One of the most basic questions that children ask is, ”Where did we come from?” In science education policy, however, the more relevant question is, how do we best prepare our teachers to answer the student who inquires about our origins and the origin of other living things? The answer is at the heart of a contentious debate regarding the teaching of evolution in the science classroom.
Why is there such a controversy as to how science education policy should require students to learn about evolution? For one, biological evolution, the theory that all living things are modified descendants of a common ancestor, relies heavily on the sensitive philosophical belief that evolutionary change can give rise to new species, and can explain the origin of all living things. Furthermore, evolution is a theory that deals with ancient and unrepeatable events. This should warn us to teach Darwinian evolution or any theory of origins with proper modesty and humility, since we’ll never really be certain about the cause of many events in the history of life.
Charles Darwin wrote about his theory of evolution at a time when evidence was weak. In recent years, evidence of the complex circuits, miniature machines, sophisticated feedback loops, and digital information inside the cell has enabled scientists to poke holes in the principle evidence used to support evolution and therefore, more and more respected biologists are entering the debate as to the plausibility of evolution.
For these reasons, Darwin’s theory of evolution should not be taught as absolute fact in the science classroom. Instead, it should be taught as the leading and dominant scientific theory explaining the origin of species, but also as a theory subject to significant limitations, failed predictions and important criticisms. We should encourage schools to teach better science and to teach more about evolution, including the gaps and controversies surrounding evolution. We should not be afraid to teach children what we know and what we have not yet discovered in science, and we should certainly not deny our children the truth about controversies surrounding science. By teaching the controversy, we remain true to science and yet sensitive to the ideas and interests of parents and children.
How have we equipped our teachers to discuss the controversy in biology without straying from the scientific issues into religion or philosophy? In 2001, I offered an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act concerning science education. The amendment expressed the sense of the Senate ”that good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science. Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and prepare them to be informed participants in public discussions.”
My amendment serves as a guide for those implementing education policy. It does not force schools to teach a certain curriculum. In the science classroom, public schools should not teach intelligent design and they should certainly not teach biblical creationism. Rather, my amendment encourages educators to help students distinguish theory from fact.
On June 13, 2001, the Senate approved my amendment by an overwhelming, bipartisan vote of 91-8 and the amendment was included in the conference report accompanying the No Child Left Behind Act.
It is not the role of the federal government to dictate the content of local school curriculum, but there are many disturbing aspects of our understanding of ”science” in our schools, culture, and academic community today. Not even Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia could resist talking about it: ”It is important that students be exposed not only to the theory of evolution, but also to the context in which it is viewed by many in our society. I think, too often, we limit the best of our educators by directing them to avoid controversy and to try to remain politically correct. If students cannot learn to debate different viewpoints and to explore a range of theories in the classroom, what hope have we for civil discourse beyond the schoolhouse doors?”
Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts also endorsed my amendment on the Senate floor stating, ”We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all of the information that is available to them.” In short, the conviction that students should be taught alternate scientific points of view, no matter how controversial, is not a conservative or liberal position; rather it is a pro-education, pro-learning position that champions excellence in the classroom. On that day in the Senate, we voted in support of academic freedom in the science classroom.
The public supports this position, as well. For instance, national opinion surveys show that Americans overwhelmingly desire to have students learn the scientific arguments against, as well as for, Darwin’s theory. A 2001 Zogby poll shows that 71 percent of Americans believe that ”biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.” A 2004 Steinberg Poll showed 73 percent of California voters believe that biology teachers in public schools should teach the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory.
Recently, the Dover Area School District in York County, updated its biology curriculum in an attempt to create a more balanced approach to teaching evolution. A statement regarding the status of evolutionary theory and the existence of alternative theories will be read to all students when evolution is studied in high school biology. Additionally, students will be able to voluntarily view reference books in the library that present a variety of cutting-edge scientific views both supporting and opposing Darwinian theory. The Dover Area School District has taken a step in the right direction by attempting to teach the controversy of evolution.
At the end of the day, we should let the scientific evidence lead where it leads, allowing students to decide what they believe based on the evidence presented. Our children deserve the best education possible; this includes being taught to distinguish and compare competing scientific theories. The debate about the scientific truth of Darwinism should not be taken lightly, and our educational system should treat it with the importance it deserves.
Rick Santorum, a Republican, is Pennsylvania’s junior U.S. Senator.