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.)