Why Don’t Conservatives Like to Win?

You’ve heard the news by now: The College Board revised its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course.  Recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger crowed that this reversal proved that conservatives could influence national education policy.  Unfortunately, Henninger makes the same mistake as every other pundit out there.  He seems to think that conservatives at some point in the past lost their influence over national education policy.  It just ain’t so.

Franklin's In, "neo-Marxism's" out.

Franklin’s in, “neo-Marxism’s” out.

For those of you who were napping, a quick reminder: Under pressure—significant pressure—from conservative thinkers and lawmakers, the College Board agreed to revise these standards for its AP US History course.  Conservative thinkers had complained that the old framework put too much emphasis on

such abstractions as ‘identity,’ ‘peopling,’ ‘work, exchange, and technology,’ and ‘human geography’ while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideas and political institutions. . .

Henninger argues that, with the conservative revision, the new framework is “about as balanced as one could hope for.”  More interesting for our purposes, he argues that this conservative victory is “an important political event.”  He thinks it “marks an important turn in the American culture wars. . . .”  To Henninger, this conservative victory is a new thing, a change in the ways American culture and politics work.  Until now, Henninger intones, conservative ideas about proper education were

being rolled completely off the table by institutions—‘Washington,’ the courts, a College Board—over which [conservatives] had no apparent control.

Until now, Henninger tells us, conservatives had not been able to influence national education policy.  Only “neo-Marxist” experts decided on what vulnerable young minds would learn.


Perhaps Henninger’s problem is his limited range.  To be fair, he only says that this has been the case since 1992.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, America’s educational culture wars have a vital history that stretches back across the twentieth century.  Henninger ignores it at his peril.

As I argue and detail in my recent book, since the 1920s conservative activists have been able, time and time again, to derail, defang, and water down progressive curricula and textbooks.

But here’s the real kicker: We can’t really single out Henninger for short-sightedness.  For almost a century now, both progressive and conservative intellectuals and activists have assumed that conservatives had been kicked out of the conversation.

You read that right.  Ever since the 1920s, conservative and progressive reformers alike have committed the same sort of Henningerism.  They have assumed in the face of historical fact that “The Schools” had been taken over by progressive ideas and curricula.

To cite just one example of this trend, consider the case of progressive textbook impresario Harold Rugg.  Rugg was a progressive’s progressive, committed to pushing the nation in leftist directions by seizing control of its public schools.

In the 1930s, it looked as if he had succeeded.  Millions of schoolchildren read his tendentious textbooks.  At the end of the decade, however, conservative activists in the American Legion and elsewhere organized to block such progressive “subversion.”

They succeeded.  Just like today’s College Board, school administrators and textbook publishers in the 1930s fled in horror from the potential controversy over Rugg’s books.  Sales plummeted.  Schools hid them away.  School boards thought about burning them.

Seems like any right-thinking observer would conclude that conservative activists could exert significant control over the national curriculum, right?

In fact, Rugg himself concluded that the progressives had won, that a shiny progressive victory was just around the next corner.  As he wrote in his 1941 memoir, progressive schooling

has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools.

You might think that conservative activists would dispute Rugg’s rosy left-wing prediction.  But they didn’t.  Instead, conservatives at the time performed their own odd Henningerisms.  One of the leaders of the anti-Rugg fight, Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America, warned a friend that left-wing educational thinking had taken over schools years before, all part of a “deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.”

We could multiply these examples of Henningerism endlessly.  Time and time again, long before 1992, conservatives have concluded incorrectly that they had been kicked out of the schools.  And progressives gleefully agreed.

It brings us to our interesting question: Why do conservatives and progressives agree—in the face of vast reams of historical evidence to the contrary—that conservatives are have been locked out of national education policy-making?

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.


What do conservative activists want out of education?  Like progressive thinkers, most conservatives have historically hoped for more than just classroom solutions to educational problems.  Like progressives, the conservatives I’ve studied have imagined “education” as a broad-ranging, all-encompassing process for young people.

Coming soon...

Coming soon…

As I clean up my files for my upcoming book, I’ve rediscovered lots of archival documents and images that I couldn’t include.  Today, I’d like to share some of the material from the American Legion’s educational activism in the 1930s.  Like other conservatives, the leaders of the AL argued for an educational policy that encompassed far more than school reform.  Activists in the AL wanted to provide a wholesome intellectual and social atmosphere for young people in order to save them from the clutches of subversives, progressives, and anti-Americans.

American Legion activists in the 1930s thought that education could provide a wholesome moral defense against socialist and communist subversion.  Time after time, AL leaders exhorted local posts to engage in a range of activities to provide wholesome and patriotic activities for young people.  This included classroom work, but also ranged far beyond.

As the AL’s Americanism Handbook put it in 1930,

While the communist organizes his young pioneers, his youth movement in colleges, and so forth, let us do some organizing.  Let us organize Boy Scout troops, ROTC units and boys’ baseball teams, if you please.  Let us win and hold the confidence of our boys through such work.  While the communist scatters literature among the youth of the land to teach it disrespect for parental authority, let us preach the doctrine of love of parents and love of home.  While the communist ridicules the ethics of religion, let us teach its beauty and comfort and hope.  While the communist preaches its cowardly philosophy of dissipating the fruits of labor and capital, let us strive to inculcate the manly principles of energy, ambition and thrift in the hearts of our people.  While the communist, in the guise of the professional pacifist, spreads his doctrine to palsy the arm of our national defense, let us keep our people informed on matters pertaining to the need and necessity of national defense.

From a 1941 AL pamphlet

From a 1941 AL pamphlet. The original appeared in a Hearst publication.

The most active educational leader in the Legion during the 1930s was the AL’s Director of the National Americanism Commission, Homer Chaillaux.  In a suggested speech Chaillaux sent out to AL leaders around the country, he spelled out the AL’s broad educational philosophy.

First of all, the AL worked to fight subversion in the classroom.  As Chaillaux put it,

It is a well known fact that un-American groups, radical pacifists, communists and others operating under more or less misleading nom de plumes, are using the schoolrooms throughout the nation for the dissemination of their poisonous propaganda.  Therefore, we believe that it is only right and proper that organizations interested and engaged in the promotion of Americanism should be permitted to go into the classrooms with activities designed to build up a greater love and appreciation for the sacrifices made by our forefathers and for our form of government, and for the things which have made possible the growth of our nation.

But this was not only a schoolroom campaign.  Chaillaux described the wide-ranging activities carried on by the AL: ROTC programs, Boy Scouts, baseball leagues and other sports leagues, oratorical contests, essay contests, and Sons of the American Legion clubs.  In all its “Youth Activities,” Chaillaux explained, “the Legion seeks to coordinate the mind and the muscle through a group of activities designed to build physical and mental alertness.”

Chaillaux asked,

Does the Junior Baseball program aid in any way in counteracting communism and other un-American activities?  That question has been asked a number of times.  And the best answer, I believe, is found in a clipping taken from the “Gazette,” Gastonia, North Carolina, under date of July 31, 1934.  We quote the clipping herewith:

‘We in Gaston County know from four or five years experience what a valuable and beneficial movement this baseball program has been.  It had its beginning in Gaston County in the summer of 1929, the summer that the communist uprising had put Gaston County so unfavorably before the public.  Seeds of unrest and bitter partisanship had been planted here that spring by the agitators from the slums of New York and the classic halls of certain New York universities.  We had just gone through the sickening and humiliating trial of the gangsters accused of killing the chief of police here: The county was torn to pieces.

‘Along came this Junior Baseball, enlisted the boys from the textile settlement of the county and there began a movement which has been of the most wholesome influence in the county.  It has been the best insurance against a recurrence of similar troubles in the county.  These boys are learning how to be square and clean shooters, fair and above board in their play and in their dealings with each other and with their superiors.  From the Legionnaires who are sponsoring the movement, they are learning principles of Americanism that they will never learn from books.’

Local posts embraced these efforts.  And though it may seem heavy-handed and dictatorial, it seems as if many young people really did enjoy these subversion-fighting activities.  During my research, I spent some time in the files of one Joseph Hrdlick, an active member of an AL post in Milwaukee.  Lucky for me, Hrdlick kept copies of some of the youth activities in which his post engaged.  In Hrdlick’s papers, we find examples of a magazine the local Sons of the American Legion post produced during the 1930s.  We also see mementoes from activities such as the SOTAL marching band.  In this case, the Milwaukee boys marched all the way to New York City, a town not often revered among anti-communist activists.

It’s always hard to distill how the average person felt about these activities, but at least Mr. Hrdlick seemed sincere and enthusiastic in his efforts to help his young SOTAL minions.

If they can make it there...

If they can make it there…

A SOTAL newsletter

A SOTAL newsletter


A SOTAL newsletter

…another newsletter cover

Other AL archives from the 1930s contain similar gems.  In the Historical Society Archive in Madison, a hundred miles or so west of the Milwaukee collection, I found some examples of student work in AL-sponsored essay contests from the 1930s.

One winner from 1939, in her essay “What America Means to Me,” wrote these stirring words,

Just to look upon the map of America gives me a thrill! . . . America is a free country.  It is a haven for political refugees who could not find the freedom they desired in their homeland. . . . America is a land of opportunity, and yet—as there are in every country—there are those who will criticize and tear down our ideals and laws.  Their’s [sic] is a destructive criticism; hindering, instead of helping, our lawmakers.

This rhetoric sounds like precisely the sort of anti-subversive, patriotic, engaged attitude that the AL hoped to sponsor in young people nationwide.  Again and again, AL activists worked to reform the education of America’s youth.  They looked hard at classrooms, textbooks, and teachers.  But they didn’t stop there.  Like all sorts of educational reformers, these conservative activists worried about the end product of education.  Of course, they weren’t the only ones.  As I argue in my upcoming book, this sort of conservative activism formed a complex tradition throughout the twentieth century.

But in every case–whether it was the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Pro America, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, or any of the dozens of local groups and individuals that campaigned for more conservative education in the twentieth century–the archives included far more fascinating tidbits than I could include in the three hundred pages I had to work with.

As I keep cleaning up my files, I’ll post other archival gems that didn’t make the final cut…

Creationists Love Angry Science Teachers

Why would America’s leading young-earth creation ministry go to the National Education Association convention?  After all, Answers In Genesis castigates the NEA for its “godless, liberal agenda.”  AIG frets that the NEA combats conservatives’ right to homeschool their children and to teach godly creationism.

But that anti-God bias is exactly why the creationists go every year.  Answers In Genesis tries to engage NEA attendees with the gospel of creationism.  The creationist outreach at the NEA convention hopes to explain the goals of creationists and melt the hard hearts of some secular teachers.

The folks at AIG are not the first conservatives to try such tactics.  For generations now, the National Education Association has been perceived by conservative education activists as the enemy.  The NEA is seen as promoting secularism and a wrong-headed moral relativism.  As conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler argued in the 1970s, the NEA had always tried to get public schools to teach that “there was no absolute transcendental God, Bible, or system of beliefs.”

And even long before the Gablers, conservatives tried to maintain their influence with the NEA.  As I note in my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, the patriotic school activists in the American Legion pioneered this approach.  For the stalwart conservatives in the American Legion, the NEA offered the best way to influence American public education.  Therefore, they held their noses and collaborated on American Education Week.  Starting in 1921, the Legion and the NEA encouraged schools nationwide to focus on a certain theme for a week.  They tried to get everyone in every community engaged with their public schools.  For the conservative leaders of the American Legion, this was a way to promote patriotism and religion in public schools.  For the leaders of the NEA, this seemed like a good way to direct the public’s attention toward its schools.

For conservatives, then, the NEA has long been a target.  Generations of conservatives have hoped to influence the NEA with conservative educational ideas.  Does it work?  The conservative creationists at AIG seem to think so.  One missionary to the NEA relates the story of “Tom,” a hostile secular science teacher.  After spending time with the creationists at the NEA convention, Tom was able to understand more about the wholesome gospel mission of the creationists.  Walls were broken down, hearts were touched.


From the Archives: Saving Hearts and Minds in the 1930s and 1940s

What do we need to do to educate young people? Conservative activists, just like their progressive or leftist opponents, have long recognized that education goes far beyond school. Doing archival research for my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I found abundant evidence of conservative activism that ranged far beyond the classroom walls. Unfortunately, due to space considerations, much of that material did not make it into the final book draft.

Today, I’d like to share some of the gems from the conservative patriotic activism of the American Legion, things I couldn’t fit in the book. Throughout its long existence, the AL has made education one of its primary concerns. Only if young people learned to love America, generations of AL activists have argued, would the nation remain strong. As this 1941 cartoon makes clear, some Legion members believed education was the “unguarded gate” through which un-American and anti-American sentiments could sneak into America’s body politic.

"The Unguarded Gate," from a 1941 magazine.

“The Unguarded Gate,” from a 1941 magazine.

Other Legion activists emphasized the need to fill children’s minds, souls, and schedules. Only by matching the energetic activism of communist subversives, some Legion voices claimed, could patriotic education match anti-patriotic. As national AL leader Homer Chaillaux warned in 1934, the Legion must provide a full menu of educational opportunities for young people, including baseball leagues, military training, Boy Scout groups, citizenship classes, and school awards. “The average citizen,” Chaillaux warned,

has either never heard of or knows nothing of the background of the Young Pioneers (a youth Communist group), the International Economic Conference of Students (a radical and pacifist student group), the Industrial Unions (at least 42 Communist Unions), the National Students’ League, the Trade Union Unity League, the American Civil Liberties Union (supposedly an organization standing for free speech, but we find them rising in defense of every Communist when in trouble), and numerous others traveling under camouflaged nom de plumes.

With this sort of foe, the American Legion wanted to be sure young people had patriotic, traditionalist American alternatives. Across the nation, local posts organized a wide array of youth activities.  I found these relics of such organizing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As did posts around the nation, Legion adults set up youth chapters of the Sons of the American Legion, as well as marching bands, baseball leagues, essay contests, and a host of other activities meant to educate boys and girls into a firmly patriotic, socially conservative anti-communism.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

As one Legion writer put it in 1930, these efforts must range far beyond just exhortation. They must envelop young people into a profound spiritual web of learning and becoming. In this writer’s words:

While the communist organizes his young pioneers, his youth movement in colleges, and so forth, let us do some organizing. Let us organize Boy Scout troops, ROTC units and boys’ baseball teams, if you please. Let us win and hold the confidence of our boys through such work. While the communist scatters literature among the youth of the land to teach it disrespect for parental authority, let us preach the doctrine of love of parents and love of home. While the communist ridicules the ethics of religion, let us teach its beauty and comfort and hope. While the communist preaches its cowardly philosophy of dissipating the fruits of labor and capital, let us strive to inculcate the manly principles of energy, ambition and thrift in the hearts of our people. While the communist, in the guise of the professional pacifist, spreads his doctrine to palsy the arm of our national defense, let us keep our people informed on matters pertaining to the need and necessity of national defense. … While the communist gathers up boys and girls and sends them to colleges and universities of his own endowment for the purpose of making teachers of communism and atheism out of them, let us make opportunity for patriotic and religious education more universal, in order that the schools and pulpits of tomorrow will be filled with right-thinking men and women.



A Patriot’s History: The Movie!

What’s a patriotic conservative to do?  So often, history textbooks have been accused of peddling a leftist mishmash of America-bashing and skewed intellectual flag-burning.  As we’ve argued in these pages, for generations conservatives from the American Legion to David Barton have attempted to publish their own history textbooks that tell a more patriotic, more Christian story.

One of the most successful of those textbook efforts has been Larry Schweikert’s and Michael Allen’s 2004 A Patriot’s History of the United States. The book tells the story of the United States in a way that celebrates the triumphs and tragedies of America from a traditionalist patriotic viewpoint.  According to the book’s Wikipedia page, one reviewer from the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2005 that the book centered on a simple premise: “that there are principles and purposes reflected in American history that make this imperfect country worthy of our affection.”  Other reviewers had more hostile opinions.  David Hoogland Noon wrote in the pages of the History Teacher that this book was “written for an audience of the previously converted . . . hardly worth anyone else’s time.”

Via Andrew Palmer at Conservative Teachers of America we see that Schweikert is hoping to turn the book into a movie.  Schweikert has published a four-and-a-half minute trailer.  Tellingly, the dramatic intro promises the film will tell viewers “the history you always knew.”  In other words, the approach of Schweikert and Allen has been to confirm the traditional story of America’s greatness.  Not that this story has been one of unalloyed heroism, Schweikert and Allen might say, but overall the sweep of history has proven the United States to be the greatest nation on earth.

The choice of bits and pieces for this trailer tells us something about the movie’s approach.  First of all, it begins and ends with fireworks.  It includes scenic panoramas of cherry blossoms on the Mall in Washington DC, Ansel-Adams-like vistas of rocky outcroppings, and other traditional American eye candy.  As I watched, I took sketchy notes of some of the featured elements:

  • Happy colonists
  • Heroic suffering in the Revolutionary War
  • Heroic racing in wagons to settle the West
  • The Civil War
  • An Industrial Revolution with awesome achievement
  • D-day and Iwo Jima
  • Immigrants as ardent patriots
  • The Green Bay Packers!
  • Mount Rushmore
  • The Moon Landing
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • A jet in Vietnam napalming a field
  • Reagan calling on Gorbachev to tear down this wall
  • Baseball
  • The hockey “Miracle on Ice” of 1980
  • Lots of Fireworks.

Clearly, any movie trailer tells only part of the story.  This one certainly skews toward the positive elements of American history.  Unlike some academic histories, the story of the settling of the West is told as a heroic race to fill in land with settlers, not as the invasion of Europeans and the genocide of the native inhabitants.  As much as what was included, this trailer leaves out some important elements.  I saw no suggestion of race slavery, for example, nor of the systematic extermination of native peoples.

Will conservative teachers and schools embrace the film as conservatives embraced the book?  I don’t see why not.  In my experience, conservative intellectuals don’t want children to read patriotic lies about America’s past, but they do want children to read patriotic truths.  In the case of the American Legion’s 1926 textbook series, for example, as soon as the Legion leadership found out that the book was riddled with errors, the Legion pulled its support.  And as soon as David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies accumulated accusations of inaccuracy, its original publisher yanked it.

My hunch is that the makers of A Patriot’s History would argue that they do tell the full story of America’s past.  The trailer, for example, did include clips of America’s troubling policy of napalming villages in the Vietnam War.  To be a success, I’m guessing, this film will have to convince conservative audiences of two things.  First, it must seem like a full and true history of these United States.  Second, it must make clear that this country—despite its historical blemishes—is the greatest nation on the earth.

The hard question remains: Would you want your kids to watch it?


Nazis and Sex Crimes

What history should we teach to children? In the United States, conservatives tend to insist that history should be heroic, or at least not vicious and mean-spirited.  But for the losers of World War II, these questions have played out in different ways.

A couple of intriguing recent stories in the New York Times describe the culture-wars over history in Germany and Japan.  In each case, the ways schools and textbooks portray war history have raised hackles.

In Japan, one village refused to use the new triumphalist textbooks distributed by the central education ministry.  The new books, village leaders protested, presented a distorted story of the post-war Constitution.  New books whitewashed Japan’s violent and aggressive record, downplaying the number of people murdered in the rape of Nanking and disputing Japan’s policy of kidnapping women for use as military sex slaves.

In Germany, in contrast, young people have learned a great deal about the Holocaust and Germany’s collective culpability for its epochal crimes.  Camp survivors such as Laszlo Schwartz have become a central part of high-school education.

What about in the US of A?  History has been distorted by both right and left.  Politically motivated histories by conservatives such as David Barton or by the late lefty Howard Zinn have presented distorted visions of the nature of American history.

These debates have gone on for a long time.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have long offered alternative school histories.  In the 1920s, for example, the American Legion commissioned a patriotic textbook that promised to teach children a prouder story.

How are these American history disputes different from those in Germany or Japan?  In each case, it seems that national history itself has dictated the ways history has been taught.  In Germany, for example, de-Nazification proceeded fairly thoroughly and rapidly after the war.  No such purge took place in Japan, politically or culturally.  As a wartime winner, the United States never had any reckoning.  The closest parallel has been the long fight over Civil-War history, with southern partisans insisting on a heroic Confederacy.

Also different is the structure of schooling.  Japan and Germany both have central education ministries.  Issues of history in Japan, for example, are part and parcel of national politics.  One of the leading reasons for the new distorted history textbooks in that country, according to the New York Times, has been the ambitions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  As one researcher told the Times, “Classrooms are one place where [Abe] can appease ultraconservatives by taking a more firmly nationalist stance.”

In the USA, in contrast, there has not been a central educational decision-making body.  As a result, perhaps, history fights have taken place at all sorts of political levels.  In the 1990s, the US Senate flexed its culture-war muscles by decisively rejecting a set of national history standards.  Conservatives in that battle protested that left-wing academic historians neglected traditional knowledge and morals in favor of fashionable but vapid trends.  More often, local or state textbook commissions air out the bitter battles over the nature of America’s past.

What did you learn in your school textbooks?  Do America’s children learn a distorted past?


College Is Dumb

What do college kids learn about these days?  It is a question about which conservatives have fretted for a long time.

Most recently, the Heritage Foundation warns that too many students, especially at America’s elite universities, are filling their heads with the mental junk food of Lady Gaga and zombie thrillers.  Worst of all, according to Mary Clare Reim on Heritage’s education blog, elite schools don’t seem to do much to encourage more substantial mental work.  For hefty tuition fees, Ivy League schools seem happy to have pampered youth meander lazily through fluff classes such as

“The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga”; “Blame It on the Bossa Nova: The Historical Transnational Phenomenon”; “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films”; “Fairytales: Russia and the World.”

Students are given the freedom, Reim laments, to fill their college years with nothing but such interesting but ultimately impractical mental games.

Reim cites a recent study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).  The ACTA graded schools on how much core curriculum they require for their students.  By this measure, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all get Ds.  Baylor and Colorado Christian University, on the other hand, move to the head of this class.

Reim’s worries place her in a storied tradition of nervousness among American conservative thinkers.  Since at least the 1920s, conservatives have worried that college students are being sold an intellectual bill of goods.  Classes are watered down, or worse, pernicious ideas are snuck in as the latest academic fad.

In the 1920s, for instance, William Jennings Bryan warned that elite schools such as Wellesley, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin filled the heads of students with pernicious nonsense.  In a dispute with Wisconsin’s president in 1921, Bryan snarkily suggested that Wisconsin should post the following warning sign:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

In 1935, one American Legion writer warned that “colleges all over the land” had been taken over by left-leaning numbskulls.

In 1950, one anonymous letter-writer wrote in to the Pasadena Independent to offer an explanation of why so many classes were so stupid.  If young people didn’t learn basic facts and skills, they would become easy prey for what this conservative writer called “propaganda leaders.”

In other words, keeping young people dumb was more than just laziness or faddishness.  Among conspiracy-minded activists, dumbing down colleges could work to prepare America for failure.

More recently, too, conservative intellectuals often assume that the content of higher education—especially at the most elite schools—ranges from sex-soaked to subversive.  Peter Collier, for example, in a recent article in the Weekly Standard, warned that left-wing ideas had taken over at Teachers College, Columbia University, beginning in the 1980s.  Under the name of “critical pedagogy,” Collier wrote, academics had “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

Given the possible intellectual threat posed by socialism and blundering leftism, it seems conservative intellectuals might be happy to see courses that are merely stupid.


Hamas, Textbooks, and a Real Educational Culture War

What does a real educational culture war look like?  A recent story in the New York Times describes the way the Hamas government in Palestine’s Gaza Strip has pushed its all-out war against Israel into its textbooks.

The militant Hamas government has produced new histories that glorify the role of Hamas, that denigrate Israeli land claims, and that teach a self-consciously heroic history to youngsters in the Gaza Strip.

Will these textbooks change the way the next generation understands the Palestinian/Israeli conflict?

The director of the research study about the Hamas textbooks thinks so.

As quoted in the NYT story, Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University, explained,

When a leader says something, not everyone is listening. But when we talk about textbooks, all the children, all of a particular peer group, will be exposed to a particular material. . . . This is the strongest card.

Fair enough.  Textbooks matter.  As Professor Bar-Tal carefully put it, textbooks “expose” children to a certain perspective.   As we’ve seen in the American context, every conservative group from the American Legion to Accelerated Christian Education has attempted to introduce patriotic or religious textbooks that will transform schooling and culture.

But “exposing” children to a certain worldview is not the same as imposing that worldview on them.  Textbooks make up only one part of education.  As we’ve seen with evolution/creation battles in the USA, the way teachers use textbooks is significantly more important.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making important decisions about what to teach and how to teach it (pg. 149, see also pps. 160-169, 219).

As the NYT article argues, Hamas certainly seems to understand this.  The education policies of Hamas have ranged far beyond altering textbooks.  Hamas sends morality police to patrol school campuses for proper behavior between boys and girls.  They have also made important structural changes in schools in the Gaza Strip.

Most of all, we see in this case the central importance of schooling and education in culture-war battles far beyond the shores of the United States.  It seems whenever two groups come into drawn-out conflict, schools become an important battleground.



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