When to Teach Evolution and Other Hot Button Issues
Science and Religion Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

When to Teach Evolution and Other Controversial Topics

When we teach evolution, particularly to elementary school children, we also send other unintended messages. First, your teacher is an agent of the devil trying to lure you into eternal damnation. Second, your parents are ignorant and stupid. We might want avoid both of these messages by putting off evolution and other hot button topics until the students are a little more mature.

Some teachers may believe the parents are ignorant and stupid, but they should reflect that parents provide important wisdom to their children, for example, do not run out into traffic, and do not stick forks into light sockets.

It should be obvious to teachers that labeling yourself an agent of the devil may compromise classroom control, and discourage students from paying proper attention in class.

Moreover, undermining the trust that little children have for parents and teachers creates an atmosphere of fear that could lead to developmental problems.

Finally, it might be wise to use the elementary school years to teach uncontroversial ideas, like do not be racist, while putting off more controversial ideas like homosexual behavior is perfectly acceptable, until later. It would be a shame to lose the relatively easy, uncontroversial lessons because we are trying to teach lessons that conflict with the parent's religion.

Separation of Church and State

The teaching of more controversial moral concepts is the province of the church. Teaching controversial ethical topics in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state because the state is encroaching on the church's area of authority. The public schools should be concentrating on facts not morality, what is, not what should be.

This is particularly true for elementary school students. When public school teachers hold discussions on controversial topics for older students they can with some credibility say they are helping the students clarify their thinking, but on the elementary school level covering the same topic is simply indoctrination, and will be seen as such by parents.

This does not mean we should not teach morality at all on the elementary school level, there are many uncontroversial moral precepts, for example, don't steal, don't be a racist, don't bully, etc. that we can safely teach. Teaching these while leaving the controversial topics until high school will help us better teach the uncontroversial.

Reasonable Compromise

We can also look for compromise positions that can be taught at the elementary level. For example, a principle that most people will agree to is that children should not be harshly judged or treated badly because of their parents or care takers. If the parents have controversial political or religious beliefs, or are a homosexual couple their children should not suffer. It is proper for the schools to teach this and exercise extra diligence to protect these children.

Parents Need to Understand Controversial Topics Can Be Delayed but not Banned

I have presented reasons why educators should want to delay controversial issues, presumably, parents who object to evolution or are upset by other hot button issues will not object to the delay.

Many parents might prefer that educators avoid these topics all together. But that is not at all likely. The parents and churches need to prepare their children for controversial topics. If they want their children to believe in six day creationism or intelligent design then they need to teach an age appropriate defense of those ideas at home or in Sunday school. The courts, the schools, broadly the system is not likely to allow the topic to be taught at school.

The parents can take some comfort in knowing that the schools will not present a careful defense of evolution, and will not address many of the arguments against evolution that will be brought up in Sunday school or other religious education. When one side carefully marshals its evidence and the other ignores the issue it is easy to be convincing.

Churches and parents also need to teach their children what they can accept. For example, fundamentalists who believe in six day creationism can teach their children that "micro evolution" does happen. Micro evolution means evolution within species. The six day creationist believes the species was created by God. So being a six day creationist does not mean you can't believe that bacteria are evolving immunities to antibiotics, and insects are evolving immunities to insecticides. What fundamentalists reject is macro evolution, the evolution of one species into another species. Which means that for most real world applications the fundamentalist can without rejecting any of the beliefs of his faith believe the scientific facts that are needed for good decision making both in their private life and as a citizen particularly in the voting booth.

Similarly, those religious traditions that have little or no problem with evolution, for example my own Catholic faith, need to teach their children that the Catholic Church generally accepts evolution. This will both help the science teacher teach evolution, and will prevent the student from questioning their faith. Students commonly raise unnecessary objections. A very distinguished University of California biology professor told me that he used to keep a stack of flyers from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's club, in his office. When a Catholic student objected to evolution he simply handed them the Catholic flyer. Now he simply refers them to a Knights of Columbus web site. It is also common for people to question their faith because they can not reconcile it with science, not knowing that their denomination does not even hold the conflicting views they think it does.

Returning to my central topic, what age to introduce controversial topics like evolution. Different types of students could be introduced to evolution and other controversies at different ages. The gifted could study it in Junior High, the remedial student in High School, and the average student in Junior High or High School depending on the attitudes and beliefs of the local community.


I have created a video version containing at least part of this essay, When to Teach Evolution and Other Hot Button Issues.

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