2014-01-23 / Opinions & Commentary

Education bill not needed

There are plenty of good proposals to support in the General Assembly this year, but HB 207 isn’t one of them.

Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell’s bill to support science teachers is already being targeted for opposition, as it should, and that comes as no surprise to our fine delegate.

Bell explains this week (see story, page 15) that HB 207 is intended to protect science teachers, not to promote teaching controversial issues like religious-based creationism or the denial of global warming.

In fact, the bill plainly states HB 207 should not be construed as promoting, or discriminating against, any religious or non-religious doctrine. Though based on a similar bill that passed in Tennessee, Bell even removed Tennessee language that specifically mentions issues such as creationism, global warming, and the chemical origins of man.

Bell says just wants to provide protection for science teachers when those issues happen to come up in the course of a class discussion. That, he said, would allow for a more free-flowing dialogue on subjects like the theory of evolution, and make teachers more comfortable when discussions move in such a direction. His bill would make it illegal for school officials to prevent teachers from helping students understand and analyze scientific strengths and weaknesses.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, for starters, it opens up our school divisions to lawsuits because under our Constitution, the separation of church and state is fundamental, and courts have agreed it’s inappropriate to teach creationism with evolution as if it were science.

Bell’s proposal mentions neither, but were his bill to become law, how that would be interpreted in the classroom isn’t controlled or stipulated by the bill’s current language.

Evolution vs. Creationism is a decades-long debate, but we fail to understand why there’s any debate at all. The Synthetic Theory of Evolution has nothing to do with religion. In scientific understanding, it’s a theory that’s considered “well upheld” thanks to volumes (a synthesis) of data across a variety of science-based disciplines. We are able to test it.

Creationism, on the other hand, is faith-based. Some Christian religions teach a literal interpretation of the Bible, which describes the Earth being created in seven days, and woman being created from a man’s rib. Faith is faith precisely because you cannot “test” it scientifically, you need only believe, and find in the world actions that uphold those beliefs. Faith and religion have nothing to do with the theory of evolution.

Scientists do not try to “prove” theories correct. Instead, they try to prove them wrong by finding scientific data that falsifies a proposed theory. So far, 150 years after Darwin’s “Origins of Species,” no one has disproven the theory of evolution; on the contrary, the theory has actually gained mountains of evidence behind it. Ergo, there are no viable alternatives to the modern Synthetic Theory of Evolution other than religious dogma, and that doesn’t qualify because it’s not testable, verifiable or falsifiable, in scientific methods. As many scientists tell us, the theory of evolution is much better understood today than the theory of gravity. But no one’s pitting the theory of gravity against any religious belief that we know of.

Bell’s proposal is not intended to open up a can of worms on these subjects, nor is it meant to encourage teaching religion in public classrooms, but it passed, it could be used in ways it wasn’t intended. And that’s the main problem with the proposal.

Maybe there have been a few incidents where teachers have felt threatened for teaching nonscience as science, but there’s does not seem to be a mountain of evidence that school officials and administrators are cracking down hard on teachers at the mere mention of a controversial subject all over the commonwealth. Bell knows this, and as he says, if the state doesn’t see a need to protect teachers on this issue, the bill won’t pass.

A good science teacher provides an understanding of a theory, and challenges his or her students to analyze it critically. What we hope our teachers recognize is that anything they teach will come across as fact; they are authority figures in our students’ lives, and the language they use is critical to both science and religion. Theories are not “facts” or “laws.” Creationism is not a fact, or law, either.

To understand our human race, we need to understand both our biology (evolution) and our spiritual roots. There’s no need to confuse students by asserting they are two upheld theories in opposition, and they shouldn’t be taught together. We agree with Bell on this point: creationism is better taught at home and in church.

Bell won’t be the least bit shaken by criticism coming his way on this bill. We have always found him unflappable, direct, and wise. Let’s not forget, he’s an educator, too, and with that background, he has pushed strongly for positive education reforms in Virginia schools. HB 207 isn’t one of the bills that would improve education. It runs afoul of current law, and in Virginia, where science teaching is ranked so highly in upholding standards, it’s simply unnecessary.

Let’s turn our support toward Bell’s terrific measures, like getting virtual learning better organized and available to all our children. And his thoughtful proposal for Virginia’s official maple festival — Highland’s own. Bell has been a good friend to Highland, and we look forward to seeing his important proposals gain traction in this year’s General Assembly session.

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