The Scopes Trial in Fact and Fiction

Accompanies the Viewer's Guide, Chapter 7-A, "The Creation-Evolution Controversy and U.S. Science Education"


Many accounts of the Scopes trial are heavily colored by the trial's portrayal in the play Inherit the Wind. In the past, social studies teachers have sometimes been encouraged to use Inherit the Wind to teach students about the Scopes trial, but in recent years historians have seriously questioned the historical accuracy of the play. Inherit the Wind presents the Scopes trial as a stark showdown between defenders of free speech and religious fundamentalists who want to censor science teachers with whom they disagree. Inherit the Wind further suggests that Scopes' opponents were motivated primarily by a desire to defend a literal reading of the Bible. In reality, the events of the Scopes trial and the motivations behind it were much more complex and varied. In this assignment, students will examine differences between the real Scopes trial and the fictional portrayal of the trial in Inherit the Wind. In the process, they will have the opportunity to explore how their perceptions of historical reality are shaped by films and television.

Learning Objectives
  • Students will understand key differences between the real Scopes trial and the portrayal of the trial in Inherit the Wind.
  • Students will be aware of how their perceptions of historical reality may be shaped by films and television.
Directions (will require multiple class sessions)

Introduce the assignment by showing one of the film or television versions of Inherit the Wind in class or by assigning students to watch it outside of class. (Inherit the Wind is readily available on video.)

After your students have watched the video, distribute the handout on the following page and go over it with the students. Assign a due date that works with your schedule.

For background reading on the Scopes Trial (and its later fictionalization in Inherit the Wind), an excellent resource is the Pulitzer Prize-wining book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by historian Edward Larson (Basic Books, 1997).

The Scopes Trial in Fact and Fiction

In 1925 a teacher named John Scopes was put on trial for allegedly violating a law that restricted the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee's public schools. Inherit the Wind presents a powerful fictionalized account of the Scopes trial, an account that has shaped many people's perceptions of what the Scopes trial was about. Schools sometimes use Inherit the Wind to teach students about the history of the Scopes trial. But what is fact and what is fiction in Inherit the Wind? And are there any drawbacks to relying on a fictionalized account learn about an historical event?

Read the sources listed below and write a brief report that answers the following questions:

  • 1. According to Inherit the Wind, what was the Scopes trial about?
  • 2. Describe the motivations of those opposed to the teaching of evolution in Inherit the Wind.
  • 3. According to Carol Iannone, what are some key differences between the real Scopes trial and its fictionalized counterpart in Inherit the Wind?
  • 4. Which of the differences noted by Iannone are significant in your view? Why?
  • 5. Did the writers of Inherit the Wind intend their play to be viewed as an accurate depiction of the real Scopes trial? What was the message they thought they were communicating in their play?
  • 6. What possible problems are there in relying on movies and plays to teach us about historical events?
  • 7. Why do you think Inherit the Wind remains popular today?
  • 1. Carol Iannone, "The Truth about Inherit the Wind."
  • 2. "Notes on Inherit the Wind," Famous Trials in American History website
  • 3. "Inherit the Wind: The Playwrights' Note."
  • 4. Interview with historian Edward Larson: