On Monday, the Brainerd School Board got a comprehensive and fairly routine presentation on the high school’s new biology curriculum. The course was to be “grounded in the belief that all students can and should be scientifically literate,” and it would cover topics like biochemistry, cells, DNA, and evolution.
But after the presentation was over, Board Chair Sue Kern had a question.
“Darwin’s theory [of evolution] was done in the mid-1800s, and it’s never been proven,” she said. “So I’m wondering why we’re still teaching it.”
Science teacher Craic Rezac and director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha did their best to explain. It’s true: By definition, a theory is something that has yet to be “proven.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a haphazard guess. Genetics, DNA, fossil evidence all back up Darwin's ideas. There’s been no credible evidence to give us reason to doubt it.
But Kern still had concerns.
“And then, with regard to your Christian students—how do you do that?” Kern asked. “Because they’re taught not to agree with that.”
Rezac said he wasn’t out there to disprove Christian belief. He personally thinks you don’t have to choose between faith and science, that you can “embrace both.” But: “This is science, and science doesn’t deal with belief. We deal with facts.”
Kern didn’t respond to interview requests, so it’s hard to know if she found Rezac and Murtha’s case compelling. But after the Brainerd Dispatch posted an article about the exchange on Facebook, commenters had their own ideas.
“How can someone serve as an educational leader and hold such uneducated views?” one asked.
“Get your religion out of my school!” another said.
“Hold a new school board election ASAP,” a third demanded.
It’s easy to wonder how someone who denies science can gain power in the world of education. Then again, it should be noted that some of those Facebook commenters were on Kern’s side, calling evolution a “lie” being “peddled” to kids, and demanding it be taught alongside creationism so students can “decide for themselves what they believe.”
There are plenty of Kerns out there. In 2011, a national survey of more than 900 public high school biology teachers discovered that only 28 percent consistently taught evolution. Thirteen percent spent at least an hour in their classrooms presenting creationism in a positive light.
In a New York Times article about the results, University of Minnesota biology professor Randy Moore was depicted as being “unsurprised.”
“Creationists are in the classroom, and not just in the South,” he says. “At least 25 percent of high school teachers in Minnesota explicitly teach creationism.”
That was a few years ago, but Donald Trump's pick of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary should tell us there’s been little—if any—improvement.
The DeVos family has long supported a flagrantly anti-science evangelical group called Focus on the Family, along with other fundamentalist Christian organizations. Many of them see DeVos’ power as an opportunity to push their agendas.
“Mrs. DeVos will work toward ensuring parents and educators have a powerful voice at the local level on multiple issues,” Focus on the Family policy analyst Candi Cushman told ProPublica, “Including science curriculum.”
So it’s no wonder Brainerd’s biology program has a special focus on “scientific literacy.” Now more than ever, we need it.