‘Critical Thinking' or Creationism in Tennessee Classrooms?

Supporters of new education legislation say it promotes objective discussion, but who's really behind it?

State Rep. Bill Dunn wants you to know he is not a glassy-eyed, knuckle-dragging cretin.

Dunn says that since he introduced HB 368 in the House in early February, he's gotten a lot of hate mail, attacking both him and the legislation.

"This is just about using objective scientific facts," says Dunn. It's a phrase he repeats over and over again during a 20-minute phone conversation. Scientific. Objective. Facts.

Dunn sounds genuinely disconcerted that his legislation has created a firestorm of controversy—he just wants to ensure this generation's students learn critical thinking skills, he says.

And on the face of it, the text of HB 368 seems innocuous enough. It reads, in part: "The state board of education … school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment … that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues."

So why, exactly, are science teachers across the state and the American Civil Liberties Union lambasting the legislation (and Dunn)? It comes down to the bill's definition of those "controversial issues": "some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Well, actually it just comes down to evolution.

"No one doubts the value of critical thinking, but this legislation is not aimed at developing students' critical thinking skills," says Hedy Weinberg, the head of the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU. "The bottom line is this kind of legislation emboldens teachers who want to bring their own beliefs into the classroom."

Their own creationist beliefs, Weinberg means. HB 368 would also prohibit schools from doing anything about any teacher who, say, wanted to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, although it also states it "only protects the teaching of scientific information and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine."

Dunn says the bill does not change state curriculum at all, it just protects teachers, which is why the legislation's unofficial title is the Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act. The bill is not, he insists over and over again, about evolution or creationism or intelligent design or the teaching of such. It is about teaching, well, those objective scientific facts again.

But Dunn did not write the legislation himself. It was handed to him, he says, by his friend David Fowler, the former state senator from Chattanooga who gave up his seat in 2006—a seat now held by Sen. Bo Watson, who happens to be sponsoring the same legislation in the senate. Since leaving office, Fowler has been the president of the nonprofit Family Action Council of Tennessee, or FACT, which describes itself on its website as "a grassroots network of concerned citizens" and says its mission is "to promote and defend a culture that values the traditional family, for the sake of the common good."

But FACT didn't exactly spring from the ground up. The organization is actually one of 36 "Family Policy Councils" across the country that are "fully associated" with CitizenLink, the 501(c)(4) lobbying arm of the nonprofit conservative Christian megalith Focus on the Family. The CitizenLink website states, "Each Family Policy Council conducts policy analysis, promotes responsible and informed citizenship, facilitates strategic leadership involvement, and influences public opinion."

FACT, it should be noted, has its own 501(c)(4) lobbying arm as well; it spent $267,258 on lobbying activities from 2006 to 2009, the last fiscal year for which tax data is available. In its 2010 annual report, it states, "FACT was formed in June 2006 by ministry partners of Focus on the Family who saw the need for a statewide organization devoted to identifying, educating, and mobilizing Tennesseans and churches to respond to growing concerns about a wide array of policies at the state and local level negatively impacting the family and religious liberty." The document also notes that the organization restricts hiring to Christians.

The same annual report mentions that FACT is actively involved in promoting Focus on the Family's The Truth Project, which is described as a "DVD-based small group curriculum comprised of 13 one-hour lessons … Each lesson discusses in great detail the relevance and importance of living the Christian worldview in daily life." FACT says it has trained over 300 people to lead Truth Project groups since 2009.

But The Truth Project isn't just Bible study. The fifth lesson, "Science: What is True?" has the following description: "Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy … A careful examination of molecular biology and the fossil record demonstrates that evolution is not a ‘proven fact.'"

And Lesson Nine, "The State: Whose Law?", details: "Of all the social spheres, the state … has the greatest potential to go awry if it oversteps its authority. The civil magistrate must always remember his place under the sovereignty of God."

FACT does not actively promote creationism on its website, and Fowler did not return repeated phone calls for comment. But in a Feb. 21 letter to the online news website the Chattanoogan, he wrote that "it is also appropriate that students understand that intelligent design is a theory that many scientists are beginning to consider and hold because of the weaknesses in the scientific evidence supporting evolution."

In fact, the main text of HB 368 is a revised version of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture "Academic Freedom Act" model legislation. The same text was the basis for bills that failed earlier this year in the Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and New Mexico Legislatures. (A bill requiring schools to teach "a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution" is still moving through the Florida Legislature, and the Texas House is considering a bill prohibiting discrimination against faculty researching intelligent design.)

The Center is a well-funded think-tank based in Seattle that promotes intelligent design and what it calls "neo-Darwinism." The Institute purports to have no religious or political agenda, yet it has board members like Howard Ahmanson, whom the Washington Post says "once said his goal is ‘the total integration of biblical law into our lives.'" It also actively promotes what the Center's website calls "free speech on evolution;" one page on the site states, "Groups like the ACLU are increasingly trying to use the federal courts to impose a gag order on honest discussions about evolution, and we must work aggressively to counter their efforts."

When reached by phone, Casey Luskin, a senior policy analyst with the Center, confirms he assisted Fowler with the legislation.

"This is about science. It's not about religion. And for people who don't believe it, go read the bill," Luskin says. Like Dunn, he sounds personally affronted that anyone would think the bill is about allowing teachers to discuss intelligent design in the classroom. "There is a widespread pattern of discrimination when teachers try to teach the science of evolution in an objective way," Luskin says.

But Becky Ashe, the president of the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Knox County Schools, says there is no discrimination. She says in her decade in the central office, no teacher has been disciplined for mentioning alternative beliefs to evolution in the classroom, and that teachers are instructed to make sure students feel like their beliefs are valued if they bring it up.

"We don't want to make children feel like they're being disobedient to their parents or start questioning their faiths," Ashe says. "What we do expect is that you have to pass a test based on the facts that others are presenting as the best explanative out there."

Ashe says the state's science curriculum, as rewritten in the past few years, teaches critical thinking and is in line with national standards, so if the legislation really is just about critical thinking, it's completely unnecessary.

HB 368 is scheduled for a full vote in the House this Thursday, April 7, and is widely expected to pass. The Senate Education Committee postponed a vote on the bill last week until April 20.