When Wolf Blitzer pressed Christine O’Donnell on whether evolution is a “myth,” she replied, “What I believe is irrelevant, because what I will support in Washington, D.C. is the ability for the local school system to decide what is taught in their classrooms.”
If this answer sounds familiar to you, it should. Not only is this a common evasion used by contemporary politicians, but harkens back to the nation’s first anti-evolution crusade. In 1924, three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was barnstorming the country and speaking to tens of thousands of people. Worried that the teaching of evolution would drive young people to skepticism, atheism, and ultimately to immorality, he argued that “teachers in the public schools must teach what the taxpayers desire.”
Phrased this way, it seems almost un-American to object. After all, in a democracy, shouldn’t the majority dictate public policy? And isn’t this most especially the case when it comes to public schools – whose governance is most closely associated with local control by ordinary citizens?
In fact, the battle over evolution has been more about the meaning of democracy than about science or religion. And this has been the case since the 1920s. The fundamental political question has always been, “Who decides what our children should learn?”
For Bryan, a long time advocate of the initiate, the referendum, and the expansion of power for ordinary citizens, the answer was clear: the people should decide.
But democracy is not so simple and two other answers have been proposed as well. And both address the role of religion and science in public life.
If William Jennings Bryan was the greatest orator of his time, the most influential writer on public affairs was his contemporary, Walter Lippmann. Pulitzer prize winning journalist and advisor of presidents, Lippmann scoffed at the notion of ordinary citizens weighing in on the high school biology curriculum. “Guidance for a school can only come from educators, and the question of what shall be taught as biology can be determined only by biologists,” he wrote, “The votes of a majority … are entitled to no respect whatsoever.”
Few today would endorse either of these extreme positions, of course. Democracy works best when the People and their elected representatives can get advice and recommendations from experts and scientists. No citizen and no elected official can be an expert on the array of highly technical details that inform public policy – whether we are talking about pharmaceuticals, runoff from farms into watersheds, economic forecasting or the findings of evolutionary biology, we need to delegate considerable influence to specialists who have the skills, training and career accomplishments to provide expert advice.
Finally, defenders of civil liberties point out that the Founders were skeptical about the ability of the People to make sound decisions. And most important, they worried that factions motivated by common economic or cultural interests might so zealously pursue their desires that they might trample the rights of others. Over the ensuing two centuries, the protection of the rights of others has become the responsibility of the federal courts. And this is a good thing because politicians – in their desire to win votes – often pander to the very factions that the Founders believed could threaten our democratic system. And the courts have answered the question along the following lines: Yes, the people can decide. But they cannot enact policies – such as the teaching of Biblical creationism – that constitute the promotion of religious views. When the rights of others are at risk, it is the courts that decide.
The irony, as we show in Creationism, Evolution, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, is that there is still actually a great deal of local control of the science classroom. Bryan would be disappointed by the many court decisions limiting the people’s right to decide what students can learn, but he may well be impressed by how closely classroom instruction aligns with community values. We show that teachers in school districts with the most strongly anti-evolution populations are more likely to employ biology teachers who are themselves creationists, or whose training in evolutionary biology is relatively limited. Students in these districts are more likely to receive fewer hours of instruction in evolution and are less likely to be taught it as scientists would recommend. When Christine O’Donnell calls for local control she is doing more than just pandering to her conservative Christian supporters; she is taking sides in an ongoing and long-standing battle over who should decide what children should learn.