A Patriot’s History: The Movie!

What’s a patriotic conservative to do?  So often, history textbooks have been accused of peddling a leftist mishmash of America-bashing and skewed intellectual flag-burning.  As we’ve argued in these pages, for generations conservatives from the American Legion to David Barton have attempted to publish their own history textbooks that tell a more patriotic, more Christian story.

One of the most successful of those textbook efforts has been Larry Schweikert’s and Michael Allen’s 2004 A Patriot’s History of the United States. The book tells the story of the United States in a way that celebrates the triumphs and tragedies of America from a traditionalist patriotic viewpoint.  According to the book’s Wikipedia page, one reviewer from the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2005 that the book centered on a simple premise: “that there are principles and purposes reflected in American history that make this imperfect country worthy of our affection.”  Other reviewers had more hostile opinions.  David Hoogland Noon wrote in the pages of the History Teacher that this book was “written for an audience of the previously converted . . . hardly worth anyone else’s time.”

Via Andrew Palmer at Conservative Teachers of America we see that Schweikert is hoping to turn the book into a movie.  Schweikert has published a four-and-a-half minute trailer.  Tellingly, the dramatic intro promises the film will tell viewers “the history you always knew.”  In other words, the approach of Schweikert and Allen has been to confirm the traditional story of America’s greatness.  Not that this story has been one of unalloyed heroism, Schweikert and Allen might say, but overall the sweep of history has proven the United States to be the greatest nation on earth.

The choice of bits and pieces for this trailer tells us something about the movie’s approach.  First of all, it begins and ends with fireworks.  It includes scenic panoramas of cherry blossoms on the Mall in Washington DC, Ansel-Adams-like vistas of rocky outcroppings, and other traditional American eye candy.  As I watched, I took sketchy notes of some of the featured elements:

  • Happy colonists
  • Heroic suffering in the Revolutionary War
  • Heroic racing in wagons to settle the West
  • The Civil War
  • An Industrial Revolution with awesome achievement
  • D-day and Iwo Jima
  • Immigrants as ardent patriots
  • The Green Bay Packers!
  • Mount Rushmore
  • The Moon Landing
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • A jet in Vietnam napalming a field
  • Reagan calling on Gorbachev to tear down this wall
  • Baseball
  • The hockey “Miracle on Ice” of 1980
  • Lots of Fireworks.

Clearly, any movie trailer tells only part of the story.  This one certainly skews toward the positive elements of American history.  Unlike some academic histories, the story of the settling of the West is told as a heroic race to fill in land with settlers, not as the invasion of Europeans and the genocide of the native inhabitants.  As much as what was included, this trailer leaves out some important elements.  I saw no suggestion of race slavery, for example, nor of the systematic extermination of native peoples.

Will conservative teachers and schools embrace the film as conservatives embraced the book?  I don’t see why not.  In my experience, conservative intellectuals don’t want children to read patriotic lies about America’s past, but they do want children to read patriotic truths.  In the case of the American Legion’s 1926 textbook series, for example, as soon as the Legion leadership found out that the book was riddled with errors, the Legion pulled its support.  And as soon as David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies accumulated accusations of inaccuracy, its original publisher yanked it.

My hunch is that the makers of A Patriot’s History would argue that they do tell the full story of America’s past.  The trailer, for example, did include clips of America’s troubling policy of napalming villages in the Vietnam War.  To be a success, I’m guessing, this film will have to convince conservative audiences of two things.  First, it must seem like a full and true history of these United States.  Second, it must make clear that this country—despite its historical blemishes—is the greatest nation on the earth.

The hard question remains: Would you want your kids to watch it?

 

Shelfies II: Electric Boogaloo

Keep those shelfies pouring in!  Send ILYBYGTH a snapshot of your bookshelf.  What is on there?  Why?

Today we’re sharing our second shelfie.  Last time we posted our front-and-center pile of books.  This time, we’re going just to the left.

What's on YOUR shelf?

What’s on YOUR shelf?

Starting at the top, we have George Nash’s crucial 1976 Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.  Everyone who hopes to understand American conservatism should read this volume.  Nash famously argued that the postwar conservative intellectual movement brought together disparate strains of conservative thinking into a consciously fusionist effort.  Burkean traditionalists allied with libertarians and anti-communists to make a newly powerful movement.  The book itself is terrific, though some later readers have assumed that Nash was speaking more broadly than he was.  See below.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind has been just as potent a book as Nash’s among conservative nerds.  Writing in the 1950s, Kirk attempted to establish a long and unbroken chain of conservative intellectualism from Edmund Burke through the mid-twentieth century.  Along the way, Kirk emphasizes an idiosyncratic group of writers and politicians as leaders of conservatism, and repositions conservatism as a central tradition of American life and letters, rather than as a collection of fringe loudmouths.

I also like David Farber’s The Rise and Fall of American Conservatism.   Last spring, I taught a senior seminar for history majors in the history of American conservatism.  I waffled on whether to make Farber’s book the central narrative.  In the end, I chose to have students read Kirk instead.  Why?  Unlike Kirk, Farber writes from outside the movement.  He defines conservatism more narrowly, and in a way that would not challenge the thinking of the undergrads, I decided.  For Farber, conservatism consists mainly of a political fight against “liberalism.”  Conservatism got its start, Farber argued, with Robert Taft’s fight against the New Deal’s big-government approach to social welfare.  To many of the students I worked with, Reagan-esque anti-government conservatism is the only kind they know.  Farber’s book is a great history of that sort of conservatism.  But I wanted to get smart sophisticated students to make the definition of conservatism their central intellectual challenge.  Farber’s book made it too easy for students to think that Reagan’s style of conservatism was the ONLY definition of conservatism.

Jerome Himmelstein’s To the Right is a sociological look at the boundaries of American conservatism.  It is worth reading.  IMHO, though, it takes Nash’s definition too glibly as its starting point.  Himmelstein assumes too comfortably that “conservatism” is nothing more nor less than the definition William F. Buckley and his comrades gave it in the 1940s and 1950s.  Too simple.

Starting with the blue-bound dissertations on the left, I recommend two: Kenneth K. Bailey’s Anti-Evolution Crusade of the Nineteen-Twenties (PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1954); and Ferenc M. Szasz, “Three Fundamentalist Leaders: The Roles of William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and William Jennings Bryan in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy ,” (PhD dissertation, University of Rochester, 1969).  Historians of religion will likely know Szasz’s name; he went on to a glorious academic career.  His dissertation study of these three leaders is still worth reading.  Bailey’s dissertation suffers from a simplistic understanding of the nature of fundamentalism, but his collection of newspaper accounts is still unbeaten.  I relied on both of these dissertation while writing my dissertation book.  For everyone interested in 1920s fundamentalism and anti-evolution, they are worth hunting down.

Laurence Moore’s Religious Outsiders is also required reading.  Though these days no historian of religion would say that Moore’s “outsiders” don’t get academic attention, at the time Moore’s book came out it pushed the field in healthy new directions.

I don’t know why James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage doesn’t get more attention.  It is one of my favorite academic histories.  Gilbert takes a look in this book at a central question for all of us interested in education and culture.  Why was there such an explosion of anxiety in the mid-twentieth century about crime and criminality among young people?

Of course, I have the old dog-eared copy of Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture relegated to a side position now that I’ve finally purchased the 2006 revised edition.

Educational historians out there will recognize Jackie Blount’s Destined to Rule the Schools.  Among educational historians, one of the most studied and fruitful lines of questioning has been the complicated relationship between femininity and schooling.  On the one hand, the systematization of public schooling often put men principals and superintendents in charge of female classroom teachers.  Women were seen as “naturally” more fit for caring for young people; men were seen as more fit for running the show.  But as Blount explores, many women were able to use stereotypes of femininity to build a professional network as school administrators as well.

Next up, two of Barry Hankins’ titles, American Evangelicals and Francis Schaeffer.  For people with an interest in the history of American evangelicalism, I can’t recommend the first title strongly enough.  Hankins is a terrific writer and a keen historian.  In this book he combines readability with academic thoroughness, which is hard to do.  And, as readers are aware, there are few intellectual figures as central as Schaeffer to the mind of evangelical America.  As you can see, I ended up with an extra copy somehow.  If anyone would like it, just let me know; I’ll be happy to put it in the mail for you if you send your land address.

It’s almost impossible to see hidden in there, but I also like Stephen Pyne’s Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.  There are a lot of “so-you-want-to-write-a-dissertation” books out there, and I’m sure every nerd has his or her favorite.  I like Pyne’s book for its combination of nitty-gritty advice and head-in-the-clouds ambition.  It’s not easy to remember how difficult it can be for beginners to write academic history.  I always recommend Pyne’s book for graduate students with whom I work.  They never have any free time for extra reading, but I think Pyne’s guide is worth their time.

Last but not least, I’ve got Barry Franklin’s From ‘Backwardness’ to ‘At-Risk.’ I got this book to use with my doctoral history-of-ed class.  In the end, it got bumped from the syllabus.  But the book is still very much worth reading for those interested in educational history.  As the title suggests, it looks at the history of what we now call “special education.”  In addition to telling this story, though, Franklin offers insights into the way educational policy has been framed and the ways students have been defined.

OK, nuf sed!  Send in your shelfies so we can all get a sense of what you’ve got on your shelf and why.

 

 

From the Archives: Conservatives, Historical Knowledge, and the Political Process

Guest Post by Kevin B. Johnson

How could American History bother conservatives?

Most people probably believe that sex education and evolutionary biology are the most contentious subjects taught in school.

But conservative activists have also targeted American history.  Why?  Because as historians such as Jon Zimmerman and David Blight have argued, America teeters on a culture-war divide in its understanding of its own history; a culture-war divide no less contentious than questions about sex and God.

Nowhere has this battle over the nation’s history been more bitter or grueling than in Mississippi.

A look at the record of conservative activism in the Magnolia State may shed some light on the continuing battle over the nature of history.  It also demonstrates the ways conservatives have scored their greatest successes.  In Mississippi, at least, conservatives managed to win by promoting one central idea: historical knowledge, properly understood, is static and unchanging.

As the Cold War split nations into the Free, Unfree, and Third Worlds, Americans began scrutinizing their communities in search of suspected communists and subversives. In Mississippi, these searches involved the content in state-approved social studies textbooks. Civic-patriotic organizations such as the American Legion, the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation led the charge in exposing objectionable historical knowledge presented in social studies texts.

The civic organizations were not alone in controlling textbook content. In the 1940s Mississippi began providing students with schoolbooks; lawmakers also set up the State Textbook Purchasing Board charged with governing the screening and selection of all texts. In the Cold War context, however, many civic organization leaders believed the state’s education professionals were ill-suited for this job and challenged their role in screening school materials.

A few key figures spearheaded the effort to guard historical knowledge. Mississippi State College education professor Cyril E. Cain, for example, found reading and “doing” history to be a mystical-spiritual experience. In 1949, Cain learned about the California SAR calling for removal from that state’s schools the Building America textbook series. America and its democratic system was not part of a process, the SAR argued. Rather, American democracy had been built and perfected in comparison to rival governments.

Through the Mississippi Patriotic Education Committee, Cain called upon other conservatives guard against the historical knowledge contained in schoolbooks. He wrote to the state regent of the Mississippi DAR—Edna Whitfield Alexander, asking for collaboration between their two organizations “for the common cause of defending America” from textbook authors who espoused “alien ideologies.”

For the next twenty years, Alexander became the South’s preeminent textbook activist. She developed her organizational skills through the Mississippi DAR, which held significant power in the 1950s and 1960s. Many DAR members’ husbands served in state government or were the state’s business leaders; the DAR owned numerous radio stations throughout Mississippi. A segregationist society like other civic clubs, its members naturally opposed perceived egalitarian messages in textbook treatments of history, civics, and economics. History was the DAR’s domain and it held what they believed was magnificent power to order present-day society.

Gaining the attention of Mississippi’s leaders, especially Mississippi House Speaker Walter Sillers, Jr, by 1958, Alexander and DAR activists officially recorded their objection to the content in dozens of state-approved books.

The following are just a few examples:

“Laconic treatment of the South…did not mention Fielding Wright as Vice-Presidential nominee of the States Right party…praises Federal aid to education…Booker T. Washington picture is much later than Thomas Jefferson [sic]” –review of United States History, American Book Company, 1955 reprint.

“This slanted-against-the-South book makes no mention of the fact that Russia offered to help the North [during the American Civil War]” –review of The Making of Modern America, Houghton-Mifflin, 1953.

“…records a good bit of history—some of which we are not too proud, and conspicuously omits some of which we are very proud like religious freedom!” –review of Your Country and the World, Ginn & Company, 1955.

“…advocates creation of a state of social equality…” –review of Economic Problems of Today, Lyons and Carnahan, 1955.

“Formerly history was largely concerned with kings, monarchies, laws, diplomacy, and wars…Today history deals with the entire life of a people. So now were are told that history must change along with this changing world and George Washington, Valley Forge, and the U.S. Constitution are no longer worthy of recognition to be ignored so far as our children’s history books are concerned.” – wrote a DAR reviewer of The Record of Mankind, published by D. C. Heath, 1952.

The DAR, in addition, opposed books citing renowned scholars such as Henry Steele Commager, Charles Beard, Allen Nevins, Gunnar Myrdal, Arthur Schlesinger, John Hersey, in addition to Mississippi writers like Hodding Carter, Ida B. Wells, and William Faulkner.

These comments sent to Sillers demonstrate the DAR’s view of History.  In the DAR vision, History should be dominated by pro-South, segregationist, and patriotic biases. The reason for teaching history in the Cold War context, the DAR and others agreed, was to instill in school children loyalty to state and country.

The DAR, under Alexander’s leadership, began a concerted lobbying effort. In 1959, Alexander informed the Mississippi Superintendent of Education and head of the State Textbook Purchasing Board, Jackson McWhirter “Jack” Tubb, that “youth must be taught Americanism in its purest form if this Republic is to survive.”

The American Legion and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation became important DAR allies. These civic clubs conducted official studies of Mississippi’s approved books and found that many “cater to alien ideologies contrary to the Mississippi way of life.” Boswell Stevens, a Legionnaire and president of the state’s Farm Bureau, believed social studies curricula should cultivate among students adoration of quintessential American values like Jeffersonian individualism, capitalism, and patriotism.

During state elections in 1959, the lobbyist coalition collaborated by staging exhibits of objectionable texts in the lobby of the Robert E. Lee hotel in Jackson. After Sillers intervened the DAR moved the exhibit to the lobby of the state capitol in time for the 1960 legislative session.

Lawmaker-members of American Legion and the Farm Bureau dominated the Legislature, passing amendments to state laws pertaining to textbook screening and adoption. The amendment gave the governor, recently elected Ross Barnett, appointment power over the state’s education professionals on these important textbook screening committees.

These conservative victories were not unopposed, however.  Newspapers editorials considered the DAR efforts as a “witch-hunt” and the state’s teachers association believed that textbook reviews were best left to education professionals.

But politics—in this case, staunchly conservative politics—trumped the claims of journalists and teachers.  Conservative activists also managed to stymie complaints from academic historians. In 1975, for example, James W. Loewen and several co-authors of the history text Mississippi: Conflict and Change had to file a federal lawsuit against Mississippi for adoption of their revolutionary new textbook. Loewen even commented at the time that most of the state-approved books were merely “didactic chronologies.”

Loewen’s lawsuit demonstrated the deeply entrenched nature of conservative visions of History in Mississippi.  For decades, conservative activists had succeeded in establishing state sanction for their vision of History: a static, unchanging field of facts, uniquely useful for promoting patriotism and instilling a love for traditional Americanism.

 

Kevin Boland Johnson is a doctoral candidate in American history at Mississippi State University and a dissertation fellow with the Spencer Foundation. His dissertation, “The Guardians of Historical Knowledge: Textbook Politics, Conservative Activism, and School Reform in Mississippi, 1928-1988,” explores numerous education reform efforts designed either to constrain or improve public school social studies curricula. You can reach Kevin at kbj41@msstate.edu.