Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948.
Francis Miller—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
March 24, 2014 4:36 PM EDT

Science loves balance. Gasses rush in to fill vacuums; cells seek homeostasis; an action is never quite satisfied until there has been an equal and opposite reaction. So it’s perhaps fitting that just days after the science wires were buzzing over a new (and thrilling) confirmation of the Big Bang, there is a new (and dispiriting) report on about the growth of taxpayer-funded anti-science education in American schools.

According to Politico, 14 states will spend a collective $1 billion in 2014 on vouchers for private and religious schools that teach kids to mistrust not only the science of evolution, but also cosmology, geology, biology and even math. Twelve other states—including bright blue New York—are considering following their lead.

Occasionally the programs don’t just “teach the controversy,” as their backers like to say, but something darker. Evolution, according to one set of texts, is a “wicked and vain philosophy.” Children are taught to “discuss the importance of a right view of evolution,” a view that does not—no surprise—include an enthusiastic embrace of Darwin.

The problem with teaching children like this—apart from the fact that it’s simply incorrect—is that it disqualifies them from full participation in the larger world. It’s awfully hard to be part of the global conversation about the Big Bang breakthrough when understanding the science requires you to accept that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, while your teachers are telling you it’s less than 10,000. It’s awfully hard to be mathematically literate when your geometry and algebra classes are being interrupted to discuss the role numbers play in the Bible.

All of this is being shouted about and litigated over, with the usual parties involved: the ACLU is suing to prevent New Hampshire’s and Colorado’s voucher programs from going forward; Republican political leaders—including Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Eric Cantor and La. Governor Bobby Jindal—are calling for even more-ambitious voucher programs. The Koch Brothers and their billions are pushing for additional public subsidies to pay for the expanded programs.

Backers of the non-science curriculum, of course, frame their goals in the noble-sounding idea of allowing families to “choose the best learning options for their children,” in the phrasing of the website for Florida-based Step Up For Students, which provides scholarships for low-income kids to attend private schools. But their thinking is more troubling than that. Bob Tuthill, the group’s head, told Politico that topics like the age of the Earth and the reasons for the Civil War are simply too controversial for the government to mandate how they should be taught. Once your anti-science ideology is bumping up against the whole Civil-War-was-about-states’-rights-not-slavery school of thought, you’ve got to rethink the company you’re keeping.

Even schools that take pains to give a nod to scientists do it in a qualified way that undoes their ostensible point—as when the website of a Philadelphia private school applauds “the men and women of science,” but cautions that “our understanding is not complete until we filter it” through Scripture. But science already has a filtration process in place, thank you very much. It’s called peer review and many of those peers are people of deep faith and spirituality themselves; they’ve simply learned to keep their religious beliefs and their scientific rigor far enough apart so that both are served well.

None of this non-science comes free. At the same time a Gallup poll reveals that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created in their present form, one international survey found American kids finishing 26th of 34 countries in math and 21st in science. Paul Peterson, the head Harvard University’s Program on Educational Policy and Governance is oddly sanguine about where this could lead, according to Politico, predicting that the free-market system will weed out the schools that teach science badly, because parents will quit sending their kids there.

The problem is, before that happens the American economy will already have weeded out the children who graduated from those schools—at least when it comes to competing for the highest skilled, best-paying jobs. And the global economy, which increasingly depends on innovation and high tech, will weed a little bit more of America out too.

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