The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When opponents decry critical race theory, they’re really fighting against change

The lessons of the Scopes trial for today

Artifacts in the Scopes Trial Museum located in the basement of the Rhea County, Tenn., Courthouse. (Stacy Kranitz for The Washington Post)

On July 20, 1925, educator John Scopes was found guilty of violating a Tennessee law prohibiting teaching evolution. But 40 years later, Scopes was able to look back at his headline-grabbing trial and declare “that restrictive legislation on academic freedom is forever a thing of the past.”

Today, his optimism seems naive as state legislators and local school boards are working to prohibit teaching what they deem “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). The current battles look remarkably similar to the manufactured panic over evolution, or “Darwinism,” as it was dubbed, that began a century ago. The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten even called the current preoccupation with CRT a “modern-day Scopes trial.”

Weingarten and others making this comparison should probably hope that things play out differently this time. Tennessee’s prohibitive law stayed in effect for decades after Scopes’s guilty verdict. While observers at the time claimed Scopes had won a moral victory, the specter of controversy had a chilling effect across the country, even in states where there were no laws against teaching evolution.

Of all the famous American court cases, it is hard to find one better suited than the Scopes trial to serve as a metaphor for the culture wars: an epic battle between science, modernity and progress on one side, and religion, traditionalism and conservatism on the other. It may have been nothing more than a misdemeanor trial in an obscure little town, but it was also the perfect embodiment of the politics driving curriculum debates that still define America to this day.

The Scopes trial itself was a deliberate media creation. On March 21, 1925, Tennessee enacted a law prohibiting teachers in any state-supported school (including universities) from teaching “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This was the first law that put teachers at risk of prosecution for teaching evolution.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to support the legal defense of a schoolteacher willing to be convicted of breaking this law. They hoped to have the law declared unconstitutional on appeal (as well as to raise the national profile of the ACLU, then a young, New York-centered organization). In Dayton, a town of about 1,800 people in Eastern Tennessee, local business leaders also saw an opportunity to put their community on the map. They persuaded Scopes — a schoolteacher who did not teach biology, but who substituted a few times in that class — to act as the ACLU’s defendant.

The media spotlight soon attracted political opportunists. Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan served as opposing counsel, and within weeks, the Scopes trial became America’s favorite drama. The legal question (was Scopes guilty?) was a foregone conclusion. Freed of the need to actually defend their client, Scopes’s lawyers could turn the trial into a referendum on the law, on the bigotry and anxiety behind it and on the nature of religion and science.

Yet Darwinism had been around for about half a century. Why did it suddenly become a major target of organized political opposition?

English scientist Charles Darwin published his signature work, “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859. While religious leaders criticized his ideas about evolution from the very beginning, there weren’t anti-evolution laws or panic about Darwinism because it hadn’t substantially affected the way science was taught in schools.

That changed in the late 1910s when a new generation of life science textbooks, mostly written by teachers based in New York City, developed a new unified course of study, “biology,” that pulled from disciplines like zoology and botany to focus on core concepts applicable to all living organisms — from plants to humans — such as metabolism, evolution, cellular theory and heredity. These were explicitly connected to social applications of biology such as healthy eating, plant and animal breeding, disease spread and prevention and sexual health and eugenics (with eugenics controversial even at the time, though thought to be separate from evolution).

Even more important was reformers’ vision for this science education — and public education more broadly. They intended it to prepare youths for a future in an urban, increasingly industrial and increasingly diverse United States and to use the schools to promote responsible citizenship. They wanted to expand public education, extend the school year and make attendance compulsory for all youths.

Reformers encountered resistance because not everyone liked how society was changing, and those troubled by the trends especially balked at the use of public schools to facilitate a transition to a new cultural and economic vision of America. This was not an easy argument to make. Rejecting education seemed like embracing ignorance, which posed the risk of falling behind other states and regions economically.

Darwinism, therefore, came as a Godsend to opponents of educational changes.

From a practical standpoint, the topic was a small part of one school subject that rarely even included any discussion of human evolution. But religious leaders had written about the evils of Darwinism for decades — making it a convenient symbol for their broader opposition. Those who deplored the demographic, economic and social changes taking place in the United States could claim that their opponents were against the Bible. Implying that compulsory schooling of their children violated their religious freedom, anti-evolutionists put education reformers and science advocates on the defensive.

But for this rhetorical strategy to succeed, Darwinism had to become something bigger than it had ever been. Schools, textbooks, politicians, even some church leaders, were accused of supporting “Darwinism,” even when the specific ideas they discussed had little to do with what Charles Darwin actually wrote.

If this rhetorical strategy seems familiar, it’s because much the same thing is happening in 2021 with CRT. As anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo explained in a Twitter thread in March, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

A century ago, this strategy worked, in part because of the ineffective response by scientists and educational advocates to the antievolution movement. They had a twofold strategy. One was ridicule, denigration and mockery. This backfired, convincing many people on the fence that evolution actually was hostile to religion. The second response was to assume that if people had a deeper understanding of what “Darwinism” actually was, they would see that Darwin’s theory did not have to threaten anyone’s belief in God, revelation or salvation.

In other words, they didn’t understand that the “decodifying” of Darwinism was an intentional tactic that let anti-evolutionists define the terms of debate for decades. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s, when the space race and Cold War were central concerns, that scientists started focusing less on the need to teach evolution simply because it was rightand instead began discussing the negative economic and national security impacts of being hostile to science education, of which evolution should be a part.

These lessons matter today as the anti-CRT movement is gaining traction at another moment of profound demographic, economic and social change. There are countless articles and gotcha moments on social media that seem to combine the two failed strategies used to combat the antievolution movement: mocking opponents and suggesting that ignorance about CRT can just be educated away.

The CRT debate isn’t a full on Scopes Trial — yet. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be. But history reminds us of the need to take such attacks seriously and see them as efforts to advance a broader political agenda, not simply an invitation to engage in debate about curriculum.