AS A CHILD, I attended a fundamentalist Christian school in St. Petersburg, Fla. At Keswick Christian School, the Bible was our textbook. We pledged allegiance to it every morning, and it was a daily subject of study, like math and English; we memorized lengthy passages of Scripture and were tested on their meaning.
On the first morning of my fourth-grade science class, I was told to open my King James version of the Bible and read from the book of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
It was the early 1980s, and "intelligent design" was not yet in fashion; instead, we learned creation science. My teacher taught us that God had created the Earth and everything on it in six days, resting on the seventh, and we learned that we were all descendants of that first living, breathing couple, Adam and Eve. We made mathematical calculations based on Genesis that proved that the Earth was not billions of years old but a mere 6,000, and I learned that the Grand Canyon had been created by the biblical Great Flood.
My science textbook was Christian, and it bolstered these lessons with warnings about the lengths to which evolutionists would go to prove their theory. We were likely the only schoolchildren in Florida who knew the details of the Piltdown Man fiasco, in which human remains found in a Sussex quarry early in the 20th century were used, in an elaborate hoax, to prove the existence of evolution's "missing link." We watched film strips, with titles such as "God of Creation," that reminded us that the natural world disproved Darwin's theory of evolution. I found books in the school library with titles such as "Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No!"
Browsing the shelves of our public library, however, I found different books -- books that explained Charles Darwin's theory in more detail and offered scientific analyses of the age of the Earth that made no mention of Genesis or the Great Flood. When I asked my teachers about this, they tried to offer guidance. But puzzling through these contradictions marked the beginning of my first serious questioning of fundamentalism, a questioning that eventually led me away from the tenets of fundamentalism and to a secular life.
It would be easy to argue that I would have done better learning more about Darwin and less about Piltdown Man, as my peers in public school did. But the education I received at Keswick, although misguided about science, nevertheless prepared me for life. Our teachers encouraged us to question what we were learning, and although their answers didn't always satisfy me, they never tried to stifle my curiosity. In a way, the school unwittingly nurtured the skepticism that eventually took me away from fundamentalism.
Evolution is still in the news. There was extensive media coverage of last month's trial in Dover, Pa., over the teaching of intelligent design in science class. There's similar scrutiny in California in the wake of the recent lawsuit involving Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, which was offering a philosophy course about intelligent design. The school district settled the potentially expensive legal battle by agreeing to cancel the class and to never offer such a course again.
But missing from these often-overheated debates over the separation of church and state is the perspective of the children who will be sitting in classrooms. How pernicious or edifying are these ideas, and should parents be concerned about their long-term effects?
I heartily approved of the Dover ruling, which meticulously outlined the reasons why there is no place for intelligent design in a science class. But I can't help but feel that the initial negative response to the idea of schools teaching intelligent design as philosophy is extreme. One Lebec parent told the Los Angeles Times that such a course "deprives my children of the opportunity to be presented with an objective education that would aid the development of their critical-thinking skills."
But learning about intelligent design (especially as part of an ideas course) isn't going to prevent children from deciding for themselves, as adults, what to believe, or deprive them of opportunities. In a country where deep cultural and geographical fault lines separate devout Christians from devout secularists, it's all the more important for each side to learn a bit more about what the other believes.
In the end, is education ever really objective? I had one of the most thoroughly subjective educational experiences a child could have, but it did not stunt the development of critical-thinking skills, nor did it stifle my desire to continue learning. On the contrary, it encouraged those impulses. A sophomore at Frazier Mountain High told The Times: "I think kids should choose whether to take the class or not." Making such choices is the first step toward figuring out what you truly believe.