Two Simple Rules for Textbook Conspiracies

It doesn’t matter if you’re a neo-confederate or a creationist, a Texas stalwart or a West Virginia hiller. If you want your textbook conspiracy to succeed, you only need to remember two simple rules.

This week the kerfuffle over John Kelly’s Lost-Cause-flavored Civil War comments brought the textbook question back into the news. As historian Arica Coleman reminds us, a for-real conspiracy of neo-confederates plotted and schemed to make sure neo-confederate ideas dominated history textbooks. How did they do it?

Confederacy Daughters Unveil Monument

Whitewashing the past, UDC style.

The neo-confederate textbook plot is something historians have known about for a long while. In Race & Reunion, David Blight detailed the battle over public memory of the Civil War, a battle largely won by neo-confederates. In Whose America?, Jon Zimmerman looked at the struggle over textbooks and the battle to teach children a culture-war flavored vision of American history.

As Professor Coleman retells the tale, schemers like Mildred Rutherford of the United Daughters of the Confederacy worried that schoolchildren were learning to blame the confederacy for the Civil War. They were learning that the war was caused by a ruthless determination to maintain the slave system in the South. They were learning that Confederate heroes were not always heroes after all. In other words, they were learning a reasonably accurate story about the war.

Rutherford and her allies wanted to put a stop to it.

To a large degree, Rutherford’s tireless activism worked. She applied pressure on textbook publishers to whitewash the story of secession and the connection between confederacy and slavery. And textbook publishers often complied.

The lingering influence of Rutherford’s ideas about history—what I’ve called the “eulogy” approach to understanding the Civil War and Reconstruction—tells us something about the way culture-war groups can and can’t police the intellectual goings-on in America’s schools.mildred rutherford 2

Textbook conspiracies succeed when they remember two simple rules. As Adam Shapiro demonstrated so brilliantly in his book Trying Biology, textbook publishers aren’t culture warriors. They recoil from controversy and they lust for sales. It’s a pretty simple formula:

  • If conspirators can promise sales, they’ll win.
  • If they can’t avoid controversy, they’ll lose.

As I recount in my history of educational conservatism, this pattern repeated itself over and over again in the twentieth century. When activists went against those two simple rules, their schemes failed. When they remembered them, the conspiracies worked.

Consider the example of Harold Rugg. Rugg was a progressive scholar who hoped to reshape American ideas about capitalism and democracy. He hoped his popular textbook series would cause kids to rethink the simplistic, jingoistic patriotism that they might have imbibed from their families and communities. With his allies and colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University, Rugg really did scheme and conspire to use his textbooks to push America in a leftward direction. The books were extremely popular, until the American Legion accused them of subversion in the WWII years. At the first whiff of controversy, school districts yanked the books. Sales plummeted. Rugg was flummoxed.

Or take the example of James Moffett and the Communicating and Interactions series in the 1970s. Moffett worked hard on these books—he hoped they would “rid[e] the crest of progressive energy that had wrought so many changes in the 1960s and seemed to mandate further innovations in schooling.” As Moffett later explained, he and his fellow editors

took a strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression that went far beyond wooing of minorities; we found that a feeling for folklore, a savoring of different styles, a respect for the whole human range made up want to set forth like a feast the varieties of reading matter.

Reading these multicultural tales, Moffett hoped, would transform classrooms and lives. Moffett’s dreams were shattered when conservative protesters in West Virginia labeled the new books controversial. In Kanawha County, administrators dithered and ultimately put the eight most controversial volumes under lock and key.

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How to scare a publisher.

Last but not least, don’t forget the culture-war successes of Mel and Norma Gabler. To a degree that surprised textbook bigwigs, this Texas couple managed to influence book purchases by telling politicians that certain titles were politically and religiously offensive. It didn’t take much. In the 1960s, Norma began attending public hearings of the state textbook committee. She and Mel prepared lists of criticisms for books they considered leftist. The committee listened and so did textbook publishers. Publishers soon asked the Gablers for approval for new titles. A tiny amount of pressure, judiciously applied, allowed the Gablers to move textbooks in conservative directions.

Why was their influence so profound? Simple. Textbook publishers follow two rules. Any whiff of controversy is anathema. They don’t care about evolution, or General Lee, or socialism. All they want is sales.

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I Get the “Racist” Part…but Why Is It “Creationist”?

We history nerds are a-flutter. Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly got us riled up by stating that General Lee was an “honorable man” and that more “compromise” could have avoided the Civil War. To many of us, such arguments are a cruel attempt to whitewash the deep racism that fueled the war and today’s culture war over Confederate monuments. I’ve been putting in my two cents and following the debate closely. In general, I feel like I understand the various positions involved, but recent comments by one of my favorite pundits have me stumped.

Some of my friends and family generally agree with General Kelly. They don’t see why academic historians are so determined that support for heroes back then implies support for racism now. The common charge is that progressives and historians are trying to “whitewash” history by disrespecting monuments to our shared past.

To academic historians like me, it seems obvious: Most of the General Lee monuments didn’t go up right after the Civil War. They went up much later, in a blatant attempt to assert a heroic history for the slave regime of the Confederacy. They were an attempt by later white-supremacist state governments and organizations to whitewash history, to prove that the Confederates were the good guys, not really traitors after all.

The back and forth can be exhausting, but at least I feel like I (sort of) understand both positions. When Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a recent condemnation of General Kelly’s remarks, though, he flummoxed me. As Coates put it, “Regarding John Kelly’s creationist theorizing on Lee and the Civil War, its worth pointing out a few things.”

ta nahesi coates general kelly creationist tweet

…am I missing something???

As you can imagine, this is the line that stumps me. Why is Kelly’s defense of General Lee “creationist”? I agree that it’s bad history. I agree that at root it supports a white-supremacist-derived vision of American history, even if I understand that many people who agree with Kelly don’t think of themselves as racist.

But why, oh why, did Coates call this “creationist” thinking? As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m fascinated with all things creationist. And I could imagine some reasons why someone would lump together Christian-history activists like David Barton with creationist activists like Ken Ham.

Is that what Coates is doing? Or do people in general just use “creationist” as an all-purpose adjective meaning “wacky” or “incorrect?” I looked over his twitter feed and I couldn’t find any explanation. Can you?

Why Are So Many People Angry about History?

Have you seen the clip yet?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, General Kelly’s pontifications about General Lee and slavery are the kinds of thing that drive academic historians bonkers.

These battles over history have a history all their own. In my book about educational conservatism, for example, I looked at the furious fight over Harold Rugg’s textbooks. Were they doing what history books were supposed to do?

In a recent piece published on History News Network, I argue for a different vocabulary to help make better sense of the deep anger that roils all around our culture-war battles over history.

Head on over to HNN to check it out.

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An earlier generation’s history wars…

Is “Kingdom of God” the New “Heritage”?

You’ve heard it before: Defenders of Confederate monuments insist their intentions are not to foster racism, but only to celebrate their heritage. The other side (including me) argues that the historical baggage of these statues is simply too heavy. Even if Confederate heritage-lovers don’t mean to be racist, that’s what the statues and flags have come to mean. Today, I wonder if we have a new, evangelical version of this dilemma. A key phrase in evangelical culture seems utterly benign to many smart, well-meaning evangelicals. But it terrifies the rest of us.

So here’s the tough question of the day: Is the “Kingdom of God” the evangelical version of “heritage?”

A couple of days ago, Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer defended the phrase at Christianity Today. When a federal judge appointee declared that she wanted to work for the “Kingdom of God,” a few senators blanched. Would she use her taxpayer-funded position of power to impose theocratic rule?

Stetzer protested. The senators, he claimed, were imposing an anti-Constitutional religious test for office. Plus, the senators seemed remarkably ignorant about evangelical culture. As Stetzer explained,

The “Kingdom of God” (something that I too am deeply committed to) does not conflict with our ability to work faithfully in the public square with integrity and honor. In fact, our “dogma” may actually benefit society, for it brings certain values which work towards the good of people and society. People do say that they are motivated for public service in part because of their faith. Religion is not a hindrance to a proper functioning marketplace and governmental system; rather, it brings with it inherent moral and ethical codes which seek a better tomorrow for all of us today.

We’ve seen this before. Many secular progressive types (like me) recoiled in horror when Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed her scheme to use her job to further the “Kingdom of God.” Her plan, some assumed, is to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale horror show of theocratic rule on school and society. Activist groups protested that Queen Betsy’s vision was to overturn constitutional separation of church and state and impose religious beliefs as public policy.

As evangelical intellectuals have pointed out, such assumptions are a misreading of evangelical culture. In the Reformed heartland of Michigan, working for the Kingdom of God can have a lot of different meanings. At Calvin College, for example, as Abram Van Engen explained, the phrase is not about imposing theocracy. As Van Engen put it,

Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy. What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation.

Sounds wonderful. But the dilemma remains. If a federal judge or an education secretary announce they are working to establish “God’s Kingdom,” it doesn’t sound as if they are dedicated to such things. It sounds—to the rest of us—like an explanation why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump. It sounds like a declaration of war on the secularization that has made such strides over the past fifty years. It sounds like an effort to wind the clock back to an imagined past in which evangelical values were imposed on everyone as simply “American” values.

I know this is hard for evangelical intellectuals to hear. They don’t like to think of their religious beliefs as dictatorial, chauvinistic, or theocratic. And, to be fair, I sincerely believe that for many evangelicals, their desire to further the Kingdom of God really is none of those things. Historically, however, as I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, evangelicalism in America has always been tangled inextricably with such unsavory themes, with a deep-seated assumption that the real America is Christian America.

As our ugly battles over “heritage” have made clear, the baggage of history isn’t something we can simply ignore. Just as evangelicals need to understand that telling someone you love them but they’re going to hell is not usually taken as anything but a hateful attack, so evangelicals need to realize that their traditional jargon sounds scary to the rest of us.

What’s a Guy Like Me Supposed to Do?

I’m torn. I don’t know what progressive historians are supposed to think. On the one hand, whenever conservative politicians try to ban a historian as “anti-American,” it makes us all want to rally around. On the other, though, when that historian has been convicted of peddling “bad history,” it doesn’t seem right to recommend him.

A new celebration of the late Howard Zinn at The Progressive brought all these questions back to mind. To many of my fellow progressives, it seems, Professor Zinn still represents real history, the “people’s” history. Even Matt Damon says so. Academic historians, however, even those with impeccable progressive credentials, have condemned Zinn’s work as schlock.

Most famously, Michael Kazin blasted Zinn’s work as “unworthy of . . . fame and influence.” Kazin pulled no punches. In words calculated to pierce the heart of any historian, Kazin accused Zinn of reducing

the past to a Manichean fable and mak[ing] no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live? His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship.

Ouch.

Kazin is not alone. Top historians could offer only a mixed bag of tepid enthusiasm and vague condemnation for Zinn’s legacy.

From Stanford, history-education guru Sam Wineburg came down staunchly against Zinn’s polemic effort. It might make for good leftist locker-room speeches, but Zinn’s book repeated all the terrible flaws of mainstream textbooks, Wineburg argued.

So what are we to make of Howard Zinn’s legacy? Should we encourage young people to read a book that isn’t great history? Because it might open their eyes to bigger truths about American society? Or are progressives supposed to be the side of unvarnished truth instead of self-serving propaganda?