Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.

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What’s Wrong with Safer Schools?

For anyone who thinks Dan Patrick has a solution to school shootings, I have a two-hundred-year-old solution to urban poverty to sell you. As-is.

NYC manual 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

The solution to urban poverty, 1820 style…

You may have seen it by now: In the aftermath to the latest horrific school shooting, Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has suggested tightening up school architecture. As Patrick put it,

We may have to look at the design of our schools looking forward, and retrofitting schools that are already built and what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits. . . . There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about school architecture and changing doors. What IS wrong is diverting attention from a real problem by directing conversations toward secondary considerations. In this case, we need to talk about school cultures that coerce and alienate students. We need to talk about gun laws that put deadly weapons in the hands of angry boys.

Along the way, we might ALSO talk about entrances, but it can’t be our main focus. In this case, IMHO, Dan Patrick is trying to wiggle out of a difficult political position by diverting attention from the real problems.

And, as I’m finding in my current research, this sort of diversionary tactic is the oldest trick in the school-reform book. Two hundred years ago, city planners in places such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York faced a difficult dilemma. They had crowds of children in their streets from low-income families. The families couldn’t afford to send them to school so the children were growing up without being able to read or write.

What could be done? From London, Joseph Lancaster promised a solution. He described his system for educating poor children in meticulous detail. With the right school architecture and equipment, he promised, cities could eliminate the problem of poverty in just a few short years.

It didn’t work.

Just like Lt. Gov. Patrick’s plans to block doors and windows, Lancaster’s supposed solution treated minor symptoms in order to ignore the underlying cause. The right reading strategy is a good thing, but it is not a cure for urban poverty.

The Right Recipe for Science Missionaries

Thoughtful exposition? Or bacon ‘n’ eggs? Rick Potts is trying to spread the word about evolutionary science to America’s creationists. Is he taking the best approach?

As described in the Smithsonian Magazine, Potts hopes his traveling exhibition can reach those “rural, religious, remote” places that the Smithsonian “deemed ‘challenging’—places where the researchers suspected that evolution might still be a contentious subject.”

ephratastatue

Too much for some…

To this observer, Potts seems to be on the right track. I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism that the problem is not knowledge but something else. No amount of yelling or state standards will puncture resistance to mainstream evolutionary science. Rick Potts seems to agree. As the Smithsonian article describes,

Potts was going for something more subtle: Not conversion, but conversation.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature,” he says.

Could it work? One disgusted local from Ephrata, Pennsylvania felt offended from the get-go. She was freaked out by a statue of a naked early-human mother and baby at the entrance to the library hosting the exhibit. As she put it,

Library abortions would probably be more offensive . . . but that would probably be it.

If even this most diplomatic attempt at spreading the word about evolution is too much for some creationists, then are all attempts to converse with creationists doomed to failure? Are some people and some communities so firmly set against mainstream science that even a friendly, caring outreach project like this is too much?

Writing for BioLogos, Brad Kramer points out the obvious problem and suggests a difficult solution. As he explains, no matter how big the smiles were, the science missionaries were still obviously missionaries. And nothing is easier to resist for religious people than sermons from another religion.

So is there no hope? The problem is bigger than science, bigger than religion. The root of the difficulty is TRUST. What can be done? As Kramer argues, the answer isn’t very attractive for those of us who want quick solutions. Kramer suggests bacon and eggs:

If all Rick Potts had done in Ephrata was spend a month eating breakfast with people at local diners, introducing himself as an evolutionary scientist, and explaining that he doesn’t hate Christians, an enormous amount of good would have been accomplished.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I spent the week buried in the Philadelphia archives, but somehow the world kept on turnin. Here are a couple of stories this week that have nothing to do with Joseph Lancaster.

Defending Kanye at NR.

pence at hillsdale

Do they care that we’re conservatives?

Pence at Hillsdale commencement—the conservative collegiate long game, at Politico.

A Canadian university wonders: Can only Indigenous professors teach about First-Nations history? At CBC.

Peter Greene tees off on Florida’s standardized tests for five-year-olds. At Curmudgucation.

Should fans of Wendell Berry forsake social media? Matt Stewart makes the case at FPR.

  • “We can rest assured, bonded by our faith in each other’s commitment to at least forsaking Twitter, that we are closer to being localists than to being hipster localists. The distinction is simple: a localist does not have to keep the Big Ether informed of one’s commitment to localism at all times and in all places.”

Get em young: Sarah Pulliam Bailey rides along on a Christian-nationalist kids’ tour of DC. At WaPo.

Gaza protest

Signs of the apocalypse?

Apocalypticism, Trump, and Jerusalem:

School revolts hold the key to stopping Trumpism: Henry Giroux at BR.

Standardized tests…what could go wrong? The fallout from glitchy tests in Tennessee, at Chalkbeat.

Arizona tried to edit evolution out of its science standards, at KNAU.

Asking uncomfortable questions at SMU—“Why are Black people so loud?”—“What is the difference between white trash and white people?” At CHE.

Dictating Democracy

As I was reminded last week in the Philadelphia archives, it’s the oldest educational idea in the United States. Larry Cuban points out this morning that our dream of educating a new generation of democratic citizens might take us in surprising directions.

First, my full confessions: I have progressive prejudices that are hard to shake. I want public schools to make society better. I believe that better educational opportunities for all people will help achieve that goal. And…and this is the one that matters this morning…I think what goes on in classrooms matters. As John Dewey argued a century ago, if we want a democratic society we need to start by creating democratic classrooms.

Democracy-prep-vote

I can’t vote, and I can’t speak when I want to, and I can’t put my pencil where I want to, and I can’t get out of my seat when I want to…

So I join Professor Cuban in wondering if a school can create democratic citizens by controlling students tightly. Cuban looked at a study of Democracy Prep, a new charter network. The schools make one of their goals the civic education of children, meaning mostly that students learn about government, about public decision-making processes, and about getting out the vote.

As one thoughtful former Democracy Prep teacher noted, it’s hard not to think that the way students are educated matters. As he puts it,

schools are invariably where students go to experience the civic engagement of others. No child thinks of it this way, but surely, he or she picks up clear signals about their place in the world, how they are regarded by authority figures who are not their parents, and how much — or how little — is expected of them. If the relationship a child has with a school is coercive, punctuated by frustration and failure, leading to no good end, then there is no reason to expect strong civic outcomes.

And yet, as Prof. Cuban points out, students at Democracy Prep feel the heavy hand of authority at all times. As one visit to a DP school revealed, students’ actions were constantly tracked and dictated. As the visitor found,

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Can it really be feasible, Cuban wonders, that this sort of top-down classroom will produce active citizens? That schools can coerce students into active democratic participation? The charter network has claimed some positive results. A recent alumni study by Mathematica Policy Research found that citizens who had attended Democracy Prep were more likely to register and to vote.

I’m skeptical. Surely a school culture that eliminates any possibility of student leadership will have a depressing effect on student political participation. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. Or is it really possible that schools can control their students all the way to active citizenship?

From the Archives IV: The Handwriting Is Off the Wall

Do you miss handwriting? I thought I did, but my research experience this week has me wondering. As I dug through the Philadelphia archives working on my new book, I’ve been confounded by the arcane art of penmanship.peanuts.1967.04.25

Most of my archive work over the past decade or so has been in twentieth-century collections. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH might recall, I’ve enjoyed leafing through old pages of type-written correspondence. I feel an acute nostalgia for the days of elaborate letterhead.

What I never had to wrestle with, though, is page after page of hand-written correspondence. Some of it is absolutely gorgeous. I have no idea how long it would take to write this way. Some of it is terrible and impossible to read—Charlie Brown level penmanship.

I’ll share a few of the most elaborate bits here for your Sunday morning delectation.

random handwritig 1random handwriting 2random handwriting 3random handwriting 4random handwriting 5

From the Archives III: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Close your eyes and it might be difficult to guess the decade, much less the century. Fears of a brash, vulgar populist President, a traumatic sense of rapid decline in our public institutions, and a desperate dream that stability might be right around the corner. Sound familiar?Inked1831 house report 1 political convulsions_LI

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m down in the Philadelphia archives these days researching my new book. I keep stumbling across head-scratchers that are too good not to share. This bit is from an 1831 report on education from the Pennsylvania house of representatives. They were worried that politics had gotten out of hand. They hoped that high-quality public schools could offer some hope for the future. As they put it,

when the age in which we live is so strongly marked by political convulsion—when all old institutions appear heaving from their base, and all new ones seem unsettled, if we would be preserved from that change for the worse that has been the fate of all who have preceded us, provision must be made for general education.

Clearly, the sorts of political upheaval we’re living through now have a long history.

Should we be reassured or depressed?

Professor Hankins on Fundamentalist U

I’m tickled pink this morning to read a new review of Fundamentalist U from a scholar I have long admired. Barry Hankins of Baylor offered an insightful review today in the pages of Christianity Today.family feud

What did he think? As he explains,

Laats attempts to identify the distinct nature of non-denominational, fundamentalist-evangelical higher education in the 20th century. And he succeeds admirably. . . .

In explaining how this struggle [between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism] played out, Laats helps us better understand both Christian higher education and the historic relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

My favorite bit of all?

With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.

Professor Hankins explores the book’s treatment of issues such as creationism and racism in evangelical higher education and sends us off with a heartening conclusion:

Overall, Fundamentalist U is an exhaustively researched and well-written book, even when it dwells on episodes we might prefer to forget.

From the Archives II: A Dream Deferred

Sad but true: American public schools are segregated places. Kids’ chances of going to school with someone from a very different economic background are slim and getting slimmer. As I continue my work in the Philadelphia archives, I’ve come across another bit of evidence that this was not what Americans wanted.

mt vernon school philly

School for all (boys)…at least in theory

In 1828, the education committee of the state senate of Pennsylvania issued a report. There was no disagreement, they said, about the immense value of public education. As they put it,

The diffusion of education among the great body of the people, is an object very near the hearts of the benevolent and humane. It is conceded to be the most powerful means of furthering the cause of morality and religion; and its importance to a country possessing a republican form of government, is universally admitted.

Moreover, schools funded by the public should serve to unite the public. At Pennsylvania’s public schools, the committee promised (with emphasis added):

All the rising generation of a great community are instructed in the rudiments of learning. The doors of the common school houses are open to all without distinction, and the children of the rich and the poor meet there in the participation of a common benefit, upon terms of the most perfect equality. Such a system is above all praise, and deserves imitation every where.

At least, that was the dream. So far, it hasn’t happened. The children of the rich tend to go to schools with other children of the rich. Likewise for the children of the poor. But then again, it has only been 190 years. Maybe we’ll get there soon.

Copy-editing Out Evolution

In our continuing creation/evolution culture wars, copy-editing out evolution is the oldest trick not in the book. Historian Adam Shapiro has showed us how textbook publishers have always done it. Today we see a spanking new example of this old trick from Arizona.

Trying Biology

Leave evolution in, take “evolution” out…

As Professor Shapiro noted, back in the 1920s publishers made big promises about cutting evolution out of their textbooks. In many cases, though, they left the content the same and merely took the word “evolution” out of their indexes. Sometimes they changed the word “evolution” to “development” in the text itself.

Usually, this wasn’t due to any ardent love or hate for science or creationism. Rather, publishers just wanted to sell books. If buyers wanted evolution out, so be it. But changing text was expensive, so publishers tended to make the smallest changes they could get away with.

We see today similar edits in Arizona. This time around, though, it looks as if standard-makers really do want to water down the teaching of evolution.

AZ evol edits 2018

Change over time…

Here’s what we know: The latest science standards up for adoption in Arizona have made a bunch of changes. Time after time, the Department of Education has revised out evolution. Here are a few examples (you can see the whole thing here with changes marked in green):

4 The theory of evolution seeks to make clear the unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution organisms.

43           Life Sciences: Students develop an understanding of patterns and how genetic information is passed from generation to generation. They also develop the understanding of adaptations contribute to the process of biological evolution how traits within populations change over time. [sic]

69           Gather, evaluate, and communicate multiple lines of empirical evidence to explain the mechanisms of biological evolution change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations.

Will this sort of editing make any difference? Will science teachers in Arizona change what they are doing based on these cosmetic changes? Does it matter if creationists believe in “change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations,” but refuse to accept the evidence for “biological evolution”?