Don't automatically defer to biologists when it comes to the curriculum

Don't automatically defer to biologists when it comes to the curriculum
Perry Glanzer and Wesley Null, BAYLOR UNIVERSITY - Austin American Statesman - 10/6/2008 - original
When it comes to teaching about biology and religion, Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, recently claimed, "It's time for the State Board of Education to listen to experts instead of promoting their own personal and political agendas." Of course, this means that the State Board of Education should stop listening to the Texas Freedom Network, which clearly has its own political and ideological agenda.

If Quinn is right, however, to whom should the board turn for expertise? Some state biologists claim they know the most about this interdisciplinary relationship, but they are wrong. Why should we trust biologists over religion professors, curriculum professors and others who spend their lives studying and teaching these subjects? We can think of many good reasons not to trust biologists on matters of religion and curriculum. A recent statement by a biologist affiliated with the 21st Century Science Coalition highlights a problem with listening to "experts" who are out of their specialized field. Speaking of the relationship between religion and curriculum, that biologist said, "It's time to keep religion and faith in the Sunday schools and not in the public schools." That position is a view that many legal, religious and educational experts outright reject.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." Furthermore, many educational groups including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development issued statements acknowledging that "schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education."

Of course, most biologists with the 21st Century Science Coalition, excluding the one quoted above, might agree with these statements. What they probably reject is the inclusion of discussions about religion in biology texts and classes. As that biologist claimed, "We shouldn't be teaching the supernatural in science classrooms." Setting aside the false assertion that religion is nothing but the "supernatural," biologists still, however, have not established a persuasive educational argument as to why religion should be banned from discussions of science.

"The problem of religion and science cuts much deeper than the (often superficial) debate about evolution," said Warren A. Nord, a University of North Carolina philosopher and author of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum.

Nord added, "Indeed, the nature of this relationship has been one of the major intellectual problems of the modern world, and a vast literature of works by scientists, theologians and philosophers addresses it though the national science standards and science textbooks all but completely ignore it."

Perhaps when it comes to discussing the relationship between biology and religion, we need a referee from another discipline. In this case, we are more apt to trust philosophers than biologists who are unfamiliar with the history and philosophy of science.

Many questions remain unanswered by the biologists who seem most interested in trying to control curriculum. Why do biologists assume they are experts in curriculum when they are not? Why are biologists afraid to broach the exciting intellectual problems surrounding the relationship between faith and science? Why not discuss the history of biology as a discipline and how the field's approach to this problem has evolved over time? Why not discuss with students why biologists tend to operate within a naturalistic framework, including the benefits and limitations of the framework?

Until these questions are addressed persuasively by biologists, state leaders need to look to a broad range of university specialists to find the leadership necessary to provide a well-rounded, liberating education to all Texas students.

Glanzer is a professor in the School of Education and the Institute for Church and State at Baylor University. Null is a professor of curriculum and foundations of education.