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.

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Which of These People Will Save the Humanities?

At many colleges, humanities enrollments are down. So far down that schools such as one University of Wisconsin campus are scrapping entire humanities departments. What can academics do? Two pundits this week have suggested different solutions. We have a different proposal to make.

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…is it students reading Beowulf?

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein makes a counterintuitive proposal. If humanities programs want to survive and thrive, Professor Bauerlein argues, they need to woo freshmen and wow their parents. As he puts it, “right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.”

You might think the way to do that would be to lighten up on grades and assignments. Offer an easy A and students will line up…right? Professor Bauerlein describes a program that does the opposite. Teachers at the University of Oklahoma have revived W.H. Auden’s 1940s-era syllabus. It forces students to do a ton of reading and reflection. And the students seem to like it.

Bauerlein’s conclusion? Make humanities courses unapologetically difficult. Stop apologizing for Western Civilization:

Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

Could it work? Maybe. I’ve stopped being surprised by the numbers of students who want to be challenged. Yes, many—maybe most—students approach their classes as mere hurdles to be overcome to get to the next goal. But a reliable stream of students want something else.

savior 2

…is it budget-controlling conservative hawks?

From across the pond, we get a very different prescription for saving the humanities. At Times Higher Education, Musa al-Gharbi gives us another idea. If we want to save classes in philosophy, sociology, history, literature, etc., al-Gharbi says, academics should court conservative politicians. After all, when conservatives think humanities departments have been taken over by leftists, they will not hesitate to close them down. And then progressives themselves suffer. As al-Gharbi puts it,

It is generally women and people of colour – usually progressives – who pay the cost when administrators are encouraged to weigh into political disputes. These same groups will also bear the brunt of continued erosion of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

The value of scientific fields is widely appreciated, but social research is a different matter entirely. Given that women, people of colour, LGBTQ scholars and leftists are better represented in the humanities and social sciences than in most other disciplines, they will disproportionately suffer when social research is devalued and defunded.

In other words, if we want to save the humanities, we need to help influential conservative politicians see that courses in history, literature, and so on are not merely training grounds for leftist radicals.

Could that work? In Wisconsin, at least, the shutdown of Stevens Point humanities courses was a direct result of long-simmering conservative outrage. Cultivating conservative political support for humanities classes might help maintain budgets.

I’ve got a different suggestion, though. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher education, there is one constant truth about higher education in these United States. Whether students choose a fundamentalist college, an Ivy League redoubt, or a community-college approach, a driving factor in student decisions has always been professional credentials.

Heather Gerken

…or is it someone different?

That is, whatever college students choose, most of them (or at least, their parents) insist that their work must lead to a better career. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges fail when they can’t deliver on that promise. The same is true for humanities programs. Some humanities courses are thriving. At Yale, for example, history is back as the most popular major.

Why are students flocking to history courses at Yale? As Professor Bauerlein argues, many of them are likely attracted by the intellectual rigor and challenge of the major. And, as Prof. al-Gharbi explains, some of them are probably intrigued by the ideological diversity of academic history. The bulk, though, are hoping that the history major will situate them well to apply to law school. That’s been the tradition for long years.

So who should academics be trying to convince of the value of humanities courses? Is it freshmen looking for old-fashioned intellectual challenge? Or is it conservative politicians looking askance at faculty politics? I think both ideas have merit.

But if humanities programs really want to survive, they need to convince students, parents, and law-school deans that their programs are the best way to fulfill the most important purpose of American higher education: preparation to move up the career ladder.

The Tortuous Triumph of Progressive Education

It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry. For people like me who want progressive schools and progressive politics, it hurts to see progressive classrooms converted into tools of the rich. But see it we do: More evidence today from Wichita that progressive education has triumphed over its conservative bête noirs, only to be turned into a tool of traditionalism.

wichita wonder koch school

The progressive vision for Wichita. Rich people only, please.

Here’s what we know: The conservative bajillionaire Koch brothers have long been interested in educational issues. Now they have funded a fancy-pants progressive school in Wichita. Second-generation Chase and Annie Koch are opening the Wonder school in Wichita. Their plans could have come straight out of a 1930s progressive-ed playbook.

Their vision? No age-graded classrooms, no report cards, no judgment. Focus on student-directed activity, guided by adult “coaches,” not teachers. As one planner put it,

We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now. . . . We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.

So far, so good. Such dreams have been around for a century now, pushed by progressive-ed leaders such as George Counts, William Heard Kilpatrick, and of course, John Dewey.

In the middle of the twentieth century, as I recount in my book about educational conservatism, traditionalists pushed back hard against such notions. These days, at least in Kansas, some of the hardest-core educational conservatives have embraced the obvious superiority of progressive classroom methods.

So we should celebrate, right? Not so fast. Those same progressive-ed-loving conservatives tend to take a very different approach when it comes to schools for the rest of us.

Yes, the Koch’s own kids get to go to schools with fabulously progressive pedagogy. But Koch money pushes a very different sort of classroom elsewhere. In Tennessee, for example, Koch funding promoted charter schools for low-income families. At some of those schools, most famously the KIPP network, students are rigidly controlled. KIPP’s “no excuses” model and “SLANT” rules (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod and Track the teacher) can feel oppressive.

At some charter schools—especially urban schools with high proportions of low-income non-white students—students are compelled to sit silently at lunch, march silently and exactly through hallways, respond rapidly and exactly to teacher prompts, and hold their heads rigidly at all times.

What a contrast to the free-wheeling, mind-expanding Koch-funded school soon to be offered to affluent kids in Wichita. Of course, for only $10,000 per year, anyone is welcome at the Wichita Wonder school. Unless, of course, a student has any sort of disability.

What are we supposed to think? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to see the obvious: Some conservatives have recognized the huge benefits of progressive classroom practices, but they only want them for their own children. Or, to be more charitable, conservatives are only willing to foot the bill for progressive classrooms for their own kids.

What Goes on in Fundamentalist Schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ace hokey

This is terrible stuff. But is it abusive?

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

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

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

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Textbook apocalypse.

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

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

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

Read This Before You Freak Out…

Conservatives might be shooting their guns in the air to celebrate. Progressives might be shedding a tear in their IPAs. Whether it’s a triumph or an apocalypse, it’s not a surprise: The Ed Department is filling its ranks with more and more conservative, creationist leaders. Before we freak out, though, let’s take stock of the real situation.

zais

He’s coming for your public school…

First, the creationism part. The new pick for the education department’s undersecretary has made no bones about his creationist sympathies. As head of South Carolina’s schools, Dr. Mick Zais supported the removal of the idea of natural selection from the state’s science standards. As Zais told a local newspaper, “We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions.”

It’s not only creationism. Queen Betsy’s pick for undersecretary of education will make conservatives happy for a lot of other reasons as well. Zais comes to the nomination fresh off his post as South Carolina school superintendent. As Politico reports, Dr. Zais became a conservative ed hero for refusing to truckle to the Obama administration’s carrots and sticks.

In South Carolina, Zais pushed hard for vouchers. Time and time again, vouchers are embraced by conservatives who hope to shift public-school money to private schools, often religious schools.

When Zais’s zeal is added to DeVos’s enthusiasm, it might seem to progressives and conservatives alike that conservatives have finally triumphed in the world of educational politics. If ILYBYGTH cared about clickbait, we would certainly write something that exploited that sort of attitude. But we don’t and we won’t. Because, in historical perspective, this moment of conservative triumph looks much less triumphant than it might seem at first.

First, let me repeat the caveats SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing: My own politics skew progressive. I think creationism has no place in public-school science classes. I am horrified by Queen Betsy and I think President Trump’s leadership is a blight on our nation that won’t be easy to recover from.

Having said all that, I’m not interested this morning in fighting Trumpism but rather in understanding it. And when we see Queen Betsy’s reign from the perspective of the long history of conservative activism in education, we see just how wobbly her throne really is.

First, as I noted in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, today’s conservative push for charters and vouchers is both a novelty and a concession. Milton Friedman promoted the idea of charter schools way back in the 1950s, and nobody listened. Even the free-marketiest of Reaganites didn’t care much about promoting alternatives to traditional public-school funding.

Take, for example, Reagan’s second ed secretary, William J. Bennett. He was far more interested in pushing traditional moral values and classroom rules in public schools than in gutting public-school funding.

What happened? Only in the 1990s did conservative education pundits embrace the notion of charters and vouchers. They did so not as a triumph, but as a grim concession to the obvious fact that they had been stumped and stymied by their lack of influence in public schools.

So when conservative heroes like Queen Betsy and Superintendent Zais push for alternatives to traditional public schools, progressives should fight back. But we should also recognize that the conservative drive to fund alternatives results from conservatives’ ultimate failure to maintain cultural control of public schools.

Plus, the language used by conservatives these days represents another long-term progressive victory. In his public argument for voucher schools, for example, Superintendent Zais voiced his agreement with progressive ideas about the purposes of schooling and public policy. Why should we have more vouchers? Quoth Zais, vouchers will provide “more options for poor kids stuck in failing schools.”

I understand Zais may be less than 110% sincere in his zeal to promote social equity through public school funding. Nevertheless, the fact that he felt obliged to use that sort of progressive reasoning shows how dominant those progressive ideals have become.

In other words, if even South Carolina’s conservatives adopt the language—if not the authentic thought processes—of progressive thinking about the goals of public education, it shows that progressive ideas have come to dominate our shared beliefs about public education.

On the creationist front, too, Zais’s conservatism shows the long-term decline of conservatism. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that creationists fought and often won the battle to have evolution utterly banned from public schools. These days, all Zais can dream of is maybe wedging some worse creationism-friendly science into public schools alongside real science.

Science educators won’t like it. I don’t like it. But once again, before we freak out, we need to recognize the long-term implications of our current situation. The dreams of creationists are so far reduced they no longer preach the abolition of evolution. If you ask creationist leaders these days what they want in public schools, they’ll tell you they want children to learn evolution, “warts and all.”

We don’t agree about that. And we don’t agree about the value of vouchers. I’m not even ready to concede that Dr. Zais and I agree on the best ways to use public schools to help alleviate poverty and improve the economic life chances of kids in lower-income families.

And I’m perturbed. I’m frightened by Queen Betsy. If he’s confirmed, I’m guessing I’ll be alarmed by Dr. Zais’s work.

I also know, though, that the seeming strength of conservative thinking these days is an illusion.

The Headline You’ll Never Read

Cereal gets stale after about two weeks. Cheese can last a while. Milk goes bad much quicker. But conservatives never seem to tire of hysterical warnings about left-wing takeovers of public schools. Your humble editor experienced a dizzying bout of déjà vu this morning reading Newt Gingrich’s furious warning about the influence of “radical, left-wing” teachers. I had to check my watch and even my calendar to make sure what year it was. It serves as another reminder: When it comes to culture-war rants about public education, there is one headline that we’ll never see.

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The headlines we’ll never see…

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why conservative activists like Gingrich want people to think left-wingers are taking over public schools. No conservative parent is likely to open her wallet for a politician who tells her there’s nothing much to worry about. So Gingrich tries to build back his political clout by warning FoxNews readers about a “thinly veiled attempt to instill radical, left-wing political views in impressionable children.”

Gingrich is reacting to an obscure story out of Minnesota, dug up by conservative muckrakers. In Edina, Minnesota (population 51,350), the school board is apparently implementing a new inclusivity curriculum. Students will read books such as A Is for Activism. [SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the title from earlier fuss-and-feathers controversies about it.] As Gingrich fumes, “This is pure, unapologetic political indoctrination of American youth.”

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Gingrich is reading word-for-word from an old conservative playbook. In the 1930s, for example, conservative activists went haywire over a textbook series by progressive-ish scholar Harold Rugg. Back then, leaders of the American Legion foamed and fumed that Rugg’s educational scheme “encourages the totalitarian borers-from-within who would destroy our democracy.”

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Boring…boring…boring…(c. 1941)

There’s no doubt that Harold Rugg really did hope to push American school and society to the political left. And I’m guessing some of the teachers in Edina feel the same way. But the notion that teachers and education professors are able to sneakily install a mind-warping left-wing curriculum in American public schools is simply ludicrous. Even if we wanted to—and again, I admit that some teachers and ed-school professors really do want to—such conspiracy theories miss a central truth about American education.

And that fundamental truth about schools and schooling generates the headlines you’ll never see. By and large, when conservatives want to rile up their base, they need to dig pretty hard to find teachers and districts that veer very hard to the political left. By and large, most schools are fairly traditional places, focusing on non-controversial tasks such as preparing students for jobs or college. Teachers, by and large, tend to avoid controversy.gallup people like their local schools

And that, perhaps, is what makes Gingrich’s job so hard. We know that most people—whatever their political affiliation—are happy with their local public schools. When Americans actually send their kids to a public school, they tend to be very happy with that school, even if they are pessimistic about the state of public education as a whole.

For Gingrich to get any attention, he has to pick out unusual examples of school districts far away that are doing something fairly unusual. Why? Because most of Gingrich’s audience is actually HAPPY with their local schools. Those schools don’t dabble in anything even remotely controversial. If a local community is Gingrich territory, the schools will be, too

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.

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.