A Pyrrhic Victory For Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Mo.--On the day of the Republican primary in Kansas, my cousin adamantly ushered his wife out of the house with stern instructions: "You will vote against Linda Holloway."

Last year, Holloway and five other conservatives on the Kansas school board voted to downplay evolution in the state's science standards. All over the globe and on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, the world alternated between laughter and outrage. Kansas was made to look stupid. Very stupid.

So, early this month, my cousin's wife, like many other voters in the state of Kansas, rushed to the polls. It was time to redeem our state. And when moderates defeated Holloway and two of the other six conservative school board members who cast the controversial votes against evolution, much of the world breathed a sigh of relief.

On TV, in the newspapers and throughout homes all over the country, there is a feeling that order and reason have been restored to the Midwest. No matter who wins in this fall's general elections, the candidates promise that evolution will be reinstated in its full form to Kansas classrooms. It was a triumph for the mainstream.

But although the embarrassment is gone, all is not happily ever after in the state of Kansas. We haven't seen the last of the conservatives, I guarantee. The situation was mishandled, many of the details blown out of proportion.

A lot went wrong last year. But the controversy was both smaller and larger than the world made it seem.

In the beginning, contrary to preliminary reports by some major news organizations, Kansas school board members did not outlaw evolution. Nor did they erase all traces of the subject from state science standards.

Instead, they voted to de-emphasize the role evolution would play. They were okay with the concept of microevolution, changes that occur within a gene pool of a species of plants or animals. That was left alone.

But they made it so that Kansas schoolchildren would no longer have to display any knowledge of macroevolution, large-scale evolutionary change, on a state exam. Local school boards were left to decide how this aspect of evolution would be taught in their schools.

On the surface, the vote didn't cause too massive of a change. Only a few questions would be removed from the state exam and local school districts still had to prepare their students for a medley of other standardized tests which would require teaching evolution. Most vowed that they would continue teaching the subject in its entirety anyway, no matter what the school board decided.

So while people around the world chuckled, shook their heads and made doomsday predictions about the future of science in Kansas, they were somewhat misinformed. There was plenty of room for outcry, for heated debate and discussion, but not for the hysterics that went on throughout the globe.

What was alarming wasn't so much the vote itself, but what it represented, how large an issue evolution had become, how powerful its opponents had grown and, most importantly, how the debate was not as simple as many made it seem.

The truth is, the school board vote was not simply a matter of reason versus religion, good guys versus bad. The conservatives weren't crazy, Bible-toting fundamentalists spouting scripture. They were highly organized and researched. They brought in their own scientists and their own theories. They claimed that their ideas had scientific basis and were not dependent on the Bible. They were convinced that the way evolution was being taught in Kansas science classes was wrong. And, like everyone else, they claimed to want the best for the students.

Maybe the conservatives were way off the mark, their theories flimsy and easily defeated by modern science. Maybe they did have an ulterior agenda whose main goal was to bring God back into the classroom. But the world did everyone a disservice when it painted them as stupid.

There is a major breakdown in communication between the right and left in this country. And most debate simply degenerates into childish name-calling. But the conservatives grow in power when they are dismissed as crazy. Evolution will be back when the new moderate members take office, but grumbling beneath the surface will continue and the conservatives still will be able to say that the only reason they lost was because their actions were skewed by the national media. They were misunderstood.

The debate over evolution has grown much larger and more complex than the Bible versus the science book. And if the subject is restored belligerently in the state of Kansas, no one will win, least of all the children. Because whatever is taught in school can quickly be undone with a few words from a conservative mom or dad.

If the new school board members don't acknowledge this when they take office, if they act on retaliation rather than facts, the future really will look bleak for the children of Kansas. Their education will be subject to a constant "us against them" fight whose outcome is entirely dependent on whoever is in power at a given time.

The issue is complex, but the solution is simple: Just listen to the conservatives. It may seem ludicrous to doubt Darwin in today's modern society, but as Kansas has shown, a growing number do.

If they're wrong, it's time for all of us to make sure we know why.

Heather B. Long '03, a Crimson editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House.