 billion years old:

Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.” Bob feared that not being able to use evolutionary terms and ideas to answer his students’ questions would lead to reinforcement of their misconceptions.

But Bob’s personal issue was more specific, and the prohibition more insidious. In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD … but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

As a person with a geology background, Bob found this restriction hard to justify, especially since the new Arkansas educational benchmarks for 5th grade include introduction of the concept of the 4.5-billion-year age of the earth. Bob’s facility is supposed to be meeting or exceeding those benchmarks.

The explanation that had been given to Bob by his supervisors was that their science facility is in a delicate position and must avoid irritating some religious fundamentalists who may have their fingers on the purse strings of various school districts. Apparently his supervisors feared that teachers or parents might be offended if Bob taught their children about the age of rocks and that it would result in another school district pulling out of their program. He closed his explanatory message with these lines:

“So my situation here is tenuous. I am under censure for mentioning numbers. … I find that my ‘fire’ for this place is fading if we’re going to dissemble about such a basic factor of modern science. I mean … the Scopes trial was how long ago now??? I thought we had fought this battle … and still it goes on.”


The teachers there are so frightened of the reaction of fundamentalists that they wouldn’t allow the reporter to mention the name of the school, nor would the teachers cooperate without assurances of anonymity:

Both of the directors welcomed me warmly and were very forthcoming in their answers to my questions. They were, however, quite firm in their insistence that they and their facility be kept strictly anonymous if I was to write a story about Bob’s issue. We talked for over an hour about the site’s mission, their classes, and Bob’s situation specifically. Both directors agreed that “in a perfect world” they could, and would, teach evolution and deep time. However, back in the real world, they defended their stance on the prohibition of the “e-word,” reasoning that it would take too long to teach the concept of evolution effectively (especially if they had to defuse any objections) and expressing concern for the well-being of their facility. Their program depends upon public support and continued patronage of the region’s school districts, which they felt could be threatened by any political blowback from an unwanted evolution controversy.

With regard to Bob’s geologic time scale issue, the program director likened it to a game of Russian roulette. He admitted that probably very few students would have a real problem with a discussion about time on the order of millions of years, but that it might only take one child’s parents to cause major problems. He spun a scenario of a student’s returning home with stories beginning with “Millions of years ago …” that could set a fundamentalist parent on a veritable witch hunt, first gathering support of like-minded parents and then showing up at school board meetings until the district pulled out of the science program to avoid conflict. He added that this might cause a ripple effect, other districts following suit, leading to the demise of the program.

Essentially, they are not allowing Bob to teach a certain set of scientific data in order to protect their ability to provide students the good science curriculum they do teach. The directors are not alone in their opinion that discussions of deep time and the “e-word” could be detrimental to the program’s existence. They have polled teachers in the districts they serve and have heard from them more than enough times that teaching evolution would be “political suicide.”

It’s also happening to science museums:

The first place I happened to find, purely by accident, was a privately run science museum for kids. As with Bob’s facility, the museum requested not to be referred to by name. I was only there for a short time, but I’m not quite sure what to make of what happened there. I looked around the museum and found a few biological exhibits, but nothing dealing with evolution. I introduced myself to one of the museum’s employees as a science educator (I am indeed a science educator) and asked her if they had any exhibits on evolution. She said that they used to, but several parents — some of whom home-schooled their children, some of whom are associated with Christian schools — had been offended by the exhibit and complained. They had said either that they would not be back until it was removed or that they would not be using that part of the museum if they returned. “It was right over there,” she said, pointing to an area that was being used at that time for a kind of holiday display.

And, even worse, in advanced placement biology programs:

Susan told me she had overheard a teacher explaining the “balanced treatment” given to creationism in her classroom. This was not just any classroom, but an Advanced Placement biology classroom. This was important to Susan, not only because of the subject and level of the class, but also because it fell under her supervision. Was she obliged to do something about this? She knew quite well that the “balanced treatment” being taught had been found by a federal court to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause — perhaps there is no greater irony than that two of the most significant cases decided by federal courts against teaching creationism were Epperson v. Arkansas and McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.

Susan sincerely wanted to do something about it, but she decided to let it go. Her reasoning was that this particular teacher is probably in her final year of service. To Susan, making an issue out of this just was not worth the strife it would have caused in the school and in the community.

Because of the power wielded by fundamentalists who rely on belief rather than science, an entire generation of children in Arkansas and other states is getting a substandard science education, and good teachers are forced into Faustian bargains in order to protect what they think they can protect. Worse, this is not just happening in Arkansas, but in many states throughout the nation. Because of a group that cannot accept it when science contradicts their literal interpretation of a text that is thousands of years old, they’re willing to let the rest of the children, whose parents may not share their narrow view of Biblical truth, suffer.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe S
    March 28, 2006

    It is depressing, but if it’s any consolation, my 5th grader’s teacher was faced with a similar problem: being told that she was not permitted to teach long division effectively, because it deviated from the “Everyday Math” curriculum, even though their method is ineffectual for most students. We later learned she was disciplined because parents called to ask the school to allow her to teach the way that we were able to see was much more effective for our children. As in this story, the teachers will not even discuss the matter with parents any more. The fanatics are everywhere, and reality is only one more obstacle to them.

  2. #2 Ruth
    March 28, 2006

    Fundamentalists to the right of me, PETA to the left, what’s a rational Catholic toxicologist to do? They are debating ‘equal time’ legislation in Missouri now. All the state’s plans for creating a biotech corridor here are at risk if a few fundamentalists have their way. They are to Christianity what the mercury parents are to autism. I know parents who are homeschooling to avoid the anti-evolution slant in the southern schools.

  3. #3 Frito
    March 28, 2006

    I was not taught evolution in any of my biology or science classes. We always seemed to skip the chapter. I didn’t really think anything of it as it was happening. I was raised on science documentaries, so I had a good grasp on evolutionary theory, and I always figured that we would eventually cover it. The only class that did cover it was the AP Biology class that I was not able to take because of schedualing conflicts.

    This was in rural Michigan.

  4. #4 Catherina
    March 28, 2006

    Ha – brilliant times lie ahead for European kids who want to become scientists, since the children in the US are not being taught scientific thinking based on facts anymore, taking a huge chunk out of potential competitors. With a curriculum that allows equal time for evolution and creationism, with sex ed directing the children to “abstinence vows” based on blatant lies (in government aproved and funded curricula) there is actually no need to increase the NIH budget as scientist are bound to become extinct in the US (note bitter sarcasm here).

  5. #5 Joe
    March 28, 2006

    There is a survey of science education standards by state

    http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/publication.cfm?id=352

    Arkansas received an F.

    Joe

  6. #6 Ruth
    March 28, 2006

    My high school biology teacher in my small northern Michigan town took Duane Gish’s “Evolution? The fossils say no” apart, point by point (this was in 1978). I don’t know if that kind of ‘critical analysis’ is allowed anymore.

  7. #7 Joe
    March 28, 2006

    Ruth,

    You have warmed my heart

    Joe

  8. #8 Everett Attebury
    March 28, 2006

    I can’t seem to find the original article quoted here. Following the links to the Arkansas Times I found a much shorter, more generalized article that doesn’t mention any of the coercion described here.

    Has it been sanitized? Can anyone give a link to the original article?

  9. #9 Everett Attebury
    March 28, 2006
  10. #10 Orac
    March 28, 2006

    That’s odd.

    I went back and looked at the front page. There’s a link to a story called The Missing Link. I think they changed the link to the story. I have no idea why. I’ll fix it in my post.

  11. #11 SkookumPlanet
    March 28, 2006

    This is happening all over the country.

    I may be misreading blog readers here and on PZ’s post on the Arkansas crap, but everyone seems politically passive about this, and also misunderstanding why it’s happening. So, perhaps I’m beating a dead strawman, [hey!] but let me address that.

    First, this is national and is not a natural social phenomonen. It’s highly political, and it’s engineered. It will continue.

    Two, this is inherent to the radical right’s desire to keep control, both of government and cultural insitutions. They need voters in voting booths casting ballots. They’re bringing lots of new evangelical voters into the process who previously ignored politics. The far right, otherwise, can’t muster enough votes to stay in power. In essence then, creationism is central to their national political strategy. There’s much more science yet to go on the chopping block. Are those astronomers rubbing their hands around their necks…..no, no, those are geologists.

    These are very smart, ruthless political operatives. Neither they nor the bozo-brained local evangelicals, care about biotech corridors, or a competitive U.S. science, or science education, or the quality of U.S. education, etc. Again, that’s a national phenomonen. Education is a sacrificial lamb.

    Many bloggers, seems to me, make assumptions that when poop and fan meet, Americans will eventually see these connections. I’m highly skeptical. For the foresseable future, the radical right will have their way in the new, zero-sum cultural arena created by communication technology — everyone else has yet to figure out the arena’s address! This will allow the right to create all sorts of boogey men and thus keep the focus off themselves, their amorality, and the mess their faith-based socioeconomic philosophy is making of our country.

    It’s all about votes, votes, votes folks. The right has been doing a masterful job at using psychomarketing, in numerous ways, to get and stay in power. They create national campaigns that build realities in citizens’ minds, that are then activated, specified, adapted, and used locally. The rest of us are like the three blind men and the elephant. We see and mobilize against the local issues.

    Why is the entire opposition to the far right so clueless about how it’s happening and thus unable to effectively counter-campaign? I don’t know. Ignorance? Partly. The incuriosity is a real chokepoint.

  12. #12 Joseph Hertzlinger
    March 29, 2006

    One reason for Creationism is that a substantial fraction of alleged defenses of evolution are apparently aimed trying to tie the fact of evolution to genuinely-dubious ideas.

    BTW, is there any evidence for this self-censorship other than the testimony of anonymous unverifiable sources?

  13. #13 SkookumPlanet
    March 29, 2006

    Joseph

    1. What type of reasonable evidence would satisfy you?

    2. As I said above, “This is happening all over the country.” I’ve seen multiple media reports in my own state, and from other states through different media. Many of these teachers were identified. They can’t all be lying. That would be a large conspiracy.

    It would also mean quite a number of incompetent reporters. Also, anonymous sources in press accounts, if done correctly, are “verified”. That’s part of a reporter’s job.

    Your first sentence is so vague it makes no sense to me.

  14. #14 G. Bell
    March 31, 2006

    Science Teachers:

    DO NOT give in to the Fake Christians and the true servants of Satan. These evil fanatics and so-called “creationists” only pretend to follow The Bible; unless they repent and return to following Our Lord, they will burn in Hell.

    Real Christians, on the other hand, have real faith and real belief in Our Lord. Real Christians are not worried at all about evolution or any other of God’s handiwork but instead are delighted and awestuck by The Almighty’s mysterious ways. Science does not, and cannot, weaken the faith of True Christians; on the contrary, science confirms and strengthens the faith of True Christians; it cannot be otherwise.

    The Fake Christians and the evil blasphemers who, by trying to stop the faithful from understanding evolution and God’s ways of ordering the Universe, are trying to place themselves above The Almighty – and in doing so only condemn themselves to eternal damnation.

    These Fake Christians and their satanic “creationism” have more in common with communism and with the 9/11 terrorists than with Christianity.

    Science Teachers, you have a Christian and patriotic duty to stand firm against these Fake Christians. You have a duty too, to help these Fake Christians save their immortal souls by turning away from their “creationism” and all the other delusions inflicted on them by followers of the Anti-Christ.

    God bless all of you.

    G. Bell

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