I feel a little bad for Brandon Pettenger, who got into trouble recently for injecting creationism into his science class at Arroyo Grande High School, because I assume his heart was in the right place when he developed the lesson plan.
By having his heart in the right place, I mean that his intention was to spark some critical thinking and not foist his personal faith on a captive audience of unsuspecting public school kids.
Pettenger drew the wrath of critics and the district administration when he had his life sciences students spend three periods watching a 2014 debate between scientist Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the guy who founded the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
Word got out, complaints came in and Pettenger was apparently removed from teaching life sciences, although the district won’t say specifically what action it took in the case beyond using it as an opportunity to remind the staff just where and when they can talk about exactly how Jesus turned water into wine and Moses parted the Red Sea.
Never miss a local story.
The state rule on that, apparently, is nowhere near a room with microscopes and Bunsen burners.
To be clear, I’m hardly a fan of creationism. I’d be content to call the whole thing a massive fairy tale and hand discussion of the topic over to the sociology department.
But I do see great value in teaching students to analyze and think independently and skeptically about the vast array of competing information that bombards them on a daily basis.
So I am a little dismayed that under state law the word “creationism” cannot even be raised in a science class, because how better can you debunk these myths than by exposing them to the empirical truths of the natural world?
When I was in high school, we spent a couple weeks in English one year reading the Bible as literature. The unit was presented very clearly from the start as no endorsement of religion. It was simply an analytical look at the single most influential book in human history.
That was 20-some years ago, and California’s position on the matter hasn’t changed, with consideration of religious topics like this restricted to history, social sciences and language arts classes.
While this is all well and good, those are not the fields of study that can best evaluate the tenets of creationism specifically and why they’re a bunch of malarkey.
On the contrary, the science classroom is exactly the place where that could — and maybe should — occur.
We can examine the bones of dinosaurs and early human ancestors to prove the two never walked the Earth together, despite what the Creation Museum claims.
We could explore just why it would be obviously impossible for Noah to get two of every creature into an ark to avoid the great flood. He was in the Middle East, for crying out loud. How would he get his hands on polar bears, penguins and all the many other species of animals that live in unique habitats half a world away?
We can study astronomy, light and matter to understand the formation of the universe, which most certainly did not occur a mere 6,000 years ago.
Of course, if you walk far enough on that path into the distant history of life, eventually you must confront the unexplained, questions like the Big Bang and what may have caused it. Which leads ultimately to the theory of a higher power.
Now we’ve left the realm of science. And this is where it gets dicey, I guess, if you’re one of the people tasked with forming a public school curriculum that can be followed consistently across thousands of campuses.
So they drew a line.
But in a way, it’s arbitrary and a bit of a shame, because there are kids growing up who will be exposed to the science of evolution and the beliefs of creationism separate from each other, as if they can somehow coexist simultaneously.
They may not be given the opportunity to see how one debunks the other — how one is built on material evidence we can examine and study, while the other is entirely dependent on blind trust in an ancient text.
It’s only when you weigh all the considerations together that you can truly understand the difference between matters of fact and matters of faith, where one ends and the other begins.
Perhaps a high school science class isn’t the best place for that evaluation. But it’s not the worst place, either.