The Parent Trap: Why the School Wars Still Rage

From evolution to anti-racism, parents and progressives have clashed for a century over who gets to tell our origin stories.

A stand in Dayton, Tennessee, during the July, 1925, Scopes trial. Photograph from Getty

In 1925, Lela V. Scopes, twenty-eight, was turned down for a job teaching mathematics at a high school in Paducah, Kentucky, her home town. She had taught in the Paducah schools before going to Lexington to finish college at the University of Kentucky. But that summer her younger brother, John T. Scopes, was set to be tried for the crime of teaching evolution in a high-school biology class in Dayton, Tennessee, in violation of state law, and Lela Scopes had refused to denounce either her kin or Charles Darwin. It didn’t matter that evolution doesn’t ordinarily come up in an algebra class. And it didn’t matter that Kentucky’s own anti-evolution law had been defeated. “Miss Scopes loses her post because she is in sympathy with her brother’s stand,” the Times reported.

In the nineteen-twenties, legislatures in twenty states, most of them in the South, considered thirty-seven anti-evolution measures. Kentucky’s bill, proposed in 1922, had been the first. It banned teaching, or countenancing the teaching of, “Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or the theory of evolution in so far as it pertains to the origin of man.” The bill failed to pass the House by a single vote. Tennessee’s law, passed in 1925, made it a crime for teachers in publicly funded schools “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.” Scopes challenged the law deliberately, as part of an effort by the A.C.L.U. to bring a test case to court. His trial, billed as the trial of the century, was the first to be broadcast live on the radio. It went out across the country, to a nation, rapt.

A century later, the battle over public education that afflicted the nineteen-twenties has started up again, this time over the teaching of American history. Since 2020, with the murder of George Floyd and the advance of the Black Lives Matter movement, seventeen states have made efforts to expand the teaching of one sort of history, sometimes called anti-racist history, while thirty-six states have made efforts to restrict that very same kind of instruction. In 2020, Connecticut became the first state to require African American and Latino American history. Last year, Maine passed “An Act to Integrate African American Studies into American History Education,” and Illinois added a requirement mandating a unit on Asian American history.

On the blackboard on the other side of the classroom are scrawled what might be called anti-anti-racism measures. Some ban the Times’ 1619 Project, or ethnic studies, or training in diversity, inclusion, and belonging, or the bugbear known as critical race theory. Most, like a bill recently introduced in West Virginia, prohibit “race or sex stereotyping,” “race or sex scapegoating,” and the teaching of “divisive concepts”—for instance, the idea that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist,” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

While all this has been happening, I’ve been working on a U.S.-history textbook, so it’s been weird to watch lawmakers try their hands at writing American history, and horrible to see what the ferment is doing to public-school teachers. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin set up an e-mail tip line “for parents to send us any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated . . . or where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.” There and elsewhere, parents are harassing school boards and reporting on teachers, at a time when teachers, who earn too little and are asked to do too much, are already exhausted by battles over remote instruction and mask and vaccine mandates and, not least, by witnessing, without being able to repair, the damage the pandemic has inflicted on their students. Kids carry the burdens of loss, uncertainty, and shaken faith on their narrow shoulders, tucked inside their backpacks. Now, with schools open and masks coming off, teachers are left trying to figure out not only how to care for them but also what to teach, and how to teach it, without losing their jobs owing to complaints filed by parents.

There’s a rock, and a hard place, and then there’s a classroom. Consider the dilemma of teachers in New Mexico. In January, the month before the state’s Public Education Department finalized a new social-studies curriculum that includes a unit on inequality and justice in which students are asked to “explore inequity throughout the history of the United States and its connection to conflict that arises today,” Republican lawmakers proposed a ban on teaching “the idea that social problems are created by racist or patriarchal societal structures and systems.” The law, if passed, would make the state’s own curriculum a crime.

Evolution is a theory of change. But in February—a hundred years, nearly to the day, after the Kentucky legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill—Republicans in Kentucky introduced a bill that mandates the teaching of twenty-four historical documents, beginning with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing.” My own account of American history ends with the 2020 insurrection at the Capitol, and “The Hill We Climb,” the poem that Amanda Gorman recited at the 2021 Inauguration. “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: / That even as we grieved, we grew.”

Did we, though? In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history. Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state. It’s not clear who’ll win this time. It’s not even clear who won last time. But the distinction between these two moments is less than it seems: what was once contested as a matter of biology—can people change?—has come to be contested as a matter of history. Still, this fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about “parents’ rights,” and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.

Before states began deciding what schools would require—from textbooks to vaccines—they had to require children to attend school. That happened in the Progressive era, early in the past century, when a Progressive strain ran through not only the Progressive Party but also the Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Populist Parties. Lela and John Scopes grew up in Paducah, but they spent part of their childhood in Illinois, which, in 1883, became one of the first states in the Union to make school attendance compulsory. By 1916, nearly every state had mandated school attendance, usually between the ages of six and sixteen. Between 1890 and 1920, a new high school opened every day.

Some families objected, citing “parental rights,” a legal novelty, but courts broadly upheld compulsory-education laws, deeming free public schooling to be essential to democratic citizenship. “The natural rights of a parent to the custody and control of his infant child are subordinate to the power of the state, and may be restricted and regulated by municipal laws,” the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in 1901, characterizing a parent’s duty to educate his children as a “duty he owes not to the child only, but to the commonwealth.” As Tracy Steffes argues in “School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940” (2012), “Public schooling was not just one more progressive reform among many but a major—perhaps the major—public response to tensions between democracy and capitalism.” Capitalism divided the rich and the poor; democracy required them to live together as equals. Public education was meant to bridge the gap, as wide as the Cumberland.

Beginning in the eighteen-nineties, states also introduced textbook laws, in an attempt to wrest control of textbook publishing from what Progressives called “the book trust”—a conglomerate of publishers known as the American Book Company. Tennessee passed one of these laws in 1899: it established a textbook commission that selected books for adoption. The biology book Scopes used to teach his students was a textbook that Tennessee had adopted, statewide, at a time when it made high school compulsory.

“Each year the child is coming to belong more and more to the state, and less and less to the parent,” the Stanford professor of education Ellwood Cubberley wrote approvingly in 1909. Progressives fought for children’s welfare and children’s health, establishing children’s hospitals and, in 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Mandatory school attendance was closely tied to two other Progressive reforms that extended the state’s reach into the lives of parents and children: compulsory vaccination and the abolition of child labor.

By 1912, twenty-seven states either required vaccination for children attending school or permitted schools to require it. Parents’ objections met with little success. In one New Jersey school district, in 1911, three hundred and fifty parents challenged the school board, pledging that “we will, one and all of us . . . move out of Montclair and out of the State of New Jersey before we allow our children to be vaccinated. There are other suburbs of New York which have not this fetish of forcing vaccination on children.” The school board backed down. But, beginning in 1914, with a widely cited case called People v. Ekerold, parents could be prosecuted for failing to vaccinate their children. “If a parent may escape all obligation under the statute requiring him to send his children to school by simply alleging he does not believe in vaccination,” the court ruled, “the policy of the state to give some education to all children, if necessary by compelling measures, will become more or less of a farce.”

Before compulsory schooling, many American children worked, in farms or factories. You might think that stopping parents from sending their children to work was a consequence of requiring that they send them to school, but the opposite was true: requiring parents to send their children to school was one way reformers got parents to stop sending their children to work. In 1916, Congress passed a law discouraging the employment of children younger than fourteen in manufacturing and the employment of children younger than sixteen in mines and quarries. When this and other laws targeting child labor were deemed unconstitutional by a laissez-faire Supreme Court, reformers drafted a Child Labor Amendment, granting Congress the “power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen.” It passed Congress in 1924 and went to the states for ratification. Progressive organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women, sent orders to their members to lobby state legislatures to pass the bill.

“Please remember, dear sisters, that unless two-thirds of the state legislators pass the Child Labor Amendment, it will not be incorporated into the Constitution of the United States,” the group’s former president Mary Church Terrell warned members, “and that will certainly be a calamity.” Businesses, not least the Southern textile industry, objected. And rural states, especially, objected—Kentucky was among those states which failed to ratify—since the amendment, which was badly written, could be construed as making it a crime for families to ask their children to do chores around the farm. The Ohio Farm Bureau complained, “The parents of the United States did not know that the congress was considering taking their parental authority from them.”

Parenthood, as an identity, and even as a class of rights bearers, is a product both of Progressive reform and of those who resisted it. The magazine Parents began publishing in 1926. “Devoted but unenlightened parenthood is a dangerous factor in the lives of children,” its editor said, maintaining that parents weren’t to be trusted to know how to raise children: they had to be taught, by experts. This doesn’t mean that experts usually prevailed; people don’t like to be told how to raise their kids, particularly when experts seek the power of the state. Like the Equal Rights Amendment, the Child Labor Amendment became one of only a handful of amendments that passed Congress but have never been ratified.

Anti-evolution laws, usually understood as fundamentalism’s response to modernity, emerged from this conflict between parents and the state. So did the teaching of biology, a new subject that stood at the very center of Progressive-era public education. At the time, parents, not schools, paid for and provided schoolbooks, so they had a close acquaintance with what their kids were being taught. The textbook that John Scopes used in Tennessee was a 1914 edition of George William Hunter’s “A Civic Biology,” published by the American Book Company. More than a guide to life on earth, “Civic Biology” was a civics primer, a guide to living in a democracy.

“This book shows boys and girls living in an urban community how they may best live within their own environment and how they may cooperate with the civic authorities for the betterment of their environment,” the book’s foreword explained. “Civic Biology” promoted Progressive public-health campaigns, all the more urgent in the wake of the 1918 influenza pandemic, stressing the importance of hygiene, vaccination, and quarantine. “Civic biology symbolized the whole ideology behind education reform,” Adam Shapiro wrote in his 2013 book, “Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools.” It contained a section on evolution (“If we follow the early history of man upon the earth, we find that at first he must have been little better than one of the lower animals”), but its discussion emphasized the science of eugenics. Hunter wrote, of alcoholics and the criminal and the mentally ill, “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”

At bottom, “Civic Biology” rested on social Darwinism. “Society itself is founded upon the principles which biology teaches,” Hunter wrote. “Plants and animals are living things, taking what they can from their surroundings; they enter into competition with one another, and those which are the best fitted for life outstrip the others.” What did it feel like, for kids who were poor and hungry, living in want and cold and fear, to read those words?

“O.K., so we’ve had this argument a few times already.” ~ Cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein

When anti-evolutionists condemned “evolution,” they meant something as vague and confused as what people mean, today, when they condemn “critical race theory.” Anti-evolutionists weren’t simply objecting to Darwin, whose theory of evolution had been taught for more than half a century. They were objecting to the whole Progressive package, including its philosophy of human betterment, its model of democratic citizenship, and its insistence on the interest of the state in free and equal public education as a public good that prevails over the private interests of parents.

In the nineteen-twenties, Lela and John Scopes were students at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, when he took a course on evolution taught by a professor named Arthur (Monkey) Miller. That course caught the attention of people who thought the state was spending too much money on the university. In the summer of 1921, Frank McVey, the university’s president, had pressed the legislature for funding to expand the university. In January, 1922, in a move widely seen as a response, the legislature introduced a bill to ban the teaching of evolution at any school, college, or university that received public funds.

McVey occupied an unusually strong position, partly because of the way he’d handled the recent pandemic. Born in Ohio, the child of Progressive Republicans, McVey had earned a Ph.D. in economics at Yale, where he wrote a dissertation on the Populist movement, and in 1904, after a stint writing for the Times, he published “Modern Industrialism,” an argument against laissez-faire economics. He arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1917. A year later, during an influenza outbreak that took the lives of fourteen thousand Kentuckians, McVey made the decision, extraordinary at the time, to shut down the campus for nearly a month. Of twelve hundred students, four hundred became infected and only eight died, rates that were low compared with those at other colleges and universities. The achievement was all the more impressive because young adults, worldwide, suffered particularly high death rates.

The Kentucky anti-evolution campaign drew national attention. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Presidential candidate and a former Secretary of State, hastened to offer support, predicting that “the movement will sweep the country and we will drive Darwinism from our schools.” In January, Bryan, a barnstorming, larger-than-life showman, travelled to Kentucky to speak before the House and the Senate.

McVey weighed his options: he could fight, or he could sit tight and hope that the law, if passed, would be found unconstitutional. He decided to fight. He wrote to Woodrow Wilson for support, but Wilson refused to take a stand that would have pitted him against a former member of his Cabinet. McVey sent telegrams to some fifty people. “Bill has been introduced in Kentucky Legislature with heavy penalty to prohibit teaching of evolution,” he cabled. “Wire collect your opinion.” Forty-seven fiery replies arrived within four days. The reverend of the First Christian Church of Paducah maintained that the law “contravenes the spirit of democracy.” “Universities must be left free to teach that which the best scholarship believes to be true,” a pastor wrote from St. Louis. The president of Columbia University suggested that the legislature do one better and prohibit the publication of any books that “use any of the letters by which the word evolution could be spelled.” The head of the First Christian Church in Frankfort, the state capital, called the bill “unwise, unamerican and contrary to the spirit of Jesus Christ.” Before the bill was considered, McVey had arranged for the responses to be published in newspapers across the state. Finally, he addressed both the House and the Senate and published an open letter to the people of Kentucky. “I have an abiding faith in the good sense and fairness of the people of this State,” he wrote. “When they understand what the situation means and when they come to comprehend the motives underlying this attack upon the public schools of the State they will hold the University and the school system in greater respect than ever before.”

He said that the university was bound to teach evolution “since all the natural sciences are based upon it,” but he hoped Kentuckians could agree that evolution wasn’t what its opponents had made it out to be: “Evolution is development; it is change, and every man knows that development and change are going on all the time.” He took pains to distinguish the theory of evolution from social Darwinism, regretting the law’s conflation of the two. Above all, he pointed out, banning the teaching of evolution “places limitations on the right of thought and freedom of belief,” and is therefore a violation of the Kentucky Bill of Rights.

Four days later, the bill was killed in the Senate, and the following month the House voted it down, forty-two to forty-one. McVey had won, but, as he remarked, “it may be that the fight here in Kentucky is really the forerunner of a conflict all over the nation.”

John Thomas Scopes was a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who was charged on May 5, 1925, with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee schools. He was tried in a case known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which he was found guilty and fined $100.

In 1924, John Scopes moved from Lexington, Kentucky, to Dayton, Tennessee, to take a job as a high-school coach. The next year, Tennessee passed an anti-evolution bill. Black intellectuals and Black reporters didn’t think the new law had anything to do with evolution; it had to do with an understanding of history. All Tennessee’s lawmakers know about evolution, the Chicago Defender suggested, “is that the entire human race is supposed to have started from a common origin. Therein lies their difficulty.” If they were to accept evolution, then they would have to admit that “there is no fundamental difference between themselves and the race they pretend to despise.” The president of Fisk University, a Black institution, wrote to the governor, “I hope that you will refuse to give your support to the Evolution Bill.” But the president of the University of Tennessee, fearful of losing the university’s funding, declined to fight the bill, and the governor signed it, declaring he was sure it would never be enforced.

In Dayton, Scopes had briefly subbed for the biology teacher, using the state-mandated textbook, “A Civic Biology.” He agreed to test the law and was arrested in May. William Jennings Bryan joined the prosecution, defending the rights of parents. The month before the trial, he delivered a statement asking, “Who shall control our schools?” To defend the twenty-four-year-old Scopes, the A.C.L.U. retained the celebrated Clarence Darrow, who, that year, took on another case at the request of the N.A.A.C.P. As Darrow and the A.C.L.U. saw it, Tennessee’s anti-evolution law violated both the state’s constitution and the First Amendment. “Scopes is not on trial,” Darrow declared. “Civilization is on trial.”

During the trial, H. L. Mencken ridiculed Bryan (a “mountebank”) and fundamentalists (“poor half wits”): “He has these hillbillies locked up in his pen and he knows it.” But W. E. B. Du Bois found very little to laugh about. “Americans are now endeavoring to persuade hilarious and sarcastic Europe that Dayton, Tennessee, is a huge joke, and very, very exceptional,” he wrote. “The truth is and we know it: Dayton, Tennessee, is America: a great, ignorant, simple-minded land.”

Scopes, in the end, was found guilty (a verdict that was later reversed on a technicality), but Tennessee had been humiliated in the national press. Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his bed, and with him, many observers believed, died the anti-evolution campaign. The number of bills proposed in state legislatures dwindled to only three, in 1928 and 1929. But the battle was far from over. “The Fundamentalists have merely changed their tactics,” one commentator observed in 1930. They had given up on passing laws. “Primarily, they are concentrating today on the emasculation of textbooks, the ‘purging’ of libraries, and above all the continued hounding of teachers.” That went on for a long time. It’s still going on.

Lela Scopes, after losing out on that job teaching math in Paducah because she refused to denounce her brother, left Kentucky to take a job at a girls’ school in Tarrytown, New York. Then, in 1927, she moved to Illinois, where she taught at the Skokie School, in Winnetka. She never married, and helped raise her brother’s children—they lived with her—and then she paid for them to go to college.

In the nineteen-fifties, when Lela Scopes retired from teaching and moved back to Paducah, Southern segregationists resurrected Bryan’s parental-rights argument to object to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. “Free men have the right to send their children to schools of their own choosing,” Senator James Eastland, of Mississippi, insisted after the decision. All-white legislators in Southern states repealed Progressive-era compulsory-education laws: rather than integrate public schools, they dismantled public education, as Jon Hale reports in his recent book, “The Choice We Face: How Segregation, Race, and Power Have Shaped America’s Most Controversial Education Reform Movement.” The South Carolina governor George Bell Timmerman, Jr., signing one such bill in 1955, declared, “The parental right to determine what is best for the child is fundamental. It is a divine right. It is a basic law of nature that no man, no group of men, can successfully destroy.” The following year, all but twenty-six of the hundred and thirty-eight Southern members of the U.S. House and Senate signed a statement known as the Southern Manifesto, warning that “outside mediators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public schools systems.” Two states in the West—Nevada, in 1956, and Utah, in 1957—passed measures making it legal for parents to keep their children home for schooling.

By the end of the nineteen-fifties, segregationists had begun using a new catchphrase: “school choice,” maybe because it would have been confusing to call for “parents’ rights” when they were also arguing for “states’ rights.” In Mississippi, opponents of segregation founded Freedom of Choice in the United States, or focus. Advocates for “choice” sought government reimbursement for private-school tuition costs, in the name of allowing the free market to drive educational innovation. The free market, unsurprisingly, widened the very inequalities that public education aims to narrow. Between 1962 and 1966, for instance, Louisiana distributed more than fifteen thousand tuition vouchers in New Orleans; in 1966, ninety-four per cent of the funds went to white parents. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, court-mandated busing strengthened calls for choice, and Ronald Reagan pressed for the federal government to invest in vouchers; in the nineteen-nineties, Bill Clinton fought for funding for charter schools. Between 1982 and 1993, homeschooling became legal in all fifty states. Philanthropies, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now EdChoice), later joined the movement in force, funding research and charter schools. And yet, in “Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice Is Really About,” the education scholars Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek point out that about nine in ten children in the United States attend public school, and the overwhelming majority of parents—about eight in ten—are happy with their kids’ schools. In the name of “choice,” a very small minority of edge cases have shaped the entire debate about public education.

A century ago, parents who objected to evolution were rejecting the entire Progressive package. Today’s parents’-rights groups, like Moms for Liberty, are objecting to a twenty-first-century Progressive package. They’re balking at compulsory vaccination and masking, and some of them do seem to want to destroy public education. They’re also annoyed at the vein of high-handedness, moral crusading, and snobbery that stretches from old-fashioned Progressivism to the modern kind, laced with the same contempt for the rural poor and the devoutly religious.

But across the past century, behind parents’ rights, lies another unbroken strain: some Americans’ fierce resistance to the truth that, just as all human beings share common ancestors biologically, all Americans have common ancestors historically. A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation. In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice; they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also that of the Algonquian peoples, who were already present in both places, alongside the ongoing stories of all other Indigenous peoples, and those who came afterward—the Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian, Guatemalan, Japanese, Sikh, Hmong, Tunisian, Afghani, everyone. That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead, the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.

Lela Scopes insisted that her brother’s trial had never been about evolution: “The issue was academic freedom.” Twentieth-century Progressives defeated anti-evolution laws not by introducing pro-evolution laws but by defending academic freedom and the freedoms of expression and inquiry. This approach isn’t available to twenty-first-century progressives, who have ceded the banner of free speech to conservatives. And, in any case, teachers don’t have much academic freedom: state school boards and school districts decide what they’ll teach. Still, there are limits. Biology and history offer accounts of origins and change, and, when badly taught, they risk taking on the trappings of religion and violating the First Amendment. Biology teachers have to explain evolution, but they can’t teach that God does not exist, just as public schools can’t preach social justice as a gospel, a dogma that can’t be disputed, and, equally, they can’t ban it.

That’s because history as doctrine is always dangerous. “Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing,” the Supreme Court ruled in 1943, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, when the Court struck down, as a violation of the First Amendment, a statute that required schoolchildren to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” History isn’t a pledge; it’s an argument.

John Scopes died in 1970. Lela Scopes buried him in Paducah, and had his headstone engraved with the words “A Man of Courage.” She died in 1989, and is buried nearby, under a stone that reads “A Gracious and Generous Lady.” She was ninety-two. She always said she thought the idea of evolution was even more beautiful than Genesis, evidence of an even more wonderful God. But she understood that not everyone agreed with her.

Published in the print edition of the March 21, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Parent Trap.”

Written by Jill Lepore for the New Yorker ~ March 14, 2022

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