Creationism in Publicly Funded Schools

Needless to say, the ongoing debate of Creationism verses Evolution in schools in the United States has always been a sensitive topic that people take very personally. But what happens when someone actually creates a map that reveals schools that not only teach creationism, but also are funded by the state? Well, with God and politics both shown on the same map, things become even more personal to the reader. And “personal” is exactly what Slate, an online magazine, was aiming for in posting such a map. They wanted to incite a response from their audience, and they used classic, age-old map-making techniques to accomplish that goal. In writing a partial introductory paragraph for the map, using a color-dotted system, and most importantly, silencing certain aspects of the map, this map-maker wanted his reader to focus on the alarming issue of creationism in schools as a method to promote an evolutionary worldview.

But before we begin to look into the map we should investigate the article, because it provides a context for how we are to view the map. First off, the title itself carries some significance: “Map: Publicly Funded Schools That Are Allowed to Teach Creationism”.1 The fact that the first word the reader will see is “Map” testifies to the power of a map to offer validity to an argument. Suddenly, this blog-post now has an air of authority. “After all”, the reader might think, “this post has a map, and maps just reproduce reality, right?” Wrong! As the eminent cartographer Denis Wood would claim, the map creates a reality.2 However, the bias really begins to show in the introductory paragraph. In just five sentences, this little paragraph boldly articulates the purpose of the map and makes it perfectly clear that what the map is showing is a bad thing. In reference to the U.S. map below it, the post claims, “If you live in any of these states, there’s a good chance your tax money is helping to convince some hapless students that evolution…is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis as credible as ‘God did it.’” Although most maps are biased in some way or another, this statement unashamedly establishes its bias right off the bat in order to make the map relatable to the reader. The author uses the article to provide a strong context for the map so that the reader clearly perceives this national issue as a personal matter.

But in terms of the map itself, the first thing that strikes me is how messy and unbalanced it seems. Little colored dots of green, orange, and red are disproportionately clustered in some states and lightly scattered in others. But yet, the majority of the United States is left blank. In fact, only fourteen of the forty-eight contiguous states even have these little dots. Now the article seems like a bit of an exaggeration if this map only applies to about a third of the U.S. But what is happening in those fourteen states?

Well, each dot represents a school, and the color for the dot codes for that state’s policy of supplying public funds for schools that might be teaching creationism. For instance, Tennessee and Louisiana are completely covered in green little dots  (which the legend explains is the color for public schools in states where state law permits creationism instruction). But wait a second… does that mean that each school represented by a dot is teaching creationism? No, but that was most likely the desired impression of the cartographer by labeling every single school with a dot, even though the reality is that these schools may not necessarily teach creationism. Our man Denis Wood points out here that maps have a power to “link the territory with what comes with it”.3 Thus each little green dot in these states still calls out to the reader, “I teach creationism!” even though the legend claims that they are simply allowed to teach it.  Another interesting choice the author makes is the use of dots. The chaotic crowding of dots that seem to overflow the borders of Tennessee and Louisiana overwhelm the viewer. But since these creationism policies are statewide, the author could have easily shaded the whole state green to represent that state’s policy instead of using dots. But color-coded dots convey a numerical quantity that would be lost in shading. But regardless of the representation, the color-coding system generalizes the individual situation of each school into a much broader category of “teaches creationism”, the theme of the map. The dots are cleverly “naturalized” in the map by the mass representation of specific schools and comfortably conform to a reader’s expectation of what a map like this should look like. But although we can understand the dots and the colors, there is still so much blank space. This begs the question: what is the map not showing?

And here, lastly, we come to the issue of silences. J. B. Harley claimed that an investigation of the silences of a map will reveal its hidden political messages, and as we have already seen, this map is politically biased.4 So what features of this map are silenced? Well, this map does not show the families that send their children to these schools, nor does it show the Bible-Belt culture that these families might have grown up in. Thus, we can propose that many of these families might have no problem sending their children to these creationist schools, if creationism is already integrated in the culture through religion. Yet, the map does not show this, or any other opposing aspect because they would not support the purpose for which the map was crafted. The author might argue that it would be nearly impossible to map “culture”. However I have no doubt that if “culture” supported his interest, then he would have found a way to include it on the map.

Throughout the article and the map, the author is constantly making the assumption that the reader has an understanding of what creationism teaches. And from his three word definition of creationism in the introductory paragraph (“God did it”), he single-handedly calls for the abolishment of creationism in publicly funded schools. Despite this shortcoming, his post is based on a valid argument: the separation of church and state. However, if we move past the politics, we run into an interesting question: are creationism and evolution really that different in terms of explaining how science actually works? No, they are not. But they both offer conflicting explanations for the history of science (the origin; “where did it all come from?”) and the answer to this issue has huge implications for how we view the world. So the purpose of this map is not to necessarily promote evolution or renounce creationism, but in essence, this map is a battleground for an underlying ideology: a battle to win the mind of people to a certain worldview. That is the power of maps, and that is why this map is worthy to be included in the Map of the Week.

D. R. Edmonds



  1. “Map: Publicly Funded Schools That Are Allowed to Teach Creationism” Slate. January 26, 2014. See
  2. Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992), 17-19.
  3. Wood, 10.
  4. J. B. Harely, “Maps, Knowledge, and Power”, in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation. Design and Use of Past Environments


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2 Responses to Creationism in Publicly Funded Schools

  1. tbarney says:

    Great first post Don!

  2. rn7vs says:

    Don’s selection is powerful, and it is particularly relevant and useful for a general overview of cartography. The first aspect of the map that I noticed was its simplicity. The foundation of the map is a blank canvas of the United States, and only fourteen of the states contain actual data points. Digressing back to the fundamentals of cartography, Don describes how the map illustrates issues with internal and external map relationships, map silences and author bias. The prevalence of these themes makes this map a worthy choice for “Map of the Week”.
    Another important aspect of the map, which Don discusses, is the relationship between its cultural and its physical aspects. The physical aspects, such as the representation of the United States as a blank canvas, give the map the appearance of containing knowledge and truth. The author of this map is able to gain credibility through the physical depiction, and he presents cultural data with pseudo-objectivity. The cultural aspects of this map (e.g., the data points) make partial statements about the states that contain them. The author depicts Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida filled with colored dots, which highlights and isolates them for criticism separate from the other states. The objective credibility that the author gained through his physical depiction of the United States caused me to believe his cultural statements were also objective and truthful, but they very well may not be (and probably are not, as Don points out). This map is astonishingly powerful because it appears objective, but it actually contains a partial message that it is able to naturalize.

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