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A Theocracy of the Mind

I had to take an oral exam for my Spanish class recently. One of the questions—designed to test my knowledge of the superlative—was “¿Cuál es la mejor revista de los Estados Unidos?” My answer was, “El New Yorker.”

I really do think it’s the best magazine in America—better than The Atlantic, better even than Us Weekly. Margaret Talbot’s piece on Kitzmiller v. Dover in the December 5 issue was just the kind of writing I have learned to expect from this fine periodical. For one thing, it was gorgeously written. Talbot is a great storyteller with a good eye for compelling characters. More importantly, though, she makes it very clear that the movement to teach intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution in schools is about more than teaching “both sides of the issue.”

One thing Talbot points out in her article is that, regardless of what some proponents of intelligent design might actually believe—and regardless of what they want the rest of us to believe they believe—intelligent design and creationism were fundamentally interchangeable for leading members of the Dover school board. Their objections to Darwin were religious, rather than scientific, and they regarded intelligent design as a way to get God—their own particular Christian God—into public schools. Talbot describes the situation in Talbot, and the birth of intelligent design, in this Q&A.

This underscores the basic problem with teaching intelligent design in science classes: Intelligent design is not science. This is not my judgment; this is a simple fact. Science is a naturalistic system, one fueled by observation and experimentation and guided by empirical reasoning. Intelligent design isn’t science because there’s no way to test its hypotheses. As Talbot reports, the defenders of intelligent design admit as much.

To teach intelligent design in a biology classroom requires a paradigm shift; basically, it requires the substitution of a system of belief for a system of knowledge. Many of the supporters of intelligent design know this, and they approve. Talbot’s story includes an anecdote about a Dover civics teacher who wrote to the school board asking, facetiously, if they had any advice for someone preparing to teach students about the Supreme Court. The head of the school board replied that they were planning to update the social studies curriculum next.

Obviously, the fight for intelligent design is about more than evolution. It’s about more than biology or the sciences in general. The New York Times recently ran a couple of articles about Christian high schools and their struggles to get their courses recognized by state universities. Basically, the universities are arguing that Christ-centered pedagogy might be good catechism, but it’s seldom good American history or English lit. One of these articles includes excerpts from some disputed textbooks, and it’s not too hard to see that the universities have a point. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, published by Bob Jones University:

Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.

This critique of Emily Dickinson looks a lot like the critique of Mark Twain included in the same text, and they both resemble criticism of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives found in United States History for Christian Schools, also from Bob Jones University.

The educational worldview presented by these textbooks is one in which God is the right answer—the only right answer—to every possible question. There is nothing here to foster real critical thinking or problem-solving. There’s no room for creativity or indepent ideas. Faith, in the form of received wisdom, takes the place of actual thought. It’s chilling to imagine public schools in which this might be the educational norm, and it’s heartening to know that all the Dover school board members who voted for the anti-evolution speech were voted out of office in the last election.

December 8, 2005 | Permalink

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