Academic Freedom Laws

September 5th, 2013

Legislating Academic Freedom

As public schools across the United States begin a new year, many people are paying attention to science classes. Several states have recently seen the introduction—and, in Louisiana and Tennessee, the adoption—of legislation that supporters say ensures teachers’ and students’ academic freedom. These laws’ detractors, however, argue that such measures are unnecessary and detrimental.

The Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law in 2008, directs the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to “allow and assist” the creation of an environment “that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The LSEA requires teachers to present information from “the standard textbook supplied by the school system,” then authorizes them, with local educational authorities’ permission, to use “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.”

The LSEA was one model for Tennessee’s academic freedom bill. It passed that state’s legislature and became law, without Governor Bill Haslam’s signature, last April. It prevents the prohibition of the objective critique and review of the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories . . . such as evolution and global warming,” and requires help for teachers to “find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.”

Proposed academic freedom bills have been appearing on state legislative agendas as early as 2004. As of late June, according to journalist Colin Daileda, “2013 has already seen 11 bills introduced in nine states across the country, the most widespread [such] legislation has been in a single year.” Bills were introduced in Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Arizona in January of this year alone. While several of those bills have been tabled or have died in committee, more legislatures may soon address the issue. Pennsylvania state representative Stephen Bloom, for instance, currently seeks cosponsors for such a measure. “In the real world,” he says, “outside of academia, scientific theory is up for all kinds of argument. I don’t think it’s right to exclude any particular kind of argument prima facie.”

Raising Religious Questions?

When Tennessee’s law was being debated, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) explained, “Encouraging critical thinking is great. The problem is when you apply that critical thinking to the way this bill is written, all anyone seems to want to talk about is pitching evolution against creationism. That’s not something for the science class, [but] that might be something for a comparative religion class.”

Rosenau refers to long-standing controversies between people who hold differing views of how life, including human life, began and developed. The theory of evolution does not address God’s role in life’s origins. Many Christians contend it conflicts with belief in God as Creator. Other people hold that evolution alone cannot account for life’s complexity, and posit some intelligent agent who designed life’s development.

Opponents of academic freedom laws charge the legislation attempts to raise religious questions that have no place in the objective study of empirical evidence. They point to the National Academy of Sciences’ conclusion that “creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science. These claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief.”

Critics also highlight court precedents against such statutes. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the Supreme Court found a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of “creation-science” alongside “evolution-science” did “not further its stated secular purpose of ‘protecting academic freedom’ ” but sought instead “to restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint.” In Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005), a federal court found that intelligent design’s “religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer” and that its required teaching in public schools is unconstitutional.

Advocates of academic freedom laws respond that today’s laws avoid past problems. The LSEA reads that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.” Tennessee’s law includes similar language, following model legislation prepared by the educational policy think tank Discovery Institute (see the sidebar on page 3). Joshua Youngkin, a Discovery Institute lawyer, argues these laws protect “teachers who introduce cutting-edge science—not religion—in their teaching.”

Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and researcher writing in support of Tennessee’s law for the Christian apologetics ministry Answers in Genesis, makes the further point that forcing public school teachers “to teach creation . . . would be counter-productive: the creation science position would likely be taught poorly by many evolutionary instructors. We are pleased to see the new law does not promote such an idea.”

Teach the Controversy?

In a 2009 poll conducted by marketing and public relations firm Zogby International, 80 percent of respondents agreed that “teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory.” Supporters of academic freedom laws often refer to such an approach as “teaching the controversy.” Discovery Institute’s Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, for example, praises the pedagogy: “Teaching the controversy about Darwinism as it exists in the scientific community will engage student interest. It will motivate students to learn more about the biological evidence as they see why it matters to a big question. This is not only good teaching; it is good science.”

According to many scientists, however, it is neither. “Scientifically speaking,” says Josh Rosenau, “evolution is just not controversial. To talk about the strengths and weaknesses of it assumes that there are legitimate scientific weaknesses that are appropriate for . . . high school science classes. And there just aren’t.”

While evolution is a “theory,” scientists use that term in a formal sense, to mean “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well-established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially” (National Academy of Sciences). Opponents of academic freedom laws insist that the controversies such laws’ supporters want taught are religious, cultural, or political, but not scientific. Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch of the NCSE argue, “Although ‘teaching the controversy’ sounds fair, it is unfair to pretend to students that a controversy exists in science where none does. It is unfair to students to miseducate and confuse them about the nature of the scientific process. . . . [Anti-evolutionists] already have an equal playing field—the field of science. They can submit their ideas to journals, and get peer reviewed, and if their ideas are any good they’ll make it into the scientific canon, and make it down into the high schools.”

Conflicting or Complementary?

Should Christians be concerned about how public schools teach science? Undeniably, many people of faith are, since they see evolutionary theory as contradicting, if not attacking, faith in God. Dr. Mitchell, for instance, exhorts “Christian parents and churches to re-double their efforts to teach not only critical thinking skills but also the truth of the Bible as God’s Word. Students need to be taught that the Bible is consistent with science both at church and at home while learning to critique conventional textbook content at school.”

Other Christians, however, perceive no conflict between conventional science textbook content and faith. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012, for example, affirms the validity of science: “We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.” It suggests a different reason Christians should care about science education: “Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together” (¶ 160.F).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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