I have a bad habit of complaining about grading. The volume of it can be overwhelming, on the Friday before Monday’s submission deadline. Honestly, though, the content of student essays is frequently instructive, and some of their short-answer exam responses are priceless. Two questions stand out, this morning. I thought they were softballs.
- What does “Cogito, ergo sum” mean? Who said it?
- Where and when (approximately) was the Scopes “monkey trial”?
Every schoolgirl & boy, it turns out, does not know it was Descartes who said “I think, therefore I am.” Some got the translation but attributed it to everyone from Aristotle to Spinoza to Schopenhauer. The “best” alt-Latin proposal: “God only.” (?!)
And almost none of the native Tennesseans in my classroom said “Dayton, TN in the twenties.” One picked the 16th century, another 1970. This after I had banged on and on about my single degree of separation from the event, via my first landlord.
So students, your holiday assignment: read Edward Larson’s Summer of the Gods and Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey, and watch the late Harry Morgan (& Tracy & March, & Darren) in Inherit the Wind.
Or at least read the words of my dear old “dollar in your ear”-plucker, the Damned Yankee Dr. Winterton Curtis.
I thought of Scopes, when, in 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh stopped from his plane at the airport of Paris, and, not realizing that a crowd awaited him, introduced himself by saying, “I am Charles Lindbergh and I have flown the Atlantic.” John T. Scopes at Dayton was that kind of man. Reporters were present in such numbers that I could well believe the statement they numbered more than 200 and that never before had there been so many reporters present at any trial. Notable among them was H. L. Mencken, who had made himself so odious to the orthodox by his scathing criticisms of the Fundamentalist Crusade and its Crusaders. As no seats were reserved for the expert witnesses we sat in the press chairs. Many times I sat next to Mencken. He resisted my attempts at conversation, but I got the flavor of the man from listening to his talk with other reporters.
The courtroom audience impressed me as honest country folk in jeans and calico. “Boobs” perhaps, as judged by Mencken, and holding all the prejudices of backwoods Christian orthodoxy, but nevertheless a significant section of the backbone of democracy in the U.S.A. They came to see their idol “the Great Commoner” and champion of the people meet the challenge to their faith. They left bewildered but with their beliefs unchanged despite the manhandling of their idol by the “Infidel” from Chicago….
And that’s really how I feel, finally, about the students who can’t distinguish Descartes (or Scopes) from a hole in the ground. They’re the salt of the earth, good-hearted, well-intentioned, trustworthy, and with a bit of a cultural literacy deficit to fill. But we all have our gaps, we must all be lifelong learners.