Yes, Christian extremists are at it again, this time in Louisiana. A series of high school life science textbooks have come up for approval before the Louisiana state board of education, and they are being attacked by fundamentalist religious groups like Louisiana Family Forum, a branch of Focus on the Family, because they include evolution and natural selection. As usual, the fundamentalists are demanding a disclaimer that these topics are “just theories,” and insisting that creationism be taught side by side. Keep the Science in the Textbooks, say Louisiana teachers. Dr. Jason Van Metre, who teaches at A. M. Barbe High School, wrote an open letter to the state board of education, saying that the notion that natural selection is controversial is ludicrous. In 2008, Louisiana Family Forum succeeded in getting lawmakers to pass the Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows local districts to provide “supplemental materials” that deny evolution and global warming.
In many ways, I prefer battles like this over the ed deform battles that are so much in the fore today. The religious zealots who challenge evolution are usually true believers who cannot be swayed, yet their arguments are so flimsy that they often lose in court. In contrast, the ed deformers who support merit pay, high stakes testing and charter schools are embedded in the highest levels of government, Wall Street and corporate America, and have the power and will to completely alter the education system from the ground up. Some of the ed deformers may sincerely believe in the merits of their program, but the real power brokers behind the ed deform agenda have huge financial stakes in it, which makes them particularly scary and not very entertaining. The anti-evolution zealots, in contrast, have all sorts of nutty ideas that are really quite amusing, like the notion that dinosaur fossils were left by Satan to throw us on the wrong track, or that the teaching of evolution has caused an increase in crime, or the idea that bananas must have been designed by an omnipotent creator because they fit so neatly in the human hand.
In all seriousness though, religion can play an enormous role in learning for some people, and poses a serious challenge to science teachers, even without distractions over textbooks. A child who has grown up in a household or community that denies evolution, or that believes in a young Earth, may tune out or resist learning during an evolution unit. Those who want to learn about evolution may find that their belief system or pressure from family and peers hampers their understanding. Even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, I routinely have students confront me with comments like, “My mother said I don’t have to learn this stuff because it’s against our religion,” or “the bible is evidence.”
As if teaching wasn’t already challenging enough. . .