[As one of my colleagues has put it:] “The Grantsburg school board deserves congratulations. Finally, a local school district has adopted the kind of policy we’ve all been recommending for so long. This policy appears to be bullet-proof from a legal perspective. It will be interesting to see how the ACLU/NCSE/Americans United crowd will respond to this policy. It will also be interesting to see how –or if– the legacy media will cover this victory for quality science education.”
‘Teaching the controversy’ in Wisconsin
By Lawrence Hardy
It will be deer season soon in Northern Wisconsin.
Winter will come, the nights will grow long, and the ice-fishing shacks will appear like matchboxes on the frozen glacial lakes.
The forests that teem with wildlife — sandhill cranes and eagles, grouse and ospreys, thousands of ducks and geese — will seem quieter now that the brief summer is over.
But in the town of Grantsburg, five miles from the winding St. Croix River and the Minnesota border, the turmoil isn’t over, even though school officials say they very much want it to be.
“It’s done. I don’t have anything more to say,” says Cindy Jensen, a board member for the 1,000-student Grantsburg Schools. “Hopefully, the waters are calmer now.”
It’s been almost a year since the school board approved a curriculum that will require science teachers to ask students to think critically about evolution — to “teach the controversy,” as the board puts it.
This was the third vote on a science curriculum in as many months. The first resolution, approved unanimously in October 2004, allowed “various theories/ models of origins” to be taught in science classrooms. After an outcry from faculty members at the University of Wisconsin and other observers, the board took a second vote emphasizing that only scientific theories would be included. Finally, in early December, it voted 6-1 to approve the following revision:
Students are expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design.
“The resolution is to teach the controversy,” Jensen says, “because I don’t believe anyone can dispute that there is a controversy.”
On that there is no disagreement. Recently, state boards of education in Ohio and Kansas approved policies — much to the dismay of groups such as the National Academy of Sciences — that require students to question the claims of Darwinian theory. In late September a Pennsylvania district court heard a suit challenging a requirement in the Dover, Pa., schools that biology classes include an explicit mention of intelligent design. A prominent Catholic cardinal proclaimed that evolution was incompatible with church teachings.
And President Bush, in an interview with a group of Texas newspaper reporters, said, “I feel like both sides ought to be properly taught … so that people can understand what the debate is about.”
Evolution proponents say there is indeed a debate, but it is mainly political, not scientific — the vast majority of scientists agreeing that evolution, the very foundation of modern biology, is scientific fact. They say that actions like those taken in Grantsburg and by the state boards of Kansas and Ohio are backhanded attempts to inject religion into the classroom.
Even while Grantsburg’s policy specifies that intelligent design — the idea that life is too complex to have evolved by natural selection — need not be taught, the Discovery Institute applauded the board’s action. The Seattle-based group is a leading proponent of intelligent design.
“Students are the real winners here, because now they will be able to study all the relevant scientific evidence relating to evolutionary theory, not just a skewed selection of the evidence,” John West, associate director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, said in a prepared statement.
Michael Zimmerman, a biologist and dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, says Grantburg’s latest policy “is infinitely better than what they started with,” which he called “not only bad science, but atrocious religion.”
But what Grantsburg is asking students to do — to critically review evidence for and against evolution — is beyond their level of sophistication, Zimmerman adds. “What they are proposing to ask students to do at the middle and high school level is what Ph.D. biologists do every day.”
Why, he asks, should evolution — which is taught for perhaps a day or a week out of the school year — be subject to this special scrutiny?
Grantsburg Superintendent Joni Burgin says evolution is not being singled out. She says that the board emphasizes critical thinking in all subjects and that the policy on evolution was considered last year as part of an ongoing curriculum review.
Burgin, who says the debate over evolution versus intelligent design is indeed scientific, has put together a 25-page curriculum guide that says, in part, “Last fall, 100 scientists, including professors from institutes such as M.I.T., Yale, and Rice, published a statement questioning the creative power of natural selection.
Shouldn’t students know why?”
Grantsburg’s policy is also an example of local curricular control, Burgin says. “It’s an indication of how the community feels on this issue,” she says, noting that two of the board members who approved the curriculum were up for reelection last spring and won handily.
“We’re just a microcosm of the United States, and a small, rural community.”
Zimmerman continues to organize letter-writing campaigns protesting Grantsburg’s vote. Among those who have responded so far are clergy, anthropologists, geologists, and deans at the University of Wisconsin.
The larger issue, says Zimmerman, is the relative weakness of science education in America, which is far behind much of the industrialized world. He says the evolution/intelligent design controversy comes at a time when the public should be pressing for more scientific literacy — not less.