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The Compelling Secular Necessity of the
Kansas Board of Education’s Amendments
to its Science Education Standards

Paul D. Ackerman, Ph.D.
© Paul D. Ackerman, Ph.D.  Used by permission. 

uch controversy has arisen regarding the Science Education Standards recently passed by the Kansas State Board of Education (BOE). Was the action one of religious extremism or a compelling secular necessity in a free society encompassing great religious and philosophical diversity. It was the latter. The Standards as passed was an amended form of a document produced by the Kansas Science Education Standards Writing Committee. The heart of the controversy between the State BOE majority and the Writing Committee is best understood by the Writing Committee’s omission of religious creed as a protected category in the Science Standards’ non-discrimination, inclusion clause. No typographical error, this omission reflected the spirit of the Writing Committee’s document. The treatment of evolution and the potential challenge by students to some of its claims necessitated dropping religious creed from the inclusion statement. Evolution was promoted not merely from theory to fact, but to a “unifying concept and process” for all of science. It follows, if evolution is a unifying concept for all of science, that students who reject it will be excluded from participation in science. The Writing Committee tacitly assumed that any skepticism about evolution must be religiously motivated rather than an exercise of its central educational principle encouraging students to “identify assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations.” The Writing Committee treated scientific challenges to evolutionist claims as mere science versus religion, rather than the complex mix of religious, philosophical and scientific controversy that it truly is.

Consider a student who happens to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is a miraculous physical event, rather than a hoax or something symbolic. Further assume that because of this faith she is predisposed to be skeptical about claims that atoms and molecules can haphazardly interact and become living animals. Fascinated by all areas of science, she begins to do some research and finds a recent article in Nature by J. A. Coyne. From this article and subsequent research, she learns that the story of the peppered moth in her textbook is now known to be a misrepresentation. The moths pictured in her textbook were actually dead moths glued to the trunks of the trees for a NOVA documentary. She brings up her research in class seeking to “identify assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations.” Unfortunately, under the Writing Committee’ Science Standards, the student’s research would be viewed not as an exercise of critical thinking but a case where her “religion is at odds with science.” But, one might ask, “What business of the teacher’s is the student’s religion?” The reasons why a student arrives at a certain scientific view are independent of the justification of that view once arrived at. Science teachers need to keep their attention on science, not stick their noses into private religious convictions that may or may not have played a role in stimulating certain science interests. Since the State BOE must represent the interests of all Kansas’ children in a non-discriminatory way, it returned religious creed to its lawful place in the inclusion statement and amended the document appropriately. In a nutshell, the State Board amended the Writing Committee’s Science Standards so that, “All students, regardless of gender, creed, cultural or ethnic background, future aspirations or interest and motivation in science, should have the opportunity to attain high levels of scientific literacy.”

As to the specific editing of evolution related content in the Science Standards by our BOE, evolution-related concepts having precise, testable definitions were retained. Thus, Mendelian genetics, DNA structure and variability, mutations in DNA, natural selection and genetic drift were all retained. Evolution related content in the domain of historical reconstruction rather than experimental testing was generally removed, however. Historical science questions such as the age of the earth or whether dinosaurs evolved into birds cannot be experimentally tested in the manner of, say, whether a particular vaccine will prevent a disease. Such historical issues need to be treated more in the manner of a jury trial. Evidence is accumulated and alternative reasoned interpretations of the evidence explored. It was in the handling of these historical issues pertinent to current challenges to evolutionist orthodoxy that the Writing Committee lost sight of the right of all students to think critically and consider alternative explanations. They did not wish to admit interpretations of scientific data other than evolutionist ones. The BOE sought to correct this situation, and, so, amended the document.

In conclusion, the single most important science-education principle is the one that encourages students to “identify assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations.” In its zeal to promote a naturalistic, evolutionist philosophy, the Writing Committee failed to facilitate the application of this compelling secular interest precisely where it is most essential, to historical science constructions regarding the origin of life and the universe not subject to experimental verification. Therefore, the Kansas BOE was both courageous and correct in its actions. All of Kansas should be grateful to them.

Dr. Ackerman is an assistant professor of psychology at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas.

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