A paradox lies at the heart of education in Texas, and to a lesser degree the entire American South. On the one hand, you have truly excellent universities with great science, medical, and engineering programs, supported by — and supporting in their turn — science and industry in the private sector. On the other, you have serious and concerted attempts to dismantle science education — especially the teaching of evolution, but also climate change — in primary and secondary education. This paradox is spelled out as clearly as I’ve ever seen in this column by Sheril Kirshenbaum and Michael Webber.
It’s obvious that without good science education in schools, the strength of the universities and industry can’t survive: without a solid background in biology, the universities cannot sustain their programs in a whole range of research areas — medicine, technology, etc. — and industry will seek engineers from outside the region, or relocate. So, the paradox is also obvious. The student in Louisiana leading the effort to repeal the anti-evolution bill there explicitly evokes the economic argument, that industry will not want to be in a state where the foundation of their work is questioned. Purists may quibble with the focus on industry — after all, the main reason to oppose Creationism is that it’s wrong — but it’s a legitimate concern.
The pragmatic argument may well be the best one to sell people who don’t think the issue is anything that affects them. After all, the wealthy fund their own public school districts to a much higher level than the mean, or they send their kids to private schools where the standards may be higher (or at least different) than the public schools. Poor kids who are served by underfunded public schools simply don’t go to college in high enough numbers, whatever their natural abilities may be. If they are badly served by lack of science education, it doesn’t directly affect the wealthy and it certainly takes more time to affect industry — the groups that may be paying for the big buildings and partly funding the science, medical, and engineering programs in the universities. But when industries suffer from lack of an educated workforce and universities have to play serious catch-up to get students up to standard, everyone is affected.
Of course, this isn’t to say that “poor people are dumb creationists, rich people are smart evolutionists” — far from it. But boards of education on the local and state levels aren’t dominated by poor people, or indeed by educators and scientists. The people who have the greatest vested interest in good education are often those who are mistrusted; the demonization of teachers and scientists in general (and evolutionary biologists in particular) means that such people have trouble getting elected in many cases, even if they have the time and motivation to serve in that capacity. So I honestly don’t think my class-based analysis is the whole story, but I wonder if that might help explain why there is less outcry than there should be over the level of damage being proposed in Texas and other states.