Conservatives Shoot for College, but Hit Students

It’s not worth getting mad about, but it gets me mad anyway. We’re accustomed to seeing conservative pundits spouting off about how terrible college is these days. This week, Victor Davis Hanson takes this college-bashing tradition in a sad new direction in the pages of National Review. Instead of just bashing “college,” Hanson turns his spite on college students themselves.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservatives have long been anxious about the moral state of American higher education. As I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, we have heard these worries for almost a full century.

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.

Darrow and Bryan at Scopes

Attacking science and college…

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced 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.

I’m especially sorry to see Hanson join this reactionary tradition because I really like some of his books, especially Wars of the Ancient Greeks. And I’m double sorry to see Hanson take this tradition in a mean-spirited direction. Not only are universities themselves moral cesspools, Hanson warns, but students have ingested enough of the amorality that they themselves have become carriers of the moral infection. As Hanson writes,

The therapeutic mindset preps the student to consider himself a victim of cosmic forces, past and present, despite belonging to the richest, most leisured, and most technologically advanced generation in history. . . . Today’s students often combine the worst traits of bullying and cowardice. . . . The 19-year-old student is suddenly sexually mature, a Bohemian, a cosmopolitês when appetites call — only to revert to Victorian prudery and furor upon discovering that callousness, hurt, and rejection are tragically integral to crude promiscuity and sexual congress without love.

…really? I can’t help but wonder where Hanson is getting his information. There probably some college students out there who embody Hanson’s calumnies. But among the students I work with, the vast majority are hard-working, earnest, thoughtful, open to ambiguity and contradiction, and often self-sacrificing.

It’s one thing to bemoan the intellectual trends that are dominating elite universities. But I wish the conservative college Cassandras would leave the students out of it. As anyone who works with college students knows, they don’t deserve this sort of abuse.

Time for Conservatives to Panic?

Beware! The nation’s schools have become cesspools of [select one] batty progressivism/subversive socialism/right-wing indoctrination/etc. etc. etc. For a hundred years now, activists have seized on stories from unusual schools and pretended that they represent the “new trend in education.” In the latest go-round of this culture-war tradition, conservatives have gleefully assumed that one odd Brooklyn school has proved them right.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

Here’s the latest: You probably saw George Packer’s piece in the Atlantic about the dizzying dance of progressivism gone wild at his kid’s school. Packer is a well-to-do New Yorker describing his adventures in securing the best education for his kids. He frets about the loss of a meritocratic idea in schools—to Packer, rich people like himself seem too safe behind the expensive walls of their educational castles.

Worse than that, Packer concludes, a venomous “new progressivism” has warped America’s public schools. At his kid’s school, for example, rigid left-wing identity politics has perverted the entire purpose of education. State tests were to be skipped. Bathrooms were to be gender-neutral. Students were to learn the glories of every other civilization besides American. Child-centered classroom methods had become totalitarian fear-mongering. In the end, Packer concludes,

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

Almost before the ink was dry—and it was a lot of ink—conservative pundits seized on Packer’s piece as proof of the deadly realities of modern public education. Peggy Noonan called it an “important piece.” Niall Ferguson called it a “brilliant essay” that “gets right to the heart of the degeneration of American education.” Rod Dreher told his readers that they “have to read this” description of the “progressive dystopia of NYC schools.”

noonan on packer tweet

I’m sure there are conservative intellectuals out there who didn’t fall for this obvious fallacy, but plenty of them did. What’s the problem? As Chalkbeat noted, Packer’s conclusions based on one school might or might not be fair, but they don’t represent anything beyond one person’s unique experience. As CB put it,

close observers of the city’s schools have struggled to recognize the school system Packer is describing. . . . the school is by no means typical in New York City.

It has ever been thus. Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in my book about the history of educational conservatism, activists have seized on unusual, possibly fake examples and assumed that they represent a horrifying new reality of American public education. Over and over again, conservative activists took apocryphal stories from alleged schools and used them to warn one another of the terrible trends that had taken over American education.

In the 1930s, for example, Forbes Magazine founder Bertie Forbes heard from local middle-schoolers that their teacher had denied that America was the most awesome nation on earth. Forbes’s response? He launched a national crusade to purge schools of this terrible subversive rot.

In the 1960s, Texas activists Mel and Norma Gabler were shocked by the contents of their son’s textbook. Their conclusion? According to a sympathetic biographer,

The Gablers . . . began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.  They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise.  Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

That’s a lot to learn from one student’s homework assignment one night in 1961!

Or, to consider one last example, what about the experience of Alice Moore in Kanawha County, West Virginia? Ms. Moore ran for school board in the 1970s, and her first move was to visit a local progressive middle school. The school had been conceived as a different sort of school, with one big open learning space, student freedom to pursue independent projects, and teachers who consulted with students instead of dictating to them.

SH Gablers

They’re teaching our children what we ask them to teach…

As Ms. Moore told me many years later, the school became a nightmare. Students weren’t learning. Well, they weren’t learning in class. They were learning how to be rude to adults, how to smoke, and how have sex in nearby barns. What was Ms. Moore’s conclusion? That the school was typical of the problems of American education at the time. It was representative of progressive schools all over the country.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Yes, there have long been experiments with progressive pedagogy and progressive politics in American public education. But they have never really represented the “new” force that conservatives in every generation keep warning about.

In fact, once we venture outside the world of clickbait, we see a much different picture of American public education. Public schools—taken as a group—are remarkably diverse institutions. It’s difficult to say much about public education in general, but there is one thing we know to be true. By and large, public schools in America reflect the communities in which they are located.

Unlike what activists have warned about for generations, there is no scheming outside force taking over public schools. Distant experts are only heard distantly. Instead, public schools tend to reflect the values and the desires of their local communities. And that’s why parents tend to be happy with the schools their kids go to, even if they have learned to be nervous about American public education as a whole.

The poll numbers are clear. In 2010, for example, 77% of parents gave their children’s schools an “A” or a “B,” but only 18% of parents said that about the nation’s schools as a whole. Why? Because unlike George Packer, most parents are in general agreement with the goings-on at their kids’ schools. And unlike the chicken-little hysteria of some conservative commentators, most Americans know that real schools are different from the ones that commentators imagine.

What Does Rosa Parks Barbie Have to Do with 1619?

So…we now have a Rosa Parks Barbie, apparently. In a way, it seems like a triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, right? But only in a way. Like the conservative backlash against the NYT’s 1619 series, Barbie’s version of history proves once again that there is still an unyielding third rail in America’s public conversations about history.theoharis on barbie

What’s wrong with a Rosa Parks Barbie? One might take it as good news—more progress toward giving children a diverse set of heroes to look up to. As scholars have pointed out, however, the Barbie version of Ms. Parks’ story has been whitewashed. Instead of a devoted Civil Rights activist protesting for decades against racial inequality, Mattel tells children that Parks was only a tired woman who had led an “ordinary life” up until her famous refusal to give up her bus seat.

Why would the toy company want to politely ignore real, established history? It has something to do with the NYT Magazine’s recent 1619 series. That series, about the history of racial slavery in the British Colonies, has sparked a ferocious response among conservative historians and pundits. Perhaps most memorably, Newt Gingrich freaked out about it on Fox News.

As Gingrich declaimed,

The whole project is a lie. Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I think putting slavery in context is important. . . . I think, certainly, if you are an African-American, slavery is at the center of what you see as the American experience. But, for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on. There were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves. The fact is that I saw one reference that The New York Times claims that the American Revolution was caused in part to defend slavery. That is such historically factually false nonsense that it’s embarrassing that The New York Times is doing this.

This leads us to our two big questions. First, why do conservatives—even history experts such as Rep. Gingrich—get so flustered over an extremely uncontroversial position like the one taken in the 1619 project? After all, among historians, the centrality of racial slavery in the founding of the United States is a given. And second, what does any of this have to do with a Rosa Parks Barbie?

My two cents: Over the years, conservatives have been very willing to expand the galaxy of American heroes. In addition to the traditional cluster of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, conservatives have been happy to add new heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Sacagawea, and, yes, Rosa Parks.

The idea that a mild-mannered “ordinary woman” could stand up to injustice fits in nicely with the traditional tale of heroic America. Sure, there have been problems—the story goes—but heroic Americans have always stepped up to solve them. Even the curse of slavery, Gingrich pointed out, was solved by the self-sacrificing heroism of “several hundred thousand white Americans.”

What doesn’t fit in is the real story of Rosa Parks. Parks, a life-long civil-rights activist, learned from radical institutions such as the Highlander Folk School, and campaigned against racism long past the 1950s. That real story raises questions most Americans are not comfortable confronting. For example, what were the connections between civil-rights activism and left-wing politics? Why did Parks feel a need to keep campaigning for racial justice long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Why was the second-class-citizenship she endured so entrenched and durable? What did the Civil Rights Movement leave unsolved?

All those questions point to a fundamental fact about American history that conservatives can’t abide. Instead of a flawed-but-improving land of truth and justice, these questions point to a vision of United States history in which the nation has always been fundamentally formed and guided not by heroism, but by racial (and other) hierarchies.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives have drawn the line when it comes to questioning America’s heroic history itself. Any intimation that the United States has fundamental, formative flaws has always drawn ferocious criticism. Consider, for example, the reaction to a popular textbook series in the 1930s and 40s. Harold Rugg’s textbooks sold by the millions. But when rumors spread that Rugg’s books denigrated America’s unique awesomeness, they crossed a culture-war line.

One conservative critic, Bertie Forbes of Forbes Magazine fame, warned in 1940 that the textbooks guided teachers to criticize the greatness of the United States. When one middle-school teacher was asked by her students if the USA was the greatest country in the world, she looked at her Teacher’s Guide and responded, “No. . . there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, form of government than ours.”

Forbes warning rugg books

Forbes raises a stink, October, 1940

Not a particularly shocking statement, but it lit a fire under conservative Americans at the time. Sometimes literally. Soon, Rugg’s books were yanked from school bookshelves and rumors spread of book burnings in Wisconsin and upstate New York.

When it comes to Barbies and popular histories, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find this third rail still firmly in place. We Americans are happy to add heroes to our list. We are happy to have Rosa Parks Barbies as well as Malibu ones. But as a whole we can’t stand to see the big story of our history challenged. We can’t and won’t tolerate public discussions that imply that there are any serious, fundamental, structural flaws in America’s past.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Why Does America Stink?

It’s those damn teachers. At least, that’s the crusty old complaint revived for the Fourth of July holiday by crusty conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. Whether you’re a flag-waver or a flag-burner, there are two big problems with Krauthammer’s sorts of accusations.

Krauthammer was responding to a Fox News poll that says only a bare majority of Americans are proud of America. And a huge majority think the Founding Fathers would be saddened by the way things are today.

Why the funk?

Krauthammer blames a long march of leftists. “Starting in the Sixties,” he told Tucker Carlson,

the counter-cultural left had a strategy…[they] went into the professions – the teaching professions, and they’ve essentially taken over. That generation of radicals runs the universities, they run the teachers’ unions, they run the curricula.

The left-wing teachers, Krauthammer insisted, had taught defenseless kids “abnormal, anti-American, and destructive” ideas. Since the 1960s, Krauthammer explained, the Left’s long game had undermined American patriotism.

Krauthammer Kommentary

Can you spot the two blunders…?

Let’s put to one side the most obvious problem with Krauthammer’s Fox-usations. The Fox poll found—surprise!—that Democrats tended to be less proud of the current state of the county. Well…duh. Of course a majority of Democrats are not “proud” of the current state of the United States. Of course a lot of Americans are feeling sketchy about the current direction of America’s leadership.

And, to be fair, that is the first place Krauthammer looked. He started by saying that people’s feelings about Trump are the most likely culprit for the poll results. But then he goes on to make two common assumptions that drive teachers and historians bonkers.

First, he inflated the power of schools and teachers. He related a story of his own family’s school. He had to protest, he said, to get his children’s school to teach any European history at all. Left to their own devices, the teachers would have utterly ignored anything European in their fervent quest to teach children about the rest of the world.

Ask any teacher, though, and they’ll tell you how it really is: Kids’ politics are shaped by their families and friends, not by their forty-five minute social-studies lessons. All of us who try to teach US History have had experiences similar to the one related by Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. Wineburg studied a history teacher who tried to teach his class about the Vietnam War. To his chagrin, he found that his high-school students had already made up their minds about it. For some students, the moral quandaries of the war had been settled at home around the dinner table, long before the school bell rang.

Moreover, Krauthammer repeats the wrong-headed assumption made by pundits both left and right. He assumes that the tension over patriotism and schooling began in the 1960s. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Krauthammer’s jeremiad about leftist teachers could have come from almost any decade. Conservatives have ALWAYS assumed that left-wing teachers had taken over the schools. There’s nothing “Sixties” about it.

If you switched the dates around, in fact, it would be difficult to tell them apart, whether they came from the 1930s, the 1960s, or today. Consider the punditry of B. C. “Bertie” Forbes. Forbes built up his business journalism into the magazine that bears his name. Long before Fox News, long before the “Sixties,” Forbes was out-Krauthammering Krauthammer with his accusations against sneaky left-wing infiltration of the teaching professions.

Forbes complaint

Cranky before cranky was cool…

The problem, Forbes explained in his syndicated newspaper column, was that universities had been “infested” with “radical professors.” Those left-wingers, Forbes charged, had taken over the teaching profession. A set of textbooks by Harold Rugg, especially, set a dangerous tone. And, just like Krauthammer, Forbes assumed that those books had the power to instantly convert and confuse America’s schoolchildren. “If I were a youth,” Forbes wrote to his local school-board president,

I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

Just like Krauthammer, Forbes relied on his own experiences to prove his accusations. Forbes visited a junior-high school, for example, and asked students if they loved America. They told him they weren’t allowed to. Their teacher—reading dronishly from her left-wing textbook—had informed them that “There are several other countries that have as good a form of government as ours.”

Forbes was shocked. He couldn’t blame the “Sixties,” but he didn’t need to. He took to the pages of his syndicated column to share his outrage. “Do American parents,” Forbes asked,

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?

For Forbes in 1939, just as much for Krauthammer today, the danger was real and immediate. Leftist teachers hoped to warp the minds of their pupils with their anti-American ideas.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let’s keep two things in mind as we celebrate the Fourth of July. First, whatever pundits might say, teachers and schools don’t have the power to dictate patriotism. Even if they wanted to—and they have wanted to!—schools couldn’t cram pro- or anti-American feelings down kids’ throats. In the end, schools only have a smallish influence on what people really think.

Second, if you share Krauthammer’s pessimism about schools today, don’t share his short-sighted historical blunders. We can’t blame or praise the “Sixties” as the roots of today’s culture wars. The Sixties were just another round of a conflict that had started long before.

HT: MM