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Column: ‘Truth in education’ bill misses point of learning


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INDIANAPOLIS — In the last session of the Indiana General Assembly, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, proposed a measure that would have allowed local school districts to teach creationism.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma — hardly an opponent of social conservatives — killed it. The Indianapolis Republican said Kruse’s bill likely violated the Constitution’s protections of religious freedom.

Now, Kruse says he wants to submit a “truth in education” bill during this upcoming legislative session. It would allow students to challenge the validity of the information teachers present when they’re teaching, say, evolution. Kruse says it will force teachers to provide hard evidence of what they’re teaching.

Sigh.

There are at least two things — one statement and one question — that need to be said about Kruse’s proposal.

The first is that Kruse should be careful about the things for which he wishes. In the unlikely event that his bill becomes law, there really are only two possible outcomes.

Outcome number one is that it passes in a form that only allows students to challenge scientific teaching, but not religious beliefs.

If it does, Speaker Bosma once again will be correct. In that form, it violates the Constitution and will face a quick legal challenge. After a lot of wasted time and money — much of which will be drawn from the taxpayers — Kruse’s law will be struck down.

Outcome number two might be even more troubling to people of faith. In order to pass constitutional muster, the bill would have to be applied across the board. In that situation, it would allow students to demand hard documentary evidence of religious teachings.

That evidence would be hard to come by because many religious beliefs are, by definition, matters that we take on faith. We commit to them often in the absence of tangible evidence because they are convictions of the spirit.

Kruse doubtless is sincere in his faith and commitment to our state’s children. His desire to protect students from teachings with which they might disagree or that trouble them is evident.

That brings me to my question.

At what point did it become the law in Indiana that students had to agree with everything they hear in a classroom?

The premise of Kruse’s proposal is that Indiana students must be freed so they can form opinions. If there is a state law in place that prevents students from doing that now, it clearly is unconstitutional and should be struck down.

A large part of the value of education is not just the delivery and acquisition of specific skills — although that is important — but also the development of a habit of inquiry.

If education was supposed to simply be about career preparation, we as a state and a nation would have left the responsibility of preparing young people for work to the employers who intend to hire them.

Our commitment to educating everyone is Jeffersonian in spirit. Thomas Jefferson’s devotion to educating all sprang from a belief that doing so was essential to preparing Americans for the responsibilities of citizenship and self-government.

That meant that he — and presumably we, his fellow Americans — wanted students to encounter many ideas and beliefs, including some with which they would disagree. Students are supposed to sift through and weigh different pieces of information and varying systems of thought and belief so that they can get used to making their own informed decisions.

As a student, I can be assigned — and, in fact, once was — to read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” I can be tested on what the book says and pushed to demonstrate that I understand Hitler’s arguments, such as they are.

Doing that won’t — and didn’t — make me a Nazi.

In fact, it strengthened my commitment to resist all forms of oppression.

Kruse wants to defend the rights of students of faith to believe what they wish. He should be applauded for that.

Kruse suffers, though, from a basic misunderstanding about what education is and should be.

Truth isn’t something a teacher — any teacher — can give to a student.

The truth is something students have to seek out for themselves over the course of a lifetime.

That’s both the challenge and the beauty of education — and of America, for that matter.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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