By Jerry White
The Kansas Board of Education voted Wednesday to delete virtually all
references to evolution, natural selection and the origins of the universe
from the state's science curriculum. The decision represents the most
far-reaching success thus far for the Religious Right and its attempt to ban
Darwinism from public school classrooms in the US.
Under the new guidelines for K-12 students, individual science teachers
will not be barred from teaching evolution, but it will no longer be
included in state tests, and therefore can be dropped from the curriculum
of local school boards. Presented by the state board as a victory for local
school "choice," the move is expected to encourage Christian
conservatives to push for a complete ban on the teaching of evolution in
local school districts and to force teachers to question the validity of
evolution and teach creationism.
Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biology professor and staunch
advocate of teaching evolution, told the WSWS, "I think it's a dramatic
step backward for science education in Kansas. What they have done is
to cut the heart out of science, which is evolution. Of course this will
embolden critics of evolution and serve to legitimize them. But in another
way it may be productive, and serve as a wake-up call to the science
The campaign to change the Kansas guidelines was led by board
member Steve Abrams, a former state Republican chairman. It began
after a 27-member state committee of scientists drafted new standards
which acknowledged that evolution was a "broad, unifying theoretical
framework of biology." Abrams denounced the draft, saying, "it is not
good science to teach evolution as fact." He was joined by Scott Hill, a
farmer, who recently said, "There's a liberal agenda to build up and
glorify evolution in our schools."
With the help of creationists, Abrams and Hill redrafted the guidelines,
deleting two pages on evolution and inserting the sentence: "The design
and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent
designer." The latter was removed after protests from scientists, but a
compromise was then drafted, and after months of a 5-5 deadlock on the
school board, it passed by a margin of 6-4 Wednesday.
The new standard includes a reference to so-called micro-evolution, a
term coined by creationists, which refers to the genetic adaptation and
natural process within a species. But it excludes any mention of
"macro-evolution," the understanding that all life evolved from common
ancestors. Also removed was any reference to the Big Bang theory of the
origin of the universe. Instead, teachers are instructed to "suggest
alternative explanations to scientific hypotheses or theories" and a
reference is made to the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington
state, which creationists claim undermines scientific evolutionary theory
because it showed geological changes can happen very quickly (i.e.,
within a Biblical time frame rather than over millions of years).
John Staver, co-chairman of the committee of scientists that drafted the
standards, called it a "travesty to science education" and added, "Kansas
just embarrassed itself on the national stage." More than half of the
committee members are demanding their names be removed from the
document. In addition, the presidents of the state's six public universities,
including the University of Kansas, opposed the school board's plan,
writing that it would, "set Kansas back a century and give hard-to-find
science teachers no choice but to pursue other career fields or
assignments outside of Kansas."
One board member who opposed the new standards said the decision
would make Kansas science students "the laughing stock of the world."
Anticipating that being branded backward and ignorant might hurt
businesses in the state, even Republican Governor Bill Graves called the
board's action, "a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that
Half of the members on the Kansas Board of Education are right-wing
fundamentalists. It is chaired by Linda Holloway, an Evangelical Christian
and former Kansas City school teacher, who shortly after being elected
to the state school board led a campaign to require that parents give
written permission before students took sex education and that the
course teach abstinence only.
The passage of the new state guidelines does not express a groundswell
of support for taking Kansas back to the Middle Ages. Nor is the attack
on evolution the product of rural ignorance. The stronghold of the
fundamentalists is not the farms, but the middle class suburbs around
Kansas City. Kansas is in the Midwest, not the South, with traditions of
free thought which go back nearly 150 years, to the state's origins in the
struggle against slavery before the American Civil War. A century ago
Kansas was a hotbed of radical thought and opposition to
capitalism—Populism, the Socialist Party, the IWW—and was home to
the Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper with a mass nationwide
If in 1999 it is the appeal to unreason which has taken the initiative,
reflects more the well-financed efforts of the religious right, which enjoys
widespread publicity, if not support, in the news media, as well as the
lack of any significant opposition from what might be described as the
liberal intelligentsia. In the midst of this campaign, the Topeka
Capital-Journal, in Kansas editorialized that "creationism is a good a
hypothesis as any for how the universe began."
The right-wing and the Republican Party
Moreover, these right-wing elements have increasingly taken over the
Republican Party. After the school shooting in Littleton, Colo., earlier this
year, House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) blamed the incident
in part on the teaching of evolution rather than creationism in public
"Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified
apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud," DeLay
said in an speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. In June,
the House passed a measure allowing the Ten Commandments to be
posted in schools and other government buildings and the bill is now
going to the Senate.
One creationist "scholar," Sam Blumenfeld, said that America's founders
were Calvinists who believed that man is, by nature, a depraved creature
who needs fear of a higher power to do the right thing. Public schools at
one time were based on this philosophy, Blumenfeld said, but in recent
decades the schools have been shaped by "secular humanism" which
holds that humans control their destinies.
It is difficult to overstate the concentrated ignorance in this comment.
Christian fundamentalists have forgotten Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine,
and Benjamin Franklin! Those who led the American Revolution were
men of the Enlightenment, that great and liberating period in which the
bourgeoisie, during its revolutionary rise, shook off the shackles of
religious dogma. The Founding Fathers were for the most part Deists and
materialists, and many of them scientists and inventors.
The apparent success of the fundamentalists, then, is not based either
the strength of their ideas or any broad popular support, but on the
rightward shift of the political establishment. For the most part, the
masses of people remain confused and passive, unaware of the dangers
posed by the escalating attack on public education and democratic rights
as a whole.
The Christian conservatives have mobilized their followers to vote for
school board members and legislators, and general low voter turnout in
many elections has ensured their success. Along with their denunciations
of the "immorality" of public schools, they have advocated publicly
financed charter schools, homeschooling and aid, in the form of vouchers
or tax credits, for parents who send their children to private and
Public education has been particularly targeted because it remains
identified with the rational, egalitarian and democratic ideals of those
reformers who fought for universal public schools in the 19th and 20th
century. These ideas are correctly seen as an obstacle to the deeply
reactionary agenda which the right-wing is pursuing. In a speech at last
fall's Christian Coalition national convention, Pat Robertson denounced
educational reformer John Dewey for training teachers to spread "poison"
into the schools.
More than a decade ago, the US Supreme Court, in the case of Edwards
v. Aguillard (1987), ruled that Louisiana's so-called balanced treatment
of creationism and evolution in the public schools violated the
constitutional separation of church and state. Since this ruling, that
effectively barred the teaching of creationism in public schools, religious
fundamentalists have tried a new tactic, i.e., efforts to limit the teaching of
evolution and challenging its merits on pseudo-scientific grounds.
In recent years Alabama, New Mexico and Nebraska have made
changes that to varying degrees challenge the prominence of evolution in
science classes, generally presenting it as merely one possible explanation
of natural development. Others states such as Texas, Ohio, Washington,
New Hampshire and Tennessee, have considered, but ultimately
defeated, similar bills, including some that would have required those who
teach evolution to present so-called evidence to disprove it. In addition,
many local school boards have moved in this direction.
In Alabama, for example, biology textbooks carry a sticker calling
evolution, "a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific
explanation for the origin of living things." The disclaimer adds: "No one
was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement
about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." This has
gone hand in hand with attempts to intimidate science teachers, school
administrators and textbook publishers.
In opposition there is an increasing concern, particularly among teachers,
that scientific thought is under attack as it was 75 years ago during the
famous Scopes Monkey trial in Tennessee. In a recent statement, the
National Association of Biology Teachers wrote: "Whether called
'creation science,' 'scientific creationism,' 'intelligent-design theory,'
'young-earth theory' or some other synonym, creation beliefs have no
place in the science classroom. Explanations employing nonnaturalistic or
supernatural events, whether or not explicit reference is made to a
supernatural being, are outside of the realm of science and not part of a
valid science curriculum."