A Teacher's View of the Kansas Evolution Debate

Thursday, the Kansas state Board of Education begins hearings that could decide what public school students learn about the origins of life. For one Kansas science teacher, it's a familiar debate.

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Tomorrow, the Kansas state Board of Education begins hearings that could determine what public school students there learn about the origins of life. In some ways, it's a repeat of a battle from six years ago. Evolution in the Kansas science curriculum survived that round, but science teachers are dreading another bitter debate. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has a profile of one teacher who is a veteran of the evolution wars.

ClAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Evolution is so touchy in Kansas these days that one of the state's most prominent science teachers can't talk to reporters about it on his campus.

(Soundbite of cellular phone ringing)

SANCHEZ: That's my cell phone. Brad Williamson, former president of the National Biology Teachers Association, is calling to say we should meet at a coffee shop not far from where he teaches, Olathe East High School.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SANCHEZ: Williamson drives up in a small Ford pickup with vanity plates that read `BIOLOGY.' A tall, lanky man with pens and pencils protruding from his shirt pocket, Williamson has been teaching in Olathe, a bedroom community just west of Kansas City, for almost 30 years.

Mr. BRAD WILLIAMSON (Biology Teacher): Well, the deal is that this is a very, very devout community. And, in fact, you know, right here we have people that are meeting right in there right now, discussing their Bible and stuff. This is also a community that really wants the best in their education for their kids.

(Soundbite of background music)

SANCHEZ: The coffee shop is pretty quiet this morning, and, sure enough, a small group is studying the King James Bible.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: How you guys today?

Unidentified Man: Good. How are you?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: A little cool over here this morning, isn't it?

SANCHEZ: Williamson knows them, although it hasn't always been on the friendliest terms. After all, it was Williamson who seven years ago helped write the state's biology standards that some Christians found objectionable because evolution was presented as fact, not as theory; because the standards did not allow for competing ideas, such as intelligent design, which says that some features of the natural world and evolution itself are best explained by the existence of a creator. Williamson says the e-mail he received back then was visceral.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: They were mostly giving me very vivid descriptions of hell and where I was going.

SANCHEZ: But what has really concerned Williamson since then is the chilling effect that this bitter debate over the origin of life and evolution has had on teachers.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Most of us are pragmatically somewhere here in the middle.

SANCHEZ: Yeah.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: And that's where I would like to try to move the argument to. I hope this doesn't sound trivial, but, you know, you can just say, `God did it.' And we've had that. That's how we got started in science, to try to celebrate the beauty of God's creation by documenting it.

SANCHEZ: Williamson, a Christian, says he has no problems teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. But some people, he says, think that the more we rely on science to explain the natural world, the more we take away from the mystery and wonder of creation. Williamson says it's difficult to juggle all these things in the classroom.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do this without hurting my students--talking about the science, and it's a difficult situation. And so I ask them, `Just go ahead and keep your faith. Learn about this. I'm not asking you to convert.' As a matter of fact, I have a lot of my students who are very creationist, no doubt about it. So I'm not having that big an impact on their religious feelings.

SANCHEZ: By holding hearings on evolution yet again, says Williamson, the state Board of Education will drag Kansas and teachers back to square one, back to a religious war. Jonathan Wells, an advocate of intelligent design, disagrees. He says this is a healthy debate because it'll force teachers to question the evidence for Darwinian evolution.

Mr. JONATHAN WELLS (Biologist; Author): Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's no evidence for Darwin's theory. But as a scientist, I find it far less persuasive than certainly many advocates of Darwinian evolution, someone like Brad Williamson.

SANCHEZ: Wells is scheduled to testify before the board tomorrow on behalf of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Brad Williamson says if Wells or anybody else wants to point to the weaknesses of Darwinian evolution, that's fine because that's how science works. It's self-correcting, he says.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Science doesn't have all the answers and won't have all the answers, and there will never be a perfect description. So I don't want to be put in that position of trying to question a kid's faith.

SANCHEZ: `No teacher should question a student's faith,' says Williamson, `but pitting God against science, that's a mistake, too.' Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Kansas is not the only state debating how to teach students about the origins of life on Earth. You can find out how the issue is playing in several other states by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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