Creationism versus evolution has rocked education for a century. What can we learn from the debate?
Adam Laats is a teaching historian at Binghamton University, specializing in the intersection of culture wars and education. He has a special gift for critically examining the positions of religious conservatives with insight and understanding, and this gift is on display in his most recent book, Creationism USA..
The thin but richly detailed work examines the long debate about how to teach about the world and the creatures that inhabit it. There is much more to the debate than just the contours of the Scopes trial.
On the one hand, Laats points out, the ranks of creationists are wide and varied; on the one hand we find the many Americans who view the scientific explanation of evolution simply as the story of How God Did It, and on the other the young earth creationists, who measure the story of the planet in a few thousand years. Laats also suggests that in general, as a country, we can disagree much less than we think about what science should be taught in schools.
If it seems that the debate over the evolution of school education is a quaint holdover from an earlier age, before arguments over critical race theory and teacher indoctrination and the purging of school library books, many ideas from the book about the creation debate will seem very familiar.
Laats discusses a battle over evolution in 1970s West Virginia, where protest leader Avis Hill decried a whole series of books for being tainted with a “philosophy of…secularism” . Evolution, writes Laats, “was more than a scientific idea. It was a vague and disgusting ‘attitude’. In the protests over the decades against the teaching of evolution, Laats sees not just a protest against particular scientific ideas, but a “protest against a certain way of seeing the world, as well as a multitude of social tendencies “. It’s a strong echo of Christopher Rufo’s promise that conservative activists would “recode” the CRT “to annex the full range of cultural constructs that are unpopular with Americans.”
Just as evolution has come to represent a certain way of seeing the world, the CRT’s protests have broadened into a general pushback against certain cultural attitudes. Speaking to me via Zoom, Laats said he finds it less useful to view these education debates as conservative or progressive, and more as “a battle of ideas about what’s harmful to children,” a topic on which Americans have “really different ideas”. For some people, he says, even hearing about certain ideas is harmful to children, and this has been true “for at least a century”. Americans, he says, agree that schools should not harm children, but widely disagree on what constitutes harm. This problem is never solved, in part, he says, because it is rarely directly addressed.
This dialogue is further hampered by an underlying lack of trust. Laats argues that some people seeking votes or power may sincerely believe that teachers and school leaders are doing no good, but by stoking these fears they further erode that trust; Reviewing Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, Laats says, “Whether sincere or cynical, I see it as primarily about activating voters. Speeding up debate for votes has always been a constant threat.
In the final chapter, Laats suggests ways to move forward with educational change. It starts with acknowledging some very real concerns:
What some creationists worry about is not that their children are learning science, but rather that they are being fed a witches’ brew of science and anti-religion. Radical creationists don’t hate the idea of their children learning the theory of evolution, but they hate – with good reason – any idea that public schools will treat their children’s faith as a problem to be solved, as a deficit. .
Laats also insists that if there are irreconcilable differences between parties, schools and students can best serve by focusing on areas of agreement (understanding that some extremists will never be able to do this). There should be agreement, argues Laats, on two main ideas. First, the public school should teach every student the theory of evolution. Second, schools should keep religion out. And that means emphasizing that students have learned evolution only if they accept it as “beautiful, elegant, and profoundly true in a scientific sense.” Focusing on areas of agreement both resolves ongoing issues and builds trust.
Can this type of approach be part of contemporary debates on education? There may be limits; in particular, racial and LGBTQ issues intersect with people’s current lived experience in ways that the discussion of evolution does not. But Laats provides a thoughtful and insightful guide to one of our most enduring debates about education, and in doing so may also provide insight into the culture war issues facing schools today.