why some teachers get mum about evolution

February 1, 2011

Most of you have probably heard that six out of ten science teachers skim over evolution in the classroom, carefully choosing to hedge their bets, covering only some aspects of evolution or avoiding the topic as much as possible and telling the students that they just need to get the answers on the tests correctly. It’s not a big, new development either since previous reports identified most teachers as giving creationism a pass or even outright endorsing it in the classroom. But if we know that teachers could be doing a lot better in conveying the science behind evolution to students, why are so few actually doing it, and why are so many playing it safe? If we wanted to pinpoint the motivations of creationist science teachers, we wouldn’t have far to go. Remember the peek we got into the creationist classroom in which both the Bible and the science were pillaged to help a crusading teacher preach his gospel rather than educate? With cautious teachers, however, it could be a mistake to assume some sort of religious empathy as their primary motivation in their behavior. Sure, it might be why why many of them teach evolution poorly, but for many more, the real issue is an implicit censorship.

Keep in mind that in our society, a student who was instructed by someone to start arguing with a teacher on the proper result of a mathematical equation would be the butt of jokes for the next week. A student who was constantly interrupting social studies classes to peddle conspiracy theories would be considered paranoid at worst and weird at best. But students who decided to tussle with a teacher about evolution are praised by the religious community as defenders of their faith. What teacher needs to be made a villain by the parents of the kids she teaches and have the typically overcautious and easily panicked administrators constantly breathing down her neck every time they get a call from some zealot shocked and incensed that science has moved on over the last few hundred years and came up with biological explanations for the origins of humanity, and that a teacher at his local school dares to teach these explanations? We could lament that teachers just aren’t all that familiar with evolution and how we need better low level instruction for those teachers, covering genetics and speciation in greater and greater depth. And sure, more education could never hurt when you’re planning to have that knowledge passed down. But no education in the world will counter social intimidation.

Religious leaders are masters of intimidation and veiled threats, and their followers aren’t much better. The shows of populist fury at school board meetings, urging that creationism be bludgeoned into science classes is just a show of force, an effort by people who decided that they’re simply going to outshout the scientists and their work to turn over facts to the realm of popular opinion for a vote. And if that doesn’t work, they can always threaten to vote for someone who’ll be more receptive to their demands. I wonder why, since they’re at it, they don’t ask that we take a vote on whether gravity is real, or if it really accelerates us down at 9.8 m/s/s? Or if the rabbit they’re raising is pregnant or not, or even female? If they truly believe that their faith in something and a wave of popular support behind the idea they embrace makes their belief legitimate, why wouldn’t they apply this concept across the board? They could vote themselves rich, attractive, and driving new Ferraris they park in the five car garages of their new 10,000 sq. ft. mansions rather than simply stay middle class, driving used cars bought at a clearance by the closest dealer, and living in a 1,500 sq. ft. condo. But wait, they can’t do that since no matter how many votes they take, they won’t suddenly become filthy rich, well not unless their wealthy relative leaves them a fortune in his will, right? Then why would they think this would work with science?

Then again though, we are talking about the kinds of people who embrace ignorance and obstinacy in light of new ideas as a praiseworthy testament to their devotion. Arguing with them is not just like arguing with a wall, but a wall that takes great pride in remaining silent in reply. You can see this behavior at the Texas SBOE, a rare conglomeration of spiteful demagogues who mutilated their state’s basic educational standards in the name of their ideology, and at taxpayer expense, with the kind of rhetoric we usually don’t hear outside of local right wing and conspiracy radio shows. Can you imagine the kind of unholy crusade they would embrace if a teacher decided to eschew their paranoia and sophistry in the classroom and some of their supporters had a cow after their kids came home with a solid understanding of fundamental biology and cosmology? Why such a teacher would be fired and have to move out of state to get a new job and branded as a troublemaker. Will a typical administrator hire someone who caused a stir at his last workplace? It won’t matter whether the stir in question was right or justified by any stretch of the imagination, all that matters is that there was a stir and if a parent calls to complain there will be another stir in the new district as well. Why, there might even be protests and preemptive complaints too! Knowing this ridiculous political calculus, our hypothetical teacher will grit his teeth and deliver the most obfuscating biology lecture he can because frankly, he has few other choices…

[ illustration from a Brazilian anti-censorship ad ]

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  • The bigger problem, as I see it, is that school board members can’t handle confrontation. Despite having both the facts and the law on their side, they often remain incapable of telling religious zealots to fuck off and die – schools exist to teach facts, and the churches can do what they damn well please in their own tax-protected spaces, but not everywhere.

    This whole “political-correctness” and “freedom from being offended” trend has become ridiculous, making school boards unable to handle the complaints and whining of creobots during board meetings or, more often than not, e-mail and letter campaigns – a high percentage of them cannot even handle face-to-face meetings. In their efforts to seem “receptive” and “polite,” board members listen to complaints about evolution, and “respect for my beliefs” and “being open-minded,” and promise to treat them “seriously,” never realizing that ignoring them is treating them seriously, and in fact, much more seriously than considering that they have some relevance to curricula.

    Thus some of the teachers, unable to count on the backing of their employers and unwilling to tread our country’s byzantine and bureaucratic legal system, can either play nice to creobots or find another job. Some teachers, to be sure, have their own desires to push mythological bullshit on their students and think this will buy their way into heaven – and don’t receive any redirection from the weak boards. But it’s the boards that set and enforce their schools’ policies, even in defiance of state standards and laws. We’ll always have fringe element nitwits around – it’s the practice of listening to them that causes damage. They certainly do not outnumber the citizens that want their schools to stick to real education.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Teachers want to keep their jobs. School board members are elected, and subject to local special interest groups…such as creationists. Consider that most teachers don’t have any civil service protection, and can be dismissed at the end of a school year without much effort. So, the process of intimidation starts early. Even for a teacher who has some legal protections, constantly fighting with your superiors means taking a lot of time and energy away from what you are paid to do, and often want to do; teaching.

    In the earlier McCarthy Era, teachers were dismissed without hearings, and on the basis of nothing more than an anonymous complaint filed with the administration. I don’t believe that school administrators have gained any more courage since that time. And risking your entire career for an abstract principle sounds fine, if you’re not the one with student loans and other bills.

  • I think the religious leaders need to be educated in the difference between religion and evolution.

    As a presenter of natural history for elementary and middle schools and author of the Handbook to Life on Earth, I have spent a lot of time looking at evolution. I have also lectured on the Shroud of Turin and spent a lot of time examining religion.

    I can only conclude that religious leaders are afraid of evolution.

    First, they need to know the difference between the Bible (religion/worship) and evolution (scientific study). The Bible is not and never was meant to be a history of nature. It was written as a book of worship. You can have the book of worship alongside the theory of evolution. One does not threaten the validity of the other.

    One of my favorite bumper stickers: Evolution is a theory … like the theory of Gravity.

  • Greg Fish

    “You can have the book of worship alongside the theory of evolution [and] one does not threaten the validity of the other.”

    Well, actually, yeah, it does. Let’s remember that fundamentalists utterly reject anything that doesn’t agree with their interpretation of their holy text no matter how much they say that they respect the scientific consensus on the facts. If they read that we came from a man molded out of dirt and a woman that grew out of his rib, and there a scientist with genetic analysis showing that we actually branched off from the great apes millions of years ago, they feel very much threatened because they can’t reconcile their books with the scientists’ evidence and they have to pick one as more valid than the other. And we all know what they usually choose…

  • Longsmith

    My dad, a biology teacher in high school and junior college for 30 years, ALWAYS taught evolution. He would say that if you want another interpretation, go to church. That’s it. I do not agree with Stephen Jay Gould’s theory, evolution is scientific and thus the only way to interpret the world. Religion is non-scientific and thus lacking any validity.