Robert Frost and the debate over Intelligent Design

by Christopher Paslay


Last week, as a supplemental activity to the Philadelphia School District’s 11th grade English curriculum, I had my students read and analyze the Robert Frost poem Design.  This poem is about a white spider that camouflages itself on the petal of a white flower, and by doing so, manages to catch and kill a moth. 


The last four lines of the poem are as follows:


          What brought the kindred spider to that height,

          Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

          What but design of darkness to appall?–

          If design govern in a thing so small.


The poem is rich in symbolism, and its theme is quite complex.  But in the end, the poem asks this basic question: Did this happen by chance, or was there a plan (design) behind it?


After I had my students analyze the structure of the poem (it is a sonnet, so we studied its octave and sestet, and also its rhyme scheme), we began discussing the poem’s theme: chance verses design.


This, of course, led to the debate over intelligent design, and whether or not it should be taught in public schools. 


As a way to discuss freedom of speech, I had my students read the commentary, “What’s Wrong with Teaching Intelligent Design in Our Public Schools” by Jay Sekulow, the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C. based legal advocacy group specializing in Constitutional law. 


They read the article and had to identify the author’s thesis and supporting arguments.  Then they had to give their opinion—whether they agreed with Jay Sekulow or not, and why. 


Sekulow’s main point—which I explained to the class was only one side of the debate—was that students should be permitted to examine all theories about the origins of life, including I.D. 


78 of my students completed the assignment.  66 of them—84.6%—agreed with Sekulow: Students should be given the opportunity to study I.D. along side Darwinism so they can ultimately decide what to believe for themselves.


“I think Americans, regardless of our beliefs, should be able to freely access information because people fought and died for our freedoms,” one student wrote.


“I do not think Intelligent Design has anything to do with religion,” another said.  “It’s just giving an option on how life on earth came about.”   


Of the 12 students who disagreed with Sekulow, one stated, “They have no scientific proof that Intelligent Design exists, so therefore it shouldn’t be taught in public schools.”


A very articulate young lady wrote, “Including Intelligent Design in public schools will lead to protests and more.  Some parents don’t like it being taught because of their religion.  It could offend them.  Even though it is science, it brings up religion.  If kids want to find out about Intelligent Design, go to church and leave it there.”


The discussion was very interesting.  The students were passionate about the topic. 


To conclude the lesson we went back to the Frost poem, and reread it. 


Many saw it in a whole new light. 



3 thoughts on “Robert Frost and the debate over Intelligent Design

  1. Wonderful example of true interdisciplinary teaching. Sounds like reading, writing, and critical thinking are taking place in a Philadelphia Public School. Kudos!!
    You should share more of your methodology and strategies that take the students to proficient and ADVANCED levels. It also sounds like you and your students were very engaged and genuinely enjoyed the educational experience. Keep up the creativeness and hard work and please keep sharing.

  2. And you say you’re a teacher? Why do you dishonestly omit the fact that Mr. Sekulow is a mouth piece for right wing religious zealots who wish to impose their creationist beliefs on unsuspecting students. If you and Mr. Sekulow are so confident in the merit of your ideas, why not openly admit to them, rather than smuggling them into the classroom disguised as ID? It is telling that the “very articulate young lady” you quote, in explaining why ID shouldn’t be taught in school, has already been snookered into thinking that ID is nothing more than a disagreeable scientific hypothesis- which it most certainly is not. Your effort to present this episode as an exercise in intellectual classroom debate cannot hide your failure to do your primary job as a teacher: conveying ACCURATE information to your students. You were promoting a religious doctrine, Sir- not an honest contest of ideas. Disgraceful.

  3. George,

    Part of our classroom debate was whether or not ID was religion (or creationism) disguised as science. Some students agreed with you: they thought it WAS a dishonest attempt to sneak God into the curriculum. I also explained that Mr. Sekulow’s article was only ONE SIDE of the argument. I apologize for not making this clear in my blog post. I was concentrating more on the structure of the lesson, and not on the politics.

    Thanks for commenting.

    –Chris Paslay

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