Spring 2004, Vol. 7, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2004

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Journalistically Ignorant

God the Poppa

Gendering the Religion Gap

Hindus and Scholars

Godawful Numbers

Georgia Evolves

Bare Naked Christians



Georgia Evolves  by Rachel Claflin


On January 28, Reed A. Cartwright, a University of Georgia doctoral student in genetics, wrote an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution lamenting the Merck drug company’s decision to locate a new vaccine manufacturing facility in North Carolina rather than Georgia. Cartwright related the decision to the Georgia Department of Education’s (DOE) omission of the word “evolution” in new proposed standards for science education in grades K-12.

“[M]ost teachers will choose to teach only the state standards, which means the majority of Georgia’s high school students will graduate with a weak science education,” Cartwright wrote. “At a time when the state is desperately trying to court the biotech industry, these science standards encourage companies to look elsewhere.”

The DOE’s deep-sixing of “evolution” in its January 12 release of the proposed standards had eluded the attention of Georgia’s professional journalists, but the day after Cartwright’s op-ed, Journal-Constitution education reporter Mary MacDonald was on the case. The person responsible, it turned out, was Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox, who had been elected to office in the statewide Republican sweep of 2002. In place of “evolution” Cox wanted the science standards to employ the phrase “biological changes over time.”

On January 30, Cox stepped up in her own defense, telling reporters at a news conference, “This wasn’t so much a religion vs. science politics kind of issue. This was an issue of how do we ensure that our kids are getting a quality science education in every classroom across the state.” Students, she said, “need to understand that science is constantly changing and they need to be exposed to all legitimate theories.”

In her election campaign, Cox had provided aid and comfort to the anti-evolution forces in the state. Her news conference made clear that her purpose was to create a “standard” that would permit the teaching of both evolution and Intelligent Design,” the theory that life arose as the result of the creative activity of a higher being.       

But in the ensuing firestorm, it took not much longer for “evolution” to be restored to Georgia public education than God reportedly took to create the universe.

From Atlanta to Macon to Columbus to Savannah to Augusta to Athens, Cox’s proposal went over like a lead balloon on Georgia’s editorial pages. As the Savannah Morning News put it January 30, “State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox’s proposal to eliminate all references to evolution in public school science curriculum is irresponsible and detrimental to the education of our young people. Whether they believe the theory or not, they need to know about it and understand it.”

Meanwhile, Georgia’s most famous citizen, Jimmy Carter, issued a statement stating, not entirely accurately, “[Cox’s] recommendation that the word ‘evolution’ be prohibited in textbooks will adversely effect the teaching of science and leave our high school graduates with a serious handicap as they enter college or private life where freedom of speech will be permitted.” 

The next day, Gov. Tom Purdue, himself the standard-bearer of the new Georgia Republicanism, provided a way for even the staunchest opponents of evolution to leap on the anti-Cox bandwagon. “The name is what it is, and we should call it that,” he told the Journal-Constitution’s Jim Thrape February 1. “I think that Superintendent Cox…will listen to the people on these proposals. In this business you don’t get the privilege of thinking out loud. And I think Superintendent Cox was thinking out loud.”

For her part, Cox lapsed into silence, leaving public argument for her position in the hands of a few op-eds and letters to the editor.

“Lost in the fury is the true nature of what the new standards do,” wrote Randy Singer, executive vice president of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in a Journal-Constitution op-ed. “They replace mandatory statewide indoctrination with a trust in local science teachers. What’s so wrong with that?”

In fact, a fair amount of mainstream Georgia opinion had no problem with Intelligent Design as such. In its January 31 editorial, the Augusta Chronicle may have surprised some of its more scientifically inclined readers by declaring, “Let’s not try to go backward with regard to evolution. Let’s move forward with the cause of demonstrating, scientifically, that life flows naturally from the ultimate designer.”

It was, in any event, evident that Georgia’s concern had less to do with the relative merits of evolution and Intelligent Design than with developing the intelligence of its youth. “Is it any wonder that Georgia schoolchildren are ranked far below students in other states in achievement?” asked James Chamblee of Jekyll Island in a February 2 letter to the Journal-Constitution

And then there was the question of what the outside world would think. On February 1, Euan Ferguson of the London Observer obliged: “Georgian goons who want us to burst a few buboes, flatten out the globes and lurch back to happy old pre-Enlightenment days are thuddingly wrong.” “Georgia,” lamented Journal-Constitution columnist Colin Campbell February 5, “is becoming an international laughingstock.”

Mockery descended from near as well as far. “Cox apparently believes the sensitivities of religious fundamentalists should come ahead of educating students,” opined the St. Petersburg Times February 4. To be sure, the Times overlooked the fly in its own ointment: Florida is one of those states (along with Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) that, time out of mind, have excluded “evolution” from their science curriculums.

On February 5, Cox threw in the towel. “I made the decision to remove the word ‘evolution’ from the draft of the proposed biology curriculum in an effort to avoid controversy that would prevent people from reading the substance of the document itself,” she said in a prepared statement. “Instead, a greater controversy ensued.”

Of course, Georgia’s pundit class was able to wring a few more days of fun out of the controversy. Thanks to Cox, “everybody in the country is laughing their heads off at us,” wrote Augusta Chronicle columnist Dick Yarbrough February 7. “Now do you see why I love politicians.”•



Hit Counter