You could attend decades' worth of school board meetings in East Tennessee and most other places without ever seeing what observers were presented with on April 7 by the Knox County school board: an actual motion by a board member to ban a textbook.
After sometimes heated discussion of a parent's complaint about a brief description of Christian creationism in the book, Asking About Life, board member Cindy Buttry moved "that the book be banned from Knox County schools."
With the likely outcome of a vote unclear, board Chair Indya Kincannon used a parliamentary maneuver to postpone the issue until the board's May meeting. At the moment, the board stands adjourned with Buttry's motion still on the table.
"I felt like the meeting was devolving a little bit and getting emotional," Kincannon said a few days later, explaining her assertion of "personal privilege" to shut down the debate, "and we weren't going to be able to reach an even-keeled, reasonable conclusion."
Kurt Zimmermann, a Farragut High School parent, filed a complaint in December about the honors biology 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." Zimmermann appealed to the school board, setting the stage for last week's collision of politics, religion, and science.
Speaking to the board, 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. In the ensuing board discussion, it became apparent that several board members, including Buttry, Robert Bratton, Sam Anderson, and Patrick Richmond, were sympathetic to Zimmermann's sense of grievance. Debate quickly moved beyond the semantics of the word "myth" to broader concerns, with Anderson declaring, "I personally believe that there has to be some intelligence in the design of life, and no science teacher would ever be able to convince me different than that. It didn't just happen in Walden's Pond."
Donna Wright, the school system's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said a few days after the meeting that she had never seen a textbook complaint reach the point of a board motion to remove material from the classroom. "This is not to negate or minimize the parent's concern with the language," she says. "My concern is when we get to where we are going to ban a book, pull a book, because of the actions of a few."
Becky Ashe, who works under Wright as executive director of curriculum and instruction, says she found it "shocking" that a board member would move to ban the book. Ashe, a former science teacher who oversaw the most recent science textbook evaluations, says the treatment of evolution in particular gets careful attention to make sure that the material is scholarly and presented clearly. "In both cases, in this textbook, it's exemplary," she says.
Asking About Life was written as a college-level biology text by Allan J. Tobin and Jennie Dusheck. In phone interviews, both authors said they were surprised the book was so widely used in high schools, and stunned that it had provoked such controversy.
"Book banning is very serious, and it's very upsetting to hear," says Tobin, a neuroscientist and former faculty member at Harvard and UCLA (where he was director of the Brain Research Institute).
Dusheck, a science writer with a graduate degree in biology and 25 years experience writing about biology, says the word "myth" in the text reflects how courts have repeatedly characterized Christian creationism: "Over and over, the courts affirm that creationism is religious in nature, and that it's not science."
She adds, "When we're writing, we really try to convey a respect for students, and it would never be our intention to hurt the feelings of students. We like students. We want them to understand biology."
The board debate attracted notice at the University of Tennessee. Andrew Kramer, head of UT's Anthropology Department, says, "To get rid of an entire book that is promoting biology as it is understood and practiced by today's scientists, because of maybe an unfortunate word choice, I think that would be ridiculous."
Gary McCracken, head of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, notes that Tennessee's recent selection for education funding from the federal Race to the Top program was based in part on a commitment to improving science education statewide. "This is in fact a very good biology text," McCracken says of the book.
Buttry did not return calls for comment on her motion to ban the book. Neither did Zimmermann, although he appeared on Fox News the morning after the board meeting, and said, "There's multiple ways they could remedy this. They could modify the book, they could fix that statement."
School board member Dan Murphy, who was the most outspoken defender at the April 7 meeting of the Farragut review committee's decision to keep the book, says any action by the board to restrict or amend the text would just lead to more complaints about the teaching of any number of controversial subjects. He adds that he doesn't think the school board has the expertise to micromanage the curriculum.
"We're going to create the intellectual version of the Tower of Babel," Murphy says.
The board's next regular meeting is scheduled for May 5. Kincannon says, "What I hope happens is that we take this time to study this issue fully, and hear from people on the review committee and people who have taught the class."
She adds, "I'd like to hear from the community as a whole. I think we did not hear from the whole spectrum of people during that one evening."