The state of Tennessee versus the theory of evolution

One former student’s experience with science education in the Volunteer State

The state of Tennessee versus the theory of evolution
[Image Credit: fanpop.com]

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.

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  1. As a student of the same high school, I firmly agree with you. The problem with taking action is that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed in your own experience, these decisions are being made by administrative staff and school boards– whose staff care to please students’ parents and their cultural/religious background– so much so they maintain their own ignorance and allow this ignorance to continue. I’m not sure how, without a strong union of some sort, teachers could fight back without fear of losing their jobs. As you stated, though, Tennessee has its educated citizens. Unfortunately, it is hard to speak up when you are immediately villified (even demonized) by the majority of the community.

    Here’s a piece I wrote as a high school student dealing with past ‘controversy’: http://my.hsj.org/schools/newspaper/tabid/100/view/frontpage/schoolid/3390/articleid/355446/the_myth_behind_creationism.aspx

    Lauren Krouse, April 14, 2012 at 10:04 am
  2. Thank you for your honest and eloquent rendering of the problem. I share your sentiments. Unfortunately, we are by far in the minority in this corner of the world and as such, our voices are seldom heard over the roar of the religious conservatives. Imagine trying to teach evolution in a state where politicians, school administrators, and parents challenge you at every turn. One parent even going so far as trying to have the textbook banned. Please understand that as science teachers we are as frustrated as you as we try to teach accepted scientific thought in a hostile climate.

    Jennifer Krouse, April 14, 2012 at 10:22 am
  3. I was also a product of the same high school, and I forget sometimes that my awesome Honor’s biology teacher was gone by the time your class came along. Having had a strictly public school educe nation, I am sometimes biased and want to defend it. Afterall, I love the biological sciences and agree that evolution is an amazing and elegant part of that. I want to defend it because the ideological part of me believes the promise of a free quality education for all children is an amazing and important idea that we should spend more time tarrying to build than dismantle and defund. I see myself as proof that you can get a quality public educe nation if you want one. But the practicle part of me does despair at times. Heck even my siblings couldn’t stay at our terrible middle school.

    Sarah Schneider, April 14, 2012 at 4:51 pm
  4. It is not the only tHing they bypass teaching. They teach about world war II, technically, but barely mention the holocaust much less go into detail. How can we learn from our past I’d we don’t know about it!!!

    Efrat, April 15, 2012 at 6:35 am
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