Physical anthropologist and evolution expert Dr. Eugenie C. Scott emphatically believes the Tennessee General Assembly should drop bills regarding the allowing of religious and politically motivated statements in public middle- and high-school classrooms.
And because politics is involved, Scott looks for the legislature to pass them.
“These bills are a bad idea pedagogically. They’re a bad idea legally,” said Scott, who has been in Murfreesboro and at MTSU today, awaiting tonight’s Scholars Week keynote address titled "Controversy over the Teaching of Evolution."
“The best thing would be for these bills to be withdrawn and forgotten about," she said. "And it looks like they are going to pass.”
In her comments, Scott referenced Tennessee HB0368 and SB0893 that, as introduced, “protects a teacher from discipline for teaching scientific subjects in an objective manner.” As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, no action had been taken on the bills at the state capitol.
Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif. She has been both a researcher and an activist in the creationism and evolution controversy for more than 25 years.
By coincidence with her appearance at MTSU — where she met and talked to students in biology and philosophy classrooms in the morning, had a mid-afternoon session with media and then was awaiting an hour-long presentation in front of students, faculty and staff and people from the surrounding community — her center’s website (http://ncse.com/) homepage highlighted Tennessee twice.
“These bills are part of a group of bills called Academic Freedom Acts that have been making the rounds for about the last five, six, seven years,” Scott said. “There’s about 40 of them that have been proposed in various state legislatures, including here in Tennessee.”
“What these bills do is provide a backdoor way for creationism to be taught,” she added. “They are couched in terms of critical thinking, they’re couched in terms of very user-friendly ideas importance of student critically analyzing or engaging with the data. Everybody thinks that’s fine.
She said the trouble revolves around the history of the bills and how the two evolved.
"They evolved to the response of illegal decisions that have curtailed the teaching of creation, creationism and intelligent design in the public schools," she said. "And they are an effort to duck under the First Amendment and see if they can’t legally encourage teachers to bring them into the classroom.”
Scott definitely is not sold on the legislators’ thought process.
“This is a very bad idea,” she said. “It’s bad for the science education of Tennessee students. It’s bad for the competitiveness of Tennessee. These are the other states where students are getting standard science, and not politicized science like this. And it’s also unconstitutional. Our public schools should be religiously neutral. Whatever your religious view or no religious view at all, you should feel free to come and not be proselytized by somebody else’s sectarian religious views."
And as far as the politics of it all, Scott said it’s the public school teachers who are caught in the middle.
“The creation and evolution issue is a culture war issue,” she said. “And it’s being played out on the backs of high-school and middle-school teachers. They shouldn’t be made to bear that burden. If you want to argue about science, fine. Do it outside the science classroom. A science classroom should be a place where kids learn basic science that isn’t being turned inside out because some state school board members are trying to satisfy political constituencies. It’s just gravely unfair to do that.”