The Conservative War on Education That Failed

A full century ago, the most effective school-ban campaign in American history set the pattern: noise, fury, rancor, and fear, but not much change in what schools actually teach.

Illustration of an evolution chart with a black bar drawn through
Getty; The Atlantic

In the recent governor’s race in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin scored a huge upset win days after promising to ban critical race theory from Virginia schools. Youngkin is hardly the only Republican calling for school bans. In Texas, Representative Matt Krause sent a letter to school administrators about books in their district. Did they have Ta-Nehisi Coates on their shelves? Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste? How about LGBT Families, by Leanne K. Currie-McGhee? Or any of about 850 other books that might, in Krause’s words, “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex”?

Beyond Texas, beyond Virginia, the prospect of banning books and ideas from public schools has GOP strategists smelling electoral blood. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed to turn school bans into a winning issue for Republicans in 2022, sketching a “parental bill of rights” to protect kids from troubling ideas about race and sex.

These efforts have a history. Back in the 1920s, the vague term that galvanized conservative angst was not critical race theory but evolution. Conservative pundits at the time seized on a cartoonish misrepresentation of evolutionary science and warned their fellow Americans that “evolution” was nothing less than a sinister plot to rob white American children of their religion, their morals, and their sense of innate superiority.

But although the school bans might have changed some school curricula in the short term, in the long run, they backfired. Telling parents you don’t want their kids to have the best possible public schools is never good politics. A full century ago, the most effective school-ban campaign in American history set the pattern: noise, fury, rancor, and fear, but not much change in what schools actually teach.

In the 1920s, the idea of evolution wasn’t new. Charles Darwin’s bombshell book about natural selection had been published 60 years earlier. The outlines of Darwin’s theory had become standard fare in school textbooks and curricula, even though the real scientific controversies about the mechanism of natural selection were by no means settled. But the furious campaign to ban evolution had nothing to do with those debates among scientists.

In 1923, T. T. Martin, the “Blue Mountain Evangelist,” preached that “evolution is being drilled into our boys and girls … during the most susceptible, dangerous age of their lives.” Evolution, Martin warned, was not good science but only a plot by “sneering” “high-brows” to inject mandatory atheism into public schools. Martin claimed to have “abundant evidence that the teaching of these text-books is unsettling the faith of thousands of students.”

He never shared that evidence, but he did paint a terrifying picture of the evolutionary conspiracy’s results. Once the “Evolutionists” robbed children of their faith, Martin wrote, they “laugh and jeer, as the rapist laughs and jeers at the bitter tears of the crushed father and mother over the blighted life of their child.”

Martin’s pitch wasn’t only about religion. He framed his fight against evolution as a fight against all manner of modern woes. Supporters of evolution, Martin preached, were not real men; they were “sissy”; they had given up their “Christian manhood.” They were not even real Americans; they were betraying “the spirit of those who came over in the Mayflower,” Martin said, adding, “Where is the spirit of 1776?”

What could anxious parents do if they wanted to keep their children safe from the schemes of atheists and sissies? How could they protect kids from a vision of America that wasn’t focused on sturdy white Puritans and the heroic followers of George Washington? In language that could have come from 2021 and not 1923, Martin told parents to take over their local school boards, to “put on the Board of Trustees only men and women who will not employ any teacher who believes in Evolution.” After that, Martin predicted, seizing control of state legislatures and cramming through anti-evolution laws would be simple.

It was never quite that simple, but the movement to ban evolution from public schools seemed, for a few years, to be an unstoppable political juggernaut. School-board elections became furious affairs, pitting neighbors against one another with accusations of treason and atheism. To give just one example, in Atlanta, William Mahoney, the local leader of the Supreme Kingdom, a Ku Klux Klan offshoot, attacked school-board members and the city’s teachers. He promised to force the reluctant school board to eliminate five teachers on suspicion of teaching ideas that were “paganistic … atheistic … beastialistic … and anarchistic.”

State legislatures weren’t far behind. From 1922 to 1929, legislators proposed at least 53 bills or resolutions in 21 states, plus two bills in Congress. Five of them succeeded. Oklahoma’s 1923 law provided free textbooks for the state’s public-school students, as long as none of those textbooks taught “the Darwin theory of creation.” Florida’s legislature passed a nonbinding resolution in 1923 declaring that teaching evolution was “improper and subversive.” Tennessee was the first to actually ban the teaching of evolution. “It shall be unlawful,” the 1925 law said, “to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Mississippi followed suit, banning in 1926 “the teaching that man descended, or ascended, from a lower order of animals.” Finally, in 1928, anti-evolutionists in Arkansas managed to pass a similar law by forcing a popular vote.

Liberals quaked. In the words of one science educator in 1927, the U.S. had entered its first modern culture war, a pitched battle between two “opposing cultures.” On one side was science, progress, and liberalism. On the other were the “forces of reaction” and “armies of ignorance” with their sights set on “dominat[ing] our public institutions.”

In the furor of these political battles, few paused to examine the actual goals of the anti-evolution movement too closely. Oklahoma’s law, for instance, was at least as much about providing free textbooks as it was about evolution. And Florida’s resolution was purposefully vague, purposefully symbolic. In 1923 Florida, what politician would vote in favor of “subversive” teaching?

The bills that did not pass, meanwhile, veered ever further from the actual science of evolution. One early bill in Kentucky in 1922 proposed to ban not only evolution but “Darwinism, Atheism, Agnosticism, or evolution.” As the bill wended its way through the process, lawmakers added provisos: The law would empower citizens to sniff out and report such teaching. School boards would be forced to interrogate any educator charged with teaching evolution within five days. And the ban became broader and more impractical with every new iteration. One Senate amendment, for instance, would have banned “the teaching of anything that will weaken or undermine the religious faith of the pupils” in any public school or college.

Kentucky’s lawmakers weren’t the only ones hoping to ban anything they didn’t like. Across the country, in state legislatures from Delaware to California, conservative lawmakers tried to score political points by banning modern ideas from their public schools. Congress considered a bill in 1926 that was supposedly “anti-evolution” but in fact imposed sweeping restrictions on the content of public schools. At the time, Congress controlled the budget for schools in Washington, D.C. The 1926 bill would have cut the salary of any D.C. instructor caught teaching “disrespect of the Holy Bible, or that ours is an inferior form of government.”

These bills were more about political theater than pedagogical policy. Their claims were so broad and so vague that they would have led only to chaos and confusion in public schools. In West Virginia, for instance, one 1927 bill simply banned any “nefarious matter” from the state’s public schools.

These bills never answered the obvious questions: Who would decide what counted as nefarious? What would a teacher have to say to be considered disrespectful of the Holy Bible? What did it mean to teach that other governments might have better ideas than ours? To be sure, many of these state bills never had much chance of ever becoming law. But Kentucky’s wide-ranging bill failed by only one vote. If it had passed, it would have radically challenged the very idea of a liberal-arts education. What could getting rid of any ideas that could “weaken” a student’s religious faith have possibly meant?

Back then, just like today, no one knew. The anti-evolution movement wasn’t really about banning one specific scientific idea; it was instead a confused and confusing effort to make America great again by purging its schools of science, history, and critical thinking. Movements to ban ideas from public schools were always less about realistic educational policy and more about planting a political flag for a vaguely defined vision of America.

How did the fight over evolution end? Every town and city was different, but Atlanta can offer one example of how frightening the anti-evolution surge could be and how fast it could fall apart. In March 1926, William Mahoney, the anti-evolution leader of the Supreme Kingdom, seemed to have brought the city school board to its political knees.

As the school board prepared to discuss a citywide ban on teaching evolution, Mahoney gathered 2,000 citizens in an open-air rally. A visiting preacher warned the crowd that if the school board failed to ban evolution, “20 years from now there will be no respect for law in Atlanta and Georgia will be a sea of debauchery.” Yet the school board voted down a proposed ban, 9–3. As one member announced, good science was what every “intelligent, educated, and open-minded” citizen really wanted in Atlanta’s public schools. After its humiliating defeat, the Supreme Kingdom fell apart. Its national leader, Edward Young Clarke, became embroiled in a series of sexual and financial scandals, and Mahoney became a local laughingstock.

Nationwide, the anti-evolution movement suffered a less dramatic denouement. Instead of headline-grabbing showdowns and momentous defeats, the movement simply petered out. It became just another distraction that teachers had to deal with. About a decade after the last anti-evolution law was passed in 1928, one survey of thousands of high-school teachers showed that most had simply gone on with their teaching without fuss or bother. Several of them reported that they did not in fact teach evolution, but not because they were concerned about “Christian manhood” or upholding the “Spirit of 1776.” Instead, they were more worried about much more prosaic problems—many reported that they could not teach evolution simply because they did not have enough time in the day.

Certainly, some teachers had been cowed by the fury of the anti-evolution movement. In a 1942 survey of high-school science teachers, one California teacher reported avoiding teaching evolution because “controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.” Others, however, said they could never be scared away from teaching good science. One respondent from upstate New York, for example, insisted he would carry on teaching evolution. “I’ve had fights,” he said, “but haven’t lost yet.”

Textbook publishers were less willing to fight. The vague outburst of hostility against evolution stymied the publication of textbooks that boldly and freely taught the best modern science. But wary publishers didn’t cower before the anti-evolution mob as much as they pretended they did. They couldn’t afford to.

As the careful work of the historian Adam Shapiro has shown, prominent publishers claimed to have edited out evolutionary content, but many times, they simply didn’t. The best example might be the case of George Hunter’s Civic Biology. This textbook was at the center of the famous Scopes Trial in 1925. After the furious wave of anti-evolution bans had passed, the publisher offered a new edition, supposedly free of objectionable evolutionary content. In fact, however, the “evolution-free” edition was almost exactly the same as the old edition. The publisher merely removed the word evolution and replaced it with similar words such as development.

And no one objected. As Shapiro found, most of the conservative watchdogs appointed by anti-evolution lawmakers gave new textbooks the most cursory of glances. If publishers edited their indexes and tables of contents, if they removed the word evolution—the word itself, not the idea—they could avoid expensive revisions to the text. As a result, many textbooks kept their scientific treatment of evolution the same.

Over time, even successful legal bans revealed their own inherent weaknesses. In Arkansas, for example, by 1965, science teachers were required to use state-approved textbooks that taught evolution, even though the state’s 1928 ban was still officially in effect. It was an absurd situation, and one brave teacher finally took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled in 1968 that the state’s ban on evolution violated the Constitution.

Years before that, however, even in states like Arkansas that had legally banned evolution in the 1920s, people had quietly agreed that the ban violated a more fundamental requirement of public schools. Bans on modern ideas only hurt schools and students, they concluded. In the long run—and, as in Atlanta, even in the short run—the call to ban evolution could not overcome parents’ insistence on the very best modern public schools for their children, schools free from the dictates of what one Atlanta school-board member called “error enshrined in popular belief.”

Back in the 1920s, the effort to ban evolution was not really about the science of evolution. It was instead an attempt to bolster political careers with sweeping but ultimately meaningless gestures. The confusion and vagaries of the 1920s bills were not accidental. Voters might not have known what scientists meant by terms like natural selection, but they knew what politicians meant when they took a stance against “nefarious matter” and against radical teachers who supposedly taught children that “ours is an inferior government.”

But the bans failed to change many textbooks, failed to change many classrooms, and failed even to change the course of many political careers. Politicians willing to stand in the schoolhouse door to keep out troubling ideas will not be willing to stand there forever. Sooner or later, the cameras will leave, and parents will demand that schools give their children the best available education.