In Honnye Athanasiou’s social studies class at Lakewood Middle School, the World History unit on the Stone Age began last week with a presentation on evolution and creationism. The three-day lesson, which presents various arguments expressing doubt about evolution from a creationist perspective, has at least several Lakewood parents alarmed, and according to local civil liberties advocates, it violates the First Amendment.
“My [child] told me that the teacher was teaching him about creationism,” said a parent of a student in Athanasiou’s class (the parent asked not to be named out of concern of drawing attention to his child in the class). “He knew what he was being taught was pretty inappropriate. I asked him about it, and it sounded pretty religious to me for a public school. I asked him if he would get a copy of the power point presentation. The teacher said something to the effect of, ‘Why are you wanting this? Are you trying to get me in trouble?’ “
Eventually the teacher agreed to provide a copy to the parent. The power point, titled “Evolution v. Creation,” is divided into sections — 17 slides each — titled “A Historical Perspective,” “Arguments for Evolution” and “Arguments for Creation.” You can see the full power point here.
Critics say that the presentation essentially amounts to a brief against the theory of evolution, with an inadequate explanation of the science behind evolution on the one hand, and on the other hand, arguments and claims against evolution that have been widely debunked in the scientific community, though students would not know that from the power point presentation. The section on historical perspective is dominated by a history of Christian thought and sprinkled with quotes on the value of religious belief. The “Arguments for Evolution” section includes a quote from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins stating that his belief in evolution led him to atheism.
“It’s full of misrepresentations and bad science, and the substance of one religious tradition’s creation story is presented as the only objection to the science,” said Anne Orsi, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. “I can see talking about it briefly in a social studies class — to tell the students that there is a controversy among people who are fundamentalist believers in a certain branch of religion. … They can examine why those people might be upset and why there has to be so much litigation over it. But this presentation goes way too far. It actually attacks scientific theory, and does so without correctly explaining the science behind it. It actually misrepresents the science. The teacher is using a back door method to ‘teach the controversy’ in direct violation of [case law both in Arkansas and nationally].”
Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, called the power point “nothing more than a form of Christian apologetics, an attempt to prove the existence of God, the Christian God, with ‘reasoned’ argument. This is not just about evolution versus creation, and it is certainly not evenhanded. I wish more people understood that the reason we have religious liberty here is that we don’t allow government (here, a public school) to teach religion. But the sad truth is that many people don’t want religious liberty: They want their religion to dominate. And that’s what we have to be wary of. That’s how you wind up with a state religion and religious persecution.”
The parent with a child in Athanasiou’s class said that according to his child, Athanasiou herself clearly seemed to come from a creationist perspective as she presented the power point. “The power point jumped out at me as edging these kids toward doubting science and thinking there’s debate in scientific areas where there’s really not debate,” the parent said. “I would think the science teacher would have some un-teaching to do because of this history lesson.”
Another parent, who also asked not to be named, agreed. This parent’s child is in a different seventh-grade social studies class and did not see the power point, but the parent said that Athanasiou’s lesson made him fear what else was going at Lakewood. “My concern is presenting evolution as if it were less than creationism,” this parent said. “Creationism is a philosophy, it’s not a science. My concern as a parent is that perhaps the children are being misled by a teacher, who is not a science teacher, presenting information that’s incorrect. If this is being allowed to happen with one teacher, than I’m concerned that it’s happening in other classrooms. Either the supervisor hasn’t been supervising thoroughly enough or there’s just something going on here.”
The Lakewood principal, Lee Tackett, said she sees nothing wrong with the lesson. “Any time you study World History, you go into the historical perspective of it and there are always arguments for or against evolution, or for or against creationism. So it’s two opposing theories that make up part of the Stone Age era.”
Asked whether Athanasiou’s approach was standard at the school, Tackett said, “Oh yeah. They talk about Muslims. They talk about all kinds of religions in any type of World History. It’s not that they are pushing beliefs on anyone. It’s a historical perspective. This is kind of what started these eras. We don’t push — we use these pieces of information and historical documents and historical evidence to put it out there.”
Tackett said that Athanasiou “was very specific in saying that she was not pushing it one way or the other. But this is an introduction to the historical piece of the Stone Age.”
While she has not closely analyzed the power point, Tackett said that it appeared above-board. “It’s a lot of information,” she said. “We’re trying to take those kids to higher levels of thinking.” Tackett said that in order to teach about the Stone Age, it was important to bring up evolution “and creationism, both.”
Asked about the constitutional ramifications, Tackett said, “I believe that the legal arguments are if I go in and tell a kid that this is what you’ve got to believe. [We] are presenting both sides of the coin.”
North Little Rock School District spokesperson Shara Brazear agreed. “Certainly it’s in our process that if you’re going to look at one — either evolution or creationism — as long as they study that, and they give information on both.” She said that the approach taken by Athanasiou fit with standard practice in the district.
Shown the power point, Brazear said, “It does give quite a bit of information on both. It wasn’t trying to sway one way or the other.”
Brazear said that she’s never “had to answer a question or deal with an issue” regarding teaching creationism alongside evolution, “and I’ve been here 20 years.”
Told of reactions from the district and the school, the ACLU’s Sklar said, “My response is to wonder aloud whether people really don’t know what the law is — in which case we have a lot of educating to do — or whether people just really don’t care, in which case I think that they are teaching a very bad civics lesson in that social studies class about respect for the Constitution and other people’s rights.”
“This violates the First Amendment,” Sklar said. “It’s unconstitutional. The concept of equal time does not apply in this sense. Nobody is supposed to be teaching a religious point of view in a public school.”
This isn’t the first time that issues surrounding the teaching of evolution have cropped up at Lakewood Middle. Last year, an eighth-grade science class held a debate on creationism versus evolution.
“The entire subject irked me because I thought, this is a science class, there shouldn’t be a debate about that in science class,” Joan Barnes, whose son was in the class said. Barnes initially thought it would be arranged like a formal debate with students assigned to each side. Instead, her son was the only one to argue for evolution; everyone else in the classroom argued for creationism. “He was giving his reasons and the whole class was yelling at him,” Barnes said. “Even the teacher was making the argument for creationism as well.”
Barnes now has another son currently in seventh grade at Lakewood Middle. He is in a different social studies class, and was not shown the power point (instead, Barnes said, they were shown a video about prehistoric man; the teacher commented several times that he did not believe the information in the video). Still, Barnes is concerned about what happened in Athanasiou’s class. “I understand learning about religions,” she said. “It does make me uncomfortable when creationism is even brought up at school. … I remember when I was a kid in social studies, we never talked about that stuff.”
Though she was upset by what happened with the evolution “debate” in the science class last year, she agreed not to make a complaint to the school at the time, at the request of her son.
“I agreed not to because he was afraid that it would affect his grade,” she said. “He did get an A in the class. We kind of just chalked it up to one of those things that happens in Arkansas.”