It’s colourful. It’s huge. We pass it every day, and for most of us, it’s been around longer than we’ve been at the school.  So why is it that when students are asked their opinions of the display beside the biology labs of projects presenting the theories of creation of life by intelligent design, they respond: “what display?”

Ms. Spofforth was one of the teachers involved in setting up the display. She says that the idea first came up during the time of the Darwin Exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum – nearly four years ago in May 2008. She and Mr. John (the now retired biology teacher and long time Assistant Curriculum Leader of Science) decided to “connect the second and third floors” by joining the humanities work of her philosophy students with the scientific work of his biology students. The outcome was to be a visual essay: the Darwinian argument juxtaposed with the idea of intelligent design. And it was just that. Additional panels present the problems faced in the nineteenth century at the time of the popularization of the theory of evolution, and the final panel is a large argument towards reconciling the two theories.

The idea was controversial four years ago, but for financial reasons. The medium of the display is a corrugated plastic, chosen on the advice of the ROM. Mounting of the thirteen student works was done internally by the teachers and students, not by the board, whose services would have cost a fortune. In the end, the display was put up over the course of a year, and the final framing idea was never put into place. When asked about the ideological problems associated with posting theories of intelligent design beside classrooms that teach the theory of evolution, Ms. Spofforth defends the idea of free speech:

Perhaps this is the purpose of education itself, not telling people what to believe, but about exposing them to many ideas that have helped us understand the world.  The search after truth is, in the end, the centre of human endeavour, and the essence of education. I wonder what will happen if we ever find it … the truth?”

The teachers on the third floor show opposing viewpoints. Biology teacher Dr. Sivakadadcham, whose laboratory is beside the display, responds affirmatively to the question that there is to be free speech in the school, and that the display of student work has an inalienable right to be shown. He added: “You know, in some places, it’s illegal to teach evolution!” Physics teacher Mr. van Bemmel was not quite so open to the idea. Referring to the idea of creationism, he said: “people have free speech and can say what they want, but creationism is based on a flawed premise – that isn’t science and it doesn’t belong here.” Some students such as Connor Adair agreed with Mr. van Bemmel: “In science there are things that are right and wrong, and we know enough to be able to prove that this is wrong.” Clearly, some disagree strongly with the presence of the display.

The relationship of organized religion to the nation state in Canada is one of clear separation, but what of the relationship of freedom of speech and curiosity to public education? We have in our curriculum decided to teach the theory of evolution, but we have not decided to eradicate opposing viewpoints. Except for Ms. Spofforth who set it up, all the people interviewed expressed confusion at the mention of the gigantic display. You might want to take a look at it the next time you pass by, and perhaps think about the roles of liberty of speech and scientific truth you want to see in our education system, and in our society as a whole.