When I first read the breathless accounts of the latest Texas textbook controversy — this time over so-called creation science — I wanted to believe that the ridiculous remarks reported in the left press were exaggerated or taken out of context, if only because I instinctively want to be on the side that Mother Jones isn’t. But, unhappily, I know better.
Texas has a long and unproud history of Evangelical knuckleheadedness when it comes to education. I went to high school there in the early 1990s, just after the crest of the great wave of national panic over fictitious Satanist cults that were giving everybody fits. The local superintendent of schools circulated a list of “occult” symbols to be on the lookout for; one of them was the peace sign — and another was the Star of David. Much mirth was had over the characterization of the emblem of the Jewish faith as a dastardly sign of the occult, and that mirth was intensified by the fact that the boob who circulated the list was named Moses.
But the boobs got the last laugh when Governor George W. Bush made Mike Moses the state education commissioner. He went on to superintend the schools in Dallas. He now occupies an “endowed chair in educational leadership,” the existence of which is as sad a commentary on the educational establishment as is its occupant.
Similarly, there exist disputes within theological studies about the meaning of the Old Testament, and about how evolution might influence our thinking about what it means to be human. Literalism regarding the creation accounts (yes, plural) given in the Bible is a minority disposition, largely limited to a peculiar Anglo-American strain of Evangelical Protestantism. Absolutist literalism regarding the Old Testament is in fact a fairly new intellectual phenomenon within the Abrahamic tradition; you won’t find much of it in Augustine or Maimonides, for example. Would that the textbook critics in Texas applied those men’s classical rigor to their own religious enterprises.
There is a very good case — in my view, a winning one — for incorporating the study of Christian thinking and texts into every school curriculum as a matter of literacy, if not moral instruction. (It is not that I think moral instruction is unimportant — far from that, it is too important to be entrusted to the government schools.) But there is no respectable case for incorporating so-called creation science, or its slightly more sophisticated and intellectually fraudulent big brother, intelligent design, into biological studies.
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