Freedom and Grace in Tennessee
Towards the end of the last school year, the Tennessee legislature passed the Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act, a law that became more popularly known as the “Monkey Bill.” I was doing research in a Tennessee high school biology classroom the morning that I learned that the bill had passed, and as the teacher informed her uninterested class about the details, she made the comment that we are "devolving" in the great state of Tennessee instead of "evolving." As a Christian, a biologist, and a soon-to-be educator, I was inclined to agree.
In Tennessee and across the country, many others weighed in on the subject over the next few weeks, including two essays (here and here) on the BioLogos Forum. But soon after that, other issues crowded that story off the front page. Now, though, teachers and students across my state are returning to science classrooms, and we will all get to see what effect the law has in practice. Again speaking as a Christian, a biologist, and educator and drawing on all three of those perspectives, I’d like to offer my own reflections on the bill’s likely effect on Tennessee teachers and students, beginning with this excerpt from the bill itself:
The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy . . . The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. (Tennessee HB368 / SB893)
As an evangelical, I think this bill could be more detrimental than helpful to Christian teenagers’ faith. Many students who are particularly interested in the sciences and theory of evolution are already in the uncomfortable position of hearing pro-Intelligent Design doctrine from the pulpit on Sunday and then listening to their science teacher’s evolution instruction on Monday. I was one of those students—sitting in more than one congregation under pastors who were particularly antagonistic to the theory of evolution, and who made not-so-subtle comments that it cannot co-exist with authentic Christian faith. Having a keen interest in the sciences and wanting to explore the data so widely accepted by the scientific community, I felt confused and ostracized in my church. I wondered if I would have to choose between my faith and intellectual integrity. The church family I trusted clashed with the science that I also trusted, causing a near catastrophe for my faith. I am thankful to the few people who offered me grace, allowing for my questioning of some of what I heard in church without labeling me a heretic.
Though the conservative Christian community may view this bill as a “win for the faith,” it is actually a loss if it reinforces the idea that this is simply an issue of science vs. scripture. Evolution is central to modern biology; trust in the authority of the Scriptures is central to Christian faith. But this fight mentality between the two established communities is detrimental to our young teenagers who are seeking to grow in faith, but who cannot seem to reconcile scripture and scientific data. We need them to seek after that reconciliation, not be told it can’t be done. Whatever they are hearing from the pulpit, the science classroom should be the one place that students can learn science. Students may well emerge with bitterness towards the church for dismissing the evidence of evolution not only so quickly, but in what is so often a haughty and condescending manner. Worse yet, students may emerge with bitterness that they were forced to choose between faith and intellectual integrity. Is this really an all or nothing argument? Are the two truly diametrically opposed?
In my world, these two have reconciled, and they now co-exist in peace. It has been a very long road to get there and I could not have done it without both access to good data and the freedom to explore it. Having taught teenagers in an evangelical church for years and having observed in many biology classrooms as well, I know that many students are still struggling for this same reconciliation. That reconciliation is perhaps most easily attained when the seeking student is able investigate evolution in the science classroom without harassment from opposing religious forces. With this freedom, the student may very well realize that the fear that he/she may have regarding evolution is really just a fear of the unknown, and that it is possible to have intellectual integrity and to praise God for initiating and sustaining the evolutionary process.
In Tennessee’s science classrooms there are surely many teachers who begrudge being told that they must teach evolution, and who are relieved that they can now present it as a controversy and/or allow Intelligent Design as an alternative. They, too, will likely see this law as a “win.” But isn’t public science education is about giving students an accurate picture of the state of science, not about teachers’ philosophical opinions? As has been pointed out before, most Tennessee science teachers have not had the training to teach about religion or philosophy; they have been trained to teach about the basic principles of the biological world.
This bill may be particularly frustrating, then, to teachers who do simply want to teach science. From the many hours I’ve spent in secondary biology classrooms this year, I can say for sure that time is of the essence. Tennessee teachers have barely enough instructional time to cover what students must know to pass the end-of-course biology test required for graduation; they do not have extra time to spend covering material that is not science. I have seen classroom arguments over evolution’s feasibility that ate away precious instruction time and only left a greater rift between the two camps and no doubt, a frustrated teacher. News of the Intelligent Design movement’s success in creating political and legal controversy is misplaced content in the secondary biology classroom.
Furthermore, as it allows teachers to frame biological evolution in terms of “controversy”— something that is a topic for debate—this law will likely not result in students who are more engaged in understanding science, but instead, only in more confusion (and possibly antagonism) in the classroom. Educators welcome debate in many cases because debate encourages critical thinking that leads to “formal thought,” the Holy Grail of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. But the practice of science is about proposing hypotheses and testing the data, not primarily argumentation. And if the science community is not “debating” evolution, why should high school science students be debating evolution as part of their biology curriculum?
The bill is correct in stating that the purpose of science education is to “inform students about scientific evidence” and “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.” I certainly agree, though I question whether it needed to be legislated. Rather, my answer is: “Let’s actually do it!” Before bringing “debate” and “controversy” about scientific theories into the classroom, let’s instead teach our students about sound scientific practice; let’s give them opportunities to learn how to research and to employ the scientific method in everyday life. Let’s focus on teaching them about observing the indicators of climate change, the intricacies of DNA, conservation of ecosystems, and the principles of molecular and cell biology. Let’s give them the tools—specific to science— that help them think critically and work out problems, rather than undermining faith in those very practices and the community of people that uses them every day. Let’s not teach them to live in denial of the ordinary dependability of science, let’s not teach them to distrust scientists who have no interest in “debate,” but want to understand the world God made.
In Tennessee and elsewhere, let’s give both our students and those scientists the grace and support they need to merge authentic faith and intellectual integrity.