February 14, 2004

Is teaching creationism a form of abuse?

Okay, I'll cop to that being a rather orotund, and provocative, header.

But there are serious questions within a reasoned appraisal of this issue requiring that some discrete division of a continuum must be considered (I guess that's how those of us who are inordinately fond of the sound of our own keyboards say "we gotta draw the line somewhere").

For example, I would submit that most could justify intervention on behalf of a child whose Christian Science parents refuse to allow medical science to mitigate preventable suffering or death. (Although I believe this is indeed a form of child abuse, I am not asserting that this position is beyond reasoned argument, but simply that most people would be willing to allow this level of governmental intrusion.)

Many people are willing to accept that the interception of a parent who is being inappropriately violent with their child is a socially defensible act.

To go a step further we can consider a hypothetical. Many of us have played little games with our kids as they asked questions of us that required empirical responses. Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) used to have great fun with this bit,
Calvin: "Why does the sun set?"
Calvin's Dad: "It's because hot air rises. The sun's hot in the middle of the day. So it rises high in the sky."
Calvin: "Why does it go from east to west?"
Calvin's Dad: "Solar wind."
I've played the same sort of games, though not nearly as cleverly as Watterson, with my kids. Always, however, with a raised eye and a subsequent injunction to consider the quality of my explanation. But let's hypothesize an individual who never qualifies his misstatements to his kids, a parent who willfully misinforms his children in ways that could eventually diminish their ability to function when they are on their own. Does this constitute abuse in any significant (meaning that intervention of some sort would be justified) way?

Obviously there are questions of motive involved, as well as what constitutes information and misinformation. In addition there are privacy and parental rights issues to consider. But I think this problem can be, perhaps even needs to be, evaluated without those kind of external considerations. We can think of it this way: At what point does a parenting strategy that poorly equips a child to succeed in society at large become neglect? This question avoids any value judgments other than that of the treatment of the child. Indeed one could legitimately pose this question within the context of a hypothetical society in which creationism is the preferred scientific explanation of biological diversity and the teaching of evolution an ill-advised parenting strategy.

To my mind the most immediate application of answers to these kind of questions arises in consideration of curricula of private religious schools. I cannot conceive of constitutional legal activity that would limit or deny an institution's ability to teach their own slants on various sciences, not the least reasons for which are the fact that we don't criminalize everything that is "wrong" and the question of whether a wrong reaches the level of "abuse."

But I do think arguments can be advanced that should cause us to stop and think. What if a religious school taught that 2 + 2 = 5? What if an institution taught doctrinally inspired biological inferiority of certain races? What if a school taught that those who do not agree with their dogma deserve violent, physical disapprobation?

At what point has the line been crossed wherein society is justified in intervening in private religious affairs? Is government responsible for the education and well-being of only those children in public schools, or is there a larger responsibility that must be engaged?

We have all had the experience of being in the presence of a parent or set of parents who reacting physically to their child in ways that go beyond rational behavior management. I have never intervened on behalf of a child in that situation, though there have been occasions when I probably should have. I have also been close enough to overhear a parent teaching their child that evolution is false due to the obvious inerrancy of scripture.

I know these situations are disproportionately analogous, but in each of them I get that same disquieting feeling that I should be doing something. I don't know what it would be, but I'm pretty sure it's a good thing that I don't get to make law.

(Calvin: "I take it there's no qualifying exam to be a Dad.")


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell it like it is brother, Hallelujah.


9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dispite what some might think creationism isn't misinformation.

3:37 PM  

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