In one of the closing scenes of the movie version of Inherit the Wind, Spencer Tracy, in the role of Clarence Darrow, quotes from Proverbs 11:29—“He that troubleth his own house…”—just before he puts copies of the Holy Bible and On the Origin of Species into his briefcase. I have watched this on late-night satellite television until it is archived forever in my brain beside To Kill a Mockingbird.
Those of you who arrived late to the South may have missed our regional reluctance to racial understanding and academic honesty within the walls of rural public education and fundamentalist Sunday school. The story of John Scopes and the Dayton, Tennessee trial, jokingly referred to as the Monkey Trial was documented on front pages of newspapers, North and South. Scopes was found guilty and fined a minimal sum for violating a state law that prohibited teaching evolution in public schools.
The trial began as a tourist phenomenon to draw a crowd to the public square and Main Street of Dayton. It became much more. Fundamentalist rural Tennessee and the liberal Eastern media created a comedic but historic spectacle involving William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.
In recent days, I have been reading again the writings of Plato, including Apology, in which Socrates defends his conduct as a philosopher. Charges within the evidence presented against him include corrupting the youth of Athens, and denial of the gods.
The difference in importance between Scopes and Socrates is obvious. The similarities often go unnoticed. Teachers, or philosophers, who encourage students to think critically, contemplate the complexity of the universe, or question paradigms, are sometimes chastised by public consensus. Great men of science and thinkers of periods of enlightenment have found themselves in conflict with public opinion and religious orthodoxy. From Socrates to Jesus to Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, those who challenged the existing order were accused of corrupting the youth and denying the iconic deities. Through the history of the Reformation, the Civil Rights Movement, advanced scientific and medical research, and innovation in education, persons often defamed the images of conservatism and Christianity, with their opposition to human liberty and intellectual freedom.
More recently, talk-radio personalities publicly assail classroom assignments in schools, and challenge the academic diversity of public education. Parents, in opposing assigned readings that they find offensive, often could deny access to other students for reasons of ideology. Legislators would ban or disclaim the content of some chapters in our science textbooks.
There is, however, the risk that those of us who are advocates of secular intellectual freedom may at times become intolerant of religious expression. With caution, we avoid sectarian instruction in the classroom. The proper guidelines seem to be: the protection of all religious freedom, and the non-participatory role of government in matters of collective religion. Those of us in elected public office, who hold positions of authority in public education, are prohibited by law and logic from imposing our religious views on our youth or challenging their religious beliefs, writings, symbols, or practices.
Those who find an attraction to philosophy and the Socratic method of reasoning, often derive delight from circuitously challenging the advocates of certainty. We thrive on the gamesmanship of challenging the Sophists in the Greek marketplace who define truth and virtue in their own street-vendor rhetoric. We love confounding the Pharisees in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem. We applaud Luther as he rattled the ramparts of royal and papal Christendom.
I wish that I could trace their steps, sharing their courage and mischief, into the churches, temples, mosques, courtrooms, classrooms, and halls of government, and identify with those thinkers and reformers who have advanced human thought and liberty. We live in a time and place in which the Sophists and Pharisees have changed their raiment and taken new names, and sit in seats of authority, and we would be at risk if they thought we were corrupting their youth or questioning their gods.