Adam Laats is a historian of education at the State University of New York in Binghamton. He has written extensively on religion and education, including Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education and his latest book, Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution. He also has written about culture war battles in The Washington Post, Slate, and The Atlantic.

His latest article appeared in The Atlantic, and it tells the story of the conservative effort to ban the teaching of evolution. Conservative preachers and politicians raised a furor about “subversion” in the schools, claiming that teaching evolution subverted religious faith, which was intolerable. They added evolution to a long list of grievances, including criticism of the superiority of America. Teaching children that man was descended from other animals frightened conservative clerics and gave them an issue with which to alarm the rubes. One evangelist said that those who taught evolution “were not real men; they were “sissy”; they had given up their “Christian manhood.” They were not even real Americans; they were betraying “the spirit of those who came over in the Mayflower.” The preacher lamented, “Where is the spirit of 1776?”

The attack on teachers, schools, and school boards was ferocious. As Laats writes, the movement to ban evolution from public schools seemed, for a few years, to be an unstoppable political juggernaut. School-board elections became furious affairs, pitting neighbors against one another with accusations of treason and atheism. 

The article draws a parallel to the furor over “critical race theory” and book banning today. Just as conservative legislatures today are passing bills to try to ban the ideas they don’t like, so did conservative legislatures a century ago.

From 1922 to 1929, legislators proposed at least 53 bills or resolutions in 21 states, plus two bills in Congress. Five of them succeeded. Oklahoma’s 1923 law provided free textbooks for the state’s public-school students, as long as none of those textbooks taught “the Darwin theory of creation.” Florida’s legislature passed a nonbinding resolution in 1923 declaring that teaching evolution was “improper and subversive.” Tennessee was the first to actually ban the teaching of evolution. “It shall be unlawful,” the 1925 law said, “to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Mississippi followed suit, banning in 1926 “the teaching that man descended, or ascended, from a lower order of animals.” Finally, in 1928, anti-evolutionists in Arkansas managed to pass a similar law by forcing a popular vote.

Laats argues that the storm and furor eventually subsided and implies that the current demand for laws to control teaching will also subside.

Back in the 1920s, the effort to ban evolution was not really about the science of evolution. It was instead an attempt to bolster political careers with sweeping but ultimately meaningless gestures. The confusion and vagaries of the 1920s bills were not accidental. Voters might not have known what scientists meant by terms like natural selection, but they knew what politicians meant when they took a stance against “nefarious matter” and against radical teachers who supposedly taught children that “ours is an inferior government.”

But the bans failed to change many textbooks, failed to change many classrooms, and failed even to change the course of many political careers. Politicians willing to stand in the schoolhouse door to keep out troubling ideas will not be willing to stand there forever. Sooner or later, the cameras will leave, and parents will demand that schools give their children the best available education.

I wish I shared Laats’ optimism about the ultimate triumph of reason over unreason and about the public’s or parents’ insistence on giving their children “the best available education.” One can read that claim in two different ways. One is that parents want the best available education for their own children, so they move to the suburbs to better-funded schools or they choose a school that is selective or they take some other action that benefits their own child. Or you can read the claim that parents want “the best available education” for more students, not just their own children, so they lose interest in crackpot theories that lower the quality of education. I am not sure I agree, as I watch the proliferation of low-quality voucher schools and charters run by grifters and also observe the reluctance of state legislatures to provide equitable and adequate funding for the state’s public schools. If parents really cared about high-quality education, wouldn’t they demand higher teacher salaries, reduced class sizes, and better physical care of schools? There are many reasons to question the public’s concern for the quality of education, which explains (in part) why the claims of quacks, profit-seekers, and grifters gain attention. Why won’t the public stay focused on the important issues that raise the quality of education? Why are we/they so easily distracted by propagandists?