An Intelligent Design for Education

Atheists and believers inadvertently make the case for separating school and state


In a trial that began this week, a federal judge in Harrisburg has been called upon to decide whether intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory. Once he has settled that controversy, perhaps he can tell us what killed the dinosaurs and whether there are civilizations on other planets.

The courts have to deal with some scientific issues, such as the reliability of DNA evidence and the side effects of arthritis drugs. But the origin of life, a subject that arouses strong emotions and implicates deeply held beliefs, has no obvious relevance to the guilt of murder suspects or the liability of pharmaceutical companies.

It has become a legal issue in Pennsylvania only because the parents of Dover are divided on the question of how public schools should address it. Some say children should be informed about the weaknesses of Darwinian theory, while others object to what they see as religious indoctrination in the guise of science instruction, which they argue amounts to an unconstitutional "establishment of religion."

Meanwhile, Sacramento attorney Michael S. Newdow, who has replaced Madalyn Murray O'Hair as the nation's most reviled atheist, has renewed his challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance. In a straightforward application of 9th Circuit precedent, a federal judge in San Francisco recently ruled that recitation of the pledge in public schools violates the Establishment Clause by imposing "a coercive requirement to affirm God."

Both of these cases are ostensibly about the separation of church and state. But they also highlight the need for the separation of school and state.

When schools are run by the government, the details of ninth-grade biology classes, the propriety of patriotic rituals, and every other educational issue—ranging from how to teach math and reading to the contents of vending machines—becomes a political issue. Even when the arguments don't end up in court, they generate acrimony and resentment that could be avoided if education were entirely a private matter.

I'm not suggesting that parents would be completely satisfied with their children's schools if the government got out of the education business. No doubt they would always find something to complain about. But if they were not compelled to pay for government-run schools, they would be in a better position to choose schools that reflected their values and preferences, and the compromises they made would be voluntary, instead of terms imposed by the winning side of a political battle.

People on both sides of the debate about intelligent design theory—which posits that certain aspects of life on Earth can't be explained by the combination of random mutation and natural selection because they are "irreducibly complex"—implicitly acknowledge the problems created by a coercively funded, one-size-fits-all approach to education.

A senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design theory, told The New York Times, "We oppose any effort to require students to learn about intelligent design because we feel that it politicizes what should be a scientific debate." One of the parents who is challenging Dover's decision to inform students about the intelligent design controversy regretted that "there's no way to have a winner here" because "the community has already lost, period, by becoming so divided."

In addition to avoiding the sort of clashes that have torn apart communities such as Dover, the separation of school and state could, paradoxically, foster more rigorous and open discussion of controversial issues in the classroom. I like the idea of incorporating intelligent design into the science curriculum as a way of teaching critical thinking, but I think the treatment should go beyond Dover's lawyer-vetted, four-paragraph statement to include a serious examination of the theory's claims and the rejoinders from its critics.

More generally, I'd like to see a high school curriculum centered around real controversies, not just in science but in history, law, economics, and other fields of study. If enough parents felt the same way, a free market in education would offer that approach as one option among many. In a government-dominated education market, by contrast, we get mass-produced curricula and textbooks that are notoriously dull because they're aimed at preparing students for standardized tests without offending anyone's sensibilities.

As for the Pledge of Allegiance, it strikes me as idolatrous, with or without the mention of God. But I might be willing to live with it if I could find a school where the excitement came from intellectual engagement instead of political combat.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. Sullum's weekly column is distributed by Creators Syndicate. If you'd like to see it in your local newspaper, please e-mail or call the editorial page editor today.