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No Crocodile Tears for Kansas

No Crocodile Tears for Kansas


Indeed it was a “tragedy,” opined an editorial in the New York Times (August 13, 1999). Within this context, naturally enough, the editorialist continued “deep sadness is the most sensible response.” The reader might have been pardoned for suspecting the opinion piece was actually written tongue in cheek. The event which called forth this public mourning was none other than a decision by the State of Kansas’ Board of Education. That action of the Board, according to the NY Times, “makes it more likely that many schools will spend less time on evolution …” Oh really? One might have understood if the newspaper had called the action regrettable or ill-advised, but “tragic?” What was going on here?

Editorials across the continent bewailed the events of August 11 in Kansas. One of the angrier ones was the August 14 editorial in the Edmonton Journal. This newspaper branded the events of August 11 in Kansas as “disgusting and disheartening”. According to the editorial writer, opinions of a majority of the board members were “horribly dangerous propaganda” perpetrated by individuals who “bamboozle the scientifically illiterate with their plausible-sounding pseudo-science.” This Journal opinion piece also twice characterized evolution as “truth.” This term goes far beyond the claims of most scientists that their interpretations are “tentative” and worthy of “provisional assent”. Provisional agreement, of course, is not the same thing as truth, which is not subject to changing opinions. Lastly the Journal editorial castigated the Kansas Board of Education for accommodating the views of a “minority of right-wing bullies.” But the editorialist is wrong here too. If the writer had carried out adequate research s/he would know the Board is democratically elected and reflects majority opinion. Is it respectable to say such nasty things about the wishes of the majority ?

According to Gallup Polls carried out in 1982, 1991, 1993 and 1997 “a steady 44-50 percent of Americans have said that they believe God created humans in their present form no more than 10,000 years ago.” (Houston Chronicle, September 19, 1999 p . A1). In addition, according to the most recent Gallup Poll, “68 percent of Americans said they favor teaching creationism along with evolution. Forty percent believe creationism should be taught instead of evolution.” Thus while media spokespersons may disagree with points of view such as the Kansas Board of Education, they can scarcely call them a minority conspiracy. The amazing thing actually is that public schools in the United States pay so little attention to the wishes of a majority of the people who are (in fact) the consumers of education, the clients whose children the schools are supposed to serve.

Who’s who and what’s what in Kansas

According to the constitution in Kansas, a 10-member board has the power to set educational policy. The members of the board, elected from districts around the state, enjoy a mandate so powerful that this body has been called the fourth branch of gover nment. The responsibilities of the board members are heavy since the public schools account for half of the state’s spending. Abolishing the board or replacing it with an appointed body would require an amendment to the state constitution and approval by the voters. Such proposals were submitted to the voters three times already, in 1974, 1986, and 1990. All failed. On the subject of threats to replace the elected Board with an appointed facsimile, an opinion piece in the Kansas City Star (August 2 2/99 p. L1) reflected: “In challenging the teaching of evolution, the Kansas State Board of Education has exposed not just cracks in the Darwinian dam but the gaping holes in the nation’s commitment to representative democracy. Among those most troubled b y this unexpected breakout of democracy is the state’s Republican governor, Bill Graves.”

Apparently the people of Kansas have been caught in a process that has been sweeping across the American nation. Science educators have undertaken since about 1990 to have all states conform to national standards in curriculum for each grade level. In 1996 this movement was particularly energized by the National Research Council’s document which defined evolution as one of five unifying principles in science along with 1) systems, order and organization 2) evidence, models and explanation 3) constancy, change and measurement and 4) form and function. This list represented a considerable upgrading of the emphasis that would be placed on evolution. According to an August 12 article by Larry Witham in the Washington Times, the national science stan dards are having the desired effect. Harold Pratt, a former director of science education programs at the National Research Council estimated that “Evolution is becoming a more and more accepted part of biology and science across the country.”

What really happened

The now-famous Kansas adventure began in May 1999 when a 27-member state committee of science teachers and professors met to approve the national standards previously drafted by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advance ment of Science, and the National Science Teachers’ Association. The Board of Education was expected to rubber-stamp the proposals presented by that prestigious committee. The Board however was something of a question mark. For more than two years, many v otes had been deadlocked between “moderates” and “conservatives”. When the science standards were presented, one board member — veterinarian Steve Abrams, a former state Republican chairman — objected to the teaching of evolution as fact. He set out to draft revisions. Another board member, Scott Hill, a farmer, assisted him as well as Harold Voth, a recently retired public school superintendent. The support of Mr. Voth for this project was a shock to ‘moderates’ who had considered him to be their cand idate. It was Mr. Voth’s support that tipped the balance of power to the ‘conservative’ side.

On August 11, revised standards were presented to the Board and passed by a margin of 6-4. The standards did not outlaw instruction in evolution, they merely did not include this as a topic for state wide exams. But some onlookers feared that this omis sion might leave an opening for other points of view. Jonathan Yardley, a commentator for the Washington Post (August 16, 1999) described the issue in a most picturesque way: “the committee decided, after much discussion and acrimony, to leave the decision about evolution to each locality, which permits the well organized creationist forces to swoop down upon, and terrorize, districts vulnerable to pressure.” (emphasis mine) Similarly Molleen Matsumara of the National Center for Science Educ ation pointed out that the revised standards might allow teachers to criticize evolution as a theory (Kansas City Star August 8, 1999). Whatever happened to the emphasis on critical thinking in education? Moreover a NY Times story (August 1 2, 1999) complained that the new standards in Kansas also include at least one case study that could be used to debunk evolution. This material includes the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. Does the NY Times mean that some data are unsuitable fo r study because they cast an unfavourable light on evolution?

What about Illinois?

The most interesting aspect of this issue is the science standards in the State of Illinois. These standards omit any mention of evolution or natural selection!! The only stipulation is that students “know and apply concepts that explain how living thi ngs function, adapt and change.” The vague character of the language is intended to give local districts plenty of scope to develop their own programs. (Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1999)

The media are not wasting time and attention on Illinois because the situation there was not initiated by conservative Christians. In actual fact, however, the end result in both states is probably the same. Evolution is taught in most schools. (see “K ansas teachers put their faith in evolution.” Edmonton Journal. September 20, 1999). It is the small victory by critics of evolution that so annoys the educational establishment. In a postscript to the events in Kansas, the science organizations wh ich drafted the original standards have refused copyright permission to the Kansas Board of Education. The 27-member expert committee had for the most part, merely copied the national standards. Moreover the Board merely modified a small part of that draf t. However it now seems that the Board will have to re-write the entire package. If the Board had accepted all the provisions as was expected, copyright approval would have been graciously forthcoming.

So was the Kansas Board of Education trying to prevent teaching about evolution? Probably not. Many observers feel that they were merely trying to allow more opportunities for discussions on evolution both pro and con. What’s wrong with that?

So the comedy of ill-will, over-statement and hysteria continues across the continent. Let’s not shed any more crocodile tears over this issue but rather let’s indulge in reasonable discussion. Support for the beleaguered Board of Education would no do ubt be most welcome too.

Margaret Helder
October 1999

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