Unspoken Assumptions in Public School Curriculum

By Steve Skaggs

In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1958 film, Vertigo,1 Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart) finds himself at a coroner’s inquest after a woman’s death. The coroner (Henry Jones) implies, none too subtly, that the woman’s death was Scottie’s fault. Why? Because “he did nothing.” He then adds, “The law has little to say on the subject of things left undone.”

In other words, people can be guilty of wrongdoing not only by being active but often by being passive—by not doing what could have been done to prevent harm. Whether we agree with the coroner’s hard-hearted assessment of Scottie’s inaction in the film, there is truth in the coroner’s implications: inaction can lead to great harm.

That’s true everywhere in life—including in our children’s education. Many times, the problems with secular textbooks are not in what they say but in what they fail to say. Perhaps a few examples will serve to illustrate this.

Science Surely, no group of textbooks is an easier target for criticism than secular science books, with their evolutionary and humanistic assumptions. Our purpose here, though, is not to attack them on those grounds. It is not to “attack” them at all but to show instead how such assumptions can leave out critically important information.

As Ken Ham (CEO and founder of Answers in Genesis-US) has said, “Creationists and evolutionists, Christians and non-Christians all have the same evidence—the same facts. Think about it: we all have the same earth, the same fossil layers, the same animals and plants, the same stars—the facts are all the same. The difference is in the way we all interpret the facts. And why do we interpret facts differently? Because we start with different presuppositions. These are things that are assumed to be true, without being able to prove them. These then become the basis for other conclusions. All reasoning is based on presuppositions (also called axioms). This becomes especially relevant when dealing with past events.”2 You may see the truth of Ham’s statement here referenced in a Christian science textbook, but you will never see it alluded to in a secular one. It’s left unsaid.

Here’s an example of how bias works its way into secular materials. One life science text opens a chapter with a fascinating two-page spread showing bee orchids, flowers that look amazingly like bees. The text asks, “What is the advantage to the plant to have flowers that look like bees? How did the appearance of the flower develop over time?”3 Now, what the book has done is to jump from the evidence (flowers that look like bees) to an interpretation of that evidence. Not only does the second question, “How did the appearance of the flower develop over time?” reveal a clear bias for evolution, so does the first, implying that somehow plants and animals evolve based on what is most advantageous to them. No mention of even the possibility of a Creator allowed here!

Another example from the same book: “Many early scientists thought that each species appeared on Earth independently of every other species. However, as more fossils were discovered, patterns in the fossil record began to emerge. Many fossil species in nearby rock layers had similar body plans and similar structures. It appeared as if they were related. For example, the series of horse fossils in Figure 5 suggests that the modern horse is related to other extinct species. These species changed over time in what appeared to be a sequence. Change over time is evolution. Biological evolution is the change over time in populations of related organisms.”4

Is that first sentence (“Many early scientists thought that each species appeared on Earth independently of every other species”) perhaps a tip of the hat to creationism? Even if it is, it’s presented here as a theory we’ve outgrown. And although the paragraph uses phrases such as “it appeared as if they were related,” “suggests,” and “what appeared to be a sequence,” the text does not indicate that such appearances can be deceiving. They are treated as unassailable facts. Nor does the text differentiate between what is often called microevolution (small changes within a biblical kind that do not result in a different species) and macroevolution (small changes over millions of years that result in a new species). Christian textbooks are very careful to make such distinctions.

Here’s one more example: “Scientists, governments, and concerned citizens around the world are working to identify environmental problems, educate the public about them, and help find solutions.”5 Here’s the unspoken assumption that science, government, and education will solve mankind’s problems. Sadly, religion of any kind does not figure into the discussion. Once again, the problem isn’t in what’s said but in what’s been left unsaid—things left undone.

History Closely related to these assumptions in science are assumptions found in history books, especially when dealing with early man: “What were the earliest humans like? Many people have asked this question. Because there are no written records of prehistoric peoples, scientists have to piece together information about the past. Teams of scientists use a variety of research methods to learn more about how, where, and when early humans developed. ... Prehistory ... dates back to the time before the invention of writing—roughly 5,000 years ago. Without access to written records, scientists investigating the lives of prehistoric peoples face special challenges.”6

Here again, we have many things left unsaid. Yes, “many people have asked this question,” including Jews, Christians, and many other religious groups. But the answer comes not from religious writings7 but instead from “information” that has been “[pieced] together” by “teams of scientists.” According to this worldview, ultimate answers come not from the Bible but from the scientific method.

Of course, no one expects a secular text used in public schools to endorse Christian beliefs. (That being the case, why do so many Christian schools use them?) But such texts do not even mention the existence of such beliefs or the fact that many highly intelligent people for thousands of years have given credence to those beliefs.

A couple of pages later, the book mentions the 1974 discovery of an “unusually complete skeleton of an adult female hominid.” “Lucy” is presented as an example of evolutionary proof. According to the text, she lived “around 3.5 million years ago.”8 When historians use numbers in the millions, how much leeway does the word around grant? There is no reference here to controversies regarding Lucy and how much we don’t know (in fact cannot know) about a creature that (supposedly) lived millions of years ago.

Indeed, the phrase “unusually complete skeleton” can mislead students. From Doug Henderson of the Creation Museum, “Even though Lucy is fairly complete for a mammal fossil (47 of 207 bones found), the bones are mostly small fragments with many pieces missing. Other specimens have been found, but they are far more fragmentary. No matter how complete, all fossils must be interpreted. Some interpretation is always left to the imagination of the person doing the reconstruction.”9

Literature So far we’ve looked at one “ultimate question”—where do we come from? Answering two others—Why are we here? Where are we going?—is sometimes attempted in secular textbooks as well, but they cannot answer them scripturally.

When using selections from the Bible in literature textbooks, secular works cannot treat them in the same way as a Christian text could. Thus, in Holt McDougal’s Literature: Grade 12 Teacher’s Edition, instructional strategies include comparing Christ’s parable of the prodigal son with parables by Aesop and the “teachings of Confucius,” which “[offer] guidance in human affairs.”10 Students are “[invited] ... to share proverbs, parables, fables, or other wisdom literature”11 in class—an unspoken assumption that all such literature is as valid as are the words of Christ.

A secular text may be lauded for including portions of a Christian work such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but coming from a secular worldview, its writers fail to get critical details correct.

  • “Eventually, with the guidance of the charismatic Calvinist preacher, John Gifford, Bunyan ‘experienced God’s light.’”12 (What, exactly, does that mean? The text does not explain further. A Christian text would explain more clearly Bunyan’s salvation experience.)

  • “The Celestial City is defined as ‘the heavenly reward for living a just life.’”13 (Any true believer and, indeed, Bunyan himself, could tell you this is a complete misrepresentation of salvation.)

Perhaps at the other end of the literary spectrum from Pilgrim’s Progress is Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Even here, when the poet touches on the afterlife, “[The dead] are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” the Christian (true) perspective is not given place. “In lines 38–45, the speaker presents a view of death and the afterlife. Many cultures have beliefs about the afterlife; for example, Hindus believe in reincarnation, based upon the good and bad actions of a person in earlier lives. Have students compare and contrast the view presented in these lines with beliefs in their culture and other beliefs with which they may be familiar.”14 A Christian text would take the discussion one step further and have students discuss how biblical views of death, heaven, and hell differ from those of all other belief systems.

When dealing with the works of Emily Dickinson, the same text reads, “Love, loss. Joy, death. When you focus on life’s real meaning, you explore its essential truths. These truths, of course, are the natural focus of poets. For instance, in the poems that follow, Emily Dickinson has a great deal to say about death and dying. But does she—or any other poet—speak for you? What do you think about such weighty matters as death, success, and solitude? What is your truth?”15 [emphasis mine]

Conclusion Of course, such examples could go on and on, but I believe the point is made that secular texts, even when they do not include egregiously offensive material or blatantly anti-Christian philosophies, by their very nature must omit or misrepresent the Christian perspective. They leave things undone. But because we are responsible for passing scriptural truth on to the next generation, Christian educators, parents, and pastors must not be guilty of having little to say about things left undone.

NOTE: The author is grateful for the use of research materials provided by Rachel Santopietro, MEd, and Margaret Wooten, PhD.

Steve Skaggs, MEd, serves as Content Director at BJU Press in Greenville, South Carolina. He has been involved in Christian education for over thirty years.

ENDNOTES 1. This example is not intended to be taken as a blanket endorsement of the film. Vertigo must be viewed with biblical discernment, which is the same point I am making about textbooks. 2. Ken Ham, “Creation: ‘Where’s the Proof?’” accessed April 16, 2018. https://answersingenesis.org/creationism/creation-myths/creation-wheres-the-proof. Emphases in original. 3. American Museum of Natural History, et al., Life Science (Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017), 186. Please note that texts used as examples in this article were chosen more or less at random, not because they are egregiously “bad” but because they are typical of nearly all secular textbooks. 4. Ibid., 195. Emphasis in original. 5. Ibid., 831. 6. Roger B. Beck, et al., World History: Patterns of Interaction (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 5. 7. Moses’ writings date back to ca. 1550–1400 BC. 8. Beck, 7. 9. Doug Henderson, “Bringing Lucy to Life,” accessed April 18, 2018. https://answersingenesis.org/human-evolution/lucy/bringing-lucy-to-life. See also http://www.creationwiki.org/Australopithecus_afarensis. 10. Janet Allen, et al., Literature: Grade 12 (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 485. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid., 504. 13. Ibid., 511. 14. Janet Allen, et al., Literature: Grade 11 (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 536. 15. Ibid., 547. Emphasis mine.