July 1, 2003

Winds of Change?


By Paul Nesselroade

What images come to mind when you are asked to think about the merits of teaching Darwinian evolution in the public school classroom? For many, the characters portrayed by Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly in the movie “Inherit the Wind” are among the first and most powerful. Hollywood’s movie version of the 1929 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, although not an accurate portrayal of the events, has been tremendously effective in framing this issue as one of religion versus science for several generations of viewers – notably, public high-school students. Despite the fact that the movie contains negligible science content, it is often shown in the biology classroom.

In the movie, Darwinian evolution, supported by well-intentioned, progressive, and open-minded characters, is pitted against a literal reading of the Genesis account whose supporters are portrayed as bigots, buffoons, and narrow-minded enemies of science. As a result, the movie’s legitimate underlying theme against censorship in the classroom is often overshadowed by the more simplistic understanding that evolution, a theory depicted as the product of objective and reasoned scientific thought, has to constantly defend itself against the reactionary supporters of traditional religion. Although the movie is over forty-years old, there is little doubt that its strong characterizations poison even today’s public discussion on the matter. For instance, proponents of the Intelligent Design movement often find themselves positioned with the narrow-minded, antiscientific fundamentalists in the minds of many educators, journalists, and parents.

A recent experience by a group of concerned citizens, however, suggests a new wind could start blowing. Last month Kansas lawyer John Calvert presented an argument to the Shawnee Mission School Board that questioned the appropriateness of showing this movie in the public school. Calvert’s position acknowledged that the underlying thesis of the movie’s plot was important but stated that the script is problematic because it relies heavily on anti-Christian propaganda and serves to introduce religious ideas, in caricatured form, into the science classroom.

Showing this movie, argues Calvert, creates a thorny situation for educators. If, after showing the movie, the teacher addresses the religious issues brought up by the script, then there is religious activity going on in the science classroom. If, however, these issues are not addressed, then the heavy anti-Christian rhetoric and mischaracterization of religion contained in the script goes unchallenged. Either way, Calvert claims, there is a breech of the constitutional principle that government shall not “aid or oppose” any religion.

Might showing of the movie be defended solely on the basis that it promotes the valid secular purpose of advancing academic freedom? The problem with this reasoning, Calvert contends, is that today the idea being censored in the movie (evolution) “… is not only not being censored, [it] is the only idea allowed.” So, why does it need to be defended against censorship?

The fact of the matter, Calvert argues, is that today’s biology classroom is wrestling with another form of censorship. New scientific ideas, not found in today’s textbooks but backed by a growing body of evidence as well as a growing number of highly regarded scientists, have surfaced to challenge the authority of Darwinian evolution. It is on this bit of interesting information, Calvert claims, that a more obvious purpose for showing the movie comes into focus. Rather than to free minds from a repressive religious mythology, “Inherit the Wind” is being shown in today’s biology classrooms for the purpose of closing minds to the real scientific controversy that is emerging. Showing the movie, Calvert reasons, serves the purpose of furthering students’ perceptions that the contemporary critics of evolution are nothing more than anti-scientific religious dogmatists that need not be given an audience.

Calvert concluded by suggesting that if the school board was sincere in it’s concern about censorship in the science classroom, it should sponsor the showing of videos like “Icons of Evolution” and “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” - two videos that do challenge the current ruling paradigm but without offering slander and mischaracterizations of the opposition to support their critiques.

Thankfully, the local school board to whom this argument was given agreed with Calvert, Eric and Celti Johnson (the parents who filed the initial compliant), and a number of other patrons of the district. The members of the school district committee unanimously agreed to remove the video from the biology classroom and return it to the school’s library, citing the movie as having "historical inaccuracies and dated material that may be potentially offensive."

Although currently a local story, Calvert believes this argument, if ‘taken on the road,’ could have far-reaching implications. Calvert urges others concerned about the educational climate in their area to view this decision as a precedent to be referenced in future situations where “Inherit the Wind” is shown in other forums controlled by the government.

If you’d like more information on this story, John Calvert can be contacted at: www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org.

Dr. Nesselroade is Associate Professor of Psychology at Asbury College in Kentucky.  Readers are welcome to respond to this column at the ARN Discussion Forum.

Copyright 2003 Paul Nesselroade. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 07.01.03