Hot potatoes

Ted Davis (
Fri, 05 Dec 1997 10:28:14 -0500

Like many others on this listserve, I have strong opinions about the
evolution and education issue. Readers are invited to keep reading, but
cautioned not to hit the hot bottoms too quickly. What I have attached is a
short version of a longer, more detailed argument that I am not yet ready to
"publish" in any sense of that word, though I have used some of the ideas in
public talks at the American Anthropological Association, the History of
Science Society, Brooklyn College, Penn State, and Messiah. But the
shorter, less carefully argued version has already appeared in print twice
and is about to be published again, so I don't mind putting it out here as
well. In this form, which was edited for a newspaper column I was invited
to write under severe word limitations, some points may appear glib and/or
poorly supported. Some may not stand up well to good criticism. But the
overall views I hold are not likely to change, regardless of how poorly they
may be stated/argued in the attachment, because it comes down to the
following beliefs of mine that I cannot abandon:

(1) Education is not "value-free"; indeed, education worthy of that name
inescapably includes values in a central role.

(2) In our society, we have chosen to let the "state" -- a collective of
citizens -- take the primary role in educating the children of voting
citizens. This means that we pay dollars to the state, to let the state be
responsible for carrying out this task. In my view, however, this remains a
DELEGATED responsibility that individual citizens should be entitled to
retain for themselves, ALONG WITH the moneys they send to the state for that

(3) We deliberately try to keep "religion" out of public education, so as to
keep church and state "separate". This was Jefferson's conception, but not
the interpretation given the words in the constitution by the Supreme Court
until the past 50 years or so. The constitution mandates -- in what Stephen
Carter calls the "first part of the first amendment" -- that the congress
(and now the states, by a later amendment) may make no law "establishing a
religion", nor prohibiting the "free exercise" thereof. Nonestablishment is
a position of neutrality, not advocacy of a particular religion, nor is it
(in my view) properly understood as secularism. It simply refuses to favor
any one religion/irreligion over any other. The courts have erroneously
gone well beyond this, but that could be reversed if Mr. Clinton took
seriously his words about religious freedom and appointed justices who were
properly critical of Jefferson's view (which is not what the constitution

(4) At present, parents MUST educated their children, by law, to a certain
age; parents MUST pay taxes to the "state" to pay for this; but parents are
NOT allowed to use their own tax dollars to pay for education that respects
their own values. Only the values chosen by the "state" are allowed.
Requiring indoctrination (and that is the appropriate word), without
allowing parents to choose the form of indoctrination except entirely at
their own personal expense, is a form of tyrrany. I submit that if the
"elite" (and that is also an appropriate term) were seriously unhappy with
the type of indoctrination their children were receiving, we would make
value changes in our schools to satisfy them. We have very often done so,
and I (for one) have often agreed with the changes. But the "elite"
generally believe in "separation" and the secular religion it fosters, so we
don't dare let parents decide to allow a serious discussion of the religous
issues surrounding evolution take place in public schools.

(5) If we allowed parents to pull their dollars as well as their children
out of public education, we would certainly create lots of problems. But we
would go a long way toward addressing the ideological problems I've pointed
out. And these should be seen as more fundamental than other problems,
because they go right to the heart of what education is supposed to be

I'm starting to preach. I'd better shut up. But these ARE issues relevant
to ASA, because they are about world views and science, as well as about
respect. Here's the op-ed piece:


Charles Darwin's evolution hypothesis was published in 1859, two years
before the Civil War and long before anyone now living was born. That is
much longer than it takes most scientific theories either to gain full
acceptance as truths or else to be discarded as incorrect. Although most
scientists today do consider evolution correct -- many would call it a
"fact", not simply a "theory" -- a significant number of Americans do not
agree with them, for a variety of reasons. Some disagree with the way in
which scientists have formed their conclusions from the available evidence,
just as the members of a jury may differ about how to interpret the
testimony presented in a trial. Others would argue that evolution has never
been proved, because we can't repeat the history of the earth in a
laboratory. Additional objections come from those who believe that,
regardless of what scientists claim, the Bible tells us all we can ever
really know about the origin of the earth and the living things that dwell
on it. Most scientists would reply that evolution is very well supported by
many different types of evidence, and that absolute proof is rarely (if
ever) obtained by the scientific method. If the evidence for gravitation,
genetic inheritance, or the germ theory of disease is accepted, they would
ask, then why shouldn't the evidence for evolution also be accepted?

I can hardly hope to settle a big argument like this in the small space of
this column, but I do want to offer a suggestion about the teaching of
evolution in public schools, the issue related to this argument that
probably concerns the most people. I start by noting that many Americans
believe that teaching evolution in the schools tends to undermine the
religious beliefs of students. In their opinion, evolution is not
religiously neutral, and ought not to be part of a state mandated
curriculum. This is precisely why William Jennings Bryan opposed the
teaching of evolution in the 1920s, and why many people today want to see
creationism taught alongside evolution.

It is not my purpose here to agree or disagree with this perception. Rather
I suggest that the First Amendment requires us to give it the greatest
possible consideration, whether or not we agree with it. How can we do
this, in a pluralistic society? How can we give equal respect to those
people who want evolution taught and those who don't? How can we respect
the beliefs of those parents who favor the teaching of creationism without
infringing on the beliefs of those parents who oppose them? The answer, as
I see it, is to take seriously the beliefs of all parents, not by requiring
public schools to teach both creationism and evolution side by side, but
rather by broadening our definition of public education to include religious
schools as legitimate, publicly funded alternatives for parents who want

It is often objected that public funding for religious schools violates the
First Amendment. But a closer examination supports just the opposite
conclusion. The state not only mandates that parents educate their
children, the state also determines what will and will not be taught. This
is properly called indoctrination. Parents who dissent from the values and
ideas upheld by the state, whether for religious reasons or otherwise, must
either send their children to private schools at their own expense or
educate their children at home. Many parents cannot realistically do

I contend that this state of affairs is not only unjust, but actually
unconstitutional. As Yale University legal scholar Stephen Carter has
argued, the purpose of the First Amendment is not to protect the state from
the church, not to keep religion out of the public square, but rather to
protect the church from the state, to foster the type of dissent that
religion encourages. If so, then we really have no constitutional
alternative but to fund religious schools.

Let me put this another way, once again taking a cue from Bryan. A
progressive Democrat, Bryan believed very strongly that parents, not an
elite group of scientists and/or professional educators, have a fundamental
right to control the content of their children's education. Anyone who
shares this belief should, in my opinion, work toward increasing
philosophical and religious diversity within public education. If this
cannot be done without altering the definition of what counts as a public
school, then we ought to get down to the business of redefining public
schools. To settle for less would be to sell our souls to the state.