Now evolving in biology classes: a testier climate
Some science teachers say they're encountering fresh resistance to the topic of evolution - and it's coming from their students.
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One example from related promotional literature: "Why don't textbooks discuss the 'Cambrian explosion,' in which all major animal groups appear together in the fossil record fully formed instead of branching from a common ancestor - thus contradicting the evolutionary tree of life?"Skip to next paragraph
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Such questions too often get routinely dismissed from the classroom, says senior fellow John West, adding that teachers who advance such questions can be rebuked - or worse.
"Teachers should not be pressured or intimidated," says Mr. West, "but what about all the teachers who are being intimidated and in some cases losing their jobs because they simply want to present a few scientific criticisms of Darwin's theory?"
But Mr. Wheeler says the criticisms West raises lack empirical evidence and don't belong in the science classroom.
"The questions scientists are wrestling with are not the same ones these people are claiming to be wrestling with," Wheeler says. "It's an effort to sabotage quality science education. There is a well-funded effort to get religion into the science classroom [through strategic questioning], and that's not fair to our students."
Teaching that humans evolved by a process of natural selection has long stirred passionate debate, captured most famously in the Tennessee v. John Scopes trial of 1925.
Today, even as Kansas braces for another review of the question, parents in Dover, Pa., are suing their local school board for requiring last year that evolution be taught alongside the theory that humankind owes its origins to an "intelligent designer."
In this charged atmosphere, teachers who have experienced pressure are sometimes hesitant to discuss it for fear of stirring a local hornets' nest. One Oklahoma teacher, for instance, canceled his plans to be interviewed for this story, saying, "The school would like to avoid any media, good or bad, on such an emotionally charged subject."
Others believe they've learned how to successfully navigate units on evolution.
In the mountain town of Bancroft, Idaho (pop. 460), Ralph Peterson teaches all the science classes at North Gem High School. Most of his students are Mormons, as is he.
When teaching evolution at school, he says, he sticks to a clear but simple divide between religion and science. "I teach the limits of science," Mr. Peterson says. "Science does not discuss the existence of God because that's outside the realm of science." He says he gets virtually no resistance from his students when he approaches the topic this way.
In Skokie, Ill., Lisa Nimz faces a more religiously diverse classroom and a different kind of challenge. A teaching colleague, whom she respects and doesn't want to offend, is an evolution critic and is often in her classroom when the subject is taught.
In deference to her colleague's beliefs, she says she now introduces the topic of evolution with a disclaimer.
"I preface it with this idea, that I am not a spiritual provider and would never try to be," Ms. Nimz says. "And so I am trying not ... to feel any disrespect for their religion. And I think she feels that she can live with that."
The path has been a rougher one for John Wachholz, a biology teacher at Salina (Kansas) High School Central. When evolution comes up, students tune out: "They'll put their heads on their desks and pretend they don't hear a word you say."
To show he's not an enemy of faith, he sometimes tells them he's a choir member and the son of a Lutheran pastor. But resistance is nevertheless getting stronger as he prepares to retire this spring.
"I see the same thing I saw five years ago, except now students think they're informed without having ever really read anything" on evolution or intelligent design, Mr. Wachholz says. "Because it's been discussed in the home and other places, they think they know, [and] they're more outspoken.... They'll say, 'I don't believe a word you're saying.' "