Creationism in Ancient History class: Been there, done that …

So, P.Z. Myers is livid over the relevant powers-that-be in Queensland, Australia adding a section on creationism (well, maybe) to the curriculum in Ancient History classes:


Look at this: they’ve explicitly added creationism to the public school curriculum in Queensland, Australia. That’s just nuts.

They’re even doing it in an entirely bogus way — they’re teaching it as a controversy in history classes.”


Well, I remember way back when I was in high school, and I took the Ancient History class (it was mandatory, but I probably would have done it anyway) and one of the first sections in the textbook and so one of the first things we covered was — normally enough — origins of the world.  The textbook outlined at least the creationist and evolution story, and the teacher — as he always did — created a formal debate over creationism and evolution.  Four students on each side.  I was on the creationist side, with two people who were openly religious, another who was religious but not openly.  Me?  I’m just weird, and tend to champion the underdog.  The “thermodynamics” argument was raised, and I argued against a literal interpretation of Genesis — an early accomodationist-like position, I suppose — which drew a bit of attention (much to the chagrin of one of the people on my side [grin]).  At the end, the teacher took a poll of the class to see who had won the debate.  Now, I grew up in a Polish area in a high school that was something like 90% Catholic (it was a public high school, though) and where there wouldn’t have been all that many atheists … and the vast majority of the class voted that evolution had won the debate.

And as far as I know it never came up in any of the biology classes, although since I hate biology I didn’t take it past the grade 11 course.  Actually, to be honest, I didn’t take any OAC science classes … not because I disliked science, but because I needed the three mathematics courses, one English, and the Computer Science for my chosen program of study (the Computers wasn’t required, but I figured I should), wanted to take the Writer’s Craft, and I think I needed Geography or History.  There was no room for science in my OAC year.  However, in university when given the choice between business or science, I took Astrophysics.

Anyway, to return to the topic after than minor digression, we also covered Noah’s Ark — with textbook arguments that highlighted the big problems with the Ark at a practical level — and had a full-class debate on Sparta versus Athens.  The most interesting thing about that is that a few girls in the class had decided to side with Athens because they thought it treated women fairly well … and then after finding out how Athens actually did treat women converted to the Spartan side.

So, it looks like it’s been tried, and doesn’t seem to have any really negative consequences — even in really religious areas — and in fact seems to highlight the real scientific data.   So I fail to see what’s wrong with this.  In some sense, it is a controversy, and something that can be usefully discussed.  Myers seems to be just offended that they’re talking about creationism at all, and he does go a bit far in his condemnations of that:


“It’s clear that they’re just trampling on history as a back door to get pseudoscience into the curriculum. I keep telling people, these creationists are cunning — the science side of the debate has gotten hardened by repeated attacks, and is usually better prepared to resist the foolishness, so they switch targets and catch history or philosophy off guard. Every academic discipline is subject to this corruption.”


Yeah, because it’s not like there’s any field that might like to talk about it, and, say, talk about what myths were around and what was said about the past, in the past.  It’s a shame that there isn’t a field that talks about that.  Say, a field that talks about ancient history, and the origins and myths of that time, leading up in some sense to what we know about today.  Oh, wait, there is: it’s called Ancient History.

This is a dangerous line of argumentation, and I hope that what I’m talking about now really is just a slippery slope argument.  But what I see here is Myers essentially passing judgement on how Ancient History should talk about it and if they should reference an alternative and ancient view of the origin of the world and humans because he’s afraid that it might bleed into science.  But science doesn’t get to dictate to other fields how they should approach a topic.  Add in that this is probably harmless (and might be part of the curriculum in Ontario already), and there’s not much of a worry here.

Now, Myers does have the right to question what they’re doing as any person does, so here’s what he thinks they should teach:


“There is some relevant history that could be taught, such as that from Ron Numbers’ book, The Creationists, which explains how ideas about creationism changed over the years, talks about the major figures in the creationist movement, and describes how creationism itself has changed historically…but I doubt that the people who are backing this want the subject addressed seriously as a series of events in the last 100 years.”


Well, certainly not in Ancient History class, and outside of that class I’m not sure how relevant this is to anyone.  Surely we have much more interesting movements to study than creationism.

Ultimately, I don’t see the harm in this, and I also wonder if Australians see the debate the same way as Americans do.  I think that even if they did a good critical discussion of it would be a good thing, and it does seem like something that would be interesting and relevant to Ancient History classes, whether people currently believe it or not.  And especially if people do.

Yes, it does have to be done carefully, for both sides.  But that shouldn’t stop people from talking about it.

So, if Myers has some good reasons why it should be excluded other than “It’s creationism”, I’m all ears.  Otherwise, my personal history disagrees with him and I thus think he’s completely wrong about this.

11 Responses to “Creationism in Ancient History class: Been there, done that …”

  1. Kirth Gersen Says:

    The fact that, in your particular class at least, some semblance of rational thinking occurred unfortunately doesn’t mean that it always (or even usually) will. PZ is annoyed at this because putting Creationism on equal footing with evolution — and then leaving the decision up to a vote — implies that somehow (a) one of those two views must be correct, (b) the evidence is evently split for each view, and (c) facts and physical reality are somehow subject to consensus.

    The overwhelming landslide of intersupporting evidence in favor of evolution, and against literal creationism, is beyond the ability of any single biologist, paleontologist, or geologist to be an expert on — there’s simply too much of it, much of it technical in nature. Most high school classes — and indeed most high school teachers — don’t have the background to begin to tackle a lot of it.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    So, to get this back to my point … why would all of that matter for an ANCIENT HISTORY class? The textbook outlines the basic claims, good enough for a general overview and discussion. That’s all that’s required in an Ancient History class. That class is not going to make claims about science or even, really, what the facts are. It’s just going to talk about the views. And there’s no requirement for a debate, and no one thinks that that polling of opinions really means anything as to which one is correct; it’s just opinions.

    As for my particular class … considering the background of the area, that class should be “less rational” on the topic than almost all other areas, and it was still overwhelmingly on the side of evolution. Thus, the worries seem to be overblown, but we’d need far more data to say. But at least I have some data, from personal experience, and haven’t seen anything contradicting that from the other side. So it is reasonable — for me at least — to doubt that it will have the negative impact that Myers claims it will.

  3. Kirth Gersen Says:

    Our definition of “data” differs; a personal anecdote is a “datum” — a single instance — which in no way represents enough data (plural) to form a conclusion. Overall, that seems to be where you and I misunderstand one another. For a skeptic, disbelief is always the default state, requiring convincing evidence to overcome. Evidence, in turn, implies that we have a large enough, verifiable data set from which to draw conclusions.

    “X happened in my class and therefore Y is not a concern” fails both of those criterea, so the default status, disbelief, remains in effect. It’s not personal. I’m not calling you a liar in any way. Rather, I’m adding your example to the running tally, and awaiting further input.

  4. verbosestoic Says:

    So, my question to you, as a skeptic, is this: why are you not so skeptical over Myers’ claim that this will cause great harm? I’ve given you an example of an area that had it as curriculum — it probably was part of the curriculum for the entire province of Ontario — and an example of a case that should have been strongly opposed to evolution that in fact was totally in favour of it. I think I have enough here to back-up my demand that Myers give good reasons for thinking that it’ll be a bad thing. And I think that my own personal experience is certainly enough for ME to reasonably believe that he’s wrong until he can prove that he’s right.

  5. Kirth Gersen Says:

    As a skeptic, I’m not required to immediately make up my mind in either direction, especially on such limited evidence. I’m equally skeptical of Myers’ claim, but he hasn’t invited me over to Pharyngula to discuss it.

    Also, this isn’t a situation of all or nothing; something can be 13% harmful, 8% beneficial, and 79% neutral, for example. One can reject both your view and Myers’ for now, until more evidence comes in.

  6. Kirth Gersen Says:

    Thus far I’ve withheld my own personal anectode, which involved an almost exactly analogous situation in which the class overwhelmingly supported Creationism, and the teacher replied along the lines of “See! That’s settled then! We all know now which one is really true!”

    PZ envisions this sort of response. Personally, I don’t know — I’ve personally seen one like that, heard of one other, and now am getting a report from you that worked in the opposite manner. Three points is too little data to draw a general conclusion in this case, so I haven’t.

  7. verbosestoic Says:

    My question about your personal experience would be this: is this what the class already believed, or did it change their beliefs?

    If the class had already believed that creationism was true, then this is not a situation that is meaningful. It didn’t change minds or make them consider it more reasonable, the teacher’s comments notwithstanding. If it could change people’s opinions, then he might have a case … but he has yet to provide any evidence for that.

    My entire chain has been basically this:

    1) Myers has given no reason to think that this will be a problem.
    2) It looks like it was tried elsewhere and doesn’t seem to have caused a problem (see the Ontario curriculum).
    3) A personal anecdote suggests that students will not just blindly accept creationism, even if they should by circumstances.
    4) There is a huge risk here of Myers trying to dictate to Ancient History what it can cover. This seems like not an unreasonable topic for Ancient History, and in light of even just the first point Myers would be being unreasonable to make claims that it shouldn’t cover it because of an impact it might have on science.

    Now, if you want to argue that I don’t know that it won’t be harmful, but that you don’t know that it will be, that’s fine. I’ll reply to your skepticism and skeptical attitude with one question that, to me, causes the most issues for any skeptical approach: considering your stance that we don’t know whether it will be good or bad, what should we do? Should we allow it or disallow it? Should we just get more information? If so, how?

  8. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “Now, if you want to argue that I don’t know that it won’t be harmful, but that you don’t know that it will be, that’s fine.”

    That’s also the case.

    “I’ll reply to your skepticism and skeptical attitude with one question that, to me, causes the most issues for any skeptical approach: considering your stance that we don’t know whether it will be good or bad, what should we do? Should we allow it or disallow it? Should we just get more information? If so, how?”

    I think we should be pretty careful about it, in cases where there’s the possibility that we’re leading children to believe not only that Creationism is equally supported by evidence as evolution (it’s not), and is equally rigorous a discipline (again, it’s not), and that the State and/or schools somehow have a vested interest in making sure they accept these falsehoods as being true.

  9. verbosestoic Says:

    So, what should we do?

    My view is that this is Ancient History, and it should teach it if it fits with its mandate the way they should teach it. If that might have an impact on science … well, that’s just too bad. We can, of course, point out that it being controversial means that they have to take care to teach it properly from their perspective and as related to their domain, but that’s their issue (and something that they have to do for any topic).

    That, ultimately, is the problem here that most concerns me: the original comments really looked like “I hate creationism, so no one should ever teach it, even if it makes sense for them to”. Which I don’t approve of. Especially since my experience has been that it’s been done before without the world ending.

  10. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “My view is that this is Ancient History, and it should teach it if it fits with its mandate the way they should teach it. If that might have an impact on science … well, that’s just too bad.”

    So, if science education suffers, or if we send the kids a totally contradictory message, or seem to be supporting a state religion, so be it — it’s more important to allow creationism?

  11. verbosestoic Says:

    No, it’s more important to allow Ancient History to set its own curriculum and teach what it should teach. We should only charge it with supporting a state religion inappropriately when it does that, not because it decides to teach something that’s relevant to it in a way that’s relevant to it. Even contradictory messages are not an issue, since the fields have to get together to settle that anyway, even today.

    So, it comes down to: is this something that Ancient History should teach? Neither of us are qualified to say, but I can say that the Ontario curriculum and the textbook we used 20 years ago said “Yes”. I don’t know if that’s changed now. If it has, then Ancient History has to update. If it hasn’t, then there’s no cause to criticize that field for teaching what it is relevant to that field to teach.

    I mean, the equivalent would be insisting that Philosophy classes not teach Cartesian dualism because it might contradict neuroscience and introduce to them notions of a soul, and make that notion of soul seem reasonable. Well, possibly, but since that idea is so fundamental and crucial to Philosophy of Mind it would be detrimental to the field of Philosophy to actually do it.

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