National Council for the Social Studies (2007)


There have been efforts for many decades to introduce religious beliefs about the beginning of life on Earth into the science curriculum of the public schools. Most recently, these efforts have included "creation science" and "intelligent design." Following a number of court decisions finding the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the public school science curriculum to be unconstitutional, there have been efforts to introduce these beliefs into the social studies curriculum. Although the National Council for the Social Studies believes in the open and thoughtful discussion of ideas, public school classrooms are not the place for the teaching of religious beliefs. Social studies is the forum for open analysis and discussion of historical, social, economic, geographic, political and global issues. Thus our recommendations seek to include the study of intelligent design within that framework.


The American Heritage Dictionary (2007) defines intelligent design as the "belief that physical and biological systems observed in the universe result from purposeful design by an intelligent being rather than from chance or undirected forces." Attempts to introduce this doctrine, originally termed "creationism," then "creation science," and most recently, intelligent design," into public school curricula have been found unconstitutional in state and federal courts. The first Supreme Court decision regarding the issue came in Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, when the Court ruled that an Arkansas anti-evolution law was unconstitutional. Twenty years later in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court held that a Louisiana law which required equal time for the teaching of "creation science" along with the teaching of evolution, was unconstitutional. Most recently, a district court in Pennsylvania struck down an intelligent design policy adopted by the Dover Area School Board in Dover, Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District).

These decisions have struck down state attempts to interfere with the teaching of evolution in the public school science curriculum. In the Kitzmiller decision, for instance, the judge found that the policy of the Dover school board, which called for teachers to discuss problems with the theory of evolution and make students aware of intelligent design, failed the test of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the policy's primary purpose was to advance a religious belief.

Because federal courts, to date, have ruled against the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the science curriculum, an approach called "critical analysis" has been introduced to get around these decisions. This approach seeks to incorporate what the courts have ruled to be religious belief into the public school curriculum by contending that public schools should take a critical view of the theory of evolution. In this critical view, particular attention is to be focused on any uncertainties in the fossil record as well as what are contended to be examples of "irreducible complexity." This view then introduces intelligent design as an explanation addressing these uncertainties.

This "critical analysis" approach to teaching intelligent design has attracted political support in several states and districts. It was a motivating force behind former Senator Rick Santorum's unsuccessful attempt to include a statement that evolution was a controversial scientific theory into the original No Child Left Behind legislation. It has also figured prominently in the much-publicized battle over the treatment of evolution in the Kansas science standards. In Ohio, the state board of education has suggested that although a critical analysis of the theory of evolution with the teaching of intelligent design should not be put into the science curriculum, "social studies appears to be a good fit" (Columbus Dispatch, September 2002).

Rationale for Recommendations

Social studies may, at first glance, seem to be a better fit for this approach to teaching intelligent design, but the same constitutional issues arise whether religious beliefs are taught in science or in the social studies curriculum. While the social studies classroom is the proper forum for the discussion of controversial issues, educators should be wary of being used to promote a religious belief in the public schools. This unintended outcome can be the result of teaching students that a scientific controversy exists between intelligent design and the theory of evolution when, in fact, no such controversy exists.

Teaching about religion in human society is an important component of many social studies courses (see the NCSS position statement "Study about Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum," revised and approved by the Board of Directors in 1998). However, teaching religious beliefs as the equivalent of scientific theory is not consistent with the social studies nor is it allowed under the First Amendment. Evolution is a scientific theory subject to testing by the scientific method. In contrast, religious teaching based on the existence of a supreme being does not allow for the scientific processes of hypothesizing, gathering evidence or questioning as they are based on faith, not scientific observations or experimentation.

Nonetheless, social studies may have to contend with these issues because of local or state mandates. The curricular recommendations that follow allow for substantive discussion of the issues surrounding intelligent design, while avoiding First Amendment problems. Most significantly, these recommendations prevent the social studies curriculum from being a repository for intelligent design instruction in the public schools, while still allowing students to analyze the political, legal, and historical issues involved.

Teaching Recommendations

Prior to teaching about intelligent design, social studies teachers should check their district's policies related to teaching controversial issues and teaching about religion. There are a number of ways in which social studies teachers might introduce the issues surrounding intelligent design in their curriculum. The following recommendations examine the issues from a social studies, rather than a religious, perspective.

Constitutional perspective: A teacher using this approach would focus on court cases that consider policies requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Historical perspective: A teacher adopting this perspective would focus on the historical conflict between science and religion since the Middle Ages, with particular attention to public debates over the teaching of evolution in the United States in the past century.
Sociological perspective: A teacher using this lens would focus on competing organizations and social forces involved in the attempts to teach about intelligent design in the schools.
Anthropological perspective: A teacher choosing this perspective would have students analyze creation stories and beliefs of many cultures as well as scientific theories dealing with the origin and development of human life.
Public issues perspectives: A teacher using this approach would encourage students to research intelligent design and debate whether intelligent design should be taught in the public schools.

Concluding Statement

The National Council for the Social Studies believes that a free and open discussion of ideas is essential to a healthy democracy. However, the social studies classroom should not and cannot be used for teaching any specific religious belief, as this is antithetical to the First Amendment. The National Council for the Social Studies recommends analysis, and thoughtful discussion, not indoctrination.

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