The Curse of the Cursive Curse

You can’t say the guy doesn’t have a sense of irony. Apparently cursive is back on the table for Wisconsin schools, and the legislator who introduced the bill–wait for it–wrote it out in a cursive font on his computer.

Cursive-loving educational conservatism is nothing new. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will remember similar mandatory-cursive efforts in Indiana in 2016. They might recall a similar move in Maine from earlier this year.

The drive to keep cursive alive has a longer tradition as well. As I found in the research for my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, I kept coming across conservative complaints that schools were abandoning the traditional subject of handwriting, often called “penmanship.”

In the pages of the Pasadena Independent, for example, editor T.G. Wood complained in 1950 that “progressive” education fads had led to less learning of traditional subjects.  Parents were increasingly starting to wonder, Wood wrote acerbically,

why little Johnny puts two and three together and comes up with nine, why his penmanship shows little or no improvement, and why his reading is poor or backward.

An angry Pasadena reader agreed.  Back in the old days, one letter-writer explained, Pasadena’s schools had benefited from the work of teacher Albert P. Meub, “a penman of national note.”  Meub had tried to keep the subject of penmanship in the schools, the letter-writer complained, but to no avail.  The rush for progressivism in schools had led to the willy-nilly abandonment of traditional subjects such as penmanship.

Maybe it’s understandable that parents would want to take advantage of a nationally noted penman. Is that what’s going on in Wisconsin? The bill’s sponsor, Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond du Lac, was a little coy about his intentions. As he told his colleagues, he wasn’t pushing the bill for conservative reasons. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Thiesfeldt

said studies have shown writing in cursive fosters neurological connections in students’ brains, improves retention and can help dyslexic children read because cursive letters are more distinctive than printed letters.

“This bill isn’t just about nostalgia or being able to read grandmas’ letters and primary source historical documents,” Thiesfeldt said.

I wonder if there’s more going on in Madison, or if there really are reformers who want cursive back in school for its own sake.

If it were up to you, would you mandate cursive for public schools? I don’t think it’s worth it. But then again, my grandma never wrote me any letters.

–Thanks to AP for the tip!

Gov’t Fights Anti-Christian Bias: Will Conservatives Celebrate?

Maybe you didn’t see this one, because no one seems to be talking about it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against a Pennsylvania company for bias against three Christian employees. On first blush, it seems like a story that culture-war conservatives would want to celebrate.

EEOC

Big Government fighting for persecuted Christians…

After all, this seems to be good news for conservative Christians. In this case, the EEOC alleges that three workers were insulted and treated badly. Their Pentecostal religion was demeaned as a “disgusting cult.” The suit points out that creation of a “hostile work environment and disparate treatment” due to the workers’ national origin and religion constitutes “unlawful practices.”

On its face, this diligent protection of conservative Christians might seem like good news for anxious religious conservatives. Very different types of conservative Christians have lamented the fact that mainstream society and government persecute traditional Christians.

From the crunchy side, for example, Rod Dreher warns,

the cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

And from the Kentucky creationism side, Ken Ham has insisted,

It’s not enough to just tell students, ‘Believe in Jesus!’ Faith that is not founded on fact will ultimately falter in the storm of secularism that our students face every day. . . . Our country has forsaken its Christian soul. We need to see that for what it is.

Rod Dreher and Ken Ham probably wouldn’t agree on much, but as Christian conservatives they agree that mainstream society has turned hopelessly anti-Christian. Yet I’m guessing they won’t take this story as good news. Why not?

First, it is simply bad strategy for them to notice. Like a lot of conservative cassandras, Dreher and Ham have both put all their chips on a persecution story. A more complicated version of that story won’t help them much.

If more thoughtful folks like Dreher DO comment on this story, they could explain it a couple of ways. First, they might claim that conservative religion was more of a free-rider in this case. The government was really interested in protecting these particular Christians because they were also insulted for their Puerto Rican heritage. Plus, intellectuals like Mr. Dreher might point out that this sort of legal protection is beside the point. Sure, the EEOC might fight against insults and harassment, but the EEOC will then turn around and persecute Christians who do not recognize LGBTQ rights. The actual beliefs of conservative Christians, Dreher might say, are nowhere protected.

So although these three plaintiffs might have the government on their side when they are mocked for being Puerto Rican Pentecostals, Mr. Dreher might retort, when they actually try to live their lives as demanded by their Christian faith, they become instead the target of the EEOC.

Or maybe conservative pundits just won’t say anything at all.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

Time for Conservatives to Panic?

Beware! The nation’s schools have become cesspools of [select one] batty progressivism/subversive socialism/right-wing indoctrination/etc. etc. etc. For a hundred years now, activists have seized on stories from unusual schools and pretended that they represent the “new trend in education.” In the latest go-round of this culture-war tradition, conservatives have gleefully assumed that one odd Brooklyn school has proved them right.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

Here’s the latest: You probably saw George Packer’s piece in the Atlantic about the dizzying dance of progressivism gone wild at his kid’s school. Packer is a well-to-do New Yorker describing his adventures in securing the best education for his kids. He frets about the loss of a meritocratic idea in schools—to Packer, rich people like himself seem too safe behind the expensive walls of their educational castles.

Worse than that, Packer concludes, a venomous “new progressivism” has warped America’s public schools. At his kid’s school, for example, rigid left-wing identity politics has perverted the entire purpose of education. State tests were to be skipped. Bathrooms were to be gender-neutral. Students were to learn the glories of every other civilization besides American. Child-centered classroom methods had become totalitarian fear-mongering. In the end, Packer concludes,

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

Almost before the ink was dry—and it was a lot of ink—conservative pundits seized on Packer’s piece as proof of the deadly realities of modern public education. Peggy Noonan called it an “important piece.” Niall Ferguson called it a “brilliant essay” that “gets right to the heart of the degeneration of American education.” Rod Dreher told his readers that they “have to read this” description of the “progressive dystopia of NYC schools.”

noonan on packer tweet

I’m sure there are conservative intellectuals out there who didn’t fall for this obvious fallacy, but plenty of them did. What’s the problem? As Chalkbeat noted, Packer’s conclusions based on one school might or might not be fair, but they don’t represent anything beyond one person’s unique experience. As CB put it,

close observers of the city’s schools have struggled to recognize the school system Packer is describing. . . . the school is by no means typical in New York City.

It has ever been thus. Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in my book about the history of educational conservatism, activists have seized on unusual, possibly fake examples and assumed that they represent a horrifying new reality of American public education. Over and over again, conservative activists took apocryphal stories from alleged schools and used them to warn one another of the terrible trends that had taken over American education.

In the 1930s, for example, Forbes Magazine founder Bertie Forbes heard from local middle-schoolers that their teacher had denied that America was the most awesome nation on earth. Forbes’s response? He launched a national crusade to purge schools of this terrible subversive rot.

In the 1960s, Texas activists Mel and Norma Gabler were shocked by the contents of their son’s textbook. Their conclusion? According to a sympathetic biographer,

The Gablers . . . began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.  They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise.  Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

That’s a lot to learn from one student’s homework assignment one night in 1961!

Or, to consider one last example, what about the experience of Alice Moore in Kanawha County, West Virginia? Ms. Moore ran for school board in the 1970s, and her first move was to visit a local progressive middle school. The school had been conceived as a different sort of school, with one big open learning space, student freedom to pursue independent projects, and teachers who consulted with students instead of dictating to them.

SH Gablers

They’re teaching our children what we ask them to teach…

As Ms. Moore told me many years later, the school became a nightmare. Students weren’t learning. Well, they weren’t learning in class. They were learning how to be rude to adults, how to smoke, and how have sex in nearby barns. What was Ms. Moore’s conclusion? That the school was typical of the problems of American education at the time. It was representative of progressive schools all over the country.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Yes, there have long been experiments with progressive pedagogy and progressive politics in American public education. But they have never really represented the “new” force that conservatives in every generation keep warning about.

In fact, once we venture outside the world of clickbait, we see a much different picture of American public education. Public schools—taken as a group—are remarkably diverse institutions. It’s difficult to say much about public education in general, but there is one thing we know to be true. By and large, public schools in America reflect the communities in which they are located.

Unlike what activists have warned about for generations, there is no scheming outside force taking over public schools. Distant experts are only heard distantly. Instead, public schools tend to reflect the values and the desires of their local communities. And that’s why parents tend to be happy with the schools their kids go to, even if they have learned to be nervous about American public education as a whole.

The poll numbers are clear. In 2010, for example, 77% of parents gave their children’s schools an “A” or a “B,” but only 18% of parents said that about the nation’s schools as a whole. Why? Because unlike George Packer, most parents are in general agreement with the goings-on at their kids’ schools. And unlike the chicken-little hysteria of some conservative commentators, most Americans know that real schools are different from the ones that commentators imagine.

Revolution Is (Not) Coming to a Classroom Near You!

Time for conservatives to freak out? No, not really, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the Chicken Little-ism of Gilbert T. Sewall in the American Conservative. As have conservatives for a full century now, Sewall makes a fundamental mistake when it comes to American education.

Why is Sewall freaking out? It seems California has introduced a new curricular requirement to its public schools. Soon, to graduate from high schools Californians will have to complete an Ethnic Studies class. What will it mean? According to Sewall, it will be nothing less than

a revolutionary storm sweeping through educational leadership in the nation’s legislatures and metro school districts.

Except…it won’t. Of course it won’t. For good or ill, no single curricular requirement can have that much impact on the goings-on in America’s classroom.

What is Sewall worried about? As he describes,

Ethnic Studies is the “disciplinary, loving, and critical praxis of holistic humanity.” It is the study of “intersectional and ancestral roots, coloniality, hegemony and a dignified world where many worlds fit.” It “critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.” . . .

“The foundational values of Ethnic Studies are housed in the conceptual model of the ‘double helix,’” the text professes, “which interweaves holistic humanization and critical consciousness.” The proposed course of study, while promising to help with the “eradication of bigotry, hate, and racism” and the promotion of “socio-emotional development and wellness,” seems intended mainly to stir ill will and delegitimize the nation’s white majority. The conviction that malign U.S. wealth and power exist at the expense of certified underdogs undergirds the entire document.

So, should conservatives panic? For that matter, should progressives celebrate? No and no. Why not? A little background: As I argued in my history of American educational conservatism, conservatives have long assumed that progressive school rhetoric reflected a revolutionary new reality in America’s classrooms. It doesn’t and it never has.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

How to panic, c. 1949.

Consider, for example, the alarmist language of 1940s pundit Allen Zoll. Zoll was a hard-right hack who managed to build a mailing list of many respectable thinkers and activists. In his pamphlets, he snipped a few bits of progressive-ed language and baked them into an apocalyptic meringue for his readers. Consider this snippet from Progressive Education Increases Delinquency:

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this [progressive education] is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.

We don’t even need to argue that progressive classroom methods will do no such thing. All we have to do this morning is point out that such progressive methods never had anything near the influence Zoll assumed they did. Like many of his conservative allies, Allen Zoll read a few progressive pamphlets then told his many readers that those ideas reflected a terrifying new revolutionary reality in America’s classrooms.

They didn’t then and they don’t now. Think about it: If changing a curriculum could have sweeping revolutionary changes in the ways people think, we would have long ago have abolished both racism and radical young-earth creationism.

Exhibit A: When it comes to creationism, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Erik Plutzer noted, state standards for teaching evolutionary theory are generally pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that people are really learning evolutionary theory in schools. Obvs.

Exhibit B: As for racism, historian Zoe Burkholder argued that anti-racist academic activists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead had some real success introducing anti-racist materials in the New York City curriculum, way back in the 1940s. Did that mean that racism was eliminated? Sadly, no.

The point here is not that anti-racist or pro-evolution curriculum is a bad idea. Personally, I agree that every student should be exposed to such ideas. But just adding an idea to a mandated curriculum does not now and has not ever resulted in sweeping changes in the things people actually learn in school.

For me and my progressive friends, that can come as a sad and sobering wake-up call. For some conservatives, like Gilbert Sewall, it should come as a heavy dose of reassurance.

Because unlike what Sewall predicts, this change in California curriculum does not herald the destruction of traditional values or hierarchies. California, regardless of what Sewall says, has not really “abandon[ed] teaching and learning in favor of political indoctrination.”

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with Sewall. No one would read his article if he said, “I don’t like this change but it’s not really that big of a deal.” As have conservative pundits for a century now, Sewall chose to inflate the real danger in order to attract anxious readers.

However, this kind of educational alarmism is a problem. It leads readers to conclude that something profound has gone horribly wrong with America’s schools. Even when they see counter-evidence with their own eyes, Americans tend to listen to the unfounded panic-mongering of writers like Sewall instead of calmer, boringer voices.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

What should we do instead? It’s not easy, but it is obvious. Instead of browsing through state mandates, we should get to know real schools. We should visit local schools, attend school-board meetings, and talk with teachers and neighbors about what happens on a day-to-day basis. If more people did that, there would less panic and more pragmatism in every discussion of public education.

Teaching Patriotism: Can You Pick the Century?

Okay, friends, it’s time to play…Pick That Century! When it comes to teaching patriotism and civic engagement, pundits have been saying the same sorts of things for a looooong time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring from within.

Case in point: One of the quotations below is from today—July 6, 2019—tweeted by the free-markety Fordham Institute. The other is from an American Legion publication, April, 1941. Can you pick the new one?

Quotation 1: beware “the indoctrination of youth against traditional ideals and institutions . . . lack of emphasis on true American life and too great emphasis on the unfavorable aspects, failure to give due acknowledgment to the deeds of our great American heroes, questioning private ownership, too favorable emphasis on what has been done in [other (hostile) countries], the creation of doubt in the minds of pupils and teachers as to the ability of our democracy to function successfully, the dissemination of alien propaganda, statements that the United States Supreme Court favors vested interests.”

What do you think? Is that from 2019? Or 1941? How about this one:

Quotation 2: “Civics education tends to focus mostly or entirely on what is bad and broken in American society and politics. This risks creating in the minds of our students a vision of their country as exclusively antagonistic to their interests and well-being.”

Check your answers: click here to see today’s quotation. Didja get it right? What gave it away?

Did Bernie Just Throw Ed Progressives Under the Bus?

There’s been a ton of good news lately for teachers and for public education. Leading Democratic candidates such as Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are making schools central issues in their campaigns. Now Senator Bernie Sanders has issued his ten-point “Thurgood Marshall Plan” for improving education. Like my progressive teacher friends, I’m thrilled by these developments. However, as a long-time observer of America’s educational culture wars, I have to ask an unpleasant question: Does Bernie really not care about progressive ed?

bernie mashall plan

Progressive politics, but not practices…?

Let me be clear: Compared to the GOP alternatives, I support Bernie’s plan. For that matter, I like Senator Warren’s plan, too, and Senator Harris’s. I could quibble with various details of the plans, but IMHO we should focus on the huge positive fact that our 2020 candidates are talking a lot about schools and education.

From a historical perspective, however, I can’t help but wonder at the way our progressive politicians seem to have abandoned progressive education.

Here’s what I mean: Bernie’s ten-point plan emphasized the need for American schools to fight racial bias and entrenched economic and social inequality. All to the good. However, when it comes to actual progressive classroom practices, Bernie seems surprisingly unaware.

For example, just like Queen Betsy, Bernie assumes the goal of our education system is to produce a competitive “workforce.”  Bernie also assumes that the primary purpose of good schools is to increase America’s competitive economic advantages in a “highly competitive global economy.”

And how does Bernie know America’s schools need fixing? In his words,

Among the 35 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science. Reading scores for our students are not much better. The U.S. ranked 24th when compared to other highly industrialized countries such as Singapore, Canada and Germany.

For progressive educators, using this kind of standardized-test measure to evaluate our schools is dunderheaded. Making a well-trained “workforce” the main goal of education is backwards. And measuring the quality of schools by the economic advantage they create is absolutely irresponsible. Yet Bernie does not hesitate to do it. Nor does Bernie seem to have his ear to the ground when it comes to identifying the most pressing problems in American education. For example, Bernie laments the fact that

too many Americans end up taking higher-paying jobs on Wall Street or as accountants or as corporate managers simply to pay back their student loans.

…Really? THAT’S what Bernie thinks is the main problem with American higher ed? That too many graduates are taking high-paying jobs?

As progressive ed pundit Alfie Kohn wrote years ago, we shouldn’t confuse progressive politics with progressive education. As Kohn put it,

A school that is culturally progressive is not necessarily educationally progressive. An institution can be steeped in lefty politics and multi-grain values; it can be committed to diversity, peace, and saving the planet—but remain strikingly traditional in its pedagogy. In fact, one can imagine an old-fashioned pour-in-the-facts approach being used to teach lessons in tolerance or even radical politics.

Is that what’s going on here? Is Bernie pushing traditional educational practices in his effort to fight traditional social inequality? Does Bernie not know about progressive pedagogy? Or does he just not care?

Gay Trump Card

Okay, folks, here’s another head-scratcher from the world of America’s educational culture wars. SAGLROILYBYGTH have probably already seen the latest expose of James Manning’s ATLAH school. So here’s the puzzle for this morning: In spite of long efforts on the Left to combat racism, is it really only on the fundamentalist Right that the war on racism has been won? Where white and black fundamentalists agree on the meanings of race and racism? I don’t know what to think.

manning atlah

Westboro, NYC.

First, a little background: If you haven’t seen the HuffPost expose, it’s worth your time. Pastor James Manning has attracted attention in the past for his fervent and ferocious anti-LBGTQ views. He made wild accusations that Starbucks was infusing lattes with semen. His church sign went into full Westboro mode at times, proclaiming “Jesus would stone homos” and “Obama is a Muslim. Muslims hate fags. They throw fags off buildings.”

Now Manning is facing accusations of abuse of his students and congregants. According to the HuffPost article, Manning locked a student in a dark basement, used sexually suggestive language with minors, and clamped down viciously on any murmur of dissent in his school and congregation.

The recent expose leaves lots of big questions unexamined. Most telling, the racial ideology/theology of Pastor Manning throws a monkey wrench into any simple culture-war divisions. For instance, according to HuffPost, his school uses both A Beka and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) materials. ACE, at least, has been credibly outed as a congenitally racist and white supremacist outfit.

ACE MLK

What do white fundamentalist think about race and racism?

One might think that Manning simply didn’t care about the entrenched racist attitudes in the ACE materials because he was looking for fundamentalist schoolbooks and couldn’t find any that weren’t racist.

Maybe.

In other publications, though, Pastor Manning has insisted on some non-conventional racial attitudes. He furiously attacked President Obama. And in the clip below, he insists,

Not only am I not an African American, but I’m not a black man.

[Warning: Video below contains extremely offensive racial language.]

I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, but I can’t help but wonder if Manning’s outside-the-box racial ideology makes him generally comfortable with the racial ideology of the Accelerated Christian Education materials. After all, fundamentalist curricular materials talk about more than just race.

When it comes to student learning and behavior, for example, Manning’s school touts its “memory/articulation/discipline” approach. It is a traditional approach that comports nicely with the classroom ideology of A Beka Book. As one of A Beka’s promoters promised, A Beka materials do more than just teach facts. At an A Beka school, one leader promised,

You learn the Bible.

You learn that God created.

You learn the worth of your soul.

You master the three R’s and other subjects.

You sit up straight and pay attention.

You learn that it is right not to cheat.

You learn to recite when called upon.

You learn honor and respect for your parents.
You learn respect for authority.

You learn that a man’s word is his bond.

You learn that a job worth doing is worth doing well.

You learn personal initiative.

You develop pride in America.

You learn that the free enterprise system is still the best system.

You learn that competition is healthy.

The goal of a school like this, according to A. A. “Buzz” Baker, is not only to teach a few fundamental religious truths. Rather, a good fundamentalist school will bundle those religious facts into a deeply conservative view of life and learning.

To this reader, Manning’s radically traditionalist, violently anti-LGBTQ school fits perfectly into this fundamentalist educational attitude. At first, we might think that the rest of the fundamentalist package—anti-gay, pro-discipline, pro-memorization, pro-Bible—allows African-American conservatives to overlook the racist component of fundamentalist textbooks.

I think the truth is more complicated than that. In the case of ATLAH schools, at least, the racial ideology/theology of white fundamentalism has leaped over the color line. In this one case, at least, both white and black fundamentalists embrace similar notions of race in these United States. I don’t think those notions are healthy, but like violent anti-LBGTQ rhetoric, they seem to have been taken to heart in some surprising quarters.

Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

They don’t agree on much. But on this they do agree: MMR vaccines are not good for their kids. In my great home state of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups and rich hippies are uniting on this one issue (sort of). Why? As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, it’s not really about God or ethics or any of that stuff. It all comes down to Billy Joel.

Here’s what we know: In Rockland County, New York—just northwest of New York City—the government has taken drastic steps to ban unvaccinated children from all public places. A measles outbreak has led to this unusual measure. Traditionally, most states allowed parents pretty wide leeway in religious and moral exemptions to mandatory-vaccination laws. Today’s outbreak is forcing a re-think of those exemptions.

What does it have to do with Orthodox Judaism and hippie culture? In this case, a lot. The unvaccinated children are clustered in private schools, some of them Orthodox Jewish schools and others from a fancy-pants Waldorf school. In general, the cultural worlds of these two schools could not be further apart. In one thing, though, the parents agree, and this one thing is at the root of the measles problem.

From the Orthodox perspective, MMR vaccines have a complicated backstory. Some Orthodox leaders have counseled against vaccinations, but now leaders agree that vaccines are kosher. Parents, though, are still divided. As Forward described, many in the Orthodox community share

a feeling that their worldview is not in keeping with modern secular society, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor who has authored several books about Orthodox Jews.

“It’s about a view that we have our ways and they have their ways,” he said.

When it comes to measles vaccines, many parents in the Orthodox community simply do not trust the experts, and it is that distrust that brings Orthodox and hippies together.

Just down the street from Rockland’s Orthodox schools, but culturally a million miles away, parents at Green Meadow Waldorf School have also attempted to keep their kids from receiving the MMR vaccine. The lesson about distrusting vaccines is the same, but practically every other aspect of these schools is different. Green Meadow, for example, promises that their school will

create a social, cultural, and learning environment that recognizes the child’s spiritual freedom and growth. . . . Rather than teaching to the test or adhering to Common Core standards, the Waldorf curriculum fosters independent, critical thinking and problem solving, develops ethics and morality, and promotes true joy in learning.

The progressive, child-centered world of Green Meadow may be totally different from that of Orthodox schools, but the parents share one fundamental beef. Just like skeptical Orthodox parents, anxious Waldorf parents share a virulent distrust of the medical establishment. They feel it so strongly they are willing to put their children’s health on the line. They probably wouldn’t agree on much else, but they might agree with Billy Joel that it’s always been a matter of trust.

The Wrong Way to Talk about Civics Education

We just can’t do it. As educators and Americans, that is, we can’t agree about what “civics education” is supposed to be doing. We do know one thing, though. The way to understand it is not by doing what one pundit recently attempted.civics textbooks

Why is it so hard to teach civics? As I’ve argued in these pages and in books such as The Other School Reformers, the problem isn’t that no one cares. It’s not that people think schools shouldn’t teach kids to be good citizens. Rather, the problem is that Americans can’t agree on what “being a good citizen” entails.

Think about it: How enthusiastic would you be if your tax dollars supported student activism in a cause with which you disagreed? Say, for example, that kids in a high-school civics class took their project to the streets, protesting against a local abortion clinic? Or, for the other side, what if students marched out their civic responsibilities in a gay pride parade? Either way, real-life student civic engagement is not usually something that controversy-averse public school administrators can support.

None of that is the point this morning, however. One civics-ed commentator recently demonstrated another related challenge when it comes to discussing civics education. Robert Pondiscio of the marketeering Fordham Institute recently unintentionally underlined why it is so difficult to know what students are really doing in schools, when it comes to civics education or anything else.

That wasn’t Pondiscio’s point, of course. Rather, he was trying to articulate a need for a more traditionalist vision of proper civics education. He was hoping to push teachers to teach

A lifelong love of liberty. Of freedom and the rule of law. A lifelong love of America.

Pondiscio thinks schools aren’t doing this. And he wants to prove it. That’s where he runs into trouble.

As school-watchers know, it is infamously difficult to know what goes on behind the classroom door. Creationists warn their followers that public schools are cramming gay-friendly atheism down children’s throats under the guise of science classes. Atheists fret about religious zealots using public schools to cram hate-filled fundamentalism down children’s throats.

So how did Mr. Pondiscio come to his conclusion that public schools are not teaching kids to love America? The wrong way. He looked at the mission statements of America’s 100 biggest public school districts. What did he find?

Well over half—fifty-nine of the one hundred largest U.S. school districts—make no mention of civics or citizenship whatsoever in their mission or vision statements. . . .  The words “patriotic” and “patriotism” do not appear at all. Neither does “America” or “American.” Not even once.

Proof that American teachers are not teaching students to love this great land? Of course not. If Mr. Pondiscio had instead asked 100 of America’s best teachers to paraphrase their districts’ mission statements, he would have found that zero of them could do so.

On the other hand, if he asked 100 social-studies teachers if they tried to help students understand what Pondiscio calls “a sense of gratitude, for the blessings of liberty, our Constitutional freedoms, what it’s taken to secure those things for us, and for thoughtful pride and patriotism”, he’d find much different results. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most American social-studies teachers out there teach some version of those goals.

So why bother with school-district mission statements? Like so much other bad punditry about America’s public schools, writers can use mission statements if they want to make a point. In reality, though, district mission statements have only the tiniest effect on real teaching.

The real lesson here should be a sober warning about the difficulties of understanding what really goes on in America’s schools. If we want to do more than rile people up, we need to be humble about what we think we know about real teachers and real classrooms.