The Perfect Valentine’s Day Gift

Nothing says “I Love You” more than a book about conservatism and education in American twentieth-century history. Looks like the timing will be perfect.

How to say "I Love You" (But You're Going to Hell)

How to say “I Love You” (But You’re Going to Hell)

My new book is slated for release in early February. Hard to know how it will be received, but one pre-reviewer has called it “a major rethinking of the history of American education.” Another has added, “it would be flat-out wrong to ignore this important book.” Pshaw. . .

For the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH, the content might not be surprising. In this book, I try to figure out what it has meant to be “conservative” about education in the United States.  How have issues such as creationism, school prayer, and sex ed developed over the course of the twentieth century?  How are they related?  How have conservative attitudes and strategies changed?  How have they remained the same?

In the early days of my research, I had planned to explore the educational activism of leading conservative groups such as the American Legion and the Institute for Creation Research. I was stuck with two big problems, though.

First, the Legion and other conservative groups remained active throughout the twentieth century. How could I describe different conservatives without rehashing the chronology over and over again? I didn’t want to work from the 1920s to the 1970s in every chapter. What to do?

My second problem was one of definition. How could I choose which “conservative” groups to study? I could copy the method of leading conservative scholars such as Russell Kirk or George Nash and use my selection to make an argument about the definition of conservatism. Both Kirk and Nash picked their subjects to give a particular definition to conservatism. For both writers, being a true conservative has meant being a heroic intellectual battling waves of ignorance and knee-jerk leftism. But I’m no conservative myself, and I wasn’t interested in imposing a flattering (or un-flattering, for that matter) definition on American conservatism. What to do?

Luckily for me, I had some help. At a conference back in 2009, I was describing my research. One of the audience members suggested a new approach. Instead of picking and choosing which activists counted as “conservative,” instead of describing the activism of one group after another, why not do it differently? Why not let conservative activists define themselves? This leading historian suggested that I investigate events, not groups.

That’s what I did. I looked at the four biggest educational controversies of the twentieth century: The Scopes Trial of 1925, the Rugg textbook fight of 1939-1940, the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950, and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974-1975. In each case, conservative activists and organizations fought for their vision of “conservative” schools. By looking at controversies instead of organizations, I could let conservatives define themselves. And I could move chronologically through the twentieth century without rehashing the stories in each chapter.

Did it work? Now I have to let readers and reviewers be the judge. My goal was to explore what it has meant to be “conservative” in the field of education. I did not want to make the relatively simpler argument that conservatism has really meant X or Y. I did not want to give conservatives a heroic history they could draw upon. Nor did I want to give their enemies a catalog of conservative sins. I’m hoping readers think this approach has worked.

So if you’re looking for that perfect romantic gift, consider The Other School Reformers!

Leave a comment


  1. Andrew Siewert

     /  January 5, 2015

    Another tour de force, I’m sure. Congratulations on the new book!

  2. Donna

     /  January 5, 2015

    Congratulations! I look forward to reading it.

  3. Joel A. Brondos

     /  May 13, 2019

    (1) I think that looking at these “defining events” is a good approach, but prior to those, just out of curiosity, I wonder if you have ever reviewed works from the days when “conservatism” was “in” — and authors may have composed essays entitled “Progressive Activism in American Education”? Do these events really explain how we came to the point where the “conservatives” are now on the outside looking in?

    Are those who maintain that Progressivism bears the pure and true pedigree of natural selection while Conservatism somehow crept in contrary to the laws of nature as an anomalous, aberrant strain which some might suggest needs to be eradicated?

    (They might at least consult Jonathan Swift’s concerns registered in “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand Today, be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.”)

    (2) Is it possible that “Conservative Activism” could qualify as an oxymoron?

    (3) Also, to lump all “conservatives” together may be a bit much. Conservative Baptists might just as well go to battle with conservative Roman Catholics . . . and conservative Baptists might fiercely contest progressive Baptists on any number of fronts, with internecine warfare sometimes being even more bitter than strife with those from without.

    (4) And lastly, why must dissensions be couched in the conceits of armed conflict? Why can’t it just be you say tomayto and I say tomahto? Are we awaiting some sort of secular Armeggadon between forces of progressives and conservatives, where eventually the winner takes all?

    I’ve only just become aware of your writings. Thanks for writing them. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them this summer.


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