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The Nonlawyers at the National Center for Science Education Know Nothing about Academic Freedom

Joshua Youngkin

State academic standards are a big deal. They drive teacher certification and development, curricula and textbook writing, student learning and assessment, competition for grants, and a host of other activities in K-12 public education. So it is important that we speak correctly of standards and related topics.
Today, Nature published a story on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which is an attempt to entice states to adopt a common set of standards on science. According to the article, “Evolution makes the grade,” the NGSS “are being adopted even in states where climate change and evolution tend to be avoided in the classroom.”
Then the story quotes someone from the National Center for Science Education. Then it mentions the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. From there it slides predictably into the following sentence: “In the past decade, those who oppose evolution have sought to enact ‘academic freedom’ laws that would allow creationism to be taught alongside evolution.”
Which, again, brings us to this familiar point: No. Academic freedom law does not allow “creationism” into science class. Ever.
The reporter, Lauren Morello, seems to at least glimpse this point already. She writes:

Laws passed in Louisiana in 2008 and in Tennessee last year allow teachers to present material that undermines global warming and evolution, two subjects that have been specifically singled out in the statutes.

Yes, sort of.
State statutory academic freedom law, like that referenced above, allows teachers to determine for the sake of open inquiry whether and when to present scientific critiques of textbook treatment of evolution and climate change, among other subjects. This is a good thing because academic freedom law frees teachers to do what they do best. But it also erects limits on that freedom: these statutes explicitly bar introduction of religion (e.g., creationism) into science class.
That bar to religion is plain on the face of each statute, which is where you put it if you want people to take it seriously. Rather than point readers to that explicit bar, which is common practice here at ENV, I’ll instead suggest some summer reading on the subject of academic freedom.
State statutory academic freedom law, such as that referenced in the Nature story and now here again, is closely related to the federal academic freedom case law discussed by Robert Post, Dean of Yale Law, in his insightful book, Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom. I don’t want to give anything away, but let me know, Nature, whether Post’s understanding of academic freedom matches your own, or whether it looks more like what I’m talking about.
If after reading academic freedom experts like Robert Post and Stanley Fish you find out that the NCSE does not know anything about academic freedom, which is a disciplinary and legal concept that has nothing to do with “creationism,” then rethink whether it is a good idea to go to the NCSE instead of Discovery Institute for comments on academic freedom.