Commentary

Evolution Sticker Shock

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared on Reason.com, December 13, 2004.

When ninth graders in Cobb County, Georgia grudgingly withdraw from their backpacks copies of Biology, by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine, they are faced with an “advisory” sticker hinting at dark forces at work within. It reads:

“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

The sticker is there because the Cobb County school board put it there. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued. Why make a federal case of it?

The ACLU argues that since the sticker picks on evolution, and evolution alone, there are grounds to believe that the sly stickering forces seek to sneak religious doctrine into the curriculum. That, says the ACLU, is illegal. Pro-science anti-stickerites argue, correctly, that evolution is both a theory and a fact. And there is no good reason to exhort students to be open-minded, careful, and critical about evolution in particular. Students should approach all topics with such an admirable, enlightened spirit.

But the Cobb County controversy is not really about the merits of the theory of evolution, or whether all the alternatives are, as the ACLU argues, motivated by religious faith. The bigger fight is about who gets to impose their beliefs on whom. It’s just the latest symptom of a deeper illness that necessarily afflicts a system of publicly provided education.

Imagine you live in a town where you are required to pay several thousand dollars of taxes each year into a public fund that is used to buy food for the entire community. There is a publicly elected “Menu Board” that determines each year’s offerings. You wanted rye this year? Sorry! The Board voted for Wonder Bread. Again! You could, in principle, opt out of the public food system and buy rye, pumpernickel, or seven grain oat-nut crunch at a fancy private store. But you’ve already paid thousands in taxes, and can’t afford to pay twice for everything you eat. The Menu Board picks it. You eat it.

Imagine the controversy. Vegetarians (“You’ll get lentil loaf and like it!”) will lock horns with the Atkins lobby (“You can have my bacon when you pry it from my dead cold fingers!”) to wrest control of the Menu Board. The kosher set will fight against shrimp-lovers; Mormons will rail against the Starbucks crowd; Hindus will agitate against the forces of barbeque.

Public school boards and curriculum committees are like menu boards for our children’s minds. Isn’t what we teach our children more important than what we feed them? Bitter and divisive conflict over curriculum is inevitable. Miller and Levine’s Biology is to creationists what pork is to Muslims. Getting a Cobb County sticker with your biology book is like getting a little note with your pork chop: “Warning: Not Halal.”

The question we should be asking is not whether we should be worried about stickers on textbooks, but, rather, why we do education this way in the first place. We live in an incredibly diverse society, and there’s no way we’re all going to agree, even if some of us really are right about the best way to do things. Suppose you knew with absolute certainty that there was one objectively best diet. Would that justify forcing shrimp down unwilling throats? Why treat schools differently?

One simple solution to conflicts like the one in Cobb County is to give more control to parents through a system of vouchers. Parents would then be free to put their children’s education in the hands of schools that reflect their beliefs, not the beliefs of school boards, curriculum committees, and the teachers unions. Not only would a voucher system put an end to lawsuits over textbook stickers, it would do a better job of realizing liberal ideals of toleration and neutrality.

A voucher system might also provide our children with better education. Maybe defenders of evolution should take the theory of natural selection to heart. Species become well-adapted to their environments through a history of selection over variation. Mother Nature experiments; traits that work stick. Our system of public schools imposes on everyone a relatively uniform model of curriculum and pedagogy, and crowds out private experimentation. No variation, no evolution. No wonder our schools are so dismal.

Think about it: the system we’ve got now leads parents to sue each other while their children get mediocre schooling. Maybe there ought to be warning stickers on the public schools.

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.