The state of Tennessee versus the theory of evolution
One former student’s experience with science education in the Volunteer State
I should probably go ahead and state my numerous biases right now. I am a product of the public school system in Knoxville, Tenn., my father is a biological anthropologist, and I am firmly opposed to the pro-creationism bill that was just passed back home.
The law, for those of you not following state politics in Tennessee, protects public school science teachers that want to bring creationism into their classrooms by “teaching the controversy” when explaining evolution. The various reasons the law is a terrible idea have been enumerated all over the web, and I could go into it here, but I’ll spare you.
Because this is not an apology for the idiocy of an overly conservative and scientifically illiterate state legislature. No, this is a love letter to my home.
Now when I say “love,” I’m not necessarily talking about the good kind. Actually, love is downright awful most of the time. When you love something, you can simultaneously feel frustrated by it yet desperate for the comfort of it anyway. That’s what Tennessee is for me. I hated it most of the time I was there, but as soon as I moved to New York City last August, I knew that as hard as I fought against it, Tennessee had already shaped me.
One of my most vivid memories from my teenage years was when my father was uninvited from visiting my honors biology class because he was planning on talking about human evolution. I became indignant. I was pissed. I was so pissed that I gave my teacher a two page mean-hearted evaluation full of teenage angst that embarrasses me to this day.
Science classrooms in Tennessee — at least from my experience — only graze the surface of what biology means. Without evolution, one of the most fundamental scientific principles, science on this planet makes little sense. Sure, we talked about horse evolution during that honors biology course, but what does that mean if we can’t relate it to our own history?
Without understanding that we, as humans, have been molded by natural selection throughout our thousands of years of history on this planet — just as every other animal that came before us — biology only serves as taxonomy. Instead of seeing the elegance of a theory like evolution — which explains our place on the “tree of life,” — Tennessee high schoolers just get a cursory, shallow look at the one binding thread in all of the biological sciences.
What I’m trying to say is that just because this law was passed doesn’t mean that science in the classroom will be any worse than it already is.
It might allow some teachers to more overtly bring their personal beliefs into the classroom, sure. But let’s be honest, if a science teacher wants to talk about religion, they will find a way. They don’t even have to talk about God; they can just water down accepted scientific principles until they don’t mean a thing. They did it in my honors biology course, I’m sure they’re doing it now, and this bill will allow them to continue to sew those seeds of ignorance indefinitely.
All that said, the fact of the matter is that Tennessee is not the ignorant backwoods state that our legislature would lead you to believe it is. My state is home to some of the most brilliant, scientifically literate people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I firmly believe that if students are given the chance to understand exactly what evolution is, without any of the overly political framing that seeps into our classrooms, they won’t be frightened by it. They might even be in awe of it.
I do, however, wish I could offer some sort of alternative to this somewhat insane problem. The best solution I can think of is more schooling, yet I’m all too aware that a university education is a luxury that not many people in my state can afford. I could tell you to go out and lobby the legislature, but that probably won’t do much. Our senators and congressmen aren’t very open to scientific principles or any ideas that support higher education spending.
In my mind, the only thing that could reverse this ignorance is a grassroots effort focused on bringing true scientific understanding to everybody. I don’t know if something like this exists, as of right now, but I’d love to find out.
All I ask is this: if this post speaks to you in any way, don’t give in to apathy. Find a way to show all those high school students what they’ve been missing.