Why Does America Stink?

It’s those damn teachers. At least, that’s the crusty old complaint revived for the Fourth of July holiday by crusty conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. Whether you’re a flag-waver or a flag-burner, there are two big problems with Krauthammer’s sorts of accusations.

Krauthammer was responding to a Fox News poll that says only a bare majority of Americans are proud of America. And a huge majority think the Founding Fathers would be saddened by the way things are today.

Why the funk?

Krauthammer blames a long march of leftists. “Starting in the Sixties,” he told Tucker Carlson,

the counter-cultural left had a strategy…[they] went into the professions – the teaching professions, and they’ve essentially taken over. That generation of radicals runs the universities, they run the teachers’ unions, they run the curricula.

The left-wing teachers, Krauthammer insisted, had taught defenseless kids “abnormal, anti-American, and destructive” ideas. Since the 1960s, Krauthammer explained, the Left’s long game had undermined American patriotism.

Krauthammer Kommentary

Can you spot the two blunders…?

Let’s put to one side the most obvious problem with Krauthammer’s Fox-usations. The Fox poll found—surprise!—that Democrats tended to be less proud of the current state of the county. Well…duh. Of course a majority of Democrats are not “proud” of the current state of the United States. Of course a lot of Americans are feeling sketchy about the current direction of America’s leadership.

And, to be fair, that is the first place Krauthammer looked. He started by saying that people’s feelings about Trump are the most likely culprit for the poll results. But then he goes on to make two common assumptions that drive teachers and historians bonkers.

First, he inflated the power of schools and teachers. He related a story of his own family’s school. He had to protest, he said, to get his children’s school to teach any European history at all. Left to their own devices, the teachers would have utterly ignored anything European in their fervent quest to teach children about the rest of the world.

Ask any teacher, though, and they’ll tell you how it really is: Kids’ politics are shaped by their families and friends, not by their forty-five minute social-studies lessons. All of us who try to teach US History have had experiences similar to the one related by Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. Wineburg studied a history teacher who tried to teach his class about the Vietnam War. To his chagrin, he found that his high-school students had already made up their minds about it. For some students, the moral quandaries of the war had been settled at home around the dinner table, long before the school bell rang.

Moreover, Krauthammer repeats the wrong-headed assumption made by pundits both left and right. He assumes that the tension over patriotism and schooling began in the 1960s. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Krauthammer’s jeremiad about leftist teachers could have come from almost any decade. Conservatives have ALWAYS assumed that left-wing teachers had taken over the schools. There’s nothing “Sixties” about it.

If you switched the dates around, in fact, it would be difficult to tell them apart, whether they came from the 1930s, the 1960s, or today. Consider the punditry of B. C. “Bertie” Forbes. Forbes built up his business journalism into the magazine that bears his name. Long before Fox News, long before the “Sixties,” Forbes was out-Krauthammering Krauthammer with his accusations against sneaky left-wing infiltration of the teaching professions.

Forbes complaint

Cranky before cranky was cool…

The problem, Forbes explained in his syndicated newspaper column, was that universities had been “infested” with “radical professors.” Those left-wingers, Forbes charged, had taken over the teaching profession. A set of textbooks by Harold Rugg, especially, set a dangerous tone. And, just like Krauthammer, Forbes assumed that those books had the power to instantly convert and confuse America’s schoolchildren. “If I were a youth,” Forbes wrote to his local school-board president,

I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

Just like Krauthammer, Forbes relied on his own experiences to prove his accusations. Forbes visited a junior-high school, for example, and asked students if they loved America. They told him they weren’t allowed to. Their teacher—reading dronishly from her left-wing textbook—had informed them that “There are several other countries that have as good a form of government as ours.”

Forbes was shocked. He couldn’t blame the “Sixties,” but he didn’t need to. He took to the pages of his syndicated column to share his outrage. “Do American parents,” Forbes asked,

want their children taught such ideas? Do they want them to be inculcated with the idea that the United States is a second-rate country, that its form of government is open to question, that there are other countries more happily circumstanced and governed than ours?

For Forbes in 1939, just as much for Krauthammer today, the danger was real and immediate. Leftist teachers hoped to warp the minds of their pupils with their anti-American ideas.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let’s keep two things in mind as we celebrate the Fourth of July. First, whatever pundits might say, teachers and schools don’t have the power to dictate patriotism. Even if they wanted to—and they have wanted to!—schools couldn’t cram pro- or anti-American feelings down kids’ throats. In the end, schools only have a smallish influence on what people really think.

Second, if you share Krauthammer’s pessimism about schools today, don’t share his short-sighted historical blunders. We can’t blame or praise the “Sixties” as the roots of today’s culture wars. The Sixties were just another round of a conflict that had started long before.

HT: MM

From the Archives: Klan Kollege

Higher ed can be exclusionary. For students who don’t have the funds for tuition or the money for SAT prep classes or the ability to focus on four (or more) years of post-secondary education, college has always been out of reach. At some schools, though, there has been another sinister reason why college was not for everyone. Scott Jaschik reports today in Inside Higher Education about the Ku Klux Klan konnections of Wesleyan College in Atlanta. It’s an important story, but they left out the most extraordinary part.

Wesleyan’s story has plenty of shockers. Students had been proudly affiliated with the Klan since the late 1800s, with sports teams sporting the name “Tri-Ks” until the 1990s. Students hazed one another in masks with nooses. The school didn’t admit an African-American student until 1968. But the story of Wesleyan is not the most intriguing story of the Ku Klux Klan in higher education. At the height of its influence, the “second” Klan in the 1920s made plans to purchase its own Klan Kollege.Daily-Republican-Rushville-IN-August-16-1923

A little background: The 1920s Klan was very different than its earlier and later incarnations. As I note in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s the Klan was still violent and racist, but it had much more mainstream credibility than later Klan groups.

During the 1920s, ambitious leader Hiram Evans planned to use the issue of education to bring together the millions of Klan members nationwide. As I’ve argued in an academic article, the plan was to mimic anti-immigrant mainstream educational ideas left over from World War I. Public schools, Evans believed, could be the tool to “Americanize” the nation.

fiery cross pic valpo

Spoke a little too soon…

At the height of its popularity, the 1920s Klan ran the states of Indiana and Oregon. They were enormously politically powerful. As part of their soaring ambition, they hoped to invest in the future by building their own university.

How? They proposed to purchase the financially strapped Valparaiso University in Indiana. It would become a dedicated Klan school, an institution that would teach the principles of Ku Kluxism, Indiana-style. Valpo would become the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” Klan leaders promised. The school would teach the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the 1920s Klan. As they explained in their Indiana newspaper,

Those un-American and alien forces that would disrupt every move that is planned to better any Protestant undertaking are busy stirring up strife and discord where possible in an attempt to block the project. The futility of such attempts, however, is realized when it is noted that whatever the Ku Klux Klan starts out to do, it always does. In this instance, the Klan has started out to make Valparaiso a great national institution; to make it a monument to American ideals and principles.

Fiery-Cross-August-24-1923

Big dreams of Klan Kollege

It didn’t work. Due to feuding between the powerful leader of the Indiana Klan and the national leadership in Atlanta, the money fell through at the last minute. It still shows, though, how higher education has always been central to America’s long-running culture wars. For the 1920s Klan to cement its role as a real leader in American culture, it wanted to have its own college. Other conservative groups–from fundamentalists to free-marketeers–have had more success.

Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.

Fundamentalist U: Leading from Behind

Ban fraternities. In the wake of the gruesome party death of Tim Piazza, that’s the call going out. Historian Jon Zimmerman makes the case for getting rid of frats in the pages of Philly.com. Whether you buy it or not, the argument against fraternities was made a long time ago at conservative evangelical colleges. But not for the reasons you might think.

fred flintstone grand poobah

What’s not to like?

As I describe in my new book, many fundamentalist colleges in the 1920s saw fraternities as a danger. Not, as Professor Zimmerman argues, because they encourage booze-fueled sexual aggression and elitism.

Rather, banning fraternities was part of the old-evangelical animus against secret societies in general. In the 1920s, President Charles Blanchard of Wheaton College inherited his father’s deep distrust of fraternities. And Masons, Mooses, Klansmen . . . any other secret group.

Indeed, for President Blanchard, banning fraternities was one of the primary goals of establishing new, trustworthy fundamentalist schools. As he geared up to swing Wheaton into the fundamentalist camp, Blanchard conducted a survey of 54 religious colleges in the Midwest. Blanchard wanted to know how many schools had veered away from the prime directives of good Christian higher education.

Here is the letter Blanchard sent to his fellow college presidents in April, 1919:

My dear Sir:-

I am requested to ascertain the teaching of the colleges of our country respecting the moral and religious matters.  I, therefore, beg information from you respecting the college of which you are President in regard to the following matters:

First. What is the position of the college over which you have the honor of presiding respecting the Christian faith of the students?

Second. What is the teaching of your scientific and sociological chairs respecting the doctrine of evolution.

Third. Are dancing, card playing, use of tobacco and intoxicants permitted to your teachers or students or both?

Fourth.  What position does your college take respecting secret associations in college or out of college?

Fifth.  Does your college hold that the Bible is the inspired word of God or that portions of it are or that none of it is?

I thank you heartily for you kind reply to these questions.  Going to such a large number of colleges, I think the replies will furnish us with a fair view of the present college situation regarding these important matters.

Very Truly yours,

Most of the items are fairly standard fundamentalist fare. The Bible needs to be reverenced. Student morals need to be policed. Evolution needs to be banned.

But the “secret-society” thing seems odd. Nevertheless, Blanchard considered this one of the most important ways to see if a school could be considered truly Christian.

Why?

The danger with fraternities, Blanchard believed, did not come from their encouragement of profligate lifestyles. Rather, for Blanchard, fraternities were just the collegiate wing of a vast network of anti-Christian secret societies. The initiation rites and mumbo-jumbo of secret societies, Blanchard believed, threatened to replace real religion with a soul-destroying counterfeit.

The fear of fraternity life at fundamentalist universities was not incidental, but rather a foundational element of the driving force to establish a new, purer Christian college.

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

Wish me luck–I’m on my way to the Sunshine State.  Thanks to my colleague Sevan Terzian, I’ll be giving a keynote talk at the University of Florida’s research symposium this evening.  I can’t wait.

What will I be talking about?  Well, you’ll have to wait until after the talk for a synopsis, but I can tell you that I’ll be using these images from my research into twentieth-century educational conservatism.

Allen Zoll’s attack on progressive education, from Pasadena, 1950

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

Watch out for communism in your local school, c. 1951

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974

Why Go to Fundamentalist U? To Get a Better Job!

Why should students go to a fundamentalist university? For about a century, the argument has always been the same. A new marketing campaign by fundamentalist behemoth Bob Jones University shows that the times, they are a’changin.

Pettit on BJU

What is school for? Careers!

To be fair, Bob Jones University has always insisted that its graduates would have the absolute best academic education. Back in its earliest days, founder Bob Jones Sr. insisted that the school would keep children both theologically safe and academically privileged. As he put it in 1928,

The 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 teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

Jones’s very next line, though, showed that he understood what parents really wanted in a college. Not only should it keep kids Christian, but it should also prepare them for professions. In his words,

Your son and daughter can get in the Bob Jones College everything that they can get in any school of Liberal Arts.

In 1949, Bob Jones Sr. re-emphasized the point that his school—now a University—would always insist on the very best academics. As he put it,

We have always insisted that an educational institution with the right kind of spiritual standards will maintain the highest possible academic standards.

It’s fair to say, however, that for marketing purposes, the biggest selling point of BJU in the past was its staunch commitment to fundamentalist Protestantism. Other schools may waver, the Bob Joneses have always promised, but BJU would never budge.

If you wanted your child to have a college experience firmly dedicated to fundamentalism and only fundamentalism, the message was, BJU is for you.

In the 1950s, for example, as “fundamentalist” schools were separating from “neo-evangelical” colleges, BJU sold itself as the unapologetic fundamentalist choice. So unapologetically, in fact, that leading evangelical magazines such as Moody Monthly refused to run its advertisements for fear of alienating good evangelical readers.bju canceled MM ad full again good one RIGHT SIDE UP

Today, in contrast, BJU’s President Steven Pettit offers fundamentalist families a very different primary reason for attending his school. Why should they attend BJU? For its unbeatable record of preparing students for high-flying professional careers. BJU students, President Pettit promises, do better at passing med-school exams, accounting exams, nursing exams, and engineering exams.

As Pettit puts it,

If you’re looking for a college worth the investment of your time and money, a college that will prepare you well for future employment, and help you to grow spiritually in the process, Bob Jones University is the place for you. . . . I think you’ll find BJU provides the value you’re looking for.

Why go to Fundamentalist U? To get a better job!

More proof that schools such as Bob Jones University are not quite as different as other colleges and universities as we might think.

Time to Bury the Fundamentalist Hatchet?

Maybe there’s hope for us all. In the world of evangelical higher education, the relationship between fundamentalist Bob Jones University and evangelical Wheaton College has always been a rocky one. According to a story in the Wheaton Record [sorry, not available online], last week BJU president Steve Pettit visited Wheaton’s campus, the first time a Jones leader has done so in a long time. There were smiles all around. Does this mean that the times they are a-changin?

Smiles, everyone, smiles...

Smiles, everyone, smiles…

For those who don’t know their history, last week’s visit may have seemed like no big deal. The leader of one evangelical college visited another evangelical college. What’s the big whoop? As I’m discovering in the research for my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this détente may signal an important shift in the worlds of fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Since the beginning in the 1920s, leaders of the two schools fought viciously. BJU founder Bob Jones Sr. accused sitting Wheaton president J. Oliver Buswell of jealousy. Jones wrote,

Dr. Buswell and his field staff working under him were putting out propaganda everywhere that Bob Jones’ credits had no value and that we were misrepresenting facts when we told students that our graduates were admitted to leading graduate schools. . . . [Buswell is a] conceited, frustrated, ambitious, disappointed man.

Ouch. For his part, Buswell retorted that he had never said such things, had never been anything but friendly and helpful to Jones’s new school. What he had done, Buswell admitted, was protest against the sin-friendly policies at Bob Jones College. For those who don’t know their Wheaton history, it may come as a shock to find out that in the early days, Wheaton accused Bob Jones of not being fundamentalist enough. Wheaton’s President Buswell had critiqued Bob Jones’s new school in a review of a book of Jones’s sermons. The sermons themselves were first-rate, Buswell wrote.

But Dr. Jones, let me ask you a question or two. Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

Double ouch.

Things never got much better from that point on. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder and second president of Bob Jones University, told a story of his father’s traveling days. One time, Jones Sr. was on a train with some Wheaton students. One of the students, “trying to be very smart,” asked Jones how Bob Jones College could allow dramatic productions and still call itself fundamentalist. As Bob Jones Jr. explained,

Wheaton used to turn up their self-righteous noses at our drama, but they played inter-collegiate football, which we had had to give up at Bob Jones University because we found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles when they came out to see us play; and we found that inter-collegiate athletics were a definite blight to our spiritual lives.

By the 1970s, the relationship turned from one of frigid civility to outright hostility. In 1974, Bob Jones III officially changed the status of Wheaton in BJU’s internal coding system from “Friendly” to “Unfriendly.” Jones’s secretary explained the shift in an internal memo:

The above school or organization has been coded “F”; however, Dr. Bob III, has changed the code now to “U” to make our coding system more consistent. It has been a problem for some people because an organization or school would be coded “F” but we would treat them like “U” people.

From that point on, BJU officials would not even maintain their polite façade of cooperation with Wheaton officials. In 1977, an administrator from Wheaton wrote to Bob Jones III to ask for guidance in establishing a student drama program. He asked if Jones would offer some tips from its long experience with such programs. Through a secretary, Jones informed the Wheaton official, “because of the Neo-Orthodox position of Wheaton College, we are unable to give you the assistance you request.”

Pettit visits wheaton 2

No self-righteous noses here…

Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.

Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.

First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.

Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.

Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.

If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.

From the Archives: A Satanic Cult Leader for the GOP

US News & World Report calls him the “evangelical darling.” By some counts, he is the second-most-popular candidate in the GOP scrum. But for anyone familiar with the history of evangelical Protestants in the USA, it can be shocking that a Seventh-day Adventist such as Ben Carson can be so popular among conservative voters. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that conservative evangelicals considered Seventh-day Adventism to be trick of Satan, a cult to lure unwary believers.

Kings Business anti SDA 1For those unfamiliar with the denomination, SDA had its origins in the “Great Disappointment.” In the mid-1800s, William Miller predicted the imminent return of Christ. Some true believers sold everything to prepare for the end of the world. When October 22, 1844 came and went, some folks reasonably concluded that Miller had been wrong.

But not everybody. One splinter group, guided by Prophet Ellen G. White, explained that Christ had come and gone, but it had been a spiritual event, invisible to the mundane eye. White experienced visions of God and angels, creation and the end of time.

Her followers coalesced into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unlike other Christian groups, SDA members had reason to believe that creation had been a literal six-day event. They had reason to believe that it had taken place within the past 10,000 years. After all, White had been shown it all.

This is the church from which Dr. Carson comes. Unlike some presidential contenders in the past, he has made no noise about separating himself from the teachings of his church. Quite the contrary. He has publicly and repeatedly embraced them.

So far, so good.

What remains shocking for those who know their SDA history is that Dr. Carson has been publicly and repeatedly embraced by evangelical Protestants. It was not so very long ago, after all, that evangelical intellectuals blasted SDA beliefs in the harshest terms.Kings Business anti SDA 2

Writing in the 1919 publication of the founding conference of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, George Guille described SDA this way:

It is Satan’s stroke against the throne and the heart of God.

Hrm.

And a few years later, in 1921, in the pages of The King’s Business, the magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola University) one writer described SDA in similar no-holds-barred language. Jessie Sage Robertson warned Biola’s cult expert Keith L. Brooks that SDA was a dangerous cult. As she put it,

Strange, isn’t it, that a whole body of religionists should decry Spiritism as of the devil, and yet accept a whole system of Biblical interpretation received by one [Ellen G. White] in a state of non-self control?

Too many evangelical pastors, Robertson believed, were not aware of these “false religious systems” with “their soul-destroying dangers.”

If I were an SDA neurosurgeon, I might feel a little trepidation at accepting the friendship of such recent enemies. I might not feel excited to be welcomed by people who had so recently accused my religion of such terrible crimes.

Now, I’m not as dumb as I look. I am aware that these warnings are all from a long time ago. I am aware that our last round of elections brought a leader of the Latter-day Saints Church (the Mormons) to staunchly fundamentalist Liberty University to speak.

But I am also aware that schools such as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago STILL sell charts warning true believers of the dangers of “cults” such as Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism.

The point, however, is not that evangelicals should or should not embrace Dr. Carson. Rather, the point for all of us is that evangelical belief is always changing.

For progressive secular folks (like me), we need always to remember that evangelicalism is not somehow a product of a past America. Evangelical Protestants are not trapped in time, either from the Victorian 1870s or the Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s.

And conservative evangelicals need always to remember that their religion is changing, no matter what they might hear. It can be tricky in evangelical circles to talk about religious change, since so much of evangelicalism is based on remaining true to God’s Unchanging Word. Smart evangelicals, however, will be the first to tell you that human interpretation of God’s Word is always changing, and always riddled with errors.

Will evangelical voters vote for a member of a Satanic Cult? Time will tell, but it seems most evangelicals have put that past behind them.

Are We Too Polite to Tell Our Children the Truth?

It’s not a secret. The roots of Memorial Day lie twisted with America’s toughest problems of race and region. But my hunch is that very few Memorial Day speeches mentioned such things. In addition to the vexing problems of knowledge and politics that cause our continuing educational culture wars, I think we need to add one surprisingly boring cause.

Historian David Blight has argued convincingly that the first Memorial Day (Decoration Day back then) was part of a furious effort by African American Southerners to defend the memory of Union soldiers buried in the South. On May 1, 1865, the first Memorial Day celebration took place on Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina.

That first Memorial Day did not bring Americans together. It celebrated the victory of the Union. It celebrated the end of slavery. It used a display of African American military force to make the point to white Southerners that the old days were gone forever.

A dozen years later, of course, many of those white former Confederates had regained political power in the South. African American freedoms had been wrested away by vengeful white elites North and South. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Professor Blight tells us in Race & Reunion, North and South had come together to celebrate the heroics of white soldiers on both sides. Memorial Day had come to be a celebration of white unity, at the cost of African American rights.

What would YOU tell them?

What would YOU tell them?

Why don’t we tell any of that to our children? I think there are two obvious culprits and one surprisingly banal one.

Around these parts, local historians like to remind us that the official first Memorial Day took place in Waterloo, New York. In 1966, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson decreed that Waterloo was the birthplace of the tradition. That’s a comforting story everyone can get behind. And it points out the many reasons why we don’t tell ourselves the story of the Charleston Race Track.

First, lots of us just don’t know. We might not have read Professor Blight’s book. In all fairness, we might assume that the history we get in our newspapers and from our parents is the truth.

Second, there has been significant political activism to make sure we don’t know. As Professor Blight detailed, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked hard to obscure the race-conscious history of Memorial Day. In textbooks and historical markers, in schools and in Memorial-Day speeches, activists such as Mildred Rutherford insisted that the memory of the Confederacy must be honored.

What not to know and how not to know it...

What not to know and how not to know it…

But above and beyond ignorance and activism, there is a far more basic reason why we don’t talk much about the still-festering racial issues at the real root of Memorial Day. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, we can see the same operation at work in questions about evolution and sex education in public schools as well.

As I argue in my new book about conservative school activism in the twentieth century, conservatives have often had a very easy time vetoing ideas or methods in public-school classrooms or textbooks. Why? Because they didn’t have to disprove the ideas, they only had to insist that such ideas were controversial.

Public schools are surprisingly similar to polite dinner parties. Not because everyone’s manners are at their best, but because any topic that is perceived as controversial is taboo. Teachers will avoid it; administrators will recoil from it.

We’ve seen this over and over throughout the twentieth century, in subject after subject.

Here in scenic Binghamton, New York, for example, in 1940, school Superintendent Daniel Kelly yanked a set of history textbooks from the district’s classrooms. Why? Not because he disliked them. He told a reporter, “Personally, it’s the kind of book I want my children to have. To say it is subversive is absurd.” However, he was willing to get rid of them in order to “stop the controversy” about them.

A few years later, in 1942, an enterprising group of academics tried to determine why so few teachers taught evolution. They mailed a survey to a representative group of teachers nationwide. Overall, they found that fewer than half of America’s biology teachers taught anything close to recognizable evolutionary science. Why not? In the words of one of their respondents, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.”

When it comes to Memorial Day, this polite impulse to avoid controversy must be part of our loud silence about the roots of the holiday. Who wants to be the boor at the cookout who turns a sentimental get-together into a racial confrontation? Who is willing to tell the gathered Boy Scouts and VFW members that their parade is a charade, since it has its roots in the reinstitution of American racial slavery? Who is willing to tell kids in class that their long weekend is really a reminder of America’s long and continuing race war?

Such things are simply not done.

In addition to the obvious culture-war culprits of knowledge and politics, we need to remember this obvious fact: Teaching the truth is rude.

From the Archives: A Creationist Mother’s Day Puzzler

What’s a Presbyterian to do? Especially at the staunchly conservative Princeton Seminary at the end of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian intellectuals wrestled with the questions posed by their creationist theology. One problem remained particularly stubborn and particularly relevant to Mother’s Day.

B.B. Warfield was no liberal. He was largely responsible for the “Princeton Theology” that bequeathed to American fundamentalism a vital notion. Along with his colleague A.A. Hodge, Warfield argued that we must read the Bible as inerrant in its original autographs. That is, later translators may have messed things up here and there, and we may certainly err in our understanding of the Bible, but real orthodoxy requires us to believe that the inspired writers of the Bible did not make mistakes.

All about Eve...

All about Eve…

Among the many gems in Bradley Gundlach’s book about Princeton and the “evolution question,” we find Warfield’s notes about Eve and evolution.

In the late 1800s, Warfield and the other lions of orthodoxy at Princeton wondered what evolutionary ideas meant for orthodox belief. Could an evolutionary theory fit in with a universe that had been planned for eternity by an all-knowing God? If evolution could be separated from its materialistic assumptions, could it be used as a way to understand God’s plan for humanity?

As Professor Gundlach argues, time and again Princeton’s conservative thinkers said yes. They objected to the assumptions that some people wrongly associated with evolution—that it was random, directionless, and atheistic, for instance. But they embraced the notion that God had developed all life from earlier forms. Just as a tree rests within the potentiality of a seed, so all life may have developed from simpler forms, the Princetonians insisted.

In short, most Old Princetonians embraced what has been called “theistic evolution,” a notion similar to what some folks today call “evolutionary creationism.”

There was one tough sticking point, however. As Professor Gundlach describes, in Warfield’s lectures on anthropology from the late 1800s, he struggled with the theological implications of evolution. Warfield asked himself and his students if a God-guided evolution was

consistent with the Biblical account of the origin of things in general & of man in particular.

According to Gundlach, Warfield answered with a qualified yes. The only problem Warfield saw was at the root of Mother’s Day. As Warfield explained in his anthropology class,

I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Gen I & II or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution. The sole passage which appears to bar the way is the very detailed account of the creation of Eve.

The rest of the Genesis account of creation, Warfield believed, could be read without doing violence to its original meaning as a poetic description of evolution. But Eve was different. The Mother of Humanity was made by a special divine act, in language starkly different from that of the rest of Genesis.

For Warfield, at least, evolution need pose no problem for Christians. Only the question of Eve needed to be resolved.