The Child in Fundamentalist America

A question for the parents and teachers out there: What are your kids like?  I don’t mean, do they like soccer, or are they picky eaters.  I mean: How are your kids not adults?  Besides simple lack of experience and physical maturity, how are they different from adults?

This question is at the root of many disputes over what schools should be doing with kids.  Many of us believe–often without even examining the assumption–that a child is mainly a sponge.  He or she will learn from his environment.  If he is surrounded by anger, violence, and hatred, those notions will fester inside him.  But if he is surrounded by love, happiness, and acceptance, he will develop a healthy strong personality.  In most cases, if protected from negative influences, children will develop healthy morals and values.

But this implicit understanding of the nature and needs of children stands in stark contrast to the vision of many cultural conservatives.  If we want to understand conservative educational activism, we have to dig into the implicit understanding of many conservatives about the nature of childhood.

Let’s look at some examples.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mel and Norma Gabler exercised outsized influence on American education.  The Gablers lived and worked in Longview, Texas, and they made it their mission to clean up Texas’ textbooks.  For decades, the Gablers presented detailed complaints about the progressive bias in publishers’ textbooks.  They critiqued sex ed, anti-religious content, anti-patriotic content, and a host of other perceived problems.  Because Texas adopted textbooks for the whole state, and because the state represented such an enormous market, the Gablers’ influence in Texas meant they had influence nationwide.

Fueling the Gablers’ textbook activism was their vision of the nature of childhood.  Children, as the Gablers explained to the Texas Textbook Selection Committee in 1970, are not simply small adults.  They must not be allowed to make their own decisions about complicated moral questions.  Rather, left on their own, children will revert to the worst kinds of immorality: violent domination of the strong over the weak, unrestrained sexual license, and other throwbacks to pre-civilized humanity.

“It must be remembered,” the Gablers told the committee, “that qualities such as morality must be taught.  They do not come naturally.  Education without morality will result in a depraved society.”  By the mid-1980s, the Gablers warned that children must not be allowed to drift in a choppy and dangerous sea of contrasting moralities.  Instead, young children must be taught directly that some things are right and some are wrong.  “The school’s duty,” they insisted, “is to transmit the moral values held by the majority of Americans.”

Let’s pick apart these ideas about what makes children different from adults.  If children lack the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, then allowing them to develop their own moral beliefs becomes a cruel and dangerous strategy.  If children on their own will tend toward immorality, then proper moral ideas must be imposed on them by adults.

This vision of the nature of childhood stands at the core of much traditionalist educational philosophy.  If children will not develop healthy moral codes on their own, what must schools look like?  For one thing, each classroom should have a strong, authoritarian teacher.  And that teacher must impose a series of correct moral values on students.

With this understanding of the nature of childhood, it makes sense to impose tight restraints on children’s ability to make decisions on their own.  It makes sense to dictate a list of right and wrong ideas to children, and require children to memorize such lists.  With this understanding of the nature of childhood, it is not only uncomfortable but downright dangerous and irresponsible to encourage children to experiment with a variety of ideas.

So what are your children like?  Do they need to be taught directly that some things are right and others are wrong?  Or do they need to be allowed to experiment with a variety of ideas?

Further reading: James C. Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976); Mel and Norma Gabler with James C. Hefley, What Are They Teaching Our Children? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986).

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  1. A topic of personal interest to me for two reasons. First, when my children were born, I had some version of the sponge model in my head. I was surprised by how much of their behavior was hard wired. Not that they were little automatons, but they were ‘set up’ to do certain things and be a certain way. We never taught them to speak; they listened, then they spoke. Nobody tried to teach them a theory of mind, but they certainly have that. One of them has never been able to watch horror movies; the other has no fear of the dark, but will never be able to watch the end of ‘Old Yeller’. They need some direction, mostly through example and participation, but they have never behaved as the sort of unguided Id that the Gablers describe.
    Second, I grew up as a Southern Baptist, so I was subject to the authoritarian approach you describe throughout my primary and secondary education. I eventually rejected that method and the philosophy behind it, but maybe that was because I was set up to do so. The authoritarian and moralist approach seemed to fit some of my childhood friends like a glove and they still maneuver an instinctive path through that world which allows them to lead perfectly happy, fulfilling lives. Other kids had trouble with the basic conflicts inherent in the combination of knowledge from authority and moral realism, as manifest in the title of your blog. Faced with that conflict (e.g. vacation bible school taught me that I have to follow the golden rule, but it also taught me to obey my father who says black people are depraved), those children acted out in ways which mimic the behaviors the Gablers feared.

  2. Andy Hunter

     /  September 20, 2012

    The prefrontal cortex isn’t well developed in children, so they won’t have good judgement on their own; the fundamentalists are right. Environmental factors can not only shape cognitive development but actually cause genetic changes, so the liberals are right. The practice of education and psychology need to be revised to reflect the science of brain development, which will likely follow a more nuanced, middle path.


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