Reasons to Believe

From the Trenches: An Additional Response to the Kansas Board of Education Decision

by Jody Sjogren

(RTB Supporter in Kansas)

 It would probably be an understatement to say that the Kansas State Board of Education's recent decision on the Kansas Science Education Standards has been widely misunderstood. Many in the mainstream media have attacked the Board for "dumbing down science." Kansas' own governor, Bill Graves, has called it "a tragic, terrible, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist." Our local newspapers here in Kansas have been covering this debate for months now, often with front-page headlines. The Op-Ed pages in newspapers around the country have been filled with letters from ardent adherents to both sides of the issue. It appears, from media coverage, to be a boxing match between the religious fundamentalists (country bumpkins who obviously know nothing about science) and the scientific establishment (who supposedly have all the answers). Not only has it continued far longer than most of us expected, this skirmish shows no signs of fizzling out. So what's the big deal? What does this conflict really represent?

As an RTB supporter and as one who has a background in science (B.S. in Zoology and M.S. in Medical Illustration), I would like to take this opportunity to offer a perspective from first-hand observation of this historic set of events. Probably no one here in Kansas could have predicted the fallout from the State School Board's vote. It has taken some time for us to realize what has happened and what it means for science education. It is tempting to think that all science has been insulted, and the omission of Big Bang theory from the assessments in this new document has been cited as a major shortcoming. However, while they do not mandate the teaching of it, the new standards also do not prohibit the teaching of Big Bang cosmology. We could have hoped for a document that handled cosmology differently, and perhaps a future document will do that. For now, though, I think it is necessary to look at another very important aspect of the situation.

I want to make a point that I believe is crucial to understanding what this situation represents, and I am hoping for the patience and insight of all who read this and who wish things had gone differently. The primary issue in this debate was not so much cosmology as it was the theory of biological evolution. The question was whether or not evolution should be elevated to the level of a Unifying Concept in science. Again, the flashpoint here was the theory of biological evolution, not young-earth or old-earth cosmology. In spite of what you may have deduced from the media coverage, the crux of the problem was macroevolution!

So what DID happen in Kansas? What is all the national furor about, and why has the reaction from the scientific establishment, the national media, and the political powers been so volcanic? Is this new document really such a radical departure from good science teaching, or is there a deeper reason for the explosive international reaction to a mere 94-page document composed in a relatively small town in a largely rural state in America's heartland? After all, the new science standards have actually INCREASED the emphasis on evolution more than five-fold over the old standards (Kansas Curricular Standards for Science 1995, revised 1998, still in effect until the Board actually implements the new standards which were adopted August 11, 1999). Specifically, the 1995 science standards devoted approximately 69 words to biological evolution, and the Kansas Science Education Standards 1999 devote approximately 392 words. It's just that the Darwinists wanted them to increase it to 644 words (a nine-fold increase).

Furthermore, the Board accepted the majority of the Writing Committee's work on the Science Standards without significant problem. Where they drew the line was at the demand that science be defined as the search for naturalistic explanations (the Board insisted on defining it as the search for logical explanations, a change which has so far gone unchallenged). They also refused to promote Darwinian theory to a fundamental unifying concept of science, and they eliminated the requirement that students be tested on macroevolution.

Since this treatise is rather lengthy, I am going to divide it into two parts for your ease in reading. First, I will explain the basic events that transpired, in order to give historical background. Second, I will give what I believe to be a reasonable explanation of what the vote means and why the national reaction has been so seemingly out of proportion to the action itself.

WHAT HAPPENED:

A 27-member committee of science educators was appointed by the Kansas Commissioner of Education and charged with the task of updating the 1995 Kansas Curricular Standards for Science. Carrying out this charge, the Kansas Science Education Standards (KSES) Writing Committee presented a series of drafts to the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) during the early months of this year. Their writing was taken in large part from the "National Science Education Standards," published by the National Research Council, and the "Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy" from Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. These documents organize science education into five major Unifying Concepts and Processes which "cut across the traditional disciplines of science" and "provide connections between and among traditional scientific disciplines, are fundamental and comprehensive ... and can be expressed and experienced ... during K-12 science education." (see footnote #1). In the main body of the document, the learning benchmarks and performance indicators were keyed to these Unifying Concepts so that students would learn how the classroom experiences related to the Unifying Concepts.

The five Unifying concepts charted in the KSES, as initially proposed by the Writing Committee, were these:

1. Systems, Order, and Organization
2. Evidence, Models, and Explanation
3. Constancy, Change, and Measurement
4. Evolution and Equilibrium
5. Form and Function

No significant problems were registered with any of these except Evolution. It was the positioning of Evolution as a Unifying Concept that drew intense public reaction to the proposed standards. The situation was brought into media limelight when a committee of concerned citizens collaborated with one of the KSBE members and proposed an alternative draft (Working Draft Trial 4a) which retained much of the practical classroom benchmarks and indicators, but eliminated the Unifying Concepts and instead divided science study into three broad interconnecting areas:

1. Technology
2. Theoretical Science
3. Historical Science

While this document contained no inherently religious wording, it was immediately branded as "creationist dogma" by the KSES Writing Committee and the science establishment because it removed evolution as an umbrella concept in the teaching of science and because it was associated with an anonymous group of authors whose religious beliefs were well known, although their names were not disclosed. A paragraph definition of evolution was contained in the Glossary of Trial 4a, distinguishing microevolution ("observable adaptation in organisms") from macroevolution ("change of one living thing into another, such as reptiles into birds, which has never been observed"), and stating that "it does not logically follow that the demonstration of one evolutionary process, like aging, is proof for another, like man evolving from hydrogen." (see footnote #2)

For this, the citizens' committee drew a furious response from critics and set off a storm of public debates which raged for the duration of this summer. The Citizens Forums at the KSBE meetings were thronged with people from all perspectives testifying in two-minute statements before the Board, urging one course of action or another. The KSES Writing Committee, working with the Board to achieve a compromise, renamed the controversial Unifying Concept of Evolution, calling it "Patterns of Cumulative Change" in their Fifth Working Draft of the Science Standards.

The Twelfth Grade Benchmark #3 in the Writing Committee's draft, dealing with the teaching of major concepts of biological evolution, including macroevolution, continued to present difficulties. The statements that "biologists use evolution theory to explain the Earth's present day biodiversity" and "biologists recognize that the primary mechanisms of evolution are natural selection and random genetic drift" (see footnote #3) continued to spark debate and dissent among the ten Board members.

By late July, the Board and the KSES Writing Committee remained in a stalemate, with the majority of the Writing Committee members refusing to consider other options for the teaching of origins and the State School Board unwilling to pass the Fifth Working Draft in the face of tremendous public opposition to evolutionary theory. Finally, a three-member Science Sub-Committee of the Board drafted a compromise which retained much of the text of the KSES Writing Committee document but eliminated evolution from the Unifying Concepts and eliminated the benchmark which would have taught macroevolution as THE theory of origins. The glossary included a definition of evolution, though not as lengthy as those proposed in either the Fifth Working Draft or the earlier Citizens' document. No explicitly religious verbiage occurs anywhere in the Sub-Committee draft, although critics have pointed out that the phrasing of certain examples in some of the indicators reveals "thinly veiled young-earth cosmology," and have therefore accused the Board of having a hidden agenda to push religious views in science classes.

The Science Sub-Committee draft of the Kansas Science Education Standards was passed by a 6 - 4 vote of the Kansas State Board of Education on August 11, and the public reaction began. Months later, it is still raging.

WHAT IT MEANS:

As one who has watched this situation closely, having attended most of the Board meetings since May and two of the all-day meetings of the KSES Writing Committee as they worked on their document, having talked at length with Board members and listened to people on both sides of the issue, having read much of the response in the newspapers, and having gotten involved in the debate myself, I offer here these observations and interpretations of the events since that historic vote.

What we are seeing in Kansas is basically a grass-roots insurrection against the government-mandated teaching of naturalism. The six members of the Kansas State Board of Education realized that the pressure to make evolution THE theory of origins to be taught in our schools is coming from the scientific elite of our time (namely such prominent and influential groups as the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Science Education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Association of Biology Teachers, among others). The informed insiders of these organizations understand that the central theme of evolution (macroevolution) is that life is the result of purposeless natural processes, and that no God, no divine being, no intelligent agent had anything to do with the creation of life or the universe itself. They define the rules of science to exclude supernatural explanations, because in their view science can only study natural things. So by definition the supernatural must be ruled out as a causative agent for natural phenomena. Even when the evidence might logically suggest the work of an intelligent supernatural designer, this line of reasoning is rejected because it is "outside the rules." In the view of these authorities, any evidence that would challenge the presumption of naturalism is therefore invalid or subject to suppression.

In addition, the astute members of the Board realized that evolution is not nearly so widely accepted, even within scientific circles, as the establishment would like us to believe. They took time to examine the evidence for and against the theory of macroevolution, and they concluded that at this time the evidence is not conclusive enough to elevate the theory to the level of a Unifying Concept in science. While they have been criticized for their apparent ignorance of science, in fact they understood that the mounting evidence of scientific investigation reveals a universe and a world so exquisitely designed for life that the random processes claimed as "mechanisms" of evolution appear increasingly inadequate to explain the origin and diversity of life.

The real triumph of this historic vote is that this Kansas State Board of Education stood up to the scientific establishment and stopped the silent, steady progress of materialistic philosophy in its tracks. They dared to question the evolutionary theory that the government wants to promote as a foregone conclusion. Believing that the issues were so important that the State should NOT mandate teaching of that one theory of origins, they returned to the local school districts the responsibility of deciding what explanations of origins will be taught. In effect, they opened up the discussion and allowed schools to teach the evidence, the conflicts, and the controversy. THIS is what drew the volley of furious rhetoric against the Board, NOT - as the scientific establishment would like us to think - an ill-conceived and ignorant move to "dumb down science education in Kansas." The six members of the School Board knew exactly what they were doing, and the scientific establishment understands what the Board did. The establishment just doesn't want that much power and authority under local control.

Viewed from this perspective, all of the colorful and heated reactions from the scientific establishment and the liberal media make perfect sense. If this had been simply an issue of scientific fact versus ignorance, the keepers of evolutionary knowledge would long ago have ended the debate with a cool, calm presentation of the explanation for life's origin in scientific terms. They would have quietly and carefully shown us the intricate mechanisms by which life arose from some primitive replicating molecule and then blossomed into the tree of life. They might even have used a bit of charity, in the true spirit of teaching, while they corrected our misunderstanding. But they haven't done that. Instead, they have focused the debate on peripheral issues, using accusations of hidden religious agendas, refusal of copyright permission, threats of legal ramifications, etc. And the tenor of the tirades can hardly be called courteous, much less charitable.

So what will happen now? Who knows, but one thing is for sure. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and now we're in for an interesting time! The encouraging thing, as I see it, is that finally we have national attention focused on one of the most important cultural realities of our time, the religion of scientific materialism. For the past century or more, Darwinian theory has crept in and displaced a design-based explanation for the universe. The science of evolutionary biology has been teaching us that all life traces its ancestry back to a primitive replicating molecule in a prebiotic chemical soup. And while teaching this naturalistic explanation of origins (and, by extension, materialistic philosophy), the scientific establishment has also suppressed the design-based evidence (and, by extension, theistic implications) which challenge it.

What they don't want us to know is that the very foundation of the theory is flawed. Contrary to the expectations of scientists half a century ago, origin of life experiments in the laboratory since the early 1950s have not led to an elucidation of the mechanisms by which life emerged from the primordial soup, but rather to stalemate and confessions of ignorance about how it could have happened. Without even a viable model or evidence to confirm chemical evolution, upon which the rest of the evolutionary "tree of life" is supposedly built, Darwinian theory has serious fundamental problems.

While all of this remained in the ivory halls of academia, far from the consciousness of the masses, the scientific elite had little to worry about in the way of threats to their ensconced seat of power. But now things are changing, and that's why we see the signs of nervousness and defensive posturing among the science community. It is really just too much that the people have taken matters into their own hands and questioned the authorities! Ironically, it may just be that the scientific authorities, in their sustained and vociferous response to the new science standards, have done what the Kansas State Board of Education could never have done by itself. They have managed to prod the slumbering populace into awareness and action. And that, as we all know, is how revolutions are born.

Footnotes/References:

1. Kansas Science Education Standards, Fifth Working Draft, June 1999, page 9.

2. Kansas Science Education Standards, Working Draft Trial 4a, April 1999, pages 78, 79.

3. Kansas Science Education Standards, Fifth Working Draft, June 1999, pages 73-75.

Subjects: Educators/Homeschoolers, Legal Issues

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