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.

Teachers as Culture Warriors? …Really?

Have you hung out with a schoolteacher lately? In general, we are a pretty mild-mannered set. Sure, there’s the occasional Thursday-night margarita/gripefest, but by and large the teachers I know are mostly interested in doing their jobs well and eventually paying off their student loans. So why, oh why, have teachers always been at the forefront of our educational culture wars? For at least a century, teachers have been the darlings of the Left and the demons of the Right.

Gillum

Love em…

We see it again in the recent surprise victory of Andrew Gillum in Florida. The mayor of Tallahassee, Gillum was far from the front runner in the state’s democratic primary for governor. How did he score the surprise win? For one thing, Gillum has promised to boost pay for Florida’s teachers. As Gillum told his story,

We didn’t have much money, but my parents and grandmother made sure we took our education seriously. I was blessed to have great public school teachers who poured their energy, time and love into me.

Without them I wouldn’t be running for Governor today — and next year as Governor, we’re going to give all of our teachers and support staff the raise they deserve. From setting a statewide floor for new teachers’ salaries of $50,000, to bringing every public school instructional teacher up to the national salary average of $58,000, and making sure veteran teachers are compensated for their years of service, it’s time our teachers get paid appropriately for doing some of the important work in our society.

Right now, they’re woefully underpaid, and many are struggling to provide for themselves.

For Mayor Gillum and other lefties these days, public-school teachers represent all that is good and hopeful in American politics. By maintaining strong unions (maybe) and striking for better conditions, teachers have come to serve—for some—as a symbol of socialist promise.

For once, conservative pundits agree. Unlike Gillum, conservatives hate it, but they agree that teachers are a powerful force for the Left. As one conservative writer described, teachers are

spending time promoting a left-wing agenda and bullying conservative students rather than teaching the subjects they are paid to teach.

It was ever thus. As I argued in my book about the history of conservative educational activism, I looked at culture-war thinking about teachers throughout the twentieth century. In every decade, in every school controversy, teachers were beloved by progressives and despised by conservatives. The assumptions were usually the same—wild-eyed leftist teachers were trying to warp their students’ minds, to get kids to embrace the latest versions of amorality and socialism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

… or hate em, both sides agree that teachers are progressive culture warriors.

For example, in 1935 US Communist Party leader Earl Browder took to the pages of Social Frontier journal to encourage teachers to fulfill their potential, to serve as a “special sector of a common battle-front” for progressive ideals. In the same era, right-wing education pundit Allen Zoll condemned precisely the same goal for teachers. Too many teachers, Zoll denounced, only wanted to promote the “inculcation of currently popular herd ideas on a mass basis.” The ultimate goal of teachers, Zoll believed, was to produce

a tragically misshapen generation . . . without the ability to think for themselves, filled only with the desired herd ideas—fit only to be citizens of the authoritarian state?

Both Zoll and Browder were extremists, but they shared this vision of the power, promise, and plausibility of large numbers of teachers who see their main goal as promoting leftist politics.

And, of course, the stereotype sometimes fits. I know teachers who see their primary mission as political. Some teachers hope to push their students toward a leftist viewpoint. But most teachers are mainly trying to help students do as much as well as students can.

So here are my questions this morning:

  • Do many teachers really fit the culture-warrior stereotype?
  • If not, why are those stereotypes so powerful and so enduring?

Why Not Go All the Way?

Is Trumpism a monstrous reality-show perversion of true conservatism? Or has Trumpism merely exposed the true racism and anti-intellectualism lurking in the heart of American conservative thinking? Historian Seth Cotlar raised these questions again in a recent Twitter thread. Can Never-Trump conservatives like David Frum take bitter solace in the notion that Trumpism has trumped true conservatism? Or must all conservatives recognize that Trump is nothing more than their movement’s Smerdyakov? The back-and-forth highlights a fundamental truth about conservatism—and political punditry in general—that doesn’t get enough attention.cotlar tweet

Let’s start at the beginning: Professor Cotlar draws attention to the fact that conservative thinkers did not suddenly in 2016 start to mouth muddle-headed and shamelessly demagogic notions. As Cotlar shows, back in the 1990s Newt Gingrich was fond of taking obviously ridiculous positions for political gain. And Cotlar mentions the longer history. Back in the 1950s, Cotlar notes, conservatives were making similar Trumpish noises.

All true and fair, IMHO. Not only for conservatives, but for progressives as well. Not only since the 1950s, but throughout the twentieth century, conservatives and progressives both struggled to define themselves. Conservatives and progressives both wondered how to draw meaningful boundaries around their movements. Was it “progressive” to support Stalin’s purges? Was it “conservative” to indulge in feverish conspiracy theories about the Warren Court?

Indeed, instead of ever thinking about “true” conservatives (or progressives) fighting against “pretenders” or “RINOs,” we need to recognize the obvious historic fact that there IS no such thing as a single, real conservatism (or progressivism).

All we have ever had is a cacophony of contenders for the label. At some points in history, say in the mid-1950s or mid-1990s, conservatives might have rallied around a particularly charismatic or compelling vision of what they wanted conservatism to look like. In the end, however, the history of conservatism is only a history of a battle to claim the mantle of “true” conservatism in the face of the many contenders.

Consider just a couple of examples from the twentieth century. In the 1920s, for example, the revived Ku Klux Klan made a serious play to represent mainstream conservative thinking. As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, national leader Hiram Evans hoped to use the mainstream issue of public education to transform the reputation of the Klan. Yes, the group was racist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And yes, plenty of Americans felt uncomfortable with the Klan’s reputation for vigilante violence and secret ritual. In spite of that reputation, Imperial Wizard Evans hoped—with good reason—that he could reshape the Klan’s reputation as the bastion of “true” conservatism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Is this “real” conservatism?

In the 1950s, too, conservatives battled for the right to be considered the “real” conservatives. Time and time again, radicals such as Allen Zoll warned residents of Pasadena, California that left-wing conspirators planned to brainwash children in public schools. As Zoll wrote in one widely circulated pamphlet,

We had better stop smiling. There IS a conspiracy.

To non-conservative journalists, Zoll’s hysterical, bigoted rhetoric captured the tone of American conservatism. They assumed that Zoll’s claims to be a conservative spokesman should be taken at face value. So much so that they were often surprised to meet different types of conservative thinkers. For instance, one of the conservative leaders of the 1950s school controversy in Pasadena was Louise Padelford. Padelford was no less strident than Zoll when it came to combatting progressive trends in education. Her tone was worlds removed, however. As one journalist wrote in surprise when he met her, Padelford had

clear blue eyes that look out at the world with wide-open frankness; her ear is keen, her wit quick, and her smile enchanting.

The journalist’s surprise might seem silly to anyone familiar with the true complexity of American politics. There’s no reason why a conservative can’t have a quick wit and an enchanting smile. At the time, though, to one journalist at least, to be “conservative” meant to be Zollish and trollish.

Time and again, conservatives throughout the twentieth century battled to claim the title of the “real” conservatives. Was it mild-mannered but strident Ivy-League PhD Louise Padelford? Or was it rabble-rousing pamphleteer Allen Zoll?

As Professor Cotlar points out, it has always been both. Not just since the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century. And if we want to make sense of the tension between self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservatives and foolhardy Trumpish demagogues, we need to go all the way.

Namely, we need to recognize that there has never been—NEVER—a single true conservative movement. Not in the offices of the National Review. Not in the hard drive of David Frum.

Conservatism, like all keywords, has always only been a prize up for contention.

Homeschooling and the Common Core

Education folk these days are a-flutter with talk about the Common Core State Standards.

Recently, William Estrada of the Home School Legal Defense Association has warned about the implications for homeschoolers of such national curricula.

Without an historical perspective, it would be easy for readers of recent headlines to assume that conservatives have always opposed greater educational centralism.  After all, Ronald Reagan came to office on a promise to eliminate the then-new Department of Education.  Recently, Republican Presidential hopefuls such as Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul promised to fulfill Reagan’s plan.

Back in the 1920s, however, leading conservatives often made the strongest case for a federal department of education.  As I explored in a recent article in the History of Education Quarterly, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan hoped greater educational centralization would help Americanize immigrants and standardize Americanism education.  The main institutional opponent of such centralization in the 1920s, as Douglas Slawson’s wonderful book The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932 points out, was the Catholic Church.  In that turbulent decade, social traditionalists, conservative Protestants, and many leading progressives all agreed that the nation needed greater centralization and increased educational funding.

By the 1940s, however, educational centralization had become a leading bugbear of anti-communist conservatives.  From the fringes of conservative anti-communism, influential pamphleteer Allen Zoll denounced federal aid to local schools as the central strategic goal of subversive communism.

Allen Zoll, They Want Your Child! (New York: 1949)

Allen Zoll, They Want Your Child! (New York: 1949)

In “They Want Your Child!” (New York: National Council for American Education, 1949), Zoll warned, “We had better stop smiling.  There IS a conspiracy.  The conspiracy against the American way of life, against everything that we hold dear, is probably the most completely organized, ruthless design against other people ever set in motion in all human history. . . . THE INFILTRATION AND CONTROL OF AMERICAN EDUCATION BECAME COMMUNISM’S NUMBER ONE OBJECTIVE IN AMERICA.  THEY WANT THE CHILDREN OF AMERICA.  THEY WANT YOUR CHILD.”  To Zoll and many of his readers, centralization of education meant that subversives could collect all the threads of education policy in their grasping claws.

Once the US Supreme Court began ruling in favor of school desegregation in the 1950s and against school prayer in the 1960s, the notion of greater educational centralization became anathema to wider and wider circles of American conservatives.  Centralization became associated purely with the long-standing enemies of traditionalist and conservative education: evolution science, progressive pedagogy, left-wing anti-racism, anti-patriotic politics, and secularism.

In his December 2012 brief, Will Estrada of the HSLDA made some of the traditional conservative arguments against greater educational centralism.  First, Estrada pointed out, states were pushed into accepting these common standards out of financial desperation, not out of any educational benefit.  President Obama’s Race to the Top funding, as Estrada noted, was often tied to adoption of common core standards.  Second, centralized education would decrease quantifiable student achievement, Estrada argued.  Scores on English and math tests would likely decrease after these standards were in place, at the cost of billions of dollars.  Perhaps most in line with the complaints of many American conservatives, Estrada warned that common standards weakened parental control.  “Top-down, centralized education policy,” Estrada wrote, “does not encourage parents to be engaged.”

Specific to homeschoolers’ interests, Estrada worried that centralized curricula would encourage greater pressure on homeschoolers to follow along.  If every college and every college entrance exam measured student achievement by success on common-core-linked tests, homeschool students would feel pressured to master that common curriculum.

Supporters of today’s Common Core State Standards argue that the standards will bring greater efficiency and equality to education in the United States.  However, the idea of centralization has had a checkered career among American conservatives.  Will Estrada of the HSLDA raised one voice in opposition to today’s centralization effort.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fundamentalists and Federal Aid to Schools

If only Rick Perry could have remembered what he planned to abolish, he might have won the 2012 Republican Presidential primary.  If he had won, he might really have carried out his threat to get rid of the federal Department of Education, along with Energy and Commerce.  Or maybe not.  After all, Ronald Reagan had also promised to eliminate the Department of Education.  In the end, Reagan merely treated the department shabbily.  These days, it seems every self-respecting conservative insists that the Federal Department of Education is an outrage.  Devvy Kidd of WorldNetDaily, for example, insists the department “must be abolished” due to its “chilling” trend toward “communism.”

This hostility toward federal money for local schools has not always been a bedrock belief of American conservatives.  In the 1920s, as Douglas Slawson’s terrific 2005 book The Department of Education Battle describes, the fiercest opponent of a cabinet-level federal department of education was the Catholic Church.  It follows, then, that one of the fiercest PROponents of such a department was the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.  The 1920s Klan, after all, focused much more intensely than did later Klans on fighting the power of the Catholic Church.  It also focused much of its public activism on defending its vision of the “Little Red Schoolhouse.”  For God and Country, the 1920s Klan argued, the USA needed a cabinet-level Department of Education.

By the late 1940s, however, opposing federal aid to local schools had become an article of faith among American conservatives.                        

Perhaps because the National Education Association fought so fervently for more federal funding for local schools, as we can see with this 1948 NEA brochure, conservatives insisted that such aid would be merely the camel’s nose under the tent.  Such aid would inevitably include more federal control over local schools.

As one earnest Daughter of the American Revolution warned her conservative sisters in 1943,

“The citizens of the United States do not want the Federal Government to supervise education from the cradle to the grave, from nursery school to adult education. . . .  It is not difficult to see another huge arm of the Federal Government in the making, and more chains being forged to shackle the unthinking. . . . socialist-minded educators would use the funds to build ‘a new social order’ and . . . training in fundamentals [will be] neglected.”

Other conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s agreed.  Allen Zoll, a professional right-wing activist and founder of the National Council for American Education, published a couple of hugely influential pamphlets in the 1940s. 

In one of them, “Progressive Education Increases Delinquency,” Zoll warned readers that contemporary education no longer taught students the traditional, fundamental values of American society.  He insisted,

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this 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.”

In another pamphlet from the late 1940s, “They Want YOUR Child,” Zoll warned that the NEA’s drive to secure federal funding for local schools was a conspiracy of the darkest order, a “conspiracy against the American way of life, against everything that we hold dear, . . . probably the most completely organized, ruthless design against other people ever set in motion in all human history.”

Inevitably, Zoll insisted, federal aid to local schools would lead to federal control over local schools.  Once schools fell for that trap, they would be controlled by an aggressive mind-controlling educationist bureaucracy.  The scheming of “progressive” educators such as Theodore Brameld, William Heard Kilpatrick, and George Counts would soon lead to a softening of the youth of America, a start of the slide to socialism, secularism, and destruction.

Some conservatives in the 1950s took this fight against federal funding one step further.  Although they never represented a majority conservative viewpoint, some insisted that all public monies for schools represented government tyranny.  One eccentric proponent of this maximalist position in the 1950s was R.C. Hoiles.  Hoiles had earned a pile of money—one journalist in 1952 estimated $20,000,000—with his Western media empire.  In his editorials for his newspapers, Hoiles argued that all public schools implied government tyranny.  In one from The Marysville-Yuba City (CA) Appeal Democrat, February 28, 1951, for example, Hoiles argued,

“Very few people realize to what degree the government has grabbed the authority to indoctrinate the youth of the land.  We cannot reverse our trend toward socialism as long as the youth of the land comes in contact and is trained by teachers who believe that they have a right to do collectively what they know would be immoral if done by an individual.  In short, the youth of the land is coming in contact with men who are communistic in their thinking, if we properly define communism.  Here is a good definition of communism written by David Baxter.  ‘Communism is the conclusion that more than one person, or a majority of persons, have a right to do things collectively that it would be wrong and immoral for one person to do.’  Can anyone improve upon this definition of communism?

            “According to this definition, is not every believer in tax-supported schools a believer in communism, whether he knows it or not?”

Hoiles also issued a standing challenge to debate this issue.  On February 2, 1952, a radio personality took him up on his offer.  Thousands of people crammed into the football stadium to hear the debate between Hoiles and Roy Hofheinz.  Among the rhetorical gems Hoiles unloaded at that debate included the following:

“Every board of education is government; therefore, it is force.  It is not reason or eloquence—IT IS FORCE!  It is a fearful master—it certainly does not seem rational that understanding and education can be promoted by the force of a policeman . . . “

“There are many ideas as to what is a good government.  But only one idea can be taught in government schools.  And that idea cannot be anything unfavorable to existing government institutions.  It would be impossible to find any teaching in government schools unfavorable to government schools.  It would be impossible to find anything taught in government schools unfavorable to existing state administration.  We cannot now find anything taught in government schools really unfavorable to New Dealism.

            “We believe it would be next to impossible to find anything taught that preaches old-fashioned American individualism as against our modern New Deal fraternalism in government.  Thus we believe that government schools’ teaching in regard to government must favor administration policies, whatever they may be.  Hitler and Hirohito used government schools to promote their regimes. 

            “Stalin is using Russian government schools to promote his regime.  Karl Marx made free public schools one of the points in his famous ‘Communist Manifesto.’  Any government delights in having schools to propagandize its doctrine.” ….

“It has often occurred to me that if an overwhelming majority of Americans really favor the present system of education, it should not be necessary to compel anyone to support it.  A system as sound and popular as tax-supported public schools are supposed to be should be well supported on a voluntary basis.” 

Funding of schools will likely always be a contentious issue.  Taxpayers, especially those who have no children or send their children to private schools, have a dollars-and-cents reason to oppose public schooling.  Perhaps the powerful tradition in Fundamentalist America of opposition to federal funding—or even to any public funding—of local schools can be reduced mainly to a desire to keep more money from the hands of the tax man.  But there also seems to be a deeper ideological connection.  Since the 1940s, at least, fighting against federal funding for local schools has become an article of conservative faith among some citizens of Fundamentalist America.

FURTHER READING: Douglas J. Slawson,  The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932; Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005; Madeleine P. Scharf, “The Education Finance Act of 1943,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 77 (October 1943): 635-637.