George W. Bush deplores the relativism that liberals have inflicted on American society–the idea that nothing is right, nothing wrong, nothing true, nothing false. In a New Hampshire speech last November, Bush decried parents who
won’t defend the rules. And for about three decades, many American schools surrendered this role. Values were “clarified,” not taught. Students were given moral puzzles, not moral guidance. But morality is not a cafeteria of personal choices–with every choice equally right and equally arbitrary, like picking a flavor of ice cream. We do not shape our own morality. It is morality that shapes our lives.
You have heard this argument before. It’s the standard neoconservative denunciation of the 1960s. (To break the monotony, David Frum wrote a book this year arguing that the culprit was actually the 1970s.) But what about Bush’s own relativism on the question of evolution? An Oct. 29 New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof reports:
Characteristically, he does not believe in evolution–he says the jury is still out–but he does not actively disbelieve in it either; as a friend puts it, “he doesn’t really care about that kind of thing.”
As a matter of policy, Bush told The Associated Press last Nov. 14:
I’d make it a goal to make sure that local folks got to make the decision as to whether or not they said creationism has been a part of our history and whether or not people ought to be exposed to different theories as to how the world was formed.
His own preference, Bush said around the same time, was that “children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started.” This echoed a similar statement Ronald Reagan made on the stump in 1980.
Bush was responding to the Kansas Board of Education’s decree last year that each of the state’s school districts teach creationism alongside evolution. Amid the political furor, Al Gore said through a spokesman that he favored teaching evolution in the public schools, that the decision should be made at the local level, and that “localities should be free to teach creationism as well.” But after the Gore campaign was informed that the 1987 Supreme Court decision Edwards v. Aguillard prohibited teaching creationism because it constituted religious belief, Gore retreated to the more sound position that creationism could be taught only in religion classes. In effect, Gore backed off from the cowardly relativism of his initial answer.
Relativism also proved a loser for the Kansas Board of Education last summer when voters ousted the creationist majority. Three creationist candidates, including two incumbents, lost to anti-creationists in the Republican primary. (The Democratic candidates the Republican nominees face next month are also anti-creationist, so creationism is all but certain to be ousted from the Kansas curriculum.)
Another person who rejects the relativist dodge on creationism is Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which in January issued a report stating that 19 states do a “weak-to-reprehensible job of handling evolution in their science standards,” that 12 of these “shun the word ‘evolution,’ ” and that four “avoid teaching biological evolution altogether.” (Texas’s treatment of evolution is “brief but satisfactory,” according to the report, though apparently it skimps on human evolution.) Although Finn is a conservative Republican and a Bush supporter (he was assistant education secretary for research during the Reagan administration and an architect of Bush pere’s education policies), the following words appear over his name in the report: “[T]here is no serious debate among today’s scientists over whether evolution occurs, though there are disagreements over how it occurs.” In an essay last year in Time, the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould put it this way:
Evolution is as well documented as any phenomenon in science, as strongly as the earth’s revolution around the sun rather than vice versa. In this sense, we can call evolution a “fact.” (Science does not deal in certainty, so “fact” can only mean a proposition affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one’s provisional assent.)
Dubya’s answer to Gould would seem to be that science, unlike morality, is a cafeteria of personal choices. What Chatterbox doesn’t understand is how a presidential candidate can argue this position and still be taken seriously as an education reformer.