The politics of teaching evolution, science education standards, and Being a creationist
This paper analyzes recent research conclusions regarding biology teacher attitudes toward evolution, and the variable implementation of evolution in the high schools nationwide. Berkman and Plutzer (2010. Evolution, creationism, and the battle to control America's classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press) conclude that due to a large portion of high school biology teachers compromising or downplaying evolution in the curriculum, the placement of evolution specific courses in biology teacher preparation programs will steer evolution deniers away from the field. In this paper, such arguments are situated in a larger historical and philosophical context of science education. By discussing recent sociological insight into the religiosity of education majors and education faculty, new questions are raised about student and teacher ontology, what this means for understanding science, the politics of science teacher education programs, and the epistemological and ethical limits of science education standards to dissolve Creationism. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 49: 122–139, 2012
Recently, Berkman and Plutzer (2011, 2010) made an invaluable contribution to the literature on the teaching of evolution in the United States. In this work, a number of crucial and timely insights are made. Past the more commonly known, and polarized perspective that there are science biology teachers who actively advocate for evolution (28%), and a minority of biology teachers who themselves hold and teach Creationist views (13%), they rightly identify a large proportion of biology teachers who take an ambivalent and/or accommodationist view toward teaching evolution and/or including Creationist rhetoric in the classroom. Roughly 60% of biology teachers—the “Cautious 60%” as they put it, similar to Griffith and Brem's (2004) “selective” teachers—use variable techniques when teaching about evolution to avoid controversy in the classroom. Berkman and Plutzer detail the means by which these cautious biology teachers, often unintentionally, actually cede power to Creationist rhetoric.
The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established… These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally (2011, p. 405).
Taken together, this scenario is made doubly dire, when combined with the fact that high school biology is often the best and last formal evolution education many Americans will take part in. Berkman and Plutzer then suggest means by which scientists can and should advocate for evolution in public education. Continue participation in federal court cases to limit introduction of non-scientific “alternatives” to evolution in science curricula, and remain active in the continued reform and development of high quality state science standards.
Berkman and Plutzer turn toward teacher education as the best site to affect more substantial change in attitudes toward evolution. Teacher education, predominated by programs in teaching focused institutions, usually does not have resources to support regular courses focused on evolution. They suggest requiring evolution courses for pre-service biology teachers, and/or scientists taking part in outreach/professional development efforts to such institutions. As an indirect consequence, explicit emphasis on evolution in biology teacher education would steer Creationists away from the field. When placed within the broader context and trends of education generally, this perspective opens onto new areas of inquiry that they do not immediately address. Situated in a more historical picture of education writ large, challenges for improving evolution education come unavoidably into view. Although these challenges lie largely outside the traditional purview of what scientists consider germane, it is nonetheless essential that we better understand a number of contextual factors—some holistic, some specific—in the way of implementing programmatic changes to biology teacher education.
This article fleshes out some of these factors, and refocuses toward new research directions. First, I proceed in line with current national science standards (1996) that commit to evolution as a keystone concept with biology aligned with Smith's (2010b) five point rationale for teaching evolution. As Smith sees, the literature shows sound economic, utilitarian, democratic, cultural, and moral reasons for evolution's inclusion in science education (pp. 543–544). Countering this commitment, I show how inverting a deficiency view of evolution education opens on to new problems. Ontologically, how can one both be a Creationist and be prepared—through education—to see evolution as plausible?
Next, contrary to hopes for shaping evolution education through enforcing standards, insights from ethnographic work with Creationist students show how standards—and the lacking epistemological curiosity usually associated with them—can be easily subverted by Creationist students (Long, 2011). Supporting this, Smith (2010b) sets up an immediate problem:
A large proportion of public high school teachers and undergraduates including pre-service teachers do not abandon [Creationist] ideas and come to an acceptable understanding of evolution even after completing courses in evolutionary biology that are soundly based on current research in evolution instruction and employ the principles of current learning theory (p. 539).
As Berkman and Plutzer (2010), Griffith and Brem (2004), and Goldston and Kyzer (2009) found, teacher religiosity matters in decisions to suppress evolution in the curriculum. As I will discuss, recent sociological research has shown that American education majors are the most religious of all college majors, and become more so while in college. Additionally complicating this, in similar research on university faculty religiosity, education faculty are amongst the most religious. Such religiosity, in the context of shaping school and university protocols, has consequences in the epistemological framing of program questions, and the discourses teachers and education faculty are willing to take part in.
As I will argue, Smith's (2010b) claim that “students need to know that understanding evolution may be challenging for many of them, but their supernatural beliefs will not be threatened” (p. 563) does not fully account for the phenomenon of threat to Creationist identity, nor is representative of what it means to be a Creationist. Recent neuroscience research detailing how we perceive threatening knowledge will be discussed for its direct implications toward teacher willingness to engage, or dismiss evolution in science education. Inverting Smith's view, we are never without a framework of belief upon which our conscious cognition, epistemological commitments, and vision of educational possibility is structured. If the certainty of religious fundamentalist belief guides some teachers to curtail educational possibility for students, then we have warrant to be concerned with teacher belief for the sake of democratic education. Finally, new questions are posed of the science education field by reframing what may be necessary to move evolution education ahead.
Being a Creationist in the Political Context of Schooling
Any system of science education, as an activity, is situated within a curricular, pedagogical, and political context. There are competing conceptions of what shall count as official knowledge, and who shall arbitrate learning within this process (Berkman & Plutzer, 2010). Curriculum theorists such as Apple have put it succinctly—“It is naïve to think of the school curriculum as neutral knowledge” (1993, p. 46). Ignoring this context does science education no service. For Berkman and Plutzer, a new generation of biology teachers, trained in and supportive of rigorous standards, shall enact science standards enmeshed with evolutionary theory. But as I will demonstrate, educating biology teachers to actually teach evolution is not easily solved by a reliance on standards per se. Turning toward the site of teacher training—colleges of education—as solvent to anti-evolutionary attitudes, is no less fraught with political maneuvering. Nor is it less likely to be filled with Creationists than the general read of the public that Berkman and Plutzer craft. As Feinstein (2011) has put it, “education is a normative endeavor, fundamentally concerned with improvement” (p. 182). What ends teachers are improving towards, when evolution is the object of inquiry, seems an open question.
The issues boil down to at least a few which we can take up one by one. First, the “naturalistic attitude,” that of describing the natural world, is an activity distinctive to science that science educators wish to draw people into. Pushing back against this, it has always been the case that there are those disinterested in science's message, or more interested in the call of competing messages—the arts, the lure of commercial gain, faith, sex, literature, sports, etc. These are not exclusive domains, but in the practicality and social demography of lived lives, science often fairs poorly in the mix. Second, a good deal of scientists and science education policy makers use rhetoric that gives the impression that they have little understanding that learning involves more than the transmission of timeless facts. Ironically, hope in educational standards is indicative of this kind of misunderstanding. Students can easily be assessed by teachers using high standards while still eluding the standard's educational intent. Berkman and Plutzer assume a great deal of the willingness and political compliance of teacher education programs. Just like the varied political commitments identified in school districts, colleges of education have institutional identities and their faculty have agendas. Berkman and Plutzer fail to see the same potential issue within colleges of education.
Science, Truth, and the Real
If our intention is fostering an educational climate where American students are brought into an understanding of science, then we are not well served by letting absolutist claims such as Pond and Pond (2010) pass by so easily:
Reality…is not subject to human decree. It is what it is and will remain so despite any desire that it conform to a particular political, ideological, or theological dogma. Consequently, we cannot dismiss scientific explanations of natural phenomena because we dislike or disapprove of the universe described. Yet, this is exactly what some people attempt (p. 641).
The statement above is problematic on a number of counts. “Reality” can and should be conceptually separated in a sense from the “real.” In this case, I, for very good reason, am striking and replacing Pond and Pond's “reality” with “real.” No sane person, at least those socialized in the dominant themes of Western society, would object that we exist in space interrelating with other objects, a state of affairs most can agree to be “real.” But past this kind of conception of real, reality—that which is simply apparent—is constituted by the individual's phenomenological perception (Husserl and Welton, 1999). In addition to that which we can measure and interpolate as real, many other phenomena exist for people as part of what they experience as “reality.” Such perception is greatly shaped by cultural context, and may or may not reside within a person inclined to care about naturalistic explanations. As Hokayem and BouJaoude (2008) have put it: “Acknowledging an element of subjectivity in any field of knowledge including science renders gaining perspective into a certain interpretation more important than accepting, believing, or treating another interpretation as a “mistake” (p. 413).
Through time, some have known that there are witches, only to have the interpretive context by which witches matter dissolve away. History passes and *poof*—no more witches! Although neutrinos certainly exist as real entities in our current understanding of particle physics, they bear little on my perceiving, and more importantly, what I find significant within everyday reality. They are there mind you, but not so important in how I conceive of everyday matters.
When we look upon the world, we are in the world. When not doing science, we still encounter a world richly filled with all kind of unmeasured significance. What counts as significant often depends on the identity and group doing the counting. While doing science, one can and should attempt to keep an eye centered on describing the real. But it is simply disingenuous, and frankly poor educational practice, to not open another eye toward the forms of significance within students lives. Without doing so, our mission as science educators misses a larger and much more textured picture. Engagement with or dismissal of scientific evidence does not depend on such evidence's status as real. That people “dislike or disapprove of [a] universe described” is not only “attempted” by many, but many are quite successful in doing so. No, in doing so, they are not likely winning Nobel prizes, but the panoply of human behavior and meaning systems do seem to add up to, by most reasonable measures, a diversity of fulfilled lives. Belief that science will one day dissolve all seemingly absurd human practices, is to commit to exactly the kind of error that Nietzsche warned the heirs of the Enlightenment of, in supplanting one final religious Truth with a scientific one (Nietzsche and Kaufmann, 1974). Stepping past this point quickly is indicative of educators shirking their duty.
Creationists, whether we like it or not, are quite good arranging understandings of things—however odd we consider them—that contradict the current paradigms of the scientific field. Understanding can involve many domains including the scientific, the aesthetic, the affective, the theistic, the atheistic—all things variably present across cultures. That we happen to think that science is the most powerful tool in the box, has limited traction when considering the public at large. You have no philosophical or civic warrant to will someone to bow to science as Truth. To attempt to do so can rightly be seen as intellectual fascism. People have, at least in the U.S. context, a right to ideas the norm may consider quite batty.
Although it is easy and right to gripe at the effects wrought by Creationists lobbying to eject evolution from public school curricula, there are practical limits to claims such as Pond and Pond. We do not, for example, make a societal demand that religious isolationists like the Amish accept that evolution has happened after Wisconsin v. Yoder (Alley, 1999). We do have a prima facie commitment that public school students learn about evolution as part of science educational standards. But these same standards go out the window for the small but growing number of fundamentalist evangelical Christian families, disgruntled by the “secular humanist worldview” they see in public schooling, who choose to home school their children. The most popular home school textbook, rejecting evolution, was written by a Creationist (Wile, 2000).
Such parsing is of utmost importance if we—as educators—are to take the charge of working with students where they are seriously, to improve student understanding of science. Presenting more and more detailed scientific evidence to Creationists, and expecting them to have evolutionary revelation is, in many cases, a Sisyphean game. As Pascale might see it, a great many are attempting to roll an evolutionary stone up against culture and custom, not simply over a small bump of “misconceptions.” There are ways, albeit difficult as I will detail below, to move past this, but the will needed is more elusive.
Approaching education with one fixed eye on knowledge as something static, bits of pure, unchanging data to be transferred down a delivery system, is a myopic read of the process. At worst, respective of Kuhn's (1970) philosophy of scientific knowledge, it may be quite disingenuous. Children delight in the amusing results of playing the “telephone game,” where through whispering down a line, one sees the direct results of human mediation on seeming static messages. Such a view of education—that the message ever gets through without some perspectival distortion when extrapolated to the entirety of a politicized K-16 system—should be seen as obviously problematic. Students, teachers, and communities are not passively waiting for scientific Truth to come from on bureaucratic high. Students will, as Willis' (1978) classic work with working class students shows, resist “official” forms of knowledge if they sense it devalues the system of meaning they see for their lives. Science does not necessarily give us meaning. Science, at least for Humeans, gives us a description of the natural world. In addition to the triumph of having derived science, humans are also semiotic creatures. Symbols carry sociological weight, and we are quite invested in them. Such a state of affairs is not a matter of right or wrong. It is though, deeply important for the process of education, and something that science educators cannot ignore. With a better read of the nuance of these rationales, and the pedagogical problems they present, we can then frame more effective evolution pedagogy.
Being a Creationist student
Students approach their learning with variable interest. When thinking about why students might reject evolution, a student's ontological position is of utmost concern. Ontology is the correct concept to start with, as rejection of evolution, if it happens, is almost always rigidly shaped by the absolute and final epistemological categories of religious fundamentalism. Such ontology has Biblical inerrancy as its defining commitment. Whether student, teacher, or community member—the epistemological commitments of religious fundamentalism are deeply inculcated, so much that serious questioning of these structures can prompt existential anxiety if seriously challenged (Long, 2011; Winslow, Staver, & Scharman, 2011). This is no small matter, as one's religious tradition—largely a happenstance of social circumstance—deeply structures the forms of categorical knowledge and epistemological vocabularies immediately available in many people. Some know there is one Truth, some see ways to describe multiple truths, and some see truth-seeking as an act of futility. A fundamentalist monotheist has a dramatically different view of reality, and uses quite differing epistemological schemata, than a more interpretive monotheist, or polytheist. As Larsson and Hallden (2010) describe, “learners discover interpretations of new information and concepts presented in instruction…which are applicable to the contexts for description and explanation that seem relevant for themselves” (p. 661). What relevance does evolution hold for a Creationist committed to Creationist identity?
As Long (2011) finds, Creationist students who are asked to conceive of a world where evolution has inarguably taken place, describe existential angst (Kierkegaard, 1957; Tillich, 1952) at the idea, seeing their dearest conceptions wrought insignificant. Students describe being unsettled, reject the premise as not ever possible, express despair, smallness, feeling lied to, and at the extreme, associate thinking about evolution with thoughts of death. If such matters are beside the point in teaching science, then one is not fully apprehending how varying worldviews, and fundamentalism in particular, structure the ways that students approach knowledge claims that contradict what they know from their religious traditions.
Creationist students, as Reiss (2010) describes, approach science from a non-scientific worldview. Whereas this may be the case in one sense, such a view can be a bit misleading if it is read to imply that Creationists are flatly anti-science in total. Rejection of some premises within science does not necessarily add up to one being against the entire enterprise. That some scientists may recoil and cry foul at this quite frankly does not matter in political practice. One can be completely ignorant of the hard fought foundational principals of a field while both retaining some interest in larger perspectives of it, or glean advantages from it. The act of flying in a commercial jet neither demands that a person understand the scientific principles underlying the technological system that puts them in the air, nor does having lax—or frankly goofy—ideas about such systems preclude one's participation in them. In this way, no one, in the entirety of their phenomenological encountering of “the world,” is “scientist” at all times.
In an ethnographic study of one Middle American state college campus, Creationist students were no less likely to have elected a major in science than other fields (Long, 2011). If surprising, this is made far more understandable once one considers the variable reasons for which one pursues a college education. Following nine Creationist students closely during a semester, four were preparing to be teachers (one preparing to be dually certified in both biology and chemistry), four were preparing for graduate study in applied biomedical sciences, and one was pursuing business management. A sentiment shared by many of these students was the desire to find gainful and practical work. Of those pursuing science related careers, none showed less than earnest interest in science, scoring well on classroom assessments of learning. Measuring “learning” on standardized tests—the instrument de rigueur of American education—does not discriminate between identifying a correct answer, and having epistemological allegiance with an intellectual concept. The problems this poses are discussed in detail below.
Why Science Standards Alone Will Not Quash Creationism
Both the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and the AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy (Project 2061, 1993) are clear about the role that evolution shall play in what they see as a scientifically literate citizen. For example, in the hopes of the AAAS, the scientifically literate citizen will know that:
Chance alone can result in the persistence of some heritable characteristics having no survival or reproductive advantage or disadvantage for the organism…life on earth is thought to have begun as simple, one-celled organisms about four billion years ago…But evolution does not necessitate long-term progress in some set direction (p. 125).
Knowing that some school districts and biology teachers might choose to omit evolution from the curriculum, the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) are clear on this point. “No standards should be eliminated from a category. For instance, ‘biological evolution’ cannot be eliminated from the life science standards” (p. 112).
Enacting national science standards is problematic, on a number of fronts. The first involves the politics of top-down curriculum policy. As Lerner (2000) found reviewing state science standards, evolution is not evenly present, some states leaving troubling room for the inclusion of non-scientific perspectives as science. At the state level, many non-scientists—school boards, lawyers, politicians, textbook companies, etc.—all can affect the course of the state educational curriculum one way or another.
At the classroom level, students prove to be much more discerning agents when asked to “learn” material that conflicts with how they understand the world to be. Ingram and Nelson (2006) found that students could hold conflicting perspectives on evolution as science, and Creationism, ascribing this as students not being critical thinkers. Further analysis can find quite reasonable explanations. Many students are well aware of the game represented by standardized tests, and know how to “game” the system. Creationist students seem quite adept at negotiating the often low-level epistemological commitments of standardized tests. Consider Esther, a Creationist student, reflecting how she negotiated her college biology professor's expectation that students understand what evolution is and how it works:
I personally don't believe in evolution, so it was kind of a shock to me when I had just come to college. I took intro bio in my freshman year, and I went through that whole what do I believe…is it my parents, or is it other things…[Evolution] was like huge in class, and he presented it as there could be no other explanation…and, I mean I remember him saying that if you believe in God creating the earth, then pretty much you're an idiot. And he obviously didn't use those words, but that's pretty much what he said. And I remember thinking—what is he talking about?—like, he should just go around and ask people to raise their hands who believes in this and who doesn't! Then I was thinking about, are we going to do this for the theory of genetics?—that's presented in pretty much exactly the same format (Long, 2011, p. 36).
Although one may find reason to critique how Esther conceives of “Christian” pars pro toto, such views nevertheless attend much more closely to the phenomenon of students encountering knowledge that they may object to. For now, Esther knows that her reality, greatly shaped by the Biblical inerrancy of her faith, is correct. For her, there can be no competing stories of the earth and life's origins. Such ontology proscribes epistemological competition as heresy.
Conversely, and deeply important to understanding the limits that any standard can prescribe for what we consider “knowing,” Esther relates her performance in class:
I take those really big classes, because it's really easy to excel in those huge classes. I mean, I got like a hundred on every test. You have to be an idiot pretty much not to. If you just sit, and you listen to what they're saying, and you know how to take tests, it's very easy to do well in those classes (Long, 2011, p. 36).
Interpreting this ironic state of affairs, meeting science standards is something that Creationists—those very willing to parrot back texts as static Truth—might actually be quite good at. In fact, as Tyson, another student attests, Creationists may earnestly wish to engage in a broader dialogue. Whether rightly or wrongly, this plays out to odd extents as Tyson relates Creationist test-taking schemes when asked to answer questions regarding evolution:
Some people I know will answer like—if it's an essay question, they'll…say “Professor, this is what I think you want, but this is not what I believe,” and they'll write what they believe over here. So they'll actually write two essays. That's a freaking lot of work and I don't know if I'm going to be doing that. So if he asks if like…prokaryotes…did they evolve from a form of mitochondria?…I'll mark that…I'll say yes they did…I don't believe that, but that's what he's looking for. As of right now, that's what I've come up against. I should talk to people about that. I want to figure out what God wants me to do on that—you know—what's the right thing to do (Long, 2011, p. 121).
Turning to standards as the means by which both Creationist teachers and students will come to understand evolution is, as I put forth, missing what is at stake for Creationists when they downplay or reject evolution. In this framework, Creationists are being asked to commit—epistemologically—to a suspension of their ontological commitment, putting the orthodox knowledge system of science in front of their commitment to inerrant faith. By this, science educators are, whether actively or subversively, asking Creationist students or teachers—by the learning outcomes expected of the curriculum—to change their relationship to the epistemological authority of their religious commitments. This is not as benign a phenomenon as simply “achieving some distance” from prior beliefs (Zeineddin and Abd-El-Khalick, 2010). Although this state of affairs can also simply be described as the act of education, by framing this as such, we tread dangerously close to American constitutional issues of state separation from religion. As most scientists would be pleased with Creationists making such a gestalt switch in their thinking, such implications have heretofore gone mostly unnoticed.
What precisely is meant by “knowing” and “understanding” that evolution has taken place? Can the state, through deploying a standardized curriculum, require and assure that students know that evolution has taken place, rather than simply show “understanding” by answering correctly on a test of standards? In the AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy, there are premises that on first glance seem benign, but in educational practice have—if we push at them—huge philosophical implications. For the sake of understanding the point, imagine being a Creationist, and think about what the following implies of your commitments of faith:
The knowledge [science] generates sometimes forces us to change—even discard—beliefs we have long held about ourselves and our significance in the grand scheme of things… The discovery that the earth is billions, rather than thousands, of years old may be a case in point. Such discoveries can be so distressing that it may take us years—or perhaps take society as a whole several generations—to come to terms with the new knowledge. Part of the price we pay for obtaining knowledge is that it may make us uncomfortable, at least initially (p. 184).
Benchmarks, and the standards it has influenced, works to shape scientific “habits of mind.” The kind of change being argued for in American science education is not epistemological, it is ontological. Such “habits of mind,” whether seen in the framework of Gould's (1999) “non-overlapping magisteria,” or that of a theism respective of classical liberalism, simply does not accommodate a final, authoritarian fundamentalist epistemology. The “practical-moral knowledge” (Salloum & Abd-El-khalick, 2010) that Creationist teachers and students employ are directed towards ends grounded in religious absolutes.
Ironically, it is a call to standards—what in practice usually requires one discrete set of cleanly testable facts—that may actually be contributing to a national turn from more complex thinking. As Kincheloe (2008) explores, an overemphasis on standards, without a consideration of the lives and systems of meaning making into which standard knowledge is to cleanly fit, is both culprit and structural arrangement that blocks epistemological curiosity from being cultivated. By this we refer to resurrecting truly critical thinking, which although having become an unfortunate cliché, is nonetheless what we need to foster more complex epistemological inquiry, which evolution demands. Critical pedagogy—the interrogation of the power structures behind knowledge claims—is that which Freire (2000) fought for, but is rarely invoked in most educational discussions, let alone those concerning science.
Understanding evolution demands the suspension of totalizing views of reality—namely the fundamentalist ones. Is this act of suspension, without serious educational or epihanal intervention for most, ontologically possible? Is it ethically tenable—given the limits of the U.S. Separation Clause, and our tradition of upholding a defense of religious expression, no matter what form? Can we demand, in the name of the state, that science teachers have X or Y view of reality? If so, how do we enforce this? We are, with no doubt asking students to do more than answer “standard” test questions correctly—we are asking them first for epistemological, and ultimately, ontological allegiance.
On one hand, shirking epistemological curiosity is easy. The educational products of epistemological curiosity are complex and open-ended, difficult to measure in a standard form, but nonetheless a sign that students are learning. Although a class may be tested on knowledge of state standards, there is very little one can do to reign in the biology teacher who downplays evolution. Downplaying is a subtle affair. Most students do not have the criteria and contextual insight required to critique such behaviors. Those sympathetic to the hegemony of Christian normative language—a very large segment of the U.S., especially in rural areas—would likely see no reason to lodge complaint. There is no panopticon of rhetorical nuance at work monitoring everyday classroom dialogue.
On the other much larger hand, serious discussion of standards, like all educational change initiatives, gets diffused within the symbolic mission and public imagination of schooling. What we mean by schooling is to be socialized in many norms and rituals that have everything to do with what is “known,” but may not be supportive of science, and can actively work against it. That football is to be played each fall, or proms must be held in the spring, is deeply enshrined in the semiotics of dominant school culture, is part of what students “know” and find significant about school, but plays no part in educational standards. Likewise, science standards are deployed in communities that are variably receptive to all of their content. Local teachers may know that evolution is part of the state standards, and may also know that in their school one downplays or omits the topic. As Lundqvist, Almqvist, and Östman (2009) concur, “what counts as truth is defined in the practices in which people participate” (p. 870).
An extreme, but not uncommon case bears this out. From an interview with a Creationist science teacher reflecting on a litmus test asked of her while interviewing for a job:
In my interview they said “how do you feel about teaching evolution,” and I said “well, if I have to teach it, I have to teach it. I'm okay with that you know—I've taught it before,” and they said, “Well, we don't teach it here” … About six or seven years ago there was just a big community blowup about—I don't think there was a lawsuit filed or anything, but there were threats of lawsuits being filed that “you can't make my student learn evolution”! One or two classes were teaching it, and if you're a parent, and you don't want your child to be taught something, you have a right to ask for alternatives. Whole classes were asking for alternative assignments. So just for the sake of saving face they just squashed it (Long, 2011, p. 139).
This same teacher, having passed an ideological screen, later goes on to describe how she has been embraced by the faculty and administrative culture, which she describes as “strongly Christian.” Well intended standards are but a gloss on the whole that students experience in school and associate with what they symbolize as “schooling.” Curricular implementation is a political process that involves people variably willing to follow dictates of the state.
Evolution and the Training of Future Biology Teachers
Teachers negotiate various political stakeholders in doing their work. Berkman and Plutzer (2010) show how a biology teacher's “personal belief” (p. 182) has an effect on a teacher's willingness to teach about evolution. Psychological perspectives of student cognitive development have deeply influenced, and strongly dominate science educational research (Roth, 2010). Rejection of evolution, while interpreted effectively using the terminology of development, can also certainly be interpreted as a matter of belief. Matters of belief do not exist as individual choices, and are not created in a social vacuum. Beliefs are a product, in part, of one's social structure, and supportive institutions within that structure—church congregations for example. Our ontology is shaped and we learn much by being with other people. Schools, as institutions within social structures, work to foster certain types of belief. Colleges of education, often within a broader university context, are also institutional structures that are populated by people with beliefs—and they often are not exactly in line with the goals of scientists.
Having identified a three-pronged rationale for why cautious biology teachers qualify their teaching of evolution, Berkman and Plutzer see this as a simple deficiency in the science teaching profession that needs intervention, suggesting policy recommendations that would, as they argue, steer Creationists or sympathizers from the field. Although students who take evolution-specific courses have shown that they have a better understanding evolution (Donnelly and Boone, 2007), it remains unclear, given what we usually mean by learning or understanding, that a Creationist could not also score well in such classes. Berkman and Plutzer assume a great deal about the epistemological and programmatic commitments of college of education faculty. Becoming a teacher is a highly politicized process, not as easily acted upon as one might assume. Are colleges of education willing to install a specific evolution course, within a science major's course of study? Given that many college of education faculty come up through the ranks having been a teacher, are they substantively different in their attitude toward evolution in the curriculum than their K-12 equivalents? A clearer answer to this line of questions comes once we step back from the specific issues of biology teachers and evolution, and consider socio-political research about teacher and education faculty identity that complicates this picture.
Who Generally, Are Teachers?
Whether we agree, or not, with science educational policy ends supportive of evolution, formal science education is done as a process involving a system of educators from Kindergarten to graduate school. Few Americans take part in the whole of this continuum. Where, regarding evolution, do most biology teacher sympathies lie? As many have detailed (Goldston and Kyzer, 2009; Reiss, 2010; Scott, 2004) if one rejects the plausibility of evolution, the rationale behind such thinking almost always stems from some form of fundamentalist religious commitment. Scientists and science educators face an educational task that is helped by understanding the demography and detail of teachers' religious commitments. As a matter of training, neither group is trained significantly in sociological analysis. Scientists, often with little sociological, theological, or pedagogical training, misread the nation's average religious commitments, and what—epistemologically—this means for understanding evolution. As Ecklund (2010) found, although scientists at research universities may, on whole, be more “spiritual” than one might presume, it is also the case that they are greatly ignorant of the breadth and subtlety of religious diversity in the United States, and what such theological commitments do to shape opinion about evolution. On this account, they are no worse off than the average American.
Lortie's (1975) study of teacher identity, aspirations, and political agency found teachers living and working in cycles of top-down educational reform, developing conservative and epistemologically limited repertoires of measuring and assessing educational success. Disciplined into showing small, concrete results on standardized tests, teachers might share the latest gimmick to affect small term change, but fall short of the complex epistemological thinking evolution education requires. Recent regimes of standardization such as No Child Left Behind only underscore what Lortie saw decades ago. If we then ask why the field does not set a more robust set of educational ends as our goal, we are wise to remember that teachers and administrators have been intellectually socialized in colleges of education that have largely abandoned foundational classes in history and philosophies of education in favor of highly individualistic, psychologized approaches. For many, the context to historicize and critique the limits of standards in all that we mean for learning, is simply a conceptually foreign vocabulary. Where teachers might have a class that mentions philosophies of education in passing, there is—as a matter of usual practice—no serious commitment to fostering more complex thinking.
The picture illustrated of the field—one dominated by a-historical and a-philosophical teachers—becomes more troublesomely urgent for evolution with the addition of some further sociological context. If evolution, and the complex scientific context required to apprehend the concept, are rejected by a large minority of Americans based almost exclusively on an epistemological framework of religious fundamentalism, then just who—regarding such issues— are our future teachers? As Kimball (2009) details in a survey of college student religious identity, on a scale of religiosity, education majors self-identify as the most religious when coming to college, and report become more so while in college.
Education…is clearly a safe-haven for the religious… Highly religious people seem to prefer education majors. In a sense this is not surprising since Education seems to be the only major that seems to actually increase religiosity… Highly religious people enter Education majors, stay in them and become more religious (p. 22).
On Kimball's scale, social science majors are ambivalent regarding religious commitments and become more agnostic or atheistic as their degree programs proceed. Science majors come to college neither highly religious nor a-religious, and change little during their college education.
Given that many in education, from teacher candidate to veteran teacher, describe their relationship to the field as a “calling,” what educational ends, in light of the religious undertones of Kimball's study, are teachers “called towards?” In one sense, a call to tweak the attitudes of the teaching force by manipulating the course requirements of future biology teachers is right, in the spirit of Postman and Weingartner's (1971) view that educators—through fostering open-ended inquiry—can be agents of subversion. Against traditionalistic inertia, inquiry learning would set children in motion toward open educational aspirations. At the same time, Postman (1979) also further saw many teachers as the conservers of those values that technology or new forms of knowing would obliterate. We now know, in some sense, that future teachers, on whole, are very religious. Using Postman's interpretive tools, who is conserving and what is conserved? Inversely, who is subverting and what is subverted?
Defending evolution may be a defining virtue for some scientists, but is it reasonable to expect that most biology teachers will have this level of commitment? Simply saying yes would be naïve. As Griffith and Brem (2004) discuss, the tension produced by broaching evolution in some settings manifests itself in teachers as measurable anxiety. When we project our expectations for the field, we must think very long and hard about the societal status of teachers, the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards of the work, and how such actors fit into the whole of a community. Ingersoll (2006) has shown, a large percentage of the best and brightest new science teachers quickly leave the field quite dissatisfied. For many who remain, by teaching evolution in some contexts, you are inviting a social pariah status. As Long (2011) found, school settings such as those in Kitzmiller v. Dover are almost certainly the very tip of a much larger iceberg. In many cases, why would teachers take on the establishment within an institutional culture? Some do. Most likely do not. While not condoning biology teachers that eliminate evolution from the curriculum, such teachers are not without rationale. Such educators are simply attending to competing ends. If teaching evolution and challenging local values are a defining cause for research university level scientists, they are best to ask why they do not abandon their current positions in favor of entering the K-12 classroom? If this seems a ridiculous proposition—why?
Who, Generally, Are Education Faculty?
Many education faculty attain positions as a next career step, having achieved master teacher status. Others come with prior school administrative experience. A smaller set come from tangential study of the field. Although there are few studies that comprehensively illustrate the demographics and philosophical orientation of education faculty, one is particularly salient. In Gross and Simmons' (2009) examination of the religious identification of university faculty, education faculty were found to be amongst the most religious, only edged out by accounting. On a survey or religiosity, 56.8% of early childhood education faculty responded that “I know that God exists and I have no doubts about it.” If one adds to that those that have doubts, but “feel that I do believe in God,” the number rises to 86.4%. None of these faculty identified as being non-believers. This by itself is not surprising and integrates well with Kimball's (2009) picture of a highly religious profession, when compared to others.
A structural, epistemological, and rhetorical problem for those wishing to advance evolution education emerges sharply once we add the following data. On the same survey, biologists were amongst the least religious. 27.5% “do not believe in God,” with an additional 33.3% not knowing whether there is a God. This 60.8% of biologists have quite a differing view of reality, and commitment to God than early childhood educators. Ecklund's (2010) comprehensive work on research university scientist religiosity underscores this. Nehm, Kim, and Sheppard (2009) rightly point out: “a critical question facing science teacher educators is how teacher preparation programs can facilitate coordinated conceptual articulation among teacher knowledge, beliefs, and behavior with regard to the teaching of evolution” (p. 1141). Future secondary science educators, variably trained in colleges of education, or within the specific disciplines, are likely to be a mixed bunch against Kimball and Gross and Simmon's scales. Scientists and educators, as groups, are likely driving toward very different ideological ends, with divergent epistemological commitments motivating them. How then might a call for inserting a specific evolution class into a science education program of study, with the overt goal of shaping the attitude of the field, play out in education faculty politics? Just as teachers negotiate various political stakeholders in doing their work, so do college of education faculty.
Evolution Education and the Politics of Educational Possibility
Simply having a commitment to evolution in the science curriculum is not an acknowledgement that evolution will, or must, emerge as a salient, operational concept within every person's life. Predicting and prescribing the absolute utility of any one facet of scientific knowledge within myriad possible life courses would be futile. Likewise, wringing your hands in judgment over what specific significance science did or did not play in a life ex post facto would be silly. What we must argue for—for the sake of democratic education—is a system of science education with teachers open to, and acting upon, the possibility of giving every avenue of science understanding its fair shake. What utility comes from opening clearings of educational possibility in a student's life cannot (or at least should not) be predicted. We cannot be advocates of downplaying specific parts of science solely in deference to extrinsic political concerns. Science education in its fullness is our politics.
If we have this ethic of educational possibility, open to working with students to explore every keystone of scientific knowledge, then we certainly have warrant to question what rationales are used to omit or downplay evolution in the curriculum. That a minority of science teachers who happen to have Creationist beliefs work within the American educational system is not necessarily a problem unto itself, insomuch as this minority is open to teaching evolution where demanded by standards. One teacher's personal belief, in this naïve sense, should not matter. But those teachers who come to contest evolution are, in almost all cases, motivated by perceptions of conflict between science and a specific, albeit popular, conception of religion. This perception, and the conceptual vocabulary that articulates it, is heavily influenced by either; personal experience in, and perceived categorical imperatives of religious fundamentalist belief; or deference to a social/institutional milieu primarily respective of fundamentalist religious belief—neither on equal footing with science, nor more liberal theological, or non-theological stances. For this reason, respective of the sociology of teacher and education faculty religiosity reviewed above, we have reason to be concerned with teacher beliefs as they have been shown to mediate the content of science teachers choose to enact in classrooms.
Although there are prominent evangelical Christian scientists such as Francis Collins who stand up as exemplary role models for scientific expertise in harmony with evangelical Christian faith, such examples wither when analyzed within the broader rhetorical politics of all American evangelical Christianity. Evangelicalism is dominated, in numbers, by fundamentalism—those who read the Bible as inerrant and authoritative (Pew, 2008). Leaders of the mega-church movement such as Rick Warren, do not believe that evolution has taken place (Posner, 2008). Creationist groups such as Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research (both with educational publishing arms), and denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have categorized Collins as compromising belief. As Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis has put it, “It is compromisers like Collins who cause people to doubt and disbelieve the Bible—causing them to walk away from the church” (Ham, 2009). Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has likened Collins' work to “throwing the Bible under the bus” (Mohler, 2011). Lawrence Ford of the Institute for Creation Research extends the same view:
Quite troubling is Collins' public and proud disbelief in the historicity of the Bible, the existence of Adam and Eve, the event of the Fall, and many more fundamental doctrines of God's Word…if he is a Christian, his self-selective beliefs are terribly resistant to God's truth, revealing his dangerously poor view of the power of God (Ford, 2009).
As dismissing Francis Collins' legitimacy should illustrate clearly enough, such voices are heretical to this community. For evangelical Christian fundamentalists, Francis Collins is symbolically, as a matter of identity, not one of them—a thesis explored in Stephens and Giberson (2011). Colburn and Henriques' (2006) rightly summarize that the most fruitful pedagogical path for evolution education is one filled with respect. But the U.S. landscape of religious affiliation is populated by many more Creationists than Colburn and Henriques account for. Seeking final Truth for Creationists is paramount, found in a very specific reading of the Bible, and is not open to religiously or epistemologically pluralistic discussion.
An Apolitical Evolution Education?
Although survey research has detailed a clear picture of American teachers downplaying or omitting evolution from the science curriculum, more salient research on the rationales behind these individual, institutional, or community decisions are promising areas for inquiry. Are teachers qualifying evolution for any reasons other than deference to religious belief? If this kind of deference is acceptable, where exactly does one take a stand for science? While Gould (1999), has argued for a détente of metaphysics between science and religion through his non-overlapping magisterium argument, such an idealized conception ignores the role of politics, social class, ethnicity, regionalism, and the cultural inertia of tradition, in shaping ontologies that may refuse to, or frankly cannot conceive of committing to such epistemological parsing.
A growing body of research on motivated reasoning in social psychology, political science, and neuroscience points to a potential “backfire effect” of knowledge transmission, which has direct pedagogical implications. As Kahan, Braman, Donald, Paul, and John (2007) and Nyhan and Reifler (2010) have found, when people are presented with information that contradicts deeply held cultural values, most do not easily incorporate such knowledge, they retrench further within the certainty of the system of knowledge they hold. Within the science education literature, the phenomenology of this encounter has been shown in Long (2011), and Winslow et al. (2011). Both find Creationist college students expressing forms of existential anxiety when contemplating the veracity of evolution—pondering how such knowledge would fit into their current social milieu. Evans' (2008) earlier review of research with elementary and middle school children found roots of a similar phenomenon.
We are motivated reasoners—in that our worldviews are always oriented toward some end, and the possible variety of those ends are set by culture. Recent neuroscience (Damasio, 1994; Haidt, 2006; Lakoff, 2009; Westen, 2007) inverts the Cartesian model of mind to show that our conscious reasoning is but a veneer upon a much greater whole of unconscious, affectively driven reason—a mind always ideologically framed, inextricably bathed within affect. In this view, stoic objectivism is a mood. Of this, there are direct implications for how teachers conceive of, and enact what they perceive to be an “appropriate” curriculum, and how students work with supposed value-neutral claims of science. Appending Pramling (2009), the metaphors teachers choose to deploy to teach evolution are crucial—and potentially problematic if they set up science and religion in an exclusionary and competing dualism, as fundamentalists (and some scientists) are often apt to do.
Attempting to directly and quickly change someone's mind about knowledge claims from science such as evolution, when that mind is, from its foundation enmeshed with religious and political fabric, is not easy. People—such as school science teachers and their students—have systems of meaning and understanding intertwined within life-long social relationships that are not easily changed by instrumental treatment. To assume that it would be possible, is to naïvely see human being as primarily oriented by pure, detached reason. Whereas one may come, through education, to see new forms of scientific understanding as part of their life's conceptual toolbox, such change often situates the identity of the learner in quite new social arrangements. Accepting that evolution has happened, for a Creationist, and talking about it, can have social consequences. One can move past conceptual boundaries, and learn the world anew, or education simply would not work. But at the same time, this “education” can be a vehicle of social alienation. James, once a Creationist and now a non-theist, describes the continuing strain of living in his grandparents' home while he tries to finish college:
My grandparents know that I'm not as religious as they would like me to be… I would watch scientific programs…if I would say something about evolution…my grandfather would say, oh, they've got you too…anytime that I would bring it up, or I'd be watching a program about it, it was kind of like—that's evil, that's the work of the Devil, you know? (Long, 2011, p. 72).
Reflecting on the political dimension to the backfire effect, Mooney (2011) illustrates an educational problem in the context of climate change. “Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue.” Respective of this, and important for evolution education, what voices from fundamentalism would ever step in to offer evolution as a salient pathway of growing science knowledge?
Is a value-free politics of evolution education possible? Smith (2010a) states, “many if not most authors including myself question the propriety of changing beliefs as a goal of public instruction in a democratic society” (p. 525). The poverty of such a claim becomes unavoidable if we, for example, consider students (or teachers) who harbor notions of racial or gender superiority as a belief. The ontology of religious fundamentalism is one of metaphysical superiority. Passivity in the face of this is a political stance. I submit, in the spirit of Spinoza, that knowledge politics abhors a vacuum. The belief that one can set aside belief in favor of detached, depoliticized reason is a belief, with political content. Evolution, for a Creationist, is not a value-neutral knowledge claim. Equally so, that there is an orthodoxy of civic tolerance within an educational research community does not detach such a community from ideology. A public education devoid of an openness to change in belief is no education that I believe in. What role then should all American public school teachers, guided by our research and in some cases under our training, play in opening evolution education to students?
Roth and Barton (2004) have questioned the hopeful and completely unrealistic notion of a “science for all.” Keep in mind, U.S. education has never achieved the seemingly easier task of teaching everyone to read. Rather, Roth and Barton see science as being an agentic tool, one that can arm the social action of marginalized people and help re/develop communities. Equally so, Creationists, who rightly or wrongly see themselves as marginalized, are no less part of society, and are not forbidden from taking part in science. They are not highly likely to end up both being both a Creationist and an evolutionary biologist—as one way of being likely obliterates the other. But they may well end up as chemists, engineers, medical doctors, and as Berkman and Plutzer (2010) detail—biology teachers. Currently, a majority of U.S. public school biology teachers omit or downplay evolution in the curriculum in deference to religious commitments. Is this a satisfactory state of affairs for scientists and science educators in the United States? The individual citizen can rightly believe as they like. But I submit, for the sake of democratic education, that public educators are charged with upholding and exploring the fullness of science wherever it goes—not curtailing it in the name of religion.