Today, April the 5th, marks the 88th anniversary of the opening proceedings of the infamous Scopes Trial of Dayton, Tennessee, which irrevocably altered the way the United States conducted its national policy on public education by developing a schism between advocates of Biblical literalism and those who saw Christianity as compatible with the theory of evolution. Ironic, considering that the case made by the lawyer, Clarence Darrow, arguing in favour of both the validity and the teaching of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to public school pupils, lost. I assume (somewhat hopefully) that the vast majority of the readership would see this legal altercation, however small in intention (to shield a young schoolteacher from the wrath of Dayton’s religious leadership, spearheaded by the three time presidential candidate of the Democratic party, William Jennings Bryan), as consequently leading to a far greater positive outcome by ensuring the futurity of a scientifically valid education for generations of young American students to come.
The great iconoclast H.L. Mencken, at his journalistic best during the Trial’s period, spent much ink lambasting the people of Dayton, painting an acerbic portrait of them as not just being fooled by the preachers of Biblical literalism, but being fools themselves. This important American historical event translates back across the pond, into the modern day; in light of increasing disillusionment from the general public towards the UK’s national education policy, we have to ask ourselves the question: when it comes to public education, do people have the right to turn their children into fools?
Religious freedom is a right of cardinal significance in a free society, and so should it be that one is entitled to practice their religion at liberty, in whatever manner they believe that their creed commands of them. The corollary duty of this right, however, is Mill’s harm principle: that one’s personal liberty is curtailed in relation to the harm it may cause others. It is my contention that in cases of public education, the right to teach a child, not misinformation, but disinformation in the name of faith, should not be upheld, in light of Mill’s harm principle.
Many libertarians reject the notion of having a government-run public education system as beneficial: while this contention is worth consideration, it is not the primary impetus here. Here we are assuming the system in practice, one with a public education scheme, for the sake of brevity. While it is the case that government mandates tax to fund a public education system, the service which that tax sustains must be upheld to the highest quality by government. ‘Quality’ can be ambivalent: for these purposes let us assume ‘high quality’ reflects information of the strongest congruence of acceptance in any particular field, educational or otherwise. When it comes to faith teaching, which does not fit this criterion of ‘quality’, to teach disinformation over information at the expense of the taxpayer not only constitutes as harm for the pupil within the public education scheme, but also for the taxpayer. If one accepts that faith teaching constitutes a violation of Mill’s harm principle, then in these circumstances where a service is provided for and by the taxpayer, a level of paternalism must be granted to the government to ensure rigour in sustaining levels of quality within the service.
The notion of choice implies rational motivation. If a child is to be equipped adequately to make rationally motivated choices, then the information they are provided within the public education system must be congruent with what is accepted in the academic field in question. If an individual who, no longer a child, leaves the education system with adequate conceptual equipment to choose for themselves, then they are entitled the liberty of believing whatever they like; this does not mean that, prior to the end of their education, the taxpayer should expect to be paying for a service which institutionalises disinformation.
In Mencken’s portrayal of the illiterates of Dayton we see the follies of a lack of education resulting from the disinformation spread by the heads of the religious community. It should not be the case that we see the follies of a lack of education at the expense of the taxpayer.