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Tennessee's Dilemma | The Nation

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Tennessee's Dilemma

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Dayton, July 12

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Those who say that nothing of importance can be decided at Dayton have, at first glance, reason on their side. Even in Rhea County tadpoles will still lose their tails whatever may happen to Mr. Scopes, and, it is to be hoped, the human organism will continue in a similarly unperturbed fashion its evolution toward whatever state Nature has in mind for it. It is now perfectly evident that the question of the constitutionality of the Tennessee law, the only tangible legal issue involved, will not be the chief one discussed, and it might thus appear that the whole discussion threatens to become diffusely inconclusive.

No sooner had Clarence Darrow begun his cross-examination of prospective jurors than it became clear that he proposed to prove that the teaching of the defendant was not irreconcilable with a sufficiently liberal interpretation of the Bible, and hence was not a violation of the law, which specifically forbids only those theories which deny the account in Genesis. The theoretical position of the Bible as final authority upon scientific questions will thus not be questioned, and the right of the State legislature to control the teaching of professors will be left similarly unchallenged.

But the real problem raised is not legal but sociological. No verdict of the jury and no injunction of the Supreme Court can change the fact that the trial is a symptom of the vast gulf which lies between two halves of our population, and that the real question to be settled is the question of how this gulf may be bridged. In the centers of population men have gone on assuming certain bodies of knowledge and certain points of view without realizing that they were living in a different world from that inhabited by a considerable portion of their fellow-citizens, and they have been unconscious of the danger which threatened them at the inevitable moment when the two worlds should come in conflict. In Tennessee the moment has arrived and a single battle will no more settle it than the World War settled the questions from which it arose.

Of the reality of the danger there can be no question. The zeal of the fundamentalists has been enormously quickened by an anticipatory taste of triumph, and they will push any victory they may gain to the fullest possible extent. Already one State legislator has announced his intention of "putting teeth" in the present law by making the penalty for its violation a prison sentence instead of a fine, and various extensions of the principle of State interference with teaching may be confidently predicted. Members of the D. A. R. will, sooner or later, seek to forbid in the schools any historical facts which tend to reflect upon the character or motives of Revolutionary heroes; conservative economists and sociologists will certainly follow their lead; and, unless the movement is definitely checked, the next twenty-five years will see the State schools and universities so shackled with legislation as to make them utterly worthless as institutions for education. The control of learning will pass into the hands of the uneducated, and youth will leave the schools more ignorant than when it entered them.

Doubtless Tennessee is in a condition not much worse than that of the majority of the States in the Union. Her folly consists chiefly in the fact that she has allowed the situation to get out of hand by her cowardly refusal to deal with it as it arose. Neither she nor any other State has been able adequately to educate her citizens--and for that fact she is not to blame, since the task is beyond her financial or other strength. But when people cannot be educated they must be led, and it is in leadership that Tennessee has failed.

Left undisturbed, the rural population would have bothered itself very little over the teachings of the school or the college, since it has that respect for learning natural to all uneducated communities. A few years ago, however, it became evident that it would not be thus undisturbed, for various propagandists of the Bryan school came among it to declaim against what one of the agitators now in Dayton picturesquely calls "Hell in the high schools." Dayton was made aware of a question at issue, it looked for leaders, and it found them on one side alone. Fundamentalists were eager and zealous; educators were at best timid and non-committal, at worst hypocritically evasive. Under the circumstances, Dayton cannot be blamed if she chose to follow those who knew what they stood for.

Even at that very late moment when the anti-evolution bill was introduced into the legislature a little courage might have saved the day. Had the president of the State University gone with his faculty to Nashville, had the editors of the daily papers said what they thought, and had, in general, the enlightened members of the community shown one-half the decision manifest by the other side they might very well have won. Instead they lay low. They declined the challenge; they refused to make any effort to lead; they left their opponents in undisputed possession of the field. Dayton was reasonable to conclude, as undoubtedly it has concluded, that nine-tenths of Tennessee, the only world it knows, is with it and Bryan. It does not even know that the university which it respects is against it, and it is following a sound instinct. It is right to have no great confidence in scientists and educators who ask for nothing except its money. If the time ever comes when they show a disposition to tell what they believe it may possibly listen to them.

In the courtroom at Dayton and in the newspaper reports of the proceedings there Tennessee will be reminded of the situation into which she has drifted, and the ultimate result of the trial will depend upon whether or not she heeds the reminder. Neither John R. Neal, the only native prominently represented upon the defense, nor Messrs. Darrow, Hays, and Malone, his associates, can do much for her if she will do nothing for herself. They may win their case or they may lose it, but an ignorant population, almost wholly without leaders, will remain.

[Other articles by Mr. Krutch will follow, analyzing the background of this amazing trial in his native State.]

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