Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Chapman’

Kids say the darndest things

December 16, 2011

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.


how to commune

May 17, 2010

So how do non-churched skeptics find one another, preparatory to congregating in physical space and enjoying a “communion” of the faithless?

One possibility: set up something like Chris Phillips’ “Socrates Cafe“. Chris Phillips has a master’s degree from Montclair State, where he studied with Matthew Lipman, pioneer of philosophy for children. But he’s all about getting philosophy out of the academy and into the lives of everyday people– beginning with kids.

Socrates Café are gatherings around the world where people from different backgrounds get together and exchange thoughtful ideas and experiences while embracing the central theme of Socratizing; the idea that we learn more when we question and question with others…

And the sooner we get started, the better. You could start a club.

Another possibility: mimic the very interesting group read experiment currently underway at Twitter (reading and discussing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods)

Or just pick a venue, publicize a gathering, and show up to meet and greet and commune with whoever turns out.

And once the “group” gains sufficient coherence, publicize it through various channels such as the Dawkins site‘s “New Local Groups” listings.

Where there’s a will etc.

But is there a will? Remains to be seen.  But isn’t it fun, playing with possibility?

P.S. For those interested in joining a communal caravan to historical, hysterical Dayton TN in July, to commemorate the infamous Scopes Trial, here’s some of what’s to see there. I dare you to read Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey and then try to resist the impulse to go. I suppose the best conveyance, in the spirit of Chapman, would be by Greyhound. Hmmm.


February 28, 2010

The great instigator of doubt– but let’s not call it that, let’s call it skeptical reflection leading to spiritual awakening– of both the 19th and 20th centuries, hands down, has been the effort either to assimilate or repulse the human  implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  That’s why I wish Jennifer Hecht had reserved a slot in Doubt‘s penultimate chapter, somewhere in the vicinity of her discussion of the Tennessee “monkey trial,” for mention of John Dewey’s “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.”

But it’s a good discussion of the Scopes circus trial, to which I claim a small “degrees of separation” connection: I lived under the same roof, for a short time, with one of Clarence Darrow’s expert witnesses who was not allowed to testify in Dayton, Tennessee on behalf of John Scopes. I remember Winterton Curtis, my first landlord, as a kindly, charming old man who mysteriously pulled dollars from my ear.  (The Dayton judge would’ve seen that as proof of his Satanic nature, no doubt.) He was also very respectful of the locals H.L. Mencken derided as “boobs.”

If you want to learn more about Scopes, Dayton, and Friendly Atheism, read Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey. Chapman, great-great-great-(great?) grandson of Charles Darwin himself, went down to Dayton to try and understand the curious breed of human known as Young Earth Creationist [more]. He still doesn’t get it (any more than I do), but he actually confesses to liking many of the Darwin Deniers he met and spoke with– including one (Kurt Wise) who studied with Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, before being hired to teach biology (!) to Bryan University undergraduates.

And if you want to see an entertaining dramatic rendition of Scopes, watch Spencer Tracy and Frederic March in Inherit the Wind.

best idea ever

August 2, 2009

best idea ever

“If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.” Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

If I were to give an award for the best single explication in book form of why Darwin’s idea is not ultimately dangerous, but liberating, I’d give it to Dennett’s book. Loyal Rue’s Everybody’s Story is a close second. But the funniest and most humane attempt to both defend evolution and understand its detractors was Trials of the Monkey by Darwin’s own lineal descendant Matthew Chapman.

And if I were to give an award for the single best documentary film about Darwin and evolution anyone has ever produced, I’d give it to PBS for Evolution: