Big bang in Ohio | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Big bang in Ohio

State school board to consider alternatives to Darwinism; advocates challenge schools to "teach the controversy" and hope the movement will embolden other states

You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

ROBERT LATTIMER KNEW he was headed for controversy when he signed up a year ago to help write Ohio's public-school science curriculum. He recommended that public schools allow teachers to raise objections to Darwinism in class. Mr. Lattimer's colleagues blew him off: "The deck was stacked from the beginning."

But Mr. Lattimer, who works as a chemist in private industry, pressed on. He helped start a group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO), which raised the issue of academic freedom in public meetings. The effort drew more heat than many expected, but appears to have paid off: Later this year, the Ohio state Board of Education will decide whether strict Darwinian evolution will remain the only concept about the origin of life taught to students. Proposed changes to the state's new standards would suggest that Darwinism is just one theory among others. That would give teachers and students more freedom to debate its pros and cons.

While it would not bring creationism or intelligent-design curricula into the classroom, the proposed change in Ohio would at least open up discussion. Intelligent-design advocates hope success in Ohio will spread elsewhere.

Mr. Lattimer and his supporters believe that teachers should be allowed, but not required, to discuss alternative theories, and that educators should take up a definition of science that involves looking for the most logical explanation of phenomena. They emphasize the word logical instead of natural, which they say limits the ability to discuss the existence of a creator. SEAO spokeswoman Jody Sjogren makes the point this way: "Is science the search for the best naturalistic reasons for what is around us or finding the best explanations?"

The reformers' slogan is "teach the controversy." Instead of striking evolution from the classroom, teachers are encouraged to present the subject fully-from both sides. Prominent intelligent-design advocates agree. Biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, said he thinks "it would be good pedagogy and exciting for the students" to hear open debate about origins.

Baylor University's William Dembski said that the approach upholds the ideals of academic freedom and liberal education. It lets students see what he calls the "failure of evolutionary biology" and helps break up that worldview's monopoly in mainstream education: "A truly liberal education means being exposed to different points of view. This is the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, not the politically correct liberalism of today, which actually endorses intolerance and censorship."

SOME OHIO TEACHERS COMPLAIN that current science curricula straitjacket them into presenting only Darwinist orthodoxy. "Some of the things in textbooks just aren't true," one veteran biology teacher complained to WORLD. The 14-year Ohio public-school teacher spoke on condition that he not be named because he's been threatened with loss of his job for speaking out on the origins controversy. Randy McClay, who teaches chemistry at Valley Local High School in Lucasville, Ohio, says the problems of established Darwinism extend beyond biology class: "Even an introductory student can say that unless you have a statement that's testable, you don't have a scientific issue."

The current debate centers on Ohio's science standards, which represent the bare minimum that teachers are expected to present in class. In response to the origins controversy, the state school board proposed some changes this summer that would tweak science curricula. They include:

The word origin would be eliminated from the standards, along with the estimate of the Earth's age. The phrase "evolution of life" would be replaced with "the process of evolution" or "the development of living organisms" to reflect that evolution is a theory only. In some places the word evolution would be changed to speciation, a less-controversial term that refers to how new groups of animals and plants develop.

The changes may seem like small semantic differences, but they could change how students are taught science. "The scientific establishment went ape when we put the word theory after evolution," recalled pro-reform board member Deborah Owens-Fink, a marketing professor at the University of Akron.

SEAO claims no direct influence over the proposal before the state school board, and standards committee co-chairman Tom McClain claimed this was no compromise. Yet the thought that Darwinism's grip over the classroom might be loosened was enough to provoke protests.

ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari complained about "the newest intellectual Trojan horse of the religious right" and vowed to fight it. The American Society for Cell Biology fired off a letter in March saying that "imposing the doctrine of intelligent design in the science classroom will compromise students' understanding of modern biology and leave them with devalued academic credentials."

A organization called Ohio Citizens for Science, led by Case Western Reserve philosopher Patricia Princehouse and Pamela Keiper of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, even argued that teaching alternatives to Darwinism would stifle the economy, since students would be scientifically illiterate and unprepared for the New Economy. They say that the broadness that Mr. Lattimer and others demand could lead to educators teaching stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, along with kooky beliefs about scientific racism, alchemy, and astrology.

Ms. Princehouse and Ms. Keiper compare the latter two to intelligent design, in that they are "motivated by religious feeling, rather than strictly by the scientific allure of the results" and say the concept should be kept out of public schools on First Amendment grounds.

To their chagrin, popular support points in the direction of teaching alternatives to Darwinism. A poll by the Cleveland Plain Dealer found that most Ohioans wanted both traditional evolution and intelligent design in public schools. The poll found that six in 10 supported teaching both ideas and another 15 percent supported teaching the evidence both for and against evolution (but not necessarily intelligent design). Also, 9 percent supported teaching nothing about human origins, only 8 percent wanted just evolution, and another 8 percent wanted intelligent design only.

"This tells me that science education has a long way to go," grumbled Eugenie Scott of the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education after the results were announced. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan complained that intelligent design would drive away top scientific minds: "It undermines the very effort we're trying to do to attract people to this state." (Ohio's incumbent Republican governor, Bob Taft, is quiet on this issue. Officially, he says it is a matter for the school board to decide.)

WHILE THE STANDARDS WAR has flared up in 2002, Ohio's evolution debates go back a few years. What teachers can say in class often depends on the local administration and school board. "Currently each district can have a say in what's taught, which sometimes makes this issue tougher to deal with," school board member Sue Westendorf explained.

One teacher who tries to discuss the pros and cons of evolution is Bryan Leonard, a science teacher at Hilliard Davidson High School near Columbus. He uses his biology classes as part of a research project for his doctoral dissertation in science education. To participate, kids must have a signed permission slip from their parents.

Mr. Leonard maintains that students learn better when they can study both sides of a pressing controversy. After all, this is routinely done with stem-cell research, genetic engineering, cloning, and other hot topics. "I talk to kids about the nature of science, that everyone, including scientists, have biases," he explained to WORLD. "That's just part of human nature. Science tries to set up ways to decrease bias, but when you're dealing with scientists you're dealing with humans and human nature."

Technically, the state does not bar teachers from discussing Darwinism's deficiencies, but the legalities involved are murky. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court barred all states from requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools. Yet this served to heat up the question of origins, as the intelligent design movement grew throughout the 1990s.

In 2000, a national survey by California physicist Lawrence Lerner deemed Ohio deficient in teaching evolution. He gave the state an "F" in a report issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He complained then that the state's school board was reluctant to use the word evolution.

That school board became the center of controversy after it drafted new standards, which noticeably mentioned the term. Robert Lattimer, who was on the writing team, lobbied to allow the teaching of alternatives, but his plea was disregarded. Deborah Owens-Fink and fellow board member Michael Cochran complained that the writing team's proposal left out alternatives to Darwinism. A public debate on origins followed-and the board said it was deluged by thousands of letters, e-mails, and other correspondence about evolution in science classes.

Reform proponents are encouraged by a congressional report that accompanied the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It reads: "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society."

"Teach the controversy" proponents say that curriculum changes face an uphill battle with the school board. "They'd like to find a solution that would satisfy both sides," Mr. Lattimer told WORLD.

One Northwest Ohio school district has already jumped into the debate and approved a resolution encouraging its science teachers to examine intelligent design. Patrick Henry District Superintendent John Hall said the decision was necessary to protect academic freedom. Mr. Hall said that teachers should have the right to discuss intelligent design, but that some are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution: "You take one side of the argument or the other. You have to have faith in something. A lot of us would choose to believe there is an underlying purpose to this life."

Chris Stamper Chris is a former WORLD correspondent.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...