Class Confronts 'What Is Science?' with Intelligent Design Trial



By Marilyn Sherman

Class Confronts What Is Science?' with Intelligent Design TrialCindy Conlon's Legal Aspects of Education class confronted the intelligent design controversy head-on by studying the Pennsylvania case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District
Photo by Mark Swindle

One School of Education and Social Policy class tackled the complex question of what constitutes science when it held a mock Supreme Court trial for the nation's first case challenging the teaching of intelligent design.

Cindy Conlon's Legal Aspects of Education class confronted the intelligent design controversy head-on by studying the Pennsylvania case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. To examine the legal and policy issues surrounding proposals to teach intelligent design in public schools, the class read legal briefs and supporting materials for the case. In addition, associate professor Teresa Horton, a biologist who heads the new Interdisciplinary Committee on Evolutionary Processes at Northwestern, outlined the debate from a scientific point of view. Students also talked with one of the lead attorneys in the Pennsylvania case.

"The question of whether schools can teach about intelligent design in the science curriculum is a question that raises important legal and educational policy issues," says Conlon, an attorney. "The legal issues concern whether allowing such teaching violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, requiring the separation of church and state, and whether prohibiting such teaching violates the academic freedom of teachers." The Dover case was the latest to raise these issues, which have been considered in the courts since the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial.

"The policy issues concern how science standards should be drafted, and school boards all across the country are debating this issue," notes Conlon. "Since a 2005 poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools, the controversy is not likely to end. Educators and policy makers need to be informed and ready to enter into the national discussion."

Two weeks after Conlon's course ended, the federal judge in the Dover case ruled that the school district could not teach intelligent design in science classes. "We have concluded that it is not [science]," wrote U.S. District Court Judge John Jones, saying that the Dover district had violated the separation of church and state. In his 139-page opinion issued after the six-week trial, Jones stated, "No other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than we are to traipse into this controversial area." Whether Jones's analysis persuades other potential litigants and other courts remains to be seen.
By Marilyn Sherman with photos by Mark Swindle