Why Did the Democrats Give Bloomberg a Pass on Charters?

Some of you might have better things to do with your time. Not me. I sat spellbound during last night’s Democratic debate. Beyond the obvious lesson that we need some adult supervision of these events, another point bugged me: The candidates were not shy about calling Bloomberg a flat-out racist. Yet they gave him a pass when he waffled about charter schools.

bloomberg debate

They nailed him on stop-and-frisk. Why give him a pass on charter school policy?

At the Washington Post this morning, I offer a few lessons from the archives. I think history gives us a better way to evaluate charter schools, one that seems to fit with today’s Democratic vibe.

The Temptation of “Training” Teachers

What do new teachers need to know? Should they learn specific teaching methods? Or instead a more generic intellectual approach to teaching and learning? The obvious answer, it seems to me, is a little bitta both. Historically speaking, however, long and bitter experience has proven that merely training teachers to deliver a single “system” has failed miserably.

system boys one through four

If new teachers simply learned his fool-proof system…

This old question was raised again recently in the pages of the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog by teachers Jasmine Lane and John Gustafson. As they warn, their teacher-ed program left them feeling abandoned. As they put it,

we were not trained in how to actually teach. Our training felt more like a philosophy of teaching degree than ensuring students could learn the tangible skills required for success in high school and beyond.

I feel for them. More than that, I remember feeling a similar way when I started—left on my own, scrambling to prepare for Monday and wondering if last Friday was helpful for my students. Even veteran teachers struggle to know what to do and too often new teachers are left feeling isolated and underprepared.

So should teacher-ed programs help new teachers know exactly what to do? I work every day with talented new teachers, so personally I share the desire to provide teachers with practical, helpful ways to deliver useful lessons and to evaluate student learning. But I’m still skeptical about a couple of things.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…nothing could possibly go wrong. All teachers need is the right system and the right tools…

First, as a history teacher, I know far less than Lane and Gustafson do about specific methods of reading instruction. They advocate “effective whole-group instruction or the “Big 5” components of reading.” Would that be better? I admit it happily: I don’t know.

As a historian, however, I’ve seen the dismal effect of trying to impose a one-size-fits-all teaching “system” on new teachers. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my eyeballs these days in research for my new book about America’s first major urban school reform.

Back in the 1810s, growing cities such as Philly, New York, Baltimore, and Cincinnati wondered what they could do with all their wild American children. They turned to young London reformer Joseph Lancaster. Since (about) 1798, Lancaster had run a school for low-income London youth. More importantly, he used his school primarily as a teacher-training institute.

Lancaster promised that he had created the perfect “system.” With Lancaster’s careful instruction, anyone could teach, because Lancaster provided perfect guidance. Lancaster’s system, in short, taught teachers exactly what to do. It taught teachers, in other words, “how to actually teach.”

As Lancaster wrote in 1807,

On this plan, any boy who can read, can teach; and the inferior boys may do the work usually done by the teachers, in the common mode: for a boy who can read, can teach, ALTHOUGH HE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT IT…

What happened? In short, it didn’t work. Among other faults with Lancaster’s system, new teachers found that their “training” did not really teach them what to do. It did not teach them “how to actually teach,” because actual teaching requires flexibility and a wealth of methodological tools, not just one system or method.

In practice, as Lancaster-trained teachers fanned out around the world, they found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lane and Gustafson, but from the opposite direction. That is, Lancaster-trained teachers found that the simplistic system they had learned did not prepare them for the exigencies of real-world classrooms. Unlike Lane and Gustafson, they yearned for a broader education about teaching and learning, instead of only one over-hyped “system.”

When they got to their new classrooms, Lancaster-trained teachers found they had to make things up on the fly. They found that Lancaster’s pre-fabricated instructions did not address important questions of teaching and learning. In a few years, the actual teaching practices in Lancasterian schools had come to vary widely. By 1829, Lancaster felt it necessary to denounce “erroneous practices” that had taken over Lancasterian schools.

What would have been better? To this reporter, it seems obvious that a simple training program for teachers has never been enough. Because real-world classrooms are infinitely complicated places, new teachers cannot be “trained” in only one method of teaching. Instead, new teachers should learn a mix of methods, ideas, histories, and, yes, even philosophies.

Anti-LGBTQ: Follow the Anti-Evolution Road

It must be a difficult time to oppose full inclusion for LGBTQ children. Two major banks have pulled out of a Florida voucher school program. Why? Because the program supported schools that discriminated against LGBTQ students, families, and teachers. The historian in me can’t help but wonder: Will anti-LGBTQ conservatives repeat the century-old model of anti-evolution activism?

I know it is silly to make predictions based on the past, but the anti-LGBTQ movement among conservative Christians certainly seems to be following the road laid down a century ago by anti-evolution activists. Here is how it worked back then:

Phase 1: We Are the Real Christians. In this phase, conservative intellectuals tried to fight the growing sense that their conservatism made them something new. Instead, conservatives insisted they were only upholding the time-tested truths of real Christianity. Their opposition to evolution, they insisted, did not make them anything other than “Christians.”

For example, in 1923 James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago lamented the tendency of anti-evolution “Fundamentalists” to call themselves anything other than “Christians.” As Gray put it,

As a matter of fact, not a few church members . . . believe that Fundamentalism is some new thing and some awful heresy that must metaphorically, be stamped out. . . . dear brethren, do not let the old name slip away from us. . . . It is a name that stands for the pure and complete gospel of Jesus Christ, a name that has never been identified with any movement, fanaticism, or fad, and which has been made so sacred to us by its defenders in all the years.

Phase 2: Scare Tactics. In the 1920s, evolution came to represent the best of modern science to many Americans. Conservative anti-evolution activists found themselves suddenly on the defensive, needing to prove to their co-religionists that evolution was truly dangerous. Many of them, like evangelist T.T. Martin, found themselves using more and more extreme language to describe the threat posed by evolution. As Martin wrote in 1923,

Ramming poison down the throats of our children is nothing compared with damning their souls with the teaching of Evolution.

Phase 3: Fight for our Right. At the same time, conservative anti-evolution Christians campaigned to purge public institutions of evolutionary ideas. At my alma mater the University of Wisconsin, for example, in 1921 William Jennings Bryan taunted President Edward Birge to either ban evolution or post the following signs on all classrooms:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Phase 4: A School of Our Own. When those fights failed, anti-evolution conservatives turned inward. They founded schools of their own that would teach an anti-evolution version of Christianity. As evangelist Bob Jones Sr. described his new school in 1928,

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At first glance, the anti-LGBTQ wing of conservative Christianity seems to be following the same path. Just like the 1920s, these days conservatives are confronted with rapidly changing mainstream attitudes. Back then, it was evolution. These days, it is about gender and sexuality.

Save our Schools Cover Art jpg

Will anti-LGBTQ activists in the 2020s follow the path of anti-evolution activists in the 1920s?

And we’ve seen a similar pattern. For example, as I noted in a recent commentary in the Washington Post, conservative Christians like Karen Pence often defend their anti-LGBTQ attitudes as simply traditional or (small-o) “orthodox” Christianity.

Second, anti-LGBTQ conservatives work hard these days to convince their fellow Christians that LGBTQ rights present a dire threat. For example, creationist activist Ken Ham has long warned of creeping LGBTQ acceptance. As Ham wrote back in 2015,

From what we’ve seen and know about the LGBT movement, the leaders don’t just want legalization of their immmoral behavior, but also want to force acceptance of this on everyone. They want everyone not just to tolerate their position, but to accept it while they themselves show intolerance for those who do not hold to their views.

Next, anti-LGBTQ Christians have certainly been competing for influence within mainstream institutions. From California to Missouri, activists have tried hard to purge public schools and libraries of pro-LGBTQ ideas. Most often, just as anti-evolution activists did in the 1920s, anti-LGBTQ activists have lost.

And some of them have moved to Phase 4. Perhaps most famously, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher has called for the Benedict Option, separating from an irredeemably corrupt mainstream society to form purer enclaves where traditional ideas of sexuality and gender can dominate.

How will it all play out? History is a famously bad guide to the future, but the trajectory of anti-evolution activism offers a few possibilities. Back in the 1920s, opposing mainstream science worked. Schools and colleges that planted a flag for anti-evolutionary “fundamentalism” thrived.

In Illinois, for example, Wheaton College declared itself an anti-evolution institution in 1925 and its enrollment grew in leaps and bounds. Between 1916 and 1928, enrollment at Wheaton grew by four hundred percent. (By way of contrast, similar non-fundamentalist colleges in the area grew by an average of 46%.)

The benefits of standing outside the mainstream had their costs, however. Back in the 1920s, anti-evolution fundamentalists tended to believe in a far less radical form of creationism. Most of them, even the firmest anti-evolution activists among them, still wanted to earn the respect of mainstream scientists. They mostly pooh-poohed radical ideas about a young earth and a sudden, fiat creation of all life.

When anti-evolution activists started their own institutions, however, it gave them the ability to encourage more radical forms of Christian belief. In schools like Bob Jones University, young-earth creationism became the norm. Perhaps because they had given up on mainstream acceptance, they were able to indulge ideas such as young-earth creationism that had absolutely no merit outside the charmed circle of radical-creationist schools.

Will that happen again? It just might. As anti-LGBTQ conservatives read more headlines like the ones we’re seeing today, they might grow more and more convinced that their ideas are unwelcome outside their own circles. It might seem more and more tempting to create separatist institutions in which their own ideas are welcomed. If that happens, perhaps we will see a repeat of the creationist tradition. Namely, the mainstream might grow more and more comfortable with LGTBQ acceptance while a small but energetic minority embraces more and more radical versions of anti-LGTQ thinking.

From the Archives: Protecting Children from Imaginary Threats

Okay, so we know Trump’s recent announcement about protecting student prayer in schools was nonsensical. Students already CAN pray in school if they want. In a different sense, however, Trump’s prayer defense was not only politically savvy, but a continuation of a long tradition of wildly disproportionate responses to non-existent threats. This morning, a few examples from the archives.

Trump prayer anncment tweetExample 1: Harold Rugg’s textbooks, 1939. I’ve read them. In a word, they are bland. Hardly the stuff to inspire violent protests. They were hugely popular in the 1930s, selling millions of copies. In 1939, conservative groups such as the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers fretted that these books were indoctrinating students in left-wing directions.

What happened? In cities across the Northeast and at least one town in rural Wisconsin, conservatives threatened to pile the books up and burn them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring from within.

Burning textbooks in an era of Nazi occupation in Europe seems like a remarkably disproportionate response to a popular textbook. So why do it?

Among themselves, Legionnaires warned darkly that Rugg’s books were only the sharp edge of a long-planned socialist revolution. As one Legion activist wrote in a private letter, colleges like Teachers College at Columbia University had become nests of “socialist fanatics” who schemed to use Rugg’s textbooks as part of their plan to subvert American institutions.

roscoe letterWe can only make sense of the violent response to Rugg’s textbooks if we put the story in this imaginary context. In the imaginations of many conservatives, Rugg’s textbooks were an immediate threat to American society as a whole. Destroying them was the only way to protect children from that imaginary threat.

Example 2: Fast forward a few decades and conservatives again responded violently to an imaginary school threat. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks was approved by the state. When conservatives previewed the books, they were alarmed by what they saw. School-board member Alice Moore denounced the books as anti-American, anti-Christian, and even simply anti-proper-English.

Local conservatives agreed and they boycotted local schools until the offending books were removed.

The boycott became violent. Schools were firebombed, busses shot, and the school-board building dynamited. Two people got shot along the picket lines.

alice moore posterAgain, seems like a startlingly violent reaction to a fairly humdrum textbook problem. Along the picket lines, however, activists were circulating flyers with shocking language. The quotations were purportedly from the offending textbooks, but the offensive language was not found in the actual adopted textbooks. In the imagination of the protesters, however, it seemed entirely believable that school textbooks in 1974 might really include offensive sexual language. They were willing to take extreme measures to protect children from these threats, even though the threats never really existed.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

We could cite other examples from throughout the twentieth century. When it came to racial integration, for example, attempts to integrate schools from Boston to Oxford, Mississippi were routinely met with ferocious violence.

It’s not surprising to find such violence in educational politics. People care a lot about their kids, obviously. And they care a lot about controlling schools. In this case, though, there’s a particularly virulent form of culture-war violence at play. It’s not only about actual policy, but of imagined threats to an imagined past.

For many conservatives, public schools traditionally included God. And that’s not imaginary–public schools really do have a long history of being dominated by white evangelical Protestants. The history of the twentieth century can be seen as a long struggle to nudge or shove evangelicalism out of its historically dominant role. Integration, school prayer, sexuality, history textbooks…all became symbols of the ever-diminishing clout of white evangelicals in public schools and in public life.

Consider one final example of the unique power of schools in America’s culture-war imagination. Years after the fact, one of the schemers behind the “New Christian Right” in the 1970s and 1980s remembered the issue that got conservative Christians most riled up. As Paul Weyrich recalled, it wasn’t “abortion, school prayer, or the ERA.” Sure, those things made conservatives mad in the 1970s, but they didn’t push conservative Christians en masse to the GOP. The issue that did? According to Weyrich,

Jimmy Carter’s [1978] intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.

Against this historical backdrop, Trump’s nonsensical protection of school prayer makes a little more sense. Schools play a unique and uniquely influential role in culture-war politics. Even imaginary threats—perhaps especially imaginary threats—get people roused with violent fury.

In that sense, it should come as no surprise that Trump played the school-prayer card. It isn’t sensible policy, but it tends to get people angry. In that sense, it seems like a perfect example of Trumpism in action.

Conservative History Textbooks: The Rest of the Story

Have you seen it yet? The New York Times just published Dana Goldstein’s comparison of US History textbooks from California and Texas. The results won’t shock SAGLRROILYBYGTH. This morning I’ll offer a little additional history of the long feud over US History textbooks.

NYT TExtbooks CA TX

What students see in CA is not what they see in TX.

As Goldstein documented, US History textbooks look very different in the two states, even though they come from the same publisher and include the same authors. Yet the differences can be glaring. For example, in a section on the Constitution, the California edition notes that there have been some restrictions on Second Amendment gun rights. The Texas edition leaves that part blank. The California editions emphasize African American struggles and LGBTQ history far more than do the Texas ones.

It’s not only US History textbooks that have experienced this sort of regional culture-war editing. As Adam Shapiro explained in Trying Biology, science textbooks have long been an awkward weapon in evolution/creation culture wars.

As I argued in The Other School Reformers, in the twentieth century conservatives worked hard to promote a more-conservative textbook option. Their record was mixed. At times, conservative history-textbook activism flopped in embarrassing ways.

For example, in 1925 the American Legion commissioned a new, patriotic history of the United States. Too often, the Legion complained, American youth “grow up ignorant or anarchistic or otherwise ‘destructive.’” They needed a textbook that told the nation’s history as it really was. Namely, the Legion insisted, despite “occasional mistakes,” American history has been “so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism.”

horne rejection AL

From the Legion commission’s report, 1926

Unfortunately for the American Legion, the actual textbooks they commissioned were terrible. Like, Jefferson Lies terrible. After a prominent historian called them “perverted American history” in The Atlantic, the Legion appointed a special commission to analyze the books. After this Legion commission concluded that the books were “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements,” the Legion withdrew their support and the textbooks stayed in their warehouses.

Other conservative activists have had far more success with their history activism. Most famously, the roots of the Texas bias that Dana Goldstein uncovered can be traced to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Journalists tend to focus on the textbook activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, which began in the 1960s. That activism mattered, but the Gablers got their ideas from the Texas DAR.

For decades, the DAR—at both national and state levels—made history textbooks the focus of their activism. For instance, in 1928 the national President General told the annual gathering that some state DARs had chosen

to look into the matter of textbooks used in some of the schools.  Individuals have sounded a warning that many books deny the Christian faith and contain sacrilegious and scornful sentences which will have a disastrous effect upon the impressionable minds of the young.

In 1941, a new President General repeated this call, in more gendered terms. As Helen Pouch exhorted her DAR audience,

Do all that women can do to eradicate questionable textbooks from the schools. This can and has been done in many cities.  It should be done in every city where these books are used.

Similarly, in 1950 new President General Marguerite Patton told the assembled DAR:

members should be especially aware of the schools in their own communities.  They should know the teachers who instruct their children; they should know the wording of textbooks, especially those pertaining to American history; and they should be cognizant of the manner in which the teachers present the subject matter to the pupils.  The interpretation of historical data can be, and often is, twisted erroneously, if a teacher is inclined to do so.

These decades of DAR activism paid off. DAR members were in a position to send uninvited “inspectors” to local schools to read textbooks and listen in on classroom teaching. They had the energy and drive to read through history textbooks to sniff out evidence of progressive politics or anti-patriotic teaching.

By the 1960s, their activism had become an expected part of textbook politics, especially in Texas. It lasted well into this century. If you haven’t seen The Revisionaries yet, it’s worth a watch. The documentary examines the conservative takeover of the Texas State Board of Education in the early 2000s.

Science and history were both targets of the new conservative majority. Creationist Don McLeroy wanted the science textbooks to help students reject mainstream evolutionary theory. McLeroy and his conservative allies also hoped to skew the history textbooks in a more conservative direction. From the list of required terms, the conservatives cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music.” They insisted on more about Reagan and the NRA.

More recently, too, Texas tweaked its list of required historical terms. In 2018, “Hillary Clinton” was out, but “Billy Graham” stayed in as terms Texas students needed to know.

It might seem shocking to some, but Texas’s careful curation of its history textbooks has a long and checkered history. Conservatives haven’t always won in Texas or elsewhere. When they did win, it was by harping on two points.

1.) Conservatives won by insisting their patriotic, conservative history was truer than other options. Conservatives haven’t won by saying kids should be kept ignorant. They’ve won by arguing that their vision is closer to historic fact. And,

2.) Conservatives won by insisting those other histories were at best misleading and at worst downright subversive. As always, any whiff of danger to students always makes parents and school administrators nervous. Conservatives have won their history-textbook wars when they’ve convinced enough people that their version of history is safer for both students and society.

The DeVoses Have Always Been Wrong about College

You’ve probably seen the graph floating around the interwebs this week. The Economist reported that–despite jeremiads by Betsy DeVos–higher education in America does not seem to be turning students into left-wing drones. As SAGLRROILYLBYGTH know, conservatives have always fretted about it. And they’ve always been wrong. Their schemes to infiltrate left-wing colleges have never panned out and today’s college conservatives should pay attention.

economist college influence

Not a lot of change there…

In a speech a few years back, Queen Betsy warned students that college was trying to brainwash them. As she put it,

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

Were QB’s worries fair? The Economist dug through a study of political thinking among college graduates. Either college professors—who really do skew to the left—are not “ominously” trying to tell students “what to think,” or they’re bad at it. As The Economist summarized,

Between 2010 and 2014, survey respondents were asked every year which political party they identified with. The share identifying as Democrats did not shift significantly between freshman year and graduation. Similarly, when asked about their political viewpoints, the share of students identifying as conservative changed little during their time at university. The same pattern held for questions about climate change, health care and immigration.

Yet Queen Betsy’s vision of the college threat is anything but idiosyncratic. Throughout the twentieth century, the conservative educational activists I’ve studied uniformly agree that left-wing professors are a deadly threat to students’ faiths and America’s chances.

In 1909, for example, journalist Harold Bolce scored a major scoop when he interrogated college professors about their secularism and anti-Christian ideas. For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and reported to America that the professor no longer valued traditional religion. As Bolce wrote in Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmo),

‘Do you not believe, Professor,’ I asked, ‘that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?’

The professor smiled.  ‘I do not,’ said he.  ‘It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.’

bolce page image

Left-wing professors, c. 1909.

Earp was not alone, Bolce warned. At all leading colleges, issues such as “marriage, divorce, the home, religion, and democracy,” were studied and propounded “as if these things were fossils, gastropods, vertebrates, equations, chemical elements, or chimeras.”

Conservative anxiety about college professors never went away. In the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan often warned about the dangers of higher education. He liked to cite a study by psychologist James Leuba, which found that more than half of “prominent scientists” in the USA no longer believed in a “personal God and in personal immortality.” The upshot on college campuses where those scientists taught? Though only 15% of freshman had discarded Christianity, Leuba found, 30% of juniors had and 40-45% of graduates did.

It hasn’t only been religious conservatives like Bolce, Bryan, and DeVos that have worried. In 1939, the obstreperous leader of the American Legion’s Americanism Commission schemed with a business ally to disrupt the goings-on at Columbia University. Both men—Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion and Alfred Falk of the National Association of Manufacturers—assumed that colleges were ideologically dangerous places. Professors at Columbia had been spewing their left-wing propaganda into the ears of students for too long.

What could they do about it? Chaillaux told Falk that he had some spies “on the inside at Columbia University.” Chaillaux planned to have those “friends” conduct a campaign against leftist professors among students. As Chaillaux optimistically predicted,

possibly we can make the classes of such instructors as George S. Counts and Harold O. Rugg sufficiently unpopular to reduce their present drawing power.

It might sound nutsy to dream of sending secret right-wing agents onto college campuses to denounce and dethrone popular leftist professors, but Queen Betsy and the rest of the Trump regime are engaged in similar stuff these days.

Perhaps most famously, Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA have made a career out of provoking leftist backlash from college students and professors. And now, Kirk has teamed up with Trump’s favorite evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. to open a new kind of campus center, one devoted to promoting Trumpist ideas in higher ed.

Will it work? No. It wasn’t necessary or effective in 1939 and it won’t happen today. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Queen Betsy (though I’m iffy these days about Kirk or Falwell). For a century and more, conservatives have fretted that colleges in general were left-wing indoctrination factories. They’re not. At least, they’re not very good ones.

Were You Trumpared, Part Deux

Thank you, The Internet! Yesterday I asked you if you were surprised by the rise of Trumpism. Over on The Twitter, some topnotch academic historians shared their experiences. I’ll share a few highlights here for those SAGLRROILYBYGTH who don’t tweeter.

It started with an offhand comment by blogger Peter Greene. As he reflected on the end of 2019, he noted,

In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Unlike The Curmudgucrat, my experiences in the 2010s left me utterly unprepared for the rise of Trump. The archives I explored for my book The Other School Reformers led me to conclude that Trumpish tendencies were usually quashed by conservative organizations, in the name of “respectability” and “mainstream” appeal.

It appears I wasn’t alone. As Rick Perlstein shared, he had to re-calibrate his thinking. He had written back in 2016,

I’ve been studying the history of American conservatism full time since 1997—almost 20 years now. I’ve read almost every major book on the subject. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Then along comes Donald Trump to scramble the whole goddamned script.

And, as Natalia Mehlman Petrzela noted, the “time and style” of Trumpish conservatism feels a lot different from the conservatism of the later twentieth century. As Prof. Petrzela asked,

There’s no way “F*CK YOUR FEELINGS” as a tee-shirt saying for the winning GOP presidential candidate in 2016 was foreseeable from the 60s/70s, right?

natalia on TrumpIt seems that Trump’s ascendancy has changed the way historians of conservatism approach the topic, or at least pointed us in slightly different directions. As Kevin Kruse wrote, he is now working on a new book about

“law and order” politics as seen through NYC[.]

It doesn’t usually work this way, but yesterday at least Twitter helped me learn a lot about a complicated topic and gave me a new reading list. I just ordered a copy of Timothy Lombardo’s book about Frank Rizzo and blue-collar conservatism in Philadelphia.

From the Archives: Were You Trumpared?

I wasn’t. Studying populist conservatism taught me the wrong lessons—I thought conservatives would never tolerate an anti-strategic leader like Trump, even if they liked his policies. I wrongly believed more conservatives would do anything to maintain their reputations as respectable mainstream traditionalists. Did anything in your background prepare you to have a president who flits from tweet to tweet and treats foreign policy like a reality-TV ratings sweep?

Peter Greene says his did. As he wrote recently,

In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Here’s where I went wrong: In my 2015 book The Other School Reformers, I looked at the kind of populist conservatism to which Trump appeals so strongly. I didn’t study conservative intellectuals, but grass-roots activists who tried to push schools in conservative directions.

SPL 1

From the American Legion Archives, c. 1936.

Throughout the twentieth century, conservatives refused to be dominated by the anti-strategists in their camp. Time after time, conservative organizations carefully curated their public image to avoid the “extremist” label. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that really mattered. I thought—wrongly—that this pattern would continue.

My surprise is not about Trump’s specific policies. I can see how any conservative would love having Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on SCOTUS. My surprise is about style and strategy. In the history of American grass-roots conservatism there has always been an element we might call “Trumpish.” Meaning mercurial, impulsive, and unwilling to think through the likely consequences of any given action. Meaning acting first—speaking without reflection—heedless of accusations of radicalism or extremism. In Krusty-the-Klown terms, Trumpism means saying the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet.

In the past, that element was always held in check. Not by “faculty lounge” conservatives, but by practical, hard-nosed activists who wanted to win votes long-term.

This morning I’ll share an example from the archives that I hope will illustrate the tradition and demonstrate why I was so un-prepared for the triumph of Trumpism among American conservatives.

Exhibit A: The American Legion and the Student Patriot League, c. 1935. In the mid-1930s, the American Legion had a hard-earned reputation as a tough defender of a conservative patriotism and flag-waving militarism. The Student Patriot League was formed separately as part of a desire to get young people involved in fighting—literally fighting—for those values. The unofficial goal of the SPL was to send uniformed brigades of conservative youth to leftist rallies to disrupt them.

How did the American Legion respond? At the time, the obstreperous head of the Americanism Commission, Homer Chaillaux, engaged in a careful two-sided interaction. Officially, the American Legion had no relationship with the SPL. Chaillaux was worried that any violence would ruin the Legion’s already-shaky reputation as a reputable mainstream group. Publicly, Chaillaux maintained a careful distance between the SPL and the Legion. He told SPL leaders that he could not officially endorse their activities.

Unofficially, however, Chaillaux distributed SPL materials among his friends and allies. Chaillaux privately told his friends the SPL was a

splendid organization of scrappy young Americans who are students in high schools and colleges of the United States.

So what? The interactions between the Legion and the SPL demonstrate the ways grassroots conservative organizing used to work. There is no doubting Chaillaux’s dedication to his conservative principles. When it came to a new and untested youth organization, however, Chaillaux maintained a cautious official distance.

SPL 2

Conservatives used to care about their reputations for mainstream respectability.

That has always been the strategy of (most) conservative organizations. They have thought carefully and deliberately about their public image. They have been leery of losing credibility and ending up dismissed as extremists, like the Ku Klux Klan or eventually the Birchers. Or even Barry Goldwater or Curtis LeMay. Mainstream respectability used to matter to conservatives. A lot.

Trump doesn’t seem to care about his respectability. He doesn’t seem to mind the outrage and consternation caused by his last-minute decisions, even when the outrage comes from his own conservative allies. Instead, Trump does Trump and lets the chips fall where they may. That’s what I was unprepared for.

How about you? Were you like Peter Greene, prepared for the triumph of Trumpism? Or were you more like me, expecting GOP leaders to care primarily for their public image as respectable maintainers of the mainstream status quo?

The Greatest Ed-Tech Goof of All Time

I admit it. I only read one year-end top-100 list–Audrey Watters’ “100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade.” And it got me thinking: What have been the top ed-tech goofs of all time? The top choice from my current research is pretty clear, c. 1804.

Reading sticks sketch

What was the biggest ed-tech goof of all time? Not these “reading sticks”…

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about Joseph Lancaster. And I’m sorry. But his plan was such a perfect mix of tech-naïveté and Zuckerberg-level hubris that I can’t stop marveling over the 21st-century feel of Lancaster’s tech-obsessed school system.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…not this either.

If you’re just joining us, Lancaster was a young man who opened a school for poor kids in London in 1798. He tried some new tricks, including banishing corporal punishment and using students as teachers. He really believed technology could solve all the problems of education and therefore of society.

For example, he dreamed of new systems of “reading telegraphs,” “alphabet wheels,” and benches with holes for hats. His assumption—like that of so many of his peers—was that the right machine could eliminate traditional problems with school organization.

None of those failed ed machines, however, gets my pick as the top ed-tech goof of 1804. No, by a landslide, that (dis)honor goes to Lancaster’s “basket.”1810 punishment the basket

The basket was a device that Lancaster used to discipline unruly boys (it was only used for boys) without resorting to lashes. If demerits failed, and other efforts didn’t work, boys would be suspended above the schoolroom in a basket. The other kids were encouraged to mock the “birds in a cage.”

A truly “terrible” way to humiliate a child, to be sure. But did it work? According to one enthusiastic Lancasterian, the “cradle” worked like a charm. As he wrote to Lancaster in 1812,

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

There was a cost, however. For understandable reasons, students did not like the cradle/basket/birdcage. They eventually stopped coming to Lancaster’s schools and their parents didn’t force them. Why? As one outraged African-American parent from New York wrote in 1827, their children should not be subjected to cruel teachers who only harped on the students’ “dulness and stupidity” all day.

Perhaps as a result of such gripes, Lancaster got rid of the basket. Though it plays a prominent role in early editions of his manual, by 1817 he had excised it. Like so many of the other ed-tech goofs we see in our decade, this technology came in with a blast of trumpets, only to exit with a whimper.

From the Archives: “The Ku Klux Klan: Is It of God?”

Will they or won’t they? Ever since editor Mark Galli broke the internet by denouncing Trump in Christianity Today, pundits have been struggling to decide if white evangelicals will turn anti-Trump in 2020. Historians like me can’t help but notice the pattern: When it comes to political controversy, interdenominational evangelicalism has always been hopelessly divided. From the archives today, a look at a similar division back in the 1920s.Gospel-According-to-the-Klan-Cover-320x483

First, in case you’ve been living under a holiday rock, a little context: White evangelicals voted for Trump in droves in 2016, and they remain as a group one of his most solid voting blocs. So when “flagship” evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal, it caught people’s attention. Outgoing editor Mark Galli looked his fellow evangelicals in the eye—so to speak—and offered this blandishment:

Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

Would evangelicals listen? Some evangelical Trumpists immediately fired back, doubling down in their support for Trump. As Wayne Grudem wrote,

On issue after issue, President Trump is changing the direction of the country for the better. When I weigh these results against his sometimes imprecise and coarse speech, there is no comparison. . . . I’ll vote again for Trump.

I know people won’t like the comparison, but this 2019 debate sounds a lot like a 1920s debate among white evangelicals. Back then, white evangelicals engaged in a similarly vituperative political debate. Back then, white evangelicals wondered if they should support the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. I’m not saying Trump is a 21st-century Hiram Evans. Or even a 21st-century Warren Harding. But I AM saying that evangelicals have always been divided on similar sorts of political issues.

To get the gist of the 1920s debate, we have to understand the nature of the 1920s Klan. Most people these days, if they think about the Klan at all, think mostly of the Civil-Rights-Era Klan, when it was a violent fringe group dedicated to upholding Southern racism and white supremacy.

To be sure, the 1920s Klan was plenty racist, but it was a very different organization in a lot of ways from the later 1960s Klan. First of all, it was much, much bigger, with millions of members all over the nation. It was also depressingly mainstream, with members openly joining and touting their membership. And though the Klan has always been devoted to racism and white supremacy, the 1920s Klan was also ferociously centered on fighting CATHOLIC influence.

Back then, as historians such as Kelly Baker have described, the Klan was all about white supremacy, for sure, but specifically more about white Protestant supremacy.

And, as historian Felix Harcourt argued brilliantly in his book Ku Klux Kulture, the 1920s Klan was controversial in ways that sound creepily familiar today. Back then, civil-rights groups felt a need to prove to America that the Klan was a “poison flame,” attracting “bigots,” “busy-bodies,” and “lame-duck preachers.”

Among evangelical leaders—both intellectual and populist ones—the question of the Klan was difficult. Indeed, in ways that later generations of white evangelicals would find eternally embarrassing, white evangelicals back then conducted a high-profile debate that sounds depressingly similar to today’s.

Back then, some evangelical pundits were unwaveringly pro-Klan. Down in Texas, Baptist fundamentalist pundit J. Frank Norris ardently supported the Klan. In 1924, for example, the Texas Baptist Convention planned to debate a resolution denouncing the Klan. As Norris put it in his trademark style,

suffice to say that every Roman Catholic priest and Knights of Columbus would be glad to sign the [anti-Klan] resolution, and the Pope at Rome will have [anti-Klan Baptists] cannonized [sic] as a Saint for all the ‘faithful’ to worship.

Up in Chicago, a similar Klan debate unfurled in the pages of the Moody Bible Institute Monthly. One contributor from Texas argued in 1923 that evangelicals must not fall for the siren song of Ku-Kluxism. As he wrote, the Klan failed the Biblical sniff test in a number of ways. First, the Bible clearly denounces any sort of anti-Semitism. Second, the Klan’s viciousness was not Christian. When it came to Catholics, this preacher wrote,

The Bible says, ‘Do good to them and pray for them.’ The Klan says, ‘Drive them out.’

In the end, this preacher opined, the Klan should not be supported for merely political ends. Yes, they do fight against alcohol, he admitted. And divorce. And gambling. And other sorts of public sin. But those shared goals did not make the Klan Christian. As he concluded,

The great principle of Christianity is love.  The outstanding principle of Ku Kluxism is hatred.

In response, a preacher from Lancaster, Pennsylvania defended the Klan as a good Christian organization. In the tumultuous ‘twenties, he wrote, subversive communism, drug-peddling immigrants, and corrupt politicians called for drastic action. As he concluded,

Investigate the Klan. So far I have found that the churches never had a more active ally, the state a more determined champion; our homes a more resolute defender, and lawlessness and vice a more powerful foe than the Ku Klux Klan.

The debate in MBIM went on throughout the early years of the 1920s. As celebrity pastor Bob Shuler wrote from California, the Klan had its problems, but overall it deserved evangelical support. Shuler offered a careful six-point list: The Klan defended Protestantism, public schools, “women’s virtue,” law enforcement, and American idealism. Plus, all the enemies of the Klan were dangerous types—bootleggers, pimps, and Catholics. As Shuler concluded,

I have for over twelve months conducted a most comprehensive investigation of the ideals, principles, teachings and activities of the Klan and have come to the slow and deliberate conclusion that there is not now organized in America a more hopeful secret society.

What was the upshot? MBIM editor-in-chief James M. Gray was no Mark Galli. He came out against the Klan in 1924, but in a very wishy-washy way. However, by the middle of the decade it was no longer quite so difficult for white evangelicals to know what to think. A series of scandals plagued the Klan organization and it became clear that they were not spotless warriors for Christian virtue.

None of that has any direct bearing on today’s Trumpist debate, of course. There are a million factors still at play for 2020. In the 1920s, it took blockbuster events such as Indiana’s DC Stephenson’s shocking conviction for a particularly brutal rape to push the debate about the Klan’s virtue off the evangelical front page. Will there be a similar deciding event in the evangelical debate about Trumpism? Has there already been one?