Equal Time in My Home Town

Downtown Columbus, Ohio. Photograph by  Derek Jensen (Tysto), via Wikimedia Commons.

A few times while reading about the history of the creationism/evolution controversy, I’ve noticed references to a policy adopted by the Columbus, Ohio, board of education in 1971 that provided for the teaching of creationism along with evolution. But there are rarely any details. In The Evolution Controversy in America (1994), for example, George E. Webb writes, “The board of education in Columbus, Ohio, passed a resolution in 1971 encouraging teachers to present special creation along with evolution,” and that’s all. As someone who was enrolled in Columbus, Ohio, public schools from kindergarten to high school, I find that irritating. As fate would have it, however, a copy of the resolution surfaced in NCSE’s archives recently, and a kindly colleague placed it on my desk. Here’s the complete text:

COLUMBUS PUBLIC SCHOOLS

March 16, 1971

TO THE BOARD OF EDUCATION:

WHEREAS, an objective of education is to provide students with the known facts associated with subjects taught as part of our education curriculum;

WHEREAS, students are encouraged to develop the freedom of inquiry in forming their conclusions in regard to fact and theory;

WHEREAS, students should be helped to understand that a theory, in itself, is an idea that is based upon tangible evidence, and that theories are changed or modified as new information becomes available, and as such cannot be assimilated as scientific fact;

WHEREAS, theories concerning the origin of life or the universe entail implications relating to personal beliefs under the establishment and free exercise provisions of the First Amendment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Education of City Schools of Columbus, Ohio, hereby encourage teachers in all fields when considering or teaching the origin of life or the universe, to present all major theories, including those of creation and evolution, that these be stressed as theories and not as established facts, and that they be accorded proper treatment in time, emphasis, and attitude, to protect the rights of all students.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that Columbus Public School Libraries provide an adequate amount of reference material that lends support to each theory and that teachers should supplement presently adopted texts with materials which attempt to provide unbiased information about the various theories of the origin of life and the universe, and that the Curriculum Committee of the Columbus Board of Education consider textbooks for further adoptions in light of providing information in regard to the various theories of the origin of life and the universe.

The Curriculum Committee

At the bottom, there appears the following indication that the resolution proposed by the curriculum committee was adopted by the board: “Mr. Paul R. Langdon, seconded by Mrs. Virginia E. Prentice, that the above resolution be approved. AYES: 6. NOES: 0.” A cover letter dated November 20, 1972, not addressed to any particular recipient and signed by Langdon in his capacity of chair of the curriculum committee, also identifies the document as “the policy position of the Columbus Board of Education in regard to the teaching of evolution.” It’s possible that the letter was sent to textbook publishers, since Langdon adds, “Textbooks which handle both viewpoints of the subject will certainly be given preference. It is very possible that a textbook handling only the chance theory will be excluded for that reason.”

I poked around a little to see what I could find out about Langdon, since he seemed to be the ringleader. Paul Langdon (1914–2011) served on the board for twenty-eight years (1956–1983), including multiple stints as its president; his day job was manager of finance and accounting, and assistant treasurer, of Battelle Memorial Institute, a private non-profit applied science and technology development company headquartered in Columbus. He was also apparently active in various evangelical projects: he founded the Christian Education Committee in 1968, “[t]o tell others that they were made by God but as a result of their own sin they are separated from Him and under penalty of death”; it was dissolved in 1977. He was also chair of the Billy Graham Central Ohio Crusade for twenty-five years. So that’s perhaps suggestive of his motivations.

I was unable, however, to find any reports of why the board adopted the resolution and when it was dropped—assuming that it was eventually dropped!—and why. The Columbus Dispatch seems not to have its archives available on-line. But judging from the on-line index I found, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of Langdon’s shenanigans in the Dispatch. There was a report on March 17, 1971, on the adoption of the resolution, as well as a report on March 5, 1974, according to which Langdon planned to ask the board “to adopt a resolution encouraging teachers to present all theories of the origin of life”—which would seem unnecessary, given the 1971 resolution—but nothing else. Contemporary coverage of the board of education tended to focus, understandably, on the ongoing effort to desegregate the school system.

I don’t know whether the resolution was still in force when I was taking biology in ninth grade. That was before the Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), so there wasn’t a clear-cut ruling that it would have been unconstitutional for a teacher to present “the theory of creation,” as recommended by the board in its resolution, although it was after the decision in McLean v. Arkansas (1982). My high school biology teacher didn’t, in fact, teach creationism—but she didn’t teach evolution either. Whether that was because she was a creationist herself, or because she wanted to avoid any potential controversy by not presenting evolution, or because she was unprepared to teach evolution I don’t know. Insofar as the board’s resolution deterred her from teaching evolution, though, I resent it!