January 17, 2008

Florida Creationists: Building the Educational Ghetto

From today's Florida Times-Union comes yet another story about the efforts of Creationists in North Florida to undermine sound science education. This ties into the previous entry regarding the horrendous state of Florida's public universities, too, but first here's what the article has to say:

Northeast Florida balks at evolution
School districts are objecting to a proposed change in science class.

School boards across Northeast Florida are objecting to Florida's proposed new science standards that would, for the first time in state history, require schools to teach that evolution is the backbone of all biological science.

The boards in St. Johns and Baker counties have unanimously passed resolutions urging the Florida Department of Education to back down from those new standards on evolution. The matter comes up tonight in Clay County, and Nassau and Putnam counties have similar resolutions pending.

Rural Taylor County, southeast of Tallahassee, was the first to approve a resolution on the matter, according to the state Department of Education. Baker was second and St. Johns third, on Tuesday night.

The Duval County School Board, which oversees the largest school system in the region, has not yet made a decision on the new science standards, said Chairwoman Betty Burney...

Some school superintendents say the resolutions reflect the religious nature of their constituents in Northeast Florida.

"Of course, the farther south you get, you don't see them necessarily embracing what we are saying," said Baker County Superintendent Paula Barton. "To be honest with you, we are a strong Christian community here, and once people here have gotten a hold of [the resolution], they've certainly given it strong support."

Nassau County Superintendent John Ruis said he is a strong believer in biblical creationism. The theory of evolution has many "holes" in it, he said - and presenting it as undisputed fact "is certainly contrary to the beliefs of many people, including myself."

Clay County's retiring superintendent, David Owens, said the state is "interfering" in what should be a local matter. Other theories on the origin of life should be presented along with evolution, he said.

"I believe in the separation of church and state, but I also believe there is important information available on both sides of [evolution]," he said. "To present it in just one way is wrong."

Other backers of the resolutions say it isn't their intent to introduce into classrooms beliefs such as creationism or intelligent design.

However, said Beverly Slough of the St. Johns County School Board: "If students bring up things like that, I think they should have a forum to discuss it if they want to."

Slough helped draft a resolution that passed by a 5-0 vote Tuesday. It asked the state to revise the science standards to "allow for balanced, objective and intellectually open instruction in regard to evolution, teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory rather than teaching evolution as dogmatic fact..."

If Florida approves the new science standards next month, school districts will have little choice but to follow them, said Slough from the St. Johns County board.

"Then we teach the standards as written, because that's what the law requires," she said.

Barton, from Baker County, was a little more defiant.

"We'll cross that bridge once we get there," she said.
Make no mistake, this is all about religious opposition to modern science — not just evolutionary biology. These people aren't even trying to disguise their motivation at this point. They're coming right out and saying that they're "strong believer(s) in biblical Creationism, as in the case of Nassau County Superintendent Ruis. Their opposition to teaching modern biology — for which evolutionary theory does, indeed, provide the unifying principles — is based on theological position and what they view as conservative politics. Clay County's David Owens protest that the state is interfering in what should be a local issue is nonsense; states set overall curricula as well as providing funding to school districts. That, however, is a key point to keep in mind and I'll touch back on it in a moment. Ruis' contention about "holes" in evolutionary theory tells us nothing more than that there are "holes" in Ruis' understanding of not only evolutionary theory but of how science works. That contention has been addressed so many times by so many people who actually know what they're talking about, unlike Ruis, that I see no reason to go over the same old Creationist canard yet again.

Here's where Owens' statement becomes revealing, though. People who don't want evolution taught in science classes, or at the very least want to squeeze time out of the teaching of legitimate science in favor of religious lessons, are the same people who vote for state legislators who want to remove government involvement in public education. Owens' contention that education standards should be set on a district-by-district basis is precisely the assertion that he, and other "strongly Christian" (in this context, those with a strong Fundamentalist bias) voters should elect representatives who don't make state oversight of education a priority.

These representatives, in turn, are exactly the same ones who make decisions about how much of a priority supporting Florida's public universities should be. It is this influence, in large part, that leads to a situation like that in the previous entry in which those very universities are going through a second round of monstrous budget cuts in just three months and contemplating laying off faculty and staff and otherwise eliminating the resources needed by students to have a good, and internationally competitive, education. When last I checked, Florida was still part of the United States, and so effectively "dumbing down" Florida effects all of us, whether we have our own degrees from a Florida university or not. Quite to the contrary in terms of Owens' ludicrous statement, then, the decay of Florida's educational system, from the primary level all the way to its universities, is a national problem. Taylor, Nassau and Putnam counties and the rest don't exist in some vacuum. What happens in those counties happens in America. As such, Americans need to be aware of it and think long and hard about what these people are doing not only to their counties, not only Florida, but to our nation.

It doesn't matter whether one thinks that their locale is a "Christian community." There is a reason that education standards need to be set by people who understand the subject matter being addressed by those standards. There is sound justification in having scientists and science educators set science education standards rather than leaving the job to carpet salesmen and lobbyists. The Constitution is the law of the land, not the Bible and not the charter of some southern school district headed by true-believers. Whatever one's religious beliefs, the public schools in one's home town are not to be used as centers of religious education. That's what church is for. Science gets taught in science class, not made-up stories about "holes" and ancient Near Eastern myths. That someone can balk at the fact that evolutionary theory doesn't posit supernatural causation for the beginning of the universe when, in fact, it makes no statements at all about any such thing only goes to reveal the profound ignorance that people making decisions about education in these places have. The whole point of having state-wide standards is to counter the spread of ignorance as if it were education.

Somehow, Florida needs to wake up and get rid of these people. If the people of that state want to be part of a free market in which their children must compete on a global stage requiring sound, modern education, things are going to have to change. As goes Florida, so goes America. The alternative, in the long run, is citizenship in a vassal state dominated by low-paying service sector jobs. It's becoming forever an intellectual and cultural backwater whose social and economic well-being rests in the hands of those who see it as nothing more than a resource to be exploited. That's the future that's being bargained for here, whether these people are capable enough of opening their eyes to see it or not. In fact, that's already the situation in much of this territory from which those who can't tell the difference between a scientific theory supported by overwhelming evidence from numerous independent lines of inquiry and a story at the beginning of a book that was written before Beowolf was a glimmer in some Norseman's eye.

These are the Floridian Creationists hell-bent on transforming the state, and the nation if they had their way, into an educational ghetto. They'll squeeze science out of science classes and have the walls of lecture halls crumbling to dust if that's what it takes to insure the preservation of their ideology. It's long past time to put a halt to their influence; just ask the people who run Florida's universities.

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