Reason’s Melancholy, Long, Withdrawing Roar


Some say that the ancient world ended in 529, when Justinian closed down the Platonic school in Athens and the last pagan philosophers took refuge in Persia. Although this was an authoritarian move, it would have had the broad support of the masses (at least, those who heard about it) who had, in the decades previously, hacked to death the philosopher Hypatia and taken to burning down synagogues. According to one quote I dug out:

The fall of philosophy…was naturally succeeded by the darkness of delusion and ignorance; by the spirit of wild fanaticism and intolerant zeal; by the loss of courage and virtue; and by the final dissolution of the empire of the world.

This is, of course, a rather romantic simplification, but it comes to mind as I survey recent reports about the political manipulation of education in the USA.

Part One

First, the teaching of Creationism in schools has been making political headway in at least six states. The strategy is not so much to teach the specific ideas put forward by Creationism (the world-wide flood etc) as to generally raise doubts about evolutionary theory. One way this is achieved is by bringing in “Intelligent Design” (ID), the idea that evolution (and more widely, the universe) is so unlikely that what science takes to be natural phenomena must have been in truth designed. As the designer is not specified (is it God or some kind of alien?), this cannot be accused of being religion. Although ID has only so far produced one peer-reviewed scientific article (and that under questionable circumstances), the Creationists use the democratic-populist impulse in American culture (this controversy is marginal in Europe) to argue a) that if a decent number of lay people are convinced of certain arguments against evolution, those arguments should be taught as science, whatever their quality and regardless of what better-educated scientists might think; and b) that using scientific criteria to decide what should be taught as science is actually a denial of free speech. They would use different words, but that’s what it amounts to.

Back in 2002, Georgia decided to add anti-evolutionary stickers to its science text-books. These are now subject to a court case, and are part of a wider campaign. The AP reports more recently:

First, Georgia’s education chief tried to take the word “evolution” out of the state’s science curriculum. Now a suburban Atlanta county is in federal court over textbook stickers that call evolution “a theory, not a fact.”…The stickers say evolution should be “critically considered.” Earlier this year, science teachers howled when state Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox proposed a new science curriculum that dropped the word “evolution” in favor of “changes over time.”

That proposal was dropped, at least. The inclusion of ID Creationism in Goergia is charactered as a case of “academic freedom” by Kelly Hollowell at WorldNetDaily: “academic freedom” being term much abused these days.

In 2003 the St Paul Pioneer Press  reported from Minnesota that

Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke will ask the committee to consider an amendment that Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, tried unsuccessfully to add to the federal No Child Left Behind law. It says that when controversial topics — such as biological evolution — come up in the classroom, the curriculum should help students understand other views as well.

One of the alternatives Santorum has written about is “intelligent design,” which says an organism’s complexity is evidence of an other-worldly designer. The amendment passed the Senate and was included in a conference committee’s report, but was struck from the final version of the law.

In the following September Yecke described the situation to the Princeton Union-Eagle

The science standards include nothing about religious creationalism [sic] – that God, not random events, guided the path of development.

“You can’t teach creationalism [sic] in the classroom,” said Yecke, citing a 1987 Supreme Court decision.

Still, local school districts are free to teach the idea of intelligent design, she said.

As long God is kept as merely implicit, of course. Yecke also has strong views on history teaching, as discussed below.

Meanwhile, in March this year the Ohio Board of Education decided to include intelligent design in its science curriculum. As The Cincinnati Enquirer reported just before the decision:

On Tuesday, the Ohio Board of Education is expected to approve model science lessons – including a 10th-grade biology lesson with a critical look at the theory of evolution…”There are some people who are so worried about students inquiring as to how much we know and don’t know about the theory of evolution that they would rather have students not question it,” said state board member Deborah Owens Fink, an associate professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron.

“Professor of marketing”, no less!

In Pennsylvania, the Dover school board (a district of 2,800 students) has drawn the same conclusion. One dissenting board member made a statement reported in The York Dispatch complaining that:

I was referred to as unpatriotic, and my religious beliefs were questioned.

The push for ID, which now means the ID book Of Pandas and People will be included as a reference text in Dover schools, has been led by William Buckingham. Quoted by the AP, Buckingham said that he was a Creationist but that the decision

is not an attempt to impose my views on anyone else

His reasoning, of course, is that he is merely asking for equal time for his Creationist ideas to be taught alongside the scientific ideas that he finds objectionable for religious reasons.

Moving on to Wisconsin (the AP yet again):

School officials have revised the science curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism, prompting an outcry from more than 300 educators who urged that the decision be reversed.

Members of Grantsburg’s school board believed that a state law governing the teaching of evolution was too restrictive. The science curriculum “should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory,” said Joni Burgin, superintendent of the district of 1,000 students in northwest Wisconsin.

As with Hollowell in relation to Georgia, Agape Press sees this is as issue of “academic freedom”.

The situation in Texas was considered yesterday. In that state, Terri Leo has been trying to get ID on the school syllabus, assisted by a lobby group called Texans for Better Science Education.

Part Two

But Creationism is only one battleground. As PZ Myers pointed out recently:

It must be sad and hard to be a textbook in Texas.

Last year, the school board was trying to cut evolution out of them.

The year before, they were removing references to pollution, global warming, and overpopulation.

Oh, and now the phrase “married partners” is not to be used, because it’s too general and could include gay couples.

And health/sex ed books contain no mention of contraception. At all.

Also, as Salon reported a few months ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry gets his ideas for school financing from religious-right financier James Leininger.

However, it’s not all going the way of religious conservatives. The Organisation of American Historians takes us back to Minnesota, where

the standardized tests teachers are now required to give often serve as a vehicle for shaping the content of the history they teach to their students. As the article by Sara Evans and Lisa Norling of the University of Minnesota found elsewhere in this issue of the OAH Newsletter describes, the struggle that developed in their state when an alliance of extreme conservative and fundamentalist Christian activists was empowered by Minnesota’s acting Commissioner of Education to reshape the state’s social studies curriculum. A highly active group of K-12 teachers allied with many parents and members of the university’s history department and defeated this attempt to impose a single ideological pattern on every schoolroom in the state where history was taught.

Evans and Norling report that:

Under the guidance of Commissioner Cheri Yecke, her handpicked “citizens committee” of parents, teachers, school administrators, and political operatives produced a first draft of social studies standards in a very brief time (about three weeks)… When we read the DOE proposed standards, we too were shocked by its factual errors, omissions, evident biases, explicit political and cultural agenda, and its general sloppiness, inconsistencies, and incoherence. We were particularly distressed – and inspired to action – [typo corrected here – RB] by the obvious rejection of both the expertise of professional scholars (who were conspicuously excluded from the process) and of several generations worth of scholarship and the knowledge it has produced.

They found

serious omissions, such as the failure to consider the impact of slavery as an institution on American society, the total absence of mention of any rights movement of the twentieth century other than the civil rights movement, and the almost complete omission of Latin America from “world” history. We pointed out multiple examples of misleading or unbalanced details in U.S. history, government, and citizenship: for instance, the persistent conflation of the founding of our nation in 1776 with the framing of our government in 1789, the Mexican-American War as one optional example of westward expansion; and attributing the fall of communism single-handedly to Ronald Reagan. In a curriculum with strong emphasis on individual leaders only three Native Americans were listed: Pocahontas, Squanto, and Sacagawea; and of the twelve women mentioned by name throughout the proposed standards, not one was principally known for her advocacy for women’s rights.

Yecke allegedly responded that these complaints amounted to a “hate-America agenda”.

Part Three

Moving on to higher education, the OAH also notes that:

Second, foreign historians, students, and researchers are now subject to interminable review if they apply for entry to the U.S. or for renewal of green cards. The resulting delays have often been enough to deter scholars from taking up or seeking to retain positions in American institutions. In the last year alone, foreign students (especially from China) have overwhelmingly applied to other countries, rather than to the U.S. (with especially severe consequences for the sciences). The State Department’s recent action revoking the visa of the eminent Muslim scholar from Switzerland, Tariq Ramadan, and preventing him from taking up teaching duties at Notre Dame University, has attracted especially widespread attention.

As I posted at the time, even smearmeister Daniel Pipes could only come up with a very lame “worry” that Ramadan could not prove he is not secretly working for al-Qaeda. The battle against Middle Eastern studies has been going on for some time, as Salon reported a year ago, with Tom DeLay claiming that “academic freedom” really means freedom from having to hear anything critical of Israel. Just recently in New York Joseph Massad has been placed under investigation at Columbia University – not after any students made complaints to university authorities, but after a campaign from The New York Sun and Rep. Anthony Weiner. Massad’s totally unambiguous rejection of anti-Semitism (the vice of which he is unsurprisingly tarred with) and his position can be read here. And, of course, the academic study of the Middle East is also hampered by law. As The New York Times reported in February (reposted here):

Anyone who publishes material from a country under a trade embargo is forbidden to reorder paragraphs or sentences, correct syntax or grammar, or replace “inappropriate words,” according to several advisory letters from the Treasury Department in recent months.

Adding illustrations is prohibited, too. To the baffled dismay of publishers, editors and translators who have been briefed about the policy, only publication of “camera-ready copies of manuscripts” is allowed.

Well, it may be that reports of the Death of Enlightenment have been rather exaggerated, but it’s certainly not in very good health at the moment…

(Some links snagged from The Panda’s Thumb, Pharyngula, AntiEvolution, Christianity Today Weblog, and the History News Network)

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for helping my blood pressure increase. Intellectuals have a responsibility. Work out. Get strong. Look good. Be intellectual first, of course.
    Anywho, you read Panda’s Thumb?

    It says that the single ID article in the peer-reviewed press didn’t even lay out an argument, just said that controversial parts of evolution (which are debunked by articles referenced here) suggest an alternative must exist.

    In other words, it wasn’t an ID argument.

    Ignorance=Dark Ages=Church Rule.

    Want to really understand the dark ages? compared to the time, 15 years before WWI

    Beautiful maps, in any event.

  2. “Some links snagged from” finally noticed.

  3. […] on Creationism by Gary North (linked by WND). As I noted when I surveyed Creationism in the USA a few weeks ago, Creationists use the democratic-populist impulse in American culture to undercut science with […]

  4. […] this is a battle of democracy against “elitism”. With ID Creationists making headway in several states, Hayes has a tough battle ahead. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Council of Europe […]

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