Glenn Branch's picture

Party Time! Part 3

Themed birthday party, ca. 1910-1915, likely in New Jersey. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Having observed (in part 1) that there are seven state Republican parties with antievolution planks embedded in their official platforms in 2006 and 2014, I undertook (in part 2) to begin to offer pairwise comparisons between the earlier and the later versions of those planks, along with comments. I managed to get through Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota before running out of steam; now the project is to finish off with Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.

  • Missouri (2004): “[T]he Missouri Republican Party SUPPORTS ... Empowering local school districts to determine how best to handle the teaching of creationism and the theory of evolution.”
  • Missouri (2014): “[T]he Missouri Republican Party SUPPORTS: … Empowering local school districts to determine how best to handle the teaching of creationism and the theory of evolution.”

There’s no change here. The plank isn’t, on its face, particularly committal: the American tradition of local control over education suggests that local school districts are in the best position to determine the details of curriculum and instruction. But in the context of the history of American resistance to the teaching of evolution, it’s impossible to read the plank as doing anything other than suggesting that local school districts decide for themselves whether to teach creationism or not—Supreme Court or no Supreme Court. (After all, if the point is just the point about local control, why mention “the teaching of creationism and the theory of evolution” specifically?) Antievolution legislation in Missouri is routine, averaging two bills per legislative session over the last few years, and its supporters are invariably Republicans. (This is not the case everywhere, I hasten to add: the senate sponsor of the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 was, and is, a Democrat, to give just a single example.)

  • Oklahoma 2004: “We believe that in public schools where evolution is taught, creationism should be taught as well. We support disclaimers on any state-funded science textbook that treats evolution as fact rather than theory.”
  • Oklahoma 2014 (PDF): “We believe that the scientific evidence supporting Intelligent Design and Biblical creation should be included in Oklahoma public schools curricula. And where any evolution theory is taught both should receive equal funding, class time, and material. Teachers should have the freedom to cover creation science without fear of intimidation or reprimand.”

The move from creationism in general to “Intelligent Design and Biblical creation” in particular is striking, especially considering that the unconstitutionality of teaching Biblical creation—as opposed to creation science—was established in the courts as early as 1975, in Daniel v. Waters. The abandonment of the idea of a textbook disclaimer about evolution is welcome, and it’s tempting to wonder whether the decision in Selman v. Cobb County (2005), in which the constitutionality of a textbook disclaimer mandated in Cobb County, Georgia, was at issue, helped to influence it; although that decision was vacated, the fact that the Cobb County School District settled the case on terms favorable to the plaintiffs—agreeing in particular not to continue requiring the disclaimer—may have not been lost on the platform’s authors. Yet the Sooner State is, I believe, the state with the most antievolution bills in the last decade or so.

  • Texas 2004: “The Party supports the objective teaching and equal treatment of scientific strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories, including Intelligent Design—as Texas law now requires but has yet to enforce. The Party believes theories of life origins and environmental theories should be taught only as theories not fact; that social studies and other curriculum should not be based on any one theory.”
  • Texas 2014 (PDF): “We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.”

The reference to “Texas law” in the 2004 plank exaggerates: the reference is presumably to a benchmark then in the state science standards—“The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information”—which neither applied exclusively to evolution nor mentioned “intelligent design” as a scientific theory. At least the 2014 plank omits any mention of “intelligent design.” As with Alaska, the theory-not-fact language is abandoned, only to be replaced with the idea that “theories such as life origins” should be taught as challengeable, presumably with the false presupposition that they are not. Similarly presupposed in the 2014 plank is that there is widespread retribution or discrimination against teachers and students over their classroom discussions over evolution. Evidence for such a claim is meager at best: state departments of education in various states have reported receiving no such complaints (e.g., Florida in 2008). On the other hand, surveys of science educators routinely show that teachers seeking to present evolution in a scientifically accurate and pedagogically appropriate way encounter pressure from the community not to do so.

Whether you contemplate the gross figures (eight parties in 2006, eight parties in 2014) or the specific details, it looks like there’s not a lot of progress with respect to the place of evolution education in state political party platforms, which is dispiriting. But not so fast. So far neglected is the possibility of state political party platforms that include proevolution—or perhaps antiantievolution—planks. And here there is, arguably, progress of a sort. That will be the topic of part 4.