Proverbs, like stereotypes, often have at least a hint of truth in them or they wouldn't have staying power. It would be a mistake, however, to attribute too much credibility to either.
Some recent events in the battle between the role creationism should play in public school science classes and laboratories very clearly illustrate the truth of the last sentence.
First, consider the stereotype that politicians deep in the Bible Belt are always promoting creationism. With Tennessee being the home of the anti-evolution law that gave birth to the Scopes Trial, Arkansas being the state that attempted to mandate the teaching of "creation science," Texas being the place whose state board of education regularly fights to gut the teaching of evolution, and Louisiana being the location that adopted legislation specifically designed to promote creationism, shamelessly calling it the Louisiana Science Education Act, there's plenty of reason to believe that the stereotype is right on the money. But, as I'll show in a minute, the situation isn't quite that simple.
Second, consider the proverb that the more things change, the more they stay the same. With respect to creationism, the lack of movement over many decades in public opinion surveys showing the percentage of Americans who don't "believe in" evolution, there plenty of reason to believe that the proverb is also right on the money. But, as I'll show in a minute, the situation isn't quite that simple either.
Recent news from both Texas and Louisiana make these points perfectly. In Texas, State Representative (R-District 96) Bill Zedler prefiled a motion on Dec. 14 to be taken up at the start of the 2013 legislative session. What was so pressing that Zedler wanted his bill to be early in the queue? You be the judge. Here's the full text of the bill (minus the legislative requirements for submission):
An institution of higher education may not discriminate against or penalize in any manner, especially with regard to employment or academic support, a faculty member or student based on the faculty member's or student's conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.
Zedler's bill is a mainstream creationist advocacy position designed to undermine the teaching of evolution. As the Texas Freedom Foundation so aptly put it in their headline of an article describing his initiative, "All Theories Welcome, No Scientific Evidence Needed," Zedler's interested in polemics and politics rather than science education. A Bible Belt legislator promoting creationism? Yup, stereotype confirmed.
This isn't Zedler's first shot at promoting exactly the same legislation. Last session he introduced HB 2454, which, happily, didn't go anywhere. Even though, this year, like every other year since Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, scientists have made significant gains in our understanding of evolution, we have a legislator attempting to promote the same old legislation. Yup, proverb confirmed.
On Dec. 18, just four days after Zedler stepped into the past to refile his motion, the Orleans Parish School Board in Louisiana took up the issue of creationism as well. The actions of the seven board members stand in stark contrast to Zedler's antics. Without dissent, they adopted two motions that clearly show just how misleading stereotypes and proverbs can be.
The first thing they did was to add a single but incredibly powerful sentence to their "Textbook Selection and Adoption" policy. "No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the state of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories."
The second thing they did was to reaffirm the separation of church and state inscribed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes."
Indeed, the Orleans Parish School Board looked closely at what has been going on in the neighboring state of Texas and said they want no part of it. They've made it very clear that the students for whom they are responsible deserve a first-rate, 21st-century education.
So, deep in the Bible Belt, some thoughtful politicians have found a way to say no to creationism. And these same leaders are actually making changes that will make a significant difference in the lives of students.
These actions should make it clear that stereotypes and proverbs will only take us so far. And these actions should give us reason to believe that it's well worth fighting for high quality education. There are people out there, people in charge, even people in seemingly unlikely places who are listening and willing to act.