by Adam Laats
Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University (State University of New York). His books include: Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard UP, 2015); with co-author Harvey Siegel, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2016); and, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford UP, 2018). Coming up next is Jesus and the Dinosaurs, to be published by Oxford. Adam blogs at the wonderfully named I Love You But You Are Going to Hell.
There’s a lot to be horrified about. Ken Ham recently offered schoolchildren a jumble of noxious advice, mixing equal parts plagiarism and high anxiety. Yet buried in Ham’s unfortunate essay is a nugget of hope: even Ham now agrees on the fundamental principle that will allow us to end our long struggle over the teaching of evolutionary theory in our public schools.
As Ham explains, he hopes to give young Earth creationist children in public schools a guide to handling tests and essays in their hostile secular environment. Instead of encouraging children to look hopefully to their teachers for a positive relationship, Ham warns them that their teachers will be relentlessly out to get them. In the dangerous confines of your local public school, Ham explains, the best you can hope for is an escape from teachers’ implacable and misdirected persecution.
That sort of high-anxiety preaching about public schools has long been the heart of Ham’s message. Back in 2015, for example, his Answers In Genesis organization published a cartoon of the terrible fate of kids who got on the public-school bus. Yes, children would learn the dangerous ideas of “Darwin,” but they would also be indoctrinated with other doctrines that Ken Ham considers pernicious: secular environmentalism, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and hatred of prayer and the Bible.
For children heeding Ham’s advice, the result is predictable. Instead of entering school hoping to build friendships and prepare for life, anxious creationist kids will be waiting to be attacked and belittled. Even worse, if they follow Ham’s next bit of coaching, they certainly will be. In his advice about writing school reports about evolutionary theory, Ham suggests that students should plagiarize their way out of the evolutionary lion’s den.
As Ham preaches,
…if you say, “There are no beneficial mutations,” your teacher may suggest, however inappropriately, sickle-cell anemia or wingless beetles as examples of mutations that can be beneficial to the organism. It would be better if you say, “Mutations have been observed to destroy, delete or corrupt genetic information or to be neutral, but have not been observed to add information. This is true even of so-called-beneficial mutations like shriveled-eyed cave fish or flightless beetles on windswept islands, where the changes still involve loss of sight or flight. However, particles-to-people evolution requires so many information-increasing mutations that it should be easy to find such mutations happening today, but we have yet to observe even one.”
It doesn’t take years of experience as a classroom teacher to guess what will happen next. Looking for help, any creationist kid could follow Ham’s advice and copy Ham’s science-y sounding answer.
No teacher, no matter what, would be able to be able to accept that kind of plagiarized essay. Instead of only warning students about teacher hostility and anger, Ham’s ready-made essay advice actually makes it more likely that creationist kids will be punished for copying and pasting their answers.
Nevertheless, buried in Ham’s mistaken advice to his young followers is a kernel of good news for us all. How does Ham think creationist children should answer their public-school test questions? Not by insisting on radical creation science, but rather by explaining evolutionary science. As Ham advises,
Please be aware that these [tests] are not appropriate times to “preach.” For example, if you are asked “how old is the Earth?” then the (correct!) answer of ~6000 years will almost certainly be marked wrong because the course most likely would have stated ~4.5 billion years. To avoid lying, we recommend prefixing your answer by saying, “Most scientists believe that. . . ” or “The general consensus among geochronologists is. . . ” Remember, an exam is not a test of your personal beliefs. Instead, it is a test of how well you have learned and understood the material of the course as taught.
And here we have our ray of hope. Nobody—not Ken Ham, not even Richard Dawkins—wants public schools to “cure” children of their religious beliefs. As I am arguing in my upcoming book about creationism, public schools need to take a strict line against any kind of missionary work. Not just the misguided traditional religious type, but also the misguided secular atheist type. Public schools should never preach a religion to their students, but they should also avoid belittling or mocking their students’ religious ideas.
That doesn’t mean public schools can politely ignore the subject of evolutionary theory. Indeed, public schools have more than a right to teach evolutionary science to students, they have a firm duty to do so. As our present best understanding of the ways different species came about, evolutionary theory is something that every student has a right to know about.
But that’s a different story from insisting that every student accept or endorse any particular religious idea about evolutionary theory. If a creationist student wants to believe that our species came about in one divine moment about 6,000 years ago, that is absolutely her right. But she has no right to expect her religious idea to be taught as our best scientific idea, because it’s not. And she has no right to expect to be able to skip parts of the curriculum that she finds religiously problematic, because those ideas are part and parcel of what every American has a right to know about.
Instead, to give credit where it is due, Ken Ham has stumbled across the key to solving our long dispute over teaching evolution in public schools. The only thing public schools can insist upon is exactly what Ham suggests. Public schools have a right and duty to help students understand the best modern science. If religious dissenters choose not to believe those ideas, fine. At the very least, however, students need to be able to explain, as Ham suggests, what those ideas mean.
The answer is just what Ham says: Students can preface their explanations by saying things such as “Most scientists believe that…” or “The general consensus among geochronologists is…”
You might cringe when you hear Ham preaching anxiety and plagiarism among his flock. But we can all clutch at a straw of hope when we hear him tell children that they can know and understand evolution without ever being asked to change their religious beliefs. That is exactly the correct advice, and a solution we can all agree upon.