Conservatives Win US History Fight . . . Again

Why is this so hard to get through our thick skulls? American schooling is not in the hands of progressive teachers and ed-school professors like me. It just isn’t. If we needed any more proof of it, take a look at the College Board’s decision to change its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course. As has always been the case, conservative complaints this time around have been about the implications and tone of classroom materials. My hunch is that many people wouldn’t see what the big deal was about.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my last book, American conservatives battled—and won—time and time again to control textbooks. Any whiff of progressive ideas was snuffed out before it could become the norm in American classrooms.

A set of progressive social-studies textbooks in the 1930s quickly became libri non grata after conservatives mobilized against it. In the 1970s, another set of progressive textbooks sparked a school boycott in West Virginia that caused a future secretary of education to speak out against progressive-type textbooks.

Now, according to an article in the Washington Post, the College Board has revised its framework for its AP US History class after ferocious conservative complaint. As we’ve discussed in these pages, conservative intellectuals and activists pushed hard to win this prize.

But here’s the kicker: I bet most casual readers of the new framework wouldn’t notice the differences. Now as in the past, the arguments are generally about tone and implication, rather than large-scale differences in content.

In the 1930s, conservative critics of Harold Rugg’s progressive textbooks admitted that most readers probably wouldn’t see the problem. Leading conservative critic Bertie Forbes called the Rugg books “subtly written” so that only an expert could notice the anti-American “insidious implication.” Another anti-Rugg leader warned that Rugg’s books were “very subtle,” not obviously anti-American, but packed with “weasel words” meant to subvert American values.

During the 1970s fight over textbooks, conservatives similarly admitted that a regular patriotic American reader might not see the problem at first glance. But as one conservative leader told an interviewer, the books were all bad, since they had been written with “the attitudes of evolution and all that.” Another conservative admitted that he did not even feel a need to read the actual textbooks. “You don’t have to read the textbooks,” he wrote.

If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

Every time, conservatives have warned, it takes an expert eye to detect the problem with sneaky progressive textbooks.

This time around, too, conservative intellectuals protested against the tone and implication of the new history framework. As a group of leading thinkers wrote in their June protest letter, the rejected history framework

Is organized around 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 ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

The problem is not that the un-revised new framework didn’t teach US History. The problem, according to conservative thinkers, is that it taught history with a certain attitude, a certain approach.

Is the new framework more conservative? Leading intellectuals seem to think so.

Take the ILYBYGTH challenge: Read the revised framework for yourself. Does it seem “conservative” to you? Where? How? Can you find the differences in tone and approach that conservatives demanded?

Don McLeroy’s Long Game

What do Phyllis Schlafly, Moses, and country/western music have in common? They all get happy shout-outs in new history textbooks in Texas.  Or at least, that’s what conservative education leaders wanted.  As Politico reported yesterday, new history textbooks in Texas are causing a stir.  But this time, it is liberal activists, not conservative ones, who are denouncing the textbooks as biased and ideological.

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

The new textbooks were written to satisfy new standards approved years ago by the Texas State Board of Education.  Back then, conservatives on the board, led by the genial Don McLeroy and the obstreperous Cynthia Dunbar, pushed through new standards that warmed the hearts of conservative activists.

No one who watched Scott Thurman’s great documentary about these Revisionaries can forget the moments when the SBOE debated including more country-western music and less hip hop.  More positive statements about Reagan and the National Rifle Association.  More happy talk about America’s Christian past and less insistence on the horrors of racial segregation.

The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries

As Don McLeroy said at the time, “America is a special place and we need to be sure we communicate that to our children. . . . The foundational principles of our country are very biblical…. That needs to come out in the textbooks.”

Now those changes in the Texas standards have shown up in new social-studies textbooks.  As Stephanie Simons reports in Politico, liberals have complained that the new texts are woefully biased.  In some spots, the books apparently knock Affirmative Action.  They pooh-pooh the benefits of taxes.  They imply that racial segregation was really not so bad.

For those who know the history of America’s educational culture wars, this seems like a drastic turnabout.  Throughout the twentieth century, conservative school activists complained that they had been locked out of educational influence by a scheming leftist elite.  Textbooks and standards, conservatives complained, had been taken over by pinheaded socialist intellectuals.

In one of the most dramatic school controversies of the twentieth century, for instance, conservative leaders lamented the sordid roots of new textbooks.  That battle took place in Kanawha County, West Virginia, across the tumultuous school year 1974-1975.  Conservatives were disgusted by the sex and violence embedded in new literature textbooks.  But some of them weren’t surprised.

Conservative leader Elmer Fike told readers that the textbooks were bound to be rotten.  In Fike’s opinion, conservatives didn’t even need to read the books.  As he explained,

You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

As the Kanawha County battle ground on, California’s conservative celebrity schoolman Max Rafferty came to town.  Rafferty, too, told a crowd of West Virginians that they shouldn’t put any faith in textbook publishers.  Those publishers, Rafferty explained, only wanted to make a buck.  As he put it,

They have no particular desire to reform anybody, do anybody any good or find a pathway to heaven.

These days—in Texas at least—the shoe is on the other foot.  The conservative standards that the state adopted in 2010 have pushed market-conscious textbook publishers to come up with books that meet them.  And at least some conservatives are delighted with the success of their long game.  As conservative school board member David Bradley told journalist Stephanie Simon, liberals who complain about biased textbooks can lump it.  “They need to put on their big-girl panties,” Bradley crowed, “and go run for office.”



From the Archives: Yoga, Schools, and “Those Dirty Books”

As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has argued in these pages recently, a yoga program in Encinitas public schools has raised the ire of some religious conservatives.  The story has subsequently been  picked up by the New York Times and National Public Radio.

As Professor Mehlman Petrzela pointed out in her article, such fears of yoga as religious indoctrination are not new among American conservatives.

During my research into an earlier generation’s fight over school textbooks, I discovered such complaints as early as 1974.  In that year, a school controversy exploded in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  As journalists such as Trey Kay and scholars such as Carol Mason have described recently, the bitter fight over new textbooks led to a months-long school boycott and repeated shootings and bombings.

In 1974, the beleaguered Kanawha County Board of Education appointed an eighteen-person committee to investigate the accused textbooks.  A majority of the committee found the books unobjectionable.  But in November, 1974, a minority splinter committee issued a blistering 500-page denunciation of the textbook series.  The minority report included specific objectionable passages with comment.

For instance, from a first-grade teachers manual from the DC Heath “Communicating” series, the committee extracted the following suggested discussion-starters: ‘Has anyone ever awakened and found a stranger looking at him?  Has anyone ever broken a toy, a chair, or some other article the first time he was visiting an unfamiliar house?  Has anyone ever had a dream in which he talked with some animals?  Has anyone ever seen a deserted house?  Did you go in?’

In the minority committee’s opinion, “A child should not be forced to discuss his own personal feelings.  This constitutes an invasion of privacy.  This is also
behavioral change.  Why should a 6-year-old child be subjected to questions that will implant fears and frustrations in his mind.  Why not have questions on pleasant and wholesome attitudes?”

The minority report complained that the textbooks’ version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story was “more sadistic and gruesome than usual.”  Elsewhere, the minority report objected, students were instructed to make up their own myths, including one about why all humans don’t speak the same language.  “The question why men do not speak the same language,” the minority insisted, “is answered in the Book of Genesis.  The inference that the answer can be classified as a myth again presupposes that the Bible is based on a myth.”

Most interesting to the folks of Encinitas, however, might be the minority committee’s complaint that articles about yoga amounted to “religious indoctrination.”

Makes me wonder where and when else the conservative campaign against the teaching of yoga in public schools has surfaced.  As Mehlman Petrzela points out, school-yoga supporters in the press and school district seem utterly unaware of this longer history.  As she wrote in her December article,

“The press, the EUSD, and scores of online commenters expressed shock that anyone would suggest, ‘a little stress-reducing exercise ever hurt anyone,’ especially in the context of a much-discussed ‘obesity crisis.’ The Los Angeles Times couldn’t believe the degree of the plaintive parents’ worries, as yoga is regularly practiced in San Diego spots as disparate as the Camp Pendleton naval base and the Jois yoga enclave, which funds the school program. Glamour commented, ‘most people associated with the controversy are scratching their heads,’ quoting similarly incredulous Jois chief executive: ‘It’s hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you’re inviting the devil into your soul.'”

Perhaps this posture of surprise is put on only to discredit conservative opponents.  After all, if anti-yoga activism seems startling and unexplainable, it might gain fewer political supporters.  But at least some of the surprise sounds genuine to me.  It seems another good illustration of the ways widespread ignorance of the history of conservative educational activism impairs any sort of useful discussion of current educational policy.

Does Loving the Bible Make Americans Racist?

Yesterday on GetReligion Terry Mattingly asked a hard question: “does anyone have any hard evidence that moral conservatives are more likely to be racists?”

Mattingly critiqued a pre-election story on NPR, in which David Cohen, a University of Akron political scientist, opined that President Obama’s race was a factor for many conservative voters.

Mattingly suggests issues such as abortion weigh more heavily on the decisions of “moral conservatives” than do issues of race.

The connection between white religious conservatives and racism is one I’ve been wrestling with lately in a book chapter I’m working on.  In the 1974 school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, white conservative protesters (usually) insisted they were not racist.  Yet their liberal/progressive opponents, including an investigating committee from the National Education Association, usually assumed that they were.

It was a generation ago, to be sure, but in the 1974 controversy, some book protesters did indeed seem to be motivated largely by anti-African American racism.  For instance, the local Ku Klux Klan held sympathy rallies for the conservative protesters.

But other conservative protesters presented what seems to me to be solid evidence for their anti-racist conservatism.  Many religious protesters, such as Karl Priest, Avis Hill, and Ezra Graley, noted the racial balance of their church communities, including African Americans in leadership roles.

More secular protesters such as Elmer Fike noted that conservatives voted in large numbers for a conservative African American candidate for the state legislature, while liberals did not.*

Many liberals dismiss all such conservative claims of anti-racism as mere window dressing.  As we’ve discussed here recently, there is a long tradition among conservatives of using coded language to express racist sentiments in an apparently non-racist way.

What would it take for conservative anti-racism to be taken seriously?  One comment on Mattingly’s essay noted a 2007 PhD dissertation by Inna Burdein at SUNY-Stony Brook, “Principled Conservatives or Covert Racists.”  In her study, Burdein concluded that social conservatives tend to privilege racial considerations, while economic conservatives did not.  In other words, Burdein found that white “moral conservatives”–what we’re calling Fundamentalist America–would tend not to vote for African American candidates.

I don’t think Mattingly would insist that all white “moral conservatives” would vote for an African American President.  Some white conservatives are likely motivated by racism, to some degree.  But I think Mattingly’s question is still very important.  It does not seem that NPR’s story consulted work such as Burdein’s.  Commentators such as David Cohen simply take for granted the preeminence of white racism in conservative politics.

*This claim is reproduced in James Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976), pg. 171.

REQUIRED READING: Protester Voices

For those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America in the twenty-first century, a good place and time to start would be Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1974.

The raucous 1974-1975 school year in this county surrounding Charleston saw a burst of public controversy over the teaching in its public schools.  Protesters vilified a set of textbooks adopted by the school district.  At its peak, the protest and school boycott included a sympathy strike by the area’s miners and even a spate of gunshot attacks and the bombing of a school-administration building.  The fight in Kanawha County, as argued by both protesters and historians, can correctly be seen as the birthplace, or at least the midwife, of an emerging populist conservative movement.

The controversy has attracted its share of recent attention from scholars such as Carol Mason and journalists such as Trey Kay.

Thanks to the energetic activist Karl Priest, we now also have an account of the controversy written from a prominent member of the movement itself.  Priest’s 2010 book Protester Voices offers a view from inside the textbook protest movement.

Priest’s story is unabashedly partisan.  The tone and style of his book are those of a bare-knuckled culture warrior rather than those of a disinterested academic.  Priest has achieved a reputation as one of today’s leading anti-evolution internet brawlers.  In addition to his anti-evolution work, Priest is also currently active in Exodus Mandate.  This organization promises “to encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling.”  Those who hope to explore the worlds of conservative Christian activism in twenty-first century America will soon run into the work of Karl Priest nearly everywhere they turn.  Indeed, when ILYBYGTH first starting imagining how intelligent, educated people could embrace creationism (see, for instance, here, here, here, here, and here), we were accused of being merely a front for Priest.

In his 2010 book, Priest takes other writers to task for their anti-protester bias.  He dismisses Carol Mason, for example, as someone who “concentrate[s] on the exception to the rule” (37).  The protest movement, Priest insists, must not be understood as an irruption of racism or vigilante violence.  The protesters themselves cannot fairly be dismissed as “wild-eyed ignoramuses” (xiii).  Such accusations, Priest insists, demonstrate the bias of left-leaning scholars more than the lived reality of the protest itself.  The leaders of the movement, in Priest’s view, “suffered financial loss. . . . [and] endured snide remarks and mocking.”  They did so in order to defend their schools and community against the imposition of taxpayer-funded textbooks that included aggressive racism and sexual depravity.  Priest defends the rank and file of this movement, also slandered mercilessly by other writers, as “Norman Rockwell Americans” (63).

Priest agrees with other commentators that this textbook controversy provided the launching pad for a new kind of conservative activism.  Kanawha County attracted national leaders such as Mel Gabler and Max Rafferty.  The fledgling Heritage Foundation sent legal advisers.  The 1974 protest, Priest claims, heralded the new generation of populist conservatism that continues in today’s Tea Party movement.

For anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America, this book is an important resource.  Not only does Priest’s account offer a staunch defense of the fundamentalist side of one of the most significant controversies of the late twentieth century, he also includes a reflection on the meanings of fundamentalism itself.  Though he prefers the term “Bible-believing Christian,” Priest insists that “Being a fundamentalist, contrary to what liberals have propagandized, is nothing to be ashamed of just by the attachment of the term” (3).


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