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.

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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.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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