Commentary

A Gift for Everyone on Darwin’s Birthday

Thursday is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the British naturalist whose theory of evolution has been at the center of American public school wars for almost a century. But Darwin’s not to blame for all the fighting—it’s the backward system that governs our public schools.

The granddaddy of battles on this issue is the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan feuded over a Tennessee law prohibiting any instruction in public institutions that even questioned “the story of Divine Creation.” A few years ago, Dover, Pennsylvania was ground zero, as the town tore itself apart over a requirement that biology students hear a disclaimer that evolution is a theory, “not a fact.” And there is now a dispute in Texas over public school science standards calling on students to evaluate the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories.

But how are the schools to blame for this wrenching warfare? Isn’t it really all the fault of a relative handful of theocratic literalists who find the idea that human beings share common ancestry with apes, among other things, irreconcilable with the biblical account of creation?

Certainly they are a part of the conflict, but theirs is only the most uncompromising opinion. The Catholic church, for example, accepts Darwin’s theory while asserting that the ultimate meaning of life comes through God. On the other end of the spectrum, the most ardent Darwinist wouldn’t claim to know for certain how life sprang from lifelessness, leaving room for both evolution and a creator. And there is always the possibility that something even the vast majority of scientists are certain about will someday be proven incorrect.

The crux of the problem is that public schools can only espouse one view at a time and are unable to handle diversity. That has forced biblical literalists, committed atheists, and everyone in between to endlessly fight for control of the curriculum.

And this constant, divisive brawling might not even be the most damaging outcome of having to essentially designate “official” knowledge.

Given the imperfect state of human understanding, progress relies on people being freely able to debate, challenge and disprove one another. Public schooling, with its one-size-must-fit-all limitation, impedes that essential interplay.

Public schools, for one thing, are forbidden to teach anything that hints of religious instruction; even mentioning that God might have created life is often considered out of bounds. Moreover, because of the constantly looming threat of political domination, both creationists and evolutionists fear the slippery slope. They worry that if they allow any doubts to be aired about their beliefs, the total removal of those beliefs from the schools could follow.

That fear drove creationists in the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” and it drives defenders of evolution today. As Eugenie C. Scott, president of the National Center for Science Education, has warned in Texas, “the phrase ‘strengths and weaknesses’ has been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back door.”

Perhaps the most ironic outcome of all this warfare is that it often leaves all sides unhappy. Many religious citizens remain frustrated, with devotional religious instruction prohibited in public institutions. And Darwinists often get left in the cold as well; many teachers are too afraid of stirring up trouble to teach evolution. And such teaching of evolution as there has been over the past eighty years has born little fruit, with roughly half the population still disbelieving it. So, as with most wars, even when one side nominally “wins,” both sides actually lose.

Education wars could end by putting funding in the hands of parents and letting them choose among autonomous schools.”

Of course, it is possible that one faction could accumulate enough political strength to crush its opposition and assume dictatorial power. But that would be an even greater loss than lowest-common-denominator curricula, eradicating the liberty that is the very foundation of free inquiry and a free society.

What we need to end disputes over human origins—and, for that matter, over sex education, phonics, multicultural history, and sundry other curricular tinderboxes—is to embrace liberty. We need school choice.

Education wars could end by putting funding in the hands of parents and letting them choose among autonomous schools. Because all would be free to select education compatible with their values, there’d be no need to fight. And if done through tax credits, so that taxpayers could select the schools or students to which their funds would flow, no one would be forced to support education with which they disagreed. The resulting marketplace of ideas would enhance freedom.

So on this, Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, let us stop fighting over the place of evolution in the public schools and resolve to have educational freedom. Let Darwin compete in a real marketplace of ideas. Everyone will be the wiser.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.