Conscientious Objections to Instruction in Biology

Somewhere, I read about a small political kerfuffle at the zoo in Topeka, Kansas.  Some religious conservatives took offense because the signs and displays at the zoo all took “the theory of evolution” for granted and they wanted “creationism” to be given equal time.  So they elected a majority of the board from their movement and began designing “creationist” displays.

The way I heard the story, every religious faith represented in the Topeka area showed up with its group’s creation myth.[1]  It turns out there are dozens of creation myths, even in an area where white Protestants are a substantial majority, and the zoo board had no way to accept some and reject others.  Verifiability is not the strong suite of creation myths, you see.  So the board gave up and I expect that if I visited the Topeka Zoo today, I would see evolution presupposed in the signs I read.

Two days ago, the voters of Missouri passed an amendment to their constitution.  It was not a squeaker.  Here’s a clip from Tuesday morning’s Kansas City Star: “With all but two precincts statewide counted, 779,628 voted yes on the measure and 162,404 voted no, roughly a 5-1 margin.”[2]

This was not good news for the Kansas City StarHere was their advice to Missourians about this measure:


What it does: Unnecessarily reaffirms the right to prayer in public and private settings; requires schools to post the Bill of Rights; violates the Constitution by allowing sectarian prayer to open government meetings; allows public school students to not participate in instruction if they claim it violates their religious beliefs.

Our recommendation: An emphatic “NO.” Amendment 2 is unnecessary, would lead to costly litigation and cause problems in schools.

It might help us to know that this was marketed by its supporters as the “right to pray” amendment.  Anybody here opposed to students having the right to pray?  I thought not.

Notice, however, the phrasing of the Star’s description of the effects of the amendment: “allows public school students to not participate in instruction if they claim…”  No finding is needed, no task force is convened, no curriculum adjusted.   The student claims that some kind of instruction violates their religious beliefs.  I, myself, have serious religious objections to any math beyond algebra.  Higher math is a sin for the same reason raising the Tower of Babel to the heavens was a sin.  The heavens belong to God and “higher mathematics” is part of the all too human desire to put ourselves in God’s place.  Or so I could argue if I lived in Missouri.

All fun aside, the aim of this amendment is to excuse students who believe in creationism from instruction in evolutionism, i.e., in biology, geology, astronomy, comparative anthropology, and other disciplines.  Under the current conditions of mistrust, the old idea of curriculum as something that “broadens” the mind has become a gauntlet of conscientious objections.  Courses that once had integrity—the structure of the course moved from orientation to methods to principles to applications—will now be more like libraries.  You wander in and find the books that appeal to you.

This is to be lamented as a trend, it seems to me, but there are some practical considerations as well.  Presumably, the state and federal achievement measures will continue to ask what the students know about the fragments of biology, geology, astronomy, and comparative anthropology that they covered in their classes.  Will creationist answers be accepted as well as evolutionist answers?  Will the conscientious conservatives be tested on courses they have not taken?  Will the “equal protection of the laws” clause of the 5th and 14th amendments protect equally those who have learned secular biology and those who have learned what the religious objections are to secular biology?

When you get to the assessment phase, it seems to me, all the options are bad.  “Show me” what you know is the assessment end of the curriculum and I think the “Show me” state has just painted itself into a corner.


[1] Not using the word myth in any pejorative sense.  A myth is true or false in the same way “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is true or false.  It’s not a claim; it’s a narrative framework.

[2] I wish it had been closer because my brother and his wife live in Missouri and they wasted their day seeing medical people rather than voting on this amendment.  What I really wanted was for this amendment to have won by exactly two votes

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Education, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conscientious Objections to Instruction in Biology

  1. rdfeinman says:

    On the Topeka, Kansas Zoo, it is good to remember that the state has always been a little backward. Remember, in Brown v Board of Education, it was not the South but the Board of Ed of Topeka, Kansas. Maybe we should have smart states and dumb states like free and slave states.

    • hessd says:

      Good catch. Something was toying with the back of my brain when I wrote about the Topeka Zoo and I couldn’t find it. Thanks for finding it for me.

  2. Bonnie Klein says:

    Not only are courses becoming like libraries, entire curricula appear to be moving in the same direction. See Andrew Hacker’s NYT July 28 article, “Is Algebra Necessary?” which essentially says too many students fail algebra so it shouldn’t be required in school. What need, he argues, do future philosophers, poets, or historians have for algebra (which he describes as “lofty”!)? Hacker concedes “that mathematics requires mental exertion,” but evidently such exertion has no place in school.
    PS–Loved the insert.

    • hessd says:

      You have reminded me how much the whole notion of “curriculum” requires that someone be trusted to design it. Have we really run out of people we trust to teach our children?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.