Update: Fundamentalism and Higher Education in the 1930s

For all those in the Binghamton area: We’ve had to move my talk this afternoon until Wednesday, Feb. 25th, at 4 PM in the conference room of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, first floor Library Tower on the scenic campus of Binghamton University.  The talk will still be free and open to the public.  All are welcome; no registration is required.

Please note: This is SEPARATE from the radio discussion tonight (Monday, Feb. 23, 2015) at 6:30.  That’s still on as scheduled: Religion and the Modern University, a panel discussion featuring yours truly.  Available streaming through the interwebs.

For those who are just joining us, the talk on Wednesday will include material from my current research.  Here is the official abstract:

What has it meant to be a Protestant fundamentalist in the United States?  For some, it meant engaging in disputes with fellow Baptists or Presbyterians about the proper nature of their denomination.  For others, it has implied a wide-ranging cultural conservatism, including battles against ideas such as evolution and against social practices such attending movies and smoking.  Scholars have had no more success than pundits in defining fundamentalism, though historians have agreed that a network of colleges and universities served as central institutions in this fractious world.  In this talk, historian Adam Laats shares his research into the early history of these schools to demonstrate the ways that fundamentalist leaders and laypeople struggled to define themselves.

What Do Conservatives Think?

I’ve been dying to know: What will conservatives think of my new book? Will they agree that I’ve tried to take an even-handed approach? Will they protest that I misunderstood the nature of “conservatism?”

Last week we received an encouraging review from a conservative ILYBYGTH reader. Today we read with interest the opinion of a conservative activist who played a leading role in the events described in the book.

Years ago, when I journeyed down to Charleston, West Virginia to research chapter five, Karl Priest was kind enough to take time to talk with me about his memories of the 1974-75 textbook protest. We also talked about his ideas of evolution, creationism, Christianity, and proper education. Since the 1975 protests, Priest has been an educational activist. On his blog, he recently posted a detailed review of my book.

According to Mr. Priest, the book has some good parts, but it also misrepresents the conservative side of the 1974-75 protest. He is consistently kind to me personally, noting that I am “a gentleman and a scholar.” He also concludes by saying,

For anyone willing to study, Dr. Laats’s book provides a comprehensive history of major conservative battles against progressivism.

Mr. Priest also concedes that at some points I capture fairly the thinking of Kanawha County’s conservatives. But he warns that my liberal biases blind me to the truth of the Kanawha County textbook battle. He insists that I “intentionally slurred” the book protesters in the opening of chapter five.

For those who would like to read his detailed critique of my argument, Mr. Priest has added a section to the review in which he moves point by point through the chapter.

Is he correct? In a few cases, I think he makes valid points. For example, he notes that I awkwardly wrote that one protester prayed with a fellow inmate and “saved” him. As Mr. Priest points out, no protester would use such language. The child was saved, but through the power of God, not through the doings of the protester.

More often, however, I think Mr. Priest is blinded by his own partisan interests. I say it with great respect and with gratitude for the time Karl has spent talking with me. In general, however, I think he is overly convinced that the textbook protesters could do no wrong. He assumes too much about the radical nature of textbook supporters.

For instance, he writes that the National Educational Association was not a mainstream group, but rather “an outside left-wing extremist group.” That does not seem a fair statement. The NEA was indeed generally associated with left-of-center politics, but it was entirely within the mainstream of American politics and culture.

As an historian, I have to examine the evidence and come to conclusions about controversial events. Karl is entirely correct that I’m influenced by my own biases, even when I don’t think I am. I encourage readers to check out his review and chime in with their own thoughts.

Does This Chapter Make my Book Look Fat?

Have you got your copy yet?  My new book is now available.  A conservative ILYBYGTH blog reader was kind enough to read the book and send me some reflections.  I’ll post them in full below.  They are very kind.  I’ll be sure to post news of less flattering reviews as well.

I finished reading The Other School Reformers.  These are just my thoughts and opinions.

I don’t think you made a mockery of conservatives / conservatism.  Some activists confound stereotypes, but there are certainly ones who confirm them.  It wasn’t always pretty, but it wasn’t mockery.  It’s just honest.  You talked about “specific people making specific claims about specific educational programs.”  And “specific times and places.”  (7)  It didn’t mean that every conservative would condone or support every action or idea.

I’m glad extremist examples were included.  Pointing out extremists, I think, can give valuable information.  I didn’t object at all to you talking about it.  In the whole context, it made sense to me to include extreme examples since the survival of the US was at stake.  (I don’t condone extremist tactics of course)  And as time went on, they found themselves “fighting for much narrower aims.”  (16)  I didn’t think this a couple years ago, but now think pointing out extremes is a positive thing and helps lead to an understanding that a reader wouldn’t get otherwise.

I started by reading the index, then going through the index again to see what people or ideas you were going to talk about the most.  That was helpful for seeing the continuity of the issues and just getting an idea of what the book was going to be about.

You made it very clear in the introduction and in the first chapter that your intent was to let conservatives speak for themselves and said that a few times in a few different ways.

Your introduction and first chapter were really well thought out and made the rest of the book clear.  I appreciated the quick progressions under A Moving Target starting on page (14) to get a good overview and to provide some understanding of the changes before delving in.

I appreciate that you started and ended with your personal experience in the schools.

I really enjoy your writing style. Though you allowed conservatives to speak for themselves and you put the spotlight on them, you were still the storyteller.  Imho, the style of your writing accurately portrays the feelings (of some conservatives and certainly the people you talked about), and keeps the reader engaged in the story.  There was a nice ebb and flow of being matter of fact, speaking in a bit of an indignant tone, and using creative language to get your point across.  Your writing enhances without sensationalizing or exaggerating.  (or if it does I think the reader knows that)  It can lead people to be introspective and curious.  (Well, it does for me.)

It was interesting to note that the Gablers didn’t seem to understand what a scientific theory was / is.  (195)   I may have said that before to you, but did note it in here.

You demonstrated all throughout the book change and continuity, and the goals and strategies.  There were many interesting things to note and some confirmations of things I’ve been thinking about.

I’d give it a ten out of ten, or a full 5 stars on Amazon.  I can’t see how it could have been better, it was so well thought out.  It provided the reader with a deep understanding of the issues and people.  It seemed to me that you delivered exactly what you said you were going to deliver in a way that made the argument for why you structured the book the way you did make sense.  If I’m supposed to find something negative about the book, that knowledge is above my head.

I enjoyed it!

The Perfect Valentine’s Day Gift

Nothing says “I Love You” more than a book about conservatism and education in American twentieth-century history. Looks like the timing will be perfect.

How to say "I Love You" (But You're Going to Hell)

How to say “I Love You” (But You’re Going to Hell)

My new book is slated for release in early February. Hard to know how it will be received, but one pre-reviewer has called it “a major rethinking of the history of American education.” Another has added, “it would be flat-out wrong to ignore this important book.” Pshaw. . .

For the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH, the content might not be surprising. In this book, I try to figure out what it has meant to be “conservative” about education in the United States.  How have issues such as creationism, school prayer, and sex ed developed over the course of the twentieth century?  How are they related?  How have conservative attitudes and strategies changed?  How have they remained the same?

In the early days of my research, I had planned to explore the educational activism of leading conservative groups such as the American Legion and the Institute for Creation Research. I was stuck with two big problems, though.

First, the Legion and other conservative groups remained active throughout the twentieth century. How could I describe different conservatives without rehashing the chronology over and over again? I didn’t want to work from the 1920s to the 1970s in every chapter. What to do?

My second problem was one of definition. How could I choose which “conservative” groups to study? I could copy the method of leading conservative scholars such as Russell Kirk or George Nash and use my selection to make an argument about the definition of conservatism. Both Kirk and Nash picked their subjects to give a particular definition to conservatism. For both writers, being a true conservative has meant being a heroic intellectual battling waves of ignorance and knee-jerk leftism. But I’m no conservative myself, and I wasn’t interested in imposing a flattering (or un-flattering, for that matter) definition on American conservatism. What to do?

Luckily for me, I had some help. At a conference back in 2009, I was describing my research. One of the audience members suggested a new approach. Instead of picking and choosing which activists counted as “conservative,” instead of describing the activism of one group after another, why not do it differently? Why not let conservative activists define themselves? This leading historian suggested that I investigate events, not groups.

That’s what I did. I looked at the four biggest educational controversies of the twentieth century: The Scopes Trial of 1925, the Rugg textbook fight of 1939-1940, the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950, and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974-1975. In each case, conservative activists and organizations fought for their vision of “conservative” schools. By looking at controversies instead of organizations, I could let conservatives define themselves. And I could move chronologically through the twentieth century without rehashing the stories in each chapter.

Did it work? Now I have to let readers and reviewers be the judge. My goal was to explore what it has meant to be “conservative” in the field of education. I did not want to make the relatively simpler argument that conservatism has really meant X or Y. I did not want to give conservatives a heroic history they could draw upon. Nor did I want to give their enemies a catalog of conservative sins. I’m hoping readers think this approach has worked.

So if you’re looking for that perfect romantic gift, consider The Other School Reformers!

The Files Are In!

Well, there’s nothing more to be done about it now.  I’ve just sent my final draft of my next book manuscript to the publisher.  There’s a sense of relief at being done, but also trepidation at the impossibility of further revisions.  After years of researching, writing, then revising, revising, revising, it’s hard to believe I won’t be able to keep tweaking and improving.

Pre-order your copy today!

Pre-order your copy today!

In general, though, I’m extremely pleased with the shape of the manuscript.  In a nutshell, I try to make the case that we’ve seen a potent tradition of educational conservatism in the United States, one that has had a decisive impact on the structure and content of schooling.  And, I argue, that tradition has not been recognized by historians or education scholars.

To make this case, I examine in four looooong chapters the four biggest school controversies in twentieth-century America: the Scopes Trial of 1925, the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939-41, the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950, and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974-75.  What did conservatives say and do in these controversies?  In each case, the attention-grabbing events attracted conservative participation from both locals and national leaders.  In each case, the issues prompted conservatives to articulate their visions of proper schooling.  To me, that’s the interesting question.

We’re still a ways from final publication.  The publisher will send me proofs in July.  At that stage, I’ll put together the index and fine-tooth-comb the proofs for any typos.  But I won’t be able to make substantive changes at that point, just minor corrections.

During these last weeks, as I’ve been going over the copy-edited chapter files, I’ve been very grateful for the careful work of the editor.  She or he pointed out some embarrassing errors on my part and I’ve been able to make changes in the argument.  Hopefully this draft is as crystal-clear as I can make it.

I’m looking forward to hearing what readers think of the book.  For that, I’ll have to wait until 2015.  The press will release the book on January 12, 2015.  Pre-orders are available!


Pre-Orders Now Available!

Want to be the first on your block to get your copy of The Other School Reformers?  Then pre-order your copy today!

Pre-order your copy today!

Pre-order your copy today!

As I was happy to announce recently, Harvard University Press will be releasing the book in early 2015.  But the pre-order just became available on sites such as Amazon.  The hardcover won’t be available until January 12, 2015, but if you pre-order today, you’ll be sure to WOW your friends and family by getting your hands on it first.

The Other School Reformers

Clear your calendars! We have a release date. The Other School Reformers will be hitting store shelves in February.  I know that’s a long time to wait, so I’m suggesting everyone dress up as their favorite conservative educational activist and camp out outside their local bookstore.

Coming January 2015.

Coming January 2015.

Thanks to the Smithsonian for this terrific cover image.  That’s Clarence Darrow (standing) facing William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial.  In this book, I examine four epochal school controversies from the twentieth century.  In each case, I ask what conservative intellectuals and activists wanted out of schooling.  My goal is to find out what it meant to be “conservative” when it came to education.

The catalog listing just went up.  Here’s how the talented folks at Harvard University Press describe the book:

The idea that American education has been steered by progressive values is celebrated by liberals and deplored by conservatives, but both sides accept it as fact. Adam Laats shows that this widely held belief is simply wrong. Upending the standard narrative of American education as the product of courageous progressive reformers, he calls to center stage the conservative activists who decisively shaped America’s classrooms in the twentieth century. The Other School Reformers makes clear that, in the long march of American public education, progressive reform has more often been a beleaguered dream than an insuperable force.

Laats takes an in-depth look at four landmark school battles: the 1925 Scopes Trial, the 1939 Rugg textbook controversy, the 1950 ouster of Pasadena Public Schools Superintendent Willard Goslin, and the 1974 Kanawha County school boycott. Focused on issues ranging from evolution to the role of religion in education to the correct interpretation of American history, these four highly publicized controversies forced conservatives to articulate their vision of public schooling—a vision that would keep traditional Protestant beliefs in America’s classrooms and push out subversive subjects like Darwinism, socialism, multiculturalism, and feminism. As Laats makes clear in case after case, activists such as Hiram Evans and Norma Gabler, Homer Chaillaux and Louise Padelford were fiercely committed to a view of the curriculum that inculcated love of country, reinforced traditional gender roles and family structures, allowed no alternatives to capitalism, and granted religion a central role in civic life.

Almost makes me want to read it myself.  For me, the next steps will be to review and copy-edit the full manuscript next month.  Then in July I’ll put together the index, with help from a talented graduate student.

Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?


The Missionary Supposition

Is evolution a religion?  Are its teachers missionaries?

That has long been the accusation by some conservative religious folks.  The godfather of today’s young-earth creationist movement, Henry Morris, insists that it is.

Given that history, it is with trepidation and full humility that I’ve argued recently in the pages of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education that evolution educators might learn something from religious missionaries.

I want to be as clear as I can about this: I do not think that evolution is a religion.  I do not think evolution educators should consider it their job to “convert” young people to an evolutionary worldview.

But I do think evolution educators have been plagued historically by an attitude that creationism is simply an absence of something, a lack of knowledge about evolution.  To be sure, thoughtful evolution educators have long avoided that trap.  The folks at the National Center for Science Education, for instance, have made a strong case that we need to understand creationism if we want better evolution education. 

The attitude of many evolution educators throughout history, however, has been that creationists must simply not know enough about evolution.  Once creationists hear the truth, according to this line of thinking, they will hop on board the evolution train.

Ironically, that understanding of creationism and evolution teeters perilously close to the attitude among many early religious missionaries.  The Bible, many Protestant missionaries believed, contained such powerful, supernatural power that it would be instantly embraced by heathens worldwide.  All missionaries had to do was spread the Word.  Indeed, this faith in the transformative power of Gospel text remains strong among groups such as the Gideons and the American Bible Society.

But most religious missionaries these days understand that conversion needs more than just the Gospel.  Many conservative Protestant missionaries insist that the home cultures of local groups must be studied thoroughly and lovingly by would-be Bible missionaries.  Without that sort of preparation, real missionaries insist, evangelization is a waste of time, and may even be what one missionary writer called “evangelical toxic waste.”

What do I suggest?  I argue in my RNCSE essay that evolution educators need to spend more time understanding creationism.  If we really want to teach evolution in the United States, we need to do more than just spread the word.  We need to spend time learning about the cultures that refuse to believe evolutionary theory.

We need to study history, anthropology, and religion in addition to biology, geology, and genetics.  Awkward as it might be to admit, one “-ology” that evolution educators have ignored to their peril is missiology.


It’s Your Own Fault

It’s your own fault if you’re bored this fall.

Binghamton University is hosting some events that will certainly be of interest to all ILYBYGTH readers.

For those in the area, there will be some great ways to think and discuss the possible meanings of American educational conservatism.

I’ll keep the list updated, but so far there are three talks of note.  All of them are free and open to the public.

1.) September 11, noon-1:30, IASH conference room, Library North 1106: Adam Laats, “‘Democracy’ and American Education, 1930-1960.”

Yours truly will be presenting some ideas from my current book about American educational conservatism in the twentieth century.  Specifically, I’ll be talking about the ways conservative activists in groups such as the American Legion framed “democracy” in strikingly different ways than did progressive educational thinkers such as John Dewey.  The talk will be part of the series of faculty fellows’ talks at Binghamton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

2.) September 24, 5-6:15, specific topic TBA: Mario Rios Perez.

I’m not sure what he’ll be talking about, but Professor Perez (of Syracuse University) has done some great work with the history of schooling in Chicago.

3.) November 18, 5:00: Warren Douglas Allmon, “Creationism in 2013: Not in the Headlines but Never Far Away.”

Professor Allmon will be talking as part of the EVoS series of Monday seminars.  He is a paleontologist at Cornell, our neighbor to the north.  When I heard he was coming to our friendly campus, I looked up his sort-of recent article about the culture of creationism in Evolution: Education and Outreach.  In that article, Professor Allmon makes the powerful point that resistance to evolution is about more than just the knee-jerk “religion vs. science” clichés that we hear so often.  He argues that Americans’ resistance to evolution comes from five distinct categories.  As Allmon argues, “this multiplicity of causes is not sufficiently appreciated by many scientists, educators, and journalists, and the widespread rejection of evolution is a much more complicated problem than many of these front-line practitioners think it is.”

Hear hear!  Can’t wait to hear his talk in November.

Hope to see you there…