Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Dawkins’ support for private schools lets Loch Ness Monster into biology class

Leigh Phillips argues that the radical privatisation of education is leading to creationist teaching in US classrooms

July 11, 2012
8 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


  share     tweet  

The news that thousands of Louisiana school-children will be taught that the Loch Ness Monster is real in order to show that the theory of evolution is false pinged around the atheist Twittersphere this week. Oh how the enlightened creatures on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science discussion board chortled at yet another wacky tale of the American Taliban, sure to be shelved alongside efforts by North Carolina Senators this month to legislate away non-linear extrapolation of sea-level rise and the same state’s constitutional amendment in May restricting marriage to one man and one woman.

Largely missed in much of the coverage that focussed on the sheer nuttiness of those crazy happy-clappy Yanks, was that this sorry development is the predictable outcome of the broadest assault on public education yet by a US state, an agenda of radical privatisation that some of the most prominent New Atheists such as Dawkins, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and philosopher AC Grayling appear to be more than comfortable with.

As part of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s education system passed in May, pupils are to receive publicly funded vouchers to attend privately-run Christian schools teaching the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme, which attempts to disprove evolution.

One ACE textbook reads: ‘Have you heard of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland? “Nessie” for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.’

The Creationist, ‘young Earth’ logic holds that if it can be proved that dinosaurs still exist, then Darwinian evolution is shown to be false.

‘The ACE curriculum seems even to get the details wrong,’ Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science in Education, America’s leading anti-creationist organisation, told this reporter. ‘The ACE textbook identifies the Loch Ness monster as a plesiosaur – but plesiosaurs weren’t dinosaurs, as any eleven-year-old interested in palaeontology could have told them.’

‘The ACE curriculum wouldn’t be appropriate for public schools, both because of its scientific failing and because of its religious agenda,’ he said, adding that ACE and other fundamentalist materials are widely used in Christian schools. ‘But the situation in Louisiana is complex, because a new state-wide private school voucher program is involved, and it’s unclear to what degree the state will be required to oversee curriculum and instruction in the schools benefiting from the vouchers.’

Jindal’s law, the focus of two lawsuits from teachers’ associations, establishes the largest voucher programme of any state in the US. So far, around 125 private and religious schools have the green light to receive publicly funded vouchers given to families to pay for tuition. The vouchers shift millions of dollars out of the public education budget, delivering a windfall of cash to fundamentalist schools, worsening conditions in the public sector.

Any organisation that declares it can provide educational services is entitled to receive the vouchers. Democratic oversight of quality or curriculum has been replaced by ‘parent choice’.

Diane Ravitch, US Undersecretary of Education under George H. W. Bush and a one-time booster of vouchers and charter schools, reversed her opinion in the wake of a major national evaluation by only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations that showed 17 per cent of charter schools received higher scores, 46 per cent were no different, and 37 per cent performed significantly worse than public schools.

Describing her outrage at Jindal’s scheme, she wrote this month: ‘The voucher programme is a bold effort to privatise public education by taking money away from public schools and giving it to anyone who claims that they can offer some sort of an educational or tutoring or apprenticeship program, in person or online, regardless of its quality.’

The school that is to receive the most voucher students, New Living Word in Ruston, has no library, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, and lessons are composed of instructional videos about chemistry or English with verses from the Bible plonked in the middle.

It is not that Louisiana authorities are not performing due diligence; the undermining of such oversight and checks is intrinsic to such systems.

Defending the plan, state education commissioner John White said: ‘To me, it’s a moral outrage that the government would say, “We know what’s best for your child”…Who are we to tell parents we know better?’

In 2013, the state plans to extend the programme to ‘mini-vouchers’ that can be cashed by private vendors for tutoring, online courses and apprenticeships, further chipping away at public education funds.

Louisiana is not some bumpkin outlier. Public cash being channelled toward Christian right teaching is happening in at least 13 US states, according to Bruce Wilson, a researcher on the role of religion in American politics, delivering funds to some 200,000 pupils.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last month unveiled his plan for education, which would see Jindal’s voucher scheme rolled out nationwide.

Wilson argues that under Romney’s plan, schools employing ACE curriculum and similar efforts such as the 2007 edition of the Bob Jones University biology textbook that tells students: ‘Is it possible that a fire-breathing animal really existed? Today some scientists are saying yes. They have found large chambers in certain dinosaur skulls… The large skull chambers could have contained special chemical-producing glands. When the animal forced the chemicals out of its mouth or nose, these substances may have combined and produced fire and smoke… Dinosaurs and humans were definitely on earth at the same time and may have even lived side by side within the past few thousand years.’

Beyond the lack of evidence for improved educational results, one of the key criticisms opponents mount against vouchers systems, charter schools and their UK variation, academy schools, is that all these versions of introduction of ‘choice’ into public education actually eliminate or significantly reduce democratic accountability.

In a number of US states, members of a local board of education are elected by voters; school budgets face referenda; meetings of the board must be announced in advance, open to the public and entertain concerns of citizens, while schools awarded vouchers, charter schools, free schools and academies are no longer democratically accountable to local communities.

This is why it is far from unfair to suggest that Dawkins, Krauss, Grayling and company are inadvertently aiding the creationist presence of Nessie in schools. Asked in a chat in 2010 on Mumsnet, the online discussion for parents, whether he would support the creation of an atheist free school, Dawkins replied: ‘I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school.’ And, taking the unaccountable private approach to the post-secondary level, these three noted New Atheists are pushing ahead with the establishment of the New College of the Humanities, a private, for-profit, elite US-style university in the UK offering £18,000-a-year courses. Grayling for his part has said that said the private route is the only path left to deliver a high-quality humanities education.

Dawkins, Grayling and the rest of the atheism-for-elites cohort will say that their efforts would be precisely the opposite of what perhaps could be described as Louisiana’s Schools of Caledonian Cryptozoology.

But surely the point is not to have atheist schools for the godless wealthy and Bible-thumping schools for everyone else, but to ensure through the democratic construction of secular curricula – which is best ensured via healthily funded state schools – high-quality education for all.

Sneering at God-botherers in the US south is easy. The biggest blow Dawkins and friends can deliver to creationism in schools is to come out robustly in favour of public education.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


24