The OTHER Textbook Culture War

You know the script: Progressives face off against conservatives, fighting over history textbooks. Progressives want more focus on freedom struggles, conservatives on America’s exceptionalism. It’s the story we hear a lot, and one I focused on in my book about educational conservatism. My reading these days, though, points out the hidden importance of a very different sort of textbook battle.

As do a lot of academic types, I spend my summers catching up on reading. I often agree to write reviews of new books for a variety of academic journals. This summer, I’m reading historian Charles W. Eagles’ new book Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook.civil rights culture wars

It’s a terrific book. If you want to read my full review, you’ll have to wait til it comes out in the Journal of American History. In these pages, I’d like to talk about something else, something I don’t have room for in my official review, one of the most revealing and eye-opening parts of Eagles’ history.

Professor Eagles tells the story of a new state-history book for Mississippi, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. It was an effort by sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis in the early 1970s to bring a more balanced and more progressive history to Mississippi’s ninth graders.

Eagles tells the story of the controversial book in remarkable detail, and the usual players all show up. Progressives liked the book for finally including African Americans in the history, not only as loyal slaves or bumbling Reconstruction-era politicians, but as Mississippians. Conservatives blasted the book as unbalanced, obsessed with denigrating the history of the great state of Mississippi.

As I followed the predictable back-and-forth, I couldn’t help but hear an additional muted counter-melody running through all the deliberations. There was an additional voice struggling to be heard, a point of view beyond the usual culture-war progressivism and conservatism.mississippi conflict and change

Over and over again, the experienced teachers who reviewed and rejected Loewen’s and Sallis’s textbook made a similar complaint. The book was no good, they argued, not because of any overarching ideological slant, but for a much more pragmatic reason. Any boasts about the academic excellence of the history or about its progressive ideology were simply beside the point.

Using this textbook, the teachers wrote, would make it impossible for Mississippi teachers to do their jobs.

Why?

Because the content of the textbook would unsettle classrooms. It would make it impossible for teachers to do any teaching at all, since teachers would instead be breaking up fights among students.

Consider, for example, the remarkable testimony of textbook-review board member John Turnipseed. The book was “unsuitable for classroom use,” Turnipseed concluded, because “in a racially mixed classroom, the discussion of the material would be improper. . . . [it] would cause harsh feelings in the classroom.”

The judge in the federal case could hardly believe his ears. Judge Orma Smith asked Turnipseed if Turnipseed really thought images and discussions of lynching could be left out of a Mississippi history book.

                Judge Smith: “You don’t see any historical value in that kind of situation?”

Turnipseed: “No sir, I don’t. I feel the contributions made by blacks as well as whites are more important and should not be degraded.”

Smith: “The racial situation that existed wouldn’t have had any historical significance at all? Where are students to learn the fact if they don’t learn them in school?

Turnipseed: “Again, I think in integrated classrooms it would cause resentment.”

Just as historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his landmark book Whose America, school leaders always prefer to add in bland praise, rather than to suggest any criticism. Every social group demands that their history be praised, and school leaders like Turnipseed usually acquiesce. To do anything different would unsettle classrooms in a dangerous way.

It was not only white conservative board members like John Turnipseed who focused on the goal of quiet classrooms. African American board member John Earl Wash also voted against the Loewen and Sallis book. Images of lynching, Wash argued, hurt African American students. “The 9th grade black student,” Wash wrote, “would probably resent hearing about the lynching topic.”

Even though Loewen, Sallis, and their fans envisioned their new textbook as a corrected, pro-civil-rights history, experienced teachers like Wash had different worries. Topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, Wash testified, were things Mississippi African Americans “want to forget.” Worst of all, the progressive textbook put African-American students in physical danger. In Wash’s words,

Blacks just resent anything that I would say would carry them back to times of slavery, anything. Then anything to do with the Klan or terrorizing blacks or something of this nature, right, it would definitely bring conflict.

In racially mixed classrooms, talk of lynching and Klan violence threatened to do more than simply educate young students. As experienced teachers knew, talk of violence could quickly become real violence, putting minority students in the crosshairs.

In 1970s Mississippi, at least, there were other reasons for opposing progressive textbooks than mere knee-jerk traditionalism. Teachers knew that the topic was explosive among students. If they hoped to control their classrooms, they didn’t dare expose students to controversial ideas, even if they agreed that those ideas were true and important.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading: Charlottesville Edition

We’re still reeling from the events in Charlottesville. Here are some related stories that caught our eye:

“Should We Be Freaking Out?”

All of a sudden, those videos from Charlottesville were everywhere: military-looking right-wing goons lunging at counterprotesters; hairspray flamethrowers squaring off against Confederate-flag spears. When we heard that a terrorist had plowed his car into a group of protesters, it seemed half shocking and half depressingly predictable. When I starting hearing the news this past weekend, I was relaxing in a late-summer reunion with some old friends, sitting around a fire, when one of them asked the question: “Should we be freaking out?”

Here’s the ILYBYGTH answer: Yes. But not because Americans will fight each other.

If you’ve been paying attention, it shouldn’t shock you that right-wing terrorists are willing to kill in the name of conservatism. It should astound all of us, though, that a leader of a mainstream political party is so blasé about it.

As I argued in my book about twentieth-century American conservatism, culture-war battles regularly and repeatedly heated up into physical conflict. In the 1930s, school board members in my new hometown promised to ignite bonfires of progressive textbooks and throttle any progressive protesters. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a 1970s textbook battle degenerated into a slurry of Klan marches, dynamite bombs, and shootings.

It’s sadly predictable; shocking only to people who are too comfortable in their self-delusion. What really is outrageous, though, is the notion that President Trump has ignored and pooh-poohed the display of white terrorism. In his diffidence, Trump has given succor and encouragement to the radical reactionaries of the white nationalist movement. And THAT should freak us all out.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying this merely because I find Trump’s policies and presidency terrifyingly out of control, even though I do. I’m saying this rather as an historian of American conservatism. As I also argued in my recent book, since the 1970s the mainstream American right has gone to great lengths to distance itself from its white-supremacist past. Just as Democratic leaders such as President Obama and Secretary Clinton made a public display of their religiosity, hoping to prove to conservative critics that they weren’t left-wing Godhaters, so too have mainstream Republicans used the strongest language possible to distance themselves from the racist right-wing of their own party.

Trump’s pandering goes against all that. So here’s what should freak us out: Trump is making a bald play against mainstream conservatism and in favor of right-wing reaction.

Why?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

There’s no more pretending, at least not way up here in upstate New York. The leaves are turning, the back-to-school sales are already over, and city folks are bringing their kids up here to start their semesters…the evidence is in: Fall is just around the corner. Here are some stories you might have missed as you scramble to store up acorns for winter:

Our ILYBYGTH story-of-the-week: Google fires an engineer for questioning diversity policy.

Other stories that floated by our raft this week:

Want to try Christian theocracy? Ari Feldman wonders if you can do it with a quick trip to Texas.

Trump’s “court evangelicals” ask the Vatican for a meet. Why can’t they all get along?

How did climate-change denialism become an evangelical belief? Check out Brendan O’Connor’s piece in Splinter. HT: DL

How did one evangelical purist hope to save the Religious Right from its deal with the GOP devil? Daniel Silliman explains the history at Religion & Politics.

Captain America, meet POTUS Shield: Prophetic Order of the United States. Pentecostal leaders declare Trump “anointed by God,” an interview at Religion Dispatches with Peter Montgomery.

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Charismatics take action…

Parents win a big settlement from a Minnesota charter school. They had sued because the school did not do enough to protect their transgender six-year-old. The school promised to force all families to go along with its new inclusive policies, even if the parents have religious objections.

Forget evolution, religion, or any of that noise. The real problem wrecking public education is the forty-year old boondoggle of special education. At least, that’s Stephen Beale’s argument at American Conservative.

Worried about Florida’s new textbook opt-out law? Relax, says historian Jonathan Zimmerman—it’s a good thing.

We Have Failed You

Nostra culpa. I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand how it happened, but every once in a while we see new evidence of a depressing truth: We have failed you and failed America in two huge ways.

MASTERY-superJumbo

Mastery-based learning today…

Today’s reminder comes from the pages of the New York Times and the Hechinger Report. It sounds cheerful enough: some schools in New York and elsewhere are switching to a shiny new “mastery” system that abolishes grades and focuses on individual student learning goals.

The problem is that even well-informed journalists and educators talk about this as if it were something new, something novel, an exciting innovation made possible by twenty-first century technology. It’s not. Not even a little bit. The push for this sort of child-centered, goal-focused approach to education is as old as modernity itself.

And that’s how we’ve failed you.

Both educational historians and progressive educators have failed to convey the huge potential contributions of their work. Ed historians are all aware of the long history of goal-focused education. Progressive educators have fought for such things for centuries. Centuries!

And yet smart, informed people keep talking about these sorts of reform as “new,” as innovations, as solutions that ambitious reformers have finally figured out. It’s a big problem, since it robs reformers of any sense of the lessons of history. It sets up each new generation of progressive reformers to repeat the mistakes and the unnecessary conflicts of their parents, their grand-parents, and their great-great-great-great-etc.-grand-parents.

Why, oh why have we failed so miserably? I’m really stumped.

Every new teacher, for instance, has to take some sort of “foundations” class in which they are exposed to the historical outline of formal education. They all hear about the experiments and theories of Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey, and Col. Parker. With some tweaks over time, those ideas are basically the same as the ones today’s reformers are embracing as a “new” solution.

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…and how it looked when it was “new” in 1929.

Why do educated educators, then, fall into the trap of overpromising and under-researching these tried-and-failed education reforms?

To be fair, the article notes the genealogy of this idea, but the author traces it back only to the work of Benjamin Bloom at Chicago in the 1960s. Neither the author nor anyone else apparently is aware of the much longer history of these reform plans. The article suggests that new computer technology will solve the problems of earlier efforts, but that’s exactly the sort of promise every new reform generation has made.

In my book The Other School Reformers, to cite just one example, I examine a similar case from Pasadena. In 1950, the new superintendent tried something almost identical. He promised that new communication technology allowed him to abolish deadly old report cards and Procrustean letter grades.

It didn’t work, and today’s reformers would surely benefit from understanding this historical context. It seems more than naïve for today’s reformers to stumble along unaware of the predictable reactions to their plans. Back then, for example, one critic excoriated the new superintendent in an open letter to the local newspaper. The idea of abolishing grades, this outraged parent noted, means

there is no incentive for the average student or the exceptionally bright student to do any better than the slower ones.  During the first six years there are no grades given out so there is no competitive spirit.  The report cards are marked only Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory, and the parent is unable to find out what the child is really capable of doing.  They acquire indolent habits, and when they arrive at Junior High School they are supposed to get down to work, but they don’t because they have been allowed to coast along for six years, doing as much or as little as they wished to.  They have not been made to feel that it is important to do the best they are capable of doing.  There were some who formerly flunked out of class and had to take the classes over, but at least they eventually learned what was given in that grade before they went on, and today they are passed, many of them without having learned it, to flounder in the next grade, when they are not ready.

Pasadena parents tended to agree with this curmudgeon. In the end, the superintendent was hounded out of town with his progressive plans thrown out after him.

There is no good reason—no good reason I can see—that school reformers like the ones described in the New York Times article shouldn’t be aware of their own checkered history. In every generation, from Rousseau’s day to our own, earnest progressive teachers have assumed that their powerful new child-centered approach would surely carry the day, sweeping outdated crusty methods before it.

It never has.

As progressive educators, we have failed to convince America as a whole how much better it will be to focus on individual learning instead of letter grades.

As educational historians, we have failed to share the story of America’s never-ending cycle of educational reform and reaction.

As a result, even the smartest and most well-meaning reformers go into every old experience as if it were new. School boards and parents are promised the world every time, only to react with predictable and preventable resentment when those laudable goals prove out of reach.

I don’t blame reformers and journalists for not doing their research. They shouldn’t have to. By this point, the long and gripping story of child-centered educational reform should be common knowledge.

So why isn’t it?

Do YOU Hate Science?

We all know the stereotypes: Conservatives love God and hate science, vice versa for progressives. But it’s utterly untrue, and every once in a while we see new evidence to prove it. These days, the frouforale over James Damore’s gender/diversity manifesto at Google has us asking the question again: Who hates science?

We’ll get to Damore’s story in a minute, but first, a necessary reminder. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing this, but I’m not interested in attacking or defending Damore. If I have to pick a side, I’ll generally stick with my progressive roots. Luckily, I don’t have to pick a side, so today I’ll bring up more interesting questions. I’m working these days on a new book about American creationism. One of the vital points to understanding creationism, especially the radical young-earth variant, is that creationists are not anti-science. Creationists LOVE science.

As anthropologist Chris Toumey puts it in his terrific and under-appreciated book God’s Own Scientists, radical creationists are just like the rest of America. They don’t dispute the authority of capital-s Science. In Toumey’s words, radical creationists have deep faith in the

plenary authority of science; that is, the idea that something is more valuable and more credible when it is believed that science endorses it.

For radical creationists, the problem isn’t science. The problem, rather, is that benighted false scientists have hijacked science and replaced it with ideologically driven materialism.

Of course, to the rest of us, creationists’ preference for their own bizarre “zombie science” makes their claims to love science hardly credible. To the rest of us, radical creationists seem to insist on their own outlandish scientific beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence from real science.

Are Damore’s opponents guilty of the same thing?

If you haven’t followed the story, Damore was a Google engineer who was fired for a leaked ten-page memo. In the memo, Damore opined that Google’s diversity policy was deeply flawed. The goal of hiring equal numbers of male and female engineers, Damore wrote, didn’t match reality. In fact, Damore wrote, there are biological differences between men and women that make men—as a statistical group—more interested in engineering.

Like Larry Summers before him, Damore was fired and vilified for his words. And like ex-president Summers, Damore insisted he was only citing scientific data.

At least one scientist agrees with Damore. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Debra Soh argues that

the memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.

I’m no scientist, of gender or anything else. But conservative pundits have latched onto Soh’s comments to howl that progressives are just as blind to real science as are radical religious folks. As Benedictine pundit Rod Dreher frothed wordily,

Gender non-essentialists are the young earth creationists of the Left.

Maybe, maybe not. But in one thing, at least, Dreher is exactly right. Just like young-earth creationists, the anti-Damorists insist they have real science on their side. When it comes to culture-war issues—whether it’s the nature of gender or the origin of our species—everyone insists they are the side of true science.

What Gets Conservative Kids Excited?

So…what do conservative college students get excited about? Monarchism, apparently. That’s the word from conservative stalwart Patrick Henry College, at least. And, as I found in the research for my upcoming book about conservative evangelical higher education, today’s monarchist enthusiasts are joining a long tradition at conservative schools. I can’t help but wonder if today’s college presidents will respond the way presidents always have responded.

It might just be hopeful dreaming, but at National Review Jeff Cimmino argues that young students at conservative colleges are jumping on to the traditionalist bandwagon. Mostly, at schools such as Hillsdale, Patrick Henry, as well as at mainstream schools such as Notre Dame, smart young conservatives are discovering the work of Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, and other traditionalists.

There are also kookier ideas floating around student lounges. Christian McGuire, the student editor of a conservative review at Patrick Henry College, reported loads of enthusiasm for conservative Catholic thinking and Russell Kirk. But that’s not all. According to Cimmino,

When asked whether monarchist sentiments could be found on campus, McGuire responded firmly: “Yes, absolutely.” Though still very much a minority view at Patrick Henry College, some traditionalist-minded students are open to the idea of a king.

A king! Zoiks. It sounds kooky, but as I discovered in my recent research in the archives of other conservative evangelical schools, such student intellectual enthusiasms are nothing new.

Cimmino doesn’t mention it, but monarchism and Burkeanism have not been the most potent intellectual traditions that have excited young evangelical intellectuals. Time and again, students at evangelical schools have discovered—as if it were new—the bracing intellectual rigor of Calvinism.

I include in my book, for example, the story of Calvinist dissent at Wheaton College in the 1930s and 1940s. Back then, high-flying scholar Gordon Clark accepted a job at Wheaton. Clark had an Ivy-League PhD and the kind of elite academic credentials evangelical colleges like Wheaton yearned for.

But Clark’s Calvinism rubbed along awkwardly in the interdenominational world of 1930s American fundamentalism. As soon as he arrived, Clark started a “Creed Club” on campus. His brainy Calvinism excited and attracted plenty of Wheaton students. But Clark’s unyielding intellect made him unpopular with the administration.

Callow Calvinist students began protesting, for example, that Wheaton placed far too much emphasis on missionary work. And they began adopting Clark’s dismissive attitude toward campus revivalism. Like their hero Professor Clark, students began deriding such things as mere “mass psychology.”

What did Wheaton do? In 1943, they showed Clark the door. They loved his resume, but they couldn’t accept the notion that their students were pooh-poohing ideas so near and dear to the heart of American fundamentalism. If such student enthusiasms got too much attention, Wheaton worried it would lose support from the fundamentalist community.

Could that pattern repeat itself?

At Patrick Henry, especially, administrators might get nervous if students veer to the right of their school’s goal of reclaiming America for Christ.

What would Patrick Henry leaders do, for example, if over-enthusiastic student monarchists began pooh-poohing American Constitutionalism? If they bruited about the idea that republicanism itself—Americanism itself—was nothing but a mistake to be corrected?

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of university presidents, but I can’t help but think that Patrick Henry’s leaders would have to put a stop to such things, worried about what it might do to their school’s reputation as an outpost of more-American-than-thou religious conservatism.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Bible studies in the Trump White House, cultural surrender at evangelical colleges, firing professors for threatening the President…it has been quite a week. Here are some of the stories you might have missed:

Watch out, conservatives. Carl Trueman predicts that their “cultural Waterloo” will take place on the campuses of conservative evangelical colleges.

Why don’t college presidents say they’re sorry? Rick Seltzer looks at the politics of higher-ed apologies at Inside Higher Ed.

You’re fired. Professor who said Trump should be shot loses his job at Montclair State.

New York Times: The Vatican condemns Trumpism and the right-wing Catholics who support it.Bart reading bible

More from NYT: The Trump Justice Department plans to attack affirmative-action programs in higher ed, policies “deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”

Is it really the “most evangelical cabinet in history”? Pastor claims plenty of Trump’s cabinet members attend weekly White House Bible study. And that VP Pence dresses nice.

(Why) Are there so few conservative university professors? According to Damon Linker at The Week, it’s not what you think.

The Big Ten: Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit offers a culture-war history of Ten Commandments monuments.

Arizona update: Still battling over Latinx-studies classes in public schools.

…still Think “Evangelical” Is Not a Political Label?

Albert Mohler can say what he wants. To this reporter, there is a much more obvious conclusion. For those of us who struggle to understand evangelical identity, another recent poll seems like more evidence that we can’t rely on religious ideas alone.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stop mulling it over. In my upcoming book about evangelical higher education, for example, I argue that a merely theological definition of American evangelicalism will not suffice. The reason it is so important to study evangelical colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes—at least one of the reasons—is because these institutions make it startlingly obvious that religion and theology are only one element defining evangelical identity, sometimes a remarkably small one.

Smart people disagree. Recently, for example, Neil J. Young took Frances FitzGerald to task for over-emphasizing the political element of evangelical identity. And a few months back, John Fea called me on the carpet for over-emphasizing the culturally and politically conservative element of evangelical higher education.

And smart people will surely disagree about the implications of recent poll results from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. To me, they seem like more proof that American evangelicals are more “American” than “evangelical,” at least when it comes to their knee-jerk responses to poll questions.

The poll asked people whether poverty was more the result of personal failings or of circumstances beyond people’s control. As WaPo sums it up,

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Now, I’m not much of a Christian, and I’m not at all evangelical, but I can’t help but think that blaming the poor’s lack of effort for their poverty is not a very Christian attitude. And plenty of Christians agree with me. According to Julie Zauzmer in WaPo, African-American Christians tend to blame circumstances by large margins. The divide stretches beyond race. Democrats tend to blame circumstances. Republicans tend to blame individual failings.

Zauzmer reached out to experts to try to explain why white evangelical Christians might feel this way. She gave Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar a chance to explain it away. And Mohler did his level best. The reason white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty, Mohler told her, was because

The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.

I just don’t buy it. If we really want to understand why white evangelical Americans tend to blame the poor for their poverty, we are better off looking at Reagan than at Revelation, at Goldwater than at Genesis. Blaming the poor has deep political and cultural roots. American conservatives—at least since the early twentieth century—have insisted that poverty in the Land of Opportunity must be due to individual failings rather than to structural problems in society. When American evangelicals mouth such notions, they are allowing those political and cultural beliefs to speak louder than their strictly religious or theological beliefs.

If we want to understand American evangelicalism—especially among white evangelicals—we need to understand that the “conservative” half of “conservative evangelicalism” is just as vital as the “evangelical” half. We need to understand that white evangelicals are complicated people, motivated by a slew of notions, beliefs, and knee-jerk impulses.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Trump? Why do so many white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty? If we really want to make sense of it, we can’t focus on the merely religious beliefs of evangelicals. We have to look at the big picture.

What Kind of School Abuses Its Students?

Depressing news: No matter how hard you try to insulate and protect your kids, you can’t rely on schools to help. From the fanciest prep schools to the firmest fundamentalist redoubts, no school is safe.

You may have seen the news. Recent self-investigations at elite prep schools have turned up sordid but depressingly unsurprising news. Institutions such as Andover and Choate looked the other way at sexual abuse of students by faculty members, even writing strong letters of recommendation so that abusers could move on to fertile new fields.

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Preying on the elite…

The New York Times reported recently, for example, that Frederic Lyman serially abused students at a string of fancy prep schools. When he was found out, he was asked to leave and given a glowing letter of recommendation.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sadly aware, evangelical schools have similar ugly histories. Institutions such as Bob Jones University have engaged in their own processes of self-examination and come up with some alarming results. Time after time, victims were blamed, abusers were enabled.

It forces us to ask the tough question: Why can’t schools protect students? After all, institutions such as Bob Jones University and Choate rely on their reputations as peculiarly protective places. BJU promises to keep students safe from any hint of liberalism. Choate promises to insulate students from any hint of the hoi polloi. Yet neither of them protect their students in this most basic way.

I’ve argued earlier in these pages that this is more than just a weird irony. Rather, it is precisely because of their peculiar status that these sorts of unusual schools cover up sexual abuse. After all, the pattern holds for other types of schools as well. It was not in spite of, but because of, their unique status as football powerhouses such as Penn State and Florida State covered up shocking sex-abuse revelations.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that niche schools have the most to lose—in terms of their all-important reputations—that they have such terrible records when it comes to sexual abuse.