Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Martyr alert

Kris Helphinstine just hit the career jackpot, if he chooses to take advantage of it.
During his eight days as a part-time high school biology teacher, Kris Helphinstine included Biblical references in material he provided to students and gave a PowerPoint presentation that made links between evolution, Nazi Germany and Planned Parenthood.

That was enough for the Sisters School Board, which fired the teacher Monday night for deviating from the curriculum on the theory of evolution.

The Associated Press story, which so far is the only version of the story being circulated, has been picked up by scores of papers, here and abroad. The headline used by most of the publications that I've checked is some variation of "Biology Teacher Fired for Bible References." Significantly, that is the version used by the Christian Broadcasting Network. That headline fits perfectly with the religious right's preferred frame of Christian persecution. It implies that Helphinstine wasn't fired for proselytizing his religion, for violating district policy, for introducing unapproved materials into the classroom, or any other legitimate administrative reason; no, it implies that he was fired for merely mentioning the Bible in the classroom. And that's where he hits the jackpot. If he is so inclined, Helphinstine could milk his martyrdom for years as a paid speaker at religious right conventions and churches.

So far, the news coverage doesn't give any clue as to whether Helphinstine is inclined to do that. Returning to the AP story, the only word from Helphinstine himself, portrays his purpose as religiously neutral and possessing a legitimate educational purpose.
Helphinstine, 27, said in a phone interview with The Bulletin newspaper of Bend that he included the supplemental material to teach students about bias in sources, and his only agenda was to teach critical thinking.

"Critical thinking is vital to scientific inquiry," said Helphinstine, who has a master's degree in science from Oregon State. "My whole purpose was to give accurate information and to get them thinking."

Helphinstine said he did not teach the idea that God created the world. "I never taught creationism," he said. "I know what it is, and I went out of my way not to teach it."

"Teach students about bias in sources" and "critical thinking" could be completely honest and innocent statements of his lesson plan, although they do sound suspiciously similar to creationist buzz phrases such as "teach the controversy."

To see if I could get some more details, I paid the three dollars they asked in order to look behind the firewall at The Bulletin's story. The AP story appears to be not much more than an abridgement of The Bulletin's original story. Helphinstine declined to comment to The Bulletin on his beliefs, but the article provides enough indirect information for us to deduce that his offense was more than just mentioning the Bible in the classroom.

According to Sisters' school board, Helphinstine was fired "for deviating from the district's curriculum on the theory of evolution and giving students outside materials that promoted the Bible and creationism." Those outside materials included links to Ken Ham's young Earth creationist group Answers in Genesis. The Bulletin's article still doesn't make clear how he used those materials, but the firmness of the school board’s reaction implies that he was doing more than just providing examples of alternate thought. They fired him for promoting creationism, not for merely mentioning it. In the words of one of the board members, "I think his performance was not just a little bit over the line. It was a severe contradiction of what we trust teachers to do in our classrooms." The only dissenting vote on the board did not feel that Helphinstine was innocent of wrongdoing; he thought that he should have been given a stern warning and another chance before firing.

It’s probably irrelevant whether or not Mr. Helphinstine chooses to take advantage of his fifteen minutes of fame. Even if we don’t hear from Helphinstine, we will surely hear about Helphinstine in the coming days. According to Google News, in the time it has taken me to write this post, the number of newspapers running the AP story has climbed from 62 to 114. That number will probably increase considerably as tomorrow’s morning editions come online. According to Technorati, there are currently 29 blogs posting on “Kris Helphinstine” and that number will surely rise, since bloggers are usually a few hors behind the news outlets. Let’s watch and see what kind of an icon he becomes.

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