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Darwin Revisited: From the Classrooms to the Courts, And Back Again
 

Background

One of the red hot debates that is garnering the attention of our legislatures, courts, school boards, parent-teacher organizations, and schools is whether alternatives to Darwin's Theory Of Evolution should be taught in schools. The debate has intensified to the point that it is inescapably in the national consciousness. In fact, this issue has reappeared cyclically since the late 1800s, and is likely to continue surfacing from time to time in years to come, regardless of which point of view is prevailing at any given moment, either in courts of law or the court of public opinion.

In recent years, the alternative view, which had been labeled "creationism" has been renamed "intelligent design". Another contemporary nuance is whether such an alternative is appropriate for teaching in science classes or, instead, in a faith-based class such as comparative religions. Nonetheless, the essence of the argument remains consistent.

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Since the proponents and opponents of teaching "intelligent design" are equally committed to their viewpoints, for the sake of avoiding cultural hegemony in our country, there is much to be said for crafting an approach that will mollify both. It is true that nothing short of complete victory on the issue is likely to fully satisfy the most fervent advocates of either side. Yet, there may be a way to appeal to core principles of both sectors in a way that allows us craft a workable resolution of the conflict, and move on to other issues of national consequence.

Ideas / Solutions

First of all, in determining whether "intelligent design" is a good fit in the context of a science class, the term "science" is part of the problem. In the K-through-12 environment, "science" incorporates everything from the law of gravity to proper use of the Bunsen Burner, and from the chemical chart to the dissecting of frogs. The discussion suffers the handicap of being blinded by the mist of obscurity.

The type of science that is at issue is anthropology. By framing the debate around the appropriate curriculum for an anthropology class, attention could focus on determining which theories are acceptable for presentation in that context. A science course at the eighth- or ninth-grade level could have four independent age-appropriate modules taught during the school year: one each for biology, chemistry, astronomy, and anthropology.

The second component to a workable solution is of paramount importance. There must be approved criteria for determining what alternative theories can be presented, and then ALL alternatives that meet those criteria must be allowed. This debate cannot devolve into a dichotomy between evolution and just one other theory. Other interpretations, theories, and perspectives from respected theorists worldwide should be incorporated into the course. The curriculum must necessarily include anthropological viewpoints from cultural and religious traditions such as Native American tribes/bands, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, African tribal theologies, and others, as well as Christian and Jewish traditions. If the proponents of "intelligent design" are willing to demonstrate their commitment to their own stated principles, that alternative theories must be taught, then these and other theories must also be presented.

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The third point of agreement would be the need to present the origins of each theory alongside the presentation of the theory itself. Before any theory could be presented, it must be acknowledged that no theory should be presented without also presenting its source and the reasons behind it. By disclosing the theological or religious roots to a theory such as "intelligent design", along with the specific persons or documents that have proffered the theory, the shroud of its source would be removed. Students would have a fair opportunity to appraise its integrity, proponents would laud its inclusion, and opponents would find solace in the raising of the veil to illuminate its roots and the empirical evidence that supports it.

The fourth component to a workable solution would be that the criteria for the curriculum, and the selection of the theories themselves, must be developed at the Federal level. This would be important to ensure against undue influence by a local board of education or school board that is comprised of proponents of one view or another. Local officials could decide whether or not to offer this anthropology course or module, but they could not alter its substance. There is a need for safeguards against playing favorites among theories according to local preferences, beliefs, or biases. Other alternative theories should not be able to be excluded, nor should undue emphasis be placed on certain theories to the detriment of others. There is an enormous potential for infringement on First Amendment rights, and the best way to protect against such an occurrence is crafting it according to national standards, with the intense legislative, executive, and especially judicial scrutiny that a Federal effort would provide.

The fifth and final component to a workable solution would be an acknowledgment by all interested parties that no theory should be advocated. For this reason, the foregoing discussion has centered on the "presentation" of theories, rather than the "teaching" of theories. The concept of "teaching" implies a degree of advocacy, judgment, and imposing values of right versus wrong. In this way it is distinct from "teaching" the process for ascertaining the square root of 625, because there is an accepted method for arriving at the number 25.

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Taken together, these five elements would enable alternatives to the Theory Of Evolution to be presented alongside it, as long as it is done with appropriate safeguards to provide for intellectual honesty and educational integrity. This approach is unlikely to delight either side of the debate. But, by fashioning a political alchemy, it would expose students to locally and internationally held alternative beliefs and theories. Ultimately, it is likely to infuse students with a greater passion for intellectual discovery and reasoning.

 
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