Nearly a century ago, the state of Tennessee prosecuted a high school teacher for instructing students on the theory of evolution in violation of a state law. The state law was based on a fear that teaching evolution would undermine religious observance and traditional morality. The trial, known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” became a national flashpoint, drawing the nation’s media as well as two of its most prominent lawyers into the battle, including a former United States Secretary of State and three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Brian.
This trial was the source material for an equally-famous play based upon it, “Inherit the Wind” (1955) and a film adaptation of the same name in 1960. The play and film were not written as historical accounts, but rather as allegories for the contemporary McCarthy trials, the effort led by United States Senator and demagogue Joseph McCarthy to root out alleged communists from public life.
Although the play has many facets (including a fascinating character study), the central tension is between freedom of expression (bolstered by scientific authority) and political authority. To what extent should a teacher be free to exercise their best judgment about instructional material and methods, even if it contradicts the values of the community and the preferences of their political representatives in a democratic society?
In a democratic society, life is governed in large part by the will of the majority. Although there is a limited number of rights accorded to individuals and some further protections for minority groups, state governments, elected by the people, have enormous power to pass laws regulating public and private life. That they often forbear from doing so is not because they are legally restrained but because our representatives do not wish to offend their constituents (or their tenures in office would be brief, and their efforts quickly reversed).
Among the fundamental rights Americans enjoy are the freedoms of expression, religion and conscience embodied in the First Amendment, a set of rights that courts have tended to protect more fiercely in the last half century or so than in the first century and a half of the republic. As a result, most Americans find restrictions on academic freedom, open debate, speech or inquiry to be anathema. Part of this sensibility is rooted in our traditions (or perception thereof) of liberty, freedom and democratic institutions, but part of it is cultural, based on a recognition that only a free and open society can progress and make ample room for science and discovery.
Nonetheless, these rights are not absolute. For more than a century now, courts have affirmed that state governments (although federal authority is more limited) may compel obedience to certain health and public safety measures, such as requiring vaccinations or certain business regulations . Similarly, the rights of minors are not as fulsome as those of adults, and certain rights may be limited in public primary and secondary schools. School boards and state authorities have enormous power to shape curriculum and delimit subject matter content in public schools, determining what should be taught and what should not.
Books and other materials have been regularly banned or removed from schools for reasons of drug use, sexual content, violence or dealing with highly sensitive matters like suicide. A Catholic school in Tennessee even banned Harry Potter books for featuring witchcraft and the use of magical spells. And, just this week, a school board in Tennessee also removed the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus , about the Holocaust, from libraries.
In recent years, schools have increasingly banned or challenged books relating to identity: race and racism, gender identity, sexual orientation, and more. And courts have affirmed the power of school authorities to remove such material from school libraries.
State legislatures, however, have taken another step in regulating classroom content on such matters. Superficially about keeping “Critical Race Theory” out of classroom discussions, a number of states have passed laws regulating discussions on race and racism. Tennessee, for example, passed a law banning certain precepts that lawmakers attributed to CRT. A high school teacher was fired for assigning an essay in the Atlantic Magazine, and leading a classroom discussion of juniors and seniors about it in a class called “Contemporary Studies.”
Nearly a hundred years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, the parallels are numerous and astonishing. The same state, the same context, and a similar hot-button issue.
But it is not only Tennessee that has taken such steps. I wrote last year how the right-wing media and political sphere were positioning CRT as a new bogeyman (after a brief and abortive attempt to attack “equity”), and was gearing up to enact laws banning it, although, as I was one of the first to point out, CRT, as such, was not actually being taught in primary and secondary schools. And before that I wrote about the patent unconstitutionality of the Trump executive order banning certain forms of diversity training in federal agencies (which the Biden administration swiftly withdrew before courts could strike it down).
Contemporary American life feels like an endless parade of “Inherit the Wind”-like incidents. The weight of scientific authority may shift from case to case, but fundamental tension between democratic governance and authority and freedom of expression or conscience is ubiquitous.
Consider, as another example, the intensity of the opposition and anger to mask mandates or Covid-19 vaccination requirements. These incidents are all the more intense when they are not simply narrow legal matters but cultural flashpoints that transcend (or, worse, are divorced from) the underlying subject matter.
My sense is that many people (myself included) who would side with the teachers in both the Scopes Monkey Trial and the CRT case would also side with mask mandates or vaccination requirements in the interest of public health, and vice versa. But this only underscores the fundamental tension rather than resolve it.
Surprisingly, I haven’t seen or read anyone drawing the comparison to “Inherit the Wind” or the Scopes Monkey Trial, but doing so can help us see, more clearly than otherwise, the dynamics of what’s really going on and what the stakes are.