Compulsory Education and the Monkey Trial

by G. K. Chesterton


Originally published in The Illustrated London News, 8th August 1925.

(Source: G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXXIII,
The Illustrated London News 1923-1925,
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990. Pages 602-606.)

My remarks last week about the Dayton controversy were written just before, though they were published just after, the sensational news of the sad death of Mr. Bryan. I should like to state this fact, in case there should have been any unreasonable touches of flippancy, on a matter about which most people in this country were flippant. And indeed, in any case, I think that many people in this country were rather too flippant. There really was a moral to "Monkeyville," and it was not the moral that most of us were tempted to draw; still less the joke that most of us were tempted to make. It is something that remains after the comedy of Dayton and after the tragedy of Bryan. Indeed, it is something that was there before this comic and tragic crisis came, and would still have been there if it had never come. When all is said and done, there really was and is a modern problem, which was the real problem troubling the honest jurymen of Tennessee.

For the problem is likely to prove a nuisance. It will be none the less a nuisance in the future because nobody is taking any particular trouble to face it in the present. In practical politics the survival of the fittest frequently means only the survival of the fussiest. And I fancy I can foresee a very considerable fuss, in the near future, about the Dayton difficulty, which some ridiculed as merely a thing of the past. The particular question of whether Americans are on the side of the angels or on the side of the apes, in the single scandal of alleged materialism at "Monkeyville," may indeed be a thing of the past. Anyhow, journalists may now be excused for treating it as a thing of the past; though, curiously enough, there are two quite contrary reasons for calling it so. One set of scientists will say it is an old business because Natural Selection is established. Another set of scientists will say it is an old business because Natural Selection is exploded. The old biologists may still think Darwinism too new to be disputed. The young biologists will often think it too old to be defended. But those who think Darwin too right to be questioned, and those who think Darwin too questionable to be followed, may well join in thinking him a very old subject to be discussed. They may well, therefore, decline any further discussion; and, even if they are not bored with Darwin, they may well be bored with Dayton.

But the real problem that remains has nothing necessarily to do with either Dayton or Darwin. It is a real problem because it has to do with the real world of existing education and politics. It is not concerned with professors of fifty years ago, but with the schoolmasters of to-day. It is a problem of the schools; a problem of education; it is not concerned with monkeys, but with men. And if "Monkeyville" did not exactly solve it, most of those who make fun of "Monkeyville" do not seem even to know that it exists to be solved. So far from having discovered the solution, they have not yet discovered the problem. And in that respect , all enlightened Evolutionists who have smiled over the affair are really much less advanced, much less in touch with the time, much less aware of the new world of the twentieth century, than the wild Fundamentalists of Tennessee.

The problem arises out of compulsory education. It is the great paradox of the modern world. It is the fact that at the very time when the world decided that people should not be coerced about their form of religion, it also decided that they should be coerced about their education. Queen Elizabeth made an Act of Conformity by which all populace had to go to church; Queen Victoria saw the making of another Act of Conformity by which all the populace had to go to school. Now in pure reason it is quite clear and quite certain that both were in the same sense persecution. Both assumed certain things to be true, and punished anybody who acted as if they were false. But this rational recognition was covered and confused for some time by two facts - or fictions. The first was what may be called the Theory of the Three R's. That is, it was a theory that instruction could be confined to things so simple and so self-evident that nobody but a lunatic would be in the least likely to dispute them. The other was what may be called the Theory of Secular Education, which people with more confused minds called Unsectarian Education, or Undenominational Education. That is, it was a theory that religion, in the strict sense of theology, was the only thing about which even the lunatics would be likely to quarrel. In short, the theory was that a Christian and a Mahometan might learn the same lessons in the same class, on ninety-nine subjects out of a hundred, so long as nobody mentioned Mahomet or mentioned Christ. It seems strange that nobody noticed the limitations of such a view. Men do not, indeed, talk incessantly at every dance or dinner-party on the subject of Mahomet. But men do occasionally talk about wine. Men do even in their wilder moments talk about wives. And the Moslem and the Christian must either be taught separately about wine and wives; or they must be taught together at the expense of one religion or the other; or they must never be taught about wine or wives at all. The latter is what ought logically to follow from unsectarian education, though it seems a little defective as a detailed scheme of instruction about life. In practice, few people do exclude these topics as theological. Few people say, when offered a glass of sherry: "Do not be so denominational." Few consider a remark: "My wife is at Brighton," as a provocative and wounding reflection on the Koran. But this was not because religious disagreements do not matter, but because on these points most Englishmen did not really disagree in religion. But with the growth of new philosophies and theories, they do really disagree in religion. The Prohibitionist does think it not only denominational, but disgraceful, to drink the glass of sherry. The Free Lover does not think it disgraceful, or perhaps even denominational, to be connected with five women instead of one. In other words, we can no longer feel that religious controversy will only arise out of religious conversation. In that sense, we can no longer be sure that religion can only arise out of religion.

Now it is nonsense to say that such a philosophy cannot be inculcated except through theology. It is nonsense to say that you have kept such things out of the schools merely by keeping the priest out of the school, when you admit the professor into the school. The professor can preach any sectarian idea, not in the name of a sect, but in the name of a science. The professor can preach the devilish destructiveness of the glass of sherry, and call it a lesson in psychology or pathology. The professor can preach the advantages of polygamy, and call it a lesson in anthropology or history. The professor can insinuate any ideas about life because biology is the study of life. The professor can suggest any view of the nature of man because history is the story of man. And the case is complicated by the fact that the educationists are teaching more and more subjects, even while pretending to preach fewer and fewer creeds. It is impossible to use the old argument of the self-evident character of the Three R's when the Three R's really stand for Reason, Religion, and Rationalism. It is impossible to argue at once that the schoolmaster ought to teach everything, and to argue that he will teach nothing that will not please everybody. In practice he need only teach whatever pleases somebody; that somebody being himself. And if his own private opinions happen to be of the rather crude sort that are commonly contemporary with, and connected with, the new sciences or pseudo-sciences, he can teach any of them under cover of those sciences. That is what the people of Dayton, Tennessee, were really in revolt against. And that is where the people of Dayton, Tennessee, were really and completely right.

It is obviously most unjust that the old believer should be forbidden to teach his old beliefs, while the new believer is free to teach his new beliefs. It is true that the Bible-worship of the Fundamentalists is not really very old. It is true that the Natural Selection of the Darwinians is not really very new. But in those American conditions the things stand in some such relation; and, however they stand, the general argument is left standing. It is obviously unfair and unreasonable that secular education should forbid one man to say a religion is true and allow another to say it is untrue. It is obviously essential to justice that unsectarian education should cut both ways; and that if the orthodox must cut out the statement that he has a Divine origin, the materialist must cut out the statement that man has a wholly and exclusively bestial origin. The difficulty arises from the combination of the widening of education with the exclusion of religious education. But if the Fundamentalists say that some secularists abuse the right of secular education, they say what is exceedingly probable-- and, if they say it is intolerable, they tell the truth.

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