Reprinted with permission from The New Republic

Isn't evolution wonderful? Just consider the many different ways natural selection has helped various species protect themselves against danger. Cats have claws. Porcupines have bristles. And some politicians have antennae that can sense the approach of a difficult issue of principle from miles away, leaving them plenty of time to scurry into the nearest patch of tall grass.

Or so it would seem, judging by the equivocal responses the presidential candidates have given to the Kansas Board of Education's decision to purge all mention of evolution (and the Big Bang theory) from the state's recommended science curriculum and standardized tests. Henceforth it will be up to each of the state's 304 local school districts to determine how much time to spend on the biblical "view" of life's origins on the one hand and the Darwinian "view" on the other. Yes, teaching microevolution--how individual species change due to human intervention or short-term environmental changes--is still officially approved. After all, what would Kansas be without all those carefully bred steers and hardy strains of wheat?

I don't think it's possible to be outraged enough by this ludicrous decree.

I don't think it's possible to be outraged enough by this ludicrous decree. To be sure, the worst-case scenario--an outright statewide ban on teaching evolution and the substitution of crackpot "creation science"--is unlikely to materialize. As The New York Times has reported, many Kansas school districts will exercise their right to keep on teaching evolution, a "point of view" (the Times' own amazingly gutless phrase) that is supported by a massive body of material evidence and that undergirds much of the modern revolution in lifesaving medical care to boot. (Or would the Kansas Board of Education like to opt out of the coming wave of gene therapies for fatal congenital illnesses?) No, what Kansas will have instead is a second-worst-case scenario, in which some students get a twenty-first-century education, others get a fourteenth-century education, and everyone is hobbled by confusion and bureaucratic hassles.

Yet the candidates appear to believe that even the mildest expression of disgust about this would be too risky. Sure, we expected wing nuts like Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan to heap sympathy on the Kansas decision. But what about purportedly more sensible Republicans like George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole? Kansas's own moderate Republican governor is unabashedly livid at the board's action. But Bush practically endorsed it, muttering, "I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started." Dole, on CBS's "Face the Nation," stammered platitudes about the need to teach both the Bible and evolution before throwing up her hands: "I'm going to leave this as I'm a person of strong faith. This is a state issue."

And the Democrats? Not much better. When The New Republic called Bill Bradley's campaign for a comment, spokesman Tony Wyche said, "It is safe to say that Senator Bradley would have opposed that decision"--and made it clear that the senator would have no more to say publicly on the matter. So Bradley's for evolution, but he's not a nut about it. Over at Gore HQ, spokesman Roger Salazar confirmed that the veep neither condemns nor endorses the Kansas board's decision. Gore believes both that "evolution should be taught in schools" and that "matters of curriculum should be decided by local school boards," Salazar told me.

Gore's waffle is especially disappointing, both because he's running as the candidate of the ultramodern age (it's pretty obvious he doesn't question the factuality of evolution) and because he's about the only candidate who has actually tried to think through the relationship between religion and science for himself. His 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," contains a passage in which Gore suggests that the Big Bang and Genesis can be reconciled by positing the existence of a divine intelligence prior to the Big Bang. Various versions of this interesting compromise between scientific materialism and biblical literalism are gaining currency among both theologians and scientists. Gore could have taken the Kansas debacle as an occasion to lead a little national discussion about such matters--i.e. to make the case that the Bible and evolution are not mutually exclusive "points of view" and that, therefore, believing parents needn't let themselves be bullied by the "creation science" crowd. But he passed.

The Kansas flap is useful in one way, though: as a reminder of just how sprawling and decentralized our system of public education is. The federal government's power is pretty much limited to whatever indirect leverage it can acquire through subsidizing teacher salaries, school construction, and the like. When the American system works well, it produces public schools that are relatively responsive to the needs of the populations they serve. When it works badly, the results range from the squalor of Washington, D.C., inner-city schools to the mental hijacking of an entire state's schoolchildren by sectarian zealots.

But, by and large, the voters are wary of changing this way of doing business. Thus, the presidential candidates bow at the altar of "local control." In so doing, they reveal the emptiness of their own promises to save education-whether their solution is to free local schools from the purportedly iron grip of Washington or to push grand new reform legislation through Congress. (The Kansas state school board's attack on the teaching of truthful biology certainly lowers my hopes that we'll ever realize President Clinton's dream of an effective, universally accepted set of national standards for student knowledge and achievement.)

But the presidency can be a bully pulpit, a platform from which to rally public support for the best new ideas in education and to rally opposition to the worst ones. You would have thought that purging a huge body of scientific knowledge from the require d curriculum of much of an American state would fit into the latter category. And you would have thought that at least one of our current crop of would-be presidents could have managed to say so-loud and clear.

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