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?

Conservatives Win US History Fight . . . Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Experts Can Beat Up Your Experts

None of us knows what we’re talking about. That is the problem driving much of our culture-war animus. We can’t possibly understand all the nuances of every field of study, so we rely on networks of competing experts and authority figures to tell us what to believe. I do it, you do it . . . we all do it.

This week, we’ve seen it again with the topic of teaching American history. A coalition of conservative scholars and activists has signed an open letter attacking the new framework of Advanced Placement US History guidelines. They hope to use their collective clout to prove that the “experts” are not all on one side of this debate.

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, these new history guidelines have proven intensely controversial. Conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma have proposed nixing the new standards for Sooner schoolchildren. Conservative pundits have blasted the framework as biased and warped. Professional organizations such as the National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have fought back, insisting that the new framework is exactly the sort of thing we need in America’s history classrooms.

And, as I argue in my new book, these battles over the nature of American history have a long history themselves. In the 1930s, conservatives successfully blocked a popular series of textbooks that they felt told a slanted, anti-American vision of the nation’s past. More recently, the attempt in the 1990s to write a set of national history standards was sunk when conservatives made similar complaints.

In those battles as in this one, culture-war combatants have hoped to win their case by compiling intimidating lists of experts who back their respective positions. This week’s letter includes a mix of signatories. Some of them really are leading academic historians, such as George Marsden and Joseph Kett. And they take their inspiration from a recent diatribe by renowned historian Gordon Wood. Other signers are not historians, but conservative scholars who disagree with the general drift of mainstream academic life, folks such as Robert George and Patrick Deneen. Yet another category of signer is that of activist conservative historians, a rare breed including folks such as Ronald Radosh and Victor Davis Hanson. Plus, there are political signatories such as Lynne Cheney.

The letter complains that the new APUSH framework pushes an “arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history.” The new framework, the letter argues,

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

As a professional academic historian, I’m certainly not neutral in this fight. My sympathies lie with the new framework. Don’t get me wrong: I admit that these conservative charges are not without merit. Academic historians really have isolated themselves over the past forty years. Americans love history, but they find academic history simply beside the point. Academic historians have tended to obsess over issues that only other academics care about, leaving high-schoolers and regular folks to learn their history from journalists and from Hollywood. But that has always been the case with scholarly work and it does not mean that the big lessons of the past forty years should not be taught to high-schoolers.

More important here, though, is the way culture-war issues are often addressed by letters like this one. Because none of us can understand the nuances of every issue, because none of us really understands what all the fuss is about, we rely on networks of competing authorities to give us our culture-war positions.

In the creation/evolution battles, for instance, we’ve seen this time and time again. Nearly every pro-evolution argument these days starts with some statement that mainstream scientists all agree on the fact of evolution. Activist organizations such as the National Center for Science Education compile bulletproof lists of all the scientists who agree that evolution occurs via natural selection. It has always been this way. In the 1968 US Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the National Science Teachers Association submitted a statement signed by 179 leading scientists. Evolution, the signatories told the court, had become a “fundamental scientific principle” supported by all “scientists and other reasonable persons.”

Creationists, of course, have always compiled similar lists of experts. As I noted in my first book, sometimes such lists took over the whole argument. For instance, T.T. Martin’s 1923 book, Hell and the High Schools, was a slim 175 pages. Of those pages, a full 67 were nothing but lists of anti-evolution scientists and experts.

For those few true experts such as Ronald Numbers or Glenn Branch, it is possible to wade through these lists of names to tease out the scientific street cred of each person. For most readers, though, the lists of experts serve only to prove the reliability of writers’ claims.

In every culture-war field, we rely on experts we trust to tell us what to believe. And then we believe it, whether or not we really know what we’re talking about. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It doesn’t mean we’re ignorant. As Dan Kahan argues so convincingly, our beliefs about evolution tells us about who we are, not about what we know.

What are we to believe about the new Advanced Placement US History standards? Are they the best wisdom of historians, vetted by true experts in the field and reflecting the latest developments of academic knowledge? Or are they the puerile croaking of a self-satisfied and out-of-touch ivory-tower elite, bent on promoting ideology over true knowledge?

The answer, of course, depends on which group of experts you prefer.