Time for Conservatives to Panic?

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

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

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

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

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

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

noonan on packer tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SH Gablers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Sewall worried about? As he describes,

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

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

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

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

How to panic, c. 1949.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

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

Kids: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

If you have kids in public schools these days, you are likely hearing about lockdown drills and run-hide-fight training. What are we supposed to think about them? On one hand, we all want our kids to be safe. On the other, watching six-year-olds cower and tremble about a threat that they will (statistically) likely never encounter seems kooky. In the Atlantic last week, Joe Pinsker asked historian Paula Fass for some context of scaring kids straight. Prof. Fass offered two good examples, but we can come up with a lot more. And that fact points us to a central, odd truth about the nature of American schooling.

Pinsker ran through some of the central dilemmas of lockdown training. In actual fact, students are extremely unlikely to experience a school shooting. Yet the training for them can be deeply upsetting. As Pinsker wrote,

These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves. Others have written letters bidding their family goodbye or drafted wills that specify what to do with their belongings. . . . children are being trained to anticipate an outcome that is both terrifying and extremely unlikely to happen to them.

Pinsker wondered if there had been similar scare tactics employed in schools in the twentieth century. Paula Fass pointed out two big ones: duck-and-cover drills and kidnapping scares. Like school shootings, both threats were terrifying, but statistically speaking, both were also extremely unlikely.

Like me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably now thinking the obvious: We could extend this list of unlikely-but-scary scenarios forever. Schools have always sought to terrify students into feeling an exaggerated anxiety.

Consider just a few examples:

1.) Sex. If you’ve experienced any sex-education curriculum lately, you know that they rely on a fear of STIs and unplanned pregnancies to get their points across.

2.) Drugs. It wasn’t only in the 1930s that school leaders warned students of “Reefer Madness.”

3.) Health. You might not be old enough to remember polio, but for those who lived through it, children were told not to go swimming for fear of contracting the disease. In the 1980s, too, children were warned that they could catch HIV merely from being near a positive person.

It seems to me we need to reverse Pinsker’s question. He asked,

In postwar America, have kids ever been so afraid and so regularly prompted to imagine their own suffering?

But we need to ask instead: Has there ever been a time when students were NOT regularly shocked and scared? When students were NOT shown clips of dope-smoking creeps or atomic devastation in an attempt to scare them into proper behavior?

And the big question: Why have schools always felt a need for such scare tactics?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. First, I think school leaders and parents tend to see scare tactics as developmentally appropriate. Like drivers-ed crash videos, scare tactics are thought to be necessary to pierce the adolescent fog surrounding students’ brains, to make them understand the real dangers of certain things. Also, I think school administrators and politicians understand that exaggerated fears are politically required, even if they are not practically relevant. No school leader could survive an election if she told parents she was doing nothing to prevent a threat because the actual threat was so miniscule.

Is there more? Are there other reasons you can think of why schools have always hoped to terrify children about highly unlikely dangers?

Long Island School of Doom

HT: SB

More proof: The suburbs are eating our children. It’s another terrible school-shooting story, this time from Long Island, New York. And this one has a twist that has me feeling distressed and mystified. What does this story tell us about the nature of American school and American childhood?

connetquot cache

What the cops found. Might they have found this is a thousand teenage bedrooms?

Here’s what we know. According to the local newspaper, three students at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, New York had plans to blow up their school. The kids were overheard making plans on the bus. When police searched their homes and lockers, they found a bunch of stuff, including

two laptops, three BB guns, a homemade ax and books about serial killers and forensics, along with “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which includes bomb-making instructions.

Now, I have to admit I am deeply biased. When I was a sulky suburban teen, I also owned a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. I probably owned books about serial killers. If I could have I would have loved to own a BB gun. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I saw it as a kind of joke, nothing more.

The authorities in Bohemia weren’t predisposed to laugh it off. The kids were charged with felony conspiracy charges.

An alarming story, no? But here’s the kicker. This same high school has been the target of two more student attacks over the years. Back in 2010, two students attempted to buy guns and make bombs, presumably with a plan to destroy the school. One of the students, Christopher Franko, received a three-to-nine-year sentence.

Back in 2007, two students were arrested for planning a Columbine-style shooting spree at the very same school.

We’ve got to ask: What the hell is going on at Connetquot High School? These are students who have it all, relatively speaking. They are attending a nice school in a nice neighborhood with plenty of green grass and fresh air.

Yet instead of growing up healthy and happy, these Long Island teens keep wanting only to blow the whole thing sky high. What gives? Why do even privileged children of America—some of them, at least—feel such a deep and abiding violent resentment of the friendly school that Bohemia ‘shaped, made aware,/ Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam’?

I don’t think we can take bitter comfort that this teen violence is somehow restricted to Bohemia, New York. After all, the Connetquot shooters were merely copying generations of bomb-throwing schemes among privileged American youth.

So we have to ask the tougher version of the question: Is this town somehow merely the epitome of suburban teenage angst? Is there something rancid buried in the heart of the American suburban dream that is festering in the souls of its comfortable youth?

Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamentalist U As Walmart U

Like it or not, online education is a booming business. As Lee Gardner describes in the Chronicle of Higher Ed this week, a few savvy colleges have transformed themselves into lucrative “mega-universities.” We have to ask: why are two of the four Gardner describes evangelical universities? I think it’s more than mere coincidence.

college enrollment trends

Leaders of the pack…

Here’s what we know: in the past ten years, a few universities have managed to capture huge student markets by offering non-traditional online degree programs. Gardner describes the success of Liberty University, Grand Canyon University, Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire. All of them have managed to enroll tens of thousands of students, while sagging enrollments at other schools have deans and provosts salivating at the prospect of an online bonanza.

I don’t think it’s an accident that two of the most successful online schools come out of the evangelical tradition. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, Liberty and Grand Canyon have had a somewhat testy relationship with one another, and Grand Canyon has experienced a dizzying see-saw between a variety of desperate survival strategies. Nevertheless, both schools are undeniably part of the small circle of winners in the scramble for online tuition dollars.

Why? I have a few ideas and I invite other suggestions.

First, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many of the more conservative evangelical institutions have always been friendly to capitalism, intellectually. Unlike some non-evangelical schools—and some evangelical ones, too—schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon never had to overcome any squeamishness or scruples about employing aggressive marketing and business campaigns in their schools.

As Gardner writes, this is common among the successful online mega-schools. As he put it,

They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies.

Second, evangelical universities have always targeted non-traditional students aggressively. This has been especially true of schools that grew out of the Bible-institute tradition. This tradition of non-tradition has proven especially useful in today’s online world. As Gardner writes, universities that have succeeded have

pursued the more than 30 million Americans who have some college credit but who never graduated — a cohort half again as large as the more than 20 million Americans now enrolled.

Fuller letterhead

They were online before online was online…

Last but certainly not least, evangelical colleges have often been forced to accept their role as outsiders in the world of American higher ed. For institutions like Liberty, their non-admittance to the country-club world of elite higher ed has given them some unintended flexibility when it comes to chasing tuition dollars. As one school leader told Gardner,

Most of nonprofit higher ed really looked down their nose at online education, and it left a vacuum into which rushed the for-profits.

At Liberty, leaders have always yearned fruitlessly to be considered part of the higher-education elite club. In spite of their risky investments in things like their football program, though, they’ve never been considered part of the inner circle. In the end, however, their experiences on the outside may have given them the moxie it took to dive into a field that other institutions pooh-poohed.

Perhaps most striking of all, for the first time ever, schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon are being talked about solely in terms of their structural successes in higher ed. They are not being described as the best or biggest “Christian” colleges, but rather as the biggest online universities, period. Yet it was their evangelical roots, in some ways, that fueled their online triumphs.

Conservatives: Half Full? Half Empty?

Is the sky falling? Do conservatives think it is? I’ve been pondering these questions since Prof. Seth Cotlar asked about them recently in a tweet. When it comes to schools in twentieth-century America, if I had to pick one word (okay, two) to capture the heart and soul of conservatism, I’d pick “common sense” over “decline.”

cotlar tweet conservatismProf. Cotlar wondered,

According to every conservative since Burke, has ‘the west’ ever not been declining?

The question and several answers made me wonder about the specific tradition of educational conservatism. By and large, my research convinces me to side with Prof. Corey Robin, who pointed out that there has also been

An optimism, if you will, at the heart of the right.

When it comes to education and schools, certainly, the educational conservatives I studied were extremely optimistic or at least hopeful that they could reassert sensible control over their local public schools. Failing that, educational conservatives have generally been confident that they could open and operate their own schools, schools in which the terrible trends of progressive education and politics could be removed.cotlar tweet conservatism Corey Robin

Over and over, conservatives have built their campaigns on a deep and abiding optimism that their beliefs were merely common sense. Yes, conservative activists have often asserted, duped or devious progressives may have taken schools in terrible directions, but by and large conservatives insisted that their ideas were the true middle, the obvious common-sense educational program.

In the 1970s, for example, in the textbook controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservative pundit Elmer Fike didn’t quote Spengler or Burke or Burnham. Rather, he insisted that conservatism was the side of mainstream common sense. It was overreaching progressive bullies who had abandoned the center. For proof, Fike turned to the National Education Association’s 1918 Cardinal Principles report. In a full-page ad in a Charleston newspaper, Fike made the following claims:

We believe that the legitimate purpose of education is to promote the widely accepted Seven Cardinal Principles—command of fundamental processes (the three R’s), health, worthy home membership, vocational preparation, civic education, leisure time activities, and ethical character.  We believe that many of the controversial texts fail to promote these principles.  Rather, they tend to undermine the ethical character and social values of home and community accepted by a large majority of the people.

We believe that the continued use of these controversial books will result in antisocial behavior, further deterioration of social standards, increase in crime, and delinquency.

We believe that these books do not promote, in fact, are an attack on, the American system that has made this country the envy of the world.

While we abhor violence and shun demonstrations, we believe that the affect of these books is of sufficient consequence to warrant the use of any and all available legal means to have them removed.

Or consider the plans and prophecies of California’s Max Rafferty. Rafferty was a one-time State Superintendent of California’s public schools and a popular syndicated columnist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…he didn’t win.

He wrote in 1970 that his “California philosophy . . . has Deweyism in nationwide retreat.” It could be so successful, Rafferty insisted time and time again, because it was built on common sense about the true nature of education. Progressives simply misunderstood humans. It was conservatives who knew what to do. As Rafferty wrote in 1964,

Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1980s, too, Reagan’s second ed secretary William Bennett pushed his reforms as mere common sense. Though voters may think that education is controversial, Bennett liked to say, there was in fact “an American consensus” about what school should look like. Bennett specifically rejected pessimistic thinking, or, at least, he tried to stick progressives with the Chicken-Little label. As Bennett wrote in 1988,

Apocalyptic analyses and Chicken Little stories about an onrushing wave of ‘unteachable’ students should be rejected. In fact, the analyses and stories themselves—and the attitudes they reveal—belong at the top of any short list of real problems now facing American education. [Emphasis in original.]

For Bennett, as for Fike, Rafferty, and a host of other conservative educational activists in the twentieth century, hope sprang eternal. Yes, schools may be in bad shape, ideologically.  But in every decade, conservative pundits and parents rallied around the notion that their ideas represented beleaguered common sense.

How bout it? If you had to pick one word (or phrase) to capture the essence of conservative thinking, what would you use?

Creationism and the Conservative Vision Board

It was the creationism part that first got my attention. Why would a smart, dynamic politician introduce such an old-fashioned creationism bill for public schools, a bill obviously doomed to failure? As I read the rest of the bill, the answer became obvious. And for anti-creationist campaigners, the lesson is clear.

 

 

Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse has a long record of introducing anti-evolution legislation. Twenty years ago, he began pushing bills that would allow for the teaching of creation science in Indiana’s public schools. When those flopped, he began fighting instead for “academic freedom” for Indiana’s teachers, to allow them to teach a “diverse curriculum.”

This month, however, for some reason Senator Kruse went back to an old-school school bill. Kruse is once again campaigning for schools that include “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.”

What gives? Why would a creationist go back to a failed strategy? After all, the inclusion of “creation science” in public schools has been definitively rejected by the Supreme Court. Why would Kruse bother to ask for something (again) when he knows he won’t get it?

The rest of the bill makes the answer painfully obvious. Senator Kruse isn’t really crafting legislation here. He is creating a conservative vision board.

 

Kruse is asking for a range of educational policies that might or might not be possible. He wants all Indiana public and charters schools to post big “In God We Trust” signs, along with a US and Indiana flag. He wants religious electives, including Bible studies. He wants students to be able to earn public-school credit for religion classes. Creationism—even the outdated “creation science”—is only one of the public-school visions on this Indiana board.

Why does it matter? As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, we will never really understand creationism if we think of it only as a fight about science curriculum. In most cases, creationism is only one aspect of a wide-ranging conservative attitude about education.

Yet too often, science teachers and science advocacy groups are left all alone in their fight against creationism in public schools, when the fight is not really about science. It is a fight over the proper nature of public education. Should schools be aggressively pluralist, ditching their historical Protestant baggage? Or should they be staunchly traditionalist, teaching children to be patriotic and Christian?

More Proof: America Has No Public School System

We could be mad that it took them this long to notice. Or we could celebrate the fact that we’re finally getting some attention to the issue. In addition, though, we have to recognize another big implication of this story.

First, the bummer. How can it be “news” that American public school teachers are working too hard? A recent series in USA Today profiled fifteen teachers across the United States. As they reported,

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected.

That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

We’re glad to get some front-page attention to the difficulties of teaching, of course, but it’s difficult not to say…well, duh. Of course teachers have a tough row to hoe. After we digest that non-bombshell, though, there’s more in this story that we should notice.

As historian Jack Schneider wrote recently for WaPo, Americans tend to have a unique love/hate relationship with public schooling. We hear over and over again that public schools are failing, yet most of us cherish our local public schools. And statistics tell us that—as a whole—America’s public schools are doing as well academically as they ever have.

Behind the fake-exposé headlines of the USA Today series, we can see a glimmer of truth that helps explain the weird relationship of Americans to their public schools. Reporters fanned out across the country to tag along with teachers.

manseau usa today

Oh give me a home…

In one case, that meant braving the wilds of Montana, where Traci Manseau teaches seventeen kids of all ages, all with the same last name, all in the same one-room schoolhouse. The students are all Hutterites, and they leave school at age sixteen to work on the communal farm.

At another school, 1,584 miles away (I looked it up) in Detroit, students wear a different sort of uniform. Instead of bonnets and cowboy shirts, the mostly African-American students wear uniform polo shirts and khakis. Their teacher, Felecia Branch, loves to hear them relate to fiction. And she hates it when they fight.

Down in Phoenix, meanwhile, teacher Rebecca Garelli welcomes 21 students in her English-Language-Learners class (ELL). Two of them come from Rwanda. Many of them speak only Spanish. Her job is to teach them—according to Arizona law—in English. And get them all to learn science.

branch usa today

…where the Chevrolets roam…

Are there similarities? Sure. All teachers feel stressed. And all good teachers care a lot about all their students. Whatever their backgrounds and locations, teachers want the best for their students and they can get frustrated when bad rules or bad situations make that unlikely.

But the vast differences between just these three examples show how inappropriate it is to talk about an American public school “system.” What it means to go to school in the United States can mean vastly different things.

Of course, SAGLRROILYBYGTH did not need to open the pages of USA Today to find that out. All of us can see the huge disparities in public education if we just take a tour around our local area. Even in the same city, the populations and possibilities of public schools can be worlds apart.

As Professor Schneider concluded,

Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

If we waste our time asking about the American public-school system, we’ll always end up at an impasse. America’s schools are so diverse that there’s really no system to it all. When it comes to our sad history of educational culture wars, pundits on all sides have been able to say whatever they wanted about America’s schools and find real evidence to back it up. They could always find proof of almost any trend they wanted to celebrate or despise.

Are America’s schools mere “sorting machines?” Yep. Do they harbor left-wing teachers who sneakily try to subvert patriotic traditions? Uh-huh. Do America’s schools remain trapped in ancient ruts? Of course. Do they engage in innovative, world-class education? That, too.

Like the blind scholars and the elephant, pundits and politicians will always be able to prove anything they want to about America’s schools, because they can all be right.

Where Are All the Books about This?

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

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

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

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

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

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

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

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

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

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

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

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

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

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