Vol. 6, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2010

A Galvanizing Force

by Jeremy Shere

Cardinal Stage Company’s production of Inherit the Wind, a courtroom drama about teaching evolution, sparks discussion of Darwin’s ideas, through post-performance talkback sessions, a student guide, and a workshop for Indiana teachers.

This past September, in conjunction with Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ 2009 fall Themester (themed semester) on evolution, diversity, and change, Bloomington’s Cardinal Stage Company produced Inherit the Wind, a play written in 1955 that dramatizes the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The plot more or less accurately follows the historical narrative: high school biology teacher Bertram Cates (a stand-in for Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes) is charged with violating a law (in fact, the Butler Act), which prohibited teaching material in public schools that contradicted the story of creation in the Bible. In the play’s climactic scene, defense attorney Henry Drummond (representing famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow) puts the attorney for the prosecution, Matthew Harrison Brady (representing social reformer and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan) on the stand and grills him on the veracity of the Biblical account of human origins

Inherit the Wind is an apt, if somewhat ironic, choice to kick off the Themester, insofar as the play in its original conception wasn’t really concerned with evolution. “It’s paradoxical that we keep retrieving this play to talk about evolution because the playwrights weren’t interested in it,” says the play’s director and Cardinal’s artistic director, Randy White. “It’s mainly an anti-McCarthy play about the ability to say and think what you want. It’s a love letter to the Constitution.”

Nevertheless, White agrees that Inherit the Wind can be a rich and provocative jumping-off point for teaching and learning about Darwin’s theory of evolution. There’s something about seeing a moment in history performed live that’s more compelling than merely reading about it, says IU English professor Ellen MacKay, who edited a student companion to the play (and who also happens to be married to White). “Because the theater experience is so immediate, it makes things feel pressing in a way that a literary experience doesn’t,” she says. “There’s a way in which a community assembling to watch a performance has a kind of galvanizing force.”

To capitalize on that force, alongside editing the student companion, MacKay organized a series of “audience talkback” sessions after several performances, featuring IU professors from English, biology, religious studies, and other fields. And she invited 30 educators from around the state for a teachers’ workshop focused on teaching evolution in Indiana public schools.

“Taken together, the talkback sessions, the companion, and the workshop were able to reach a broader and more diverse audience than I can in the classroom,” MacKay says. “The play was a great place to begin to talk about an issue that’s relevant today in so many ways.”

You might expect an audience-participation forum following a play about evolution to be a tense affair, pitting intelligent designers and creationists against card-carrying Darwinists.

The three Inherit the Wind audience talkback sessions, though, were mainly civil, thoughtful affairs, largely because, as MacKay notes, people who stay for such discussions tend to watch the play in a spirit of compromise and are generally willing to consider the merits of evolution as a scientific theory.

Christoph Irmscher, IU professor of English and a panelist for one of the sessions, found the experience useful for discussing the power of Darwin’s ideas and the ways in which many people find them confusing and unsettling. “People tend to like the middle ground, where things are comfortable, but Darwinism is not a comforting theory,” he says. “One profound move that Darwin makes is to claim that, in the greater scheme of life, humans are not that important, we’re not what makes the world go round.” His talkback session, Irmscher says, may have helped the audience better grasp the reasoning behind such a challenging idea.

Similarly, IU biologist and talkback participant Michael Wade appreciated the opportunity to have an open discussion about the strength of the evidence supporting Darwin’s ideas. “The general public tends to not know that a scientific theory is a set of hypotheses and the facts that support them instead of a hunch, a guess, or a speculative argument,” says Wade, whose research focuses on evolutionary genetics. “In the case of Darwin, they do not appreciate how rich the set of supported hypotheses is or how amazingly extensive the supporting data are.”

The play and the discussions afterward, though, were a good start in educating the public not only about the science of evolution but also about the logic and mechanics of the scientific process.

The talkback sessions were successful thanks in part to MacKay’s student companion to the play, which was distributed to all theater-goers, including approximately 700 Bloomington-area students. Unlike the typical playbill featuring a plot synopsis and short biographies of the actors, the student companion provides an impressively comprehensive context for the play, including sections on the life of Darwin, resources in Bloomington for learning about evolution, background on the Scopes trial, a production and performance history of Inherit the Wind, and general resources for further study of Darwin and the science of evolution.

“For me it’s a document that meant to do two things,” White says. “First, like a good issue of The New Yorker, to provide background and context for the play, and second, to get students thinking more about what they’re seeing.”

For MacKay, who solicited essays and other material from IU faculty in English, biology, and anthropology, and also included excerpts from news articles written at the time of the Scopes trial as well as quotes from the principle players, the goal of the student companion was to present an accurate, informative, and engaging resource for better understanding and thinking about the issues raised by the play.

“Our responsibility was to offer vetted sources presenting facts instead of merely opinion,” MacKay says.

Although aimed especially at students, the companion includes enough varied material to engage any interested reader. From basic facts, including a timeline of significant events in the Scopes trial and its aftermath, to a concise and in depth Q and A with several IU biologists on cutting edge research in evolution, the companion presents evolution and the play’s version of Darwin’s ideas as complex and multifaceted.

“As a professor, you want people to range across the full complexity of an issue or debate,” MacKay says. “It’s always a compelling business to investigate what’s complicated and difficult. So I hope students use the guide as a way to grapple with precisely what’s difficult about new scientific ideas that challenge our most cherished beliefs about ourselves.”

In an indirect way, Inherit the Wind is as much about the teaching of evolution as it is about the theory itself. And while many students may struggle to comprehend and accept an idea that challenges sacred beliefs about the origins of life, many public school teachers face challenges ranging from recalcitrant students to irate parents and school boards demanding that lessons on evolution are accompanied by information about intelligent design as an equally valid alternative theory.

Of the 30 teachers from around the state who attended the one-day teachers’ workshop organized by MacKay and led by IU faculty from biology, history, education, and anthropology, several reported coming under scrutiny for attending the session. “One thing that came out of the workshop is that the state of teaching evolution is more vexed in other parts of Indiana than it is in Bloomington,” MacKay says. “One teacher said that when she told her principal that she’d need to leave school early to attend the workshop, he initially gave his blessing but later that day cornered the teacher and asked if she was an atheist and that if word of her attending the conference got back to the school board there’d be hell to pay.”

For IU biologist Matthew Hahn, the workshop was an opportunity to connect with high school teachers and share notes on what students know coming from high school and what they can expect to learn in college biology classes. Hahn’s two main messages to teachers, he says, were that evolution is a central part of the IU biology curriculum and that he and his colleagues don’t address the ideological controversies surrounding evolution, instead stating at the beginning of the semester that “this is a science class and we will only discuss scientific matters.”

Hahn acknowledges, though, that ignoring the often-emotional debates swirling around the teaching of evolution is harder for high school biology teachers. “Their students have not chosen to be in the class and many have been brought up with very different ideas about evolution,” he says.

For the most part, MacKay says, feedback from teachers who attended the workshop (many of whom also saw the play) was positive. They seemed to draw encouragement from being able to discuss the pitfalls of teaching evolution with colleagues from around the state facing similar challenges.

For MacKay, the process of hosting the teachers’ workshop, editing the student companion, and organizing audience talkbacks brought home the importance of educating students and citizens generally to understand and intervene in public debate. “Many people feel that it’s only just and right to allow all ideas to be heard, that evolution and intelligent design should be able to meet each other head on in the classroom, and that having a conversation about why these ideas in fact can not occupy the same platform seems wrong,” she says. “It’s our job to teach students how to understand and analyze arguments, to understand what counts as evidence, and to recognize the division between belief and science. If we can teach that, we’re on the right path.”

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington.

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