Can HBCUs and Fundamentalist U Learn from Each Other?

Is there a common denominator? It is not easy these days to be a small college or university. Both public and private colleges are closing their doors. It seems as if some purpose-built institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and evangelical colleges might be able to learn from one another.

Ken Ham hooded at Bryan

Desperate times at Bryan College

Both are in tight spots. Evangelical colleges like Bryan College in Tennessee, for instance, has slashed tuition in the face of dropping enrollments. And many HBCUs find themselves, in the words of a recent report,

facing existential threats and will need to be transformed, reinvigorated, to ensure that their futures are as vibrant as their pasts.

In addition to the usual financial pressures facing all institutions of higher education, HBCUs and evangelical colleges find themselves losing students due, in part, to broader trends in American culture. Some evangelical college—like Gordon College near Boston—have had a hard time convincing evangelical families to pony up extra money for a uniquely evangelical experience. And some HBCUs find themselves in a new competition for African-American students with historically white universities.

The news is not all bad. Some evangelical institutions—like Trevecca Nazarene in Nashville—have plenty of students. And some HBCUs—like the well-endowed Spelman College—are not on the verge of closing.

spelman

Doing fine…

Moreover, both HBCUs and evangelical colleges can hope for financial fillips by taking advantage of their unique cultural niches. Gordon College, for example, recently attracted a huge donation by emphasizing the school’s cultural conservatism. And HBCUs can hope for more public support, based on the promises of leading Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren.

But both types of schools would be wise to heed the advice of a recent report about HBCUs. As it recommended,

The schools will need to further engage alumni beyond homecoming events and Greek life. It may also be helpful for them to create broader marketing campaigns — to lobby school counselors and state departments of education to better explain the richness of HBCUs — explicitly encouraging students of other races to apply as well.

Similarly, evangelical colleges would be wise to explore possible pools of students who might be interested in their unique type of higher education. Beyond evangelical families, who else might be interested in a college that promises a conservative Christian consensus among its faculty? Conservative Catholics? Conservatives in mainline Protestant churches? International evangelical organizations?

The numbers don’t have to be enormous to make an enormous impact. With yet another evangelical college closing its doors this semester, evangelical leaders will need to do something, fast.

Why Do Charter Schools Have the Better Stories?

You probably remember Waiting for Superman. To the chagrin of pro-public-school folks like me, the movie told a compelling story of low-income students hoping against hope to find a spot at a charter school. Now a new movie is telling another pro-charter story, a compelling one. Does the anti-charter crowd have any stories that can compete?

First, a little full disclosure: I’m not neutral about charter schools. Like a lot of public-school advocates, I have long hoped to maintain funding and oversight of schools within the public-school system. But I recognize that plenty of charter-school advocates had good ideas and good intentions. I agree that some charter schools have done great things. No matter what our disagreements about school funding and oversight, though, the politics of charter schools have devoured the reasonable policy discussions about them.

This morning, though, I’d like to ask a different question: Why do the charter-school folks seem to have all the best movies? Waiting for Superman was emotionally compelling. And Miss Virginia sounds like it is, too. The story, as I hear it told by the charter-lovers at Fordham, is one of a heroic mother struggling against all odds to save her child from an inadequate public-school system.

She works her fingers to the bone to raise money for private-school tuition, all for naught. Finally she finds a political ally to help her in her Erin-Brockovich-style campaign. As the Fordham review describes,

[Virginia] Walden joins forces with an unlikely ally—white, Harvard-educated Congressman Clifford Williams, played by Matthew Modine. While most of the black elected officials fight against Miss Virginia’s efforts to increase educational options for the children in her community, this Ivy League–educated white dude who loves long-shot legislation and golf becomes invaluable to her efforts.

Sounds like a great story. And that’s the question for today. Where are the great stories from the anti-charter-school side? Are there movies and books out there telling the tragic human tale of scam artists squeezing out tax dollars to line their own pockets? Of charter-school students left high and dry when their inadequately supervised charter schools blow town and leave them holding the bag?

It’s not like we don’t lack the material for emotional, powerful, human-scale stories explaining why we need to maintain funding and oversight in the public-school system. But where are the movies/books/memoirs? Am I just not aware of them? And if they’re not out there, why not?

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

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Impeachment in classrooms, impeachment among evangelicals…and a few stories NOT about impeachment this week, too.

How can Smithsonian tour guides defuse anger about good science? At RNCSE.

most volunteers make a rookie mistake: they focus on what their response should be, rather than taking the time to understand the values and fears of the person they’re speaking with. Often, this takes the form of focusing on communicating the science. While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Impeachment in the classroom:

Imagine, for example, a project in which students listen to the Nixon tapes and make the case for and against impeachment in that historical context. Students might research impeachment’s constitutional context as a congressional power and how the Founding Fathers saw this process as a safeguard for democracy.

Teachers might worry about taking on such a controversial political topic, either because they don’t have time for it in a packed regular curriculum, or because they worry about the discussion getting out of hand, possibly angering parents and administrators. But there are ways to treat this as a learning opportunity rather than a political smackdown, especially because many students may raise the news in class and look to teachers for clarification.

Historian Peggy Bendroth wonders why mainline Protestant women didn’t act angrier, at RA.

I am beginning to think the psychological issue isn’t actually mine at all—it’s those churchwomen I’m trying to write about, ladies with pillbox hats and big corsages, smiling gamely from the pages of denominational magazines. How can you tell a compelling human story with so much of its emotional valence buried out of sight?

I cannot believe that they were not angry—i.e., furious beyond measure at being belittled, patronized, and ignored, many years of education and prodigious talents wasted, while they watched feckless male bureaucrats rise through the ranks and then write books about their own accomplishments.

bendroth RAWill the impeachment investigation push some white conservative evangelicals closer to Trump? At AP.

“I do feel like we are, as Christians, the first line of defense for the president,” Christina Jones, 44, said before [Franklin] Graham took the stage. Trump is “supporting our Christian principles and trying to do his best,” she added, even as “everybody’s against him.” . . . In the crowd at Graham’s tour, which will stop in six more North Carolina cities over the next 10 days, believers had reserved their concern for Trump’s Democratic antagonists. “They’re just digging things up and making things up just to try to take him down, and I don’t think that’s fair,” said Mike Fitzgerald, 64.

Students know the rules about prayer in public schools, but many don’t care. At PRC.

Nationwide, roughly four-in-ten teens (including 68% of evangelical Protestant teens) who go to public school say they think it is “appropriate” for a teacher to lead a class in prayer. Some of the teens who express this view are unaware of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But most know what the law is; 82% of U.S. teens in public schools (and 79% of evangelical teens) correctly answer a factual question about the constitutionality of teacher-led prayer in public school classrooms.

Federal judge rules in favor (again) of campus Christian groups, at IHE.

When is “Bring Your Bible to School” Day? Every day, at R&P.

Bringing a Bible to school (public or private) is a legal, common, and regular practice in the U.S. . . . The federal government protects this right, unequivocally. Hindrances in the U.S. to the practice of Christian religious freedom are rare, usually stem from confusion around school policy, and are often quickly resolved.

It might take more than 6,000 to figure out all the financial connections. New Yorker story unpicks the connections between real-estate deals, Congressmen, dinosaur fossils, and sad homeschool “research” trips. HT: CS.

What is school reform like? Larry Cuban reviews the metaphors. Jalopy? Or old house?

Over the years I have used the image of a jalopy.

Incremental change means sanding and re-painting the old car. Getting a tune-up, new tires, and replacement car seats for the torn ones–you get the idea.

Fundamental (or transformational or radical) change, however, refers to giving up the car and getting a different kind of transportation–biking, bus or rapid transit, walking, car pooling, etc.

“Court evangelicals” and the culture of fear, at TWOILH.

John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois.  There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid.  They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety.  Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.

Ouch. Bad news for the Education Department. It was the second-least-favored federal department in a recent survey. Plus, more Republicans (55%) like the EPA than the Ed Dept. (48%). At PRC.

Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Teachers: Do you buy it? American Enterprise Institute says the ‘underpaid-teacher’ thing is a myth.

predictions generated by the underpaid-teacher hypothesis — such as that teachers must have high quit rates, or that a large percentage of their income flows from second jobs — are not supported by the data. Teachers as a group are generally well compensated, and teacher pay and benefits have risen faster over time than compensation in private-sector jobs. Failure to recognize these facts can lead education reform down a blind alley.

Can universities accept philanthropy tainted by the Oxycontin scandal? Many have, at AP.

Oxford, the University of Glasgow in Scotland and Cornell each received $5 million to $6 million, tax records show. Columbia University followed with nearly $5 million, while Imperial College London and McGill University in Montreal each received more than $3 million.

It’s not only K-12 schools. Preschool programs are even more segregated by race, at Hechinger.

early learning programs are twice as likely to be nearly 100 percent black or Hispanic than kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Empathize with Racists? Really?

Historians—especially K-12 teachers and public historians—have been struggling with the challenges of teaching the history of slavery. It is time for us to learn from the dearly bought experiences of our science-education colleagues. The hardest lesson of all? Sometimes it’s not about being right.

BBC slave plantation

Sometimes tourists say some nasty things. What should we do about it?

First, some background: You’ve probably seen the disturbing stories lately about how difficult it can be to teach tourists about the history of slavery. At Monticello, for example, tourists ask guides not to focus so much on the negative stuff. In South Carolina, tourists sometimes actually defend the institution of slavery. As the BBC reported recently,

“Slavery was not that bad – it’s probably the number one thing we hear,” says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams.

“To my face, people have said: Well, they had a place to sleep. They had meals, they had vegetables.”

It’s not only museums that are having problems. As one contributor to the NYT’s 1619 project described, the history of slavery in the USA has long been ignored by schools, at best. In her words,

It’s ugly. For generations, we’ve been unwilling to do it. Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.

So what are history teachers to do? There are a lot of resources out there to help students understand the history of slavery, like Teaching Tolerance, PBS, and Stanford History Education Group materials.

But there’s another place to look that might not seem obvious at first. Like historians, science educators have been struggling for generations to break through popular hostility toward central scientific ideas. Most powerfully these days, many people have a strong visceral distrust of any ideas about human evolution and human-caused climate change.

How have science educators grappled with these challenges? What can historians learn?

In the latest edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Kate Carter describes the ways she trains tour guides at the Smithsonian. Carter knows that many visitors will come already hostile to the messages of mainstream science. They are often already convinced that concepts of deep time and human-caused climate change are bogus. For example, she describes one typical couple that walked away from the information concluding, “There are two sides to every story.”

rncse empathy

Can history educators learn from this kind of science-ed training?

What are educators to do? We can’t just throw up our hands and conclude that some people are just not willing to learn about science or history. Carter suggests we avoid a simple “rookie mistake.” Instead of preparing to bombard our students or visitors with the evidence for our cases—whether it be about human evolution or American slavery—we should start with a very different idea: EMPATHY.

Make no mistake: Carter is not suggesting we avoid the subject, or agree that there are simply two sides to every story. No, she agrees that communicating the best information about science is our main goal. To get there, though, she suggests beginning by trying to understand the people with whom we’re speaking. As she explains,

While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Seems obvious, right? But when it comes to teaching the full, unvarnished, unpleasant history of American slavery, empathizing with resistant listeners can be extremely difficult. If a tour guide tries to understand a visitor who doesn’t want to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, is she continuing the lamentable tradition of overlooking the truth? If a teacher spends time trying to understand why her students reject the evidence for the brutality of slave markets and slave labor, is she guilty of contributing to the long, shameful silence of those crimes against humanity?

In short, it seems like the time for polite empathy about the history of American racism and slavery is over. Teachers and tour guides might blanch at the prospect of bonding with racist tourists and students.

In spite of these important challenges, we can still learn from our science-ed colleagues. No one is suggesting any kind of watering-down or truckling, either to neo-creationists or neo-confederates. All we want to do is begin a conversation by filling in culture-war trenches and building connections so that a real conversation can take place. If we don’t start with that, no amount of proof, evidence, or explanation will do any good.

What Does Rosa Parks Barbie Have to Do with 1619?

So…we now have a Rosa Parks Barbie, apparently. In a way, it seems like a triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, right? But only in a way. Like the conservative backlash against the NYT’s 1619 series, Barbie’s version of history proves once again that there is still an unyielding third rail in America’s public conversations about history.theoharis on barbie

What’s wrong with a Rosa Parks Barbie? One might take it as good news—more progress toward giving children a diverse set of heroes to look up to. As scholars have pointed out, however, the Barbie version of Ms. Parks’ story has been whitewashed. Instead of a devoted Civil Rights activist protesting for decades against racial inequality, Mattel tells children that Parks was only a tired woman who had led an “ordinary life” up until her famous refusal to give up her bus seat.

Why would the toy company want to politely ignore real, established history? It has something to do with the NYT Magazine’s recent 1619 series. That series, about the history of racial slavery in the British Colonies, has sparked a ferocious response among conservative historians and pundits. Perhaps most memorably, Newt Gingrich freaked out about it on Fox News.

As Gingrich declaimed,

The whole project is a lie. Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I think putting slavery in context is important. . . . I think, certainly, if you are an African-American, slavery is at the center of what you see as the American experience. But, for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on. There were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves. The fact is that I saw one reference that The New York Times claims that the American Revolution was caused in part to defend slavery. That is such historically factually false nonsense that it’s embarrassing that The New York Times is doing this.

This leads us to our two big questions. First, why do conservatives—even history experts such as Rep. Gingrich—get so flustered over an extremely uncontroversial position like the one taken in the 1619 project? After all, among historians, the centrality of racial slavery in the founding of the United States is a given. And second, what does any of this have to do with a Rosa Parks Barbie?

My two cents: Over the years, conservatives have been very willing to expand the galaxy of American heroes. In addition to the traditional cluster of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, conservatives have been happy to add new heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Sacagawea, and, yes, Rosa Parks.

The idea that a mild-mannered “ordinary woman” could stand up to injustice fits in nicely with the traditional tale of heroic America. Sure, there have been problems—the story goes—but heroic Americans have always stepped up to solve them. Even the curse of slavery, Gingrich pointed out, was solved by the self-sacrificing heroism of “several hundred thousand white Americans.”

What doesn’t fit in is the real story of Rosa Parks. Parks, a life-long civil-rights activist, learned from radical institutions such as the Highlander Folk School, and campaigned against racism long past the 1950s. That real story raises questions most Americans are not comfortable confronting. For example, what were the connections between civil-rights activism and left-wing politics? Why did Parks feel a need to keep campaigning for racial justice long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Why was the second-class-citizenship she endured so entrenched and durable? What did the Civil Rights Movement leave unsolved?

All those questions point to a fundamental fact about American history that conservatives can’t abide. Instead of a flawed-but-improving land of truth and justice, these questions point to a vision of United States history in which the nation has always been fundamentally formed and guided not by heroism, but by racial (and other) hierarchies.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives have drawn the line when it comes to questioning America’s heroic history itself. Any intimation that the United States has fundamental, formative flaws has always drawn ferocious criticism. Consider, for example, the reaction to a popular textbook series in the 1930s and 40s. Harold Rugg’s textbooks sold by the millions. But when rumors spread that Rugg’s books denigrated America’s unique awesomeness, they crossed a culture-war line.

One conservative critic, Bertie Forbes of Forbes Magazine fame, warned in 1940 that the textbooks guided teachers to criticize the greatness of the United States. When one middle-school teacher was asked by her students if the USA was the greatest country in the world, she looked at her Teacher’s Guide and responded, “No. . . there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, form of government than ours.”

Forbes warning rugg books

Forbes raises a stink, October, 1940

Not a particularly shocking statement, but it lit a fire under conservative Americans at the time. Sometimes literally. Soon, Rugg’s books were yanked from school bookshelves and rumors spread of book burnings in Wisconsin and upstate New York.

When it comes to Barbies and popular histories, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find this third rail still firmly in place. We Americans are happy to add heroes to our list. We are happy to have Rosa Parks Barbies as well as Malibu ones. But as a whole we can’t stand to see the big story of our history challenged. We can’t and won’t tolerate public discussions that imply that there are any serious, fundamental, structural flaws in America’s past.

Which of These Professors Would You Fire?

We keep getting new ones every week. University professors—supposedly enjoying academic freedom—keep getting into trouble for offensive political speech. Sometimes they get fired or punished and sometimes they don’t. How do administrators decide? It doesn’t seem like it’s about the politics.

eots_lawton1

The professor as activist: What will get you fired?

So today it’s time for the latest bitter ILYBYGTH play-along: Can YOU match these professors with their punishments? [Only click on the links if you want to cheat.] [And be warned: These rants sometimes include offensive language.]

Case 1: Law-school professor with a history of racist-y statements declares (incorrectly) that very few black students are top in their class. The line that got her in the most trouble? “[O]ur country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”

Case 2: University professor rants on facebook about how much he hates white people. (He’s white, by the way.) The troublesome lines: “I now hate white people. . . . I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. . . . Fuck you, too.”

Case 3: Grad student instructor confronts a conservative undergrad. Stood in front of the undergrad’s Turning Point USA table and shouted, “”Becky the neo-fascist, right here. Wants to destroy public schools, public universities. Hates DACA kids. . . . Fight white nationalism! Fight white supremacy!”

Case 4: Adjunct instructor declares his support for antifa and hints that he’d like to hit Trump with a baseball bat. Gets heat for declaring on facebook: “It’s not pretty, and I’m not proud, but seeing what Evangelical Christians are doing to this country and its people fills me with rage, and a desire to exact revenge.”

So how were these professors punished? Are left-wing professors protected? Are conservatives attacked? Not so much. It seems like the differences are more about whether or not the professor had tenure.

Can you match the cases above with the punishments below?

Punishment #1: Instructor is fired.

Punishment #2: Instructor is removed from teaching, but keeps her job. The university president calls her ideas “repugnant.”

Punishment #3: Instructor is removed from teaching but keeps her job. University president privately apologizes to her for having to punish her.

Punishment #4: Instructor is fired, then un-fired. University calls his comments “offensive” and says they “violated university policy.” However, on a re-think, the university decided that “No student or university employee has come forward to assert that [the instructor] has in some way penalized them for their race. . . . There is no evidence that he administered grades and conducted himself in class in a manner that reveals any racial bias on his part.”

…so what do you think? Can you match the punishments with the cases? And, most intriguingly, do these cases reveal that conservative professors are punished more harshly than liberal ones? That mocking and belittling African Americans is a bigger crime on campus than threatening and insulting white people or evangelicals?

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?

The Right Historical Question about Busing

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris accused Vice President Joe Biden of cozying up to segregationists, the issue of busing has been back in the headlines. Instead of asking why busing failed or why it worked, the right question should be about where busing worked. The lesson from the twentieth century is clear: When reformers try to use schools to ram through social change, even with the purest of intentions, it won’t work.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Vice President Biden’s political problems about busing came about long before Senator Harris’s accusations. Months ago, the Washington Post ran an exposé about Biden’s leading role in the 1970s as an opponent of court-ordered desegregation. Biden 2020 has been forced to defend decisions made by Biden 1975, and it hasn’t been easy.

Since the debate, historians and commentators have skewered the notion that busing did not achieve its aims. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, the issue was never about busing itself, but about stark racism. The problem was not that busing didn’t work to integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but precisely that it did.

Historically, the politics of school integration are part of a broader pattern of school reform. Whenever reformers have tried to use schools to change society for the better, they have discovered the difficult truth. Namely, whatever the issue—racial integration, socialism, or progressive education—when reformers fail to enroll community support, their efforts at social improvement have been crushed. When they do, however, the results can be surprisingly effective.

In the late 1930s, for example, textbook author Harold Rugg came under fire for his popular textbook series. The series had been adopted by schools nationwide and the books were used by millions of American schoolchildren. As World War II heated up, however, conservative groups such as the America Legion came to believe that the books had a subversive, anti-American intent. The books, conservative critics charged, hoped to transform American society into a socialist state.

Professor Rugg protested that he was no socialist; he claimed a “deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.” Yet he admitted that he really did hope to transform society. In Rugg’s vision, decisions about proper curriculum should not be left in the hands of the ignorant community, but rather decided only by “competent experts” like himself. He dismissed protesters as irrational ignoramuses and their impassioned rallies as mere “Wednesday-evening testimony meetings of Holy Rollers.”

A generation later, a similar textbook controversy roiled Kanawha County, West Virginia. Protesters in 1974 and 1975 worried that a new textbook series derided traditional American values. In part, the protesters were right. As one editor of the books later recalled, he really had hoped the books would inject the “progressive energy” of 1960s radicalism into classrooms nationwide. The books took a “strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression” that the editors hoped would overthrow the “conventions” of traditional schools and classrooms.

A laudable goal, but like Harold Rugg’s vision of “expert”-centered educational reform, the top-down reformism of the 1970s textbooks failed. Protesters in Kanawha County boycotted their schools; they convinced their Parent-Teacher Association that the new progressive textbooks were “literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination.”

The same lessons apply to the history of 1970s school desegregation—“busing”—that Biden and Harris have brought back to the headlines. On one hand, the policy of busing students to mitigate segregation often worked to improve both racial integration and educational outcomes.

On the other, busing policies often met ferocious political backlash from outraged white parents and activists. Most famously, as historian Ron Formisano described so powerfully, in Boston anti-busers rejected the attempts of Judge W. Arthur Garrity to impose more racial equality in schools.

All cities were not Boston, however. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the simple black-and-white politics of busing looked different. When President Reagan trotted out his anti-busing rallying cry in 1984, it fell on deaf ears. Busing, Reagan charged,

takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants, and we found out that it failed.

What Reagan didn’t realize, and many people in today’s revisit to the 1970s busing debates seem to have forgotten as well, was that some white people embraced busing. The crowd in Charlotte met Reagan’s dog-whistles with stony silence, and the next day the Charlotte Observer insisted that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”

reagan in charlott

White voters hate busing, right? …right?

Certainly, North Carolina was no racial utopia. But the differences between Boston and Charlotte serve as an important reminder of the real question in school segregation and busing. They are reminders that go back long past the 1970s, to Harold Rugg and before.

Whatever the issue, when social reformers hope to use schools to effect wide-ranging improvements in society, they can only hope to succeed if they enlist the support of at least a portion of the local community. Harold Rugg did not realize that people outside his college would not simply cede control of their textbooks to his “expert” hands. Protesters in West Virginia were not willing to accept books thrust upon them by editors fueled by the “progressive energy” of the radical 1960s.

The successes of busing, too, were not limited to improvements in integration and educational success. When integrationists managed to line up local support, as with Charlotte’s Democratic Party, busing also achieved significant political support. When they didn’t, as with Boston’s aggrieved segregationists, busing failed.

…Could This Possibly Work?

I’m really asking: Does anyone think that white supremacist organizations will  have much luck recruiting on college campuses? According to Inside Higher Education, that’s the reason groups such as the American Identity Movement put up leaflets.

White supremacy posters IHE REAL

…do these things actually work?

Why would they spend time putting up these posters on campuses? According to the Anti-Defamation League, the goal of these white supremacists is to

inject their views into spaces they view as bastions of liberal thinking and left-wing indoctrination.

So here’s my naive question: Is there any possibility some college student will see these posters and think, ‘hmmm, you know that makes a lot of sense”…?

I can’t imagine it, but I know I’m not normal. According to last year’s ADL report, most of the campus “recruiting” was done far away from sunny Binghamton, in Texas and California, Washington state and Florida.

I just can’t imagine this sort of thing getting any traction on our campus. Are other colleges different?