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.

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.


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


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