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TALES FROM THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR - No place for unanimity

San Diego City Beat (2005-11-23) Pat Sherman

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More Info: Grossmont Union High School District, Local Politics

County school officials consider the future of intelligent design in the classroom

By Pat Sherman

“The clearest evidence of our evolution can be found in our genes. But evolution is still being fought, ironically by those whose own DNA proclaims it-in the schools, in the courts, in textbook publishing houses.”

-Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

If leading the country into a baseless war and courting the contempt of a majority of the “free world” is truly the “hard work” our president says it is, then it should have surprised no one when George W. Bush gave props to the Almighty for the toilsome task of creating the universe from naught (and in less than a week-talk about time management).

In yet another nod to Christian conservatives, Bush has urged adding “intelligent design” to the public-school curriculum-a theory that nature and biological structures are so complex that they must be the handiwork of a certain “on the ball” being.

The Bush camp received a cane lashing on Election Day as voters in Dover, Pa. booted out eight of nine school board members who decided that ninth-graders should be told intelligent design is a viable alternative to evolution (a verdict in a lawsuit related to the brouhaha is currently pending). That same day, however, natural selection took a step back into mud when the Kansas Board of Education approved new science standards that question Charles Darwin's evolutionary teachings.

As the primordial ooze and God juice ebbs and flows in provincial pockets of the country, school board members in San Diego and surrounding communities say the rancorous issue is a long way from winding up on their packed agendas. A random sampling of board members' attitudes on intelligent design garnered responses from candid to cagey, with a few as difficult to decipher as the genetic code of ostrich DNA. Most said they would defer to California education standards for the teaching of natural science, which allows for evolution-only education. In September, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell defended California's standards from efforts to inject intelligent design into science curricula, saying intelligent design would be “a blow to the integrity of education in California... because religious beliefs are based on faith, and are not subject to scientific test and refutation.”

Though she does not serve on a school board, newly elected Poway City Councilmember Merrilee Boyack serves her spiritual conscience when it comes to public education.

The Mormon mother and “life coach” has for years e-mailed an annual laundry list containing “items of concern” to a group of “informed parents” in the Poway Unified School District. This year, Boyack urged parents to let teachers know about their “strict moral values” and deep religious beliefs, and to ask that teachers honor those convictions by disclosing anything taught in the classroom that might be an affront to those values.

“Pay attention to Social Studies & History Classes,” Boyack advised parents earlier this year, recounting a paper her son wrote on “early man” in which he added the footnote, “And I do not believe one single word of what I have just written. I think this is all ridiculous and that God created man in His image.”

“Make sure your children know what you believe so they are not swayed,” Boyack told parents.

Speaking with City Beat, Boyack said she is not opposed to evolution being taught at school, but in her home, the creation myth reigns.

“I believe that God created the earth in seven time periods, and I don't buy the argument that we evolved from monkeys,” Boyack said with a whimsical chuckle. “My biggest question that I always ask people that believe in evolution is, ‘Where's all that middle stuff right now?' To me that's a big hole in that theory.... Why isn't there continual evolution? Where are the species that are half-ape, half-human that are still evolving?

“I asked those questions when I was a girl studying science and no one had good answers for me,” Boyack said. “I don't mind [evolution] being presented as a theory, but when they say that this is absolutely the way things happened, then I get concerned.”

Boyack said she sees no signs of intelligent design being implemented in the Poway district, pointing instead to the all-Christian Grossmont Union High School District Board as fertile ground for the premise to crop up in a syllabus.

Indeed, Grossmont board member Priscilla Schreiber said she would “absolutely” support the teaching of intelligent design in her district, which currently includes two schools with Bible-study groups, Granite Hills and Grossmont.

“As Christians, we would love to have that debate and that discussion in our classrooms, so it's not always a one-sided [issue],” Schreiber said. “But there's always the separation of church and state, which is obviously a perpetration of an interpretation that was never in the founding documents of our Constitution.

“I think it has a place in our schools, but that's nothing that we're even looking at. We have way too much to deal with.”

Schreiber also said she likes the idea of returning to the days when the Ten Commandments were posted in the classroom.

“I believe that those values are good enough for the public arena,” she said. “I just don't know why people are so afraid of our own heritage and our own roots, maybe because they don't want the accountability of God.”

Schreiber, who is active in Sonshine Haven, a Santee-based children's ministry that provides after-school programs to disadvantaged kids, is following the cases in Pennsylvania and Kansas “to see how they achieve that and some of the consternation that that brings.” She believes in literal translation of the Bible without any concession for the evolutionary process.

“It takes more faith to believe in what the evolutionists believe,” she said. “It's like a tornado or hurricane whipping through a dump site and depositing a Boeing 737.”

Grossmont school board Vice-chair Evelyn Wills, also a Christian, was more guarded with her words, saying she doesn't know enough about intelligent design to form an opinion. “Even though I support creation versus evolution, right now, unless the laws are changed, you'd have a problem there,” Wills said. “But I do have a problem with the letter of the law.... If I could choose both of them, that would be ideal.”

George Gastil of the Lemon Grove School District board said he would not support adding intelligent design.

“My feeling is that we would go with what our biology teachers were saying,” Gastil said. “You have science classes and you rely on the scientists. What do we know about science, unless we happen to be scientists? ... As a general rule, you trust the people that know the area. I think we'd want to go with what leading biologists and geologists and other folks are saying.”

While most board members claimed not to be versed on the issue, Gastil said he is familiar with the concept of intelligent design.

“If there is any validity to it, I think it has a long way to go,” said Gastil, whose father was a geologist. “There's really no reason to doubt carbon-14 dating and all these other things. Pretty responsible people have been doing this over a long period of time and the results are pretty consistent with each other.”

Dianne El-Hajj, a Santee School District board member, agreed that evolution is sound science. “I think there would be support for considering the issue; I don't know if there would be any support for adopting it,” El-Hajj said.

Penny Halgreen, president of the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District board, said she'd be willing to consider adding intelligent design, but only after the board and staff researched the curriculum. La Mesa-Spring Valley board Vice-chair Rick Winet believes intelligent design should be afforded equal class time.

“I'm a Christian, and I believe in creation,” Winet said. “It is something that I believe should be taught in parallel with what we are presently teaching.”

San Diego Unified School District trustee Luis Acle, currently running for the District 8 City Council seat, said declining student achievement and enrollment, coupled with increasing employee benefits, trump any concerns about the possible inclusion of intelligent design.

“I don't know how it would be brought before the board, whether it would be brought as a resolution, as a consideration for curriculum or as a lawsuit,” Acle said. “I think that the matter right now is probably in the early stages of debate, as far as I have seen in our local school board.”

Fellow trustee Katherine Nakamura said she stands by evolution.

“I was raised Protestant, but I'm married to a Buddhist,” Nakamura said. “I believe in a higher power and yet, I believe the study of science needs to stand alone. Evolution is evolution. To me it's undeniable.”

Nakamura said teachers are ill equipped to discuss religion with students.

“Our mostly highly trained professors at universities grapple with issues of theology from a multi-faith perspective.... I would have trouble having my children being taught intelligent design when they come from a multiethnic background. Is it Christian? Is it Buddhist? Is it Jewish? Is it Hindu? Is it Muslim? Whose version of intelligent design is it?”

Lakeside Union School District board member Twila Godley, a grandmother of three Lakeside Union students and bookkeeper who volunteers at her church, said, “My personal beliefs and my position as a school board member are two different things. I do believe that God did create the earth and is the inventor of science, so I don't think that there is any contradiction between the two.”

Godley added, “I certainly believe if it comes up for a discussion in a classroom that the teachers and the students can broach the subject and discuss it as an issue.”

Asked if he believes the teaching of the Christian-Hebrew creation myth would add balance to discussions of Cro-Magnon Man, fellow Lakeside trustee Harold Hilliker said, “I'd rather not get in the middle of that one. I will follow the standards.”

In 1993 the Vista school board's nearly unanimous support for teaching “creation science” led to the recall of two board members. At the time, the Christian-fundamentalist majority included John Tyndall, an accountant at the Institute for Creation Research in Santee. Current Vista school board trustee Steve Lilly said there might be some room for intelligent design in a social-studies course.

“I would not be in favor of adding intelligent design as part of the science curriculum,” said Lilly, a retired dean of education at Cal State San Marcos. “If there are other courses, in the social-studies area, in the civics area, where it's discussed as a social issue, then that's a different thing, and that certainly would be appropriate.”

Fellow Vista trustee Stephen Guffanti referred to an article authored last year by a science teacher in his district. In the article, the teacher sought to defend his belief in evolution.

“He demonstrated that he didn't really understand evolution,” Guffanti said, affecting a cynical tone of voice. “Now, if a science teacher doesn't understand evolution, then what are the odds that the children will understand evolution? Evolution generates a lot of heat in political circles and it doesn't seem to be understood by almost anybody who argues for it or against it....

“I would love to see somebody stand up and say, ‘OK, here's evolution. It's survival of the fittest with genetic mutations that generate new species'-something just that simple,” Guffanti said. “Because once they say that, just look at the numbers and you'll begin to realize that that doesn't work out very well.”

Though Guffanti said be believes Darwin's theory “has its uses,” pressed as to whether he believes an intelligent designer was afoot 6,000 years ago, he said, “If you were not a newspaper reporter, I would answer your question.... In a normal school district, where the teachers union isn't throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns, I'm sure there's freedom of speech, but it's not that way in Vista.”

Published: 11/23/2005
Topic revision: r1 - 28 Oct 2008, RaymondLutz
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