Science teachers in Arkansas self-censoring about evolution

Via Red State Rabble, I’ve become aware of an incredibly depressing story about science teachers in Arkansas explicitly censoring themselves when it comes to teaching evolution (the “e-word,” as they call it) or in geology class teaching that the earth is 4.5 billion years old:

Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.” Bob feared that not being able to use evolutionary terms and ideas to answer his students’ questions would lead to reinforcement of their misconceptions.

But Bob’s personal issue was more specific, and the prohibition more insidious. In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD … but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

As a person with a geology background, Bob found this restriction hard to justify, especially since the new Arkansas educational benchmarks for 5th grade include introduction of the concept of the 4.5-billion-year age of the earth. Bob’s facility is supposed to be meeting or exceeding those benchmarks.

The explanation that had been given to Bob by his supervisors was that their science facility is in a delicate position and must avoid irritating some religious fundamentalists who may have their fingers on the purse strings of various school districts. Apparently his supervisors feared that teachers or parents might be offended if Bob taught their children about the age of rocks and that it would result in another school district pulling out of their program. He closed his explanatory message with these lines:

“So my situation here is tenuous. I am under censure for mentioning numbers. … I find that my ‘fire’ for this place is fading if we’re going to dissemble about such a basic factor of modern science. I mean … the Scopes trial was how long ago now??? I thought we had fought this battle … and still it goes on.”

The teachers there are so frightened of the reaction of fundamentalists that they wouldn’t allow the reporter to mention the name of the school, nor would the teachers cooperate without assurances of anonymity:

Both of the directors welcomed me warmly and were very forthcoming in their answers to my questions. They were, however, quite firm in their insistence that they and their facility be kept strictly anonymous if I was to write a story about Bob’s issue. We talked for over an hour about the site’s mission, their classes, and Bob’s situation specifically. Both directors agreed that “in a perfect world” they could, and would, teach evolution and deep time. However, back in the real world, they defended their stance on the prohibition of the “e-word,” reasoning that it would take too long to teach the concept of evolution effectively (especially if they had to defuse any objections) and expressing concern for the well-being of their facility. Their program depends upon public support and continued patronage of the region’s school districts, which they felt could be threatened by any political blowback from an unwanted evolution controversy.

With regard to Bob’s geologic time scale issue, the program director likened it to a game of Russian roulette. He admitted that probably very few students would have a real problem with a discussion about time on the order of millions of years, but that it might only take one child’s parents to cause major problems. He spun a scenario of a student’s returning home with stories beginning with “Millions of years ago …” that could set a fundamentalist parent on a veritable witch hunt, first gathering support of like-minded parents and then showing up at school board meetings until the district pulled out of the science program to avoid conflict. He added that this might cause a ripple effect, other districts following suit, leading to the demise of the program.

Essentially, they are not allowing Bob to teach a certain set of scientific data in order to protect their ability to provide students the good science curriculum they do teach. The directors are not alone in their opinion that discussions of deep time and the “e-word” could be detrimental to the program’s existence. They have polled teachers in the districts they serve and have heard from them more than enough times that teaching evolution would be “political suicide.”

It’s also happening to science museums:

The first place I happened to find, purely by accident, was a privately run science museum for kids. As with Bob’s facility, the museum requested not to be referred to by name. I was only there for a short time, but I’m not quite sure what to make of what happened there. I looked around the museum and found a few biological exhibits, but nothing dealing with evolution. I introduced myself to one of the museum’s employees as a science educator (I am indeed a science educator) and asked her if they had any exhibits on evolution. She said that they used to, but several parents — some of whom home-schooled their children, some of whom are associated with Christian schools — had been offended by the exhibit and complained. They had said either that they would not be back until it was removed or that they would not be using that part of the museum if they returned. “It was right over there,” she said, pointing to an area that was being used at that time for a kind of holiday display.

And, even worse, in advanced placement biology programs:

Susan told me she had overheard a teacher explaining the “balanced treatment” given to creationism in her classroom. This was not just any classroom, but an Advanced Placement biology classroom. This was important to Susan, not only because of the subject and level of the class, but also because it fell under her supervision. Was she obliged to do something about this? She knew quite well that the “balanced treatment” being taught had been found by a federal court to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause — perhaps there is no greater irony than that two of the most significant cases decided by federal courts against teaching creationism were Epperson v. Arkansas and McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.

Susan sincerely wanted to do something about it, but she decided to let it go. Her reasoning was that this particular teacher is probably in her final year of service. To Susan, making an issue out of this just was not worth the strife it would have caused in the school and in the community.

Because of the power wielded by fundamentalists who rely on belief rather than science, an entire generation of children in Arkansas and other states is getting a substandard science education, and good teachers are forced into Faustian bargains in order to protect what they think they can protect. Worse, this is not just happening in Arkansas, but in many states throughout the nation. Because of a group that cannot accept it when science contradicts their literal interpretation of a text that is thousands of years old, they’re willing to let the rest of the children, whose parents may not share their narrow view of Biblical truth, suffer.