Making evolutionists and creationists in Tennessee: the causes and consequences of evolution education, 2009-2012
Kohut, Michael Robert
The ongoing public debate over teaching evolution is typically disembodied from the social reality in which it occurs and is framed as a collision of mutually incompatible beliefs—Bible-based creationism vs. naturalistic science. However, this account ascribes an agency to beliefs, independent of the humans that profess them. In contrast, my project examines practices relevant to teaching evolution as they occur in local contexts. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in churches and homes in one East Tennessee town to gain fluency in the discourse on teaching evolution—how it is and is not talked about. I also worked inside of the state education system, tracing an effort to “teach evolution” from the writing and negotiation of Standard 5, in the Tennessee Science Framework, to the interpretation of that document by teachers in various districts, and on to the responses of middle and high school students. The resulting dissertation argues that individuals participating in evolution education (students, teachers and bureaucrats) are acting and thinking within a social realm without which the enterprise and controversy make little sense. I support this thesis in six chapters. I first trace the intertwined histories of efforts to teach evolution and oppose its teaching. Second, I discuss belief as a practice, illustrated by examples culled from my ethnography of churches in a community in East Tennessee. Next, I provide an account of the development of Standard 5, the component in the Tennessee Science Framework that was intended to include evolution. As will be seen, Standard 5 was made deliberately ambiguous in order to assuage concerns from certain members of the public. Then I consider how 8th grade science teachers exploited that ambiguity to negotiate the implementation of Standard 5 in their classrooms. I follow the discussion of teachers by considering how students respond to instruction over evolution. Finally, I explain in the Conclusion how this approach helps to bring new insights to the controversy.