How Evolutionists Ought to Teach Evolution

by William Provine, well-known evolutionist professor of biology and history of science at Cornell University. Excerpted from his chapter in John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer. 2003. Darwinism, Design, and Public Education. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. pp. 509-511. Bold print indicates emphasis added.

In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education decided to eliminate macroevolution from state exams and gave local school boards the right to decide if macroevolution would be taught in district schools. Evolutionists have a central processing email site, called EvolDir [<>]. Job announcements constitute over 90 percent of the announcements. The Kansas State Board of Education's decision, however, elicited lots of derisive messages on EvolDir. I sent the following message to the list:

Dear kind members of EvolDir,

The Kansas decision is a gift to the teaching of evolutionary biology. At last we have begun to talk about including all students in high school biology classes, instead of limiting discussion only to naturalistic evolution.

Of the USA population, nearly 50 percent are YE [young Earth] creationists. Of those who do profess belief in evolution by descent, the vast majority believe that God guided the process and that some version of "design theory" is true. Other countries have at least sizeable minorities with similar views. Can it really be our aim to prevent students with such views from participating honestly in the discussion of evolution in high school biology classes? Do we really believe that students can be convinced of evolution while prevented from speaking their concerns about it?

We already have complete control of the evolution content of mainstream high school biology textbooks. Teachers bar most students from honest discussion of evolution in class, with the encouragement of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education (our watchdog), and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The result is that students consider evolution perhaps the most boring subject of the biology class. But the evolution section of the course could be the most exciting, the most fun, and the most stimulating.

"Teaching" creationism or design theory is wholly unnecessary, and perhaps illegal in the USA. Students will raise all their issues related to evolution if invited and not put down. Nothing is illegal about such discussion in the USA and probably elsewhere. Students will never forget the evolution section of the course, and will think about it for years, maybe for a lifetime.

Not much support for my contribution appeared on EvolDir, but some rather negative comments appeared there and others sent privately. Indeed, many evolutionists were appalled by my suggestion, though some were supportive.

In this volume, Eugene Garver gives a cogent argument for not introducing ID [Intelligent Design] or creationism in the evolution class. Perhaps he has taught an evolution class and finds that suppressing most of the students from participating is a good approach. If I thought teaching were as he envisions it, I would instantly give up teaching. Without student participation, introducing their own views and being prepared for intense (but personally supportive) criticism, teaching is vacuous. Imparting knowledge is a bore. Give the students a book.

I have taught evolution everywhere from middle school (for two years) to high school (nine high schools in upstate New York, some every year) to college level, to graduate level, and to adult summer university. In every case, students have greatly enjoyed sharing and criticizing ideas and evidence concerning evolution. Even in a class of 400 or so, weekly sections of no more than 20 give students an opportunity for serious discussion. I think we learn a lot about evolutionary biology, from Darwin to the cutting edge, and have lots of fun doing it. Everyone from every perspective is heartily invited to participate. The goal is not to fill the student's noggin with what is believed about evolutionary biology now, but to leave the student with an interest in evolution for life. . . .

Allowing all students to participate defuses the explosive possibility of investigating evolution in high school classes. Not one parent of a high school student, over three decades, has objected to this approach. The classes are exciting, and the students and high school teachers send enthusiastic notes of thanks.

Discussing ways to prevent participation of students in any class, while privileging some, is so deeply unfair. Many states have suggestions for keeping creationists from the discussions in biology classes. . . . Viewing half or more of your students as "the enemy" is weird.

Creationists will have to speak louder. I continue to support those who would like to have their voices heard in biology classes. I encourage the effort to limit the teaching of evolutionary biology until such time as evolutionists encourage a more inclusive participation of students. The very idea of the American Civil Liberties Union conspiring with evolutionary biologists to limit the free speech of the majority of the high school students in this country is grotesque.