Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Educational Conundrum of the Faithful Creationist Parent | Righting America

by Adam Laats

RACM is very pleased to showcase our first guest post!  Historian and author Adam Laats offers his insights on the history of mainstream science in creationist education and the difficulty this history poses for evangelical parents eager to provide their children with a well-rounded education. 

We all want the best for our kids. For most of us, that means spending a lot of time driving them to seemingly endless piano lessons, soccer practices, cross country meets, and the like. Young-earth creationists (YECs) have to do all that, but they also face a unique YEC conundrum. On the one hand, they want to make sure that their children are properly indoctrinated into the YEC worldview; on the other hand they want their kids to have the best introduction to the world of modern knowledge. Can they ensure both? If so, how?

This conundrum is for real. Just a few years back, one especially thoughtful YEC homeschooling mother reached out to me because she was worried that the fundamentalist textbooks she was using weren’t doing their job. She wrote

“Dear Dr. Laats,

As a Christian homeschool mom I am not trying to protect my sons from learning evolution. . . . I am going to teach my kids about evolution, somehow.”

Importantly, this mom was not expressing some basic doubt about YEC or her faith. On the contrary, she was just trying to be the best parent she could. For her, that meant making sure that her children heard the best from both sides. Pat reassurances from Christian textbooks, Christian museums, and Christian colleges weren’t doing the trick for her. She wanted to give her children the best education possible, but can she when she is teaching YEC science?

YEC parents can feel real anxiety that the critics might be right. By teaching them young-earth science or sending them to a private Christian school that does, are they robbing their children of a real education and dooming them to learning only a second-rate pseudo-science?

To reassure these parents, creationist institutions do their darndest to demonstrate that their young-earth science is not only equal to mainstream science, it’s better. As the Trollingers point out in Righting America at the Creation Museum (page 66), the folks at Answers in Genesis bend over backwards to argue that their science is the only non-deluded science out there. In his February 2014 debate with “Science Guy” Bill Nye, for example, Ken Ham made himself into the “Even-More-Science” guy. He used the word “science” over a hundred times, many times more than Bill Nye did.

facade of science building at Bob Jones University

Facade of the science building on Bob Jones U’s Greenville, SC campus. Rest assured, the building tells parents, your kids will get the best modern scientific education. And they won’t have to give up their Bibles to do it. Photo by Adam Laats

And, as the Trollingers argue (see pages 36-38), the Creation Museum insists that it gives visitors both sides—creationist science and the mainstream evolutionary kind. Creationist colleges often make the same claim. At creationist schools and colleges as well as museums, this pose of open-minded science superiority serves an important purpose. Believe us, YEC administrators imply, your children will learn the best of everything if they bring their tuition dollars to our school.

There’s nothing new about these sorts of latent anxieties and hurried reassurances. For decades, YEC school administrators have wooed parents with promises that their science departments were absolutely top-notch, whether they were judged by mainstream science standards or evangelical purity standards.

At fundamentalist Bob Jones University, for example, the founder Bob Jones Senior assured parents that students at his school learned the best science available. As Jones put it back in 1944,

“We say we believe in the creation of man by the direct act of God. But we want our students to know what Darwin taught; we want them to know what Huxley taught; we want them to know what Spencer taught. We tell them that these men were just guessing.”

At evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, school leaders made the same fetish of publicizing their unimpeachable scientific credentials. In one pamphlet from mid-century, President Raymond Edman promised nervous parents, “The Division of Science is one of the strongest areas in the College.” The professors almost all had PhDs, Edman assured readers. But don’t worry; they were also all men who “worship Christ as their personal savior and as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.”

Wheaton College Division of Science Pamphlet

Wheaton loves science! Photo by Adam Laats

Wherever creationist parents look, they see reassurances that they are indeed providing the absolute best possible science education for their children. Nevertheless, some YEC parents still fret. As my homeschooling YEC correspondent told me, “I am making an honest attempt to understand [evolutionary theory] so I don’t teach it incorrectly.”

Is she the only one? I doubt it. Given the amount of loud promises and expensive advertising done by schools such as Wheaton and Bob Jones U over the years, I imagine that plenty of YEC parents have shared her anxiety. Like parents everywhere, they are not willing to compromise their children’s welfare. At the same time, like YECs everywhere, they are not willing to compromise their fidelity to the answers in Genesis.

The exaggerated emphasis on excellence in science education at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges—at least in part—has tried to bridge this anxiety gap. Just as the folks at the Creation Museum have done, the leaders of America’s conservative evangelical colleges assure nervous YEC parents over and over again: Our science includes the best of both creationist and mainstream science, and we can prove to your kids exactly why creationist science always comes out on top.

Adam Laats is an historian at the Graduate School of Education at SUNY-Binghamton. He is the author of books such as The Other School Reformers (Harvard UP, 2015) and co-author of Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Chicago UP, 2016). He is currently working on a new book about evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education.