Curriculum Choices of Conscience

Yeah, I’m bringing up creationism and Evolution.  Yeah, you’re likely to have strong feelings.  Just honor the worth and dignity of every human being in your comments.  Thanks.

A recent post on a homeschooling email list caught my attention.  A parent requested suggestions for a secular math curriculum, and folks responded.  A number of years back, I’d have thought all math curricula were secular, but I’m wiser now.  I know a religious viewpoint can be placed in any subject, but it is generally in history and science that those outside of a young earth, Christian-centric mind-set struggle to find quality materials for homeschoolers.  Sure, I knew some spelling, grammar, literature, and handwriting programs included a fair amount of Bible verses and Christian teachings along the way, but math?  Aside from the books from a few “big box” Christian curriculum makers (Bob Jones, SOS, etc), I just assumed math was exempt from religious language.

But there’s more to it than that for some homeschoolers.

In math and science, there are conservative Christian authors of non-religious math and science products for homeschoolers.  That alone doesn’t raise an eyebrow for this Unitarian Universalist.  Math is math.  While all math curricula are not created equally, their point is to teach the objective facts of how math works.  Sure, at the far reaches (beyond where most kids will reach while learning at home), math meets quantum physics.  For some of us, quantum physics touches the divine, but that’s another post on another blog (but intelligently discussed here).

Back to who writes the stuff that reads without religious bias but is from a religious author.  Different kids benefit from different math presentations.  Singapore Math has worked well for both of my boys, although their first math exposure was via Montessori methods and materials.  Saxon Math is likely the most well-known curriculum, known for being easy to teach and well-known to many schools as well.  The choice beyond that expand daily:  Mammoth Math, Math-U-See, Developmental Mathematics, Life of Fred, ALEKS, and many more.  I really don’t know much (if anything) about the religious beliefs authors of Singapore Math.  I really don’t care.  I know the math curriculum is sound and works well for my boys.  And that’s what matters most to me.

Through this email list, I found out Math-U-See creator Steve Demme is a conservative Christian.  The Math-U-See website doesn’t keep that a big secret, and the math curricula items don’t reflect his theology.  So who cares?  With just that information, I still don’t.  Further investigation reveals Demme has another business, The Family that Stays Together, where Demme posts his webcasts and articles about Christian family living.  Still, I don’t see a problem.  While I don’t agree with his theology nor his view of gender roles, I still don’t have an objection to his math curriculum on the grounds of that site or his personal beliefs.  This was the crux of the emailer’s concerns, a concern I’ve heard from others about other non-religious curriculum written by conservative Christians.  He does link to “Answers in Genesis,” a creationist/young earth organization with a far reach in the US and Great Britain.

Dissent from Darwin's homepage


This gives me pause.  I teach the science of creation with the same confidence I teach verbal phrases and the quadratic equation.  I teach Biology through the lens of evolution and natural selection, as I was taught informally by my Protestant father and formally in Catholic high school and college.

Again, back to curriculum buying.  While in theory, I may object to supporting a company that supports (materially) the teaching of creationism in any form, I don’t see any evidence that Steve Demme, head of Math-U-See does this.  According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, 40 percent of Americans believe in a young earth (less than 10,000 years old) created by God, I imagine I’d not be supporting a whole bunch of businesses if I ruled out every one led by someone in that 40 percent.   Heck, I don’t know how I’d even find out what the head of many companies believes.  I’m too busy (lazy?) to do that work, and I’m not sure I really need to know.

It gets stickier, though.  I’ve used a few books from Real Science 4 Kids, by Rebecca Keller.  The books make no mention of God, religion, evolution, or creation.   The Gravitas Press website note that no worldview is espoused by the books, so parents of either persuasion can use the materials.  She does refer to Darwinism, Creationism,  and intelligent design as “lenses” through which to look at science, and that she seeks to avoid those.  I’m not sure whether to applaud or boo.  She’s also a signer of “A Scientific Dissent Darwinism,” a product of the conservative think-tank Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design.

Is that a problem?  I’m not certain it is.  She makes a decent product that makes homeschooling science easier for thousands of families.  Unlike Apologia, her books don’t mix religion and science.  They leave out evolution, but, honestly, they’re so short that they leave out plenty of other topics.  (I’ll save a complete review of two of the books for later.)  The same goes for Steve Demme’s Math-U-See line.  While I can’t speak to its efficacy, it is without a trace of Christian or other religious content and sticks to math.  Seems right to me.

Those who refuse to buy these products based on the religious convictions of the creators of the works sum up their angst thus:  We don’t want to financially support creationism.

Me neither.  But what these folks do with their hard-earned money is, frankly, up to them. I wonder if these same folks ask their doctor, dentist, barber, mechanic, or plumber what causes they support with their hard-earned money.  I doubt they do.  And I’ll bet some of it goes to support creationism.  I doubt the creationist who I serve as a Physician Assistant want to support Planned Parenthood and my Unitarian Universalist church, but, indirectly (generally via their insurance) they do.

I started this post not knowing for sure which side I’d end up supporting.  I’ve suffered a bit of guilt purchasing Keller’s materials, concerned I was supporting a creationist agenda, but I’m not sure that guilt was merited.  Keller’s free to support the causes she wishes to support.  The writer of that email is free to not support Demme’s materials because of the causes he supports.   Certainly the tide moves the opposite way as well, with many homeschooling families buying curriculum that is written by other Christians (and only the ones who believe the way they believe), and they’re free to do so as well.  We’re all doing what we feel is best for our families, for our world.  We’re free to disagree and free to follow our conscience.

Now it’s your turn.  How do you turn this question over in your mind?  Regardless of your political or religious stance, how do you align your purchases with your conscience?   What do you do when the two collide?


15 thoughts on “Curriculum Choices of Conscience

  1. Thought provoking post. As an Australian, I find this a very curious issue – in Australia creationism is seen as a minority religious viewpoint, with little impact on educational policy. I would guess our figures would be more like 2-5% believing in a young earth made by God. We do have an active multi-cultural society though, where immigrants are encouraged to hold onto their original religious practice. Maybe this makes us more accepting of different viewpoints rather than demanding the loudest voice makes the educational choices in schools? Not sure.

    As a HSer of PG kids I have tried to explain that others believe in a newly “created” earth, but my 5 and 7 year olds were flabbergasted in the same way they were enthralled by the Ancient Egyptians believing you needed your own house when you were dead along with dolls that would become servants to serve you in the afterlife…evolution seems to be the dominant paradigm in these parts! I was intrigued that there had been HS email list discussion over Life of Fred – I hadn’t actually noticed there was the occasional religious reference. Maths is maths to me too.

    I do like a clean separation of science and religion – we are using Joy Hakim’s Story of Science (and the associated study guide) and I really like the way she explains myth and religious belief as a precursor to science – ideas to explain observations, before the development of hypotheses and postulations of theory.
    Cheers, Tracey

    • Thanks for the Australian perspective, Tracey. I was taken aback by a similar US statistic a few years back. My then-4-year-old piped up upon hearing NPR do a story on the numbers and asked, “Don’t they know they’re WRONG?” We’re very accepting of the variety of religious beliefs in this world, but this mixing of science and religion has been hard to explain to my kids without feeling like I’m either religion-bashing (which I’m not) or condoning a growing trend that’s entering educational policy discussions (and I don’t want to do that).

      We’re Story of Science fans here, too. My younger and I made it a third of the way through the first book and guide before being sidetracked by something or other. I’d love to get back to them.

  2. Nice post. I also am not quite sure where I stand on this. I know that I occasionally avoid businesses who are well known for giving large sums to causes I don’t agree with (such as Chic-fil-a who gives to some big anti-abortion groups). But I don’t research every business and the places I’ve avoided give a lot of money because they’re large and well known. Plus, I suport anyone’s right to have an opinion different from mine, even if I find it ill informed. There was another discussion on that same forum about Rainbow Resource and whether it’s a good idea to buy from them because they’re a conservative Christian company. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to buy something like Singapore Math from them, but in
    the back of my mind I kept thinking would I feel differently if it turned out that they gave every penny they earned over to causes I despise? And then there’s the question of whether creationism is really a cause worth taking a bug stand on. I mean, if a company is homophobic or pollutes the environment, that hurts people and makes me want to take my dollars away. I may not agree with creationism, especially when espoused as science, but I don’t see it as hateful or hurting our world. It’s just misguided.

    • Thanks! Examining the business practices behind every product and every seller isn’t doable for me either, although I, too, can ID a few with practices that I really don’t want to support, so I avoid them. I’ve ordered from Rainbow Resource plenty of times myself, and I guess I’m assuming they aren’t majorly supporting something either “hateful or hurting our world”. I wouldn’t refuse to support a company for their religious beliefs alone, but I’m not sure where to draw the line on some issues.

      Is rejection of evolution sufficient? On the surface, I’d likely say no. But should the public schools start teaching creation/ID, I’d feel quite differently. But that, too, is a different blog post.

    • I was the one who had reservations about ordering from Rainbow Resources and it’s not necessarily because they’re a Christian company. I understand the difficulties in vetting the companies that you spend money with. On the other hand, I suppose the degree to which you vet the people you do business with is the degree to which you believe your way of life is threatened (which is a poor word choice, but I’ve struggled to find a more appropriate one). If you’ve never found yourself in that position then you probably won’t give it much of a thought. Which isn’t a bad thing – we all have to make the choices that best serve our time and interests.

      Recently, though, in the state I live in, the well-being of our family is being threatened by groups like the Family Research Council and lots and lots of big, monied interests. We’ve been called some pretty nasty names by the big Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christian groups which for better or for worse makes me *not* want to do business Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christians.

      I’ll admit, when it comes to how you spend your money there are no perfect choices. There will be loads of imperfect choices and perhaps even instances where you have to pick the lesser of two evils. I think in the US this particular set of choices is perhaps closer to the surface because of the way our government functions and perhaps to an even greater degree, the number of people who feel marginalized and/or struggling to have their voice heard.

      I can’t make people stop saying nasty things about my family or my friends and there isn’t a lot that I can do to change the tenor of our society directly. When it all comes down to it, the only thing that I can control is where I spend my money. I’ll be the first to admit that this is an imperfect choice, but as long as my ability to affect change via the ballot box continues to seem like a less than likely outcome, it’s the best I’ve got.

      • I think you’re right about the degree of threat you perceive as key to how you vet companies for their content/bias/spending habits. Here on the southeastern side of Michigan, near liberal Ann Arbor and connected with a fair number of folks not homeschooling for religious reasons, I don’t get too worked up about this issue. There are some settings for homeschoolers I avoid, not as much from having personal bad experience, but because I know from those (liberal and/or nonChristian) folks who have been ostracized or otherwise marginalized by children and adults on the religious right. To my own, I teach religious tolerance, acceptance of differences, and respect of the choices others make about religion. And, yes, I do insulate them from places I know they’re likely to be unkindly confronted about their religious affiliation by children or adults. We’re Unitarian Universalist, and both boys are (for now) avowed atheists. Their dearest friends are conservative Catholic, as are some of mine. We’ve found respect on both sides with a bit of education goes a long way.

        I am sorry you’ve had such painful encounters. I’m grateful to avoid those pains so easily, thanks to a large metropolitan area large Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, co-existing in fairly close proximity. It’s easy to forget that folks from other parts in the country are experiencing more direct discrimination on a daily basis.

  3. I draw the line at RS4K, or any other biology curriculum that dodges evolution: If you teach biology without even mentioning evolution, you’re NOT teaching biology. What seems to pass as biology in those books is really just memorizing vocabulary words and doing dissections. Lots of trees, but no forest.

    • This is where I struggle as well, Janet. I justified my use of Chemistry 1 and Biology 1 because I bought the books used and borrowed materials. Still, I felt a bit funky. Here’s the flip side. I do agree that appropriate biology education requires teaching evolution. I’ve taught loads of that here in other ways. As for the content of RS4K, that review is coming . (Spoiler alert — I agree with you.)

    • I agree with Janet, but I’d go a step further — omitting evolution (the central unifying concept in biology) from the curriculum is no less egregious an error as advocating ‘intelligent design’ or creationism.

      Without evolution, biology is nothing more than stamp collecting. Evolution is to biology as wood is to carpentry.

      It would be like trying to teach modern physics (my degrees are in physics) without mentioning quantum mechanics or relativity.

      • Certainly evolution is the central unifying concept in biology, but I will give a very small amount of wiggle room here to curriculum for young children or of small scope. There’s only so much room. RS4K gets away with it simply because they only graze the surface of everything they do at that level, omitting much of what real science study is. In the context of that age group, it’s less of an omission (and certainly can be filled in by other materials), especially since most books for that age are aimed at vocabulary and concept acquisition. Kids can see a bird, a flower, even a cell. But evolution is harder to see and touch. Is that a reason not to try to teach it? No. But it is excusable to not have it in a very short text that covers really very little biology, IMHO. I do appreciate the physics analogy, but quantum mechanics and relativity aren’t starter topics for elem kids in their first physical science courses. A bit of apples and oranges.
        (My younger at 5 heard on NPR that over 50% of Americans believed the earth was less than 10,000 years old. He was appalled and responded, “Don’t they know they’re WRONG?! )

  4. I’m pretty much of the same opinion as yours. If they leave their beliefs out of the curriculum and it’s a good curriculum, I’ll still go with it. That said, we are so frugal with our money and buy so little curricula that I really go out of my way to make sure that whoever gets my money deserves it for as many reasons as possible. It’s the same reason I’ll spend a little extra for a small business, a local company, a product that certifies it’s fair trade, and so on.

    There are times when I do not buy products based on this stuff, though. During major American holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day, Hobby Lobby takes a full page ad out in our local newspaper (the newspapers in every city where they have a store, they’ve claimed) talking about how our founding fathers believed Christianity was necessary for a moral government and how we need to put God back in our government. I was a little shocked the first time I saw one of those ads and read more on their web site. They’ve set up a charity dedicated to advancing this goal, and I’m sure it’s brought them lots of business. It lost them mine, though. While they might not have signs up about all of this in their stores, it still made it loud and clear that my money would go towards an agenda that I do not want to finance. Now we shop at Michael’s instead. 🙂

    The bottom line for me is that I don’t care what beliefs people hold. I do want secular curricula, but it’s fine with me if the authors privately support anything they like. If they make it clear that my money will go towards things I don’t agree with, then I do think harder about buying their products, though.

  5. For curriculum choices, I find that I really prefer my stuff to be as “unflavored” or neutral as possible (I know, I know, I’m dreaming, still….). This leaves me free to teach and introduce my own take on things through discussion or other reading. It is tiresome to constantly have to “counter” various ideologies that I do not agree with in a curriculum.

    As to whether I would buy curriculum from someone who financially supported ideas/causes I disagree with, I suppose it would depend on how vocal/public they were about it. I fully agree that everyone has the right to their own beliefs, and that what they do with their money in private is none of my business. But if someone chooses to be public about the ideas/causes/beliefs they support, then it is my right to decide what I do with my business as a direct result. Presumably they want to attract like-minded people to their product, but by default, they also repel unlike-minded people from their product.

    So overall, if someone produces a great product and they are not notably public about their support of ideologies/beliefs/causes which I don’t agree with, I see no reason to stay away from that product (or to go digging around trying to find out what they believe/think about various issues). Let a product stand on its own merits when the author is not going out of the way to let you know they support things you disagree with. If they do make things known, then you are free to disagree and take your business elsewhere.

    • Rather than boycott businesses whose politics I find disagreeable (e.g., Chick-Fil-A and their financial support of Focus on the Family, an organisation deemed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group), I consider the possibility of making an offsetting donation to the appropriate agency.

  6. I will disagree on the Math-U-See topic. It was recommend to me by a (secular hs) friend. We bought Delta and skipped ahead to the subject my son was struggling with:averages. The first thing out of the instructor’s mouth was a bible quote. He came back to it multiple times during the lesson. Now, this may be the only one in the book, I don’t know. It annoyed me so much I shut it off. I had other issues with Math-U-See (I didn’t like the sequence of topics covered), but may use parts of it again, as my son really liked the format, and the little averages lesson did the trick for him.
    The reason this bothered me is that the author explicitly states on his website that this program is appropriate for x-tians and secularists alike. Also, while lots of publishers offer a money-back guarantee, the inside of the cover of Math-U-See text states that there are no refunds, no photocopying, etc, “In other words, thou shalt not steal”. I just think his “appropriate for secular homes” claim is false advertising.

    • Jessica,
      Thanks for the information on Math-U-See. I’ve only seen the content of a few books and none of the videos, so my personal experience is a bit limited. I’m surprised to hear about the biblical quote being repeated. Honestly, a bible quote doesn’t bother me, although I’ve yet to run across one in my math curriculum and might feel different about it then. It depends on the context. We live in a country that is largely Christian, and biblical literacy helps one to understand this country a bit better. Personally, I’m more apt to use those chance encounters in a text as a teaching moment rather than a turn-and-run cue, but it does depend on the frequency and content. I teach world religions across much of the curriculum (history, literature, philosophy), and Christianity is part of that teaching. The better they understand the context and teachings of the world’s faiths, the better they can understand points of view different than their own.

      All that said, I think that experience would sour me toward a curriculum, if for nothing else, I’d feel deceived. Again, thanks for adding that finding.

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