Will the Real Educational Conservative Please Stand Up?

No one can say Michael Petrilli doesn’t understand educational conservatism. As head of the free-marketeer Fordham Institute Petrilli has long championed aggressive conservative activism in schools and educational bureaucracies. In a recent piece at National Affairs, though, Petrilli tries once again to impose an ill-fitting definition of “conservatism” onto America’s educational landscape. This strategic attempt at a flattering self-image for conservatives might help conservatives sleep at night, but it doesn’t fairly depict historical realities.

school choice march

Is this conservative?

This isn’t the first time Petrilli has tried and failed to convince conservatives of what they should think. A few years back, when then-new Common Core State Standards reared their heads, Petrilli struggled to convince conservatives that the Common Core was conservative. He failed then and he’ll likely fail in his current attempt as well.

This time around, Petrilli is hoping to impose an image of educational conservatism as split between “accountability-plus-choice” and mere “choice.” All conservatives, Petrilli writes, make school choice a “paramount objective.” “Conservatives believe,” according to Petrilli,

that parents should be able to choose schools for their children that match their educational priorities and moral values. This principle stems from our deep respect for the family as the building block of a free society.

The split, Petrilli writes, is between conservatives who are happy with expanding choice and conservatives who also want to force traditional public schools to improve. Smart conservatives should want both, Petrilli thinks. As he puts it,

If we care about economic growth, upward mobility, and strong families, we should make improving America’s educational outcomes a priority. Education is both a private good and a public good, and a society has a legitimate interest in the education of its next generation — the more so when public dollars pay for it.

In short, Petrilli is hoping to convince conservatives that they should work to improve public schooling for all. He wants conservatives to see themselves as the true guardians of American values and prospects, the side of the future.

If we could all agree on improving public schools for everyone, we could likely skip much of our culture-war shouting and have drinks together on the patio. The problem is that Petrilli’s flattering definition of educational conservatism doesn’t match reality.

For example, Petrilli wants to convince his fellow conservatives that they have always been on the side of social justice for the least powerful members of American society. He writes,

Conservatives view upward mobility as a key objective of social policy, and want to empower poor families to choose schools that can catapult their children into the middle class.

Now, I’m happy to grant that Mr. Petrilli himself truly values such things, but it is more than a stretch to say that such lofty social goals have ever been a primary motivating factor for conservative educational activists. As I argue in detail in my book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the primary goals of conservatives have been starkly different.

From Grace Brosseau of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas; from Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion to Max Rafferty of California’s State Department of Education; from Bertie Forbes to Alice Moore…conservatives have wanted a bunch of different things out of schools, but elevating the economic prospects of “poor families” has never been their primary motivation.

What have they focused on? I hate to quote myself, but here’s how I put it in the 2015 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.

Of course, Mr. Petrilli is happy to offer any definition he wants for conservatism and his fans are welcome to agree with him. The rest of us, though, should understand that educational conservatism has been mostly about protecting kids from progressive trends in school and society.

And that leads us to Petrilli’s second big goof. Much as he might dislike it, school “choice” has never been anything but a convenient tactic for conservatives. Most conservatives have been decidedly blah about the notion of school choice unless that choice seemed like the best way to achieve their real goals of insulating their kids.

If we need proof, we don’t need to look any further than the mottled history of the idea of school choice itself. When Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed the notion of charter schools back in 1950, it met with a profound fizzle. Conservatives back then—everyone back then—mostly ignored the idea, as Friedman himself admitted.

It took nearly fifty years for conservative activists to embrace school choice as their number-one go-to plan for saving their kids from America’s schools. And even then, notions of school choice often take pride of place only in the wonky visions of brainy conservatives like Petrilli himself. Many more conservatives these days look instead to their traditional havens of private schools and the exciting new world of homeschooling.

Looked at one way, Mr. Petrilli might be right. The world of educational conservative activism might really be split in two. The sides, however, aren’t the ones Petrilli imagines. Instead of a split between conservatives who are happy with expanding charter schools and conservatives who also want to improve public schools for all, it might really just be a split between idealistic conservative reformers like Petrilli and almost all the rest of the conservatives out there.

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The OTHER Textbook Culture War

You know the script: Progressives face off against conservatives, fighting over history textbooks. Progressives want more focus on freedom struggles, conservatives on America’s exceptionalism. It’s the story we hear a lot, and one I focused on in my book about educational conservatism. My reading these days, though, points out the hidden importance of a very different sort of textbook battle.

As do a lot of academic types, I spend my summers catching up on reading. I often agree to write reviews of new books for a variety of academic journals. This summer, I’m reading historian Charles W. Eagles’ new book Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook.civil rights culture wars

It’s a terrific book. If you want to read my full review, you’ll have to wait til it comes out in the Journal of American History. In these pages, I’d like to talk about something else, something I don’t have room for in my official review, one of the most revealing and eye-opening parts of Eagles’ history.

Professor Eagles tells the story of a new state-history book for Mississippi, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. It was an effort by sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis in the early 1970s to bring a more balanced and more progressive history to Mississippi’s ninth graders.

Eagles tells the story of the controversial book in remarkable detail, and the usual players all show up. Progressives liked the book for finally including African Americans in the history, not only as loyal slaves or bumbling Reconstruction-era politicians, but as Mississippians. Conservatives blasted the book as unbalanced, obsessed with denigrating the history of the great state of Mississippi.

As I followed the predictable back-and-forth, I couldn’t help but hear an additional muted counter-melody running through all the deliberations. There was an additional voice struggling to be heard, a point of view beyond the usual culture-war progressivism and conservatism.mississippi conflict and change

Over and over again, the experienced teachers who reviewed and rejected Loewen’s and Sallis’s textbook made a similar complaint. The book was no good, they argued, not because of any overarching ideological slant, but for a much more pragmatic reason. Any boasts about the academic excellence of the history or about its progressive ideology were simply beside the point.

Using this textbook, the teachers wrote, would make it impossible for Mississippi teachers to do their jobs.

Why?

Because the content of the textbook would unsettle classrooms. It would make it impossible for teachers to do any teaching at all, since teachers would instead be breaking up fights among students.

Consider, for example, the remarkable testimony of textbook-review board member John Turnipseed. The book was “unsuitable for classroom use,” Turnipseed concluded, because “in a racially mixed classroom, the discussion of the material would be improper. . . . [it] would cause harsh feelings in the classroom.”

The judge in the federal case could hardly believe his ears. Judge Orma Smith asked Turnipseed if Turnipseed really thought images and discussions of lynching could be left out of a Mississippi history book.

                Judge Smith: “You don’t see any historical value in that kind of situation?”

Turnipseed: “No sir, I don’t. I feel the contributions made by blacks as well as whites are more important and should not be degraded.”

Smith: “The racial situation that existed wouldn’t have had any historical significance at all? Where are students to learn the fact if they don’t learn them in school?

Turnipseed: “Again, I think in integrated classrooms it would cause resentment.”

Just as historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his landmark book Whose America, school leaders always prefer to add in bland praise, rather than to suggest any criticism. Every social group demands that their history be praised, and school leaders like Turnipseed usually acquiesce. To do anything different would unsettle classrooms in a dangerous way.

It was not only white conservative board members like John Turnipseed who focused on the goal of quiet classrooms. African American board member John Earl Wash also voted against the Loewen and Sallis book. Images of lynching, Wash argued, hurt African American students. “The 9th grade black student,” Wash wrote, “would probably resent hearing about the lynching topic.”

Even though Loewen, Sallis, and their fans envisioned their new textbook as a corrected, pro-civil-rights history, experienced teachers like Wash had different worries. Topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, Wash testified, were things Mississippi African Americans “want to forget.” Worst of all, the progressive textbook put African-American students in physical danger. In Wash’s words,

Blacks just resent anything that I would say would carry them back to times of slavery, anything. Then anything to do with the Klan or terrorizing blacks or something of this nature, right, it would definitely bring conflict.

In racially mixed classrooms, talk of lynching and Klan violence threatened to do more than simply educate young students. As experienced teachers knew, talk of violence could quickly become real violence, putting minority students in the crosshairs.

In 1970s Mississippi, at least, there were other reasons for opposing progressive textbooks than mere knee-jerk traditionalism. Teachers knew that the topic was explosive among students. If they hoped to control their classrooms, they didn’t dare expose students to controversial ideas, even if they agreed that those ideas were true and important.

We Have Failed You

Nostra culpa. I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand how it happened, but every once in a while we see new evidence of a depressing truth: We have failed you and failed America in two huge ways.

MASTERY-superJumbo

Mastery-based learning today…

Today’s reminder comes from the pages of the New York Times and the Hechinger Report. It sounds cheerful enough: some schools in New York and elsewhere are switching to a shiny new “mastery” system that abolishes grades and focuses on individual student learning goals.

The problem is that even well-informed journalists and educators talk about this as if it were something new, something novel, an exciting innovation made possible by twenty-first century technology. It’s not. Not even a little bit. The push for this sort of child-centered, goal-focused approach to education is as old as modernity itself.

And that’s how we’ve failed you.

Both educational historians and progressive educators have failed to convey the huge potential contributions of their work. Ed historians are all aware of the long history of goal-focused education. Progressive educators have fought for such things for centuries. Centuries!

And yet smart, informed people keep talking about these sorts of reform as “new,” as innovations, as solutions that ambitious reformers have finally figured out. It’s a big problem, since it robs reformers of any sense of the lessons of history. It sets up each new generation of progressive reformers to repeat the mistakes and the unnecessary conflicts of their parents, their grand-parents, and their great-great-great-great-etc.-grand-parents.

Why, oh why have we failed so miserably? I’m really stumped.

Every new teacher, for instance, has to take some sort of “foundations” class in which they are exposed to the historical outline of formal education. They all hear about the experiments and theories of Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey, and Col. Parker. With some tweaks over time, those ideas are basically the same as the ones today’s reformers are embracing as a “new” solution.

progressive ed in pasadena

…and how it looked when it was “new” in 1929.

Why do educated educators, then, fall into the trap of overpromising and under-researching these tried-and-failed education reforms?

To be fair, the article notes the genealogy of this idea, but the author traces it back only to the work of Benjamin Bloom at Chicago in the 1960s. Neither the author nor anyone else apparently is aware of the much longer history of these reform plans. The article suggests that new computer technology will solve the problems of earlier efforts, but that’s exactly the sort of promise every new reform generation has made.

In my book The Other School Reformers, to cite just one example, I examine a similar case from Pasadena. In 1950, the new superintendent tried something almost identical. He promised that new communication technology allowed him to abolish deadly old report cards and Procrustean letter grades.

It didn’t work, and today’s reformers would surely benefit from understanding this historical context. It seems more than naïve for today’s reformers to stumble along unaware of the predictable reactions to their plans. Back then, for example, one critic excoriated the new superintendent in an open letter to the local newspaper. The idea of abolishing grades, this outraged parent noted, means

there is no incentive for the average student or the exceptionally bright student to do any better than the slower ones.  During the first six years there are no grades given out so there is no competitive spirit.  The report cards are marked only Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory, and the parent is unable to find out what the child is really capable of doing.  They acquire indolent habits, and when they arrive at Junior High School they are supposed to get down to work, but they don’t because they have been allowed to coast along for six years, doing as much or as little as they wished to.  They have not been made to feel that it is important to do the best they are capable of doing.  There were some who formerly flunked out of class and had to take the classes over, but at least they eventually learned what was given in that grade before they went on, and today they are passed, many of them without having learned it, to flounder in the next grade, when they are not ready.

Pasadena parents tended to agree with this curmudgeon. In the end, the superintendent was hounded out of town with his progressive plans thrown out after him.

There is no good reason—no good reason I can see—that school reformers like the ones described in the New York Times article shouldn’t be aware of their own checkered history. In every generation, from Rousseau’s day to our own, earnest progressive teachers have assumed that their powerful new child-centered approach would surely carry the day, sweeping outdated crusty methods before it.

It never has.

As progressive educators, we have failed to convince America as a whole how much better it will be to focus on individual learning instead of letter grades.

As educational historians, we have failed to share the story of America’s never-ending cycle of educational reform and reaction.

As a result, even the smartest and most well-meaning reformers go into every old experience as if it were new. School boards and parents are promised the world every time, only to react with predictable and preventable resentment when those laudable goals prove out of reach.

I don’t blame reformers and journalists for not doing their research. They shouldn’t have to. By this point, the long and gripping story of child-centered educational reform should be common knowledge.

So why isn’t it?

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

A Fundamentalist Flop?

Bad news: You just failed English. What can you do? In several school districts, you can take an approved online class to make up the credit. Recently, Slate reporters examined these online classes to see if they were any good. Mostly, they weren’t. Lurking at the very bottom of the barrel were sad-sack online tutorials provided for homeschoolers by the fundamentalists at Pensacola Christian College. Has PCC’s rigid traditional philosophy has caught up to it? Or are they providing precisely what fundamentalists want?

Thanks to the ever-watchful curmudgucrat Peter Greene, we stumbled across an intriguing update to our study of fundamentalist curriculum. Slate worked with the Columbia School of Journalism’s Teacher Project to produce an eight-part expose of “online credit-recovery” programs. At most schools, students who fail a class can take one of these online modules in order to graduate. Like old-fashioned correspondence courses, these new programs hover in the depressing gray area between unfortunate necessity and outright scam. In some cases, students taking these courses don’t learn a thing, but their “success” can be used by school districts to inflate their graduation statistics.

The online catch-up courses sometimes fill a real need and serve students who don’t have a better option. In some cases, though, they are pure educational garbage. Francesca Berardi and Zoë Kirsch picked three programs that they called the “bottom of the class.” Your humble editor noticed an old fundamentalist friend on the shortlist: A Beka Academy.

Baker successful christian school

Taking the “fun” out of fundamentalism

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall our earlier work with A Beka. The publishing company has its roots at Pensacola Christian College. Back in the 1970s, Arlin and Beka Horton (A + Beka…get it?) complained that their alma mater Bob Jones University had gone soft. They warned Bob Jones III that leaders of BJU’s ed school such as Walter Fremont and Phil Smith had imported dangerous secular ideas into their teacher-training program.

What fundamentalist schools really needed, the Hortons insisted, was fundamentalist religion delivered in a traditional top-down way by authoritarian teachers. As one A Beka proponent explained back in the 1970s,

Above all, Christian schools must be steered completely clear of the philosophy that has progressively wrecked the public schools. Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child.  Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting).  They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

What should a good classroom look like? As A.A. “Buzz” Baker described, the classroom should be catechetical. Teachers give information. If students are to respond, they do so in an orderly and scripted way. Consider, for example, this A Beka-recommended “doctrinal drill” for classrooms:

Teacher’s Statement:

“Heaven is a real place, just as real as this room.  It is a wonderful, safe, happy home where God lives.  God wants everyone to come there and live with Him.  Anyone who has taken Jesus as his Savior will be able to go to heaven and live forever with God; but anyone who has not taken Jesus as his Savior cannot go to heaven, but must go to a terrible place of eternal punishment.”

Drill Questions:

  1. Will everybody get to go to heaven? No.

  2. Who gets to go to heaven? The people who trust in Jesus and who take Him as their Savior while they live here on earth.

  3. Does God want everybody to go to heaven? Yes.

  4. Why won’t everybody get to go to heaven? Because some people won’t take Jesus as their own Savior.

In the A Beka world—a world that is populated by plenty of homeschoolers and evangelical-school students—the perfect learning environment consists of a loving authoritarian teacher delivering theologically pure information efficiently to obedient students.

Success in A Beka’s goals doesn’t look so successful to outsiders, though. Berardi and Kirsch blast A Beka’s “trite” online credit-recovery courses as the very bottom of the very bottom of the barrel, “in a league of their own” for inadequacy. Here’s a sample of what they found:

One rambling four-minute excerpt from an 11th-grade English course, for instance, consists mostly of corny lectures from a teacher on the work of 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet. “[She] calls her poetry a child,” the teacher says. “And just as a child can be unruly, just as a child may not quite always look just right … this morning as we’re eating breakfast, I look at the girls, and they’ve got Nutella all over their face,” she continues. Poetry, like children, can be “a little messy.” The instructor wraps up by questioning the students about the religious message of Bradstreet’s poetry. The students then take turns rising, accepting a microphone, and slowly reading their handwritten responses in flat tones—not exactly engaging pedagogy that’s likely to hold the interest of struggling learners.

In another sample, a 12th-grade class called “Document Processing,” students can learn typing while watching four videotaped teenagers, well, type. The teacher circulates between the teens on the video, reminding them to “add that space there” and providing other tips. By the time she asks the students to check their posture, the viewer himself may be so bored he’s slouching out of his chair.

Sounds pretty grim. To be fair, A Beka’s lame online courses are not the only terrible ones on the market. The Slate series poked several other holes in the shadowy world of online credit-recovery coursework.

But here are our questions for this morning: Is the pedagogical lameness part of the appeal? That is, do fundamentalist schools and homeschools think that such tame fare is part of A Beka’s continuing effort to instill Biblical discipline in classes? To root out secular giggles, “a la Sesame Street”? Or has A Beka just gotten lazy? Do the Pensacola publishers simply recognize that they have a captured market of fundamentalists, people who wouldn’t trust secular courses? Have the A Beka folks just relaxed too much, knowing that fundamentalist teachers and parents have no other options?

Shame on You!

Okay, kids, time to fess up. Some of you students at conservative schools have been trying to cheat on your exams…haven’t you. Here’s how we know: Our editorial page here at ILYBYGTH lets us see the terms people type into their Google machines. Lately, as final-exam time swings near, we’ve noticed a definite uptick in the number of hopeful plagiarists.

search terms

What are you looking for?

It is often fun and enlightening to read the search terms. Mostly, they are from people interested in the same issues that trouble SAGLRROILYBYGTH: higher education, creationism, evangelicalism, conservatism, etc.

Here are some of the recent examples:

  • does hillsdale college teach evolution

  • is the moody institute anti catholic?

  • gay pride rainbow painted on wheaton bench

I hope those searchers found what they were looking for. Sometimes, the search terms themselves make for a kind of interwebs poetry. Once, for example, your humble editor was touched by this plaintive search:

  • Can a creationist and evolutionist be in love?

Obviously, too, some of our searchers will probably move on disappointed. Lots of people, for example, are just looking for information and don’t give a whoot for all our ILYBYGTH culture-war dickering.

For example, the person who searched for “Kentucky attractions” probably didn’t find what she was looking for.

But none of that is what we’re talking about today. In the past week or so, your humble editor has noticed a definite trend. Check out the search terms below and tell me I’m not seeing would-be plagiarism:

  • Discuss the value of traditional education;

  • What are the main problems of evolutionary theory? How do alternate ideas such as theistic evolution, progressive creation, day-age creationism, and gap theory fall short of a biblical understanding;

  • In a mid-length essay (5-7 pp.) describe the historical development of traditional education;

  • Essay creationism superior.

To me, these look obviously like test questions. And not just any tests. The kinds of schools that want students to write these sorts of essays can only be conservative religious schools. Right? Only students at conservative religious schools would be likely to be asked to write out the problems with evolution. Or the values of “traditional education.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that students at conservative schools worked hard to cheat their way through their morally elevating curricula. During the research for my current book about evangelical higher education, for example, I came across one sad-sack letter in the Moody Bible Institute archives.

In 1931, an alumnus wrote to the MBI administration with a fulsome confession. When he was a first-year student, he had cheated on every “examination, mid-term and final, through-out the year.” He had never been caught. He had never even been accused. But this student was so “conscience stricken” he pleaded with the administrators to take away all his credits.

They obliged.

Perhaps someday the cheaters and plagiarists who are hoping to evade their work by dipping into the ILYBYGTH archives will meet a similar fate. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Helen A. Handbasket, America’s Schoolteacher

It can get weird. Sometimes, as a mild-mannered historian, I get a overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes stories from today’s headlines seem to shamble straight out of the past.

Case in point: As I warm my heels down here in sunny Florida, I got a little freaked out by the startling similarities of the letters in today’s local newspaper to those I uncovered in the research for my book about educational conservatism. Whatever the decade, it seems, people like to take potshots at teachers. Since the 1920s at least, it has been a popular national pastime to criticize the vast incompetence and presumed political chicanery perpetrated by our local teachers.

First, some background. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have noticed a warmer, more humid tone in these pages lately. It’s due to the fact that I’ve been enjoying some family vacation time in sunny Florida. As a compulsive culture-war chatterer, though, I couldn’t just sit back and sip something. I cracked open the local paper, and 1949 jumped out.

Florida newspaper

Hello? It’s 1949 calling…

The story in the Charlotte Sun from Executive Editor Jim Gouvellis concerned a controversial recent event by local politician Paul Stamoulis. Stamoulis had given a series of lectures about the dangers of Islam. Some folks thought it was a good idea. Others thought it was a scary abuse of power by a right-wing ideologue.

Editor Gouvellis opened up the pages of today’s paper to letters from the community. The issue of political Islam was relatively new, but the tone of the letters was eerily similar to those I found in archives around the country, from the 1920s through the 1980s.

In particular, I was creeped out by the echoes from Pasadena’s school controversy between 1949 and 1951. Back then, an intrepid local newspaper editor tried the same thing. He asked for letters from the community. What did people think of their schools?

Pasadena indep

Nossir…I don’t like it.

The issues were different. Today’s Floridians are weighing in about the propriety of an elected official using public money to make inflammatory speeches. In Pasadena, parents were mad about the alleged misdemeanors of “progressive education.” You’d think the two things would have nothing in common.

But they do. Lots of people–wherever they live, whenever they lived–seem to assume that teachers are terrible. Public-school teachers, at least.

And to your humble editor, the tone and target of today’s letters seem shockingly similar to that of Pasadena, 1949. So similar, in fact, that I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’ll post below a clip from today’s Florida newspaper mixed in with a bunch from Pasadena, California, 1949.

Can you pick out the local one? Without cheating and clicking on the story link above?

  1. There is a growing feeling among parents that there is something amiss in our public schools.
  2. As for your comment and others’ regarding [XXX]’s lack thereof of a formal educational background, I do believe that perhaps we need more such “teachers” in our educational system today, based upon the misinformation being spoon-fed to our children by today’s so-called educators.
  3. Another claim that the teaching fraternity continually push forward is that they are grossly underpaid.  My observation is that in [XXX] this is untrue.  For nine months’ work and occasional brush-up courses in the summer they receive the same salary or better than competent office help receive for 11 ½ months’ work.
  4. I have personally felt that the modern school system of education is based on politics. . . . This larger percentage is easy prey to propaganda leaders and naturally look up to them, thinking the fault lies in themselves and not in the school system of education.
  5. In my opinion, the honorable school board is using our youngsters as educational guinea pigs.

Can you tell which one of these is today’s newspaper and which is from your grandparents’?

The Tough Questions

How do we start?  What about students? …and isn’t it cheating to sneak in a definition after I say I’m not going to impose a definition?

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

Those were some of the smart and tough questions leveled at your humble editor last night after my talk at the University of Florida’s College of Education research symposium.  The edu-Gators (ha) were a wonderful group of scholars to talk with.  I got a chance to hear about their work in schools and archives, then I got to run my mouth a little bit about the culture-war questions that keep me up at night.

The theme of the symposium was “Strengthening Dialogue through Diverse Perspectives.”  Accordingly, I targeted my talk at the difficult challenge of talking to people with whom we really disagree.  I shared my story about dealing with a conservative mom who didn’t like the way I was teaching.  Then I told some of the stories from the history of educational conservative activism from my recent research.

University of Florida

The UF crew…

What has defined “conservative” activism in school and education?  Even though there isn’t a single, all-inclusive simple definition of conservatism—any more than there is one for “progressivism” or “democracy”—we can identify themes that have animated conservative activists.  Conservatives have fought for ideas such as order, tradition, capitalism, and morality.  They have insisted that schools must be first and foremost places in which students learn useful information and have their religion and patriotic ideals reinforced.

Underlying those explicit goals, however, conservatives have also shared some unspoken assumptions about school and culture.  Time and time again, we hear conservatives lamenting the fact that they have been locked out of the real decisions about schooling.  Distant experts—often from elite colleges and New York City—have dictated the content of schools, conservatives have believed.  And those experts have been not just mistaken, but dangerously mistaken.  The types of schooling associated with progressive education have been both disastrously ineffective and duplicitously subversive, conservatives have believed.

That was my pitch, anyway.  And the audience was wonderful.  They poked the argument (politely!) to see if it would really hold.  One student asked a tough question: Given all this history, all this poisoning of our dialogue between conservatives, progressives, and other, how do we start?  A second student followed up with another humdinger: I talked about conservative parents and school board members and leaders, but what about students?  What should a teacher do if she finds herself confronted with a student who has a totally different vision of what good education should look like?  Last but not least, a sharp-eyed ed professor wondered if I wasn’t doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do: Impose a definition on “conservatism” by offering a list of defining ideas and attitudes.

How did I handle them?

Well, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, your humble editor did his best, but those are really tough ones.  In general, I think the way to begin conversations with people with whom we have very strong disagreements is to start by looking at ourselves.  Are we making assumptions about that person based on things he or she isn’t actually saying?  Are we seeing them through our own distorted culture-war lenses?

And if students in class disagree with us about these sorts of culture-war principles, we need to remember first and foremost that they are our students.  If a student in my class, for example, is super pro-Trump, I want her to know first and foremost that I welcome her in my class and she is a member of our learning community.  It gets tricky, though, if a student wants to exclude other students based on these sorts of religious and ideological beliefs.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t think it’s unfair to offer themes and ideas that have defined conservatism over the years.  I’d never want to impose those definitions on historical actors, Procrustes-style.  But once we take the time to listen and learn to our subjects, we can and should suggest some things that they have had in common.

On to breakfast with graduate students and a chance to participate in Dr. Terzian’s schools, society and culture colloquium.  Bring on the coffee!

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

Wish me luck–I’m on my way to the Sunshine State.  Thanks to my colleague Sevan Terzian, I’ll be giving a keynote talk at the University of Florida’s research symposium this evening.  I can’t wait.

What will I be talking about?  Well, you’ll have to wait until after the talk for a synopsis, but I can tell you that I’ll be using these images from my research into twentieth-century educational conservatism.

Allen Zoll’s attack on progressive education, from Pasadena, 1950

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

Watch out for communism in your local school, c. 1951

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974

School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.

simpsonsturkey

PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.