I recently read Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson,which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Most of us know about the 1925 prosecution of John Scopes from the cartoonish but compelling 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. Of course, real life was more complicated than the drama, but the basic premise was correct: John Scopes was prosecuted for violating a Tennessee state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. The trial depicted huge personalities important in American history. The movie had Spencer Tracy in the thinly-veiled Clarence Darrow role and the oft-underappreciated Frederic March as the William Jennings Bryan surrogate. (Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and March forty miles away in Racine, three years apart. I have wondered if on the Inherit set they swapped reminiscences of boyhood romps on Lake Michigan beaches.) And in a daring bit of casting, Gene Kelly had the role of the acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken, who wrote commentary about the trial.
The movie seemingly portrays the triumph of rationality over the cramped world of closed-minded fundamental religion — the triumph of modernity over myth. However, the movie, based on the 1956 play, was aimed at McCarthyism more than fundamentalism just as The Crucible by Arthur Miller is not really about the Salem witch trials. (The opening cast of Broadway’s Inherit the Wind starred Ed Begley, Paul Muni, and a young Tony Randall as Mencken. It ran for over two years, and, of course, has been a staple of high schools and summer stock ever since.) Perhaps it was telling that one of the screenwriters for the Inherit film used a fictitious name for the credits because he had been blacklisted.
Although William Jennings Bryan is portrayed in Inherit primarily as a religious buffoon, Summer for the Gods shows that he tried, given the populist he was, to cast the issue as one of democracy. He, and others, maintained that the people — speaking through their legislatures — had the right to control what was taught in the schools which they had created and funded.
The issues presented by the Scopes trial remain timely, most notably in Florida. Now, however, the issues are about more than science and religion. Religion may hover just below the surface, but Florida is raising again two of the most interwoven strands that have recurred throughout American history, sex and race.
The state, however, maintains that what is doing is not about religion, sex, or race; It is about protecting children. It is about who determines when children should be exposed to certain topics. It is about who determines the content of classes.
Indeed, a basic question about our public school is who controls the education? School boards, parents, state government, teachers, other educators, experts? There is no easy answer.
Few doubt that government sets at least broad requirements. And usually, educators determine how those requirements are to be satisfied. Perhaps a school board or the state legislature determines that a high school student must pass algebra to graduate. We would be surprised if that state agency developed a syllabus for the required course. Instead, the educators determine how the course is to be taught.
However, when issues of religion, sex, or race are present in a course, sometimes, as with Florida now and Tennessee in 1925, the government wants to control the course’s content. The state may say that the majority of people want them to control such content. However, since this happens primarily with issues of religion, sex, or race, and not with other topics, this is not really about majority or even parental control; if it were, the state would control content on all topics. No. It is only about religion, sex, or race.
Florida, however, is not merely mimicking 1925 Tennessee. It is going beyond the Volunteer State. Tennessee did not extend its meddling beyond the public high schools. It apparently assumed that its college students were rational enough, mature enough, and educated enough to be able to think for themselves. They did not require protection from whatever the state legislature thought pernicious. Ron DeSantis’s Florida, however, has taken this a step further. The Sunshine State’s governor does not believe that its college students are smart, educated, or mature enough to be able to come to their own decisions on these matters. DeSantis is seeking to control the content of university education as well as that in the lower schools.
Indeed, Florida has not stopped there. It seeks to mandate what can occur in corporate programs. This, of course, turns “conservatism” on its head. Promotion of free enterprise and minimal government regulation is a core tenet of conservatism. We should not be all that surprised that concerns about sex, race, and religion intrude into public education, for that has happened many times in our history. But it is a brave new world when the state decides to control corporate training in these matters.
Of course, we should be concerned about what is taught in our schools. However, as we consider who should determine curricular content, it is worth reflecting on what Curtis Wilkie reports in When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer. “In the middle of the twentieth century,” writes Wilkie, “any Mississippi schoolchild who achieved an eighth-grade education had been exposed to a state history textbook [Mississippi through Four Centuries] that told of the glories of the Klan.” In discussing Reconstruction, the textbook acknowledged that the Ku Klux Klan whipped and even killed Blacks “who had been giving trouble in a community. . . . The organization helped the South at a difficult time.”
However, now, a hundred years after the Scopes trial, I can imagine a prosecution of a Florida teacher who teaches the fact that on a per capita basis Florida had the most lynchings in this country.