, Corbin, KY


June 10, 2013

What do we value in Kentucky?

CORBIN — I heard something this past week which struck me as extraordinary and also emblematic of Kentucky’s penchant to hold onto its past regardless of the cost.

I was at the Kentucky Board of Education meeting to see if the board’s approval of new science standards for public schools might produce some controversy. One of those standards isn’t really all that new, but it addresses the idea of natural selection — evolution — which is controversial in a deeply conservative, religious state.

I was expecting some to protest the idea and no doubt they will before the standards are ultimately accepted or rejected. But no one spoke against the standards at the board meeting.

The learning standard — a benchmark of what students should understand after completing a course of study — on natural selection is unchanged from the present standards, according to a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. But there’s a second one about climate change which is new and which will also likely generate debate.

I spotted a conservative activist and asked him what he thought of the standards. He didn’t mention natural selection; he was much more concerned about the one on climate change.

I’m no scientist and I’m not qualified to debate the issue of climate change. But one of his objections struck me in another way.

First he said the standard calls for teaching the idea as a fact rather than as theory and he pointed to outlier studies which question evidence that climate is changing because of carbon emissions produced by human activity. That didn’t surprise me. It’s hardly an isolated view, or even a minority view, in Kentucky and the gentleman is thoughtful and well-educated.

But then he said if the idea of climate change is accepted in Kentucky and taught in our schools it will have “a devastating impact on the coal industry which is such an important industry in Kentucky.”

Think about that. Not what it says about climate or coal — that’s not what troubles me. Think instead about what it says about how we view the importance of education and the welfare of our own children.

Implicit in that statement is the idea that protecting an important Kentucky industry is relatively more important than giving our children the best available information to understand and make their way in the world and to make it a better place.

I realize the man doubts the validity of the research which says carbon emissions are dangerously warming our planet. Assuming he and other critics are intellectually honest and genuinely doubt the validity of the research, then they should question the science. As he pointed out, the conclusions of science aren’t always correct and must be revised as new information becomes available. At one time “the best available information” led people to conclude the world was flat.

But his second statement implies we shouldn’t be interested in new information if we find it inconvenient, that even if the research is confirmed, protecting our health and educating our children aren’t as important as protecting a Kentucky industry.

You know, we’ve done that before in Kentucky. I grew up in tobacco country; I worked in it; I benefited from it as the modest amount of money it provided helped pay my college tuition.

My health has also suffered from its use. At least my children know better because we’ve shown them the evidence.

The lesson I took away from that conversation had nothing to do with the benefits or dangers of coal. But it said everything about Kentucky and its children and what we value.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky. He may be contacted by email at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

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