Does Reading "Inherit the Wind" Really Help Students Learn about Evolution? (Part 1)

The Ascent of Man with a Religious Twist

Note: This is Part 1 of a two part series. Click here to go to Part 2.

Occasionally I receive emails from publishers who are advertising a new academic journal that they think “will be a good match for my interests.” How kind of them to think of me. In one of these recent emails, free preview access was granted to me for several of these new journals. Even though the Annals of Dyslexia was tempting, the one that really tapped into the nerd inside of me is called Evolution: Education and Outreach. After perusing the table of contents, the one article title that stood out was “Inheriting Inherit the Wind: Debating the Play as a Teaching Tool.” I dove in.

Before I discuss the contents of the article, it makes sense to provide a little background about Inherit the Wind for the uninitiated. The book/play is read by many Americans during high school. While the play is something of a dramatization, it strongly mirrors an important historical event in the United States: the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial occurred in 1925 in the state of Tennessee. A high school teacher, John Scopes, was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution to his students. State laws had been created at the time to make teaching evolution illegal. Scopes was convicted, but only had to pay a $100 fine– essentially a slap on the wrist. The case became famous because it featured a prominent politician as prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, and a well-known trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, as the defense for Scopes. Through their voices, perspectives about creationism and evolution were discussed on a national stage. Inherit the Wind was written in 1955 as an almost direct retelling of those events and a movie was made with same name in 1960. I bet you would be hard-pressed to find too many high schools that don’t use the book in one class or another.

Before I read the article that was going to debate Inherit the Wind as a teaching tool, I was already wondering about whether or not they found the book to be an effective teaching tool. Would students’ attitudes change about evolution and creationism because they read the book? How much difference was there going to be from the pre-test to the post-test?

Unfortunately, my expectation for what the journal of Evolution: Education and Outreach was about was way off. The article about “Debating Inherit the Wind as a Teaching Tool” was just that, a debate between two professors that was introduced by another professor. One of the professors concludes his segment by writing that “I support using ITW in the classroom and letting it speak for itself. It gets students to think about important issues, even if Darwinism as such is not among them.” Earlier he conjectures that “The problem is in fact to get the American public to think, which is no small task– and ITW can help.” I’ll let you decide what you think of that statement.

The other professor is more concerned with whether or not the play accurately reflects history. This is how he states his central opinion:

By using ITW as a stimulus for research, reports, and classroom debates, I think students can learn to engage in responsible citizenly discussions about how science, religion, and society are properly related in and through our contentious democratic forms of public discourse. I cannot imagine, however, that such exercises will bear much fruit if they do not focus on the gap between the actual trial and ITW in its several context-dependent incarnations.

I’m not sure I agree with either professor.

As with any type of teaching or communication, how do you know that just because you are sending a message, it is being received? It’s a shame that there is not funding to conduct more evaluations about the effect various activities can have upon participants in educational settings. A recent study that I read might shine some light on the answer of the question as to whether or not Inherit the Wind achieves its intended effect. But before I talk about the details of that study, just what is the “intended effect” of Inherit the Wind?

Click here to go to Part 2 of “Does Reading Inherit the Wind Really Help Students Learn about Evolution?”

Image Credit: latvian at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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