The Narrow Way
Today, I'm going to talk about a subject that I'm quite familiar with. I'm going to talk about me.
Several years ago at another school, an administrator explained to me that I ought not take my job personally. This administrator advised me that a student's difficulties in class aren't my problem. Those difficulties belong to the student, and as such do not reflect on my skills as a teacher or my dedication to the profession.
But each year when I was evaluated (often by someone who had never set foot in my classroom while I was working with students), the government-issued evaluation form claimed to measure the effectiveness of my classroom management skills. If students misbehaved, it was some combination of me:
1. Being too permissive with discipline.
2. Being too strict with discipline.
3. Being too arbitrary with discipline.
If my classroom management skills were fine, but students still misbehaved and/or got poor grades, then that too was my fault. When that annual evaluation rolled around, the same government-issued form explained that a lack of student achievement was due to some combination of me:
1. Failing to plan engaging lessons.
2. Failing to take into account student interests.
3. Failing to take into account student differences.
So, when that administrator told me that a student's difficulties are not my fault, that statement was not quite accurate. When it came time to be evaluated, the criteria used made it clear that at least some of the responsibility was mine. Imagine a student who does not behave properly or learn well in my class. Can I honestly say that I bear no responsibility for that student's lack of progress?
Which, of course, is not to say that I bear the primary responsibility. I remind my students that they cannot escape two great truths about education:
1. The primary responsibility for behaving like a scholar is yours.
2. The primary responsibility for behaving like a gentleman is yours.
No matter how well I plan a lesson or how clearly I communicate behavioral expectations, a student who refuses his primary responsibilities is going to run into problems, and that's his fault. When necessary, the student must be held to account for his failures, preferably in a way that demonstrates the benefits of cooperation.
But that does not let me off the hook. At other schools, I've worked under administrations that I felt were a bit too permissive about student conduct and/or achievement. That also does not let me off the hook. No matter what, I must do what I can to encourage my students to succeed both morally and academically (and it ought to go without saying that the former is more important than the latter). Thus, I must do these things:
1. I must set the example morally and academically. I cannot ask a student to be either a gentleman or a scholar if I am not both.
2. My example must be visible in both word and deed, especially in deed.
3. I must pray for my students, especially the ones who most vex me.
4. When praying for vexatious students, I must pray more for me to have the grace I need than I pray for the student to amend his behavior.
That last point cannot be over-emphasized. Returning the word to its Latin roots, "educate" means "to lead out of". If I'm going to be the best educator I can be, then I have to be out front of my students, leading them to where they need to go while pointing out the paths they ought to avoid. If a student gets lost, I've got to do my best to find him, to take him by the hand if necessary to get him back on the narrow way.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In March 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed into law the Butler Act. In the Tennessee House of Representatives, about 93% of legislators voted in favor of the law. Eighty percent of state’s senators supported the passage of the bill. The text of the law is brief. Here’s the substantive part:
"That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach 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."
Let’s parse this. Note that it applied only to public schools that received funds from the state government. The Butler Act did not forbid teaching the Darwinian evolution, except in one specific context. The Butler Act forbade teaching “that man has descended from a lower order of animals”, thus demonstrating that “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” is false.
By May 1925, the ACLU had enlisted the cooperation of John Scopes, a coach and substitute classroom teacher; Fred Robinson, a drugstore owner; and a group of Dayton, Tennessee, businessmen. These men answered a newspaper advertisement searching for people to mount a challenge to the Butler Act. Robinson and other business leaders figured this would be a good way to put Dayton on the map, thus increasing local business profits. Scopes, then in his mid-20s, saw an opportunity to become famous, and local business leaders promised Scopes that they’d help shield him from any resulting problems (such as having to pay the fine mandated by the law).
The Butler Act was not passed into law due to anti-science animus in Tennessee. Rather, the act aimed at crippling the influence of the eugenics movement. Proponents of eugenics embraced a pseudo-science that was all the rage among early 20th century progressives. More than 30 states had passed eugenics laws by the 1920s, and state government agents had forcibly sterilized tens of thousands of Americans in keeping with the “public health” aims of these laws. Tennessee’s neighbor Virginia, for example, used roadblocks and house-to-house sweeps conducted by police officers in order to arrest so-called “defectives” for subsequent sterilization. Entire families were subjected to these measures.
Tennessee was one of the few states in the U.S. that had no eugenics laws, and the majority of Tennessee’s citizens didn’t want such laws. The citizens and elected officials of Tennessee understood that progressives wanted to ensure that measures to protect “public health” were enacted, and that those same progressives viewed rural Tennesseans as unfit to marry and have children. The biblical doctrine of God’s creation of man was seen as a bulwark against eugenics and the sorts of public policies and laws that eugenicists promoted.
In response to what the majority of Tennesseans wanted, a collection of Dayton businessmen looking to increase profits allied themselves with the ACLU and a young football coach to concoct a case against the Butler Act. Scopes admitted that he taught about the evolution of man from lower animals in violation of the Butler Act. His guilt under the conditions of that statute was never questioned. The Scopes Trial’s whole aim was to discredit “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” in order to establish the truth “that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” To use a current phrase, those opposed to the Butler Act just wanted “to follow the science”.
The textbook Scopes admitted to have used was George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology, first published in 1914. It was the required text in Tennessee high schools. Since Scopes admitted to teaching about the evolution of the human species, it’s necessary to look at a few sections from A Civic Biology to see what the textbook says about the topic. Here are six relevant excerpts:
1. “Although anatomically there is a greater difference between the lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is an immense mental gap between monkey and man.”
2. “At the present time there exist upon the earth fives races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”
3. “If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.”
4. “When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.”
5. “Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents…. Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”
6. “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.”
It’s again necessary to parse some text to see the implication of what the proponents of eugenics wanted taught in school:
1. When the text refers to “the lowest savage”, it is referring primarily to peoples living in sub-Saharan Africa. The claim here is that there is a greater difference between monkeys and apes than there is between apes and certain “races or varieties of man”.
2. The most evolutionarily advanced race are “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” Note that the “varieties of man” are listed in order from lowest to highest, as determined by the pseudo-science of eugenics.
3. People should breed (or be bred) with the same goals sought in the breeding of livestock.
4. It is criminal that certain people are allowed to marry and have children.
5. The “science of…eugenics” has studied the topic of human improvement and has reached sound conclusions based on these studies. People with “mental and moral defects” who have families “are true parasites.”
6. Since killing these “true parasites” is not possible, steps must be taken to separate them from society in order to prevent “intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”
Contrary to popular history, the defense never demonstrated the falsity or even the unreasonableness of the biblical view of creation. Scopes was found guilty after a bit less than 10 minutes of deliberation by the jury. He was fined. The prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State under President Wilson and three-time Democratic Party nominee for the Oval Office, was not revealed by Clarence Darrow to be a simple-minded biblical literalist. Darrow had Bryan on the stand under oath. Darrow tried to get Bryan to admit that the biblical creation story was soundly contradicted by the theory of evolution. Bryan admitted no such thing, stating, for example, that days of creation in Genesis need not be seen only as 24-hour days. Bryan plainly stated:
“I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.”
The Butler Act was not passed into law by narrow-minded, anti-science bigots. Rather, the Butler Act’s supporters intended to protect the citizens of Tennessee from the racist, classist, and ableist pseudo-science of eugenics that progressives thought justified violating the “unalienable Rights” of citizens viewed as “low and degenerate”. The “unalienable Rights” held by the people targeted by eugenicists come from an equality granted by “their Creator”; therefore, it became a necessary part of the eugenics movement to dismantle the idea of “the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. Once the idea of a Creator who grants rights that transcend the state is done away with, forcible sterilization and even wholesale extermination become law put into effect by those who claim “the science is settled.”
Good Ground in Action
A few days ago, I thought out loud about the Parable of the Sower from the Gospel According to St. Mark. Last night, I watched my school's varsity basketball team hit the court for their first (and last) playoff game this season. Most the young men on the team are my students. Those who aren't shall be next year. Watching them play, I saw good ground. From the beginning of the season to now, their improvement as a team is obvious. Likewise, the individual improvement of several players cannot go unnoticed.
On the court, they paid attention to each other and the other team's players. They kept their eye on the ball. They had absorbed the drills repeated during practice. The Regis Knight with the ball knew who to look for. The Regis Knights without the ball knew where to be and when to be there.
I saw them play some of the best basketball I have seen them play all season. They had each other's backs. They demonstrated grace under pressure. They demonstrated physical courage. They demonstrated the sort of a gentlemanly conduct in the face of a challenge that we teachers strive to impart. In those long last two minutes of the game, when it became ever clearer that their opponents would win, my Regis Knights stayed focused and driven. If any Knight had lost hope, it didn't show.
I couldn't be prouder of them.
On the court, those young men were good ground. They were what I called "fourth-way students" in my last blogpost. The difficulties, worries, and distractions encountered during the game did not stop them from playing as well as they could. What would that focus and drive look like in a different context?
Imagine if each of my English classes thought of themselves as a team. Imagine if each student in each of my English classes knew his peers had his back. How often would a student show up without his book? Without something to write with? How often would a student show up on Mass day wearing the wrong uniform? How often would a student be blind-sided by a quiz that's been on the calendar for more than week?
Consider this: About every three weeks, my student have a poem to memorize for recitation. For some reason, one of the recent poems looked to be an insurmountable challenge for too many of them. More than two weeks after the poem had been assigned, student after student failed to recite more than the first quatrain. A few couldn't get through the first line. Imagine if my students saw poetry as a team sport. Imagine how that might change their behavior and attitude.
Imagine how much better their ground could be.
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.