The Conversation

The creationism distraction

Over at The Federalist, my friend David Harsanyi susses out an organized media campaign to use creationism as a means of frightening secular parents away from school choice:

Yes,14 states spend “nearly $1 billion” of taxpayer tuition on “hundreds of religious schools” that teach kids the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This would be more troubling if we didn’t spend hundreds of billions every year not teaching millions of kids how to read. Voucher programs offer a wide variety of choices for parents, unlike the closed, failing districts schools that so many kids are trapped in. As of now, public schools spend around $638 billion on around 55 million students but only 250,000 students – almost all of them poor — are free to use vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Of those kids, the vast majority do not attend schools with curriculums that feature intelligent design. Yet, judging from all the “special investigations” of creationism in schools, you might be under the impression it was the most pressing problem faced by educators.

I suspect that untold numbers of parents would sacrifice their children to the Gods of Creationism if meant they could attend safe and high-achieving schools. A lot of these schools score well. But that’s not the choice, either. Stephanie Simon’s piece [at Politico] offers a perfunctory acknowledgement that not all private schools are churning out fundamentalists, but then spends around two-thirds of her time discussing school-choice advocacy broadly  – with the obligatory “Koch-funded” group playing a part — and conflating all that can be conflated about the issue. School-choice activism (Politico calls it a “big-money push,” which in the context of union money is laughable) focuses primarily on an escape route for underprivileged kids and the need to create a more competitive public schools, not religious education.

Hmm.  I had wondered why there were so many media hits against creationism lately.  Consider the dots connected.

Creationism is always going to be a sticky subject for me, because while I'm a strong supporter of the religious community and their freedoms, I don't think science classrooms have much room for the creation narrative.  Mentioning it in historical context is one thing, but once that's taken care of, attention should return to the scientific method.  This is not to say that religious creation narratives need to be treated with contempt, and it doesn't even mean they're wrong - an omnipotent deity certainly could have whipped up the observable universe a few thousand years ago, and made it appear trillions of years old.  But all such discussion lies far outside the business at hand in a science classroom.  

When our understanding of the Big Bang gets all the way back to that incredibly tiny fraction of a second when the universe erupted from a single point into a space-time continuum full of galaxies, we inevitably reach the limit of reason and arrive at a question of faith: did that happen spontaneously, or not?  Was the order and structure we perceive around us a matter of random chance, or to some degree the work of a Creator's hand?  There is wisdom in knowing where science ends, but we must also acknowledge where it begins.

Having said that, of all the things children might be taught in school that could hinder their future success in some way, creationism is far down the list.  It's not going to damage young minds the way Common Core math does.  For one thing, every citizen of the Information Age is going to hear the broad basics of the Big Bang theory and related concepts anyway (much as it could be said that even children from atheist families are going to absorb the broad outlines of the Biblical creation narrative, which is ingrained in our culture in countless ways.)  Anyone who pursues a career in the hard sciences will quickly learn that the preponderance of scientific evidence argues strongly for an Earth whose age runs into billions of years, surrounded by a vastly older cosmos.  Most other students are - let's face it - likely to enter higher education, or the workforce, with a roughly comparable understanding of both astrophysics and the Book of Genesis, no matter which one was stressed more heavily in grade school.  

Also, creationism isn't necessarily an implacable foe of science education.  I'd have to spend time in the schools David writes about to speak with authority on the matter, but if the gist of modern-day creationism falls into the "God set the universe in motion a few thousand years ago, but set it up to look much older" category, then as long as the motion of the universe is understood properly, it's possible to allow for some latitude in when it started.  And if the schools in question offer religious studies of the creation narrative alongside science courses that offer current astronomical theories and evidence, what's the problem, exactly?

It would be a shame if people were herded away from the benefits of school choice through alarmism about religious education.  If the ultimate point of contention is giving kids the best shot at a successful life, the public education system has a lot to answer for, before it has any business throwing stones at alternative schools.


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