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?

The Real Reason Trump Hates the Education Department

It wasn’t hard to predict. As I argued a few months back in the pages of Time Magazine, this round of GOP primaries would be full of threats to the Education Department. In a recent interview, front-runner Donald Trump made the usual accusations. But I wonder if there is another, more obvious reason why conservatives like to take potshots at the Ed Dept.

Don't trust anyone under 37...

Don’t trust anyone under 37…

In his recent interview with Chris Wallace, Trump made the usual conservative noises: The Ed Department is trying to replace local control of schools with control by “Washington bureaucrats.” Trump blasted competitor Jeb Bush as supporting the sinister Common Core. Trump’s solution? Get rid of the Education Department entirely. It is home to egregious “waste, fraud, and abuse.” [You can find Trump’s education comments starting just before the five-minute mark in the video clip.]

Since its birth, the Education Department has been the target of conservative ire. President Reagan wanted it gone. In the run-up to 2012, the Ed Dept was one of the targets Rick Perry could remember.

As I’ve argued in my recent book, things weren’t always this way. Attacking federal influence in education only became the default “conservative” position in the late 1930s or early 1940s. At that time, conservatives horrified by New Deal growth lambasted any exertion of federal influence. Before then, however, influential conservatives eagerly embraced the possibilities of federal control over education. Such control, conservative leaders in the 1920s insisted, could force new immigrants to become Anglicized and “Americanized” at a faster clip. Such control, conservatives hoped, could cram traditional values down the throats of leftist teachers nationwide.

Only after the New Deal equated federal power with progressive politics–in the minds of many conservative activists, at least–did “Big Education” come to be equated with “Left-wing Influence.”

I wonder, though, if there’s a simpler psychological reason why today’s conservatives hate the Ed Dept. The department is a novelty. As education nerds are well aware, the Ed Dept recently celebrated its thirty-sixth birthday.  36!  It was created only in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.

So here’s my hunch: Conservatives have many reasons to promise to cut the Education Department. In The Donald’s case, he can use the Common Core to attack rival Jeb Bush. He can appeal to voters’ sense of distrust of “Washington bureaucrats.” He can make it look as if he has concrete plans to slim government and eliminate waste.

But he also can imagine a time without such a department. Indeed, neither he nor anyone else of a certain age needs to imagine it at all. The Education Department is so brand-spankin new that conservatives have no trouble concluding that we will get by just fine without it.

Scott Walker’s Collapse Means School Is Still Cool

Governor Scott Walker dropped fast. According to the conservative Weekly Standard, Walker led the field of GOP presidential hopefuls in April, dropped to second in August, then plummeted to last place in no time flat. Why? Perhaps his campaign collapse proves that conservative voters do not hate the devils of public education as much as Walker (and I) thought.

Maybe school bashing's not enough...

Maybe school bashing’s not enough…

Walker had built his national reputation on a consistent diet of education-bashing. He famously attacked teachers’ unions. More than that, though, he blasted lazy university professors. Perhaps most uniquely, he himself had never completed college, having dropped out to pursue more worthwhile goals.

Make no mistake. As a voter and a teacher and a lazy college professor, I’m glad to see Walker crumble. But as an historian, I’m surprised. Whatever his faults, I thought Walker had shown some savvy in following a conservative script with nearly a century of success behind it.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the story, but for new folks, here’s a quick history lesson: When Governor Reagan was elected president, his first decorating move was to put a large portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the Oval Office. Reagan, after all, modeled himself after Coolidge’s brand of small-government conservatism.

Coolidge had come to national prominence for his stern opposition to a police strike in Boston. Reagan, too, made his bones by combatting an air-traffic controllers’ strike.

I thought Walker could win by using the Coolidge playbook. I thought his union-bashing policies were terrible, but I thought they would win.

We were both wrong. Walker went from conservative hero to zero practically overnight.

Why? There might be education-related reasons other commentators have missed. Maybe GOP voters really don’t hate public-school teachers as much as people think they do. Maybe GOP voters expect their candidate to have a college degree. Could it even be—perish the thought—that voters don’t hate university professors as much as Governor Walker thought they did?

Conservative pundits offer different reasons. Jonathan Last at the conservative Weekly Standard found Walker’s collapse “shocking.” Unlike other meltdowns, Walker’s campaign had suffered no embarrassing gaffes or scandals. Walker had real credentials, so his early front-runner standard was not a fluke. Last concluded that Walker’s loss was likely due to the weirdly broad field of candidates this year and to Donald Trump’s “disruption” of the nominating process.

Over at the progressive Nation, John Nichols focused instead on Walker’s tired and unpopular anti-unionism. As Nichols put it,

A lot of Republican voters work for a living, and a substantial number of them are union members. While grassroots conservatives have been instructed by corporate America’s amen corner in the media to be angry with unions and living wages and teachers and public employees, they have never been so enthusiastic in that anger as the billionaires who seek to build their empires on a foundation of income inequality and wage stagnation.

So Walker’s core message—union busting—never really resonated to the extent that the governor and his strategists imagined it would.

But don’t forget that Walker’s union-busting was only one leg of a broader strategy based in educational culture-war thinking.  He loudly and proudly fought against teachers’ unions, certainly, but also aggressively went after lazy college professors. Even his own story of dropping out of college to do something more important shows a long-term dedication to bucking the educational status-quo.

I admit it. I thought Governor Walker had hit upon a winning program, even if it was a program I didn’t like. In my last book, I argued that Walker’s brand of educational conservatism had proven politically unbeatable time and again. Throughout the twentieth century, it became a winning strategy among conservatives to bash teachers in no uncertain terms.

I thought it would still work, especially in the howling scramble of this year’s GOP presidential contest. But maybe I got it as wrong as Governor Walker did. Maybe that time has passed.

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!

How NOT to Get a Conservative in the White House

Do conservative politicians need to have more heart? Do they just need to find snappy, appealing slogans to describe their existing economic policies? That’s the argument, apparently, in Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, The Conservative Heart. I’m no conservative myself, so I hope conservatives listen to Brooks. Because his argument just doesn’t match reality.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will not be surprised to hear that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I haven’t read Brooks’ new book. Based on the recent review by N. Gregory Mankiw in the New York Times, though, I feel justified in saying nertz to Brooks’ diagnosis.

Heart attack...

Heart attack…

Both Brooks and Mankiw hail from the free-market-conservative American Enterprise Institute. According to Mankiw, Brooks thinks that conservatives do not have a problem with policy. Rather, they have a problem with publicity.

As Mankiew recounts, President Obama is able to rally support for a minimum-wage hike by saying simply, “It’s time to give America a raise.”

Free-market conservatives, on the other hand, mumble through a complicated but correct four-point rebuttal. By the end, Brooks thinks, Americans just aren’t listening.

This Casssandresque portrait of market conservatives might be flattering to conservatives, but it just doesn’t match political reality. It’s not that overly nerdy conservatives lose their audiences mid-way. Rather, the public never even starts listening.

The problem for conservatives is not that they have too much Spock and not enough Kirk. Conservatives’ main problem has not been their overly logical public image. Rather, conservatives have struggled and failed to portray themselves as something different from their elitist, racist twentieth-century roots.

They need to do more to overcome their twentieth-century history. There are plenty of non-white conservatives out there, but they tend to think that voting for the GOP will be a betrayal. With good reason: This year, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump insults Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Last year, ham-handed GOP leaders denounced a voter-registration drive in Ferguson, Missouri.

It is not only these recent events that work against conservatism. Conservatism in the United States has always been perceived (with plenty of justification) as a movement of elite white racists. As I argued in my recent book about twentieth-century conservatism, by the end of the century conservative activists tried to refute their reputation for racism. It didn’t work.

When conservative leaders denied their racism, non-white voters did not believe them. In 1974-75, for example, most of the leaders of the conservative school boycott movement in Kanawha County, West Virginia adamantly denied that they were racist. Folks such as Avis Hill pointed out that he went to church with lots of African Americans. Conservative teachers such as Karl Priest pointed out that he coached a mixed-race basketball team.

Nevertheless, local African American leaders were not impressed. The Reverend Ronald English, for example, conceded that most of his African American friends and congregants were just as conservative as the book protesters. But because of the legacy of conservative activism; because of the presence of a weak and wilted Ku Klux Klan in support of the boycott; because many of the authors of the “offensive” books were African Americans, very few African Americans supported the conservative boycotters.

This legacy continues. In spite of Mr. Brooks’ recommendations, non-white voters—even staunchly conservative ones—will hate to vote for the party of white racism, even if those GOP leaders speak from the heart.

What should conservatives do?

They need to do more than simply insist that they are no longer racist. This will involve promoting non-white leaders such as Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Ben Carson. This will involve policing their own ranks to prevent any winking at old-fashioned white racism. This will involve highlighting cross-racial areas of conservative agreement on cultural issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and creationism.

Can it work? It can and has. When President Reagan appealed to working-class ethnic whites, he swept into the White House with the support of such “Reagan Democrats.” The next big conservative winner will do something similar. He (or she) will undercut the traditional lock between non-white voters and the Democratic Party. He or she will speak from the heart, for sure, but that heart will have to prove somehow that it has had an authentic conversion. Otherwise, voters just won’t listen.

Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?

Jesus vs. Koch Bros. in Kansas

So…what IS the matter with Kansas? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Smarsh offered a mistaken look at the way big money and big religion work together to erode public education in the Sunflower State.

The way Smarsh describes it, “extremist Christians” have been fooled into working with “fundamentalist capitalists.” They both want to privatize public schools, but for different reasons. Her article underestimates and misunderstands the long tradition of American conservatism. New histories, including my new book on educational conservatism in the twentieth century, have laid out the long roots of deep organic connections between religious conservatives and free-market conservatives.

Smarsh describes current education policy in Kansas as dictated from “that ancient place where the religious and the greedy mingle.” As she puts it,

Today, the religious right and wealthy free-marketeers both long to privatize a system that educates 50 million students, but for different reasons. One wants to make 50 million Christians; the other, 50 million paying customers.

As Smarsh explains, at its root this alliance of religion with capitalism results from a cynical conspiracy among the big-money folks. She quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

The unholy union, he told me by phone from his Washington office, begins with the money holders. “They look at the shock troops of the religious right, and they think, ‘How can we tap into that power? How can we get them to endorse our agenda of privatization?” Boston theorized. In matters of public education, which the religious right finds distasteful along moral lines, “they’re already more than halfway there.”

In reality, according to Boston, big-money folks like the Koch brothers don’t care about Jesus. They only want to get their paws on the public-school sector to weaken the influence of the government and strengthen private business.

I’m no Koch fan. Nor am I a conservative Christian. I do indeed find it believable that some big-money types have hoped to co-opt religious conservatives to get their votes. But to say that the alliance of conservative Christians with big-business is some sort of elaborate scam does not fit the facts.

Right fools left...

Right fools left…

Just as Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas did a decade ago, Smarsh’s argument resolves puzzling situations by resorting to conspiratorial explanations. Frank argued, roughly, that conservative schemers managed to convince working-class voters to vote Republican by waving the bloody shirt of abortion and gay rights. In essence, conservative strategists fooled people into voting against their own economic interests by emphasizing culture-war hot-button issues.

In Frank’s argument, conservative voters come off as dupes, conned into voting for Kansas Republicans because of an irrational attachment to pro-life ideas. Smarsh makes similar implications. Big business free-marketeers manipulate conservative Christians into fighting against public education, in this line of argument.

Let me be as clear as I can be: I don’t doubt that some libertarian business folks might HOPE to enact such a scheme, but the notion that conservative Christians are somehow rustic pawns of a corporate megalith are far too simplistic and Manichean.

Folks like Smarsh and Frank (and me, to be fair) have a hard time understanding how conservative Christians could support privatization, so they (we) jump to a false conclusion that big business has somehow fooled religious conservatives.

More careful historical treatments have noted the far more complicated connections between big business and evangelical Christianity. Kim Phillips-Fein, for example, looked at the roots of business conservatism in her 2009 book Invisible Hands. Phillips-Fein is certainly no fan of big business, but she describes the way industry leaders such as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil dedicated much of their fortune to promoting evangelical Protestantism. This was more than a scheme or a scam. It was a long-term effort to promote conservative Christianity and big-business. It was an effort to bring both together for the good of both.

...or does it?

…or does it?

As I’ve found, too, many religious conservatives have embraced big business for reasons that Smarsh and Frank don’t seem to understand. Many religious conservatives have not been fooled into supporting capitalism, but rather see capitalism as an inherent part of their American Christian tradition.

In educational conservatism, at least, the deep organic connections between Jesus and capitalism were not imposed by any move of the sinister Koch brothers. Rather, religious conservatives themselves have long insisted that schools must teach both capitalism and Protestantism. Even a cursory familiarity with the writings of leading conservative activists will make these connections clear.

For instance, in a description of the decades-long educational activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, biographer Jim Hefley connected the dots (emphasis added):

The Gablers also began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America. They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

For its part, big business also has a long tradition of pushing for more Jesus in public schools. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, an industry group, offered in 1939 a new curriculum for schools nationwide. It was vital, NAM leaders argued, for schools to combine “the historical and spiritual foundations of the American system of government, free enterprise and religious liberty.”

I’ll say it again: I don’t doubt that tycoons such as the Koch brothers might hope to manipulate religious conservatives. But it hardly counts as manipulation to encourage conservatives to support a cause they already support.

When journalists such as Thomas Frank or Sarah Smarsh paint a conspiratorial picture of hapless religious conservatives taken in by evil-genius financiers, they do a disservice to those of us hoping to get a better understanding of the ways cultural politics really work in this country.

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!

Holiday Reading List

Ho ho ho and all that. Like it or not, the holidays are upon us. For you nerds out there who, like me, view such breaks as a chance to catch up on our nerdy reading, I’ll share my plans for the next ten days.

Who's got time for presents?

Who’s got time for presents?

What are you reading these (holi)days?

BOOKS:

I’ve got three books on my desk. One new, one old, and one in the middle. First, I’m excited to read Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial: Evangelical Scientists and a New Creationism (2014). Rios looks at the emergence of a network of creationist scientists after the 1920s. Next, I’ll be taking another whack at Virginia Brereton’s Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880-1940 (1990). Over the years, I’ve read this book several times. As Brereton puts it in her introduction,

The fundamentalist movement was decidedly an educational movement and most fundamentalists were educators; education was implicit in their overriding objective, which was the evangelization of America and the world. To understand fundamentalists, then, it is absolutely necessary to examine their educational efforts.

Hear, hear! This time around, I’m reading it with an eye to my new book about evangelical higher education between 1920-1980. Last but not least, I want to spend some time with John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). This is one that I read many years ago as an undergraduate. For so long now I’ve been reading conservative writers and pundits, I feel a need to re-connect with this fundamental statement of liberal ethics.

Top of my stack...

Top of my stack…

ONLINE:

I’ve been putting off Ted Davis’s series at the BioLogos Forum for too long. Davis is the one of the best historians out there for those of us interested in creationism and evolution. His series, “Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Evolution” ran through the summer into this past fall. I meant to read them as they came out, but as usual I fell behind. Thanks to these holidays, I’ll finally take time to read them more carefully.

There have been a couple of longish articles recently about evangelical religion and higher education that I didn’t have time to read yet. In The Atlantic, Laura Turner noted the activism at evangelical colleges about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have high hopes that Turner does not assume that evangelical college students have never engaged in this sort of social activism before. As I’m discovering in my current research, there is a strong tradition at Christian colleges of left-leaning student activism.

Next up, an article that is doubly interesting for anyone who wants to understand evangelical higher education. Esmerelda Sanchez writes in Christianity Today about the experiences of Latina Pentecostals in higher ed. I’ve only read the teaser so far, but it looks as if Sanchez argues that as women, as Latinas, and as Pentecostals, those like her have faced special hurdles in the world of American higher education.

DISSERTATION:

At the far edge of nerdy, I’m looking forward to reading a newly completed dissertation. Just completed at the University of Delaware is Kevin Currie-Knight’s From Laissez-Faire to Vouchers: An Intellectual History of Market Libertarian Thought on Education in Twentieth-Century America. Aside from the peerless Milton Gaither, historians have not taken a close enough look at the libertarian tradition in educational thought in US history. I’m hoping Currie-Knight’s work addresses some key issues of the meanings of markets in the imaginations of ed reformers. For those who don’t have access to a university library, you can always get easy access to dissertations like this at your local public library. Most public libraries have access to interlibrary-loan services, and they can often get you a pdf of any dissertation lickety-split.

That’s my plan. As usual, I won’t be likely to get to all of this in the next week. I’ll try to read all I can as I breeze through the holidays, packed full of candy canes and booze.

What are YOU reading as we say goodbye to 2014?