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Ebonics & Young Earth Creationism

In a 2008 interview with a Florida Baptist newspaper, Marco Rubio, then Speaker of the Florida House, talked about a political compromise in the legislative fight over evolution and state educational standards. Excerpt:

The “crux” of the disagreement, according to Rubio, is “whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?”

Rubio added, “And for me, personally, I don’t want a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong.”

Rubio, a Cuban-American, made a comparison to the strategy employed by the Communist Party in Cuba where schools encouraged children to turn in parents who criticized Fidel Castro.

“Of course, I’m not equating the evolution people with Fidel Castro,” he quickly added, while noting that undermining the family and the church were key means the Communist Party used to gain control in Cuba.

“In order to impose their totalitarian regime, they destroyed the family; they destroyed the faith links that existed in that society,” he said.

Although the evolution issue is “obviously” on a “much smaller scale,” both matters are related to the “fundamental question of who is in charge of the upbringing of children. Is it parents or is it the government? I believe it’s parents. And we should do nothing in government that undermines that relationship.

“And there are parents that passionately believe in this and they should be given the opportunity to teach that to their children without someone undoing it,” Rubio said.

This is actually a profound issue. This 2008 interview undermines my supposition that Rubio wasn’t really engaged on the issue. Obviously he was engaged at a deep level. What I find interesting about his stance is that he’s defending something vitally important — parental authority — but drawing the line in a totally indefensible place.

As a homeschooling parent, I have pretty strong convictions about my right and my responsibility to educate my children. Among the things we will teach our kids as part of their education are ideas and moral teachings that would be inappropriate for a public school curriculum in a pluralistic society. <i>This is one of the reasons we homeschool.</i> If we decided to put our children in public school, we would have no right to expect that nothing in their public school education disputes what they are taught at home as truth. That would be an incredibly arrogant position to take, and would hold the entire class hostage to our particular beliefs. It’s not fair, and it’s not workable.

I believe that communities do have a basic right to decide what gets taught to their children, but also that that right is not absolute. If err we must, we should err on the side of local control as a general principle. If, for example, the school board in San Francisco wants to teach comprehensive sex education to public school students, but the school board in Waco doesn’t want to, I say give local people freedom to decide. That is a question not of fact, but of morality and prudence on which people may legitimately differ. Respecting local standards on that kind of question is important.

But when it comes to teaching science? No. The idea that in science education, the school should not undermine what parents are teaching at home, is dangerous folly. What is education for, anyway, if not to learn how to separate truth from falsehood? There is a way of doing that in science. It’s called the scientific method, and it has worked pretty well over the years. It’s in the nature of science that some things scientists believe are true today will be shown through the scientific method to be untrue, or true in a different way, tomorrow. But when we teach science, we have to go with the best description rigorous application of the scientific method gives us.

Right now, that backs evolution. Science itself demands that current theories of evolution be rigorously questioned. I found Alvin Plantinga’s New Republic review of the eminent philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel’s new book against reductive naturalism to be so convincing that I bought Nagel’s book last night. Nagel is an atheist who doesn’t find the worldview that materialist naturalism can explain the origins of the universe, and the emergence of consciousness. Plantinga quotes something from Nagel’s earlier writing:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers…. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

In his new book, Nagel says that he can’t explain how consciousness and life itself came to be; he’s only saying that materialist naturalism cannot explain it satisfactorily either, and that we have to keep looking. I note in the foreword Nagel says:

… I believe there are independent empirical reasons to be skeptical about the truth of reductionism in biology. Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. … It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naive response not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. … My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or no a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. That is especially true with regard to the origin of life.  … I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.

And Nagel goes further, saying that the scientists and writers associated with the Intelligent Design movement ought not be dismissed. “Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer” — as Nagel obviously is not — “the problems that these iconoclasts pose or the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”

Nagel, who teaches philosophy at NYU, is a lucid writer. You don’t have to be a specialist to read and to understand him. I look forward to reading this book, a critique of materialist naturalism and reductionism from the point of view of one of the world’s leading philosophers, a man who has no theistic ax to grind.

I took that little detour in this blog to say that I am wide-open to challenges to scientific orthodoxy in principle. I hate the commissar-ish view of the militantly atheistic Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, who said of Nagel’s book, “If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.”

But Commissar Blackburn’s policing the borders of acceptable philosophical speculation to beat down anyone who might somehow give theists encouragement is very much not the same thing as what Rubio supported in 2008. Rubio contended then that public schooling should not contradict what parents taught. I am sure he would disagree vehemently if there emerged a politically powerful religious sect that taught that mathematics was a delusion, or that grammar was a tool of the oppressor. In fact, that last point was more or less what the left-wing Oakland School Board said in its extremely controversial 1996 resolution recognizing “Ebonics” — the non-standard spoken by many African-Americans — as a formal language deserving of respect. Would Rubio have defended that move as a case in which the public school should not “undermine” the grammar the parents of some Oakland students teach their kids? If he’s going to defend the principle with regard to evolution in Florida, why would he not defend it in the matter of Ebonics in Oakland?

One does not have to accept materialist naturalism and the reductionism it requires to believe that as a matter of public science education, the standard must be set by the scientific consensus. Moreover, even though I’m a homeschooling parent who has strong views about the role of parents in educating their children, I completely reject the idea that we must refused “a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong.” I believe that liberty in these matters is so important that parents should have the right to opt out of the public education system if they don’t like what their kids are learning there. But the schools must not be compelled to accomodate the sensitivities of every student, all the time. That’s not education; that’s indoctrination.

As you have read in this space in recent days, I wasn’t overly bothered by Marco Rubio’s views on creation. However, I — a homeschooling religious conservative — am very much bothered by his views on the purpose of education and the role of the state in public education. If you agree with Rubio on how evolution and creationism ought to be taught in the public schools, you had better prepare yourself to sanction Ebonics.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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