Creationists and intelligent design proponents have scored an important victory in Louisiana this week, at least for now. In its appalling lack of wisdom, that State’s legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that requires teachers to introduce to their students material that “promotes critical thinking skills.” The Republican Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, predictably said that he will sign the bill into law because “the way we are going to have smart and intelligent kids is exposing them to the very best science,” according to an article in (a real) Science magazine.

What’s wrong with that?, the naive reader may reasonably ask. Surely the main point of education is in fact to instill critical thinking skills into students, just like the bill says. Precisely, and since this is what every teacher in the country is already striving to do, do we need a law for it? It would be like passing a law directing all physicians to do their best to save people’s lives, or mechanics to repair cars. Duh. No, the new bill is the handiwork of the infamous Discovery Institute, the Seattle so-called Think Tank that has been pushing intelligent design creationism for more than a decade now (and who suffered a spectacular defeat two years ago in the Dover, PA case).

The new strategy is to cry out for “academic freedom,” which is then interpreted as the freedom to teach nonsense about the history of life on earth. Imagine if astrologers were to invoke academic freedom so that astronomy classes would include the preparation of horoscopes and the “critical” assessment of the Copernican theory. That’s just about what is going to happen in Louisiana, and probably in several other states, unless there is a successful legal challenge or grassroots movement like the one being currently attempted by the Louisiana Coalition for Science under the guidance of philosopher-activistBarbara Forrest.

One way to smell the rat here is to look at the specific language of the bill, which says in part that educators are encouraged to hold “an open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied, including but not limited to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” If you think this is not a (maliciously) intelligently designed list you are far too optimistic about human nature and the current Republican war against science. (Notice, too, that “human cloning” isn’t a theory, but a technological possibility with obvious ethical implications. But there is no point in being too subtle here.)

Despite the dismay at how easily such a gross manipulation of the concept of academic freedom can pass muster, or at how willfully and disingenuously a large number of politicians keep pandering to the minimum common denominators of the American public, there is some silver lining in this story. It comes from taking the relatively long view on the issue of the evolution wars. Less than a century ago, the battle in Dayton, TN was about prohibiting the teaching of evolution altogether, and the forces of obscurantism won. They have been on the retreat ever since, first having to accept the teaching of evolution in public schools as the default position, then having to invent a series of ever more esoteric and vague versions of their “ideas” to keep fighting on the legal front (equal time for creation “science,” disclaimers about evolution on textbooks, intelligent design admitting that god might not be the designer, and so on). Now they have been pushed so far into the corner that they can only resort to generic appeals to critical thinking and academic freedom, the very same concepts that are daily rejected by right wing religionists.

Want some real critical thinking? How about critically reading the Bible as just one of many “sacred” books written by perfectly human beings, the product of an ignorant and bigoted era? Or perhaps we should ask our students to critically think about the efficacy of “abstinence only” sexual programs that the current Administration keeps pushing on the basis of its misguided ide-theology? Or maybe critical thinking exercises in our classrooms should include a study of how it happened that the United States went to war on false premises, is wasting hundreds of thousands of lives (I’m counting the Iraqis here) and trillions of dollars, all in the name of greed and national pride? Now, that is a critical thinking curriculum I can get behind. Any chance it will pass in Louisiana?