Tag: creationism

Want a Disproven Belief? Government Schools Teach Good Science

Much is being made by school choice opponents of a report that a Christian school in Louisiana eligible to receive students in the state’s new voucher program uses a textbook that asserts the Loch Ness Monster is real and a dinosaur. Writes Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss:

This is where support of vouchers is leading us — to the public paying for a child to learn that the Loch Ness Monster was a dinosaur and co-existed with humans. This is important to Young Earth Creationists, who believe that Earth was created no longer than 10,000 years ago, not the 4.5 billion years estimated by science. They also believe that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark.

If people want to believe this and they want their children to learn it in school, that’s fine. The public shouldn’t have to pay for it.

I can certainly see why paying for this sort of thing would disturb a lot of people – it’s a major reason tax-credit programs, which let individuals and corporations choose to whom they will donate, are preferable to vouchers. Let’s, however, use this to confront another, extremely dubious belief that many would never challenge:  Government schooling leads to good science instruction.

First, no matter how loudly government-failure deniers might protest – the government is omnipotent, dammit! – government schooling does not overcome religious belief. The latest Gallup poll assessing views on human origins came out a few weeks ago, and found as it has since 1982: The vast majority of Americans believe that God created human beings, and a plurality believes that God created us in our “present form.” Only 15 percent hold that human beings evolved without any divine involvement. And this is with roughly 85 percent of students attending public schools.

Next, take a look at overall science achievement. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders are “proficient” in science. And private versus public schools? 43 percent of private school students are proficient, versus 31 percent for public schools. A significant part of the difference is likely that private schools tend to serve better prepared kids, but the data certainly doesn’t suggest that public schooling beats private when it comes to science instruction.

Finally, there’s the reason government schools are so inept at teaching science: All people, no matter what their beliefs, are forced to support public schools – a perfect recipe for wrenching conflict. To avoid war without end, some 60 percent of high school biology teachers gloss over the mega flash-point that is evolution. The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction.

The solution to this is obvious: Let the people go! Let them freely choose what their children will learn, eliminating the need to fight. No longer force them to pay for “free” government schools, then pay again for education they like.

Unfortunately, all too often the self-proclaimed logic-driven defenders of science reject this argument. In part this is because of their heart-felt conviction that all children must learn proper science. That, however, has shackled them to the utterly illogical belief that some way, somehow, human and government reality will be magically overcome.

That’s more than just a little ironic.

Pretty Sure It’s Already Divisive

When you’ve been fighting over the same thing for well-nigh 90 years, there’s a good chance some new policy won’t suddenly make it divisive. Nonetheless, that’s what an L.A. Times article, citing critics, suggests about a new law in Tennessee allowing in-class discussions critical of evolutionary theory and other scientific topics:

The measure will allow classroom debates over evolution, permitting discussions of creationism alongside evolutionary teachings about the origins of life. Critics say the law, disparagingly called “The Monkey Bill,” will plunge Tennessee back to the divisive days of the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial’’ in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.

You don’t have to be Charles Darwin—or God—to figure this one out: the law was passed because the topic is already divisive. Government-schooling defenders might not want to acknowledge that, and they have been able to keep it slightly hidden by having discussion of creationism de jure  forbidden in public schools, but hard evidence reveals that Americans are mightily torn.

Time after time, surveys expose the deep split. Most recently, a 2010 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe that “God created humans in present form”; 38 percent accept that ”humans evolved, with God guiding”; and 16 percent believe that “humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.” Those numbers have stayed pretty consistent since 1982, the first year for which Gallup has data.

Clearly, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Americans are already very divided on evolution, and have been for quite some time.

How has what peace we’ve had been kept? Generally, by avoiding evolution in the schools. As Berkman and Plutzer have found, about 60 percent of high school biology teachers either completely avoid or soft-pedal evolution so as not to stir up controversy.

Public schools haven’t been happily chugging along, teaching rigorous evolutionary theory and eschewing any alternative explanations for human origins. A large number have been either teaching evolutionary pap, or nothing.

One of the major arguments government schooling defenders employ against school choice is that choice would lead to a balkanized, divided America. To make that argument, they have to ignore the history of American education—it was largely government-free for about two centuries, and public schools were long grounded in homogeneous communities—and assume that if you force diverse people together they will give up their conflicting values and ultimately engage in a gigantic, society-wide group hug.

Our endless battling over evolution—not to mention incessant fighting over countless other matters—reveals that that just doesn’t happen. You cannot force conscience uniformity, and you can’t have peace or rigor without educational freedom. Tennessee is just helping to make that clear.

Miss USA Contestants: America in Glamourcosm?

A rabid fan of both Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and The Miss USA Pageant (some may know him as Jim Harper) just sent me a link to this YouTube video. In the vid, all the contestants in the just-completed, aforementioned pageant discuss whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.

I didn’t tally their responses, but just listening to the contenders it seems their consensus answer represents America in microcosm: Most seem to have serious doubts about evolution, but support teaching it along with other viewpoints. It reflects both the overall split within the American public—40 to 50 percent of Americans are creationists, and roughly the same segment evolutionists—as well as the consensus view on teaching human origins: About 60 percent of Americans support teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools.

Of the most interest to us here at CEF is whether public schooling can even handle a hot-button issue like human origins. Is a government system of schools that all diverse people must support capable of dealing with a controversial subject like this, or will it spark conflict that ultimately ends with no side getting the view it wants taught?

The existing evidence shows that government schooling generally can’t handle controversy, but that is almost never even mentioned in the seemingly endless war between creationists and evolutionists. And the same is true for the aspiring Miss USAs. While a few appeared to conclude that the nation is too diverse for public schools to deal with this topic—see Miss Kentucky at the 5:07 mark, and Miss Utah at 12:36—the majority made no mention of the problem. Fortunately, only one gave the answer libertarians should fear most: Miss Indiana ( 4:25 ) said “I think we should leave that up to the government.” (In the Hoosier rep’s defense, she did eventually conclude that we should “just leave that out of the equation” because it would be too controversial).

At least when it comes to the teaching of human origins in schools, Miss USA contestants really do appear to represent their country.

Curricula with an Agenda? It Ain’t Just Big Coal

Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan “The United States of Energy.” Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.

Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.

In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if “consensus” were synonymous with “absolute truth.” What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.

Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don’t just fail, they hurt everyone.

Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.

I Said Believe!

Since its beginning, one of the primary drivers behind public schooling – government schooling – has been a desire to compel belief, whether in “American” values, God, the primacy of science, or myriad other things that some people have thought it essential for all people to accept. The result has been constant conflict that, rather than uniting diverse people – a companion goal of public schooling – has divided them.  And not only have crusades to force belief created ongoing conflicts, there’s generally been little evidence they’ve actually changed the targeted beliefs. So we’ve gotten all the downside of trying to force alterations to hearts and minds without actually changing them.

Case in point, the seemingly endless war over the teaching of human origins. 

Despite decades of keeping religion out of the public schools, the latest polling shows that 40 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form about 10,000 years ago, while only 16 percent think that human beings evolved without the participation of God. 

New research from a couple of Penn State political scientists elucidates one reason – besides simple, honest disagreement – that this is the case. While law can prohibit the teaching in public schools of such alternatives to evolution as creationism and intelligent design, it cannot actually make biology instructors teach evolution. And, it turns out, a major reason many teachers tiptoe around evolution is that they fear the backlash that would come from forcing a singular view on diverse people.

According to Michael Berkman and Eric Pultzer, roughly 60 percent of respondents in the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers reported that they either steer clear of evolution or dance around it not necessarily because they reject the theory, but because they don’t want trouble. “Our data show that these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy,” the researchers said. It’s a finding that confirms an anecdotal New York Times report from a few years ago, and that fits with other analyses of public schooling that conclude that often the easiest thing for public schools to do is simply avoid any disputed topic.

So what do we do?

For starters, stop making education policy based on the notion that some things are so important all people must be forced to believe in them. You simply cannot compel belief – at best, you’ll get the parroting back of what you want to hear, not true acceptance. Worse, you’ll very likely create a situation where no one gets what they want and everyone ends up with empty, incoherent, compromised curricula.

The ultimate solution is to let parents choose options for their children without first having to pay for the “one, best system,” and to let educators provide schooling tailored to the values and needs of whomever they wish to serve. Then everyone will be be able to access coherent curricula rather than being saddled with educational mush.

Of course, many people will choose to have their children learn things with which neither you nor I agree. We can make that clear to them by selecting different options for our own children and openly debating conflicting opinions. What we cannot do is continue to try to impose our beliefs on them: not only is it incompatible with a free nation and antithetical to social unity, it often ends up keeping everyone from getting what they believe is best for their children.