When Did Conservatives Get so Angry at Higher Ed?

When I saw the headline, my nerd spidey-sense tingled. I was excited to read about the history of conservative anti-college feelings. But when I read the whole article, I was struck once again by the half-baked nature of the claim. Once again, a smart, well-informed pundit who claims to be examining culture-war history stops half-way. When will we start looking beyond the 1960s?

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An earlier generation also worried…

Here’s the dilemma: at The Atlantic, Jason Blakely recently promised to explain the history of recent GOP ire against higher education. Looking at the current proposed tax plan, for example, it seems as if some members of Congress are out to punish elite universities.

Blakely argues that this conservative resentment of higher education has historical roots. In his analysis, he makes some vital points. Most powerfully, he notices that conservatives seem to mistake a very small segment of higher education for the higher-educational landscape as a whole. As he wisely puts it,

conservative anxiety is best expressed as being about a small set of marquee positions of honor and prestige in the liberal arts that happen to be largely staffed at present by those whose political commitments lean left.

That’s a vital point that is too often ignored. “College” as a whole is not particularly leftish…or even particularly anything. The crazy-quilt patchwork of colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions is wildly disparate. It is an absolutely vital notion that people just don’t seem to want to notice. Kudos to Blakely for emphasizing it. But when he proposes to analyze the history of this conservative anger toward elite universities, he puzzlingly only scratches the historical surface. After a nod to the “deep and complex historical roots” of anti-intellectualism in American culture, he argues that

the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s.

He looks at the work of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom regarding “what they saw as the moral laxity and corrosiveness of the 1960s counterculture.”

Fair enough. And interesting, as far as it goes. But what Blakely and other writers miss is the longer relevant history of this specific trend in culture-war thinking.

As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, if we hope to make any sense of today’s conservative anger at elite higher ed, we can’t start with the 1970s. We need to begin in the 1920s, when conservative intellectuals had their first experience of exile, when the tropes exploited so powerfully by Kristol and Bloom were first developed.

It was not in the 1970s, but in the 1920s that conservatives developed their deep abiding anxiety about trends in elite higher education. Consider a couple of examples.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When we talk about our culture-war history, we can’t short out these voices from the 1920s and the 1930s.

Why not? If you are purporting to explain the history of an idea, you can’t only focus on the most recent articulation. It implies that these questions began to rankle only in the past fifty years, instead of slow-cooking for about a century now. The radicalism of the 1960s, and the reaction of the 1970s, were not new. They did not create new terms of culture-war angst, but rather only perpetuated existing themes.

This is not only a nerdy quibble but a fundamental part of culture-war politics. Think of it this way: When Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom made their arguments in the 1970s—the ones Blakely thinks inaugurated conservative anger at elite universities—they did not need to convince their conservative audiences of their central point. Conservatives had a vague but powerful sense that elite intellectual institutions had long since turned against truth, goodness, and beauty. Convincing someone of something they already believe to be true is a much easier task.

I don’t mean to single Blakely out. He’s not the only writer to woefully misrepresent America’s culture-war history. Plus, I’m not saying that historians can’t cut off their arguments at some reasonable point. We don’t all need to always write about everything. I get that. In a case like this, however, ignoring the vital and intensely relevant precursors to the 1970s history is not okay. We end up with a misleading notion of the genealogy of conservative outrage. We end up thinking we understand something we haven’t really even begun to understand.

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Why Is It So Hard for Us to Teach Civics?

We should be freaking out. It’s not just that Americans don’t know about basic democratic principles. In increasing numbers, we don’t seem to care. Pundits lately have hoped we might be in a rock-bottom crisis of civics education, a “Sputnik moment” that drives Americans to re-invest in basic education in democratic ideas. We’re not. Our civics stand-off is even more hopelessly rancorous than our never-ending fights about creation and evolution.

Last year, Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey hoped that the ugly, bizarre emanations from Trump’s White House might scare America straight when it came to civics education. It wasn’t only Trumpism that alarmed them. The numbers seemed truly shocking and getting worse. As they explained,

Civics literacy levels are dismal. In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. . . . Far worse, declining proportions say that free elections are important in a democratic society.

When asked in the World Values Survey in 2011 whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, about 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from about 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase from about 16 percent from a decade and a half earlier. Some 26 percent of millennials said it is “unimportant” that in a democracy people should “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among U.S. citizens of all ages, the proportion who said it would be “fairly good” or “very good” for the “army to rule,” has risen from one in 16 in 1995, to one in six today. Likewise, a June 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that a majority of Americans showed authoritarian (as opposed to autonomous) leanings. Moreover, fully 49 percent of Americans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

More recently, Robert Pondiscio and Andrew Tripodo offered a few specific suggestions about how teachers can “seiz[e] the moment to improve civics education.”

I share their concern and Pondiscio and Tripodo offer some smart concrete steps to start making improvements. As all these authors are surely aware, though, civics education faces an impossible challenge.

Consider the Sputnik analogy: Back in 1957, Americans were rightly dismayed that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in space technology. Among the many results was a new burst of funding for new science textbooks, books that no longer truckled to the political power of creationists. The BSCS series included robust information about evolution, and by the end of the 1960s those books were being widely used in American classrooms. (If you’re looking for a quick guide to this history, check out Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.)

We aren’t facing a similar situation when it comes to our shoddy civics education.

Why not? Much as creationists might not like it, by 1957 the mainstream scientific community had reached a powerful consensus about the basic outline and importance of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. There is no similar mainstream establishment that can satisfactorily define the proper aims of civics education.

Consider the example I included in my book about educational conservatism. Back in the late 1930s, a set of widely used social-studies textbooks became intensely controversial.  Harold Rugg’s books had been used by millions of students, but in just a few short years they were mostly all yanked from classroom use.

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Watch out: Your school might be teaching civics…

The problem was that Rugg was pushing his vision of civics education. It was a vision that conservatives such as the founder of Forbes Magazine and leaders of the American Legion found subversive.

What did it mean in the World War II years to educate citizens? Harold Rugg thought it meant teaching them the dangers of authoritarianism. He thought it meant teaching them that the United States was one country among many, and that citizens needed to be rigorously skeptical of big business and back-room government deals.

Conservatives thought it meant teaching students to honor and cherish the best American traditions. They wanted children in school to learn to be proud Americans, not weak-kneed socialists. Bertie Forbes explained his beef in one of his popular syndicated columns. He was chatting one day with a group of middle-school students, Forbes related, and they told him about their experience with their Rugg books. When their teacher asked them if the United States was the best country in the world, many of them had answered “Yes.” The correct answer, their teacher read from their Rugg teachers guide, was “No.” In his column, Forbes teed off on that sort of civics education:

Do American parents want their children taught such ideas?  Do they want them to be inculcated with the idea that the United States is a second-rate country, that its form of government is open to question, that there are other countries more happily circumstanced and governed than ours?

Maybe I’m getting too cynical in my old age, but I don’t think we have evolved very far from this 1940s level. When it comes to civics education, we face a stark and glaring divide about the fundamental purposes of such a class. Are students getting a good civics education if they learn how to properly, reverently, fold a flag? Are they getting a good civics education if they can rattle off the correct structure of federal government? Or are they getting a good civics education when they learn how to stage a Black Lives Matter protest?

We can’t agree. And until we can, we will continue to have shameful outcomes in our attempts to teach civics in public schools.

The Headline You’ll Never Read

Cereal gets stale after about two weeks. Cheese can last a while. Milk goes bad much quicker. But conservatives never seem to tire of hysterical warnings about left-wing takeovers of public schools. Your humble editor experienced a dizzying bout of déjà vu this morning reading Newt Gingrich’s furious warning about the influence of “radical, left-wing” teachers. I had to check my watch and even my calendar to make sure what year it was. It serves as another reminder: When it comes to culture-war rants about public education, there is one headline that we’ll never see.

breaking-news

The headlines we’ll never see…

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why conservative activists like Gingrich want people to think left-wingers are taking over public schools. No conservative parent is likely to open her wallet for a politician who tells her there’s nothing much to worry about. So Gingrich tries to build back his political clout by warning FoxNews readers about a “thinly veiled attempt to instill radical, left-wing political views in impressionable children.”

Gingrich is reacting to an obscure story out of Minnesota, dug up by conservative muckrakers. In Edina, Minnesota (population 51,350), the school board is apparently implementing a new inclusivity curriculum. Students will read books such as A Is for Activism. [SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the title from earlier fuss-and-feathers controversies about it.] As Gingrich fumes, “This is pure, unapologetic political indoctrination of American youth.”

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Gingrich is reading word-for-word from an old conservative playbook. In the 1930s, for example, conservative activists went haywire over a textbook series by progressive-ish scholar Harold Rugg. Back then, leaders of the American Legion foamed and fumed that Rugg’s educational scheme “encourages the totalitarian borers-from-within who would destroy our democracy.”

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Boring…boring…boring…(c. 1941)

There’s no doubt that Harold Rugg really did hope to push American school and society to the political left. And I’m guessing some of the teachers in Edina feel the same way. But the notion that teachers and education professors are able to sneakily install a mind-warping left-wing curriculum in American public schools is simply ludicrous. Even if we wanted to—and again, I admit that some teachers and ed-school professors really do want to—such conspiracy theories miss a central truth about American education.

And that fundamental truth about schools and schooling generates the headlines you’ll never see. By and large, when conservatives want to rile up their base, they need to dig pretty hard to find teachers and districts that veer very hard to the political left. By and large, most schools are fairly traditional places, focusing on non-controversial tasks such as preparing students for jobs or college. Teachers, by and large, tend to avoid controversy.gallup people like their local schools

And that, perhaps, is what makes Gingrich’s job so hard. We know that most people—whatever their political affiliation—are happy with their local public schools. When Americans actually send their kids to a public school, they tend to be very happy with that school, even if they are pessimistic about the state of public education as a whole.

For Gingrich to get any attention, he has to pick out unusual examples of school districts far away that are doing something fairly unusual. Why? Because most of Gingrich’s audience is actually HAPPY with their local schools. Those schools don’t dabble in anything even remotely controversial. If a local community is Gingrich territory, the schools will be, too

Why Don’t Conservatives Like to Win?

You’ve heard the news by now: The College Board revised its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course.  Recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger crowed that this reversal proved that conservatives could influence national education policy.  Unfortunately, Henninger makes the same mistake as every other pundit out there.  He seems to think that conservatives at some point in the past lost their influence over national education policy.  It just ain’t so.

Franklin's In, "neo-Marxism's" out.

Franklin’s in, “neo-Marxism’s” out.

For those of you who were napping, a quick reminder: Under pressure—significant pressure—from conservative thinkers and lawmakers, the College Board agreed to revise these standards for its AP US History course.  Conservative thinkers had complained that the old framework put too much emphasis on

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 ideas and political institutions. . .

Henninger argues that, with the conservative revision, the new framework is “about as balanced as one could hope for.”  More interesting for our purposes, he argues that this conservative victory is “an important political event.”  He thinks it “marks an important turn in the American culture wars. . . .”  To Henninger, this conservative victory is a new thing, a change in the ways American culture and politics work.  Until now, Henninger intones, conservative ideas about proper education were

being rolled completely off the table by institutions—‘Washington,’ the courts, a College Board—over which [conservatives] had no apparent control.

Until now, Henninger tells us, conservatives had not been able to influence national education policy.  Only “neo-Marxist” experts decided on what vulnerable young minds would learn.

Balderdash.

Perhaps Henninger’s problem is his limited range.  To be fair, he only says that this has been the case since 1992.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, America’s educational culture wars have a vital history that stretches back across the twentieth century.  Henninger ignores it at his peril.

As I argue and detail in my recent book, since the 1920s conservative activists have been able, time and time again, to derail, defang, and water down progressive curricula and textbooks.

But here’s the real kicker: We can’t really single out Henninger for short-sightedness.  For almost a century now, both progressive and conservative intellectuals and activists have assumed that conservatives had been kicked out of the conversation.

You read that right.  Ever since the 1920s, conservative and progressive reformers alike have committed the same sort of Henningerism.  They have assumed in the face of historical fact that “The Schools” had been taken over by progressive ideas and curricula.

To cite just one example of this trend, consider the case of progressive textbook impresario Harold Rugg.  Rugg was a progressive’s progressive, committed to pushing the nation in leftist directions by seizing control of its public schools.

In the 1930s, it looked as if he had succeeded.  Millions of schoolchildren read his tendentious textbooks.  At the end of the decade, however, conservative activists in the American Legion and elsewhere organized to block such progressive “subversion.”

They succeeded.  Just like today’s College Board, school administrators and textbook publishers in the 1930s fled in horror from the potential controversy over Rugg’s books.  Sales plummeted.  Schools hid them away.  School boards thought about burning them.

Seems like any right-thinking observer would conclude that conservative activists could exert significant control over the national curriculum, right?

In fact, Rugg himself concluded that the progressives had won, that a shiny progressive victory was just around the next corner.  As he wrote in his 1941 memoir, progressive schooling

has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools.

You might think that conservative activists would dispute Rugg’s rosy left-wing prediction.  But they didn’t.  Instead, conservatives at the time performed their own odd Henningerisms.  One of the leaders of the anti-Rugg fight, Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America, warned a friend that left-wing educational thinking had taken over schools years before, all part of a “deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.”

We could multiply these examples of Henningerism endlessly.  Time and time again, long before 1992, conservatives have concluded incorrectly that they had been kicked out of the schools.  And progressives gleefully agreed.

It brings us to our interesting question: Why do conservatives and progressives agree—in the face of vast reams of historical evidence to the contrary—that conservatives are have been locked out of national education policy-making?

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: AL Take Manhattan

What do conservative activists want out of education?  Like progressive thinkers, most conservatives have historically hoped for more than just classroom solutions to educational problems.  Like progressives, the conservatives I’ve studied have imagined “education” as a broad-ranging, all-encompassing process for young people.

Coming soon...

Coming soon…

As I clean up my files for my upcoming book, I’ve rediscovered lots of archival documents and images that I couldn’t include.  Today, I’d like to share some of the material from the American Legion’s educational activism in the 1930s.  Like other conservatives, the leaders of the AL argued for an educational policy that encompassed far more than school reform.  Activists in the AL wanted to provide a wholesome intellectual and social atmosphere for young people in order to save them from the clutches of subversives, progressives, and anti-Americans.

American Legion activists in the 1930s thought that education could provide a wholesome moral defense against socialist and communist subversion.  Time after time, AL leaders exhorted local posts to engage in a range of activities to provide wholesome and patriotic activities for young people.  This included classroom work, but also ranged far beyond.

As the AL’s Americanism Handbook put it in 1930,

While the communist organizes his young pioneers, his youth movement in colleges, and so forth, let us do some organizing.  Let us organize Boy Scout troops, ROTC units and boys’ baseball teams, if you please.  Let us win and hold the confidence of our boys through such work.  While the communist scatters literature among the youth of the land to teach it disrespect for parental authority, let us preach the doctrine of love of parents and love of home.  While the communist ridicules the ethics of religion, let us teach its beauty and comfort and hope.  While the communist preaches its cowardly philosophy of dissipating the fruits of labor and capital, let us strive to inculcate the manly principles of energy, ambition and thrift in the hearts of our people.  While the communist, in the guise of the professional pacifist, spreads his doctrine to palsy the arm of our national defense, let us keep our people informed on matters pertaining to the need and necessity of national defense.

From a 1941 AL pamphlet

From a 1941 AL pamphlet. The original appeared in a Hearst publication.

The most active educational leader in the Legion during the 1930s was the AL’s Director of the National Americanism Commission, Homer Chaillaux.  In a suggested speech Chaillaux sent out to AL leaders around the country, he spelled out the AL’s broad educational philosophy.

First of all, the AL worked to fight subversion in the classroom.  As Chaillaux put it,

It is a well known fact that un-American groups, radical pacifists, communists and others operating under more or less misleading nom de plumes, are using the schoolrooms throughout the nation for the dissemination of their poisonous propaganda.  Therefore, we believe that it is only right and proper that organizations interested and engaged in the promotion of Americanism should be permitted to go into the classrooms with activities designed to build up a greater love and appreciation for the sacrifices made by our forefathers and for our form of government, and for the things which have made possible the growth of our nation.

But this was not only a schoolroom campaign.  Chaillaux described the wide-ranging activities carried on by the AL: ROTC programs, Boy Scouts, baseball leagues and other sports leagues, oratorical contests, essay contests, and Sons of the American Legion clubs.  In all its “Youth Activities,” Chaillaux explained, “the Legion seeks to coordinate the mind and the muscle through a group of activities designed to build physical and mental alertness.”

Chaillaux asked,

Does the Junior Baseball program aid in any way in counteracting communism and other un-American activities?  That question has been asked a number of times.  And the best answer, I believe, is found in a clipping taken from the “Gazette,” Gastonia, North Carolina, under date of July 31, 1934.  We quote the clipping herewith:

‘We in Gaston County know from four or five years experience what a valuable and beneficial movement this baseball program has been.  It had its beginning in Gaston County in the summer of 1929, the summer that the communist uprising had put Gaston County so unfavorably before the public.  Seeds of unrest and bitter partisanship had been planted here that spring by the agitators from the slums of New York and the classic halls of certain New York universities.  We had just gone through the sickening and humiliating trial of the gangsters accused of killing the chief of police here: The county was torn to pieces.

‘Along came this Junior Baseball, enlisted the boys from the textile settlement of the county and there began a movement which has been of the most wholesome influence in the county.  It has been the best insurance against a recurrence of similar troubles in the county.  These boys are learning how to be square and clean shooters, fair and above board in their play and in their dealings with each other and with their superiors.  From the Legionnaires who are sponsoring the movement, they are learning principles of Americanism that they will never learn from books.’

Local posts embraced these efforts.  And though it may seem heavy-handed and dictatorial, it seems as if many young people really did enjoy these subversion-fighting activities.  During my research, I spent some time in the files of one Joseph Hrdlick, an active member of an AL post in Milwaukee.  Lucky for me, Hrdlick kept copies of some of the youth activities in which his post engaged.  In Hrdlick’s papers, we find examples of a magazine the local Sons of the American Legion post produced during the 1930s.  We also see mementoes from activities such as the SOTAL marching band.  In this case, the Milwaukee boys marched all the way to New York City, a town not often revered among anti-communist activists.

It’s always hard to distill how the average person felt about these activities, but at least Mr. Hrdlick seemed sincere and enthusiastic in his efforts to help his young SOTAL minions.

If they can make it there...

If they can make it there…

A SOTAL newsletter

A SOTAL newsletter

 

A SOTAL newsletter

…another newsletter cover

Other AL archives from the 1930s contain similar gems.  In the Historical Society Archive in Madison, a hundred miles or so west of the Milwaukee collection, I found some examples of student work in AL-sponsored essay contests from the 1930s.

One winner from 1939, in her essay “What America Means to Me,” wrote these stirring words,

Just to look upon the map of America gives me a thrill! . . . America is a free country.  It is a haven for political refugees who could not find the freedom they desired in their homeland. . . . America is a land of opportunity, and yet—as there are in every country—there are those who will criticize and tear down our ideals and laws.  Their’s [sic] is a destructive criticism; hindering, instead of helping, our lawmakers.

This rhetoric sounds like precisely the sort of anti-subversive, patriotic, engaged attitude that the AL hoped to sponsor in young people nationwide.  Again and again, AL activists worked to reform the education of America’s youth.  They looked hard at classrooms, textbooks, and teachers.  But they didn’t stop there.  Like all sorts of educational reformers, these conservative activists worried about the end product of education.  Of course, they weren’t the only ones.  As I argue in my upcoming book, this sort of conservative activism formed a complex tradition throughout the twentieth century.

But in every case–whether it was the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Pro America, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, or any of the dozens of local groups and individuals that campaigned for more conservative education in the twentieth century–the archives included far more fascinating tidbits than I could include in the three hundred pages I had to work with.

As I keep cleaning up my files, I’ll post other archival gems that didn’t make the final cut…

Creationists Love Angry Science Teachers

Why would America’s leading young-earth creation ministry go to the National Education Association convention?  After all, Answers In Genesis castigates the NEA for its “godless, liberal agenda.”  AIG frets that the NEA combats conservatives’ right to homeschool their children and to teach godly creationism.

But that anti-God bias is exactly why the creationists go every year.  Answers In Genesis tries to engage NEA attendees with the gospel of creationism.  The creationist outreach at the NEA convention hopes to explain the goals of creationists and melt the hard hearts of some secular teachers.

The folks at AIG are not the first conservatives to try such tactics.  For generations now, the National Education Association has been perceived by conservative education activists as the enemy.  The NEA is seen as promoting secularism and a wrong-headed moral relativism.  As conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler argued in the 1970s, the NEA had always tried to get public schools to teach that “there was no absolute transcendental God, Bible, or system of beliefs.”

And even long before the Gablers, conservatives tried to maintain their influence with the NEA.  As I note in my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, the patriotic school activists in the American Legion pioneered this approach.  For the stalwart conservatives in the American Legion, the NEA offered the best way to influence American public education.  Therefore, they held their noses and collaborated on American Education Week.  Starting in 1921, the Legion and the NEA encouraged schools nationwide to focus on a certain theme for a week.  They tried to get everyone in every community engaged with their public schools.  For the conservative leaders of the American Legion, this was a way to promote patriotism and religion in public schools.  For the leaders of the NEA, this seemed like a good way to direct the public’s attention toward its schools.

For conservatives, then, the NEA has long been a target.  Generations of conservatives have hoped to influence the NEA with conservative educational ideas.  Does it work?  The conservative creationists at AIG seem to think so.  One missionary to the NEA relates the story of “Tom,” a hostile secular science teacher.  After spending time with the creationists at the NEA convention, Tom was able to understand more about the wholesome gospel mission of the creationists.  Walls were broken down, hearts were touched.

 

From the Archives: Saving Hearts and Minds in the 1930s and 1940s

What do we need to do to educate young people? Conservative activists, just like their progressive or leftist opponents, have long recognized that education goes far beyond school. Doing archival research for my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I found abundant evidence of conservative activism that ranged far beyond the classroom walls. Unfortunately, due to space considerations, much of that material did not make it into the final book draft.

Today, I’d like to share some of the gems from the conservative patriotic activism of the American Legion, things I couldn’t fit in the book. Throughout its long existence, the AL has made education one of its primary concerns. Only if young people learned to love America, generations of AL activists have argued, would the nation remain strong. As this 1941 cartoon makes clear, some Legion members believed education was the “unguarded gate” through which un-American and anti-American sentiments could sneak into America’s body politic.

"The Unguarded Gate," from a 1941 magazine.

“The Unguarded Gate,” from a 1941 magazine.

Other Legion activists emphasized the need to fill children’s minds, souls, and schedules. Only by matching the energetic activism of communist subversives, some Legion voices claimed, could patriotic education match anti-patriotic. As national AL leader Homer Chaillaux warned in 1934, the Legion must provide a full menu of educational opportunities for young people, including baseball leagues, military training, Boy Scout groups, citizenship classes, and school awards. “The average citizen,” Chaillaux warned,

has either never heard of or knows nothing of the background of the Young Pioneers (a youth Communist group), the International Economic Conference of Students (a radical and pacifist student group), the Industrial Unions (at least 42 Communist Unions), the National Students’ League, the Trade Union Unity League, the American Civil Liberties Union (supposedly an organization standing for free speech, but we find them rising in defense of every Communist when in trouble), and numerous others traveling under camouflaged nom de plumes.

With this sort of foe, the American Legion wanted to be sure young people had patriotic, traditionalist American alternatives. Across the nation, local posts organized a wide array of youth activities.  I found these relics of such organizing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As did posts around the nation, Legion adults set up youth chapters of the Sons of the American Legion, as well as marching bands, baseball leagues, essay contests, and a host of other activities meant to educate boys and girls into a firmly patriotic, socially conservative anti-communism.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

As one Legion writer put it in 1930, these efforts must range far beyond just exhortation. They must envelop young people into a profound spiritual web of learning and becoming. In this writer’s words:

While the communist organizes his young pioneers, his youth movement in colleges, and so forth, let us do some organizing. Let us organize Boy Scout troops, ROTC units and boys’ baseball teams, if you please. Let us win and hold the confidence of our boys through such work. While the communist scatters literature among the youth of the land to teach it disrespect for parental authority, let us preach the doctrine of love of parents and love of home. While the communist ridicules the ethics of religion, let us teach its beauty and comfort and hope. While the communist preaches its cowardly philosophy of dissipating the fruits of labor and capital, let us strive to inculcate the manly principles of energy, ambition and thrift in the hearts of our people. While the communist, in the guise of the professional pacifist, spreads his doctrine to palsy the arm of our national defense, let us keep our people informed on matters pertaining to the need and necessity of national defense. … While the communist gathers up boys and girls and sends them to colleges and universities of his own endowment for the purpose of making teachers of communism and atheism out of them, let us make opportunity for patriotic and religious education more universal, in order that the schools and pulpits of tomorrow will be filled with right-thinking men and women.

 

 

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?