07 June 2004

Monkey Business

Some people never learn. But monkeys, apparently, do.

Once upon a time, in a county in rural Tennessee not so far from here after all, there was a confrontation between two giants of rhetoric. Later immortalized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and still later a black-and-white film by Stanley Kramer, this Shakespearean confrontation ("sound and fury | signifying nothing") revolved less around truth in education than around who has the right to declare truth. Although the fact that John Scopes (yes, that trial) lost at trial is usually neglected, if only because it's more fun to concentrate on the bombast of both sides, the critical issue decided on appeal was the right of the public schools to impose sectarian religious doctrine.

But, as noted above, some people never learn. The school system in that very county recently allowed students at Bryan College—yes, it really is named after WJB—to teach a mandatory half-hour weekly session in the elementary schools that essentially devolves to Bible study. This time, though, the monkeys won at trial. And on appeal.

A cynic like me might consider asking the Bryan College students what they know about the dynamics of the Council of Damnia, or of selection of which books "belong" in the Bible in any other context. But that's just me; perhaps because I've actually studied some of that material… and, in the course of learning something about English literature, studied the Bible and its context to understand allusions. One is reminded of the first appearance of Jed Bartlett on the first episode of West Wing (pointing out that some fundamentalists know far less about what the Bible actually says than they think they do); and that sometimes the strongest proponents of doctrine and dogma do not know its context.

The relationship between fundamentalism in schools and hyperliteral formalism in legal interpretation is perhaps for another time. It's a murky, ill-defined relationship—but one that should be examined in much greater detail before one decides in favor of either approach, if only so that one knows what one is getting into.