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Science Education Reform in the 20th Century to the Present: Fundamentalism to Modernism

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Emerging from a period of theological influence, the United States had a considerable influence on ideas and discoveries in science; yet, it was a nation deeply rooted in its Christian values. As education in America began to rise during the twentieth century, it did not take long for some to notice that ideas of science were being held back from America’s children, as portrayed in the infamous Scopes’ Monkey Trials. Held in Dalton, Tennessee, a biology teacher by the name of John scopes was detained and put on trial for illegally teaching Darwinian evolution. Despite the incident later being uncovered and labeled as cheap grab for publicity, the trials caused education reform to begin to take place as the debate against how powerful theological thought should be in government. From this point, the public began to frequently see dissonance in theological and scientific education; however, despite a shift toward scientific approaches to learning, recently, some religious disputes have resurfaced challenging the theory and argument for evolution.

The onset of the 20th century saw the decline of fundamentalism, a belief in the strict upholding of literal religious scripture, into modernism, which naturally gained opposition in conservatives. Priests believed that this cultural change was detrimental to the morality of Americans, while modernists saw their viewpoint as a new way to exercise their individual freedoms and express a sense of individuality. Thus began the debate between what was true morality: the adherence to the sacred scripture and conservative values, or one’s self-interest and volition. This debate would continue for many years until a major event caused a tipping point to finally settle the dispute.

Amidst a shift in public thought, the Scopes Monkey Trials were a major catalyst in ingraining this shift in American society. In the summertime of 1925 during the trial of the century, instructor John Scopes was tried for teaching Darwinism illegally at a Tennessee public school. Originally starting out as a stunt for fame and publicity for the city, the trial became a symbol of the shift in ideology during the 1920s. As anti-evolution organizations pitted against modernist and scientists, a question was raised on whether or not it was lawful to ban the instruction of Darwinism on the basis that it disagreed upon by Christian theology. In a published account from the period, Mr. Darrow, a Journalist interviewed students under Scopes and in some instances asked, “You, a church member, still belong, still believe in church although you were told all life comes from a single cell?” a proposition to which student, Harry Shelton agreed. Other students gave similar responses, which made clear the scientific thought and teaching did not interfere with religious identity or beliefs; the real problem lay in how these instances were handled that sparked controversy. Churches had gained considerable power and great influence in public education for so long that the trial began the complete unraveling of religion controlling domestic opinion, at least for a while.

After the scopes trials, fundamentalism began to decline which allowed public education to fit scientific, secular standards rather than theological ones. This change didn’t occur immediately after the trials, and resistance to the theory did not cease either. Over the rest of the 20th century, more cases would reach the supreme court questioning the legality of teaching evolutionary theory. With every revelation, the court would most often gain more insight into deciding how much influence theology should have on education. Opponents had almost vanished until the idea of intelligent design emerged around the late 20th century, thus sparking fundamentalism back into the public eye. The new theory suggests that life is too complex to be made without the assistance of an almighty creator; therefore, evolution did not occur. What has prohibited this idea from spreading into public education is the fact that it has not been backed with substantiantial evidence to prove its existence or to dispute that of Darwinism. This new reluctance to putting theological reasoning into law indicates the shift from fundamentalism to modernism during the 20th century, as before, this new idea would have taken hold; but because it does not hold the same evidential status as evolution, it will not be a feasible theory in the eyes of the secular modern world.

In the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, major shifts were experienced not only in ways of life, but also in views on religious dominance in American culture. An age transitioning from fundamentalism to modernism needed a final push to shift into the modern world. The Scopes Monkey trials were the beginning of that as Supreme court cases would later tackle similar challenges to the teaching of evolutionary theory, only to rule that prohibiting its teaching would be unconstitutional. Although change did not happen immediately, it would take its hold during the middle of the century; however, toward the end, fundamentalism started to spring back into common opinion under a new “Intelligent Design” theory that would once again spark the debate of science against religion. Despite this, America has now shifted toward a modernist state that emphasizes the ways of science and secular progress.

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