Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

In School We Trust

Why do conservatives want to put “In God We Trust” banners in public schools? So far, six states have okayed the plan and Kentucky has just entertained a bill to join the list. Why? After all, conservative religious people have the MOST to lose if public schools ditch their fifty-year-old goal of secularism.

in god we trust

Why do conservatives want to trust salvation to the government?

The laws mandating or allowing the display of “In God We Trust” banners are the fruit of a push by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. The CPCF has offered a list of model bills for state lawmakers to consider, with “In God We Trust” school banners at the top of the list.

Why does the CPCF want to put up this banner in public schools? The CPCF insists that the United States must “protect religious liberties” and remain a religious nation. As their promotional video proclaims,

We need this kind of revival of people turning back to God . . . . “In God We Trust.”. . .  it’s an American thing. . . . let’s again write “In God We Trust” on our buildings, in our classrooms, to combat the anti-God dismantling of our nation.

I understand why certain religious conservatives want to see more proclamations of religious faith in public spaces. But I don’t understand why more conservative intellectuals don’t step up to explain the anti-religious implications of these governmental efforts.

After all, back in 1962 when the US Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not impose a vague prayer on schoolchildren, conservative evangelical intellectuals celebrated the decision. I’ve written more about this history in an academic article, but in brief, conservatives were delighted that the government would not be allowed to force children to pray a bad prayer.

In that SCOTUS case, New York schools had been leading children in this blah prayer:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.

To conservative religious thinkers, the idea that a mere government entity could teach children that this was an acceptable prayer was horrific. William Culbertson of Chicago’s conservative Moody Bible Institute commented,

The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.

Where are today’s conservative Culbertsons? Where are the conservative leaders pleading with politicians to avoid stepping on their religious toes? To avoid replacing real, heartfelt, meaningful religious expression with state-friendly, patriotic, bland platitudes? After all, as Culbertson and his conservative colleagues recognized, it is people who care the most about religion who have the most to lose if public schools cram ANY religion down children’s throats.

The Historical Lesson Historians Need to Learn

Who owns your history? Who gets to decide, that is, what is “real” history and what is politically motivated claptrap? For too long, academic historians like me have had it easy. We have glibly assumed our ability to define the boundaries of authentic historical thinking. A smart recent essay made that case once again. But as all of us should, the author needs to study the lessons of a different sort of history. After all, we have been down this road before.

If you’re not familiar with the history wars, a quick look at the bumptious career of David Barton might help. Barton touts himself as a historian, tirelessly exposing the lies of left-wing academic historians. In short, he wants to prove that the United States was founded to be an evangelical nation.

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Calling it “pseudo” history isn’t enough…

A few years back, Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies suffered an ignominious release. After the book’s initial publication, activist academics demonstrated the book’s many falsities and basic errors. The publisher recalled the book. Instead of retreating in embarrassment, Barton supporters doubled down. Most notably, Glenn Beck promised to re-release the book.

What are we to think of this episode? Barton’s book was terrible history, by the standards of mainstream academic history. But it was enormously popular and no amount of expose could deflate its appeal among certain readers.

To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, this might sound hauntingly familiar. Since the 1960s, mainstream scientists—including conservative evangelical scientists—have pulled their hair and gnashed their teeth at the claims made by young-earth creationists. Time and time again, in the face of repeated scientific refutations and debunkings, young-earthers have staked their claim to represent the cause of true “science.”

For an earlier generation, gallopers like Duane Gish steadfastly refused to give up their claim to be the real scientists in the room. These days, Ken Ham does the same thing.

As my friend and co-author Harvey Siegel argued in our book about evolution education, it makes no sense—logically or strategically—to try to prove them wrong. That is, it will always be impossible to prove that Gish and Ham are “pseudo” scientists. There is a better way to talk about the differences between mainstream science and radical young-earth creationism.

It has been difficult enough for mainstream scientists and science pundits to accept this awkward and uncomfortable fact. It seems even more challenging for academic types in other fields. In the field of academic history, for example, mainstream professors have grown accustomed to being unchallenged in their ability to define real historical thinking from the fake kind. When challengers like David Barton raise their head, too many of us are only able to sputter. Too many of us are too confident that Barton’s blather will be rejected as low-quality scholarship.

Consider, for example, a terrific recent essay by mainstream historian Patrick Iber of my beloved alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. In the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Iber wonders if there is any way to preserve his preferred sort of historical thinking in the Age of Trump.

As Iber asks,

Is there anything that can be done to prevent basic historical facts from going the way of climate science, seen essentially as politically motivated rather than the result of serious professional study?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. Indeed, even asking the question shows how far behind the times we academic historians are. Mainstream scientists and science activists have been struggling with these sorts of challenges for a long time. Creationism and climate-change-denialism have long forced mainstream scientists to examine their claims and their public image. Academic historians have tended to be able to ignore such things.

No longer. As Iber puts it,

there is a market for pseudo-historical grift.

Definitely. And to be as clear as possible, I agree entirely with Professor Iber’s anti-crappy-history position. However, we historians need to learn the tough lessons that mainstream academic scientists learned long ago. Namely, we can’t de-fang bad history simply by calling it “pseudo” history. We can’t assume that our credentials and mainstream institutional affiliations will make America listen to our pleas to reject crappy history.

In short, we can’t rest easy that our definition of good historical thinking will win the day based solely on its persuasive power. It won’t. We don’t have the luxury to conclude, as Professor Iber does, that exposing people to historical thinking will tend to make people agree with our vision. As Iber optimistically insists,

Seeing oneself as a part of history tends to be equalizing: It exposes the radical contingency of your own existence, which usually results in taking the humanity of others as seriously as your own.

I wish that were true. But as the career of David Barton proves, seeing oneself as a part of history can result in very different conclusions. Historical thinking is not a wholly owned subsidiary of left-leaning academic types like Professor Iber or me.

If academic historians aren’t more savvy, we risk getting run over by the vastly more popular sorts of history that are out there.

What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

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Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.

Christian Nationalism: The Creationist Connection

It’s often difficult for other Christians to understand. As one thoughtful Catholic intellectual asked me recently, how could it even be possible for any intelligent Christian to confuse their faith with their patriotism? Today we see a new piece of the puzzle, thanks to Sarah Pulliam Bailey. And it’s difficult not to notice the close connections between this sort of Christian nationalism and young-earth creationism.

genesis flood 1961 ed

How does Christian nationalism tie in to young-earth creationism?

Bailey tagged along on a Christian-nationalist tour of Washington DC for a group of middle-schoolers. The tour was specifically designed to explain to children that the United States had a special role in Christian history. This tour was led by one Stephen McDowell, of the Providence Foundation. As Bailey explains,

McDowell, who has been organizing the trips for about 30 years, describes them as a kind of calling. God, he says, has been ignored in the schools, in the government, in the media, and in official tours of our nation’s historic sites. But if tourists can peel back the secular layers of government and media, they will behold a nation birthed by God, he maintains, and thus be compelled to conclude that without Christianity, there would be no United States.

The kids all dressed in red, white, and blue and learned that DC was designed as a Christian capital. They learned to be skeptical of senators like mine, who sound, as one student put it, “like he was from somewhere in the North.” Bailey’s description offers a rare glimpse of fundamentalist pedagogy in action and I encourage you to read the whole article.

This morning, though, we are more interested in the ways this sort of Christian-nationalist education looks and feels a lot like young-earth creationist pedagogy. The “truths” taught by McDowell are far removed from the actual historical record. As with young-earth creationists, it’s difficult not to wonder how anyone can believe something so radically divorced from mainstream academic understandings.

Just as with young-earth creationism, Christian nationalist historians like McDowell tell a tale of hidden truths. As McDowell explains,

I wasn’t taught this in school because God was ignored as he is today in most of our state school public school textbooks.

In other words, the true fact of a Christian America has been obscured by generations of benighted secularists. The goal, McDowell explains, must be to

Awaken the American people and teach them truth . . . See our nation turn back to God and other nations as well.

With enough tours and textbooks and schools and websites, McDowell apparently believes, there is hope that the true nature of America’s Christian history and destiny will be revealed and embraced.

Compare McDowell’s language to that of the founding text of modern American young-earth creationism. In The Genesis Flood (I’m pulling from the 1966 edition), Henry Morris and John Whitcomb Jr. made very similar claims for the truth and power of young-earth creationism. If YEC is true, they wonder, why do so many Americans believe in evolution? As they explain,

Historical geology, with its evolutionary implications, has had profound influence on nearly every aspect of modern life, especially in its fostering of an almost universal rejection of the historicity of Genesis and of Biblical Christianity generally.

The true story of our species and planet, in other words, has been obscured by the pernicious secular rejection of the Truth. What did Morris and Whitcomb hope to do? They were after

restoring His people everywhere to full reliance on the truth of the Biblical doctrine of origins.

Like Morris and Whitcomb, McDowell is telling a story of a powerful truth, hidden by scheming (or possibly simply mistaken) secularists. Of course, this truth might seem outlandish or even ridiculous to those raised on the lies of false history or science. But by revealing those truths, missionary educators think they have the ability to transform both souls and society.

Is This the One Thing that Stops the Chatterers from Chattering?

I sat down curious. I got up stumped. Why didn’t the usual conservative and progressive websites and magazines have anything to say about this momentous event? I’m wondering if the topic is too touchy even for the most brazen of cultural commentators.

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Remembering…

Here’s what we know: A new lynching memorial opened this week in Montgomery, Alabama. The mainstream press covered it in detail: NPR, New York Times, The Conversation, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post…newspapers and news outlets rushed to describe the wrenching attempt to remember the brutal legacy of racial violence in America.

Most of the coverage mixed outraged descriptions of the ugly history with hopeful intimations that this memorial might help open ancient festering sores to the bracing effects of sunlight. For me, as both a history teacher and a human being, I’m optimistic that the memorial might fulfill its goal of helping Americans recognize and deal with the fundamental historical facts of slavery, lynching, and their legacy.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, we’ve spent our fair share of time wondering why lynching is such a third-rail topic in American culture and education. Teachers have gotten in trouble for introducing the topic in their classrooms. I’ve wondered if we are simply too hamstrung to teach our children the truth about American history.

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Is it appropriate for children?

As a teacher, I have always had a difficult time helping students understand why people would send postcards to friends with cheerful mementoes of the lynchings they’d witnessed. It seemed like serial-killer behavior, yet it was fairly commonplace. (I won’t include the images here, because they are truly horrifying. With preparation, though, I’ve introduced students to the grim collection at Without Sanctuary. In particular, I challenged students to try to make sense of image #28.)

As I was flying home recently, I sat next to a very friendly woman. Once she found out I was a history nerd, she mentioned that she had recently seen news of the lynching memorial in Montgomery. And she was shocked. She was in her mid-fifties, she said, and she knew vaguely about racial violence and lynching, but the memorial opened her eyes to the numbers of victims and the peculiarly brutal nature of racial lynchings.

If more and more Americans can have similar experiences with the Montgomery memorial, I think we will have made significant but insufficient progress.

But here’s what I don’t understand: Why don’t the usual pundits have anything to say about it? This morning, I conducted a very unscientific survey of both left and right. I found almost no mention of the Montgomery memorial. Why not?

From the left, I looked at The Progressive, The Nation, and ThinkProgress. From the right, I searched American Conservative, Weekly Standard, National Review, and even Wallbuilders.

Of all those sources, only National Review had anything to say about the new memorial. In its pages, sociologist Gabriel Rossman offered an intelligent analysis of the way racial lynchings differed from other sorts of vigilante hangings.

Why don’t other progressive or conservative commentators have anything to say? Are they waiting for someone to say something provocative about the museum for them to react to? Did I just look in the wrong places?

I’d think this intensely provocative topic would attract a lot of culture-war commentary. Why hasn’t it?

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.

OTR COVER

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.

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.