What’s a Teacher To Do?

The following is condensed from an interview with Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. Founded in 1981, the center supports teaching evolution and maintaining the separation of church and state. The center currently has about 3,500 members, including teachers, scientists, and activists advocating church-state separation.

An Interview With Scientist Eugine Scott

Scott, who holds a doctorate in physical anthropology, has written articles about science education for numerous publications, including Natural History and The Scientist. She was interviewed by Leon Lynn.

Q: How likely is it that a science teacher in this country will encounter creationism, or feel pressure for teaching evolution?

At some time or another in their career, very likely. It varies based on where they work, of course. Usually, teachers in big cities will fare better than teachers in small towns and suburbs. But it’s a common thing, and it seems to be getting more common.

There are two sides to this. One is the effort by creationists to teach some kind of religiously based idea as part of the science curriculum. That’s usually pretty blatant. But there’s another side, which can be a lot harder to see. Teachers get the message, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly, that evolution has become a controversial subject in their community and they’ll just quietly stop teaching it, and evolution will sink out of the curriculum.

Q: How do you respond when someone suggests that the fair thing to do is teach children about both evolution and creationism, and let them decide what to believe?

At its heart, the “equal-time” argument is substantially flawed. People who advocate it are basically saying we should teach that evolutionary theory — the idea that the universe changed through time, that the present is different from past — is equal in weight to the idea that the whole universe came into being at one time and hasn’t changed since then. You can’t do that in a science class. You can only deal with scientific evidence. There is copious evidence to support that evolution has occurred, and no evidence that everything was created at once and hasn’t changed. Why would we pretend that an idea that was created outside of science is science? That’s not fair.

It’s perfectly reasonable to expose children to religious views of origin, but it’s not OK to advocate those views as empirical truth. And the place for those ideas is not in the science curriculum.

Q: Do you think students are harmed by exposure to creationism in their science class?

Yes. To begin with, these so-called alternatives to evolution are disadvantageous because they are simply factually wrong. Creation science literature is riddled with inaccuracies, misstatements. Students who learn it learn a lot of flat-out erroneous stuff. They also aren’t learning the scientific method. The people pushing creation science aren’t interested in modifying or revisiting their theories based on any new evidence, which is the basic premise of science. So when you teach creation science, you’re giving legitimacy to very bad scholarship.

It’s also a problem for students because if they don’t learn evolution, they will be at a disadvantage when they take standardized tests. That includes college admissions tests. Evolution is not controversial at the college level. Scientists who work and teach at that level constantly tell me how amazed they are at the ignorance of students about evolution.

Q: When teachers feel pressure to stop teaching evolution, what should they do?

To begin with, it’s important to deal with people’s feelings. If a religious parent is raising a complaint, for example, it’s very important to make that parent realize you’re not trying to change or challenge the child’s religious faith. You need to say, “We are presenting the best scientific information, we want your children to learn it, but it’s up to you and them whether they accept it or not.” That often assuages parents’ concern, because they’re really afraid that when evolution is being taught, anti-religious ideas are being rammed down their children’s throats.

Also, teachers need to support each other. If there are teachers in your school who are nervous about teaching evolution, others need to support them. Those teachers need to know they’re not alone in case any flak comes along.And probably the most important thing for teachers to do is to get administrative support. That is, if they can.

Q: What do you mean?

I’ve heard some great stories of administrators marching into the classroom and saying, “You will teach evolution, you signed a contract to teach the curriculum and that’s part of it.” I’d sure like to clone them, though, because we sure don’t have many like that. I’ve been rather disappointed on the whole with the response of principals. The proper response in a situation like that is to explain to the parent the importance of evolution in the school curriculum. Instead, too many principals tend to appease the parent by talking to the teacher, and directing the teacher to “just skip it (evolution) this year.” I’ve had teachers tell me stories like that at every conference I’ve ever attended.

Administrators are simply not doing their jobs on this. If a parent came in and said, “I don’t want my child learning that the South lost the civil war,” the principal would say, “Thanks for your input, but we have to teach the curriculum, including the part that says the North won.” Or if you had a parent who was a Holocaust revisionist, you wouldn’t see many principals telling teachers to stop teaching that the Holocaust took place. But they’re willing to compromise the integrity of science and tell the teachers to downplay or skip evolution.

Q: Why is evolution treated differently?

The difference is partly due to people not wanting to be critical of religion. Administrators don’t want to be labeled as being “anti-God.” Remember, there are a lot of people who think that when you accept evolution, you have to reject religion. That’s not true, but there are an awful lot of administrators who would rather just avoid the whole issue than start a debate like that with parents.

Another part of it is that there’s a lot of ignorance among administrators about the central importance of evolution to science teaching. They don’t realize that evolution is a central, unifying theory of biology, and that depriving students of learning it is a serious problem.

Leon Lynn is an education journalist in Milwaukee.