Fabulously Observant: Genesis in the classroom

Evolution and creation rely on two different knowledge disciplines to answer the question of where we come from.

David Benkoff 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Benkoff 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The creation/evolution debate in the United States has pitted traditionalists (including many Orthodox Jews) against those who embrace the separation of church and state (including many liberal Jews). But there is a way to teach both creation and evolution in public schools that can be embraced by people on both sides of the controversy. In the 1987 US Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Aguillard, in a 7-2 decision, the justices ruled that the teaching of creationism in public schools violated the First Amendment ban on an establishment of religion. Ever since, secularists (then and now a minority nationally) have known that the ruling meant traditionally religious parents would not have their views represented in public schools. Did they ever pause to ask, "Wait, this seems unfair. How can we be respectful of everyone's ideas without violating the Constitution?" No way. Instead their reaction was in effect, "Whoopee! Now we can teach America's young people the Truth, no matter what nonsense they learn at home and in church." Of course, whenever a devout conservative even expresses his viewpoint about abortion or man-woman marriage, he's accused of imposing his religion on everyone. So why is it OK for secularists to impose their viewpoint on the most innocent among us? Not very helpfully, Christian conservatives in America have responded to the US Supreme Court rulings against creationism by promoting a fake scientific doctrine ("intelligent design") that even they don't believe in - or it would be taught, instead of creationism, in the schools their children attend. WITHOUT CHANGING the Constitution or its interpretation by the Supreme Court, this problem can still be addressed, if we think creatively. Under present Supreme Court doctrine, a Christmas tree on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Add a dreidel, a few reindeer, and some Kwanzaa candles, and suddenly the Christmas tree is constitutional. So I propose we add, in effect, the human-origins equivalent of a dreidel and some reindeer to the teaching of both creation and evolution, which would thereby becomes surely constitutional. School districts that want to fix the imbalance in which only some parents have their views represented in the curriculum can declare, for example, that the origin of man should not be taught at all except in specially designed, interdisciplinary units for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. During these units, students will study age-appropriate scientific, literary, anthropological, philosophical, and religious ideas about the origin of the universe, the nature of life, and where human beings come from. Subjects studied may include: the ideas of Charles Darwin, creation myths of the Maya, Lakota, Yoruba, and Norse peoples, the Genesis story and its literary and religious echoes through the centuries, the evidence for species change, and controversial aspects of the theory of evolution. Everyone's ideas would be represented and respected, no perspectives would be hidden, and students can make up their own minds with the guidance of their parents. Some fans of the theory of evolution have suggested that ideas about divine creation of the universe can only be legitimately introduced in the public schools if they are subjected to scientific scrutiny. I don't have a problem with that in the sort of interdisciplinary unit I'm proposing, especially if evolution is also subjected to theological scrutiny. Evolution and creation rely on two different knowledge disciplines to answer the question of where we come from. Some people find one mode of inquiry more compelling for that question; others prefer the other. As long as the two are taught side by side in interdisciplinary units exploring the many ways people have explained human origins, without treating the Genesis story as any more true than the creation myths of Australian aborigines, science fiction like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, or natural selection and the survival of the fittest, there's no religious-establishment problem. Doubtless, the forces on the secular Left who have had a monopoly on how the origin of man is taught in public schools for nearly a generation will never cooperate without a fight. They think their ideas are objectively true. But secularism is a minority in America, and its rivals think their own ideas are just as true. The challenge is to teach schoolchildren complicated subjects in a way that respects everyone's perspective yet passes constitutional muster. I think it can be done. DavidBenkof@aol.com