Texas seems to be in the news often, from politics to healthcare. Now, Texas is the subject of debate as a panel creates a list of recommended biology textbooks for high schools across the state. What’s controversial about that?
On the panel of 28, six members – including a nutritionist, a chemical engineer, and a trained biologist – are known to reject evolution. Though there is limited talk about creationism specifically, panel members against evolution “borrow buzzwords common in education, “critical thinking,” saying there is simply not enough evidence to prove evolution” (Creationists on Texas Panel for Biology Textbooks). They argue that by providing students with alternative explanations for science – i.e. creationism or intelligent design – they are actually improving students’ critical thinking skills and the ability to weigh evidence. The language of this argument attempts to mask the creationist agenda – Texas science standards reference the need for the analysis and evaluation of basic principles of evolution in high school classrooms across the state. And as the anti-evolution side invoke Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and the need for evidence, the other side – the evolution, climate change, sanctity of science side – draws on biblical references to make their point. A University of Texas professor reminds his non-science students that “the Book of Job says that their faith will be tested” and “You don’t need faith to believe what the evidence suggests. You need faith to believe what the evidence doesn’t suggest” (Creationists on Texas Panel).
With anti-evolution panel members, the list of approved science textbooks are much more likely to reflect this challenge to evolution and climate change, and some parents are worried. A push against evolution could lead to children graduating with less fundamental scientific knowledge than their peers in other states, putting them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs that require a scientific background. If teachers emphasize creationism/intelligent design over evolution, students who do believe in evolution could be belittled in the classroom (though it’s important to note that many parents who espouse creationism have similar arguments with an evolution dominant curriculum). And while school districts in Texas can choose whichever textbooks they’d like, recommended or not, many choose from the state list.
The Texas panel and textbook debate brings up the question, as many things do, of true separation of church, state, and education. Where is religion’s place in education? Is it in the science classroom, right next to Darwin’s theory of evolution? Is it in the literature course, Bibles and Bhagavad Gitas and Qur’ans on the shelf with Mark Twain and Harper Lee? Or should it be relegated to whispers and side conversations, officially absent from any curriculum?
In the world we live in, in the United States, in Texas, and in your hometown, I do not advocate for removing religion from our youth’s education. Does this mean let those anti-evolutionists revise Texas science? Absolutely not. What I mean is include the facts about the world’s religions in social studies; read sacred texts in literature classes; learn about religious make ups of countries in geography. Educate American teenagers about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism. Can you imagine how things would change if we taught our kids that people who wear turbans are not always Muslim and are certainly not all terrorists? If we actually knew what kosher meant and why it was important? If we read the Bible as a work of literature, discussing what you can ascertain about the culture at the time?
Philosopher Dan Dennett has this fantastic TED talk about why we should be teaching all religion in schools, viewing religion as a natural phenomenon just like evolution. First, he sums up my previous paragraph two sentences:
As long as you inform your children about other religions,then you may — and as early as you like and whatever you like –teach them whatever creed you want them to learn. But also let them know about other religions.
He goes on to link the evolution of religion with the evolution of a cow, saying:
Today’s religions are brilliantly designed — brilliantly designed.They’re immensely powerful social institutions and many of their features can be traced back to earlier features that we can really make sense of by reverse engineering. And, as with the cow, there’s a mixture of evolutionary design, designed by natural selection itself, and intelligent design –more or less intelligent design — and redesigned by human beings who are trying to redesign their religions.
I truly recommend that you go watch Dennett’s talk, because there is so much more related to education, religion, and design. As we see with the Texas textbook debate, religion crops up everywhere, even where we think it shouldn’t. But maybe we shouldn’t resist peppering our education system with the world’s religions. Who knows? We might actually produce informed citizens equipped for a religiously pluralistic society.