Professors debate creationism’s place in public schools

Two geology professors signed a petition to promote teaching evolution in public school science classrooms and prevent creationism from slipping into the curriculum.

Arthur Busbey, an associate professor of geology, and Helge Alsleben, an assistant professor of geology, put their name on the petition.

The petition is aimed at a committee from the Texas State Board of Education, which is revising the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards for science classrooms in 2008-09. These standards are for public school classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade, a task that arises every 10 years.

The 21st Century Science Coalition released the petition in September to remove the phrase, “strengths and weaknesses” from the public school guidelines for science classrooms in Texas in reference to the study of scientific theories, sparking a debate between professors.

As of Monday, 588 scientists at Texas universities and 777 other scientists across the state have signed the petition.

According to the petition, evolutionary theory is imperative to teaching biological sciences and evidence exists that support it beyond question.

The curriculum should “encourage valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to ‘strengths and weaknesses,'” according to the petition.

Busbey said he signed the petition to prevent putting religion in the classroom.

“I want to make sure that students taking science in Texas are actually taking science,” Busbey said. “The threat of having religious doctrine inserted into science curricula is something that, in my opinion, is intolerable in the modern world.”

Alsleben said even though he is a strong believer in evolution, he signed the petition as a way to influence science classrooms for better teaching, not necessarily for evolution itself.

Alsleben said the current guidelines, which include examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theory, could alter the credibility of science in the United States on an international level.

As a native German, he said the inclusion of intelligent design in science classrooms has been brought up as an issue that shapes views of American science education for his colleagues in Germany.

However, other faculty members have conflicting views.

Steve Woodworth, professor of history and self-proclaimed creationist, said serious science students are not going to delve into what is taught in kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms when choosing a college.

Woodworth said he knows and appreciates both professors who signed the petition but respectfully disagrees.

“In order to promote critical thinking, they choose to promote one side?” Woodworth said. “I don’t agree with that.”

Woodworth said he supports academic freedom where teachers are able to decide what happens in their own classrooms.

Charles Hannon, professor of computer science, said he also opposes the petition. He said this issue is not one of different attitudes of how teaching should be done, but a clash of worldviews.

“The real issue is that students are not coming into our science programs at TCU with sufficient preparation,” Hannon said. “So, I applaud their desire to try to fix that problem, but the way they are trying to fix the problem is really being driven more by an agenda than a real chance of being successful of doing that.”

Hannon said he also opposes the statement made by the petition that faith should be left at home.

“Everything is based on some level of faith,” Hannon said. “There are sets of prerequisites that determine whether you believe in creationism or evolution. Those sets of presuppositions are going to determine not only what you are willing to accept, but also how you take your data, what you choose to be valid and invalid data.”

While this controversial issue has sparked debate, Alsleben and Busbey both said they do not believe they put their reputations on the line by signing the petition.

Busbey said he based this on his belief that evolution is scientific fact, while Alsleben said he had no problem attaching his name to something that made a strong case for evolution.

Hannon said in the spirit of scientific inquiry, both sides should be studied.

“The point is when Einstein came along, everybody believed in Newton, and Einstein had to have the guts to go against that,” Hannon said. “Openness and willingness to accept different viewpoints is always useful in science.”