Jim Knott
Jim Knott

September 7, 2017

In the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind,” a signature piece of filmmaking that dramatizes the Scopes Monkey Trial, Spencer Tracy’s character, the attorney defending the teaching of evolution in schools, in very animated fashion delivers one of the best lines in cinematic history.

“Why did God plague us with the capacity to think?” says Tracy’s Henry Drummond. “Why do you deny the one thing that sets man above the other animals? What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the sponge is more durable.”

Drummond is the fictional character based on legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who squared off with populist/evangelist William Jennings Bryan in arguably the most significant debate in American history: the Scopes trial in 1925.

“Inherit the Wind” is one of Carroll educator James Knott’s favorite movies.

For 60-plus years, Mr. Knott, a man who wanted to be a lawyer but made the financially costly mistake of falling in love with teaching along the way, has been the Clarence Darrow of the classroom. With changing turns of phrase to fit the generations he teaches, Mr. Knott delivers a wonderful line of reasoning that cuts to the essence of teaching, and indeed life itself: Are you going to think for yourself, man, or are you just going to swallow what the more powerful or sanctimonious tell you to think?

Mr. Knott served as a Carroll High School teacher from 1961 to 1987 and then as dean-provost at the Des Moines Area Community College Carroll campus for nearly 20 years.

Soon after completing administrative duties, Mr. Knott earned a spot on the Des Moines Area College’s nine-member board of directors.

Mr. Knott, 87, is on the ballot this coming Tuesday for re-election to the DMACC board for District 3, which includes Carroll and much of the surrounding area.

He is unopposed, but this is not a slot to overlook, to take for granted. We can’t afford to lose the seat to a surprise write-in candidate from another area, one not as interested in Carroll’s future. Mr. Knott is a fierce advocate for not only the growing DMACC system, but the Carroll campus itself, our students.

You see, Mr. Knott has always been about the students, all of the students in the Carroll area. A member of St. Lawrence Parish, Knott and his wife, Marge, have children who graduated from both Kuemper Catholic High School and Carroll High School.

Mr. Knott, who continues to teach (voluntarily with no pay) gives students an outline of how to live their lives, how to challenge with respect, how to swim against the stream without being self-destructive (perhaps his greatest lesson). He isn’t a oh-captain-my-captain schmaltz-king in the classroom like so many popular teachers today, but more of a pirate in the teaching fleet, always game for a fight with the establishment monkeys and purveyors of conventional wisdom.

Hollywood’s Mr. Holland taught kids to play trumpets and bang on drums. Knott taught us how to think. There’s no comparison.

Many of us still measure ourselves by the standards Mr. Knott sets. His former students refer to him with the proper salutation, “mister.” One wouldn’t call Franklin D. Roosevelt “Frank,” and those who sat in that classroom on the third floor of Carroll High School will forever refer to their teacher as Mr. Knott, as a show of respect for him and the respect he taught us to have for ourselves.

No candidate, for any office we can recall, has earned a stronger endorsement from this newspaper than Mr. Knott has for the DMACC board.