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Creationism's Latest Mutation
Red-herring arguments about 'academic freedom' can't be allowed to undermine the teaching of evolution.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NO ONE would think it acceptable for a teacher to question the existence of gravity or to suggest that two plus two equals anything but four. It's mystifying, then, that a movement to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology is attracting some support. Equally perverse is that this misguided effort is being advanced under the false guise of academic freedom.

Bills that would protect teachers critical of the findings of Charles Darwin appeared in five states this year, and legislators in others are said to be considering similar moves. Florida came perilously close to inviting creationism back into the classroom, but its legislative session ended before different versions of its bill could be reconciled. Supporters say they will be back. It's all part of a national movement emboldened by a new film from writer and actor Ben Stein that purports to speak out for free expression by educators.

What's insidious about these measures is that at first blush they appear so harmless. Isn't everyone in favor of academic freedom? What's so wrong about allowing all sides of an issue to be heard? Why should teachers be punished for speaking their minds? Those arguments might have standing if there were any doubt about the reality of evolution, but, as an official with the National Academy of Sciences told the Wall Street Journal, "There's no controversy." Consider, also, that there really is no such thing as academic freedom in elementary and secondary education. A teacher can't deviate from the accepted curriculum to present alternative lesson plans or to offer his or her own notions. The Florida teachers association opposed the bills, though ostensibly they are meant to benefit educators. Clearly, the strategy is to devise an end run around legal decisions -- going all the way to the Supreme Court -- that restrict the teaching of creationism in public classrooms.

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