Would You Ban Books if It Meant Secular Schools?

Okay, so here’s a question for you: Would you agree that schools should ban some pro-LGBTQ children’s books IF it meant that tax money would not fund private religious schools? Me, I don’t think so, but I DO know that this has been the normal way Americans have handled controversial issues in their public schools.

little and lion

Smut? Filth? Required reading?

Here’s the latest: Some conservative Florida parents are at it again. They’ve demanded that Little & Lion be pulled from their local high-school English classes. I don’t know the book, but at a public meeting parents denounced the book as “smut” and “filth.” Parents objected to passages like the following:

I ask him if he has a condom and he nods, grabs one from his jeans on the floor. But he stops and asks if I’m sure before he puts it on. I’m no surer of what I’m doing now than when I was with Iris, but like when I was with her, this feels right.

The book joins the long tradition of controversial books for children and teens. It’s no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that books with pro-LGBTQ themes and characters have been especially controversial, as have any books that discuss teen sexuality. Just a couple of weeks ago, you probably remember, Missouri lawmakers proposed to imprison librarians responsible for questionable children’s books.

As I explored in The Other School Reformers, the idea that public schools and libraries should be “safe” spaces for conservative religious children has a long history. In 1922, for example, Kentucky’s lawmakers did Missouri one better. They considered a bill that would have purged public libraries of any book that could,

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

What would that even mean? What would a library look like if it contained no books that might “indirectly . . . weaken” religious faith? Like Missouri’s bill, it seems absurd, yet these sorts of book-bannings have proven extremely politically potent. It hasn’t always been pretty, but by and large parents have been able to ban books they don’t like.

I don’t approve of these book bannings. In fact, my early introduction to school culture-wars came back when I was a mild-mannered English teacher and a conservative parent wanted to ban one of our books.

But here’s the tough question I have to ask myself: Is it a fair compromise to ban some books from public schools and libraries if we can agree that we should also never use tax money to fund private religious schools? After all, the logic is similar.

Namely, as we detailed recently, Americans have always recoiled from using tax money to fund “sectarian” schools. There has been a lot of religion in America’s public schools, for sure, but historically schools have not been allowed to teach any doctrine considered religiously divisive. In the past, only generic Christianity—usually with a Protestant sheen—was allowed in public schools. As society in general became more secular in the twentieth century, public schools nixed more and more religious practices.

In my opinion, SCOTUS should respect this precedent when it rules on Espinoza v. Montana. If they do, though, should we also agree to keep other divisive, “sectarian” religious ideas out of public schools? Should we agree with conservative parents and lawmakers that some books should be banned from public schools?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Impeachment, impeachment, impeachment. There were a few other things going on last week that need noticing. Here are a few top stories from around the interwebs:

Ouch. Review of Diane Ravitch’s Slaying Goliath at NYT.

We now have “Slaying Goliath,” in which Ravitch takes a defiant leap over the line separating reasoned case-building from empty sloganeering and ad hominem attacks. The book sets out to chronicle and celebrate the resounding defeat of what people who are not Diane Ravitch refer to as the education reform movement. . . . They are, rather, to be called “the Disrupters” — “masters of chaos, which they inflict on other people’s children, without a twinge of remorse.” . . . even if Ravitch has often been justified in raising alarms, it’s painful to see the absence of nuance she exhibits here.

It’s a big one: SCOTUS heard Espinoza v Montana this week.

Are creationists bored with the giant Kentucky Ark? Attendance drops for two months running, at FA.ark attendance FA

School quality and city maps: How Chicago divides good and bad schools. At Quillette.

Turn north on Larrabee Street and walk seven blocks to Lincoln Elementary, one of the crown jewels of Chicago Public Schools. Lincoln gets a “1+” rating from the district, the highest possible rating. And the school encompasses the prestigious French-American School of Chicago, officially recognized by the French Ministry of Education and open only to students of Lincoln Elementary. Start once again at Larrabee and North. Turn south this time, and walk five blocks to Manierre Elementary, which receives a “3” rating from the district, the lowest possible rating. Manierre doesn’t just lag Lincoln. Manierre, by any objective standard, is a failing school.

How did fancy Democrats lose the confidence of the white working class? At NR.

Now those of us with postgraduate degrees and who are in the elite of the Democratic Party live in our own Versailles, and we don’t know any working-class people either—except perhaps the name of a barista at Starbucks or the woman who comes by at night to clean the office. . . . For this group, there is only one way to do it: Imitate us, the people who are the helicopter parents, whose parents were professionals, whose presidential candidates are Rhodes scholars or presidents of the Harvard Law Review. Can college for all solve the problems of this country? Well, it worked for us. Even some of the social Darwinians were subtler in rubbing it in. . . .

In the last election, it was such political genius for Trump to say: “I love the poorly educated.” Had Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders been capable of saying that, they’d be on their way now to a second term. And it was also genius for Trump to make a point of pumping up his own moral squalor. It’s as if he wanted working people to know that at last they could vote for a president who was incapable of looking down on them.

Impeachment drama got you down? Check out this story from my local paper—GOP voters cheer their Dem Rep who voted for impeachment.

Is It “Bigotry” to Leave Religious Schools Out?

Don’t believe the hype. If you’ve been following the Espinoza v. Montana case, you’ve likely heard the argument that Montana’s constitutional prohibition against funding religious schools is rooted solely in old anti-Catholic bigotry. In order to understand why that’s not an adequate argument, we need to understand the 19th-century distinction between a “sectarian” school and a “religious” school.IJ BlaineFirst, a little background: The Espinoza case resulted from the desire of parents to use state vouchers to send their children to religious schools. Montana has a “baby Blaine” line in its constitution forbidding any funding of religious schools. The plaintiffs contend that these rules are discriminatory. If states fund any private schools, the argument goes, they cannot exclude religious schools simply because they are religious.

The Blaine Amendment itself failed. It was an attempt to change the US Constitution to prohibit tax funding for “sectarian” schools. The language was taken up by states, however, and inserted into dozens of state constitutions, including Montana’s. The original 1875 language proposed the following:

No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

Back in the 1870s, the biggest “sect or denomination” that was competing for tax funding was the growing Catholic Church. For that reason, some conservative activists claim these constitutional amendments are rooted in “anti-Catholic bigotry.” An activist legal group, the Institute for Justice, represents the plaintiffs in this case. As they put it,

Blaine Amendments are controversial state constitutional provisions rooted in 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry. Their purpose was to prevent the government from funding Catholic schools. Today, opponents of educational choice employ Blaine Amendments—found in 37 state constitutions—as blunt weapons with which they attempt to block modern educational choice programs.

The argument has been around for a while. In 2000, Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his agreement that baby-Blaine amendments were merely crude anti-Catholicism. As Thomas wrote,

Consideration of the [Blaine] amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.”

And that’s the rub. To our ears, the word “sectarian” has lost its old meaning. When we talk about “religious” schools, we generally mean something very different from what Americans generally meant in the 1870s or 1810s. To make sense of the history being bandied about in today’s argument, we need to understand the ways people used the term “sectarian” back in the 1800s.

So, first, were Blaine amendments anti-Catholic? Well, yes. They were rooted in ugly post-war politics of race and religion. Back then, Democrats accused Republicans of being “soft” on white supremacy. And Republicans accused Democrats of being “soft” on Protestant supremacy. In this race to the bottom, Republicans like Blaine hoped to bolster their political careers by appearing to be “hard” on Protestant supremacy, even though Blaine himself came from a Catholic family. (It’s complicated.)

But was “sectarian” simply code for “Catholic?” No. The politics of the Blaine amendments were more complicated than that. For decades, public schools had been evolving toward something similar to the way they are today.

One big difference back then was that all public schools were far more “religious” than they are today. It was typical and expected (and often legally required) that school would start with a teacher-led prayer and that students would read from the Bible in a devotional way.

Throughout the 19th century, public leaders generally agreed that public schools should be religious in that way, but not “sectarian.” What did they mean by “sectarian?” In short, “sectarian” meant any religious practice that was not commonly shared among Protestant groups. “Sectarian” meant teaching a certain denominational belief, such as Calvinism or Arminianism. “Sectarian” meant teaching any controversial religious idea, such as adult or child baptism. And accusations of “sectarianism” tended to be biased against a lot of different religious groups, including Catholics, but also Quakers, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons/LDS, and many others.

Maybe a few examples from my current research will help illustrate the 19th-century distinction. As cities such as Philadelphia and New York set up their first public schools in the early 1800s, this distinction between “religious” (as we know it) and “sectarian” (as they thought of it) was usually considered too obvious to be spelled out. It was assumed that all public schools would actively teach generic Christian religion, but that none of them would promote any “sectarian” idea.

Adelphi religionConsider, for example, the policy of the Adelphi School in Philadelphia at the start of the century. All students were exhorted to follow basic rules of Christian morality and “strive to be good children by loving [their] HEAVENLY FATHER.” The school founders told parents—without seeing any contradiction—that the school would not teach any religion. It would only instruct the children in reading the Bible and following “Christian morality.”

In New York, too, the Free School Society assumed its public schools would be full of religion, but devoid of sectarianism. What was the distinction? They claimed their board of trustees in 1814 included men from “nearly every religious denomination.” They carefully tallied up their students’ religious preferences, including 271 Presbyterians, 186 Episcopalians, 172 Methodists, 119 Baptists, 41 “Dutch church,” and 9 Roman Catholics. Every student read from the Bible every day in school, and on Tuesday mornings all students were pulled out of school to attend catechism classes at their church of choice.

The distinction that mattered in the 19th century was that “sectarian” education would never receive tax funding. The guiding principle was that tax dollars would not pay to teach children specific religious ideas that were not generally shared. As public thinking about religion and public education evolved over the twentieth century, the difficulties of defining a “sectarian” idea led US courts—including SCOTUS—to rule that public schools had to exclude more and more religious practice. In the 1960s, SCOTUS ruled that ecumenical prayers and Bible-reading were too religious for public schools, meaning they were not beyond controversy. Some students didn’t want to pray or read from the Bible. There was no such thing, 20th-century SCOTUS decided, as “non-sectarian” religious practices.

The distinction has a long history: Public schools have always been expected to avoid any controversial religious teaching. They have been expected to avoid—in 19th-century terms—any “sectarian” indoctrination.

What does that mean for Espinoza? Are the plaintiffs correct that they should receive tax funding for their religious schools? No. Not if SCOTUS wants to respect the two-century-old precedent of American public education. The general goal of public schools when it comes to religion is to avoid using tax money to pay for any controversial doctrine, any “sectarian” idea. And that is precisely the goal of Ms. Espinoza and the Institute for Justice.

Hope for Us All

Impeachment drama got you down? Then check out this story from my local paper. The tenor of our national debate may have grown sour, but people still endorse basic decency and decorum.

brindisi town hall

Anthony Brindisi: How to disagree in the Trump era.

Here’s what we know: My US Representative, Anthony Brindisi, held a town-hall meeting last night. Much of the goings-on were predictably humdrum. He posed for pix with a group of Girl Scouts; he talked about keeping the local AA baseball team in town.

At one point, though, an audience member grew belligerent. Brindisi, a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, had voted for Trump’s impeachment. The woman insisted that Brindisi had promised her he’d vote against impeachment. She grew increasingly hostile as other members of the audience and Rep. Brindisi tried to calm her.

Woman: You lied to us. I want an answer.

[hubbub in audience…]

Brindisi: I never said that. What I said was…

Woman (interrupting): You said you were…

Voices from audience: LET HIM FINISH!

Woman: …I have it on my phone. I would like to know an answer to that.

Brindisi: ..what I said…

Woman (interrupting): You represent US.

Brindisi: …what I said was I was waiting for all the evidence to come out before making a decision. And I did make a decision and I’m sorry we disagree.

LOUD APPLAUSE

Eventually, the woman was asked to leave by a sheriff’s deputy. My hunch is that plenty of my neighbors agree with her about impeachment. Trump has a lot of support around here.

However, my neighbors don’t approve of her in-your-face style. She didn’t come to listen. She came to shout. The audience preferred Brindisi, with whom many of them disagreed, to the woman, with whom many of them agreed. Not for their stance on the issues, but for Brindisi’s obvious regard for basic politeness and civil tone.

Seems like some pretty basic political virtues are still being practiced:

  1. Cheer for the home team, even when things look bleak;
  2. Love your neighbors;
  3. Be polite, ESPECIALLY when you disagree strongly.

Creationism’s Middle Ground—Is It Enough?

The radical creationists at Answers in Genesis have offered an explanation of their vision for proper evolution education. Short version: They want all kids to learn about mainstream evolutionary theory, in a way. Is there enough here for a long-lasting compromise?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about it, but I’m up to my eyeballs with my new book about creationism. I sent the manuscript to the Oxford folks and we’ll have a book ready for shelves soon. I’m arguing in the book that the real problem in America’s long-running culture war about evolutionary theory isn’t really evolutionary theory itself. (It’s about something, but for the full argument you’ll have to wait for the book version.)

This morning, the radical creationists at AIG offer a lengthy exposition of their view of proper evolution education (starting at 18:04 in the video above). (Why use the term “radical creationist?” My explanation here.) It gives us a chance to ask: Is there enough middle ground here for all of us? Or do radical creationists want too much?

First, a little background: Ken Ham and some colleagues from Answers In Genesis are reacting to evolution-education outreach from the Genetic Literacy Project, starting at about 18:04 in the youtube clip above. The outreach was apparently targeted to college instructors, hoping to help them help students overcome their religious resistance to evolutionary ideas.GLP AIG

There are a lot of things in this AIG commentary that we can all agree on. Let’s review a few of the big ones:

First of all, we can all agree that evolution educators shouldn’t be trying to convert their students toward or away from any religion. As one of the AIG commentators describes (19:19), the article is essentially asking,

How do you become an evangelist for evolution? To convert these backwater, very confused creationists into the “truth” that they would follow Science?

I don’t think the Genetic Literacy Project folks would explain their goals that way, but we don’t have to agree on that. We can agree that science educators have no desire to promote any specific religion.

Second, students should be learning more than just terms and facts about evolution. They should be learning a deep understanding of the underlying ideas. As the AIG commentator put it,

We need to promote true science and teach [students] how to think scientifically . . . not just dump facts at them.

Third, radical creationists should stop using bogus arguments against evolution. These radical creationists agree that those bogus arguments only muddy the waters. As another chimed in,

We wanna make sure we’re not setting up straw men or being fallacious with an evolutionary worldview so when we refute it we refute what they actually believe.

coloring book beginners bible basicsAlso, we can all agree not to poke fun at radical creationists for no good reason. The first image on the GLP evolution-education presentation was of a macho Jesus riding on a scary dinosaur. If you’re interested in American creationism, you’ve probably seen the image. It looks like it comes from a sad creationist coloring book, but in fact it was created by artist Derek Chatwood in 2014 to poke fun at radical creationism. It is not an artifact of American creationism, but rather a clever and cruel insult. The radical creationists objected to the (18:30),

stupid cartoon on the front. I don’t understand why this idea of Jesus riding a dinosaur…they keep using this…. I hate seeing this picture. It’s just a caricature of what creationists believe.

We can all agree on that. We can agree on all these things, and they are big things:

1.) There’s no need to insist on cartoonish misrepresentations of creationist ideas.

2.) Creationists should not make bogus straw-man arguments about evolutionary theory.

3.) Kids should learn more than facts about evolution; they should learn to “think scientifically.”

4.) And evolution education should not try to preach any religious idea to students.

Are we all in agreement about everything? Certainly not. The radicals at AIG insist that evolutionary thinking is itself a religion. It’s not. The radicals want children to learn, in the end, why evolutionary science is inadequate for explaining major changes in species. It’s not. They want to teach children that they must choose between mainstream science and their religion. They don’t.

Those are huge areas of disagreement and we can’t simply ignore them. When it comes to our public schools, however, we have enough agreement to move forward. We can all agree that science class should not mock religion of any kind. We can agree not to focus on fake arguments about the other side, and that students need to learn a deep understanding of the ideas that led to mainstream evolutionary theory.

Can we agree on the rest? No. To create a productive science class, though, we don’t need to.

Lamanites and the Ugly History of Racism at Evangelical Colleges

It must be jarring. Imagine opening the new Sunday-school manual of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and finding cruel racist histories and warnings against racial mixing. It’s not that plenty of white Christians aren’t sincere about fighting racism. But episodes like this show how paper-thin those efforts are, given the nasty history of white racism. It’s not only LDS, by any means. The history I researched in Fundamentalist U shows the same Get-Out-level nastiness in white evangelical institutions.

Here’s what we know: The LDS hierarchy recently apologized for a glaring “error.” (I know, we’re not supposed to use “LDS” anymore, or “Mormon,” but calling it the whole long name every time seems crazy.) The new Sunday-school manual included old language about race, ideas the LDS church no longer teaches. Most shocking, the new 2020 manual says the following:

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith.

Erm.

Today, a spokesman announced, LDS churches “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” Good for them. Nevertheless, this episode serves as a reminder of the explicit, official racism that was church policy until very recently. It helps show how inadequate it is to simply promise not to be racist anymore; it helps demonstrate why we haven’t moved beyond our racist history, even if many people would like to believe we have.tisby color of compromise

It certainly isn’t only a problem among LDS churches. I just finally ordered my copy of Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise. I’m looking forward to reading it. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many evangelical colleges have an ugly history of racism. These days, even the schools with the most aggressively racist histories have disavowed racism, officially at least. But like the LDS “error,” its legacy is clearly visible. Like the painfully tense garden-party scene in Get Out, the history of institutional racism has been awkwardly papered over, leaving a painfully inadequate no-longer-racism where all the racism used to be.

Just a reminder: Yes, Bob Jones University—like the LDS—issued in 1960 a searing “Biblical” defense of racial segregation. But even up north, evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute suffered from explicit intentional racism.

bju race statement

Mea culpa, sorta…

At Wheaton, for example, in the 1950s there was only one integrated student club. Ironically, that was the Dixie Club for southern students. As one white Wheaton student later remembered from that era, one African American student seemed to prefer the company of her white southern friends, “even though obviously we represented repression for her in some ways.”

swartz moral minorityAs historian David Swartz described in his terrific book Moral Minority, Wheaton tried hard to become less racist. It led to some strange tensions. One white anti-racist faculty member in the 1960s edited an anti-racist newsletter, Freedom Now. If Wheaton students wanted a copy, they could get one at the campus bookstore, but only by asking for it by name. Copies were kept under the counter.

Wheaton wasn’t the only prominent evangelical school to wrestle awkwardly with its own institutional racism. At MBI, in 1952 an interracial couple was asked to split up. As Dean Maxwell Coder reported internally, he asked them

not to associate on or off the campus in anyway [sic] that would attract attention to themselves as a couple and give rise to criticism . . . because of the racial problem involved.

By 1970, MBI had taken bolder steps to fight its own racist history. In that year, segregationist fundamentalist John R. Rice had been invited to give a prominent talk at MBI. Rice had continued his pro-segregation rhetoric. MBI disinvited him. (For the intensely awkward details, see here. The MBI leaders had a hard time settling on language that would satisfy all parties.)

I recognize and admire the efforts of lots of white evangelical activists who have tackled this racist history, now and in the past. Yet it just doesn’t feel like quite enough. In the end, I agree with one LDS scholar:

The manuals “should have been shredded when this egregious error was found prior to international distribution,” said Jerri Harwell, associate professor in Salt Lake Community College’s English, linguistics and writing studies department. “The money that would have been lost on this is nothing compared to one day’s interest on $100 billion in [the church’s] reserves.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Okay, so now that the Packers are out of the playoffs we can see what else is going on in the world. Here are some top stories from last week:

Kicked out for a gay cake. How conservative school leaders can mess up on LGBTQ stuff, at ILYBYGTH.

gay cake

Out, vile monster!

FL teachers march, at TD.

Teachers, parents and their supporters brought downtown Tallahassee to a standstill Monday as they protested what they said has been a systematic attack on public education dating to the late 1990s — when, coincidentally, Republicans took over the Legislature and Governor’s Office.

fl teacher march

Progressive college has to change to survive, at IHE.

“They have a very different vision of what college would be and have different needs,” [President George] Bridges said. “They want to leave Evergreen with a degree they can use in a career, in a market,” and that’s explicable to employers. Students who attended in past decades grew up in a different economic climate, he said, and weren’t seeking such specific outcomes.

RIP, Roger Scruton. Eulogy at AC.

Taking Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as his exemplars in thought, Scruton’s traditionalist conservatism always revolved around his love of place and the need for real and organic community, held together by habit, custom, and experience. All good in society, then, flows from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

Who is an evangelical? An interview with Thomas Kidd at R&P.

the media has come to discuss evangelicals in a very narrow way. The implication is that, when we use the term, we are talking specifically about white Republicans in the United States. But when you think about the evangelical movement on the world stage, this is very misleading.

Trump’s new guidelines for school prayer. What’s new? Not much, really, for schools, but a reversal of other rules, at WaPo.

Under current regulations, faith-based providers — such as health care entities, child welfare organizations, educational nonprofits — need to give beneficiaries notice of their religious character and their right to get services elsewhere. They also have to make reasonable efforts to refer beneficiaries to another provider if the person receiving services is uncomfortable. . . . The Trump administration announced rules to end the requirement, created under the previous administration.

god-is-my-heroMormon Sunday-school manual accidentally includes racist Mormon history, at SLT.

several early readers of the 2020 “Come, Follow Me” manual were troubled to see a note in one lesson that is a throwback to previous thinking.

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith.

From the Archives: Protecting Children from Imaginary Threats

Okay, so we know Trump’s recent announcement about protecting student prayer in schools was nonsensical. Students already CAN pray in school if they want. In a different sense, however, Trump’s prayer defense was not only politically savvy, but a continuation of a long tradition of wildly disproportionate responses to non-existent threats. This morning, a few examples from the archives.

Trump prayer anncment tweetExample 1: Harold Rugg’s textbooks, 1939. I’ve read them. In a word, they are bland. Hardly the stuff to inspire violent protests. They were hugely popular in the 1930s, selling millions of copies. In 1939, conservative groups such as the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers fretted that these books were indoctrinating students in left-wing directions.

What happened? In cities across the Northeast and at least one town in rural Wisconsin, conservatives threatened to pile the books up and burn them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring from within.

Burning textbooks in an era of Nazi occupation in Europe seems like a remarkably disproportionate response to a popular textbook. So why do it?

Among themselves, Legionnaires warned darkly that Rugg’s books were only the sharp edge of a long-planned socialist revolution. As one Legion activist wrote in a private letter, colleges like Teachers College at Columbia University had become nests of “socialist fanatics” who schemed to use Rugg’s textbooks as part of their plan to subvert American institutions.

roscoe letterWe can only make sense of the violent response to Rugg’s textbooks if we put the story in this imaginary context. In the imaginations of many conservatives, Rugg’s textbooks were an immediate threat to American society as a whole. Destroying them was the only way to protect children from that imaginary threat.

Example 2: Fast forward a few decades and conservatives again responded violently to an imaginary school threat. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks was approved by the state. When conservatives previewed the books, they were alarmed by what they saw. School-board member Alice Moore denounced the books as anti-American, anti-Christian, and even simply anti-proper-English.

Local conservatives agreed and they boycotted local schools until the offending books were removed.

The boycott became violent. Schools were firebombed, busses shot, and the school-board building dynamited. Two people got shot along the picket lines.

alice moore posterAgain, seems like a startlingly violent reaction to a fairly humdrum textbook problem. Along the picket lines, however, activists were circulating flyers with shocking language. The quotations were purportedly from the offending textbooks, but the offensive language was not found in the actual adopted textbooks. In the imagination of the protesters, however, it seemed entirely believable that school textbooks in 1974 might really include offensive sexual language. They were willing to take extreme measures to protect children from these threats, even though the threats never really existed.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

We could cite other examples from throughout the twentieth century. When it came to racial integration, for example, attempts to integrate schools from Boston to Oxford, Mississippi were routinely met with ferocious violence.

It’s not surprising to find such violence in educational politics. People care a lot about their kids, obviously. And they care a lot about controlling schools. In this case, though, there’s a particularly virulent form of culture-war violence at play. It’s not only about actual policy, but of imagined threats to an imagined past.

For many conservatives, public schools traditionally included God. And that’s not imaginary–public schools really do have a long history of being dominated by white evangelical Protestants. The history of the twentieth century can be seen as a long struggle to nudge or shove evangelicalism out of its historically dominant role. Integration, school prayer, sexuality, history textbooks…all became symbols of the ever-diminishing clout of white evangelicals in public schools and in public life.

Consider one final example of the unique power of schools in America’s culture-war imagination. Years after the fact, one of the schemers behind the “New Christian Right” in the 1970s and 1980s remembered the issue that got conservative Christians most riled up. As Paul Weyrich recalled, it wasn’t “abortion, school prayer, or the ERA.” Sure, those things made conservatives mad in the 1970s, but they didn’t push conservative Christians en masse to the GOP. The issue that did? According to Weyrich,

Jimmy Carter’s [1978] intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.

Against this historical backdrop, Trump’s nonsensical protection of school prayer makes a little more sense. Schools play a unique and uniquely influential role in culture-war politics. Even imaginary threats—perhaps especially imaginary threats—get people roused with violent fury.

In that sense, it should come as no surprise that Trump played the school-prayer card. It isn’t sensible policy, but it tends to get people angry. In that sense, it seems like a perfect example of Trumpism in action.

Why Would Trump Talk about School Prayer?

On the face of it, the statement was meaningless, or even weirdly insulting to evangelical activists. Yet President Trump announced yesterday that he was taking “historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools.” If students already had that right, why would Trump bother?Trump prayer anncment tweetThis move is not a new one for Trump. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall he made similarly meaningless promises to defend the use of the Bible in public schools. In his announcement yesterday, Trump declared,

in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs. It is totally unacceptable.

Such a statement might seem ill-advised. After all, Trump has always bent over backwards to court support from evangelical Protestants. And evangelicals have long bent over backwards to prove that students DO have the right to pray, share their faith, and follow their religious beliefs in public schools.

For example, the See-You-At-The-Pole movement is all about demonstrating students’ continuing right to pray in their public schools. One might think that these evangelical activists would be offended at Trump’s assumption that they have not been praying in schools already.

I don’t think they will. Instead, I think a lot of MAGA Christians assume that their children are under threat. And to be fair, if you were to read only MAGA/Christian news, you’d get plenty of support for that mistaken notion.

Consider a couple of examples of the things some conservative Christians are hearing. Organizations such as Focus on the Family warn readers of experiences like the following:

  • A father expresses concern after his daughter, a high school student, tells him an education official stopped her from bowing her head to silently pray before eating lunch.

  • A fifth-grade student brought his favorite book, the Bible, with him to class to read during a free reading period. But according to news reports, the teacher had him come up to her desk and, in front of the class, left a message for his parent explaining that she noticed he had a religious book and was not “permitted to read those books” in her classroom.

Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction.

Or what about the sad story of ten-year-old Erin Shead? Erin was told by her teacher to think about her hero. She did. It was God. But then her teacher told Erin that God could not be her hero.god-is-my-hero

We could go on. Plenty of conservative Christians read stories like this and they fret about the state of prayer in America’s public schools. They might even send their own kids to public schools like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana, where old-fashioned evangelical Christianity still dominates the school. As the superintendent in Greenwood explained,

I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values.

What does Greenwood, Indiana have to do with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I don’t want to accuse President Trump of thinking strategically, but I think his announcement about school prayer might make political sense even if it makes no policy sense.

Yes, students are free to pray in their public schools if they want. And plenty of public schools—like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana—incorporate Christian values deeply into everything they do. It doesn’t really matter. When Trump voters read that a fourth-grader got in trouble for announcing that God was her hero, Trump wins. And when voters read that school officials are stopping students from praying, Trump wins.

It doesn’t matter that students actually have plenty of prayer rights already. Trump stumbled onto an issue that matters to a lot of people. Students’ right to pray is beyond dispute. But people still think it is under attack.

Why Won’t This Myth about Teachers Go Away?

It won’t be easy, but I’m going to avoid defending graduate programs for teachers. Instead, I want to take issue with a persistent myth about teacher pay that showed up once again in this article about teacher education. I can’t help but think that popular understandings of the history of teacher pay have had a bad influence on the way we think about teaching today.

If you’re involved in teaching you’ve probably seen the article. Too often, Grace Gedye alleges, hard-working teachers are forced to pay for useless graduate degrees. As Gedye charges,

the teachers I interviewed told me that they had spent too much time on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills; professors were too far removed from the classroom and using out-of-date pedagogy; and many programs simply weren’t rigorous.

I’m super biased so I won’t push the point too hard, but I have to briefly disagree with this premise. Feel free to discount my point, because I spend my days working with graduate students in a teaching program. The classes I teach focus on diving deeply into US history. Do my classes help my students on Sunday night with their plans for Monday morning? No. But knowing more about history and historical thinking can’t help but make them better history teachers. Right?

We can argue about graduate programs if we want, but instead I’d like to focus on a lil nugget buried deep in the heart of the article. Gedye mentions that teacher pay has long been tied to graduate education. As she recounts,

American teachers weren’t paid salaries at all well into the 19th century. Schools were largely community organized, and teachers’ compensation mostly consisted of free room and board.

Now, I’m not taking the author to task for this inaccurate summary of the history of teacher pay. She isn’t claiming to have done research about this history; she isn’t basing her argument on it. No, the problem is much bigger than that. The author is merely rehashing what she thinks is a commonly accepted truth. And she’s right: Generally, people tend to assume that this history of teacher pay is correct. It’s not. These assumptions about teacher pay are wildly false and hugely hurtful.

The assumption that teachers were historically unpaid or underpaid shows up all the time. For example, SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall a recent flap about it from the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek. Hanushek argued a few months back that teachers were generally underpaid because they went into the field “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

Certainly, plenty of teachers choose the field for those reasons. I did. But historically, teaching did not begin as a “service” profession, driven by low pay but high emotions. It’s no secret: In the USA, at least, teaching in the 1800s began as a highly paid, highly respected, highly unequal/hierarchical profession.

As I’m finding in the research for my upcoming book about the first big urban school reform, teachers originally had status as entrepreneurial businessmen and women. (Mostly men.) In the first decades of the 1800s, teachers ran schools as independent enterprises, making handsome incomes—not salaries—by attracting large numbers of tuition-paying students.

To be sure, there were also teachers who did not make big money, working at schools for lower-income students. Teachers at these “church schools” or “charity schools” were certainly the model for Dr. Hanushek’s vision of teacher motivation. But they were the exception.

What happened? When did teachers stop making big bucks? Here’s the important historical truth, the reason why this myth about teacher pay is so destructive: Teachers stopped making big paychecks when the government started paying for schools for all students. Once the taxpayers began footing the bill for low-income students, the race was on to find teachers who would work for peanuts.

Where could such teachers be found? It’s not a pretty story. First, cities like New York tried to get defenseless children to do it. In New York in 1818, the school board even flirted with the idea of making their youthful teachers indentured servants, to force them to work for free until they turned twenty-one.

When children proved unable to handle the task of teaching, reformers turned to another disempowered group, women. By the mid-1800s, child teachers were out of favor and women-teachers were in. Hiring women had the huge advantage of lower salaries, salaries that taxpayers would agree to pay.

Sorry to belabor this point, but I think this history of teacher pay matters. Why?

Well, first, I think it’s generally better to know the truth than to believe a convenient myth. But even aside from that lofty goal, we’ve got teacher pay back in the headlines, thanks to the presidential race. If we’re going to talk about teacher pay, we need to stop pretending that teachers have always been given skimpy salaries.

Imagining a past in which teachers worked for free is common, but leads to terrible assumptions. Namely, if teachers always worked for diddly, then we’ve made big progress. But it’s just not historically true. In fact, teachers went from highly paid experts to low-paid drones, exploited by their status as lower-powered members of society. First children, then women.

Knowing the real history clarifies what happened. There was a specific time when teacher pay dipped and respect for teachers dwindled—when the government took over paying for low-income students’ tuition. And knowing that history gives us a clear path to follow. Better teacher pay will happen only when the government stops trying to get something for next to nothing. Better teacher pay will come about through a saner government commitment to fully funding schools for all students.