Thursday, March 22, 2012

Monkeyshines

In 1925, Tennessee was the site of the famous Scopes trial where a school teacher was hauled into court for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a public school. It was basically a publicity stunt to test the law, and the trial was pretty much a show to pit the great legal voices of the time — Clarence Darrow for the defense, and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution — and provide the country with amusement in a time before American Idol.

Now it looks like Tennessee is putting in place the modern version of the law that was at the center of the trial by proposing to teach creationism along side evolution so students will “understand” the controversy.

The Senate approved a bill Monday evening that deals with teaching of evolution and other scientific theories while the House approved legislation authorizing cities and counties to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

The Senate voted 24-8 for HB368, which sponsor Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, says will provide guidelines for teachers answering students’ questions about evolution, global warming and other scientific subjects. Critics call it a “monkey bill” that promotes creationism in classrooms.

The bill was approved in the House last year but now must return to that body for concurrence on a Senate amendment that made generally minor changes. One says the law applies to scientific theories that are the subject of “debate and disputation” — a phrase replacing the word “controversial” in the House version.

The measure also guarantees that teachers will not be subject to discipline for engaging students in discussion of questions they raise, though Watson said the idea is to provide guidelines so that teachers will bring the discussion back to the subjects authorized for teaching in the curriculum approved by the state Board of Education.

The Scopes trial was dramatized into the play Inherit the Wind in 1955 and later made into a film with Spencer Tracy in 1960. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee took substantial liberties with the transcript of the case in order to make the play, but the point is the same: if you outlaw the teaching of evolution — or elevate mythology to the level of science — what’s next? Intelligent falling?

Not only that, but we’re really moving into Irony Red Alert territory in terms of education policy. The conservative meme is that the state and the federal government has no business telling schools what to teach their students; it should be up to the local school board, and no bunch of liberals should be dictating things like equality and fighting anti-gay bullying. But here comes the state of Tennessee — not a bastion of liberalism by any measure — telling teachers and schools what to teach in the science lab and what pictures to hang on the wall.

Where is Spencer Tracy now that we need him?