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.


Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


24