We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

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You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

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My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

Now I just don’t know what to think. I have long admired heroic teachers like Susan Epperson and all the less-famous Susan Eppersons out there. Our ILYBYGTH conversations lately, though, have me wondering. Are teachers heroic if they buck the rules to teach the way they should? …what if they think they should teach Christianity or white supremacy? Or if they’re gun-toting rage-aholics?

Maybe people don’t remember Susan Epperson anymore. She was a science teacher in Arkansas in the 1960s. Due to a law passed during the 1920s evolution/creation battles, she was legally barred from teaching her students about evolution. She did it anyway.

Instead of just keeping her science subversion quiet, Epperson took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the anti-evolution law was tossed out.

Epperson has always been a hero of mine. Not only her, but all the teachers out there who go against idiotic system rules to teach children the way they deserve to be taught. It can be as simple as ignoring an order to focus only on test-related content and instead help a student discover what she thinks about a poem or painting. It can be as fundamental as introducing students to the real, ugly history of race relations in the USA, even though a school principal advises against doing anything “controversial.”

But with recent stories about white-supremacist teachers and the history of left-wing teacher purges I’m not sure what to think anymore. If teachers are heroic for teaching “what’s right” instead of what’s in the state-approved curriculum, how can we police creationist and other teachers for breaking the rules to teach their own peculiar moral visions?

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Can my heroes out-sneak your heroes?

After all, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, the most important influence on most high-school biology teachers is not the state curriculum. It is the values of the local community. If teachers think creationism is the right thing for their students, they’ll teach it, no matter what the curriculum says.

And activists on both the right and the left encourage teachers to ignore the rules and teach “what’s right.” Brad and Susanne Dacus, for example, have published a handy-dandy guide for teachers who want to inject more Christianity into their teaching. As they put it,

Worrying about your public schools changes nothing. . . Knowing how YOU can make an impact in your school can change everything!  Public schools have dramatically changed over the last several years.  Now is not the time to give up on your school.  Now is the time to stand up and be heard!

For those of us who want secular public schools, these promises sound worrisome. Yet we can’t help but recognize that the same heroic impulse to fight the system underlies both Epperson’s pro-science activism and the Dacus’s pro-Jesus work.

Is there any way we can encourage heroic teachers, but only the kinds we agree with? Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. As Professor Clarence Taylor argued recently in these pages, do we need to defend ALL teachers’ rights to political activism, even if we hate it? Or is there some way to support teacher activism for “our” side while fighting teacher activism for “theirs?”

Why Don’t We Tell Children the Truth about Slavery?

A sad new report offers proof of something history teachers have long lamented: Most students don’t learn much about slavery in their history classes. This terrible failure of our school network isn’t just about slavery; it’s a profound and depressing fact about our schools: We don’t dare to tell kids the truth.

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George Washington doing what George Washington did. Why is it considered unpatriotic to tell the children about it?

Why not?

The report on students’ knowledge about slavery comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The numbers are sadly predictable. Under a quarter of the students surveyed could identify the ways the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders. Most teachers (over 90%) claimed to want to teach more and better information about slavery, but they reported feeling unsupported by textbooks and state standards.

Our national reticence to teach children the undeniable and important historical truth about slavery has long roots. Time and time again, history classes focus on a feel-good national story. As Yale’s David Blight puts it in the report’s preface:

In America, our preferred, deep national narratives tend to teach our young that despite our problems in the past, we have been a nation of freedom-loving, inclusive people, accepting the immigrant into the country of multi-ethnic diversity. Our diversity has made us strong; that cannot be denied.

And, as the reports’ authors note,

We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s over-emphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.

This fear of telling students ugly truths has a long history. As I noted in my book about educational conservatism, many of our culture-war battles about teaching US History pitted the bashers against the boasters. Conservatives wanted kids only to hear about America’s glories. Progressives wanted to teach that the US has always had plenty of moral flaws.

In the 1930s, for example, journalist and patriot Bertie Forbes attacked the popular textbooks written by Harold Rugg. Rugg hoped to introduce students to the real complexity of international relations. In Forbes’s opinion, such efforts would rob students of their patriotic fervor. As Forbes wrote in 1940,

If I were a youth, 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.

By and large, historically speaking, the Forbeses of the world have always won these fights. Schools primarily teach (and taught) students that America was a place they could love. Teaching too much or too frankly about slavery has always been seen as a dangerous and controversial effort.

It’s not only slavery that is ignored or misrepresented. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, schools shy away from all types of controversial topics, even when the controversy is contrived.

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From Berkman & Plutzer: Can we please not talk about it?

As Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, only a minority of high-school biology teachers teach mainstream evolutionary theory and only mainstream evolutionary theory in their classes. The rest tend to mash together a mix of mainstream science and dissenting creationist ideas. Why? Because most teachers share the ideas of their local communities. If people want their kids to learn a variety of ideas about science, that’s what most teachers will deliver.

This has always been the case. In the 1940s, an enterprising scholar set out to discern how many teachers taught evolution. One teacher from California explained why he avoided the topic of evolution in class. As he put it,

Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.

And there’s the rub. Teachers will tend to avoid controversy. There’s no controversy among historians about whether or not slavery was a vital and decisive element in US history. There’s no controversy among mainstream scientists about whether or not mainstream evolutionary theory is a vital and decisive element in biology.

But broad segments of the population disagree. They don’t want their children to learn that America has historical flaws. They don’t want their children to learn that our species developed by a long series of minor changes.

Unless and until those things change, classrooms won’t improve. I heartily concur with the four-point action plan put forth by the recent SPLC report. It recommends the four following steps:

  1. Improve Instruction About American Slavery and Fully Integrate It Into U.S. History.
  2. Use Original Historical Documents.
  3. Make Textbooks Better.
  4. Strengthen Curriculum.

All good ideas. But they won’t be enough. Just like evolutionary theory, the history of slavery won’t be included in our classrooms until it is included in our day-to-day conversations. Until the country as a whole recognizes the importance of America’s ugly past, classrooms will continue to ignore it.

As we’ve seen time and again, we can’t use curriculum to change society. We need to change society and watch curriculum follow along.

Healing Our History Culture Wars

It has become a life-and-death question: Who are the heroes of American history? In Charlottesville, we’ve seen that terrorists are willing to kill to defend the primacy of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee. This morning Rick Hess and Brendan Bell offer a better way to teach about the heroes of history. But it won’t be as easy as we might think. As historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued a while back, heroism in history is a kind of one-way valve. It is easy to add new heroes, but it is extremely difficult to question the essential notion of heroism itself.

Depending on how old you are and where you live, you likely heard one or another of the standard hero explanations of American history. If you’re old enough, you might have learned that the young George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. If you’re Southern enough, you might have learned that honorable Jacksons and Lees valiantly defended the Southland from rabid northern aggression. If you’re young enough, you might have learned that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. bravely defeated racism. If you’re hippie enough, you might have learned that heroic natives fearlessly resisted European imperialism.charlttesville confederate t shirt

In every case, though, the focus of most public-school history classes has been on the heroic accomplishments of great Americans of the past. The type of heroism varies over time and place, but the notion that the real story of the USA is a heroic one rarely does.

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It’s not hard to see the problems with this process. Whether we wear Che t-shirts or Confederate flag ones, we’re forcing real history into a cartoonish good-vs-evil pattern. And that’s bad for two reasons.

As Hess and Bell point out, black-and-white history is boring. As they put it,

We take influential yet complicated figures like MLK and Lincoln and turn them into plaster saints. When history is taught this way, debates about who gets to be a hero will inevitably feel winner-take-all, since it becomes an exercise in deciding who gets to serve as shorthand for all that’s right and just.

However, that’s not how Homer, Ovid or Shakespeare thought about “heroism,” and it’s not how we should either. We should learn just as much from heroes about what not to do as about what to do. If being an icon means careful attention to Jefferson’s slave-owning as well as his magisterial writing, if it means considering MLK’s philandering and plagiarism as well as his towering moral courage, then being on that pedestal is more of a mixed bag. And this is just good teaching, anyway. After all, the most gripping and instructive accounts of iconic figures are those that depict their humanity, their indecision and the price they paid along the way.

The best recent example of teaching heroes well may be the wildly popular musical “Hamilton.” One of the things that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully did was marshal a warts-and-all portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in a way that imbued these often starchy figures with immediacy and humanity. Hamilton is at once brilliant and licentious; Jefferson, elitist yet principled; Burr, murderous but complex. Though their flaws are apparent, so too is their greatness – indeed, their greatness is entwined with their flaws.

There’s an even more important reason to avoid good-vs-evil history. Good-vs-evil history teaches us to hate the people we disagree with. Why else would someone drive a car into a crowd to defend the honor of a long-dead Confederate general?

It would be terrific if we could teach history better. It won’t be easy, though. Professor Zimmerman argued that history culture wars are usually resolved by an intellectually vapid but politically expedient process. Every politically powerful group is allowed to add its heroes to the story. That’s easy. Taking away a hero, though, as we’ve seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere, is extremely difficult.

What Goes on in Fundamentalist Schools?

When does bad school cross the line into child abuse? The depressing answer is that it depends on who’s asking. Jonathan Kozol famously decried the racist and abusive practices in America’s urban public schools. Now Rebecca Klein is warning that tax-funded evangelical schools are doing more than just bad teaching. Are these schools using your tax dollars to abuse children?

Klein’s article focuses on the stories of fundamentalist school survivors such as Ashley Bishop. Bishop tells a story that has become depressingly familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. Like some of the voices on this blog, Bishop’s experience in conservative evangelical schools was beyond terrible. Her schooling left her deeply conflicted and depressed. It took her years to become comfortable with herself and with her sexual identity.

My heart breaks for Ashley and all the other young people traumatized by hostile school environments. We tend to hear about brave survivors like Ashley, but we must remember that there must also be many more students who never escape, who make their lives entirely within a community in which they feel isolated and unworthy. The more attention such students can receive from journalists like Klein, the better.

Klein looks at the number of schools that use fundamentalist textbooks and concludes grimly,

there are thousands of kids receiving an extremist and ultraconservative education at the expense of taxpayers.

For full disclosure, I should point out that I spoke with Klein as she put this article together and she refers to my research. I must also point out that there are a few important points that she leaves out.

Ace hokey

This is terrible stuff. But is it abusive?

First of all, education scholars and historians know that we can’t simply equate textbooks with school curriculum. We certainly can’t look only at textbooks and think we know what kind of learning goes on.

Second, though Klein states that A Beka, Bob Jones, and ACE all share “largely similar educational philosophies,” that’s simply not the case. As I discovered a few years back, there are actually vast differences between the A Beka, ACE, and BJU approaches. A Beka insists on a rigid, traditionalist, teacher-driven classroom. BJU wants the opposite.

It’s also important to note that these textbooks are not static. In a recent book about education and ignorance, I argued that the treatment of history in A Beka and BJU textbooks has changed dramatically in the past thirty years. In some ways, the textbooks have become more like mainstream offerings. In others, they have become very different. In general, both BJU and A Beka have increased their emphases on the distinctive religious elements of their historical vision. A Beka history books, for example, explain in more recent editions that Native American populations originated from the downfall of the Tower of Babel.

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Textbook apocalypse.

Finally, and most important, we need to remember that abusive schools are not bad only if they use tax dollars. The state has a responsibility to protect all children in any school or homeschool. Even if a school is entirely privately funded, it has no right to enact policies that aren’t in children’s best interests.

In some cases—such as physical abuse or neglect, or sexual predation—that line is fairly easy to discern. When it comes to religious ideas, though, it becomes enormously difficult. Is it abusive to teach children that homosexuality is a sin? Is it abusive to teach children that mainstream science is a cauldron of lies?

If it is, then the state has the right and duty to intervene. It doesn’t matter whether or not the schools receive tax dollars in the form of vouchers. If it isn’t, though, then religious families and schools must be allowed freedom to have schools that we wouldn’t want our children to attend.

Required Reading: Textbook Culture Wars

[Editor’s Note: I’m happy to be able to share my review of Charles Eagles’s recent book, Civil Rights: Culture Wars. It will appear in the March, 2018 edition of the Journal of American History. The editors gave us permission to reprint it here verbatim.]

What history should schools teach? Who should decide? And how? These questions have always been central to the United States’ tumultuous culture wars. With Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook, Charles W. Eagles offers a valuable new exploration of one twentieth-century battle over these questions.eagles book

Eagles’ book examines the career of a controversial new state-history textbook in 1970s Mississippi. Sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis hoped their book, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, would introduce Mississippi’s ninth-graders to the kinds of history that had been widely accepted by academic historians. Instead of preaching a bland, saccharine history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil-Rights Movement, Loewen and Sallis hoped to tell the full story of Mississippi’s conflicted history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mississippi’s educational establishment balked. The new textbook was rejected by the state textbook commission as “‘unsuitable’ for classroom use” (156). Critics worried that Loewen’s and Sallis’ text harped on racial animosity. Images of a lynching, especially, caused consternation among commission members. Even one African American member of the commission believed the new textbook would remind African American students of a violent history “they want to forget” (183).

In the end, the authors had to force a federal lawsuit to have their book adopted for state use. Even with their victory in court, they found to their disappointment that not many school districts selected their book.

Eagles tells the story of the origins of the new textbook and its long struggle for adoption in admirable detail. He includes a fascinating examination of earlier history textbooks in Mississippi. By and large, those books told the story of heroic white Mississippians working tirelessly for freedom, assisted by loyal slaves and plagued by corrupt carpetbaggers.

One widely used textbook from 1930, for example, informed Mississippi schoolchildren that “the life of a slave [was] pleasant” (46) and that Reconstruction-era terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan was “a grim necessity” (47).

Eagles’ book also offers a valuable insight into the banality of culture-war bureaucracy. He details the process by which textbooks were adopted in Mississippi. More often than not, texts were not chosen for their intellectual rigor or methodological innovation, but rather for their low cost and ease of use. Members of the textbook committee recoiled at any whiff of controversy, preferring instead to select textbooks that celebrated Mississippi’s history, even the ugliest parts.mississippi conflict and change

At times, Eagles’ perspective seems too close to that of Loewen and Sallis. For example, Eagles praises the authors’ surprising ignorance about the field of secondary history education. As Eagles argued, that ignorance “actually benefitted the MHP [Mississippi History Project] by fueling their effort with an independent, even innocent, evangelical air” (99). It’s hard to believe that ignorance of the field would ever be an asset and Eagles is too willing to explain away Loewen’s and Sallis’ faults.

Despite this minor flaw, Civil Rights, Culture Wars offers a thorough, valuable description of the ways the convoluted politics of history and memory played out in 1970s Mississippi.

Why Is It So Hard for Us to Teach Civics?

We should be freaking out. It’s not just that Americans don’t know about basic democratic principles. In increasing numbers, we don’t seem to care. Pundits lately have hoped we might be in a rock-bottom crisis of civics education, a “Sputnik moment” that drives Americans to re-invest in basic education in democratic ideas. We’re not. Our civics stand-off is even more hopelessly rancorous than our never-ending fights about creation and evolution.

Last year, Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey hoped that the ugly, bizarre emanations from Trump’s White House might scare America straight when it came to civics education. It wasn’t only Trumpism that alarmed them. The numbers seemed truly shocking and getting worse. As they explained,

Civics literacy levels are dismal. In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. . . . Far worse, declining proportions say that free elections are important in a democratic society.

When asked in the World Values Survey in 2011 whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, about 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from about 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase from about 16 percent from a decade and a half earlier. Some 26 percent of millennials said it is “unimportant” that in a democracy people should “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among U.S. citizens of all ages, the proportion who said it would be “fairly good” or “very good” for the “army to rule,” has risen from one in 16 in 1995, to one in six today. Likewise, a June 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that a majority of Americans showed authoritarian (as opposed to autonomous) leanings. Moreover, fully 49 percent of Americans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

More recently, Robert Pondiscio and Andrew Tripodo offered a few specific suggestions about how teachers can “seiz[e] the moment to improve civics education.”

I share their concern and Pondiscio and Tripodo offer some smart concrete steps to start making improvements. As all these authors are surely aware, though, civics education faces an impossible challenge.

Consider the Sputnik analogy: Back in 1957, Americans were rightly dismayed that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in space technology. Among the many results was a new burst of funding for new science textbooks, books that no longer truckled to the political power of creationists. The BSCS series included robust information about evolution, and by the end of the 1960s those books were being widely used in American classrooms. (If you’re looking for a quick guide to this history, check out Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.)

We aren’t facing a similar situation when it comes to our shoddy civics education.

Why not? Much as creationists might not like it, by 1957 the mainstream scientific community had reached a powerful consensus about the basic outline and importance of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. There is no similar mainstream establishment that can satisfactorily define the proper aims of civics education.

Consider the example I included in my book about educational conservatism. Back in the late 1930s, a set of widely used social-studies textbooks became intensely controversial.  Harold Rugg’s books had been used by millions of students, but in just a few short years they were mostly all yanked from classroom use.

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Watch out: Your school might be teaching civics…

The problem was that Rugg was pushing his vision of civics education. It was a vision that conservatives such as the founder of Forbes Magazine and leaders of the American Legion found subversive.

What did it mean in the World War II years to educate citizens? Harold Rugg thought it meant teaching them the dangers of authoritarianism. He thought it meant teaching them that the United States was one country among many, and that citizens needed to be rigorously skeptical of big business and back-room government deals.

Conservatives thought it meant teaching students to honor and cherish the best American traditions. They wanted children in school to learn to be proud Americans, not weak-kneed socialists. Bertie Forbes explained his beef in one of his popular syndicated columns. He was chatting one day with a group of middle-school students, Forbes related, and they told him about their experience with their Rugg books. When their teacher asked them if the United States was the best country in the world, many of them had answered “Yes.” The correct answer, their teacher read from their Rugg teachers guide, was “No.” In his column, Forbes teed off on that sort of civics education:

Do American parents 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?

Maybe I’m getting too cynical in my old age, but I don’t think we have evolved very far from this 1940s level. When it comes to civics education, we face a stark and glaring divide about the fundamental purposes of such a class. Are students getting a good civics education if they learn how to properly, reverently, fold a flag? Are they getting a good civics education if they can rattle off the correct structure of federal government? Or are they getting a good civics education when they learn how to stage a Black Lives Matter protest?

We can’t agree. And until we can, we will continue to have shameful outcomes in our attempts to teach civics in public schools.

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?

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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.

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…