March 14, 2005


Why So Many Find the Anti-Evolution Argument Appealing (Charles A. Israel, 3/14/05, History News Network)

Ever since publicly funded education grew in the 19th and 20th centuries to reach more children, keep them longer, and teach them far more than simple reading, writing, and arithmetic; parents, teachers, preachers, politicians, and others have often disagreed about what or how the schools taught. In the past we have seen controversies about what schools should teach about sex or history and over the place of the Bible, prayer, or the Pledge of Allegiance in the classrooms. But evolution has proven particularly effective at mobilizing parents and other interested parties to assert their control over the public schools.

The driving force of the anti-evolution controversy is and has been control of children, their education, and, through these means, controlling the future of society. This central theme of controlling children to control the future was splendidly stated by the southern Methodist weekly paper, the Nashville ( Tenn.) Christian Advocate, in 1880 when it warned: “Those who educate the present generation of children in these United States will hold the reins of power when they are grown. Therefore if we turn over the education of our children to others, we renounce our hold upon the future.” Supporters of Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute and the prosecution of high school teacher John T. Scopes in 1925 were the intellectual heirs of this argument for control. The real issue in Dayton was not Darwin, but who got to decide what the students were being taught. Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, the man who signed the anti-evolution bill into law, argued that “The people have the right and must have the right to regulate what is taught in their schools.” Peay was not the only one singing this tune. He joined a chorus led by William Jennings Bryan, volunteer prosecutor in the Scopes trial, who had barnstormed the state in 1924 to secure a legislature friendly to the anti-evolution cause. Repeating themes he had stressed elsewhere, Bryan told an audience in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium that “the hand that writes the [teachers’] paycheck rules the school.” Parents and taxpayers indirectly write those checks, therefore according Bryan’s logic, they should set the curriculum.

Bryan’s majority rule argument proved persuasive to the vast majority of Tennessee religious and political leaders. In the weeks leading up to the Scopes Trial, the editor of the Nashville Baptist and Reflector charged his readers to remember that the question was control, not evolution. “Let every preacher and layman keep before the public the fact that the thing on trial is not a doctrine, not a scientific hypothesis, but a fundamental principle of Democracy. If Tennessee has no right to pass a law preventing the teaching of Darwinian Evolution in its public schools, then it has no right to pass any law regulating its public school system.” Some academics, preachers, and parents protested the law and denied that evolution was necessarily in conflict with religion. But even M. M. Black, an outspoken proponent of evolution and a frequent contributor to the Methodist newspaper, bowed to the argument for democratic control of the classroom, conceding in the summer of 1925 “that a State has the right to forbid any form of teaching or instruction in its schools and colleges which the majority of its citizens regard as hurtful to morals and the Christian religion.”

Bryan’s crusade against evolution, couched in the language of popular control of the schools, is in fact a perfectly pitched argument for a democratic society. Perhaps this explains the continuing power of the anti-evolutionist appeal. Whether arguing majority rule, protection for their own free exercise of religion, or simply leaning on an appeal to American fairness (if you teach this it is only fair that you teach that too so as not to offend or privilege one group’s opinion), anti-evolutionists appear to be gaining strength and political acumen. Polling on the eve of last November’s national elections found 65 percent of respondents in favor of teaching both evolution and creationism while more than one third favored teaching creationism alone.6 While science most definitely does not work on a vote system, school boards and state legislatures are subject to majority rule.

The fight over school vouchers is likewise so tenacious on the Left's part because once they lose control of the children they're toast.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2005 10:00 PM

One of the essential truths of sociology is that education exists to preserve a culture, not to subvert it.

It's always amused me how little attention is paid to that simple fact.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 15, 2005 12:27 AM