Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Genesis and Education

I went out by myself on Sunday afternoon. I left the rest of the family playing Minecraft in the basement and headed over to a repurposed old church building to see Wichita Community Theater perform Inherit the Wind.

According to Wikipedia, the playwrights had McCarthyism in their sights when they wrote this fictionalized version of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1955. Perhaps so, but here in Kansas it is progressive science pitted against religious fundamentalism that still speaks volumes. I tucked my copy of Evolving in Monkey Town into my purse on my way out the door so I could brush up on the facts of the historical case while waiting for the show to start.
Darrow (left) and Bryan (right) at the Scopes Trial, 1925

Many years ago, my dad rented the 1960 film version of Inherit the Wind. Perhaps that was the month we studied transcripts from the Scopes Trial in our Wisdom Booklets. It was clear to us then that Clarence Darrow's character (Henry Drummond in the play) was the villain while William Jennings Bryan's character was the unfortunate champion of truth who mistakenly followed Ussher's notes in Scofield's Bible.

None of us had ever heard of Chromosome 2 back then. We'd never seen photos from Hubble. When we took field trips to zoos, or state parks, or museum exhibits depicting the glaciers that covered Michigan during the Ice Age, we were instructed to disregard signage referencing "millions" or "billions" of years. Those numbers were lies Satan wanted us to believe, the better to trick us into thinking we didn't need Jesus to keep us out of hell. Ken Ham was still my hero then, and we had a timeline (courtesy of ATI) mounted in our front hallway that placed Noah's Ark around 4000 BC. I used to study it while waiting my turn for the bathroom.

Anyway, I've always been fascinated by courtroom drama, and this play was magnificently performed. Sometimes a bit too magnificently for my comfort zone--between the mid-calf dresses, the references to the heat, the sucking-up mayor, the old-time religion, and a big "honorary colonel" keeling over with a heart attack, I felt like I was in Knoxville all over again.

But this was Dayton, Tennessee (excuse me, the play calls it Hillsboro) in 1925, not 1995, though I could swear that navy and white dress from the closing scene played a part in my personal history. And this time, I found my tension so often relieved by the sneers and smart-ass remarks of H.L. Mencken's godless character, I wanted to hug him, watch-chain and all!

Some of the lines delighted me all over again: "Do you think about the things you do think about?" Drummond's line of questioning about the sun standing still for Joshua made me wonder how my younger self had refuted the scientific evidence offered by the irreverent trial lawyer.

The director made a point to state his belief that science and faith need not be contradictory. And churches had taken ad space in the program, no doubt hoping to attract searching souls.

But in the end, I don't think the Scopes Trial, or Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education (2005), or Ken Ham's debate with Bill Nye last night is about religious faith at all. It's about whether one generation has the right to restrict children's education to what makes the previous generation comfortable. 

"The Fall of Man" by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Do our children have the right to keep up with the advance of human understanding? What if we our religious faith states that are things "God doesn't want us to learn"?

Where are the limits? Can a homeschooling family who believes in "white pride" isolate their children from exposure to racial integration? Or teach them that the Holocaust was a fraud? What if parents want to keep their children from learning multiplication tables? Or tell them they don't need to know how to read? What makes the study of the sciences unique in this debate?

We fucked, we made children. How much authority does that now give us to regulate what data enters their minds?  Is it fair, after all these years of scientific exploration, to fence our children off from certain branches of the Tree of Knowledge ?

What are we afraid of? Of losing their souls? Or of losing control of their minds?

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