Creationism isn’t innocuous

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 13:12 EDT
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I have to admit, I’m boggled at Kevin Drum’s reaction to the news that nearly half of Americans are young Earth creationists, with the God-guides-evolution people being the second largest group, and the people who actually accept evolutionary theory only making up 15% of the population.* He completely misreads the situation and frankly does so in a way that I personally felt thrown under the bus. 

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.

And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

Kevin takes it as a given that fights over what’s taught in high school are strictly about symbolism and have no real importance. I suspect that’s a much easier view to take if you’re the beneficiary  of a good public school in a blue area or lucky enough to have gone through or been able to put your own kids through private school. For someone who went to a rural high school in Texas, the notion that high school doesn’t matter strikes me as ridiculous in the extreme. 

The reason conservatives target high schools (and junior high schools and elementary schools) isn’t because they’re playing peanuts. On the contrary, conservatives understand something liberals don’t, which is that if you get people while they’re young, you usually have them for life. This is also, incidentally, why conservatives pay more attention to pop culture than liberals. Liberals are great people—I’m one of them!—but we have a tendency towards preening individualism and therefore discount the importance of things like what’s in the classroom and what’s on TV because we personally feel we’re iconoclasts who aren’t affected by it. Which can, as in this case, cause us to neglect to remember that in fact this is the air most people breathe, and the quality of that air matters. Kevin takes the “it doesn’t matter to me, so it doesn’t matter” mentality to a rather startling extreme:

But you know what? I could spend an entire day arguing politics and economics and culture with a conservative and never so much as mention evolution. It’s just not that important, and it doesn’t tell us much of anything about our widening political polarization.

Well, most people spend about as much time thinking about politics and economics as Kevin does biology. What Kevin Drum spends his time on isn’t really a good measure for what’s important to teach in schools.

I think what Kevin has forgotten here is that public schools teach more than the C students. They also teach the A students. And if a student who is college-bound doesn’t have access to a real biology education in high school, that’s going to impact her entire educational career. PZ Myers has more:

The evolution statistic does have epic significance. If kids were graduating from high school unable to read or do basic arithmetic, we’d see that as a serious indictment of our educational system…and we’d be right to worry about our future as a technological society…..

One is that it’s nice to be able to American biology departments and medical research and say they’re doing fine, and it’s true that we have excellent opportunities for advanced research, but it’s our public schools that fill the pipeline leading to those places. Look in our research labs, and what will you see? Swarms of Chinese students. I have no objection to that, but think long term: most of those students will go home to build careers there, not here. Students who do not get the basics of science are handicapped when it comes to progressing up the academic ladder, so sure, let’s knee-cap our student base by telling them all that the most minimal, trivial understanding of an entire large discipline isn’t actually all that important. Where are our future American biologists going to come from, then?

Well, if creationism is unimportant, then I guess they’re all coming from private schools and a handful of wealthy public schools in blue areas populated with already privileged parents. 

PZ adds that we need even people who don’t have careers in science to understand science, which is increasingly important to being a basic citizen. I agree with that, but I also think it’s critically important to remember that public schools are about more than creating basic literacy across a population. They’re also—or should be, anyway—about giving students who have merit but not means the opportunity to better themselves. When conservatives pillage the science courses at a high school, they’re essentially killing off the potential careers in science of every student who might have talent in that school, or nearly all of them anyway. (Sure, there’s always an outlier genius who manages anyway, but that isn’t something to build a society on.) This is why conservatives are attacking high schools, by the way. The end goal is to make schools outside of the bubble of privilege so ineffective that the dream of class mobility is ended. 

Look at the courses they are most interested in attacking: science, history, and health education. A good science education or a good history education is exactly the sort of thing that can inspire a kid to go into the sciences or the humanities when they go to college, because their imagination  has been turned on by learning that there’s more to this world than what they immediately see. I can speak from experience; my high school biology course didn’t teach evolution. Without evolution, biology actually doesn’t make sense, and instead it’s just an anatomy class. Dissecting cats and labeling pictures of flowers is passing the time, and not really education. I had no idea how fascinating biology actually was until I was an adult, and long past any chance of starting on that as a career path. Not that I think I would, but you can easily see someone like me making that choice as a young woman, but not really being able to because I was never offered that option in a realistic sense to begin with. That’s the hope of these kinds of educational attacks, to keep the high school curriculum in most public schools dull and meaningless, so that students aren’t inspired and end up staying home instead of pursuing bigger dreams. 

And in case the dulling of their minds doesn’t work, forced pregnancy will, which is why conservatives are intent on getting anti-contraception propaganda into the schools. Get ‘em knocked up and married by 19, and they won’t be going anywhere. Teach ‘em in high school that the North started the Civil War and at least you have the white portion of the working class as Republicans voting their racial resentments. Until you put the obsession with creationism into the larger picture, I can see that maybe it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. But in reality, creationism in schools is about inequality, and specifically targeting rural schools for education programs that keep the students uneducated and stuck in their lives. So whether or not evolution comes up in one’s routine Twitter debates with conservatives is interesting and all, but not really the point here. 

*Worth pointing out that’s roughly the same percentage of people who identify as non-religious in this country. I wonder how complete the overlap is; it would have to be pretty strong, wouldn’t it?

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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