Skip to site content

‘Teaching the Controversy’ Over Evolution Could Be Disastrous

“Teach the controversy” is the latest battle-cry in the never-ending war over the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Is this a blow for academic freedom? Or a back-door maneuver to get religion into the science classroom?

Welcome to the latest chapter in a conflict that has gripped America since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Last month the Cobb County, Ga., school board voted to encourage discussion of “disputed views” in science—including the study of the origin of species.

This month a state school board panel in Ohio recommended science standards that urge teachers to examine “competing theories” to evolution.

At first hearing, opening science classrooms to a variety of viewpoints sounds straightforward and reasonable—an argument for freedom to learn. But opponents (including most science educators) charge that these efforts are little more than a Trojan horse for religion. Evolutionary theory, they maintain, is so well established in science that allowing competing “theories” in the classroom would be like teaching astrology as an alternative to astronomy.

Proponents of alternatives to the prevailing theory of evolution—young-Earth creationists, old-earth creationists, “intelligent design” advocates and others—answer that they just want to open up the scientific debate, not promote religion. They’re convinced that if their views are given a hearing, much of evolutionary theory as currently presented in textbooks will be exposed as false and misleading.

Who’s right? Many Americans are quick to line up on one side or another—but often without understanding the complexity of the debate or the scientific arguments at stake. That’s why so many school boards adopt resolutions pro or con, and then hope the brouhaha will die away.

But “teach the controversy” school-board resolutions are meaningless—even dangerous—because most science teachers aren’t prepared to tackle this debate. As a result, we’re likely to get teachers dismissing the “other side” (as if there were only two)—or, worse, pushing a religious or ideological agenda.

If school boards are really serious about fostering “critical thinking” and promoting “tolerance and acceptance of a diversity of opinion” (as one Cobb County board member put it), then they must prepare teachers to teach about the debate in ways that are accurate, fair, informed—and grounded in good science.

A good first step toward sorting out these issues—and maybe figuring out how to handle this conflict in the classroom—is to understand what people on all sides are trying to say. Fortunately, a new book from Oxford University Press does just that. Written by journalist Larry Witham, Where Darwin Meets the Bible is the best one-stop account of who’s who (and what’s what) in the “creation-evolution” conflict.

Witham does what people in this fight rarely do: He listens. The result is a perceptive and balanced insight into the many—not just two—positions in the origins debate.

Read this book and weep for schools. The battle lines are so firmly drawn that the struggle over what we teach (or don’t teach) about evolution is here to stay. People on all sides are deeply convinced of the rightness of their views—and the wrongness of all others.

Is there any way forward?

Maybe, but not without doing our homework. It makes no sense to mandate teaching complex and controversial discussions in classrooms without providing resources to help teachers get it right.

First, make sure that science teachers understand the latest scientific evidence for evolution, including the arguments among evolutionists about how evolution occurs. Then make sure teachers know something about critics of the prevailing view. Teachers can (and should) let kids in on the controversy – that’s what education is all about—but only if they fully understand what the controversy is all about.

It would also help if science teachers were clear about the limits of science. To cite an example, when Carl Sagan pronounced that “the universe is all there was, all there is, and all there ever will be,” he was making a faith statement—not a scientific observation. Science education must avoid making metaphysical or religious claims in the guise of science.

But no matter how well-prepared science teachers are to help students understand the debate about origins, they can’t possibly do justice in the science classroom to the various worldviews—religious and nonreligious—that should be discussed somewhere in the curriculum.

Moreover, big questions, such as the relation of religion and science, implications of science for morality, and ethical dilemmas posed by modern technology, can’t be adequately addressed in the crowded science curriculum. For students to consider those questions, we’ll need courses in philosophy, ethics and religion. Few public schools today offer them, even as electives.

Was any of this discussed in Cobb County or in Ohio? Probably not. But without real curriculum reform and more teacher education, “teach the controversy” is a recipe for confusion and conflict.

There are no winners in this battle. But there are losers. By failing to agree on how to teach fairly and critically the philosophical, moral, scientific and religious issues that confront our society, we fail our students. They lose. We all lose.

Charles Haynes is senior scholar and director of education programs at the FirstAmendmentCenter. Reprinted with permission from