Many accounts of the Scopes trial are heavily colored by the trial's portrayal in the play Inherit the Wind. In the past, social studies teachers have sometimes been encouraged to use Inherit the Wind to teach students about the Scopes trial, but in recent years historians have seriously questioned the historical accuracy of the play. Inherit the Wind presents the Scopes trial as a stark showdown between defenders of free speech and religious fundamentalists who want to censor science teachers with whom they disagree. Inherit the Wind further suggests that Scopes' opponents were motivated primarily by a desire to defend a literal reading of the Bible. In reality, the events of the Scopes trial and the motivations behind it were much more complex and varied. In this assignment, students will examine differences between the real Scopes trial and the fictional portrayal of the trial in Inherit the Wind. In the process, they will have the opportunity to explore how their perceptions of historical reality are shaped by films and television.
Introduce the assignment by showing one of the film or television versions of Inherit the Wind in class or by assigning students to watch it outside of class. (Inherit the Wind is readily available on video.)
For background reading on the Scopes Trial (and its later fictionalization in Inherit the Wind), an excellent resource is the Pulitzer Prize-wining book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by historian Edward Larson (Basic Books, 1997).
In 1925 a teacher named John Scopes was put on trial for allegedly violating a law that restricted the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee's public schools. Inherit the Wind presents a powerful fictionalized account of the Scopes trial, an account that has shaped many people's perceptions of what the Scopes trial was about. Schools sometimes use Inherit the Wind to teach students about the history of the Scopes trial. But what is fact and what is fiction in Inherit the Wind? And are there any drawbacks to relying on a fictionalized account learn about an historical event?