It's September and back-to-school month. There is a general widespread agreement that public schools are not necessarily the best place to be if you want to improve your mind. Since 1925, the public schools have been relatively free to teach evolution. The problem is they don't seem to be teaching it or anything else very well. Increasingly, since 1925, homeschoolers and private schools of all sorts have taken up the slack left in education not provided by public systems.
In 1925, a group of Tennessee men, sipping cokes in Robinson's Drug Store in Dayton, Tennessee, agreed that things had gotten pretty dull (and were continuing so) in Dayton. On U.S. Highway 27, thirty miles north of Chattanooga, all things religious were generally slow. But the word was out that a certain high school teacher, John Scopes, had been using a book that taught the theory of evolution in the classroom. It seemed to the coke-sippers at Robinson's drug that this was a fairly reasonable place to begin to look for something to brighten the uneventful days.
Fundamentalists in many states had pushed through laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools and Tennessee was one of those states. So John Scopes was criminally indicted for teaching evolution, and the coke-sippers managed to widen the argument by asking William Jennings Bryan to prosecute Scopes for his classroom crimes.
Those on the opposite side of the argument hired Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes. Both lawyers were committed to their very different causes, and the argument erupted into the hottest courtroom scene the world had ever known. The 100-degee weather made the trial seem as if it were being carried on in a bake oven. At one point, the judge even ordered the people all outside to conduct the hearing out where it was somewhat cooler - on the wide, green, shady courthouse lawn. Those who were attending the trial fanned themselves with "funeral home fans" and generally agreed with Bryan. But the lawn trial was hard to control since the crowd outside the courthouse was so large that it erupted in catcalls and megaphone slurs. So the judge ordered them all back inside again.
The entire nation gradually became involved. The proceedings were broadcast on radio coast-to-coast, and the whole nation zeroed in on the highly divisive and opinionated scene.
After eleven days, it appeared that Bryan and the fundamentalists won, for Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 for breaking Tennessee law. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. From that point on, American public education became increasingly closed to all forms of creationism. Then God Himself became increasingly unwelcome. Finally, you could end up in court for even mentioning God in school. It looked like the monkeys were the big winners in Dayton!
So why do I give monkeys such a low score and Christians such a high one in the title of this column? Because the Scopes trial helped create the matrix for Christian education in the rest of the American century. As God was increasingly unwelcome in the school systems, a counter insurgency was born insisting that God and the ABCs have a natural affinity for many. People just learn better when their view of learning finds no conflict in their worship of God. Mind and heart function better when they are friends. So the proliferation of private universities, most of which were for Christian education, unbounded. While a few of them were founded to teach a narrow creationism, the overwhelming majority were founded to combat the modernist secularism that came to permeate American universities in the second half of the 20th century.
Were they successful? Judge for yourself. By the end of the 20th century, only 19 percent of America's graduates were from private universities, yet they furnished 58 percent of America's leadership. Seventy-five years after the Scopes trial the enrollment of private academies, high schools, colleges, and universities were at standing room only. Public education was mired down in the slough of disrespect and those who couldn't register good SAT scores. Internet surfers had become the intellects of a dumbed-down culture.
Johnny not only couldn't read, he started taking his guns to school.
Of course, I don't blame all of this on John Scopes but, in the interim years since, private education could at least see that the best way to produce a well-educated nation is to provide a matrix where God remains a factor in learning.
Calvin Miller is professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.