how to keep science in science class

Weird Things talks to the Texas Freedom Network about keeping science in science class despite the state's best efforts to gut it.
teach the controversy cryptids
Illustration by Amorphia Apparel

If you’ve been following the Don McLeroy saga and the quest by other creationist members of the Texas State Board of Education to get religion into textbooks and science classes, you’ve probably noticed plenty of links to the blog of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization which is fighting to keep education standards in Texan schools evidence-based. Today, I got the chance to talk with TFN’s Communication Officer Dan Quinn about the history of creationist activism in Texas and how to prevent school curriculums from being used as a tool of indoctrination in culture war debates. We also touch on the constant question of whether one can be a religious person and still accept evolutionary science as a valid theory that should be taught in class.

Q: Is creationist influence on the Texas State Board of Education a recent phenomena?

A: Not really. In the 1980s, the school board starred shifting towards what it saw as a compromise between people who wanted to teach creationism and people who wanted to teach evolution. That compromise was the “strength and weaknesses” language. Unfortunately, over time, those who were opposed to evolution in schools used it to throw all kinds of arguments at evolution and pretended that what they were talking about was science. And it wasn’t science at all. They were just bogus attempt to discount real science.

But in the 1990s, the Religious Right started its takeover of the board. We’ve always had social conservatives there but now there was an emergence of a hardcore faction which voted lockstep on culture war issues. And that faction had grown to seven of the fifteen members of the school board. Since last year, they’ve been able to co-opt votes of a Democrat from San Antonio who for whatever reason decided to vote with them on some issues. This way, they cobbled together a majority and could do things they’ve never been able to do before.

So when the science standards came up for revision, they thought they had the votes to really force textbook publishers to throw in all these phony arguments against evolution using the “strengths and weaknesses” language. They tried to do that in 2003 but they only had four of the fifteen votes. Now, they were sure they had the upper hand so it became very important to strike down that clause so they wouldn’t had the excuse to go after evolution standards. Unfortunately, while we won on that, the board did adapt a number of measures in the standards which could allow them to force publishers to still throw in some of their phony weaknesses of evolution arguments in the future. This is a long battle and we haven’t seen its culmination yet.

Q: Why do you think there are so many social conservatives who oppose teaching evolution?

A: They’re probably the best people to ask about that, but if you listen to what they’re saying, they genuinely feel that evolution threatens their religious beliefs. And that’s fascinating to those of us who are people of faith and see no problem with accepting the science of evolution. What we find so objectionable though is that instead of dealing with reconciling their science and religious beliefs, they’ve chosen to push their religion on others by co-opting the government, and in this case public schools. I don’t know if there’s more of them today than in the past but they are very highly organized and that makes them very effective in pushing these policies. Those seven members of the school board know exactly how they’re going to vote on every issue while those of us on the other side have to go from one board member to another to explain our arguments.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a person of faith? If so, where does evolution fit in for you?

A: Absolutely. I’m a person of faith, no doubt about it. Evolution tells me the how we all came to be here, but it doesn’t tell me the why. The why is where God comes in for me. I know everyone approaches this from their personal viewpoint and I think that’s right. The problem I have is when people decide to promote their beliefs over everybody else’s and use public schools to do it. I have no problem with how science lays out evolution and it might be the way God sent us all here to develop although God’s ways are not for us to know. I believe that God gave us the ability to reason as a gift and I think it would be a sin not to use it.

Q: How would you approach defending science standards from groups who want to subvert them and to promote their personal faith instead?

A: I think people have to be aware of how the process works in their state because we have 50 states and 50 different processes. There are 21 centralized adoption states of which Texas is the largest, but even in these states you’ll find some differences in how standards are adopted. People have to pay very close attention to what’s going on in their local school district. I doesn’t take very much for a vocal minority to hijack the process on a local level and dumb down the curriculum on any number of things, including science. But of course, the state adoption process is what they focus on because for example, instead of going to all 1031 Texas school districts, they can just go to the State Board of Education and push their beliefs there.

People need to stay informed, they need to know the issues and they need to be willing to contact their school board members as well as the lawmakers who give the school boards powers. There were bills which would lessen the powers of the school board in the [Texas] Senate, but the far right put tremendous pressure on the lawmakers not to back them and we’ve ended a session without any of these bills being passed because the lawmakers haven’t really heard from the people who are saying that enough is enough and we’ve had it with our schools being dragged into the culture wars. We’re going to have to be a lot more persistent about that as we go forward.

Q: Why do you think the Religious Right groups have so much sway over lawmakers?

A: I think it’s been a monologue in which lawmakers get to listen to only one side that’s been increasingly loud and we’re now starting to hear more mainstream voices say that they’ve had enough playing politics with our kids’ education so the monologue is ending. In 2010, some of the members of the board’s creationist faction will be on the ballot so we’ll see how much parents are becoming informed and are willing to organize efforts to put a stop to [culture war debates] in schools.

[ graphic by Controversy Wear and their intelligently designed t-shirts ]

# evolution // school board / science education / texas freedom network

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