Rethinking the Scopes Monkey Trial

Tyranny of the majority and the one-size-fits-all system of public education.
Unsplash, T.I.L.F.

For a few days in July 1925 the town of Dayton, Tennessee garnered national attention with the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. History remembers the event as Darwinism taking on Christian fundamentalism – at stake was only a misdemeanor charge for a young high school teacher, but to onlookers, it was an epic showdown of science versus religion. To this day, most people fail to recognize the bigger picture, the battle underneath between freedom and democratic control, one which offers great insight into what is fueling many of the culture war battles happening in schools today.

In the early months of 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. It became a misdemeanor to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Almost immediately, the ACLU went on the hunt for a teacher impacted by the new law, going so far as to place advertisements in newspapers seeking a martyr for them to run defense. They found one with Dayton science teacher John Thomas Scopes.

Sensing a coordinated attack on Christian fundamentalism, three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan joined the prosecution team and was challenged by the famous attorney, Clarence Darrow.

The courtroom battle that ensued seemed even at the start, but by the end of the trial, Bryan had taken the stand as a Bible expert and had been humiliated by Darrow, who was able to employ some Socratic method to run circles around Bryan and his fundamentalist beliefs. Bryan accused Darrow of making a “slur of the Bible” and Darrow hit back at him for “…your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” Bryan won the case – but not in the court of public opinion.

The trial was much bigger than just science versus religion, and exposed a huge crack in the foundation of all government education in its inherent distaste for diversity of thought. No matter how large or small, from their inception, public schools have always administered as a top-down, one-size-fits-all system. In Dayton, Tennessee, it happened to be a Christian fundamentalist science curriculum, put in place by the like-minded state legislature. Those with the power over curriculum set the rules for everyone leading to the famous culture war battle that ensued.

The Achilles heel of all government education is that it is democratically controlled, creating what James Madison called, the “tyranny of the majority.” John Chubb and Terry Moe point this out in their 1990 book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, writing: “Democracy is essentially coercive. The winners get to use public authority to impose their policies on the losers.” Is this not exactly what was taking place back in Tennessee in 1925, and what is still happening in red and blue states across the country today? Everything from salaries to curriculum to facilities becomes political weaponry just by nature of being a part of government-controlled education and therefore irrevocably tied to elections and politics.

Author Isabel Paterson commented on this very problem with a shrewd analysis of the Scopes Trial from her 1943 essay, Our Japanized Education System. She writes, “All [evolutionists and creationists] wanted was that the state should prescribe that their own particular scientific doctrine be taught, rather than an unorthodox creed. They were not the least concerned with freedom of thought, speech or person… In short, they did not question the political control of education; they only wanted to use it themselves.”

A tyranny of the majority lies at the heart of all public education, providing keen insight into a lot of the battles in the culture war making headlines today. Recently, Florida passed what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, prohibiting gender-identity lessons being taught to K-3 students. Conservatives in Florida cheered their victory, naturally so, Republicans control the statehouse and believe the new curriculum policy is protecting Florida’s students and families. Meanwhile, families and teachers with deeply held progressive values that may have wanted these gender-identity lessons are no longer freely able to access or teach them in Florida.

Meanwhile up in Maryland, the Democrat supermajority has been busy mandating the exact same sort of gender-identity lessons to their kindergarteners that are now outlawed in the Sunshine State. Just like with the Florida progressives, Maryland conservative families and teachers that are now left high-and-dry trying to navigate around the new education policy they did not vote for.

Public schools have and will continue to be major battlegrounds in this raging culture war. So long as democratically controlled government education remains dominant, the majority in each state will continue to run schools according to their own vision, and the minority will stay trapped – forced to muster on with a little less liberty, under a system and mandates contrary to their own deeply held beliefs and values.

Evan Richards
Evan Richards is a middle school history teacher from Baltimore, Maryland. He has a master's degree in secondary education and is enjoying his tenth year in the classroom.