Lawrence Uebel

A popular rule of etiquette states that you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company, but that idea is fatal to many good discussions, which is why I tend to break it. Because of that (and because we’re both geeks), a few weeks back my dad and I had a brief argument after dinner about evolution being taught in public schools. We started by talking about Kansas, which in 1999 required, among other things, students being taught evolution also be instructed that evolution could not rule out the possibility of intelligent design – it had not banned the teaching of evolution, as is commonly believed (though schools themselves can decide to do so). In the end my dad argued not that evolution shouldn’t be taught, but that it should be up to the parents of Kansas students to decide what their kids should be taught – that is, if they choose to keep evolution out of the classroom altogether, they should have that right. The argument spiraled off into a debate about the source of political authority and accomplished virtually nothing.

Whenever an argument with two reasonable sides ends up going nowhere, I’m prejudiced to assume somewhere something went wrong. There must be a hidden disagreement or confusion. Rather than just letting it go, I toyed with both sides of the argument for a while. I ended up realizing that our real issue was interchanging public education – education in school – with education as a whole, or the lifelong experience of learning, beginning with learning from one’s parents. Mark Twain wrote, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” We were confusing the two.

When it comes to education as a whole, especially the parents’ role of equipping a child with a set of morals, beliefs and skills to help them grow into adulthood, the argument for parental control holds significant weight. In fact, only the most devoted socialist would challenge parents’ role on this front, and there aren’t too many of those lying around the United States.

But public education serves a different role entirely. Woodrow Wilson wrote that colleges “should seek to impart … not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning.” College students, Wilson felt, should be learning to enjoy learning and understand its importance rather than obtaining specific skills (in some ways an outdated thought today). The same doesn’t quite hold true for grade schools, where essential skills like multiplication and spelling are the primary topics, but high school – the only place where evolution was really an issue – sits in a grey area between the two. High school students still learn fundamental skills (simple algebra is a good example), but they are also exposed to all sorts of knowledge that will likely be irrelevant to their future. I can remember maybe one or two things from my biology classes. So what was the point?

I honestly didn’t know until my senior year of high school. I thought I was playing a game, and that mostly it was a waste of my time. Then, in my senior year English class, I had teachers who began exposing me to things that actually held my interest. I devoured the stuff. We read selections from Aristotle to Marx, and while I didn’t always agree with the arguments, I found it all fascinating.

There’s no point in thinking about Kansas itself at this point – the state didn’t outlaw the teaching of evolution (though it did remove it as a requirement on state testing). But its example has led us to an interesting thought about parental censorship in public education. Parental control loses its persuasiveness when it comes to the topic of public education for several reasons, but retains its power because of money – parents pay the taxes that fund the schools, after all, and the argument runs that it should be their right to choose how their money is spent. Fair enough. But let’s assume President Wilson was correct, and the point of schooling is to imbue students with a love of learning. Wouldn’t the best option be to expose students to as much as possible? If I had never stumbled across that English class (and it was an elective that I mostly took to put on my transcripts), I likely would be miserable in college studying something that held absolutely no interest for me. You could argue that liberal arts colleges make up for this, but less than one-third of United States residents ever attend college.

The whole idea of high school censorship suggests some unfortunate things about our society. Early education should obviously be sanitized to some degree (I doubt second graders would have an easy time grasping evolution), but at some point – and around high school is where I imagine that point lies for most people – students ought to be trusted to develop as critical thinkers and freed to make their own decisions about their beliefs. Censorship suggests we’d rather have replicas than citizens. The argument that college is the appropriate time for such growth cheats the majority of the American population, which never experiences it. Taken to its extreme, censorship turns a tool for enlightenment into a vehicle for indoctrination.

It also suggests parents don’t discuss intellectual topics with their children very often and instead place that burden solely upon the schools. This isn’t entirely surprising if you consider that children are at school for much of the day, their parents are at work even longer, and even high school students may have little interest in discussing such things with their parents. Nonetheless, especially on moral or religious topics – under which evolution falls in this context – one could reasonably hope that parents would take an active role.

I can’t throw my dad’s argument out. In almost every situation, a person should have the right to decide what to do with their own money, and parents should play a prominent role in the education of their children. But it would be very unfortunate if any state’s people decided they’re willing to co-opt a fundamental gear in the machinery of democracy and student growth for its own purposes.