Why doesn’t “free speech” allow the teaching of creationism in public schools?

February 3, 2018 • 12:45 pm

I guess I’ve given the answer to the title question before, but not explicitly. Adam Laats has raised it in a new post on his website I love you but you’re going to hell: Awkward Conversations about school and society.  The relevant post is “Does Jerry Coyne support creationism?” Laats describes himself as “an historian interested in culture and education in the United States.  He taught middle- and high school for ten years in sunny Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He now teaches at Binghamton University (State University of New York).” His profile’s at the second link.

Laat’s beef seems to be this: if I, Professor Ceiling Cat Emeritus, favor free speech on college campuses, why don’t I favor free speech in the classroom? The example he has in mind is the teaching of creationism in science classes, which I oppose. Aren’t I, then, a hypocrite (or at least inconsistent) to allow free speech by Steve Bannon about matters that could be far more harmful than the teaching of creationism in biology class? Why aren’t both “free speech”? Why do I find U of C faulty and students who want to censor Bannon “reprehensible”, but have no quarrel with those who want to keep classrooms creationism-free?

Before I answer those questions—and the answers are no-brainers—I have to say that I’m puzzled about why Laats criticizes me. For he says in his essay that he agrees with me on all counts: “almost all speakers should be allowed to speak on university campuses”, and creationism should not be taught in the classroom, even under the so-called “academic freedom” laws designed to sneak God into science class in the guise of “critical thinking.” So if we both agree, what is Laat’s beef? Why did he write that post.

I think the answer is two-fold. First, he says “maybe I’m just mad because [Coyne] poked fun at ‘humanities’ types like me.” Well, I’m not sure what kind of “humanities type” Laats is. If he’s just a regular scholar (he’s in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Educational Leadership), one engaged in decent scholarship, I have no quarrel with him or his endeavors. My love of the humanities in general is well established. But if he’s an obscurantist postmodernist who writes trivial and impenetrable stuff about the whiteness of pumpkins and the like, then, yes, I’ve poked fun at that “type.” But that, of course, is completely irrelevant to his arguments.

The other beef I discern is this (my emphasis):

When I (and maybe Prof. Coyne would join me) argue against such creationist free speech laws [the “critical thinking” bills that have been proposed in several states’, our motives and goals are not “reprehensible.” We are trying to protect a vital idea—that mainstream science and creationist alternatives are not merely equally valuable scientific understandings. Academic freedom for instructors and free speech for students doesn’t include the right to teach and preach worse science as if it were equal science. People are certainly free to speak their minds about creationism, but schools do not have to pay people to engage in that kind of speech.

Given all that, I don’t understand why Coyne is so quick to bash his Chicago colleagues. Sure, he may disagree with them, but he should recognize his own objections to some purported “free speech” claims. If he did, he would likely have a different take on the “reprehensible” actions of his Bannon-busting colleagues.

I still don’t understand. I do not recognize creationists’ desire to teach goddy stuff in the classroom as a “free speech” claim. The courts have, in fact, repeatedly recognized that teaching creationism in schools violates the very amendment that protects free speech: the First Amendment. Besides protecting public speech, that Amendment also prohibits the entanglement of government with religion. Creationism has been banned in public school classes time after time, and for the same reason: it’s the unconstitutional promulgation of particular religious views in an arm of the government (the schools). When I went after Eric Hedin, who taught Christian views in a science seminar at Ball State University (a pubic school), it was on First Amendment grounds. And, indeed, he was eventually prohibited from teaching any more creationism—a result that won me the Discovery Institute’s “Censor of the Year” award.

As for teaching other lies in the classroom, well, yes, I oppose them, but not on constitutional grounds. If someone taught alchemy in chemistry class, I’d be against that, too, but I wouldn’t call the FFRF on them, for it’s not religion. It’s just awful teaching. And the responsibility to police bad teaching (including lying) in the classroom rests with the school or university alone, not with the courts. That doesn’t mean, though, that I wouldn’t let the relevant people know about it if I thought they didn’t. I’d have to take it on a case by case basis. Hedin’s actions, however, were reported to the FFRF, which threatened Ball State with legal action.

That’s why I would fight tooth and nail to keep creationism out of a public school or university classroom (including my own University, which is private), but wouldn’t try to ban a creationist speaker hosted by my own University. When someone in physics invited William Dembski to speak here in 2014, I expressed my concern, but didn’t try to get his invitation rescinded.

In fact, when Laats ponders my so-called dichotomy of behavior, and tries to find out why I favor free speech for speakers but not teachers pushing creationism, he hits on the correct reason:

  • Professor Coyne might object that Hedin taught religious ideas as science.

But then he responds inaccurately:

Surely Prof. Coyne knows better than me how difficult it is to articulate a simple definition of “science.” Shouldn’t scholars have the freedom to explore those boundaries?

But it doesn’t matter what the definition of “science” is: the First Amendment prohibits pushing religion in the classroom, and creationism is religion. Scholars don’t have the right to “explore” the role of God in the history of life. As I said, I’d object to scholars lying to their students, but would try to take legal action only against lies that violate the Constitution. The courts have defined what “free speech” means, and it doesn’t mean pulling down the wall between church and state.

So I’m baffled by Laats’s piece, especially since we agree on all counts. I can only guess that this is some kind of confusing tirade against me for criticizing the humanities. But I only criticize one species of humanities!

So it goes.

h/t: Douglas E.

37 thoughts on “Why doesn’t “free speech” allow the teaching of creationism in public schools?

  1. Just the idea of the question or that it is a comparison to free speech is rather ignorant. But even if the guy does not know all the arguments you give or he simply does not understand separation of church and state, there is always the educational argument. I would not want to add snake charming to the classes available in school either because it is not education as we know it. And the same can be said for creationism because there is nothing educational about it. It is pure unproven garbage.

  2. Oh man that is good! Free speech … why not creationism…. oh I love it!

    That’s like, “if we left Africa, why are there still people in Africa?”

    “If we descended from apes, why are there still apes?”

    1. Can someone explain what “sub” means on this site? I think I’ve seen the same people using “sub” on different pieces and I thought it meant “subscribed”. Thanks.

      I found the commentary on the “types” PCCE has critiqued in the past funny, but maybe also troubling. The absurdity of certain scholastic pursuits, or something.

      1. It refers to a submersible vehicle, which fires torpedoes.
        For some reason referring to such war boats is used by commenters who post a comment only so that they can check the option to get email updates of the thread.

      2. Oh no not again

        Glad it wasn’t me this time

        This is a thing – typing “sub” in comments on a blo— errr … WEBSITE.

  3. Laats describes himself as “an historian …”

    Not to hijack this thread or anything, but does it bug anyone else when people put an “an” in front of words (like “history” or “hospital” or “human”) in which the initial “h” is articulated?

    I save the two-letter indefinite article for words (like “honor” and “hour”) where the initial “h” is as silent as Melania Trump.

      1. Really? When speaking you say things like “an human being” and “an humorous story”? ‘Cause that’s not something I hear much. Maybe it’s a regional variation (though I’ve spent time in a number of regions of the US and don’t recall hearing it).

        I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong; I’m simply saying that it sounds odd to me — and that, as Samuel Johnson observed, “the pen must at length comply the tongue.”

        1. I agree with Ken wholeheartedly, and his examples are apt (how about “have an happy birthday,” or “an hat on his head”?). As the Purdue site from Bob points out, it’s the sound that follows the article that determines the proper article. Frequent offenses have to with history/historical and hypothesis. I don’t think it’s especially regional in the US, but suspect when it occurs the usage is an American holdover from accents I associate with some in the the UK. Seems the latter often use a silent “h” that we would pronounce in the US.

          While I’m at it, our academic Laats is quoted as saying “Surely Prof. Coyne knows better than me….” It should be “better than I.” Would you say “Surely Prof. Coyne knows better than me do”?

          1. ““have an happy birthday,” or “an hat on his head””


            I never thought of that before…

            Because, I think, we _speak_ those things *more often* than _writr them…


  4. Laats’ post seems poorly thought out, as you suggest. How a school decides to teach biology, or what teachers should be hired for that purpose, are not “free speech” considerations. This is similar to the distinction between a white supremacist’s right to speak and the decision to provide them a platform. The former is a free speech issue and the latter is not.

  5. Is Laats trying to say that the presentation of material by a teacher or professor in a classroom setting is equivalent to a separate speaker invited to speak in a separate lecture? I think this is the only basis on which his argument makes any sense, and yet these two situations have important differences that show that they are not equivalent.

  6. He seems not to recognize the differences between free speech and compulsory indoctrination, the latter of which the State teaching creationism would be.

    Or, actually, he does seem to get it, but somehow can’t shake the idea that somehow a speech that is freely open to be heard or ignored isn’t all that different. Well, it is, one could very well argue (not on First Amendment grounds, but on merit) that Bannon should not teach anything at the University, while it’s hardly free speech if people who say what Bannon might is reason for deplatforming and/or disruption.

    Of course in a legal senseit isn’t all that different, because the private university can very well deplatform or censor Bannon on its campus. What matters is the sense of what university is about, which includes relatively free speech (no, no one is owed a platform, there needs to be some demand for it (who wants to hear, say, a bunch of Holocaust deniers?–not that none should speak at uni ever)), the debate of ideas. That may include ID/creationism, especially if they can ever say anything new.

    The fight was never that Bannon should become a professor at the university. Probably he shouldn’t, and neither should any creationist who would promote religious ideas in the classroom.

    Glen Davidson

  7. The courts have, in fact, repeatedly recognized that teaching creationism in schools violates the very amendment that protects free speech: the First Amendment.

    Different clauses, but yeah.

    If someone taught alchemy in chemistry class, I’d be against that, too, but I wouldn’t call the FFRF on them …

    If, on the other hand, the chemistry teacher taught transubstantiation …

  8. Among the many wonderful Christopher Hitchens clips on Youtube, perhaps the funniest are ones in which he skewers the notion of giving Intelligent Design “equal time” in the schools. “After Chemistry class,” he purrs, “remember to go to your Alchemy period. And then, darlings, the Astronomy lecture will be followed by your Astrology class.”

  9. It’s sad that so many people seem confused on these issues, including some in academia. Public schools can’t teach a particular religious belief as fact, that’s law. Outside of the classroom though, anyone can express any dumb idea they like, so long as it doesn’t incite immediate violence or engage in slander.

  10. I always “teach the controversy” in class and in twenty-odd years I’ve only ever had one complaint. I cant help it if creationism is a self-mocking idea? Once they’ve seen this video then most creationists want to learn about evolution–or at the very least, they shut up!

    1. Very good. This broader issue of broadcasting ones’ views in a university or classroom is a slightly intricate one, and the issue should be discussed as a means to help us navigate our way through the issue.
      Like you I agree that the speech that takes outside of the classroom should be relatively untrammeled, barring speech that is an immediate threat of course. So let the creationsists have a platform on university grounds, outside of the scheduled classes. Let the climate change deniers and those who believe in bigfoot and UFOs have their say as well. I would not be happy about it and would worry about our reputation, but if they follow local rules for meeting and speaking, I don’t think they should be stopped.

      But I would not be happy about it.

  11. Rather than an offended humanities instructor, he comes across as an offended “free speech butter”.

    In his bl*g discussion thread he writes:

    “I don’t think it’s simply “reprehensible” to argue in favor of banning some speakers. To the contrary, I think it is worth talking about.”

    Banning speech is a worthwhile discussion? Sounds great if you’re the one with the power.

  12. The first amendment puts restrictions on government, including government schools. That’s the extent of it. I wish there were as strong a movement to teach civics in public schools as there is to teach creationism. Maybe then we could experience intelligent public discourse regarding free speech.

  13. It’s thinking like this – an ignoramus’s version of philosophy – that gives philosophy a bad name.

    And I say this thinking back years and years ago before I stopped making fun of philosophy because it seemed to actually work for me … if that makes sense…

    Corse _I_ could give philosophy a bad name too, but… saving creationism with a free speech argument?

  14. The courts have defined what “free speech” means

    You agree with the court’s ruling on separation of church and state, but do you agree with their ruling on Citizens United? I’m not advocating breaking the law, but I’m suggesting government mandates on allowed communication are rather capricious and shouldn’t be held up as a reverential ideal – it’s just what we’re stuck with right now.

  15. IF(!!) there is a place for creationism in any classroom, it would be in a class on either philosophy of science, placed side by side with rebuttals, or in a class on the history and sociology of science.

    Sometimes it seems to me that Darwinism is the great Rorshach inkblot test or our era.
    What you think about it’s moral and religious implications says as much about you as it does about biology. But everyone should acknowledge, there is no universal agreement on its ethical implications.

    Finally, it is dismaying to me that some people who teach about post-modernism don’t even know about the Sokal hoax, let alone have a response to it.

    1. My first job after graduation in the seventies was in the History of Medicine in the Science Museum in London. as part of the job, I was intended to do a Masters course in the History of Religion and Science (there were also other combination options: Technology/Medicine/Philosophy).
      This is of course an extremely valid and wide field of study, which will include examination of how the two disciplines have been in agreement or conflict over various issues and ideas over history.
      This could also be a legitimate field of study in a public school. My school offered an A-level course called General Studies. This consisted of a number of short courses (say six lessons in each discipline over two years).
      Some of the subjects covered were: science for the humanities, economics, philosophy, computing, music, graphic art, languages, English literature, current affairs.
      Ideas concerning Science, Religion and Philosophy could be placed without much harm (fingers crossed) in a course of this type. It does not require in-depth study of the issues, but a nod in that direction could round out one’s education a bit.
      Student’s studying only sciences (like myself) do not get access to ideas from other disciplines and an exchange of ideas can make a welcome change.

      That said, it is evident that the issue of Creationism in the classroom is more of a power game.

  16. Some Universities teach creationism. In fact, I do not know of anyone who had used the argument that creationism cannot be taught because it is a reflection of anti-free speech.

    Anyone, can profess that jello made humans thousands of years ago. That’s free speech. Anyone can insist that dogs conjure electrons in their brains and that makes all the universe’s electrons. And I’ve not heard of any university being restricted to teach such nonsense.

    The reason creationism is not taught is because it doesn’t work.

  17. Further proof that you have to be capable of an incredible level of self-delusion and tortuous rationalization in order to be a creationist.

  18. Although there are few exceptions to free speech, Fraud is one of them. The other common exception is speech for organizing violence or other forms of immediate harm.

    Teaching creationism in a science class is a form of fraud. Creationism is not science. If I was teaching a Sunday school class at a church and instead taught the children that God doesn’t exist and that the bible is mostly myths, the parents and students would have good reason to be upset with me. Teaching atheism in sunday school and teaching creation in a science class are both violations of the purpose of those classes.

  19. Well, and then there is the point that Creationism IS NOT SCIENCE! (And, yes, I am shouting!) The subject does not have roots in nature or really any real phenomena. Where did the idea come from? A scientist? No? A science? No. From Nature? No! It really needs to be taught alongside all other supernatural phenomena, that is nowhere near our schools!

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