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Creationism: Monkey Business In The Classroom

News: Analysis & Commentary: PUBLISHING


A science text is customized to mollify creationists in Georgia

Teachers call them "science in a box"--self-contained packages of teaching tools that make it easy to customize elementary-school science instruction. Textbooks, audiovisual aids, compact disks, and even items such as aquariums are packaged together by a publisher to suit a school district's needs.

But it's what's being left out of science-in-a-box packages in Cobb County, Ga. that is raising new questions about academic freedom. After several parents complained that a textbook did not include creation theory to explain the origin of the universe, textbook publisher Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Inc. agreed to custom-publish a version of its Changing Earth text that eliminates a chapter called "Birth of Earth."

ATTACK. Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies, which publishes BUSINESS WEEK, sees the move as good business. But some education experts see it as yet another attack by creationists on the teaching of commonly accepted evolution theories in public school classrooms.

Cobb County is highly conservative: It is home base to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and in 1993 passed a resolution criticizing the "homosexual lifestyle." But its effort to eliminate evolution from elementary classrooms is part of a national trend. In Tennessee--where the evolution debate pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 Scopes monkey trial--state lawmakers are considering a bill requiring schools to fire teachers who teach evolution as fact. In Hall County, Ga., teachers are required to discuss creationism. And the New Hampshire legislature is considering making it illegal to teach evolution without parental consent.

In Cobb County, the changes to Changing Earth began when parent Jeffrey K. Wright complained that the county's proposed fourth-grade science text did not include creation theory. Wright and his wife, Beth, particularly objected to an exercise in the "Birth of Earth" chapter that asked students to argue for a theory on the origin of the universe, but did not list creationism. "We're not fanatics," says Beth Wright, "but we believe in creation. If creation isn't being taught, then nothing should be taught."

Officials at the county school board say such a solution made perfect sense. Carol A. Mudd, supervisor of math and science curricula, says that when the county chose Changing Earth, evolution theory "was one component of the book that was really above the fourth-grade level" and was a concern from the start. "Macmillan says this is a build-your-own program, so it seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do" to ask to have the chapter out. Evolution, she says, is still taught in grades six and eight and in high school. And Changing Earth does contain references to evolution in other parts of the book.

Macmillan says it tries simply to meet the demands of school districts, as long as there is scholarly merit to what they want. "We don't dictate curriculum," says Roger R. Rogalin, senior vice-president and publisher of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill's School Division. Simon & Schuster Inc., the parent company of Silver Burdett & Ginn Inc., a publisher whose book lost to Changing Earth in Cobb County, says it, too, offers custom publishing, and school districts could easily cut out sections on evolution. "It probably happens, and we don't hear about it," says a Simon & Schuster spokesman.

Creationism advocates think moves such as Cobb County's signal a welcome shift in the education field. Says Hugh N. Ross, president of Reasons to Believe, a creationism advocacy group: "There's a shell game of creationism vs. evolution. Both should be taught."

Scientists say that's a troubling idea, and they criticize publishers for going along. The company's "integrity is on the line," says Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. "If they're going to buckle under to pressure groups, their materials won't be as strong."

To most science teachers, arguing against evolution is like arguing against the theory of relativity. "Evolution is a scientific explanation for the facts in front of us," says Gerald F. Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Assn. "Creationism is a faith. Some parents, because of their faith, are diluting the quality of science education for all children." But that's an unacceptable message for the folks in Cobb County.By David Greising in Atlanta

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