Teaching Both Sides: Clarence Darrow v. William Jennings Bryan

The County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee has established a rather  pathetic museum in the basement to commemorate the Scopes Monkey Trial. However, this tawdry excuse for a museum (there’s a framed flapper dress which was worn to the trial by a juror’s wife) is probably truer to the experience of this backwoods town than the fictionalized versions of the trial –like the thinly veiled propaganda play, Inherit the Wind. This is the play in which the rebellious, evolution- obsessed teacher is depicted as a heroic figure, risking his job to do the right thing in the face of mindless ideologues and God-and-country politicians.  He was a man of principle who believed even Tennesseans deserved to know about evolution. The benefits of such education  are evinced in educated Tennesseans like Al Gore…who would later give us the internet.  (Too bad the ACLU didn’t have that little tool in their toolbox.)

Word up.   There was no heroic teacher willing to sacrifice his job to stand up for teaching the facts of pure science.  There was a guy who was approached by the ACLU prior to defying the no-evolution, no way, no how curriculum rules of  the Volunteer State.   That’s right,  he “volunteered” only after being promised a defense team and compensation if he let the ACLU take his case all the way to trial.  Cushy deal.  I’d defy the state curriculum mandates, too, if I knew the ACLU would bring in Clarence Darrow to cover my my back.   Hell, I’d even go out in the halls and talk loudly through the moment of silence.

But I dare not.  The educational visionaries of those days are buried deeper than the creepy artifacts collecting dust in the Dayton Courthouse basement, leaving the defiant teacher –who might wish to honor the education she spent years attaining by actually teaching the truth– vulnerable. Alas, I have a mortgage to pay. If I didn’t have bills to pay,  I might not bother to mention “the other side”– that some idiots think the Holocaust never happened. I might say that not only did the Holocaust happen, it also caused many very influential thinkers who witnessed it first hand to doubt the very existence of God. Some of them were even Amuricans, but they went off to live in France because it was more interesting than being around a bunch of anti-intellectuals.   And slavery?  News bulletin:  John Locke wrote the accounting systems for the slave ships… when he wasn’t writing the seminal documents of the Enlightenment, leading some Post-Modernists to question whether the Enlightenment was not always in bed  with slavery.  Guess we’d need to ask Sally Hemmings that one to be sure.   And then there’s those pesky theories of global warming…as if  Amuricans are gonna let academics obstruct mountain top removal and other instantly gratifying quests for not-so-clean energy! Hail no.

Oh, and right down the street from the Dayton courthouse is Bryan College, named for–you guessed it–William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer who defended Tennessee’s right to rob its citizens of an education. It’s a Christian college, you bet.  While Clarence Darrow may have won the trial, no one ’round these parts ever thought to name a college after him.  The science teacher across the hall went there. She teaches both sides….


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