I once had an interaction with my high school physics teacher that has stuck with me ever since. During one of the weekly after school chats we’d have in her classroom, I wondered out loud why neither evolution nor the Big Bang theory was covered in the biology or physics curricula. My teacher explained to me that being in a town drenched in parochial ideology, there was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy covering the teaching of evolution. Science instructors were encouraged to not teach the subject and to only field questions when asked. While not surprising to me in light of the culture of my hometown — Ortonville, Mich. — it was infuriating to know that social pressure was pushing my science teachers to avoid evolution in their general science courses. No law was restricting them. The fear of becoming a social pariah was their only barrier to providing students with a scientifically complete education.
What is happening in my hometown is not an anomaly in the contemporary United States. A 2019 survey reported that only 67% of public high school biology teachers present Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the scientific consensus. This is an increase from past surveys, but still quite low given that the theory of evolution is one of the most championed theories in all of biology. One out of every three teachers is not portraying evolution by natural selection as the robust scientific theory that it is — a theory that has continuously been fortified with new evidence since it was first proposed. This presents obstacles to students who wish to further their science education at postsecondary institutions. More worrisome is that evolution denial propagates ignorance and scientific illiteracy — issues all the more pertinent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legal prohibitions on the public instruction of evolutionary theory have not endured, but teachers’ apprehension about teaching evolution as agreed-upon science indicates that traditionalist mores still weigh down the American public education system. Bans on teaching evolution in public schools are as old as the theory itself. One of the first major conflicts between scientific educators and conservative policymakers in U.S. history was the “Scopes monkey trial” of 1925. This legal case concerned a Tennessee public school teacher who taught evolutionary theory despite a Tennessee law prohibiting instruction of human evolution in any school that received state funding. The trial catalyzed the debate between creationism and evolutionary theory. From then on, legal challenges to the instruction of evolution and natural selection in public schools have been mounted by many Christian groups — usually those from evangelical traditions — with varying degrees of success.
Now, I cannot criticize those 1920s Tennessee creationist policymakers too virulently, as at that time evolution was not a majority-held belief among Christians nor society at large. But criticism is warranted for contemporary teachers and education boards who are still reluctant to teach evolutionary theory and natural selection in light of the now 160 years of evidence — including the crucial discovery of DNA and genes — that provide robust support for evolution. And while I understand that some regions of the country have intense negative social sanctions against anti-creationist rhetoric that can be hard for teachers to overcome, it is more important that teachers plan science curriculum around empirical observations than socially pressured, traditional beliefs.
This is not to say that learning about religious practice has no room in education — just that it does not belong in scientific curricula at the expense of silencing scientific facts. A more apt place would be in the domain of social studies, with an emphasis on the diversity of religious practice. But simply refusing to present evolutionary theory to students in their science courses promotes widespread ignorance and scientific illiteracy, two issues detrimental to a society that wishes to better itself. Denying students the knowledge that many biologists view as foundational to their discipline serves ideology much more than it serves education. If the American educational system is to ever become the best it can be, thorough vetting of educational policies has to be conducted. Creationism can be taught to students as one of many spiritual beliefs, but not as empirical fact. Censoring evolution in favor of creationism in public education not only sustains ignorance but is a violation of the civil liberties of freedom of religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, as the teaching of creationism as fact promotes a Christian-centric ideology within the walls of an institution of the state.
While the trend of uncensored scientific teaching is moving in the right direction, more teachers must embrace evolution by natural selection as a well-supported scientific theory instead of tacitly mentioning it or not even discussing the subject. Parts of the American education system are hell-bent on sustaining a pre-Scopes trial, evangelical worldview. Again, the pushback of 1920s creationists was not without warrant, as the debate over fundamentalism and modernity was in its infant stages. However, for teachers and education boards to still deny evolution in the 21st century is downright asinine. This will only lead to continued ignorance among the American public. If the United States wants to keep progressing, Americans must first reckon with the rejection of fact that is occurring within their educational institutions.
Benjamin Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.