Evolution, Biologos, and the Classroom

Anna Van Dordrecht is back right on the edge of the evolution/creationism debate in public schools. Not a good place for the Curriculum Coordinator for Science at the Sonoma County Office of Education who is required by law to be neutral on questions of God/faith. Remember the law requires that creationism in all its forms (YEC, OEC, ID and TE/EC) is kept out of secular science education. Thread carefully Ms. Van Dordrecht, FFRF is watching.

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I appreciated the article—but I’m not clear why you consider Van Dordrecht to be in “not a good place” for the position. Perhaps you have a different view of neutrality than my understanding of the term.(?)

I believe he may, as does Constitutional law. “Teach the controversy” is not neutrality. One may not advocate atheism in public school science class, but neither may one advocate religion. Creationism, etc., is religion. Science, on the other hand, is neutral. The way to be neutral is to teach science and leave out creationism.

Then again, it isn’t clear what Van Dordrecht did that was out of the ordinary. All she mentions is presenting the evidence for evolution. The whole preamble about the fanatical evolutionist and the fanatical creationists seems unrelated to anything she says about her teaching, except that she doesn’t compel belief. But who does, or can? Puzzling.

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Ms. Van Dordrecht is an employee of the California’s Office of Education. She is required by law to be secular in her work on science education curriculum. That means being neutral on religion/faith. Her actions of writing articles for a creationist website- Biologos is problematic. It is not neutral. She is telling students that science and Christian faith is compatible. She is breaking the law by doing this. She should be silent on matters of science and faith while being an employee who is in a position of influencing science curriculum.

I agree in some ways and not others. As I read the article, it sounded like Van Dordrecht was trying to keep most of the engagement with creationist ideas to contexts outside of the classroom. No matter the venue, I don’t have a problem with teachers acknowledged and responding to questions about the societal issues surrounding origins controversies. But I certainly don’t want the very limited class time allotted to such issues to detract from a thorough coverage of evolutionary biology.

I found this interesting:

Outside of class, students brought questions or shared what they had learned at church, leading to good discussion about what they thought. In class, students asked questions or clarified ideas and were met with respect.

Especially when teaching evolutionary biology within Bible Belt regions of the country, an honest engagement with the very real conflicts students may bring to the classroom may go a long way toward improving evolution education. While I totally oppose the “teach the controversy” strategy espoused by many origins ministry leaders—which is really just a strategy for sneaking religion into the classroom—I also believe it is possible to properly (and Constitutionally) acknowledging and explaining the reasons why so many millions of Americans reject what is in evolutionary biology textbooks. “Teaching the controversy” does not have to mean teaching and advocating a particular religious viewpoint.

To draw a comparison, consider high school earth science books which include a discussion of the evidence of anthropogenic global climate change. Many high school students come from homes where they are told that climate change is a hoax, and they may even be very familiar with typical denialist objections. The students may have watched countless Youtube videos by science-mocking denialists like Lord Mockton. Should an earth science teacher “teach the controversy”? If one means to engage the denialist arguments in order to help students understand the role of evidence in climatology and science in general, I’m all for it! Yes, there is always risk in devoting attention to pseudoscience nonsense—but when that pseudoscience holds sway over millions of Americans, we lose important educational opportunities when we ignore it in the classroom.

I got the impression that Van Dordrecht was “teaching the controversy” in the right ways—especially when she seemed to go to great effort to make clear that she applied different strategies inside versus outside the science classroom. It sounded like she was “teaching the controversy” without teaching religion, and that she was doing so in such a way that more of her students were likely to understand the basics of evolutionary biology by the end of the course. Whether students eventually did or didn’t fully affirm evolutionary processes and evolutionary biology in general is an entirely different matter. As a teacher in higher education environments of many sort, I never cared what students “believe” about the subject matter. I just wanted them to understand the subject matter.

"Teaching the controversy" has become a tainted term (deservedly so) for obvious religion-related reasons. The phrase has almost become an idiom for “teach religion in the classroom.” But those is no inherent reason why societal controversies can’t be acknowledged and taught properly en route to making sure that students truly understand the material. Indeed, it may at times be essential to an adolescent student actually listening and learning some things about evolutionary biology. (How else does one get through to a student who has a closed mind and sits in the classroom with arms folded and a defiant look because “Dad says that evolution is from the devil and that there is zero evidence for evolution. Dad says that one either believes in God or evolution and there is no middle ground!”? That student sitting in a classroom may actually be shocked to hear for the first time that millions of religious Americans, including Bible Belt Christians, have no conflict with the Theory of Evolution. Where else is that student going to hear that lots of Christians with beliefs similar to his assume that God used evolutionary processes in creating a diverse biosphere? He probably won’t hear it at his church. Don’t science teachers have an obligation to convey that information to him or her?)

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Agreed.

That is not her “work” as an author of science education curriculum. It is not a part of her employment day. Are you claiming that it is somehow Constitutional for her freedom of speech outside of work to be dictated by her employer? What is Constitutional about a gag order on what one says in terms of one’s religion-related speech outside of work?

Is it illegal for Francis Collins, Director of the NEH, to speak at churches? Is it unconstitutional for Dr. Collins to perform hymns on his guitar for audiences outside of his workplace and official events?

I doubt that your argument and views on the Constitution would get very far in the federal courts.

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She is writing as the Curriculum Coordinator for Science for Sonoma County California (not in the bible belt). And she is taking a decisively Christian view on evolutionary science. There is no “outside of work” by writing on a widely read CREATIONIST website - Biologos. This is her second time writing there. The first time we looked into it we gave her a pass as not really understanding her constitutional responsibilities on neutrality. Now she looks like she is purposefully trying to inject her personal faith and views on secular science education in the public schools. Let’s see how much support she is going to get from the top of the California Department of Education as the complaint letter will go to the highest levels at the State of California Department of Education.

Patrick,

It was a great article and I don’t understand your problem with it.

If curriculum was up to me, I would cover ID as a great example of pseudoscience.

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Since you and Patrick have your Science Police uniforms on, may I suggest you walk over to the biology classroom for a minute?

“To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.”

http://darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1869/1869-578-c-1859.html

(emphasis added)

Or maybe the Origin of Species is unsuitable for public school science instruction.

Well, how about Stephen Gould’s classic essay, “The Panda’s Thumb” (1980)?

“Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution – paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”

(emphasis added)

Evolutionary theory has had its hand shoved deep into the theology cookie jar since 1859. The crumbs are everywhere.

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Creationist? Biologos? WTF?

I didn’t see that part of the article. Could you quote?

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TE is creationism. Biologos is a Christian website advocating Theistic Evolution - Evolutionary Creationism. No employee of the State of California - the curriculum coordinator for science should not be posting now as a regular contributor to such a website. It give the implication of non-neutrality by the State of California.

TE and EC are creationism. Biologos is a website that advocates TE/EC. They may be softer, milder than YEC, ID and even OEC but it is still creationism and is not allowed in the public schools.

Paul, I’d have to agree that the one throwaway line from Darwin is unsuitable for mention in a public school, as is that line from Gould. Probably wouldn’t use the Origin in a science class either, just as I wouldn’t use De Revolutionibus. One could argue about Dobzhansky, but this doesn’t seem to be the place.

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When NEH Director Francis Collins speaks at a church, do you think that anyone in that audience assumes that what Dr. Collins says is the position of the United States government?

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If one went through the entirety of the Origin with a black marker, to strike out the theology, whole pages would be littered with redactions.

BOTH of the epigraphs that Darwin places (in a position of honor) at the front of the book, from Whewell and Bacon, would have to be eliminated.

Is this kind of intellectual censorship really how we should teach the founding document of modern evolutionary theory?

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It’s a sort of creationism that’s invisible to science, merely a metaphysical take on the mainstream story, and its differences from mainstream science would not be discussed in any science class. Chill.

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I have to question whether even you believe any of this. Can you assure me that you do?

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High school religious studies courses and even some high school sociology classes discuss these topics in the public schools. The federal courts have consistently upheld that practice as valid educational goals. You are promoting a popular myth that religious topics aren’t allowed in the public schools.

You lost me there. “Any of this” refers to what?

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@pnelson I don’t think you see the issue. The key point here is that Anna is an employee of the State of California in a position to impacts science curriculum for the public schools. She is required to be secular in her job. She shouldn’t be publishing on Biologos on help kids unlearn what they just learned in Church. Notice how she didn’t say anything about synagogues nor mosques.