President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary has liberal pundits proclaiming that America’s educational sky is falling. DeVos is a prominent Michigan evangelical Christian, with ties to the Christian Reformed Church—the denomination that sponsors Calvin College in Grand Rapids which recently fired a professor for suggesting that Adam and Eve were not real people. DeVos is an advocate of school choice and has supported a voucher movement that now provides tax dollars for families in many states to send their children to private—and religious—schools. Is this not a dangerous person to preside over America’s public schools?
Directing public funds to private schools, of course, is controversial. One critic calls it “raiding the public treasury to subsidize private businesses and religious organizations.” President-elect Trump, says this critic, “has little regard for our nation’s public schools or the constitutional separation of church and state.” Another critic, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, says that De Vos and Trump have a policy that will focus on “defunding and destroying public education in America.”
I don’t have much to say about the funding question, other than to note that we have years of experience with voucher programs now, and it is far from clear that they drain money from the public schools. In principle, a program that provided $7,500 vouchers for children in a school district that was spending $10,000 per pupil would save the public schools a lot of money. A Wisconsin study showed that this was exactly what happened in that state when the voucher program began.
I do want to say something about the church-state issue, however, especially the real and legitimate concern that the voucher program will divert taxpayer funds to schools that teach that the “Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology, and cosmology is a web of lies.”
My perspective comes from teaching science in religious colleges in the Boston area for over three decades. Two of them—Eastern Nazarene and Gordon—were moderate evangelical schools that taught evolution, but enrolled many students who came to college rejecting it. The third—where I was recently appointed the college’s first Professor of Science & Religion—is Stonehill, a liberal Catholic college, where anti-evolution is almost non-existent in the student body. All three institutions have significant constituencies of students educated in private religious secondary schools.
I have also been involved in the evolution controversy for much of my career, publishing hundreds of articles and several books on the topic, and speaking at colleges and universities around the country. My most recent book, with Beacon Press, was Saving the Original Sinner, on the controversy over Adam and Eve. The creationist website, Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, concluded their review of the book with “Shame on Karl Giberson.” I am no stranger to America’s troubled conversation about origins and I know first hand how it divides people.
So let me explain why I don’t think America’s educational sky will fall if Trump and DeVos divert taxpayer money to private schools—even religious ones that teach nonsense about origins.
In the first place, lots of religious schools don’t teach Ken Ham’s nonsense about origins (Ham is the brains behind the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the recently opened Noah’s Ark park). Many schools, especially Catholic ones but even some evangelical schools, teach evolution as they do in public schools. Many such schools use the same textbooks and cover the topics in the same way. On the flip side, studies have shown that many public school teachers in conservative parts of the country simply ignore the topic of evolution to avoid controversy; some even teach creationism in violation of legal guidelines. They teach what they and their students already believe to be true and it all flies under the radar because nobody objects.
A few years ago, I spoke at a secular university in Texas, located not far from Louis Gohmert’s campaign headquarters. My host held a special dinner with students while I was there. She cautioned me before the event: “Don’t think, just because you are at a secular school, that the students accept evolution.” And she was right: Every one of the students was a young earth creationist. A secular education does not inoculate students against creationism.
Secondly, whatever is taught about origins in America’s schools is far less important than what is learned—and that is often remarkably little. Every year I poll my students on their experiences learning evolution. And every year I am amazed at how little they can recall about what they learned—and these are students from exceptionally strong schools in Massachusetts. Virtually none of them can place what they learned in a religious context and many simply did not even think about how the biology they were learning intersected with their religious beliefs. It is simply not the case that our nation’s high school graduates emerge with any sort of “indoctrination” on origins, one way or the other.
Even students that spend K-12 in strictly fundamentalist Christian schools that “protect” them from subversive ideas like evolution and gay marriage often migrate away from their parochial worldviews in college. In The Anointed, I tell the story of one of my students at Gordon College who was raised in a rigorously circumscribed southern Baptist environment that he was only too happy to abandon as a young adult. One of my present students at Stonehill College went to a fundamentalist high school in Massachusetts where the curriculum was essentially the young earth creationism promoted by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. When I asked her why she would come to a liberal Catholic school like Stonehill, she said, “I learned creationism in high school and wanted to learn the other side so I can make up my own mind.” And, after a semester in my class, she has said goodbye to Ken Ham and his nonsensical ideas about origins.
It seems to me that the concerns about what Trump and DeVos might do to America’s schools are overblown. The worried pundits take an overly patronizing approach to our high school students in assuming they will uncritically embrace whatever they are taught; paradoxically, they also assume they will learn what they are taught. They ignore the myriad alternate sources of information and the influence of social media.
DeVos is certainly far less troubling than Jerry Falwell Jr., whose Liberty University rejects broad swaths of contemporary science. DeVos graduated from Calvin College, which has long been a leader in promoting evolution to conservative evangelicals (as long as it leaves room for Adam and Eve.) In fact, Calvin faculty have written some of the most aggressive criticisms of the anti-science of organizations like Liberty University and Answers in Genesis.
When all is said and done, DeVos is probably a reasonable match for the country as it stands today. We could do worse. And, if Falwell really was offered the job and turned it down as he says, we almost did.
About the Author
Karl Giberson teaches science and religion at Stonehill College and is a leading voice in America’s creation/evolution controversy. He is the author of ten books, including Saving Darwin, a Washington Post “Best Book of 2008,”Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, with Randall Stephens. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts. He lives on the web at www.karlgiberson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gibersok.