Apocalyptic Academics: Conservatives and the Myth of Outrageous Schools

There it is again!

Today we find yet another example of conservative commentators lambasting the outrageousness of public education.  This firmly ensconced tradition of school-bashing doesn’t make much sense to me.  I would think conservatives would want to promote public education in America as one field in which conservative ideas and ideals have taken firm control.

Today’s example comes from the pages of Public Discourse, in an essay by Professor William Jeynes.  The opening paragraph highlights the terrible activism of public schools:

An inquisitive elementary school student asked his teacher, “Is it wrong to steal?” The teacher replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” This incident in a major midwestern public school alarmed thousands of parents, and reminded myriad others why they value religious private schools: these schools are usually guided by a moral compass for academics and behavior that public schools patently do not offer.

This notion of vaguely outrageous teaching in America’s vaguely described public schools is a dominant theme of conservative talk about public schooling.

Browsers of conservative media hear about high-school students strip-searched during exams, or teachers rewarded for “stomping” on the American flag.

In all these stories, public schools and their teachers loom as out-of-control dictators, blasting away at traditional morality, patriotism, religion, and common sense.

Nor is this theme a new one among conservative pundits.

In the 1980s, for example, commentator Sam Blumenfeld warned readers that “the neighborhood school is controlled by a national educational and bureaucratic hierarchy completely insulated from local community pressures and answerable only to itself.”[1]

In the 1970s, US Representative John Conlan (R-AZ) worked hard to control what went on in public schools.  Debating House Bill 12851 in May, 1976, Conlan advised,

I think one of the things that perhaps the gentleman from Michigan is not aware of is that there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.[2]

As I argued in my 1920s book, conservatives in that decade also insisted on the terrifyingly amoral or immoral dominance of public schools.  For instance, one well-funded insurgent group, the Bible Crusaders, warned that public schools had been taken over by a conspiratorial sect determined “to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”[3]

In all these tellings, schools and teachers represent insidious threats to traditional values.  As with Professor Jeynes’ recent warning, a single example, often vague or imprecise, is used as proof of the continuing trend of public schools nationwide. For some reason, conservatives have long tended to exaggerate the perniciousness of public schools.

Of course, this is not only a conservative tendency.  Progressives, too, often hyperventilate over isolated examples of conservative influence in schooling.  As we noted recently, for instance, the specter of creationism often looms much larger in the progressive imagination than it does in actual schools.

In the face of such assertions of apocalyptic academics in public schools, more careful scholarship demonstrates that most teaching fits in with local community values.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have noted that most teachers’ values match those of their school and district.[4]

Of course, there always are and always have been some teachers who flout local values.  But such events are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual.  In general, most teachers prefer to avoid controversy.  Most teachers, like most people, try to fit in.  The notion that teachers and schools are out to demolish the values of their students just doesn’t match experience.

Yet conservatives will presumably continue to trumpet examples of outrageous public-school teaching.  To a non-conservative like me, this does not make sense.  I would think conservatives would rather exaggerate the conservative nature of most public education.  These days, talk about public schooling is dominated by demonstrably conservative themes: privatization, competition, and union-bashing, to name a few.

Wouldn’t it make better strategic sense for conservatives to claim all of these as victories?

[1] Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary?  (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1981), 4.

[2] Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532.

[3] “The Bible Crusader’s Challenge,” Christian Fundamentals in School and Church 8 (April-June 1926): 53.

[4] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 199-200.

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  1. I do see what you mean regarding the public school system affirming conservative values. That was my experience in public schools. But demonizing public schools fits into the anti-government narrative, and conservatives tend to view schools as a battle of minds. You either convert kids to the conservative cause or the liberal cause, and they think that the state controls any sympathetic teachers on their side.

    So I think the biggest issue for fundamentalists is multiculturalism. There’s certainly a lot of fear of evolution, but I know plenty of Christian parents who just tell their kids to distrust their heathen teachers and give the correct answers to test questions while they get creationist teachings at home. Plus teaching of evolution is so flaccid in most districts that many students don’t even realize they’re learning about evolution.

    But multiculturalism is harder for fundamentalists to counter. When kids’ friends and classmates are Muslim, Hindu, or Atheist, it becomes a lot harder to paint the unsaved as villains, and many districts make a concerted effort to teach kids about other cultures.

    • Excellent point, CV. The ubiquity of “multiculturalism” or its awkward cousin “diversity” as shibboleths among public educators is impossible to deny. But even those ideas are applied very thinly in real schools. Speaking as someone who tries to increase and improve real multicultural education, in my experience most public schools only talk about it, they don’t actually do much about it. Many conservative pundits read inflammatory multicultural theorists, then assume that such rhetoric represents public-school reality.

  2. I suspect there’s a slightly Darwinian aspect to conservative fear-mongering. I don’t have a well-developed theory, but my hypothesis is that surprisingly counterintuitive things keep people involved in conservatism, and hence these ideas come to dominate. There’s evidence that preaching hellfire is a better way to grow a church than teaching universalism, even though the latter is a friendlier idea. I suspect that, similarly, claiming conservatives are under siege is a better way to rally the troops.

  1. What’s the Matter with Vermont? Nullification and the Politics of Public Schooling | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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