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I’m sometimes asked by religious friends why I make such a big deal over evolution in particular. Some have suggested that secular types beat the drum for evolution only because it’s a sharp stick in the religious eyeball.

The question itself is a good one. Fortunately the answer is even better.

And it’s not just “because it’s true.” That’s never enough. It’s also true that George Washington had no middle name, but I’m unlikely to devote much of my life force to opposing someone who insists that yes he did, and it was Steve, and that only Martha called him George, and only when she was drunk. Even if this hypothetical Stevist insisted on teaching the middle name in American History classes, I might think it was bananas, but I have other fish to fry.

Evolution, on the other hand—that’s a fish I choose to fry. It’s an idea that I want my kids and as many others as possible to know and care about. Because the story I’m about to tell is centered on evolution in schools, I want to start with a quick list of why it’s important:

First, it is an everything-changer. If knowing about evolution hasn’t changed almost everything about the way you see almost everything, dig in deeper with the help of people like Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life and Full House), Richard Dawkins (Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden, The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable) and Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).

Second, it inspires immense, transcendent awe and wonder to grasp that you are a cousin not just to apes, but to sponges and sequoias and butterflies and blue whales.

Third, it annihilates the artificial boundaries between us and the rest of life on Earth.

Fourth, it puts racial difference in proper perspective as utter trivia.

Fifth, when taken as directed, it constitutes one of the four grandest-ever swats of humility to the pompous human tuchus.

Sixth, it contributes enormously to our understanding of how and why things work the way they do.

Seventh, that understanding has led in turn to incredible advances in medical science, agriculture, environmental stewardship, and more.

The list goes on.

When Erin was in eighth grade, she came home from school one day and sat in front of me with evident drama.

“Guess what.”

“Uh, Norway fell into the sea! You can burp the alphabet! Am I close?”

“Dad, stop.” She leaned forward. “We started evolution in science today.”

A tickle of dread went down my spine. I’m a busy boy. No jonesing for a fracas.

“And?”

“And it’s awesome. He’s teaching all about it, just like you would. He explained what theory really means, and said that the evidence is incredibly strong for evolution, and when kids started saying, ‘But the Bible says blah blah blah,’ he just put his hand up and said, ‘You can talk about that with your minister. In this class, we are learning about science, about what we know.”

I had never, ever seen her so jazzed about a class experience. She knows what a crapshoot it is, knows that she has less than a 50-50 chance of learning about evolution in any depth in the classroom. She lucked out.

So what’s a parent to do? Most, including me, will do a nice cartoon wipe of the brow and go back to the next thing on the plate. That’s a major mistake. It’s also simply wrong.

We’re happy to fire off a blistering corrective to the teachers who fall down on the job and take our kids with them. But we’ve got to get just as good and consistent at complimenting the good.

It’s not just a question of good manners. If we really care about quality in the classroom, it’s imperative.

Imagine you’re a biology teacher. The evolution unit is approaching, again, and you know for certain you will get a half dozen scolding emails from angry parents the moment the word crosses your lips. Again. If you’ve never received a note of thanks for tackling the topic honestly, it’s easy to feel isolated and beleaguered. Who could blame you for gradually de-emphasizing the topic until it disappears completely? Even a teacher with the best of intentions can be worn to a nub from years of self-righteous tirades.

And those of us who sit silently, never lifting a finger to reinforce good teaching when we see it, deserve what we get.

I finally woke up to this when Erin was in sixth grade and started making a point of shooting off a message of thanks to teachers who rocked my kids’ worlds. This is especially important for middle and high school teachers, who are much less likely to hear any positive feedback through parent conferences and the other frequent contacts elementary teachers get.

When Erin was working her way through a much better-than-average comparative religion unit in social studies, I dashed off a note of appreciation to the teacher, who nearly passed out from the shock. When Connor told me his high school science teacher spent some time explaining what “theory” really means in science, I shot him some kudos. And when Erin came home with this story of courage and integrity, I sent a message expressing my deep and detailed appreciation…and cc’ed the principal.

The teacher replied, telling me how gratifying it was to hear the support. “It’s a passion of mine,” he said. Even passion can be pummeled out of someone. But now, the next time he approaches that unit, he’ll hear not only angry shouts ringing in his ears, but a little bit of encouragement from someone who took the time to make it known.

I’m better at this than I once was, but I’m still about three times as likely to pipe up when I’m pissed as when I’m impressed.

When she was in elementary school, my youngest daughter Delaney wanted to be a scientist.

When Charlie’s Playhouse, a company that made evolution toys and games, announced an Evolution & Art Contest that fall, she was all over it. Imagine an island with a unique environment. Choose an existing animal to put on the island. Fast forward a million years or so and imagine how the animal would evolve as a result of that environment. Draw a picture of the evolved animal. Awesome.

Soon the sketches were flying. Finally, with just days to go before the deadline, Laney showed me her entry.

“The island has purple polka-dotted trees and bushes and quiet predators,” she explained. “And the only food is hard nuts. So after a long, long time, the monkeys evolve to have purple polka dots, huge ears to hear the predators, and sharp teeth to crack the nuts.”

She might not know an allele if it jumped up and mutated all over her, but her grasp of natural selection outstrips that of most adults. And she got this grasp not through lectures but by observing the results of natural selection all around us, and caring enough to think about it.

I described our approach a few episodes back:

If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it. What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

[Then] imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

When she did eventually encounter allele frequencies, cladistics, the modern synthesis and all the rest in high school, it glided into place on the foundation she had laid for it. The key when she was young was to keep her engaged.

Winning the national contest for her age group didn’t hurt that one bit. She nearly passed out in excitement. We let her teacher know about it, and he showered her with kudos, then forwarded the news to the front office.

The next week we received a call. It was Ms. Warner, an assistant administrator at the school. Becca answered. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but it was obviously good news of some sort.

Until it wasn’t.

An educator sends the science south

When she hung up, she was clearly upset.

“Laney’s going to be interviewed by the principal on the Eagle News”—that’s a closed-circuit TV program that starts each school day—“about winning the Charlie’s Playhouse contest.”

I waited.

“But Ms. Warner said they’re not going to call it an ‘Evolution & Art’ contest—just an ‘Art’ contest. When I asked why, she said, ‘Because evolution is not in the curriculum.’ I said yes it is, it’s in the high school curriculum, and she said, ‘But it’s not in the elementary curriculum, so it’ll just be described as an ‘Art’ contest.’”

The heat started in my neck and spread to my ears, then into my face. Becca began swearing a blue streak. I sat down and wrote the most fabulously profane email of my life to a friend. Venting is good. Not sure if I was madder about the ignorance or the cowardice or the dishonesty—or the fact that this educator was dismissing the truly exceptional nature of what Laney did.

It wasn’t an art contest, you see. Delaney’s accomplishment had been scientific, not artistic. The drawing is lovely, but it’s just a way of expressing her grasp of the science. To have her school—savor that for a moment, her school—not only disregard her achievement, but send her the message that it’s something to be hidden, to be ashamed of…

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, this is Georgia. But as I’ve said before, in the four years we’ve been here, I’ve had far more opportunity to be pleasantly surprised than not. In addition to living in an area even more culturally and religiously diverse than the one we left in Minneapolis, our kids are getting an incredible education in top-ranked schools.

After many years in the national basement, Georgia’s latest science standards are excellent. And when it comes to the teaching of evolution itself, it ranks in the top tier of the Fordham study (see maps)—above Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and 24 other states.

Science standards don’t have to be in the South to go south. As Lawrence Lerner put it in the NCSE Journal,

although there is a disproportionate concentration of ill-treatment of evolution in the Bible Belt, geography is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for such treatment. Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, treated evolution very well while New Hampshire and Wisconsin did not.

The most relevant anti-science spectrum in the US (and elsewhere) is not North-South, but urban-suburban-rural. The suburbs of Atlanta have more in common with the suburbs of Philadelphia than either has in common with the small towns in its own state. The quality of science education tends to drop in sync with population density.

But that’s on paper. As Ms. Warner and Mr. Taylor clearly show, individuals in the system will do their level best to undercut even the best standards.

A deeply depressing Penn State study released the same year as this phone call from Ms. Warner found that only 28 percent of high school biology teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred. About 13 percent of biology teachers explicitly advocate creationism in the classroom, while 60 percent use at least one of three strategies to avoid controversy:

  1. Pretending that evolution applies only on the molecular level;
  2. Telling students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, only that they know it for the test; and/or
  3. “Teaching the controversy,” which one researcher noted “tells students that well-established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.”

According to the researchers, these conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

There was no way I was letting this one go.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.