Are the Culture Wars History?

I don’t get out much. So when I was invited to participate in a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with some nerd all-stars.

Meet me in Saint Looey...

Meet me in Saint Looey…

Our panel will include four authors of books familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. First, Jon Zimmerman will tell us something about global sex ed from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.zimmerman too hot to handle

Then, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela will keep the sex-ed ball rolling while adding in some bilingual ed as she talks about her book, Classroom Wars.petrzela classroom wars

Next, Andrew Hartman will share some insights about education and culture wars from his blockbuster War for the Soul of America.Hartman

Last, I’ll talk a little bit about what it has meant to be “conservative” when it comes to education, from my new book.

What will we talk about? Hard to say until we get there, but the theme that ties these books together is that of educational culture wars. What have Americans (and people worldwide) seen fit to teach their kids about touchy subjects such as sex and God? Who has been allowed to make decisions about school?

One disagreement we might have could be about the winners and losers. If there are such things as educational culture wars, we all have different conclusions about who has won. Jon Zimmerman argues that kids overall—especially in the United States—get very little sex ed, due to consistent activism against it. I think, too, that conservatives have been able to exert veto power over many big educational programs. Both Andrew and Natalia, though, say that by and large progressive ideas have come out the winner in these battles.

What do you think:

  • Are there such things as educational culture wars?
  • If so, are they all in the past?
  • And, maybe most interesting to most people…who won?

Required Reading: Classroom Wars

What should schools teach?  How should they teach it?  Who gets to decide?  These are the questions that keep SAGLRROILYBYGTH up at night, and now we have a great new book to shed light on the infinitely complicated ways they play out in real life.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture examines battles in California over bilingual ed and sex ed during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Petrzela explains,

This book focuses on bilingual (Spanish-language) and sex education in California in order to understand how grass-roots citizens came to define the schoolhouse and the family as politicized sites during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Full disclosure: Petrzela and I are friends and colleagues.  We’ve worked together for several years now, and we’ll be doing some presentations together in upcoming months at academic conferences about history, education, and culture wars.  Even if we weren’t friends, though, I would love this book.   petrzela classroom wars

For one thing, Petrzela’s careful examination of California’s educational politics shows us the ways culture-war politics are not somehow “natural,” but rather develop over time due to specific historical circumstances and activism.

For example, as she describes, in the early 1960s bilingual ed had lots of support among conservatives.  Arch-conservative Max Rafferty pushed for it, and even as late as 1968, many California legislators touted bilingual ed as the “American thing to do.”  Soon, however, bilingual education was tied together with leftist radicalism.  Students in 1968 staged huge “blow-out” protests in LA, carrying “Viva la Revolucion!” signs and demanding that all Anglo teachers be fired.  As Petrzela puts it,

In the two years following the BEA’s [Bilingual Education Act] passage and the blowouts [student walkouts], bilingual-bicultural education evolved from a relatively uncontroversial issue that garnered significant bipartisan support to a lightning rod dividing and defining conservatives and liberals.

Among activists, too, we need to be careful before we assume too much.  In the education bureaucracy of California, for instance, Petrzela introduces us to the complicated positions of folks such as Eugene Gonzalez, associate superintendent and chief of the division of instruction.  Gonzalez was close with conservative leader Max Rafferty, and like Rafferty he spoke out against the methods used by radical student protesters.  But he also continued to push for better and fairer education for latino/as in California schools.  Other Mexican-American activists, such as Alfred Ramirez, refused to go along with the protesting students at all.  He pushed Gonzalez to crack down on the Latino protesters and to get rid of bilingual programs entirely.

Nor were California’s educational culture wars a simple, stereotypical battle between progressive teachers and students on one side against conservative activists on the other.  That may often be the case, but as Petrzela recounts, in 1970 conservative teachers in LA founded their own union, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles.  And, though one conservative teacher lamented her position as a “minority among educators,” Petrzela also reveals that students, too, were split.  In at least one case, a group of conservative students gathered to denounce the “leftist-liberal bias” of their teachers.

We also see in these pages a clearer-than-usual vision of what conservative activists wanted.  At root, Petrzela shows us, conservatives felt as if they had too often been frozen out of discussions of sex ed and bilingual ed.  They felt they had not been included, not been consulted.  Many times, conservative activists and parents worried that a blundering school administration was trying to insert itself between parents and children.

When this wasn’t the case, many conservatives did not protest against sex education.  In conservative San Diego County, for example, sex ed was not at all controversial.  Part of the reason was because the teachers had a strong reputation in the whole community as family women with “high moral standards.”  By the end of the 1970s, Petrzela tells us, policy-makers had figured it out.  By then, most sex ed curricula were no longer so ferociously controversial, largely because parents and conservative organizations had been consulted beforehand.

Petrzela also tackles one of the toughest questions of these educational culture wars: Who won?  She argues that over all, over time, progressives tended to score victories.  In about half the cases of controversy over sex ed, Petrzela found, California districts actually expanded their sex ed programs after the blow-ups.

In every case, Petrzela makes her case well that schools matter.  As she puts it,

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant Chicanos in East Los Angeles, suburban housewives in Anaheim, and political aspirants as varied as Max Rafferty and Julian Nava all pinned their hopes on the public schools as the primary institution for cultivating an ethical, informed, moral next generation.

For all of us who want to look beyond the headlines of America’s continuing educational culture wars, this book is a good place to start.

Socialists, Laggards, Perverts, and Baby-Killers

Why does everybody these days thank soldiers for their “service?” Even when the soldiers themselves don’t like it? At least in part, it must be a hangover from Vietnam-War-era culture-war battles, when soldiers were reviled as “baby-killers.” Here’s my question for SAGLRROILYBYGTH: When will teachers get thanked for their service? After all, for decades, teachers have been called names at least as bad as “baby-killers.”

As I described in my recent book, conservative activists have always accused teachers of terrible crimes and treasons. Teachers fill kids’ heads with lies about evolution, atheism, and communism. Teachers subject innocent young kids to mistruths and calumnies about American history and sex. Such accusations were a standard part of culture-war scripts from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Warning!  Commie Teachers!

Warning! Commie Teachers!

In the 1980s, for instance, Mel and Norma Gabler warned that the ranks of the teaching profession were full of “practicing homosexuals” who hoped to attract young children to their ranks. Such teachers pushed for more sex ed because they suffered from a perverted desire to lure children down the path to sexual sin and depravity.

There’s nothing new about this sort of no-holds-barred accusation against America’s teaching force. Back in 1923, anti-evolution activist T.T. Martin warned audiences about the sinister nature of public-school faculties:

under the cowardly sissy plea of ‘Academic freedom,’ [teachers] demand that we, with our taxes, pay their salaries, while they poison our children against the Bible as God’s real Word, and the Saviour as God’s Son who died for our sins to redeem us from all iniquity and send our children out into Eternity without real redemption; hence, to hell.

This week, I’m reading Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s terrific new book Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Petrzela looks at the ways the fights over sex ed and bilingual ed played out in California between 1960 and 1990. Not surprisingly, she found that teachers were subjected to vicious, unrestrained attacks.

One parent, for instance, excoriated his local school’s teachers, saying they “fill schools with dope and filth and sex” and “teach [students] to make babies so they can kill them” (pg. 123).

Ouch.

As Petrzela relates, however, such extreme accusations were par for the course in culture-war battles over education in California.

So, dear readers, here’s my question for you: When will progressive types begin to thank teachers ostentatiously for their service? After all, it was backlash against the “baby-killer” accusations that led people to start thanking soldiers. Won’t there soon be a similar surge of support for beleaguered teachers? Or is there already and I’m just the last to notice?

We can see some glimmers of it. Progressive bloggers and scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Mercedes Schneider, and Peter Greene make a fetish of valorizing public-school teachers. Will it soon become an article of faith among progressives that teachers are America’s real heroes? Or has it already?

Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.

Why Don’t Conservatives Like to Win?

You’ve heard the news by now: The College Board revised its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course.  Recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger crowed that this reversal proved that conservatives could influence national education policy.  Unfortunately, Henninger makes the same mistake as every other pundit out there.  He seems to think that conservatives at some point in the past lost their influence over national education policy.  It just ain’t so.

Franklin's In, "neo-Marxism's" out.

Franklin’s in, “neo-Marxism’s” out.

For those of you who were napping, a quick reminder: Under pressure—significant pressure—from conservative thinkers and lawmakers, the College Board agreed to revise these standards for its AP US History course.  Conservative thinkers had complained that the old framework put too much emphasis on

such abstractions as ‘identity,’ ‘peopling,’ ‘work, exchange, and technology,’ and ‘human geography’ while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideas and political institutions. . .

Henninger argues that, with the conservative revision, the new framework is “about as balanced as one could hope for.”  More interesting for our purposes, he argues that this conservative victory is “an important political event.”  He thinks it “marks an important turn in the American culture wars. . . .”  To Henninger, this conservative victory is a new thing, a change in the ways American culture and politics work.  Until now, Henninger intones, conservative ideas about proper education were

being rolled completely off the table by institutions—‘Washington,’ the courts, a College Board—over which [conservatives] had no apparent control.

Until now, Henninger tells us, conservatives had not been able to influence national education policy.  Only “neo-Marxist” experts decided on what vulnerable young minds would learn.

Balderdash.

Perhaps Henninger’s problem is his limited range.  To be fair, he only says that this has been the case since 1992.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, America’s educational culture wars have a vital history that stretches back across the twentieth century.  Henninger ignores it at his peril.

As I argue and detail in my recent book, since the 1920s conservative activists have been able, time and time again, to derail, defang, and water down progressive curricula and textbooks.

But here’s the real kicker: We can’t really single out Henninger for short-sightedness.  For almost a century now, both progressive and conservative intellectuals and activists have assumed that conservatives had been kicked out of the conversation.

You read that right.  Ever since the 1920s, conservative and progressive reformers alike have committed the same sort of Henningerism.  They have assumed in the face of historical fact that “The Schools” had been taken over by progressive ideas and curricula.

To cite just one example of this trend, consider the case of progressive textbook impresario Harold Rugg.  Rugg was a progressive’s progressive, committed to pushing the nation in leftist directions by seizing control of its public schools.

In the 1930s, it looked as if he had succeeded.  Millions of schoolchildren read his tendentious textbooks.  At the end of the decade, however, conservative activists in the American Legion and elsewhere organized to block such progressive “subversion.”

They succeeded.  Just like today’s College Board, school administrators and textbook publishers in the 1930s fled in horror from the potential controversy over Rugg’s books.  Sales plummeted.  Schools hid them away.  School boards thought about burning them.

Seems like any right-thinking observer would conclude that conservative activists could exert significant control over the national curriculum, right?

In fact, Rugg himself concluded that the progressives had won, that a shiny progressive victory was just around the next corner.  As he wrote in his 1941 memoir, progressive schooling

has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools.

You might think that conservative activists would dispute Rugg’s rosy left-wing prediction.  But they didn’t.  Instead, conservatives at the time performed their own odd Henningerisms.  One of the leaders of the anti-Rugg fight, Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America, warned a friend that left-wing educational thinking had taken over schools years before, all part of a “deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.”

We could multiply these examples of Henningerism endlessly.  Time and time again, long before 1992, conservatives have concluded incorrectly that they had been kicked out of the schools.  And progressives gleefully agreed.

It brings us to our interesting question: Why do conservatives and progressives agree—in the face of vast reams of historical evidence to the contrary—that conservatives are have been locked out of national education policy-making?

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Did Fundamentalism Make Her Do It?

Okay, enough already about Rachel Dolezal and her weird tale of cross-racial activism. But before we let it go, let’s consider one new angle: Did Dolezal’s strange behavior result in part from her upbringing in an abusive fundamentalist homeschooling family?

A fundamental flaw?

A fundamental flaw?

That’s the charge leveled by the folks at Homeschoolers Anonymous. Worried that their coverage seemed to be excusing Rachel Dolezal’s behavior, they have since retracted their argument. (You can still read their original article here.) But it seems to me they raised an important question.

For those of us outside the world of fundamentalist homeschooling, Rachel Dolezal’s life history seems simply bizarre. Why did she list “Jesus Christ” as a witness to her birth? Why did she claim to have been beaten with a “baboon whip” as a child? Most important, why would someone go to such extreme and unnecessary lengths to alter her appearance and life history?

I do not want to excuse anyone’s actions, but I think Homeschoolers Anonymous has a right to point out Dolezal’s extreme evangelical upbringing. It doesn’t prove anything, but it adds background information.

The family was active in young-earth creationism. They apparently subscribed to the abusive philosophy advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl. Last year, Rachel Dolezal’s brother published a shocking memoir of their childhood. As HA summarized,

In his memoir, Joshua recounts growing up in the Dolezal’s conservative, Pentecostal home and church. He recounts a raging father, a mother with extreme suspicions of medicine and doctors, home-birthing with birth certificates listing Jesus as witness to the births, and much more.

Now, we need to add some of the usual caveats:

1.) Behavior that seems odd to secular folks like me does not equal child abuse.

2.) Many conservatives use corporal punishment in a loving, caring way.

3.) It does not excuse Rachel Dolezal’s apparent lies to point out her parents’ extreme beliefs.

4.) Homeschoolers Anonymous certainly has an axe to grind with this expose.

Even taking all those factors into consideration, however, knowing a little bit about Rachel Dolezal’s childhood helps me understand how someone might be driven to immoral extremes in order to separate herself from her past.

Nuf sed.

Phonics for Phundamentalists

How can conservative religious people save their children from a monstrously hypertrophied public school system? In the pages of the Christian Post, Paul de Vries offers a few suggestions to restore the educational prerogatives of conservative families and churches. Could they work?

De Vries, an evangelical philosopher and school leader, suggests a religious solution to angst over high-stakes Common-Core tests. In short, de Vries wants to “restore” the “prize-winning, God-ordained architecture of education that made our country great.” Instead of passing off education to the public-school system, de Vries writes, conservatives need to increase the educational role of the family and the church. Not only can this plan help students learn to read and cipher, but it will inject a dose of Christian morality and soul-winning into a woefully secularized system, de Vries believes.

He offers a menu of specific things conservative religious people can do to assert more control over education. For instance, churches can offer Saturday school in phonics instruction to all the kids in their neighborhoods. It would be a win-win. Young people would get better reading skills, which would help them in their education and standardized school tests. Churches would get more people to heaven, by using the Bible as the only textbook, instilling a deeper appreciation for the Christian Gospel in all the kids of the neighborhood.

Could it work? De Vries says that it does already. Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan, one of the foundational churches of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, already runs a program like this.

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Elsewhere, though, religious add-on programs have run into trouble. In Portland, Oregon, for example, parent activists mobilized to spread the word about Christian attempts to spread the Word to children. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) may remember, in that case the Child Evangelism Fellowship promised to educate kids about God and phonics in fun-filled after-school programs. The CEF had the Supreme Court on its side, but non-evangelical parents promised to block access to unwary children.

Professor de Vries hopes that parents will want educational success badly enough that they’ll send their children to Saturday morning church-school. The phonics program, he hopes, will be an attractive lure for children who might otherwise never enter a church.

Required Reading: Rich Parents Are Better

You remember the old joke:

Q: What’s the best way to have a million dollars by the time you’re thirty?

A: Inherit ten million dollars when you’re twenty.

A new book by sociologist Robert Putnam underlines the traditional wisdom: The best way to succeed in life is to pick the right parents. According to reviews in The Economist and New York Times, Putnam amasses solid evidence to demonstrate that the class gap between rich and poor parents is huge and increasing.

Graphic inequality

Graphic inequality

The relationship between parenting and poverty has been a culture-war flashpoint for fifty years. As historian Andrew Hartman relates in his new book, back in the 1960s sociologist and sometime-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised hackles with his study of the causes of African-American poverty.

The problem with too many “Negro Families,” Moynihan argued, was that a destructive anti-family culture had set in. Kids were no longer being raised in stable two-parent households. Fathers were absent or abusive. Mothers were overworked and under stress. The result, Moynihan concluded, was that poor families—especially African American poor families—could not raise successful children.

Critics charged that Moynihan attacked poor people, not poverty. He was accused of a new crime: “blaming the victim.”

The numbers in Putnam’s new book offer some sobering suggestions that Moynihan’s warnings were correct, but not just for African American families. The real divide, Putnam says, is not between black and white parents, but between well-to-do college-educated parents and not-well-to-do parents with less education.

Some of these statistics are truly mind-blowing. Consider, for example, that a poor eighth-grade student who does very well in school still has a worse chance of completing college than a rich eighth-grade student who does very badly in school. The numbers of children living with two well-educated parents has stayed relatively stable. The number of children in single-parent households has shot up among parents with no more than a high-school education.

Traditionalists and conservatives, no doubt, will point to Putnam’s work as more evidence in favor of traditional families. The best way to fight poverty, they might say, will be to encourage stable two-parent households.

Progressives and liberals, meanwhile, will point to these numbers as proof of America’s un-level playing field. Children of parents with fewer educational advantages need extra assistance from government in order to stand any sort of chance.

The long-standing dream of American education has been that education can lead to success. Since the days of Horace Mann, education has been offered as the key to the American dream. Putnam’s study offers more evidence that education is part of the structure of inequality, not the sledgehammer to demolish that structure.

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.