State on Front Line in Battle Over Teaching of Evolution
Christian fundamentalists and civil libertarians are bracing for an all-out confrontation over the teaching of evolution in the schools as the California Curriculum Commission prepares to recommend guidelines for science textbooks.
The spark for the latest renewal of the century-old dispute over the origin of man is a proposed framework for science textbooks that suggests that the evolutionary theory is “accepted fact.” The framework has been drafted by the commission’s science subject matter committee and is still subject to final commission approval before being forwarded as a recommendation to the 11-member state Board of Education.
“I think all hell’s going to break lose if the board buys it,” said Robert Simonds, president of the National Assn. of Christian Educators and Citizens for Excellence in Education. “It will mean kids are going to go out of those science classes totally brainwashed.”
On the other side, Michael Hudson, western director for People for the American Way, sees the proposed guidelines as “the most affirmative and straightforward statement about evolution that I have ever seen.”
The issue for each side is whether evolution will be taught exclusively in California science textbooks or whether the sudden-appearance, or creationist, theory espoused by fundamentalist religious groups will also be treated. California, as one of the largest purchasers of textbooks, often sets the tone for the nation in its adoption of texts.
As a prelude to a public hearing on the proposed framework later this week, the two sides are planning back-to-back press conferences. Hudson said People for the American Way may resort to television advertising if the creationists appear to be making inroads with the state Board of Education as it nears a decision in the fall. Simonds, meanwhile, said his groups have started the research preparatory to a challenge of the guidelines in the California courts.
People for the American Way, which once concentrated most of its efforts in Texas, has beefed up its California operation for what it views as a crucial battle on the content of science textbooks. The group was organized in 1980 by writer-producer-director Norman Lear and others to challenge ultraconservative influence on public policy.
“Our biggest hurdle is people thinking surely we don’t still have to battle this issue,” Hudson said.
The focus for each side in the renewed struggle is the Board of Education, which established a new science teaching policy last winter that was considered a victory for the evolutionists. The policy, pushed by Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, required that only scientific fact, hypothesis and theory should be presented in the textbooks, and religious beliefs “not subject to scientific test and refutation” should be discussed in a social science curriculum.
Since the unanimous decision to adopt the policy, however, four Board of Education members have retired, and others have made statements indicating that evolution should not be too strongly emphasized. After informally reviewing a draft of the framework, Chairman Francis Laufenberg said the board advised the commission that to refer to evolution as fact would be “inconsistent” with the new policy.
The Board of Education also asked for modifications of a discussion in the guidelines of evolution versus creationism because “it is an advocacy statement of evolution.”
Takes Comments Seriously
Elizabeth Stage, chairman of the science committee, said that while the commission takes the board’s comments “quite seriously,” it may or may not follow them in its final recommendation.
Religious groups, after re-examining the policy statement, now believe that it leaves room for the teaching of creationism. For textbooks to present evolution as the only theory of the origin of man, they say, would violate the policy’s requirement that “nothing shall be taught dogmatically.”
“Now the issue is to what extent shall the board offer a balanced viewpoint,” said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition. “Students should have access in the classroom to the scientific evidence . . . revealing the problems, weaknesses and failures of the theories of the origin of man. That includes all of them--creationism and evolution.”
He argued that the proposed framework by asserting evolution as “accepted fact” mandates a dogmatic presentation of the evolutionary theory in direct violation of the board’s policy.
“We don’t want to see the science classroom used as a platform to evangelistically crusade for Christianity; neither do we want it to be used to tear down a child’s faith by talking about evolution as fact,” he said.
Countered Hudson: “To claim that teaching evolution and science is dogmatic is like claiming that to teach the Earth is round or two plus two equal four is dogmatic.”
Stage said that while there are competing scientific theories within evolution which must be presented to students, “there’s no dispute about the overall process.”
Susan Lange, a spokesman for Honig, said the schools chief was surprised by the new interpretation of the policy and is preparing to challenge it before the board.
Honig Promoted Policy
The new policy was promoted by Honig as part of an effort to improve the teaching of science in California. Scientists argued that the previous policy was so vague that textbook publishers and science teachers often simply avoided controversial subjects such as evolution.
In California, new textbooks are adopted every seven years through a laborious process that begins with the establishment of the policy and follows with the adoption of a detailed framework. Using the framework as a guide, textbooks are next written and submitted for approval. The board then draws up a list of accepted books, from which local school districts make their selections.