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Capitol crossroads: Academic challenges are relative in political realm

Updated: December 9, 2012 10:44PM



INDIANAPOLIS — When James Loewen wrote “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” the relatively famous critique of American history textbooks found in high school classrooms across the nation, he dedicated it to all the teachers who teach against the book.

If Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, an Auburn Republican, succeeds in pushing through his “truth in education” measure in the coming session, teachers would be protected from sanctions if they teach against the established scientific principle of evolution.

“I am going to have a different approach,” he said. “I think I would call it truth in education, so students can question what teachers are teaching them and try to make sure it’s true what they’re teaching.”

Kruse’s announcement last week that he would introduce the truth in education measure instead of one on creationism revived a debate in Indiana over whether creationism should be taught in Indiana schools as an alternative to evolution. He pushed a bolder measure with success through the Indiana Senate earlier this year but could not get it out of the House of Representatives amid concerns from Republican Speaker Brian Bosma that it could land the state in court.

The Supreme Court has already weighed in on the issue with a 1987 ruling that found teaching the two side by side in a science class would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which limits interaction between government and religious institutions.

Kruse’s education bill reflects a new tack by advocates looking to avoid lawsuits, while challenging erstwhile political hot-buttons like evolution and climate change. Tennessee lawmakers passed the model for Kruse’s proposal earlier this year, and supporters of teaching creationism are pushing the proposal in other states.

But on the surface, the stated goal of challenging that sort of educational “dogma” -- the fixed word from teachers and textbooks -- has a long tradition in American education.

Faced with anti-Catholic discrimination in New York schools in the mid-1800s, then-Archbishop John Hughes created an alternative network of schools for the flocks of Irish immigrants pouring into America. Don Warren, dean emeritus of Indiana University’s School of Education, points out that curriculum writers battled in the thick of the Cold War over how communism and its history should be taught — if at all.

Loewen, a University of Vermont sociologist, makes two broad arguments about the history American students get from textbooks: It’s massive and it’s bland, as part of an effort to sell as many textbooks to as many various school systems without offending anyone.

“There must be some belief on the part of someone in the publishing houses or in the textbook adoption boards that the way to promote strong citizens is by lying to them, by giving them this feel-good history that tells them the United States is the best country there’s ever been and we never did anything wrong,” Loewen said a 1995 interview with C-SPAN president and Purdue alum Brian Lamb.

He argues that, blemishes and all, a complete picture of history is better. “Then we get students involved with the issues of history rather than just rote patriotism.”

And even though he comes at it from the opposite end of the political spectrum from Loewen, Josh Youngkin, program director with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, makes a similar argument in pushing for Kruse’s bill, which he also dubs an “academic freedom” measure.

“What you have here is a grant of a right by the Legislature -- this is a legislatively protected right,” he said, explaining the measure. “You could go to court on this if you think you were fired or sanctioned or anything nasty like that because you decided to teach both sides.”

But Warren, the IU educator, points out there is a critical difference between challenging the recounting of history and social science curricula and contesting principles of hard sciences like biology and geology.

“This fight over creationism and science really strikes me as a little different,” he said. “That seems to be part of a current interest in challenging scientific evidence that is unpleasant. It’s a kind of anti-intellectualism, I guess, but it’s also a blending of faith and evidence.”

Warren notes it holds peril as well for religious leaders, who could find faith held to the same rigorous standards of evidence as science.

“If you evaluate faith on the same basis as physics or biology, then you make it subject to the same rules of evidence, and it won’t hold up.”



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