How Columbus Became Conservative

[Editor’s Note: To commemorate Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day, we’ve pulled up this post from the ILYBYGTH archives, originally posted in 2014.]

Christopher Columbus used to vote Democratic, but now he’s a leading voice among America’s cultural conservatives. Not the man himself, of course. But celebrations of Columbus’ life used to be lean to the left. These days, conservatives have become the leading celebrants. How did that happen?

What are the children learning about Columbus?

In these United States, today is officially a federal holiday. Columbus Day was only established as a federally recognized holiday, though, due to the complicated politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Italian immigrants had long lobbied for recognition of their greatest ethnic hero. As Roosevelt cobbled together his powerful but shaky New Deal coalition, he couldn’t afford to alienate any urban constituency. Establishing a federal holiday was a politically cheap way to symbolize Roosevelt’s sympathy with Italian-American voters.

At the time, Christopher Columbus represented Italian pride. Columbus stood for the fact that Italy had produced world-beating explorers and scientists. By the early 1900s, of course, Italy had become a leading source of poor, sometimes-desperate immigrants to the United States. The image of Italian-Americans in the yellow press at the time had become one of poorly educated “garlic-eaters.” Columbus Day’s federal recognition in the 1930s represented both a repudiation of those stereotypes and a recognition of the increasing political clout of Italian-Americans in the Democratic Party.

Today, of course, Christopher Columbus has acquired entirely new meanings as a cultural symbol. Instead of representing the heroic triumph of Italians, Columbus has come to embody the culture war over the settlement of the Americas. On the left, Columbus personifies the nature of that settlement. To leading leftist historian Howard Zinn, for example, Columbus’ quest was for loot, and his method was rapine. As Zinn wrote in his popular People’s History of the United States:

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Today’s leftist activists, too, hope to puncture the heroic legend of Christopher Columbus. As one described it, the main legacy of Christopher Columbus was to turn North America into a “crime scene.

In response, conservative intellectuals have tried to maintain Columbus’ place in the halls of heroes. As the recent controversy over the new Advanced Placement United States History framework has demonstrated, conservatives will unite against anything they perceive as a smear of America’s traditional heroes. For example, long before Dinesh D’Souza rolled out his recent patriotic film, he bashed the left’s tendency to bash Columbus. As D’Souza argued in 1995, Columbus had the moxie to cross a dangerous ocean. And Columbus may have misunderstood Native Americans, but he admired them. The violence came from the native side. As D’Souza put it,

While the first Indians that Columbus encountered were hospitable and friendly, other tribes enjoyed fully justified reputations for brutality and inhumanity. On his second voyage Columbus was horrified to discover that a number of the sailors he left behind had been killed and possibly eaten by the cannibalistic Arawaks.

For many conservatives, as for D’Souza, Columbus has come to represent more than just the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas. For conservatives, Columbus has become the poster child for the proper attitude toward the past. Historians on the left, many conservatives believe, have been very successful in spreading their anti-patriotic smears. The proper thing for conservatives to do, then, is rally around those symbols of traditional American exceptionalism.

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Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

From the Archives: Ummm?

Sometimes you come across stuff you just don’t know what to do with. Here’s one from my recent research for my book about early public schools in the 1800s:chart prepared for a lecture on mnemonics by Wm. B. FowleFowle was an avid lecturer on topics including reading instruction, phrenology, and apparently mnemonics. I can’t tell from the files what this lecture included, but I’m guessing Fowle taught people how to remember these things with a snazzy mnemonic system.

Zuckerberg’s 200-Year-Old Mistake: The “Teacher Problem”

Who could have predicted it? Anyone with the slimmest knowledge of the history of education. I can’t say I’m happy to see it, but I’m not surprised that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100-million plan has died a whimpering death in Newark. It’s the oldest story in ed reform, with over two hundred years of obvious lessons for anyone who cares to look.

booker on oprah

Trust us…we know how to fix schools.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember these two intertwined stories. The first one is the tech-bazillionaire-meets-urban-reformer-on-a-plane story, as giddily announced on Oprah. As related by skeptical reporter Dale Russakoff, here’s it is in brief: Mark Zuckerberg met Newark Mayor Corey Booker on a plane. They talked for a while and Zuckerberg decided that they could use Facebook money to fix Newark’s schools. He pledged $100 million in matching funds to back Booker’s aggressive plans.

Those plans included a lot of elements, but key to all of them was a new attitude toward Newark’s public-school teachers. Zuckerberg, like a lot of his contemporaries, imagined that schools could be saved by rewarding good teachers and eliminating bad teachers. After all, that’s how Facebook made its money.

It didn’t work. As Chalkbeat reports, the last vestiges of that magical moment have been eliminated from Newark’s schools, with a new new teachers’ contract that eliminates most of Zuckerberg’s merit-pay plans.

The second story is a lot older. It is well known to everyone who knows anything about the history of American education. Back then, the governor was DeWitt Clinton, not Chris Christie. The charismatic reformer with the solution to all urban woes was Joseph Lancaster, not Cory Booker. And the money came from the King of England, not Facebook.

But as I’m finding in my current research, the basics of the story are depressingly similar. Consider the situation of New York City’s public schools, circa 1818. The city had gone all in on Lancaster’s reform plan. Like Zuckerberg’s, the basics of the plan revolved around the “problem” of teacher pay. According to Lancaster, expensive teachers could be replaced with free student labor. These student-teachers, called “monitors,” would educate all the kids in New York City without costing much.

Phil manual 1817 show slates

The best kind of teacher has always been the free kind… (from Lancaster’s manual, 1817 edition)

What happened? You could ask Cory Booker. Turns out, teachers don’t like working for nothing. In 1818, New York found that their free student-teachers kept leaving for—get this—paid positions elsewhere. The New York administrators considered some radical options—such as forcing teachers to work for free until they turned 21. Turns out teachers didn’t like that either. The system fell apart.

How could Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, Chris Christie, or Oprah have known any of this? Easy. They could have cracked a book. Just one book. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out two decades ago, school reformers tend to repeat these same mistakes, without giving heed to the obvious lessons of history. To wit: teachers might be part of the problem for schools, but teachers will always be most of the solution. Cramming a shiny new “system” down their throats will not yield good results.

Why Do White Reformers Keep Making This Obvious Mistake?

It seems like it should be obvious. Yet news from KIPP—the nation’s largest non-profit charter-school network—shows that this simple idea is still very difficult for well-meaning school reformers to understand. Why has it taken decades for today’s “visionaries” to learn this centuries-old lesson?

Here’s the latest: According to Chalkbeat, the KIPP network shared some powerful mea culpas at its recent 25-year anniversary meeting. Historically, the schools have tended to attract middle-class white teachers to work with lower-income non-white students. And the KIPP tradition included a “no-excuses” type of classroom management. Students—at times—were required to maintain a rigid silence, marching single-file through hallways, enduring silent lunches, and generally submitting to a harsh-seeming disciplinary scheme.

In many cases, KIPP discipline insisted that non-conforming students be publicly humiliated. After twenty-five years, some of KIPP’s leaders are admitting that such systems don’t work. As Chalkbeat explained,

KIPP was among several charter networks to pioneer a “no excuses” approach to student discipline. That philosophy emphasizes classroom order and obedience in a bid to minimize distraction and raise students’ academic achievement — and has been heavily criticized for largely being meted out to students of color by white educators. Over the last decade, KIPP has walked back some of its earlier practices, notably a punishment known as “the bench,” where students were made to sit apart from their peers, sometimes wear a different colored T-shirt, and remain silent outside official class time.

Turns out, such practices can be effective in the short term. But they build up hostility and anger. They turn school into yet another place for low-income kids to resent and resist. And KIPP is hoping to end its use of public humiliation as a standard practice. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth told Chalkbeat,

“There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out-and-out abhor.” . . . “There were mistakes.” The charter network is still focused on providing “safe and structured environments,” he added, but “that’s very different than processes that shame kids.”

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research about America’s first broad attempt at urban school reform. Two hundred years ago, well-meaning white “visionaries” pioneered KIPP’s journey away from humiliation-as-a-tool.

In the early 1800s, London reformer Joseph Lancaster promised he had figured out a way to solve the problems of poverty. By reforming urban schools, he promised he could educate the hordes of children who thronged the streets of London. Instead of beating students into submission, Lancaster enthused, middle-class white teachers could simply humiliate them. Lancaster’s favorite tool was the “birdcage,” “cradle,” or “basket.”

1810 punishment the basketIn the 1810 edition of his school-reform manual, Lancaster described this technique:

Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.

Even Lancaster acknowledged that this extreme form of public humiliation was “terrible,” but it worked. As one enthusiastic teacher wrote to Lancaster in 1812, suspending kids from the ceiling could work wonders with classroom management. As this teacher put it,

When they 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.

Just like KIPP’s leaders, however, Lancaster’s followers found out that public humiliation was not a good long-term strategy. By 1817, manuals of the Lancasterian system no longer advocated “the basket” or other tools of public humiliation. Instead, they moved to a simpler system of merits and demerits.

Why? Because when Lancasterian schools resorted to public humiliation, students stopped coming. Turns out people don’t like being publicly humiliated. Back in the early 1800s, especially, African-American students and families refused to have their children subjected to the same sorts of punishments that slave-owners had used on southern plantations.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult notion to grasp, yet for two hundred years school leaders have had to “discover” this truth anew. Which leads us to our question for today: Why is it so difficult for reformers to understand that public humiliation is not a good strategy?

From the Archives: School a la Carte

In newspapers from the early 1800s, they are everywhere. Individual proprietors advertised their services to the population of cities. Parents and children could slap together as much education as they could afford, with rates published up front. It might sound like a purely private, market-driven system, but the fine print shows it wasn’t that simple.

a la carte education

From Freedom’s Journal (New York), October 17, 1828

In this case the school was for African-American kids in Philadelphia, c. 1828. As I’ve argued recently in the Washington Post, I think conservatives who dream of injecting more market forces into public education don’t really understand how things worked back when the market WAS in control. As I dig through the newspapers and records of African-American schools in the early 1800s, it is obvious that tuition payments alone could not provide the schools kids needed.

Sure, some families likely thrived with schools like these, but even these “private” academies relied on public funding. As you can see in this advertisement, Philadelphia’s Academy didn’t survive on tuition alone. It also received

liberal patronage from a generous public.

Over time, that patronage evolved into reliable, secure tax funding. Then and only then were schools able to flourish, for both white and black students. When people these days yearn for public schools that don’t rely entirely on tax funding, they don’t seem to realize what they are asking for.

In the bad old days of early public schooling, schools like the Morris’ Alley Academy were forced to cobble together funding from all over the place. I think if Gloucester and Jones could sit down with DeVos and Friedman, they would set them straight.

From the Archives: Who Are Schools REALLY For?

In theory, it’s not surprising. But it’s still always weird to see people talking so blatantly about it. InkedInsurrection 1826_LI

The latest came from my work at the Library Company in Philadelphia. A group of English “Ladies” were raising money in 1826 to educate enslaved people in the West Indies. Their pitch? Educated slaves are the most loyal. As they put it,

wherever insurrections have taken place, the instructed Negroes have invariably been found the most faithful to their masters. It is not surprising that these facts, confirmed as they have been by the reports of other individuals, and now become notorious, should have contributed to remove the prejudices that formerly existed against Negro education.

“Some People Just Don’t Value Education”

Teachers! Has anyone NOT heard this ugly phrase at some point? It’s everywhere. We see it in every new TV show about schools. I’m also finding heavy doses of it in the archives as I work on my new book. For hundreds of years now, the myth has not gone away. And it fuels America’s worst impulses.

insecure no students

From season 2, episode 1: No matter how good the snacks, students just don’t show up

Consider a few examples. These days, when I’m not in the archives, I’m watching Insecure on TV. It’s great. The main character, Issa, works for a non-profit that tries awkwardly to provide educational resources for low-income Black and Latinx students. In season 2, episode 1, she and her co-worker try desperately to bribe students to attend their afterschool tutoring session. At first, when the students do come, they only steal the snacks and run away. What is Issa supposed to do? She can’t help kids with their Geometry if they won’t show up.

Every teacher could tell similar stories. How is it possible—every teacher ever has asked—how is it possible to teach kids who don’t come to school? How can we beef up resources for kids whose parents don’t come to parent-teacher conferences?

Here’s the worst news—there has never been a time when this WASN’T the case. As I’m finding in my current research, two hundred years ago African-American leaders had a very difficult time convincing African Americans in New York and Philadelphia to send their children to the cities’ free schools. As The Reverend Peter Williams preached to the African-American congregants of St. Philip’s in New York City, April 27, 1828, free public schools were available for African-American students, but only a fifth of the city’s eligible black kids attended. As The Rev. Williams exhorted,

Brethren, if any of you have children that are not at school, do send them, and if you see any coloured children in the city, that are not receiving the benefit of an education, do use your influence with their parents, to have them sent to these fountains of wisdom. By so doing you will serve the interests of the community at large, and the interests of your immortal souls. It is a work of that Divine charity, which greater than, either faith or hope, never faileth, and covereth a multitude of sins.

Even back then, there were plenty of low-income families who just didn’t seem to value school. This long and sad history has led some people to a tragically mistaken conclusion. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts every teacher out there has come across it at some point in our careers. We’ll be wondering how to bridge this gap between school and family, and someone will say knowingly, “Some people just don’t value education.”

The implications are clear and they are terrible. The suggestion is that lower-income families, especially non-white ones, don’t put much emphasis on school for their children. The second implication is worse. It is as if teachers are telling one another not to bother TOO much, because no matter what, some families just don’t care.

Anyone spending two seconds in the archive will see that this cynical bit of teacher lore is utterly untrue. It’s just not true that low-income people don’t value schools. Historically, African Americans have always gone to extreme lengths to provide schools and education for their children. In Providence, Rhode Island, for example, a group of African Americans banded together in 1819 to build a schoolhouse for their children. It was burned down twice, but the families persisted. As one (white) sympathizer commented,

The active zeal evinced by many of the people of colour, in the town of Providence, to provide a place for the education of their children, and the public worship of GOD, is, in our opinion, exceedingly laudable, and worthy of the liberal encouragement of all good people. . . . The people of colour in this town, raised among themselves about five hundred dollars. Their Christian friends, sensible that too little attention had been paid to this class of community, cheerfully assisted them by their prayers and advice.

The dedication and devotion of countless real-life communities like the one in Providence raises a difficult question. Namely, if parents and communities were so dead-set on providing schools for their children, no matter what the obstacles, then why did African Americans who had access to free schools in New York and Philadelphia not take advantage of them?

I’ve found a couple of clues during this research trip. Consider, for example, the conclusion of one New York African American writer. This anonymous person wrote in the African-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal (March 30, 1827) that African-American kids should stay in school, even though, as the writer put it,

Is it asked [sic], What avails it, that we educate our children, seeing that having bestowed every attention in our power to meet this end we find them excluded from patronage suited to their attainments? I answer, Persevere in your efforts, and when our too long neglected race, shall have become proportionally in and informed with the white community, prejudice will and must sink into insignificance and give place to liberality and impartiality.

In other words, African American families in 1827 were asking why they should send their children to free schools, when no good jobs awaited at the end. Why should they persevere, if there were nothing but fake promises of “liberality and impartiality” at the end? The writer hoped that prejudice would evaporate, but I’m guessing plenty of families were not so sanguine.

Moreover, they must have wondered why they should send their children to schools where the teachers often resorted to humiliating punishments, including hanging logs around the necks of children and shackling children together to march around the classroom. After all, those were the recommended punishments in the Lancasterian schools in America’s cities. As school reformer Joseph Lancaster admitted, when some people saw his schools in New York and Philadelphia, they protested that

the apparatus of logs, shackles, caravans, &c. were all implementations of slavery.

It’s not hard for me to imagine an African American family in 1827 wanting to avoid a school that punished children in the “apparatus” of slavery. Nevertheless, as the stories from Providence and elsewhere make abundantly clear, African American families have always made incredible sacrifices—and taken incredible risks—to provide schools for their children. They just don’t want to send their children to schools that humiliate their children for no good reason. They don’t want to send their children to schools that don’t prepare them for jobs at the end.

So…are there people who just don’t value education? Probably. There have got to be parents—rich and poor, black and white—who simply can’t be bothered to care too much about their children’s welfare. But it is not true and it never has been true that certain types of people–lower-income, non-white Americans–just don’t care. To the contrary, historically African-American communities have gone to great lengths to overcome legal and extralegal opposition to their schools.

From the Archives: The Bad Old Days of Educational Entrepreneurship

More proof, if more were needed, that today’s bold claims to “free” education from the cold dead hands of bureaucracy are not an innovation, but a step back into the ooze from which public schools evolved. As I argued recently in the pages of the Washington Post, Secretary Betsy Devos’s plans for public education mostly consist of returning schools to the bad old days of the early 1800s. In yesterday’s archive dig, I ran across a sad reminder: Entrepreneurship just doesn’t work when it comes to public education.arthur donaldson school announcementSAGLRROILYBYGTH need no reminder, but here’s a little historical background anyway: Before the mid-1800s, most towns and cities had a mish-mash of school options. In places such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, there were tax-funded schools that were free to attend.

In most towns and cities, there were church schools or entrepreneurial “dame” or “master” schools. The former usually charged some kind of tuition but they also usually raised money to pay for lower-income students. The latter were businesses run by a teacher. These teachers survived by attracting pupils and charging tuition. All in all, it was a fine system for people with money or lucky people without money, but it left a lot of people out.

In 1810, Arthur Donaldson hoped to fix the situation. He was a teacher in a Quaker/Friends-run school for African-American kids. He hoped to broaden the school options for low-income African-American kids by raising more funds from wealthier people to open new schools for students who couldn’t afford to pay tuition. As Donaldson advertised, he wanted

to build a School-house, to admit of two schools, for the accommodation of Children of Colour, males and females separate. And as soon as the income arising from said school will admit (or other means obtained) to procure a well qualified person, to assist him therein. He also has it in view, as the school increases, to reduce the price of tuition, so as to make it more easy to parents of children. . . . he solicits the aid of the Benevolent minded, in hopes that he will meet with encouragement in his undertaking; believing it will be a means of laying a foundation for that which may be of lasting benefit to this neglected class of the community; whose welfare he has sincerely at heart; and is disposed to devote his whole time and attention, without any view of any thing more to himself than a reasonable and moderate living.

Hooray for Donaldson, right? Sounds like good news for the lower-income African-American children of Philadelphia. The catch was, these schools never opened.

Eventually, in 1822, the emerging public-school system of Philadelphia opened a tuition-free school for African-American kids on Mary Street. In 1826 Philly opened a second, the “Gaskill St. School for Negro Girls,” and the Mary Street School became boys-only. In 1828 they added another segregated tuition-free African-American school on Lombard Street.

The take-away? Let’s assume Mr. Donaldson had a pure heart and good intentions. He was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, and he already worked as a teacher in the tuition-charging church school for African-American kids, so he doesn’t seem like a bad guy. As he stipulated, let’s assume that he only wanted to make a “reasonable and moderate living.” He thought the market could support a school for African-American kids. He thought Philadelphia’s wealthy elites could be cajoled into coughing up some of their money to pay for it.

He was wrong. Philanthropy wasn’t enough. Good intentions weren’t enough. Vim, vigor, and smarts weren’t enough. When schools are left to follow market forces, only people with money benefit.

From the Archives: The Best Name Ever

Found this fellow in 1825:

InkedSir Manly Power Malta_LI

…that’s SIR Manly Power to you.