Posts Tagged ‘Winterton Curtis’

Keep going, keep moving forward

August 1, 2012

The sun at dawn this morning is a fireball mounting the treetops, seeming to shout “get up , get moving!”

Yesterday we got up and hit the road at dawn for yet another distant college campus tour. Kayla in Chattanooga is our favorite student guide so far. “I love my school!” She really sold it. But Older Daughter’s decided she doesn’t like “sprawly” campuses. So far as I’m concerned, they’re the best kind. And we haven’t begun to see “sprawly,” anyway. But, I must remind myself, I’m just the driver.

In our absence the mailman delivered a treat, a “classic reprint” of Dr. Curtis’s Science and Human Affairs from the Viewpoint of Biology (1922). Reading it, I know exactly why he was invited to Dayton to defend the humanity of science and the science of humanity: he was the Carl Sagan of his day.

The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile.

The Cosmos we know today is unbelievably complex and more is being disclosed. Things undreamed of in our philosophy continually appear… The biological discovery of man’s place in nature did more than change traditional beliefs; it gave a point of departure  into a future, unknown but fraught with possibilities.

What science intends, both for the immediate and the remote future, is to keep going. The scientist believes that his rationalistic method offers a means of moving forward… The future is bright with a promise that stands at the threshold of realization.

There you go again, Dr. C., pulling dollars from my ear. It’s a trick that never gets old. The secret? Keep moving.

 

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Summer spirit

July 30, 2012

Lovely cool morning, birds in full voice, air crisp and sweet, 60s heading for the high 90s again. Up early enough to cheat the heat, if not quite yet to re-establish a reliable routine for the schoolyear soon to begin. What ever happened to Labor Day, academic calendar-makers?! But that’s not what I want to think about today.

Awoke to the fine (and free!) Librivox version of John Muir’s My First Summer in the SierraHe goes on too much, to my taste, about God’s glorious creation: Heseems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.” (More MuirBut fine dawns like this one do awaken the spirit, even in a heathen like me. And a glow of enthusiasm is exactly what I need. My landlord Dr. Curtis might be an inspiration here. Again, he was called to Dayton to testify on science’s and John Scopes’s behalf.

The defense believed he would make a good witness because he tended to emphasize the spiritual rather than the material influences of science.

Well, now that I’m up I must turn attention to the assignment I’ve put off long enough: rank a batch of new baseball poems. Don’t know much about poetry, but I know what I like: the spirit of summer, what William Carlos Williams called a delightful “spirit of uselessness.” That’s what I’m looking for, what I’ll be trying to hang onto: a particular species of spirit, not separate from but actually implicit in the material of existence.

And that’s what August is about to try to steal!

Darwin Day

February 11, 2012

Darwin Day‘s almost here!

Darwin Day is a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

In honor of the greatest idea anybody ever had, a reprised post from ’09:

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’sTrials 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 asYoung 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.

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.

Westmount

March 14, 2010

Picked up the Spring issue of Mizzou magazine (my undergrad alma mater’s alumni publication) last night and came across this nice little item about the first house I ever lived in:
In 1906, three MU professors acted as their own contractors to build houses for themselves made of homemade concrete blocks finished with a veneer of local stone. They were Winterton Curtis, a zoologist known for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial… (A photo of young Dr. C. here)
Dr. Curtis reflected in 1957 on that house and the lives it sheltered, at 210 Westmount in Columbia, MO:
“It is a thing to make life worthwhile to have lived so long in a home that one planned and built in part with his own hands on a street freshly cut from a cornfield, to have planted the trees and watched their growth until they arch the street, and above all to have lived in a university community. I think the best life in America is to be had in university and college towns such as Columbia.”

Scopes

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.

Damned Yankee in Columbia

June 22, 2009

Winterton CurtisWinterton Curtis, the Scopes expert who pulled dollars from my ear and provided my first solid roof, recalled a much more southern Columbia, Missouri than mine, in these notes published in the Columbia Missourian in 1957. (I matriculated in 1975, he arrived in 1901.)

This reprint, one of the treasures from Dad’s memory chest, is full of small surprises and delights. WCC’s old New England mother drew the line well north of Mason-Dixon. “No. I cannot give my consent to Winnie’s going to such a place as Missouri.” It was, evidently, the most parochial of places then. It is slightly less so now, though midwestern parochialism is no walk in the park either. The difference is mainly one of surface veneer. Some midwesterners try harder to seem more sophisticated, but seemin’ ain’t bein’. My Missouri relatives might not put the question as bluntly as one of my Tennessee kin yesterday, “Did he believe we come from monkeys?” But they very well might be thinking it, all the same.

But college towns have a way of growing more cosmopolitan over time, in spite of themselves, as waves of outworlders wash in and stay and raise new natives.  And then as now, even the brightest young academics must consider themselves fortunate to find an offer of gainful employment anyplace at all.

So Winnie came anyway, lured by the prospect of an annual salary of $1,000. He quickly met coy, southern President Jesse (the President Jesse, whose domed “Hall” dominates the center of campus), built one of the first homes on what has become the loveliest tree-street in town, Westmount Ave., became a world-class evolutionist who went to Dayton in 1925, and eventually got a Hall of his own. curtis hall

Before meeting President Jesse on that first trip into town in 1901 he “was thrilled to meet Professor Frank Thilly,” translator of History of Philosophy, which I had devoured at Williams College and read again and again.”

Wow. I soaked that book up as an undergrad too, I can still picture its antique spine on my college shelf. Maybe he did pull dollars from my ear – and replace them with speculative ideas.

The house at 210 Westmount was my first “brick and mortal” abode. I coulda done a lot worse. These notes conclude: 210 Westmount

It is a thing to make life worthwhile to have lived so long in a home that one planned and built in part with his own hands on a street freshly cut from a cornfield, to have planted the trees and watched their growth until they arch the street, and above all to have lived in a university community.

I think the best life in America is to be had in university and college towns such as Columbia.

There’s my contribution to the annual fund, Alumni Association. Hail to thee, alma mater.

“Don’t tell me the lights are shining…”

June 15, 2009

forest park

We’re planning to spend the day in this grand old city park, if the rains abate. It hosted the fabled 1904 World’s Fair, the one Judy Garland sang about.

The first house I lived in, in Columbia, Missouri, had a small historic connection to that event, was in fact eventually recognized by the historic register because it was partially constructed of wood salvaged from fair pavilions. My parents moved into rented rooms there (ditching the small mobile home that was my first abode) while Dad studied veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri. The owner of the Westmount house was Winterton Curtis, a zoologist at the university and one of the scientific experts not allowed to testify at the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. I don’t remember living in the house but I do remember Dr. Curtis, a kindly old gentleman by then, who came visiting in later years and would always mystify and gratify me by seeming to pull a dollar from my ear and letting me keep it. Who knows, that may have been the trigger for whatever critical thinking tendencies I would develop. Thanks, Dr. C.

Dad called himself a “theistic evolutionist,” and I always assumed he got that from Dr. Curtis. But when I asked him last year he said he first heard the term from the mouth of a Baptist evangelist. Dad’s theory was that my own strong interest in evolution must have had something to do with my early association with Dr. Curtis. I’m skeptical about that, as I’m sure the good doctor also would be. What a shame that he wasn’t allowed to take the stand in Dayton. But if he had, we might not have been treated to the spectacle of William Jennings Bryan’s wonderful witness-stand exchange with Clarence Darrow, culminating in the great Populist’s proudly dismissive pronouncement “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Bryan didn’t win the presidency but his kindred spirit George W. did.

Dr. Curtis penned his first-hand recollections of the Scopes trial the year before my birth:

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….