Ban a Science Book? School Board Delays Action

Board members sympathetic to complaint about anti-Christian 'bias'

With the Knox County school board seemingly minutes away from voting on an unprecedented motion to ban a high school biology textbook Wednesday evening, board Chair Indya Kincannon used a parliamentary procedure to postpone any action until next month.

Kincannon, clearly unhappy with the motion, invoked "personal privilege" to delay consideration of a Farragut parent's complaint about the textbook, Asking About Life, which is used in Knox County honors biology classes.

Kurt Zimmermann, a Farragut High School parent, filed a complaint in December about the textbook's characterization of creationism as a "Biblical myth." (The reference comes in a section of the book that discusses the political and cultural history of the concept of evolution.) A Farragut High School review committee made up of two teachers, two administrators, a student, and a parent considered Zimmermann's complaint and concluded that the textbook was "appropriate." Zimmerman appealed to the school board, setting the stage for Wednesday's collision of politics, religion, and science.

Speaking to the board Wednesday night, Zimmermann said he had been approached by his son and other Farragut students (who he said are also his Sunday School pupils) who were upset about the implication that Christian beliefs are myths. He used the language of civil rights to make his case, saying, "Educational materials that offend, are intolerant, are racist or biased or one-sided in nature should not be used in our school system."

The ensuing board discussion sometimes wandered (there was debate over whether Dictionary.com's definition of "myth" carried as much weight as Merriam-Webster's), but it slowly became apparent that several board members, including Robert Bratton, Sam Anderson, Cindy Buttry, and Patrick Richmond, were sympathetic to Zimmermann's sense of grievance. Buttry, who represents the northwest Knox County 3rd District, praised him for his "courage to come here and do this." ("You have no idea," responded Zimmermann, who had already made dark pronouncements about the toll the effort had taken on him and his family.)

Karen Carson, of the West Knox County 5th District, tried to find middle ground with an amendment that would have upheld the school committee's recommendation but also offered to biology teachers a critical analysis of the textbook submitted by Zimmermann and written by Charles Voss. (Voss, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Louisiana State University, is a longtime activist for the cause of creationism and vice president of an outfit called the Origins Resource Association.) But Carson's amendment satisfied no one, especially after she revised it to make it subject to review by school system science staff, and it failed on a 3-6 vote.

That opened the floor to the real debate, where the most voluble contenders were Anderson, of East Knoxville's 1st District, and Dan Murphy, of the West Knoxville 4th. Anderson started out complaining about what he saw as weaknesses in the school committee's decision to affirm the textbook, but he soon moved into meatier territory. "I personally believe that there has to be some intelligence in the design of life," he declared, "and no science teacher would ever be able to convince me different than that. It didn't just happen in Walden's Pond." He suggested sending the textbook back to the school committee or to Central Office for further review.

Anderson's views were quickly seconded by Bratton, and Buttry went even further. "I think it is offensive," she said of the book's contrast of evolution and creationism. "I take exception to the fact that it's not presented as theory, it doesn't state that it's theory, it presents it almost as, well, a fact. 'This is the way it is.'"

Buttry then offered a substitute motion: "That we not uphold the recommendation of the review committee, and that the book be banned from Knox County schools."

Murphy, who had earlier warned of a "slippery slope" in accommodating the complaints of any one parent or group of parents, responded that he also wasn't happy with the book's use of the word "myth" in talking about Christian creationism. But, he said, "We are going down a road that will politicize every decision made in our schools." If one parent can force changes to one curriculum, Murphy said, any number of other parents will attempt to do the same to any number of other curriculums. He added, "I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater because of that one paragraph."

Superintendent Jim McIntyre also weighed in, asking the board to respect the process that had led the school review committee to recommend retaining the textbook. But Bratton responded that the school board has "the final say" in addressing parent complaints. (Bratton did allow that as the child of educators, he was a little uncomfortable with the word "ban": "I think about burning books when I hear that," he said. But he didn't say he would vote against it.)

At that point, with Buttry's motion still on the table and the likely disposition of a vote entirely unclear, Kincannon (who had sided with Murphy throughout the discussion) shut down debate by postponing further action for a month.

Earlier in the night, Zimmermann had told the board that his complaint had already generated national attention. A Google search Wednesday didn't turn up much more than an Associated Press story on the website of a Huntsville, Ala., TV station. But with an actual motion to ban a textbook, and the national media's Pavlovian interest in all things Tennessee and creationist, the interest level may well go up over the next few weeks.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the district represented by Dan Murphy. It is the 4th, not the 2nd. Also, according to the school board case file, the school review committee included two teachers and two administrators, not three teachers.)

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Comments » 7

SPE825 writes:

I cannot stand when people use an excuse such as "educational materials that offend, are intolerant, are racist or biased in nature should not be used in our school system."

That is too wide of a definition, which could in reality result in everything getting banned. Don't like a history book because women and blacks are not fairly represented (which may be true, of course), ban it! Don't like physics because it might offer a different explination about how the universe functions? Ban it! I could go on and on with Zimmerman's criteria above.

I just think it was foolish of the writers of this text to use a phrase like "biblical myth." What did they expect to happen? Wether you believe or not, you should not degrade anyone by referring to what they believe in as a "myth."

I don't like people banning science books for religious reasons anymore than I would like scientists banning the bible.

It seems that Zimmerman should take up his concerns with the publisher/writers of the book as opposed to trying to ban a book that fits his criteria for only a certain few students. Who gives him the right (or the school board for that matter), the right to take away educational opportunities from other students that might have a different belief set? And come on, did you really think that your honors biology class was going to be religious in nature?

If the faith of these students and Zimmerman is so weak that a high school text book can shake them, then I believe they have their own problems to deal with.

Rikki writes:

The word that needs to be properly defined in this discussion is "evolution." If Cindy Buttry thinks evolution is not a fact, she simply does not know what evolution is. And to say life "just happened in a pond" so belittles the scope of scientific and historical knowledge as to be a far more grievous insult than calling Creationism a "Biblical myth."

Given the long history of resistance and avoidance toward teaching evolution, it's hardly surprising that the idea is so misunderstood. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see elected representatives using a lack of understanding as the basis for their decisions.

Tex59 writes:

It the most stressful thing you can possibly go through. Try to imagine the death of family member, loosing your job, and having your identity stolen (all at the same time); then multiply that pain tenfold. Now add to that the realization that after death you WILL NOT get to see your departed loved ones again and you WILL NOT live forever in paradise. The pain of this loss is SO UNBEARABLE we will fight, argue, and even kill to defend our beliefs.

This is the pain you go through when you realize God is no more real than the Easter bunny and Santa Claus. Now, have a nice day!

Desertphile writes:

Ban a textbook because it tells the truth?! Yet another example of "political correctness" gone amok.

Desertphile writes:

in response to SPE825:

I cannot stand when people use an excuse such as "educational materials that offend, are intolerant, are racist or biased in nature should not be used in our school system."

That is too wide of a definition, which could in reality result in everything getting banned. Don't like a history book because women and blacks are not fairly represented (which may be true, of course), ban it! Don't like physics because it might offer a different explination about how the universe functions? Ban it! I could go on and on with Zimmerman's criteria above.

I just think it was foolish of the writers of this text to use a phrase like "biblical myth." What did they expect to happen? Wether you believe or not, you should not degrade anyone by referring to what they believe in as a "myth."

I don't like people banning science books for religious reasons anymore than I would like scientists banning the bible.

It seems that Zimmerman should take up his concerns with the publisher/writers of the book as opposed to trying to ban a book that fits his criteria for only a certain few students. Who gives him the right (or the school board for that matter), the right to take away educational opportunities from other students that might have a different belief set? And come on, did you really think that your honors biology class was going to be religious in nature?

If the faith of these students and Zimmerman is so weak that a high school text book can shake them, then I believe they have their own problems to deal with.

It does not matter if the truth hurts people's feelings--- it is still the truth, and it should be spoken. Biblical mythology should not receive some kind of politically-correct "free pass" just because some people object to stating mythology is mythology. People who don't like the truth should just grow up.

archknox writes:

Someone really needs to explain to Cindy Buttry the difference between "theory" as a scientific definition and "theory" in common usage. "Almost a fact," as she states as a criticism, doesn't even quite encompass the scientific meaning. The point, ultimately, is that anything is scientifically classified as a theory as long as it's possibly fasifiable. This is a significant difference -- that there is no assumption of inerrancy in science. If you have 1000 pieces of data, and all 1000 support a particular conclusion, it's still scientifically a "theory" in that there's no extrapolation regarding what the 1001th piece of data might show.

I suppose it's really a matter of education versus ignorance, but being that this is a school board, it's particularly troubling, this public airing of one's own ignorance. Personally, I'm offended that someone so demonstrably uneducated as Cindy Buttry is in any way resposible for the education of children.

nicholson writes:

Robert Bratton was my soccer coach as a kid. I always respected him. I am sorely disappointed that he is entertaining the ignorance of Zimmermann and Anderson.

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