A Scopes Trial in Florida

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.


After watching Okja, did you become a vegan?

Sodom and Gomorrah on the Hudson. That is how many characterize New York City, but this ignores that a large group of New Yorkers, including me, are devout followers of religion because we park our cars on New York City streets. New York rules prevent us from parking at particular places during particular times of the week so that street sweepers can clean to the curb. (I know that tourists find it amazing that our litter-filled streets are swept, but they are.) Thus, in front of my house, I cannot park on one side of the street from 11:30 A.M. to 1 P.M. on Mondays, and on Tuesdays I can’t park during those hours on the other side of the street. If I park on the wrong side of the street at those times, I WILL get a ticket. It’s irritating, but the streets do get swept. However, there are many regularly-scheduled suspensions of these “alternate-side-of-the-street- parking restrictions”—about forty per year. (Emergencies such as snowstorms also bring additional suspensions.) Many of the scheduled suspensions are for secular holidays—Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.—but the majority are for religious observances. As certain religions gain more adherents in New York, and hence more political power, alternate-side suspensions increase to recognize their religious holidays and festivals. (Politics gets played out in all sorts of ways in New York City.) Jewish and Christian holidays have been recognized for years, but not too long ago some Hindu and Islamic holy days were added thereby increasing the number of days on which I do not have to worry about being illegally parked. It may sound odd, but I don’t believe that I am the only car parker who says, “Thank all the gods for religion!”

Could this story be true? When Marilyn Monroe was married to Arthur Miller, his mother regularly made matzo ball soup for the couple. After the tenth time, Marilyn said, “Gee, Arthur, these matzo balls are pretty nice, but isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?”

Is Jules Feiffer’s thought appropriate for Easter? He said, “Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?”

“To many people virtue consists chiefly in repenting faults, not in avoiding them.” Lichtenberg.

“It is much easier to repent of sins that we have committed than to repent of those we intend to commit.” Josh Billings.

March 14 has now become pi day. Some people learn hundreds or thousands of the numerals of pi, but as Jordan Ellenberg points out in How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, while pi itself is interesting, knowing more of those digits does not make it more interesting. He continues that knowing the coordinates of the Eiffel Tower with increasing exactitude does not tell you anything valuable about the Eiffel Tower.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I wonder if the old joke, with some truth in it, is now politically incorrect: What’s the Irish version of a queer? Answer: Someone who prefers women to liquor.

The Play’s the (Limited) Thing (concluded)

The dramatist Elmer Rice thought that plays don’t have lasting power because they have to be produced, but he also thought they did not last because plays are written for a group audience, and this limits their quality. The author of a book seeks wide readership, but in an important sense that writer really composes for an audience of one, the solitary reader who can choose where and when to read.  That author has a freedom in determining at what level to pitch his writing. He can seek an audience of an academic, a trained professional, a serious reader, or pitch to a mass market. He can aim for literary or intellectual merit and have a chance of finding the right readership.

The dramatist’s audience, in contrast, requires a group of individuals assembled together at a particular time and place to experience the work together.  The socially indelicate or controversial book can be read in private, but a dramatic performance is public, which makes it subject to many forms of public scrutiny and influence that have little or nothing to do with drama as art. Furthermore, theater-going is generally not inexpensive and the audience is largely limited to the upper economic class. Rice thought that such audiences generally sought mere entertainment and were not particularly sophisticated, having on average, less understanding of the art they are perceiving than concert-goers, visitors to art exhibitions, or readers of serious books. “Rocketing costs have increased the professional theater’s dependence upon an audience that is likely to be better equipped with money than with taste.”

Furthermore, a play’s audience does not have an advantage of the book audience.  The reader can always thumb back if something has been missed, but the playgoer cannot requiring the playwright to repeat important information sometimes undercutting the artistic integrity of the work. “The audience must move forward with the performers, and what is not instantly grasped is forever lost.”

Equally important, Rice felt that the collective behavior of any group, including an audience, was different from the private reactions of individuals.  Writing in mid-career in an introduction to a British collection of his plays, Rice concluded that for whatever reason, those in a group “assume a uniformity of conduct, a sort of common denominator, . .  . which is far below the habitual level of the more intelligent . . . members of the group. . . . [The dramatist] is handicapped by the low level of his audience, which imposes upon him the necessity of over-simplifying and over-emphasizing his points in order to make them at all.” Even so, Rice pronounced “that almost any play is considerably above the level of the audience which it attracts. Anyone who has listened to the comments of an audience, during or after the performance, can say without hesitation that at least one-half of those present have no definite notion of what the author has been driving at, or even what the play is about.”  Rice concluded, “Why, then, is the lot of the dramatist more unhappy than that of his fellow-artists?  For the simple reason that he cannot address himself to the individual judgments of the scattered few to whom he may have something to say. The very nature of his art demands an organisation of his audience, in space and in time. If he writes plays for the theatre, he cannot fail to take the theatre heavily into account; if he writes plays for the library, he is no longer wholly a dramatist.”

Rice was not alone in seeing the limitations brought by a group audience. Maugham wrote that when assembled as a group, its members only want limited ideas. An audience “likes novelty, but a novelty that will fit in with old notions, so that it excites but does not alarm. It likes ideas, so long as they are put in dramatic form, only they must be ideas that it has itself had, but for want of courage has never expressed.” Arthur Miller agreed after seeing a Greek theater in Sicily that could hold 14,000 that it is “hard to grasp how the tragedies could have been written for such massive crowds when in our time the mass audience all but demanded vulgarization.”

Even with these pessimistic thoughts about the limitations of plays, however, Rice did not abandon the theater. He continued to write play after play, sometimes merely to entertain, sometimes to experiment with form, and sometimes to present ideas. He apparently saw drama’s inherent limitations as a challenge to surmount, and at least some of the time, he succeeded well enough to produce worthy plays.

And even though I appreciate the limited reach of plays, I continue to go because some of the time a production succeeds in producing a memorable event.

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