The Death of Socrates
Jacque-Louis David's painting depicting the death of Socrates in prison about to drink hemlock given by his executioner. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1928, three years after the famed Scopes Trial over the teaching of evolution, the journalist Walter Lippmann published a book featuring an imaginary “Dialogue on Olympus” between William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Jefferson, and Socrates. Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president who aided the prosecution of the public school teacher John T. Scopes, argued for popular control of schools, and Jefferson was for individual freedom of thought, while Socrates questioned both.

With all the huffing and puffing over the 1619 Project—which has now been issued in book form—Socrates, Jefferson, and Bryan gathered again on Olympus recently to debate what our schools should teach and who should decide.

SOCRATES: Welcome back, my long-deceased friends! We have much to discuss.

JEFFERSON: Yes. Sadly, across these United States, freedom is under attack. School boards have banned prize-winning novels, and state legislatures are prohibiting something called “critical race theory.” Others have barred the 1619 Project,which The New York Times created to get Americans to rethink the legacy of slavery.

SOCRATES: What about the schools that have forced students and teachers to don masks, to stem a new pestilence on the land? Is that a violation of freedom, too?

JEFFERSON: No, that is science, representing the highest form of human reason.

SOCRATES: So the people must bend to the will of experts in science? What kind of freedom is that?

BRYAN: It’s not freedom at all. It’s tyranny, which is precisely what I warned about during the Scopes Trial and my presidential campaigns. (Yes, Tom, I never won.) We can’t just defer to experts all the time, whether it’s bankers, doctors, or educators. The people must decide.

SOCRATES: You also warned that the country would turn away from God if schools taught that humans descended from monkeys.

BRYAN: And that’s what happened! Fewer of our countrymen affiliate with any religion at all.

SOCRATES: But today’s citizens favor the teaching of evolution, and even if they didn’t, they could hardly agree on an alternative. Shortly before the Scopes Trial, you famously and approvingly declared that “the hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” You delighted in the idea that popular majorities should determine school policy, what each child reads and writes. So your argument would suggest that today we ought to teach evolution because public opinion supports it. Ditto for sex education, which is also deeply popular.

BRYAN: Perhaps in these rootless, urban, modern times, the curricula should be dictated by the godless. Still, let us make room for dissenters.

SOCRATES: Ah, Mr. John T. Scopes was a dissenter, a lone expert swimming in a democratic sea of piranhas. And didn’t you deny his right to teach evolution?

JEFFERSON: Of course, Mr. Bryan had no sympathy for Scopes. Mr. Bryan doesn’t believe in freedom of thought.

SOCRATES: And you do?

JEFFERSON: Yes, this Virginian has always believed in the rights of man. If you visit the memorial to me in Washington, D.C., you’ll see an inscription: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

SOCRATES: Hold on. Many people swear allegiance to a deity they believe created the world in six days. Wouldn’t we examine their views alongside evolution in schools if we took your maxim seriously? Isn’t it tyrannical to present just one side, even if that side represents the consensus of experts?

JEFFERSON: You mean “equal time” for falsehoods? Spare me.

BRYAN: “Falsehoods,” according to whom, your rich friends at Monticello or your fancy friends in Paris?

JEFFERSON: The best and most reasonable minds. Like all other Americans, creationists have every right to think and say whatever they want. But they have no right—none—to have their beliefs presented in schools as part of a curriculum, let alone as a legitimate alternative to agreed-upon science.

SOCRATES: Why not?

BRYAN: Because Mr. Jefferson finds their views beneath him. Like many “Deists,” he prefers that mentions of God be kept to a minimum.

JEFFERSON: So you were nominated three times by the Democrats and never won? That must be hard, eh, Bryan? My belief is this: Scientists have developed an overwhelming consensus on evolution. We would be deceiving our young people if we pretended otherwise.

SOCRATES: Actually, I think most public school parents agree with you, Mr. President. Those who agree with Mr. Bryan have voted with their feet and purse. They are patronizing religious academies or simply rendering instruction at home. When was the last time you read about an angry conflict about evolution and creation at a school board meeting?

JEFFERSON: Right. Science and reason have won the day, just as I hoped!

SOCRATES: So why are school board meetings more contentious than ever?

JEFFERSON: Because unreasonable citizens still consider the schools a chalice for their own beliefs to exclude science and reason. They wish to teach myth over history, fantasy over fact, and jingoism over patriotism grounded in a nation’s errors as well as its triumphs. They no longer demand we teach that the Earth was formed in six days, but they insist that we teach a sanitized version of our past. They’ve just shifted their obsession from science to history. But they’re still preventing truth and promoting falsehoods.

BRYAN: Falsehoods, again! Like what?

JEFFERSON: Like America is a land of freedom and always becoming freer.

BRYAN: I don’t get it. You wrote our most famous tribute to freedom, the Declaration of Independence, and now you’re denying it? It was your big calling card when you ran for president.

JEFFERSON: Not the value of freedom, but the practice of it. We birthed a nation dedicated to freedom, but the great scourge of slavery and its aftermath have prevented us from realizing it. I think of it as systemic racism, wherein the sins of the past are engrained in everyday life. No act of malevolence is needed for it to be felt with the sting of the lash.

BRYAN: “Systemic”? Sounds very industrial and urban. What does that mean?

JEFFERSON: It means that racism was woven into all of our institutions. Take my own story: I practiced slavery, even fathering children by a woman I owned. Of course, this path influenced the way I saw the world and the nation I helped establish. Any reasonable person can see that. It is a fact.

SOCRATES: Really? Like evolution is a fact?

JEFFERSON: Exactly. The best minds agree on it.

SOCRATES: Are you sure? The 1619 Project says that the legacy of slavery and segregation has continued to color housing, transportation, health, and everything else in America. Yet several leading historians have questioned that claim. Should we simply ignore them?

BRYAN: We should yield to the people. And if they don’t want schools to teach that America is systematically racist, as Mr. Powdered Wig puts it, the schools shouldn’t teach it.

SOCRATES: Which people? Should we let the citizens of each school district make school policy? Why not let the people of the whole state do that? Or, even, of the entire country? Wouldn’t that be more democratic?

JEFFERSON: We should follow the best scientific wisdom about history rather than the whims of the majority, whatever way you’re defining it.

BRYAN: History isn’t science, any more than poetry is mathematics.

SOCRATES: Exactly. So shouldn’t we teach multiple views of American history? Why not present the 1619 Project alongside the standard history textbook, and let our students sort out the differences? In my day, a student had to rely on one history—Thucydides or Herodotus. Now the pedant can immerse himself in many streams.

BRYAN: The people do not want that.

SOCRATES: How do you know?

BRYAN: Look around you! People pressure their local school board because they want their side to win, not because they want a discussion of “multiple views.” There aren’t a lot of votes for a Socratic dialogue.

SOCRATES: And you, Mr. Jefferson?

JEFFERSON: I’d worry about setting the 1619 Project against the approved textbook. There are too many distortions and outright lies in standard American history textbooks. Why not just enlighten people with the truths of the 1619 Project? Our job is to teach the facts, above all. Socrates, what do you think?

SOCRATES: I think both of you lack the courage of your convictions. It’s true, as Mr. Bryan says, that the people converging on school boards haven’t shown much faith in discussion or dialogue. But that might be precisely what the majority wants, and they just don’t show up at the board meetings.

JEFFERSON: Yes! I have always believed that Americans are reasonable when properly instructed.

BRYAN: “Horse sense” is what we call it in Nebraska.

SOCRATES: But how can Americans learn to be reasonable, Mr. Jefferson, unless we allow them to experiment in their public schools instead of just deferring to experts? You keep talking about reason, but you don’t have faith in it. What you want is for people to agree with you.

BRYAN: Of course he does. Don’t we all?

JEFFERSON: All right, I must be reasonable if I’m to preach the gospel of reason. Let us hope that the debates we see at school board meetings enter the schools themselves. But more reasonably, of course. No kicking and screaming and name calling allowed.

SOCRATES: Now you’re seeing the real light! These discussions shouldn’t be reserved for us up on Olympus. The students need to engage in them, too.

BRYAN: This I can support, so long as we can have at least one creationism course at Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

JEFFERSON: Mr. Bryan, there’s a reason your home state of Nebraska should have stayed a territory.

Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.