Conservatives Win US History Fight . . . Again

Why is this so hard to get through our thick skulls? American schooling is not in the hands of progressive teachers and ed-school professors like me. It just isn’t. If we needed any more proof of it, take a look at the College Board’s decision to change its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course. As has always been the case, conservative complaints this time around have been about the implications and tone of classroom materials. My hunch is that many people wouldn’t see what the big deal was about.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my last book, American conservatives battled—and won—time and time again to control textbooks. Any whiff of progressive ideas was snuffed out before it could become the norm in American classrooms.

A set of progressive social-studies textbooks in the 1930s quickly became libri non grata after conservatives mobilized against it. In the 1970s, another set of progressive textbooks sparked a school boycott in West Virginia that caused a future secretary of education to speak out against progressive-type textbooks.

Now, according to an article in the Washington Post, the College Board has revised its framework for its AP US History class after ferocious conservative complaint. As we’ve discussed in these pages, conservative intellectuals and activists pushed hard to win this prize.

But here’s the kicker: I bet most casual readers of the new framework wouldn’t notice the differences. Now as in the past, the arguments are generally about tone and implication, rather than large-scale differences in content.

In the 1930s, conservative critics of Harold Rugg’s progressive textbooks admitted that most readers probably wouldn’t see the problem. Leading conservative critic Bertie Forbes called the Rugg books “subtly written” so that only an expert could notice the anti-American “insidious implication.” Another anti-Rugg leader warned that Rugg’s books were “very subtle,” not obviously anti-American, but packed with “weasel words” meant to subvert American values.

During the 1970s fight over textbooks, conservatives similarly admitted that a regular patriotic American reader might not see the problem at first glance. But as one conservative leader told an interviewer, the books were all bad, since they had been written with “the attitudes of evolution and all that.” Another conservative admitted that he did not even feel a need to read the actual textbooks. “You don’t have to read the textbooks,” he wrote.

If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

Every time, conservatives have warned, it takes an expert eye to detect the problem with sneaky progressive textbooks.

This time around, too, conservative intellectuals protested against the tone and implication of the new history framework. As a group of leading thinkers wrote in their June protest letter, the rejected history framework

Is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

The problem is not that the un-revised new framework didn’t teach US History. The problem, according to conservative thinkers, is that it taught history with a certain attitude, a certain approach.

Is the new framework more conservative? Leading intellectuals seem to think so.

Take the ILYBYGTH challenge: Read the revised framework for yourself. Does it seem “conservative” to you? Where? How? Can you find the differences in tone and approach that conservatives demanded?

OK: AP not OK

What does creationism have to do with the Continental Army? What does George Washington have to do with the Genesis Flood? This week the news from Oklahoma gives us an example of the ways conservative ideas influence every classroom, not just the science labs.

We will have more success understanding those ideas if we see them as part of a conservative notion of proper education. These are not just ideas about science, or the Book of Genesis, or George Washington at Valley Forge, but they combine all these things into a powerful educational impulse. As I argue more extensively in my new book, in order to make sense of any aspect of educational conservatism, we need to look at it as a whole, not just as a series of separate incidents.

First, let’s look at the goings-on in the Sooner State. Representative Dan Fisher has introduced a bill that will challenge the teaching of Advanced Placement US History in Oklahoma’s public schools. Why? As do many conservatives, Fisher believes that APUSH teaches a warped, slanted, leftist view of America’s past. The new APUSH framework, Fisher explains, emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

Fisher wants to blast progressive history out of Oklahoma's schools.

Fisher wants to blast progressive history out of Oklahoma’s schools.

Fisher is not alone. As we’ve explored in these pages, conservative activists have lashed out at the new APUSH framework. I’ve argued also that many conservatives see these AP standards as only the latest efflorescence of a vicious left-wing assault on real American history. These conservative notions about sneaky progressive subversion in history classrooms have a long history themselves, as I describe in the book. At least since the 1920s, conservative thinkers and activists have lambasted history curricula as hopelessly skewed. Children learn that the USA has been built on a legacy of greed and genocide. Children learn that traditional heroes such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have feet of clay, or worse.

Representative Fisher, for instance, is a member of the Black Robe Regiment, according to the Tulsa World. As do many religious conservatives, this group ties together a romantic history of the United States with conservative attitudes about Scripture and religion. In those connections we catch a glimpse of the ways conservative thinking about education can link creationism with US History.

I want to be careful about what I’m saying here. I’m not arguing that there is some sort of vast underground conservative conspiracy connecting creationism with Fisher’s anti-APUSH activism. Nor am I saying that Fisher’s brand of religious conservatism is somehow the most real sort of conservative attitude about education. There are plenty of conservatives who will have no truck with this kind of religious and traditionalist interpretation of America’s past. But I do believe that deeply held attitudes about proper education fuel both creationism and Fisher’s sort of historical revanchism.

What’s the connection? At its heart, I suggest that this sort of conservatism springs from a notion that real education must come from a delivery of correct information from authoritarian sources to learners. That is, many conservatives—perhaps a better word would be “traditionalists”—believe that education must be a transmission of truth from top to bottom. That truth, if we back it up to its source, must come from God as the ultimate authority.

Perhaps this definition of proper education as the delivery of truth to each new generation seems unobjectionable. It is not. For about a century, educational thinkers have suggested that this “transmission” method is not good education. These “progressive” reformers have tried to impose instead an idea that students must construct knowledge on their own, not merely accept it or download it from authoritarian sources.

In the specific case of the new APUSH framework at issue in Oklahoma, historians have insisted that historical learning does not simply mean transmitting facts to children. And smart conservatives acknowledge that real education includes much more than just telling young people things that are true. But at its core, we might separate “traditionalist” from “progressive” ideas about education along these lines: Traditionalists think of education primarily as moving information from authoritative source to learners. Progressives think of education primarily as having learners construct knowledge.

With this sort of general attitude about education and knowledge, it’s easy to see the connections between creationism and the Continental Army, between George Washington and the Genesis Flood. For some religious conservatives, including apparently Representative Fisher of Oklahoma, knowledge about any subject must rely on traditional truths. Those truths have been delivered to us from on high. Proper education, in this mindset, consists of passing those truths along, not subjecting them to smarmy and self-satisfied criticism.

School Protests and Negative Nellies

Suburban Jefferson County is in an uproar. Teachers and students have taken to the streets. They’re protesting a move by conservative school-board members to modify the new Advanced Placement US History framework. Predictably, conservatives nationwide have rallied behind those school-board members. In ways today’s protesters might not recognize, conservative rhetoric in this case dredges up a long conservative tradition—the fight against excessive negativity toward America. In surprising ways for “The Party of No,” when it comes to educational attitudes, conservatives have often been the party of “Yes, Please.”

This Denver-area protest is not the first to result from the changing framework for the Advanced Placement US History class. Conservative pundits have attacked the changes as pernicious and short-sighted. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, those conservative concerns have a legacy all their own. Conservative intellectuals and activists have protested that the new framework depicts the main themes of US History as oppression and racism. Some conservatives have called for US History to be taught in more traditional ways, more patriotic ways.

In this case, conservative school-board members proposed a new look at the framework. The five-member board has a solid three-member conservative majority, and those three called for a reform that would emphasize “positive aspects” of US History, an emphasis on ideas that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual right.” In addition, conservative leaders want less emphasis on materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In protest, district teachers called for an orderly sick-out. Teachers planned to call in sick to draw attention to both this change in curriculum and a proposed change to teacher pay. As word spread, students joined in. Soon, teachers and students alike took to the streets to protest any change in the history curriculum.

Predictably, conservative commentators huffed and puffed at the student protest. Gretchen Carlson of Fox News called the protesters “punks.” “How can being patriotic or learning about patriotism be a negative?” Carlson asked. “And what does it say about our young people and the teachers joining the protests that patriotism is now a negative?”

Writing in the pages of National Review Online, Ian Tuttle had a similarly dismissive attitude toward these “sign-waving baby barbarians.” Not only did the students expose their own ignorance with their hopelessly ironic protest signs, but their movement could not even count as legitimate social protest. Real protest, Tuttle fumed, was a vital patriotic legacy. This sort of display, in contrast, was only “self-indulgent grievance-mongering.”

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay...?

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay…?

Back in Colorado, one of the conservative board members opined that the student protesters were being used as hapless “political pawns.” The real issue, he said, was the question of teacher pay. The teachers’ unions cynically exploited the naïve enthusiasm of students in order to line the pockets of union members.

There’s more going on here than just 1960s hangover culture wars. Beneath these specific worries about student orderliness and patriotism, there is a decided theme about the proper attitude schools and students should have toward American society in general. As I researched my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across this theme time and again. In addition to worries about political leftism and secularism in schools, conservatives have worried vaguely about a pervading sense of negativity in progressive school curricula. Sometimes this has had to do with the portrayal of America’s past, as in the current Colorado student protests. But sometimes it has been a broader complaint about a general negative attitude in school books.

In what follows, I’ll share three long examples from 1923, 1939, and 1970. In each case, leading conservative activists attacked the negativity of progressive educators. Just as in Jefferson County, conservatives in each case worried that students were being taught that America stunk, that life in general stunk.

First, a speech from April 16, 1923. In this speech, the leader of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned of the creeping negativity and anti-patriotism of America’s teachers. Too many teachers, President General Anne Minor insisted, poured that negativity down the throats of trusting young schoolchildren.

Character and patriotism and obedience to law—there are the essentials of training in the schools. Do we find them everywhere? There are many who feel that there is a weakness of moral fibre [sic] in the teaching in many of our schools. And it is well known that there is an organized movement of many years’ standing among radicals to insinuate their doctrines into the schools and colleges all over the land….We want no teachers who say there are two sides to every question, including even our system of government; who care more for their ‘academic freedom of speech’ and opinion (so called) than for their country. Academic freedom of speech has no place in school, where the youth of our country are taught and their unformed minds are developed. There are no two sides to loyalty to this country and its flag. There is nothing debatable about allegiance to that flag and the Republic for which it stands. Freedom of speech does not give the right to teach disloyalty to our children and college youth. The teacher who does not wish to teach loyalty toward the land that employs him, has one good remedy. He or she may resign and go where disloyal opinions can find expression without harm to anyone. Guard well your schools, lest the life of the nation be poisoned at its source.

Years later, in 1939, a school-board member in Englewood, New Jersey lambasted the leftism and negativity of a popular set of textbooks. In this case, that conservative school board member was B.C. “Bertie” Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine. The textbooks at issue were a set of social-studies books by progressive scholar Harold Rugg. In this snippet, Forbes tells a story he repeated over and over again in his crusade against the Rugg books:

One of [a local teacher’s] pupils came to me, very much upset. In effect, he said that he had always regarded America and the American form of government as wonderful. But, he proceeded to relate that when the class had been asked to record their opinion as to whether ‘The people of the United States have a better government than have the people of any other county in the world,’ their teacher expressed disagreement with those young Americans who had replied, ‘Yes.’ According to this pupil she disabused their minds of any such idea. According to him, she told her young charges that the answer was ‘No’, that ‘there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, forms of government than ours.’

At this critical time, when we are preparing to conscript our youths to become American soldiers, I cannot but question the wisdom of impregnating young minds with any such notion that our system of government is open to question.

If teachers of the Rugg books are seeking ‘subtly’, to use Professor Rugg’s own word, to convey such ideas to the coming generation, ideas which cannot possibly inspire them with veneration for their flag—which they are asked to salute every day—surely the parents of Englewood are entitled to learn the facts.

A generation later, in 1970, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler told the Texas State Board of Education that too many textbooks focused only on the negative. The Gablers went through the list of approved books, one by one. In each case, the Gablers noted the relentless negativity of the texts. In what follows, I’ll include a full long book-by-book quotation from the Gablers’ testimony:

This book contains some of the chilling, horror-type stories that seem to appeal to the morbid imagination of this age’s youth; but so much time spent thinking upon strangeness can make it almost seem normal. The characters in ‘The Jam’ are dope addicts. ‘The Hitchhiker,’ which follows, has an identical climax, both written to horrify. ‘The Birds’ was made into a Hitchcock movie, so is well-known, but in reading it there is so much more blood and gruesome detail that the reader feels the need to escape and cleanse himself from such horror. ‘Zero’ leaves the impression that it is normal for children to hate parents and for parents to be indifferent to the needs of children. Everything in the book is conducive to causing emotional instability in the impressionable mind.

This [Rebels and Regulars] is another very depressing book. As far as the language used, it is in keeping with the characters and plots of the stories, but not the sort of language the thoughtful parent would approve of in his children. There is throughout the book the undercurrent of ‘a cause,’ which gives a prejudiced viewpoint, always picturing the white man as the villain against different minority groups or individuals. Typical of the stories is ‘The Cyclists’ Raid,’ which is militant, lawless, defiant, and completely without consideration for the individual. . . . A whole semester of concentrating upon rebellion as pictured in these stories will have a negative effect upon an impressionable young person. It becomes more honorable to rebel than to obey laws or consider the rights of others. . . .

This book [Ways of Justice] indicates that justice is whatever an individual decides it should be. ‘Junkie Joe Had Some Money’ shows bullies getting away with murder because the only witness is intimidated. In ‘Manuel,’ a kindly act is rewarded with utmost cruelty, written in vivid detail. ‘Mateo [86] Falcone’ tells of a young boy who is bribed to reveal the hiding place of another, then his father kills him. Nothing here to indicate love or understanding is possible between parents and child. ‘Marijuana and a Pistol’ gives all the sordid details of a maladjusted youth who smokes ‘weeds,’ including the uncontrolled giggling and vomiting. ‘They Grind Exceedingly Small’ is a story about the person who has money, taking advantage of the poor, hard-working, underprivileged—indicating that all money and power are in the hands of the cruel, wicked, dishonest, and undeserving. . . .

Couldn’t half of the stories in this series tell about people living together in harmony, love, understanding, and helpfulness?

Is reality only negative? Does not reality also include the many acts of kindness between races that is evident across our nation? It must be remembered that qualities such as morality must be taught. They do not come naturally. Education without morality will result in a depraved society.

Our conclusion is that if these books do not contribute to rebellion, lack of respect for authority, sadism, violence, and disillusionment, they will most certainly defeat the whole purpose for studying literature in our schools; for there is absolutely nothing presented here that would open the wonderful world of the printed page to our youth and cause them to want to pursue reading for the pure joy of doing so!

In all these conservative protests, the notion that school materials must somehow be positive and patriotic takes center place. Whether it was in 1923, 1939, 1970, or today, conservatives have insisted that school materials do more than present the negative side of life. In today’s protest, the issue is the teaching of US History. And that has certainly been a central subject in these battles. But it was not only history that became controversial. As the Gablers pointed out, the negativity of the cultural left showed up in literature selections as well. As they asked so plaintively, “Is reality only negative?”  And, and President General Minor protested way back when, a pervasive, destructive negativity also showed up in teachers’ attitudes.

Again and again, conservatives have wanted students to learn positive messages. Conservatives have worried that too much negativity might produce a generation of cynics. In a sense, we might say that conservatives in schools have sometimes been the party of positivity.

Sneaky Subversion in Teaching US History

If standards and curricula seem balanced and fair, does that mean that subversives have done a good job of disguising their sneaky ideological poison? That has long been the accusation of conservative intellectuals. Leftist academics, conservatives have charged for decades, make their work seem neutral, while really injecting a biased and enervating leftism.

We see this tradition alive and well in conservatives’ recent attack on the teaching of US History. As I noted in an essay in History News Network, Dinesh D’Souza’s new film warns that leftist teachers have taught America’s kids to hate America.

Other conservative intellectuals take a similarly skeptical view of the new curriculum for Advanced Placement US History. Peter Wood of the conservative National Association of Scholars accused the new APUSH curriculum of insisting on a “worldview that emphasizes America as a place of European conquest, economic exploitation, and the struggle for basic rights against the power of the privileged.” Similarly, conservative activists Jane Robbins and Larry Krieger have warned that the new APUSH curriculum peddles a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”

Wood, especially, has offered examples of the sorts of negative attitude he critiques. One of the subtopics for the early period, Wood points out, depicts European settlers as devilish racists:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontation with native peoples.

But more important than the specific examples of egregious anti-American sentiments, Wood charges, is a more subtle attitude embedded within the curriculum. As he puts it, “Sometimes these concerns break out into overt emphasis but they are present throughout.”

Apparently unconsciously, these conservative critics are echoing a long tradition of conservative educational thinking. As I argue in my upcoming book, throughout the twentieth century conservatives warned that schools were being led in leftist directions, often by this same sort of sneaky subversion. The leftists were so sneaky, conservatives warned, that readers might not even notice their subversion.

In the 1939-1941 conservative campaign against Harold Rugg’s social-studies textbooks, for example, critics warned that unwary readers could be duped into thinking the books were balanced and fair. One coalition of conservative activists called the books’ leftism “extremely clever.” Instead of openly proclaiming their leftist bias, Rugg’s books led children “with gentle language and a pedagogic smile . . . through the successive stages of indoctrination.” These conservatives conceded that many readers might find nothing wrong with Rugg’s books. But that only meant, they warned, that the danger was that much greater.

This sort of obvious-only-to-the-initiated analysis of leftist bias seems a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it presents conservative intellectuals with a difficult task. They must convince readers that even seemingly balanced curricular material is secretly anti-American, secretly leftist. That’s a tall order. But when school subversion is embedded cunningly within seemingly neutral material, conservative intellectuals are able to explain why so many popular textbooks and curricula have prospered in spite of their leftist implications.

Are the new APUSH materials really biased? Try it. Read the new curriculum guide. Does it seem like a biased leftist document to you? Its makers didn’t think so. But does that prove that conservative intellectuals are paranoid? Or does it show, rather, that the educational establishment is so dominated by left-leaning academics that they don’t even notice their own bias?