Long discredited in Minnesota, intelligent design made a surprising peek into the sunlight Sunday as Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the nation he believes in the theory and that many scientists think the theory should be taught in schools.
Intelligent design, a widely discredited theory that evolution is disputable and life is the result of an intelligent force, was the focus of debate in Minnesota several years ago as several lawmakers and educators failed to force the idea into science classrooms.
It has been several years since intelligent design has surfaced as an issue in Minnesota. Pawlenty’s statement surprised scientists and teachers.
“We’re dead set against intelligent design in the public schools,” said Edward Hessler, the Executive Secretary of the 1,250-member Minnesota Science Teacher Association. “It’s his personal opinion but its not good public policy. Intelligent design is not science and it shouldn’t be taught in schools.”
Pawlenty’s chat with Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press” can be seen below.
While answering questions about presumptive vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin’s positions on several controversial issues, Pawlenty volunteered this about intelligent design:
“We’ve said in Minnesota that this is a local decision. Intelligent design is something that in my view is plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in; but more importantly, from an educational and scientific standpoint, it should be decided by local school boards at the local school district level.”
Pawlenty is wrong on two counts. Intelligent design is not science, and the matter cannot be decided at the local level.
“This is micromanaging at its most embarrassing,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Intelligent design “is a widely discredited, bogus theory. That someone who considers himself educated would want to tell scientists he knows their jobs better than they do, that’s just embarrassing.”
Local districts don’t have much to say about overall curriculum. The state legislature decides what will be taught in school and the Department of Education helps the state’s 340 local districts meet the state standards. While individual school districts can choose their own books and schedules, they will teach to the standards set by the Legislature.
That keeps intelligent design away from the school board and into the legislature, a situation that suits most educators just fine.
“It’s decided in a standards setting process,” said Tom Westerhaus, former president of the Minnesota School Administrators Association and current superintendent at the River Falls, Wisc., school district.
When intelligent design was an issue, “the legislature had their nose in it and it was much politicized. Luckily, we had set it aside,” until Pawlenty’s comments Sunday, Westerhaus said.
Although intelligent design has been around for nearly 20 years, attempts to make it law in Minnesota have failed.
Perhaps the most spectacular grab to put intelligent design into the classroom came in the second year of Pawlenty’s administration. In 2004, supporters worked to change wording in the the Department of Education’s official K-12 science standards that would favor intelligent design. The language was added, then subtracted, then added again. Finally, a report was issued without the wording but with a minority report by four members.
The Department of Education is currently examining state science standards just as they did in 2004, but has made a point to keep out language that would allow intelligent design. The public comment and review period for the first draft is Sept. 8 through 23.
In any case, Westerhaus hopes the issue does flair up like a Kansas dust storm.
Because of Pawlenty, intelligent design supporters might be inclined to push the issue again, he said. With the financial hard time brought on by chronic state underfunding, school districts have to make tough choices about curricula, and distractions from failed philosophies don’t help he said.
“This is not a good time,” he said.