I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The deep freeze hasn’t slowed down the pundits. Here are a few ILYBYGTH-themed stories that crossed our desk this week:

What’s wrong with being polite? It might be coded white supremacy—Steve Salerno blasts the campaign against “white-informed civility” at WSJ.

In Google’s shadow: San Francisco public schools failing African American students, from LATimes.

Why is it so hard to recruit and retain teachers? The story from McDowell County, West Virginia, at Hechinger.Bart reading bible

Islam and Evolution, at Beliefnet.

Peter Greene asks if Queen Betsy’s time has already come and gone, at Curmudgucation.

Christian college suspends its pastor for officiating at a same-sex wedding, at IHE.

Cruel and unusual? Baltimore teachers complain that cold classrooms are inhumane, at NYT.

Understanding the un-understandable:

Trumpism on campus: At The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey looks at the fight for the soul of the College Republicans.

Charter schools aren’t doing the job, by Michelle Chen at The Nation.

College is doomed. Demographic shifts predict fewer students and fewer tuition dollars, at IHE.

Advertisements

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

How do the DeVoses spend their money? No surprise, they give a lot to evangelical schools, like a cool hundred grand to the Ionia School of Missionary Aviation Technology, at Politico.

What goes on in Eva’s Success Academies? At the New Yorker, a look at their “repressive” style.

The last of the Roy Moore saga?

What do teachers think? Peter Greene breaks down a survey about teachers’ political beliefs.

Sex and Jay-sus: An interview at R&P with R. Marie Griffith about her new book, Moral Combat.

It’s not as simple as it looks: How course placements at community colleges lead to higher-ed segregation, at Hechinger.Bart reading bible

Are conservative student groups unfairly targeted? The latest from the University of Wyoming.

Koch Brothers funding “Freedom” classes in public schools, at Tucson.com.

What’s wrong with charter schools? The ACLU charges Arizona charter network with excluding students.

Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.

9780674416710

Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Read This Before You Freak Out…

Conservatives might be shooting their guns in the air to celebrate. Progressives might be shedding a tear in their IPAs. Whether it’s a triumph or an apocalypse, it’s not a surprise: The Ed Department is filling its ranks with more and more conservative, creationist leaders. Before we freak out, though, let’s take stock of the real situation.

zais

He’s coming for your public school…

First, the creationism part. The new pick for the education department’s undersecretary has made no bones about his creationist sympathies. As head of South Carolina’s schools, Dr. Mick Zais supported the removal of the idea of natural selection from the state’s science standards. As Zais told a local newspaper, “We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions.”

It’s not only creationism. Queen Betsy’s pick for undersecretary of education will make conservatives happy for a lot of other reasons as well. Zais comes to the nomination fresh off his post as South Carolina school superintendent. As Politico reports, Dr. Zais became a conservative ed hero for refusing to truckle to the Obama administration’s carrots and sticks.

In South Carolina, Zais pushed hard for vouchers. Time and time again, vouchers are embraced by conservatives who hope to shift public-school money to private schools, often religious schools.

When Zais’s zeal is added to DeVos’s enthusiasm, it might seem to progressives and conservatives alike that conservatives have finally triumphed in the world of educational politics. If ILYBYGTH cared about clickbait, we would certainly write something that exploited that sort of attitude. But we don’t and we won’t. Because, in historical perspective, this moment of conservative triumph looks much less triumphant than it might seem at first.

First, let me repeat the caveats SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing: My own politics skew progressive. I think creationism has no place in public-school science classes. I am horrified by Queen Betsy and I think President Trump’s leadership is a blight on our nation that won’t be easy to recover from.

Having said all that, I’m not interested this morning in fighting Trumpism but rather in understanding it. And when we see Queen Betsy’s reign from the perspective of the long history of conservative activism in education, we see just how wobbly her throne really is.

First, as I noted in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, today’s conservative push for charters and vouchers is both a novelty and a concession. Milton Friedman promoted the idea of charter schools way back in the 1950s, and nobody listened. Even the free-marketiest of Reaganites didn’t care much about promoting alternatives to traditional public-school funding.

Take, for example, Reagan’s second ed secretary, William J. Bennett. He was far more interested in pushing traditional moral values and classroom rules in public schools than in gutting public-school funding.

What happened? Only in the 1990s did conservative education pundits embrace the notion of charters and vouchers. They did so not as a triumph, but as a grim concession to the obvious fact that they had been stumped and stymied by their lack of influence in public schools.

So when conservative heroes like Queen Betsy and Superintendent Zais push for alternatives to traditional public schools, progressives should fight back. But we should also recognize that the conservative drive to fund alternatives results from conservatives’ ultimate failure to maintain cultural control of public schools.

Plus, the language used by conservatives these days represents another long-term progressive victory. In his public argument for voucher schools, for example, Superintendent Zais voiced his agreement with progressive ideas about the purposes of schooling and public policy. Why should we have more vouchers? Quoth Zais, vouchers will provide “more options for poor kids stuck in failing schools.”

I understand Zais may be less than 110% sincere in his zeal to promote social equity through public school funding. Nevertheless, the fact that he felt obliged to use that sort of progressive reasoning shows how dominant those progressive ideals have become.

In other words, if even South Carolina’s conservatives adopt the language—if not the authentic thought processes—of progressive thinking about the goals of public education, it shows that progressive ideas have come to dominate our shared beliefs about public education.

On the creationist front, too, Zais’s conservatism shows the long-term decline of conservatism. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that creationists fought and often won the battle to have evolution utterly banned from public schools. These days, all Zais can dream of is maybe wedging some worse creationism-friendly science into public schools alongside real science.

Science educators won’t like it. I don’t like it. But once again, before we freak out, we need to recognize the long-term implications of our current situation. The dreams of creationists are so far reduced they no longer preach the abolition of evolution. If you ask creationist leaders these days what they want in public schools, they’ll tell you they want children to learn evolution, “warts and all.”

We don’t agree about that. And we don’t agree about the value of vouchers. I’m not even ready to concede that Dr. Zais and I agree on the best ways to use public schools to help alleviate poverty and improve the economic life chances of kids in lower-income families.

And I’m perturbed. I’m frightened by Queen Betsy. If he’s confirmed, I’m guessing I’ll be alarmed by Dr. Zais’s work.

I also know, though, that the seeming strength of conservative thinking these days is an illusion.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Monday the 13th! I hope you have good luck today. Here are a few of the stories and trends that passed across our desk this week:

Scales and schools: How do well-meaning reformers keep goofing? Why do they insist on “scaling up” good schools when it never works?

Red Dynamite: At Righting America at the Creation Museum, Carl Weinberg untangles the connections between creationism and anti-communism.Bart reading bible

Education culture-war news from the midterm elections: School board vote in Colorado dings vouchers.

Ahhh…Thanksgiving. The holiday to gather around a table and yell culture-war insults at our friends and family. At 3 Quarks Daily, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse reflect on “familial angst” on Turkey Day.

Why are college students so touchy about free speech? As reported by IHE, a new survey says it’s because they’re Americans.

Arica Coleman looks at the career of neo-confederacy in American textbooks, at Time.

What’s wrong with charter schools? The Progressive examines the debates in North Carolina.

…and what’s wrong with “personalized learning?” EdWeek listens to three critics.

John Oliver takes on Ken Ham. Should Kentucky’s Ark Encounter receive tax incentives?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Blink and you’ll miss it. Another week has come and gone. Here are some ILYBYGTH stories that might have flown under your radar:

What do college students really think? Two different surveys give us different numbers. HT: DW

“Is history objective?” Academic historians get a weird email. Is it a right-wing set up?

What’s going on on campus? Michigan and other schools flooded with violent and racist propaganda.Bart reading bible

Harvard likely under investigation for racist admissions policies.

Have evangelicals evolved from “public moralists to leaders of tribal identity”? That’s Jennifer Rubin’s charge this week at WaPo.

Free speech for some! That seems to be the majority opinion, according to a new survey reviewed by Conor Friedensdorf in The Atlantic.

California looks at new LGBTQ-friendly textbooks.

When do religious kids abandon their faith? It’s not during college, according to new research from PRRI.

Are conservatives deserting the charter-school movement?

Life at the “Christian Hogwarts:” Healing and prophecy at Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, Redding, CA.

Thanks to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in tips and stories.

Will the Real Educational Conservative Please Stand Up?

No one can say Michael Petrilli doesn’t understand educational conservatism. As head of the free-marketeer Fordham Institute Petrilli has long championed aggressive conservative activism in schools and educational bureaucracies. In a recent piece at National Affairs, though, Petrilli tries once again to impose an ill-fitting definition of “conservatism” onto America’s educational landscape. This strategic attempt at a flattering self-image for conservatives might help conservatives sleep at night, but it doesn’t fairly depict historical realities.

school choice march

Is this conservative?

This isn’t the first time Petrilli has tried and failed to convince conservatives of what they should think. A few years back, when then-new Common Core State Standards reared their heads, Petrilli struggled to convince conservatives that the Common Core was conservative. He failed then and he’ll likely fail in his current attempt as well.

This time around, Petrilli is hoping to impose an image of educational conservatism as split between “accountability-plus-choice” and mere “choice.” All conservatives, Petrilli writes, make school choice a “paramount objective.” “Conservatives believe,” according to Petrilli,

that parents should be able to choose schools for their children that match their educational priorities and moral values. This principle stems from our deep respect for the family as the building block of a free society.

The split, Petrilli writes, is between conservatives who are happy with expanding choice and conservatives who also want to force traditional public schools to improve. Smart conservatives should want both, Petrilli thinks. As he puts it,

If we care about economic growth, upward mobility, and strong families, we should make improving America’s educational outcomes a priority. Education is both a private good and a public good, and a society has a legitimate interest in the education of its next generation — the more so when public dollars pay for it.

In short, Petrilli is hoping to convince conservatives that they should work to improve public schooling for all. He wants conservatives to see themselves as the true guardians of American values and prospects, the side of the future.

If we could all agree on improving public schools for everyone, we could likely skip much of our culture-war shouting and have drinks together on the patio. The problem is that Petrilli’s flattering definition of educational conservatism doesn’t match reality.

For example, Petrilli wants to convince his fellow conservatives that they have always been on the side of social justice for the least powerful members of American society. He writes,

Conservatives view upward mobility as a key objective of social policy, and want to empower poor families to choose schools that can catapult their children into the middle class.

Now, I’m happy to grant that Mr. Petrilli himself truly values such things, but it is more than a stretch to say that such lofty social goals have ever been a primary motivating factor for conservative educational activists. As I argue in detail in my book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the primary goals of conservatives have been starkly different.

From Grace Brosseau of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas; from Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion to Max Rafferty of California’s State Department of Education; from Bertie Forbes to Alice Moore…conservatives have wanted a bunch of different things out of schools, but elevating the economic prospects of “poor families” has never been their primary motivation.

What have they focused on? I hate to quote myself, but here’s how I put it in the 2015 book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools.

Of course, Mr. Petrilli is happy to offer any definition he wants for conservatism and his fans are welcome to agree with him. The rest of us, though, should understand that educational conservatism has been mostly about protecting kids from progressive trends in school and society.

And that leads us to Petrilli’s second big goof. Much as he might dislike it, school “choice” has never been anything but a convenient tactic for conservatives. Most conservatives have been decidedly blah about the notion of school choice unless that choice seemed like the best way to achieve their real goals of insulating their kids.

If we need proof, we don’t need to look any further than the mottled history of the idea of school choice itself. When Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed the notion of charter schools back in 1950, it met with a profound fizzle. Conservatives back then—everyone back then—mostly ignored the idea, as Friedman himself admitted.

It took nearly fifty years for conservative activists to embrace school choice as their number-one go-to plan for saving their kids from America’s schools. And even then, notions of school choice often take pride of place only in the wonky visions of brainy conservatives like Petrilli himself. Many more conservatives these days look instead to their traditional havens of private schools and the exciting new world of homeschooling.

Looked at one way, Mr. Petrilli might be right. The world of educational conservative activism might really be split in two. The sides, however, aren’t the ones Petrilli imagines. Instead of a split between conservatives who are happy with expanding charter schools and conservatives who also want to improve public schools for all, it might really just be a split between idealistic conservative reformers like Petrilli and almost all the rest of the conservatives out there.

School Politics Cracks the Race Wall

The unions like the one on the left...

The unions like the one on the left…

Who backs market reforms of schools? Conservatives, of course, and rich people. Oh, and African American voters. The race for superintendent of public instruction in California is suggesting a dramatic realignment of electoral politics. But those conservative dreams might not be warranted.

As we’ve explored in these pages (here and here, for example), white conservatives have long dreamed of shaking off their racist reputations. In school politics, it seems those efforts have finally begun to bear fruit.

It has not been easy. The conservative, or, to be more precise, the more conservative candidate for New York City mayor tried to woo non-white voters with similar school appeals. That candidate, Joe Lhota, blasted Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter schools. Such schools, Lhota insisted, were the only educational hope for “minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants.”

In New York City, it didn’t fly. But the race in California is much different. According to the San Jose Mercury News, one candidate for superintendent has cobbled together a coalition of super-rich backers and conservative voters, plus Latino and African American support.

That candidate, Marshall Tuck, is running neck-and-neck with the establishment choice, incumbent Tom Torlakson. Tuck’s success is built on his appeal to both the rich and the poor. The teachers’ unions have spent plenty to support Torlakson, but Tuck has still managed to outspend them, thanks to his deep-pocketed backers among the usually conservative California business elite.

Non-white voters like Tuck’s plan. According to a recent poll, Tuck leads by 38% among African American voters and 13% among Latinos. Why? One expert thinks that such voters want more charter schools, more vouchers, and less power for teachers’ unions.

Could this be the realignment conservatives have long been dreaming of? A chance to appeal to the conservative feelings among non-white voters? A chance to split off non-whites from the clutches of the Democratic Party and get them voting Republican on issues such as gay rights, abortion, and school choice?

After all, there have been similar epochal realignments in electoral politics. Most famously, FDR managed to convince African Americans to vote Democrat. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, African Americans had been solidly Republican. Or, more recently, Reagan wooed “lunchpail” Democrats to the side of the GOP.

Could we be on the verge of a similar realignment? One in which conservative non-white voters ditch the Democrats in favor of the more conservative GOP? And if so, will school politics lead the charge?

There are a couple of things that should temper the hopes of conservative poll watchers. First, this California race is non-partisan. Both candidates are Democrats. So conservative African Americans and Latinos can vote for the more conservative candidate without abandoning the party of FDR and LBJ.

Second, though Tuck is the candidate with the more conservative positions, he’s not calling himself that. Instead, as with much of school politics, Tuck is calling his marketization plan the side of “school reform.” And his election fund, filled by mega-rich donors, officially calls itself “Parents and Teachers for Tuck.”

In this case, non-white voters seem to like the market idea that conservatives have long promoted. But they like it when it comes in a Democratic Party wrapper. They like it when it is called the progressive choice, not the conservative one.

Will non-white voters soon flock to the conservative banner? Maybe, but this race shows they might only do so if conservatism calls itself something else.

Children Must Submit

First learn to obey

First learn to obey

HT: MM

What is the role of the child in school? Many conservative thinkers, now and in the past, have insisted that children must learn to submit to teachers’ authority. Before they can learn to read or figure, children have to learn that obedience is their proper attitude. These days, this penchant for submissive children has leached out of the world of traditionalist thinking into the burgeoning world of charter schooling. A recent interview with a leading scholar highlights the ways conservative values have reasserted themselves as the mainstream norm.

Thanks to a watchful colleague, I came across this interview with Penn’s Professor Joan Goodman. Professor Goodman works in the Teach for America program at Penn and spends a good deal of time in urban charter schools. In many of those schools, Goodman finds a rigorous standardization and a vigorous effort to train children to be submissive. As Goodman told EduShyster,

these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told. . . . They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning.

At the same time, Goodman notes, the schools insist on lockstep performance by teachers. Every teacher is supposed to be delivering the same content at the same time in the same way. Goodman calls it a “very uniform and scripted curriculum.”

Ask anyone familiar with urban charter-school education these days, and you’ll hear similar stories. For those of us trying to figure out what “conservatism” means in education, this leads us to some difficult questions: Did these goals and values move from fundamentalist and conservative activists into the mainstream? And if they did, how?

In my historical research into the worlds of conservative educational activism, I’ve seen it time and again. For decades—generations, even—conservative thinkers have insisted that submission is the first lesson of successful schooling. Without submissive children, teachers will not be able to transmit information. Without the successful transmission of information from teacher to student—according to this conservative logic—education has not happened.

Originally published in 1979...

Originally published in 1979…

In the world of Protestant fundamentalist education, youthful obedience is often elevated to a theological value. Writing for an A Beka guide in the late 1970s, fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee warned that Christian teachers must be stern disciplinarians. “If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.” Combee continued,

Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child. Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting). They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

That same A Beka guide to good fundamentalist schooling promised that good schools always taught in lockstep. At the time, A Beka offered a curriculum for private start-up Christian fundamentalist schools. Not only would schools get curriculum infused with dependably fundamentalist theology, but

the principal can know what is being taught. He can check the class and the curriculum to make certain that the job is getting done. Substitute teachers can also step in and continue without a loss of valuable teaching time.

Some bloggers confirm that fundamentalist schooling has continued to emphasize obedience over intellectual curiosity. Jonny Scaramanga, Galactic Explorer, and Samantha Field have all shared their experiences with this sort of fundamentalist educational impulse. In their experiences, fundamentalist schools and homeschools have insisted on obedience, and have done so in a sinisterly gendered way. Young women and girls, especially, were taught to submit to male authority figures. Every student, however, seems to be pressed to submit and conform, not as a punishment, but rather as a foundation for education.

To be fair, as I argued in an academic article a while back, there has been a lot of disagreement among fundamentalist Protestants about proper education. Just as the folks at A Beka were insisting that proper education began with submission, the equally fundamentalist thinkers at Bob Jones University pushed a very different vision of proper education. Led by long-serving dean Walter Fremont, the school of education at Bob Jones promoted a more child-centered sort of fundamentalist education.

We also need to note that this insistence on submissive children is not just a fundamentalist one. Secular conservatives have long insisted that learning can only begin with obedience. In many cases, this has been a conservative response to a left-leaning progressive pedagogy. For example, leading progressive thinker Harold Rugg began his career with recommendations for proper classroom attitudes. In an article from the 1920s, Rugg instructed teachers to share authority with students. Good teaching, Rugg wrote, did not dictate to children; it did not insist on obedience. Rather, good teaching pushed students to think of themselves as autonomous, self-directed learners. Good teachers, Rugg insisted, asked students again and again, “What do you think?”

In the 1920s, this notion of proper student behavior divided progressives from conservatives. One conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution offered a very different vision of good teaching. Writing in 1923, Anne Minor explained that the best teachers begin with “truth and integrity, orderliness and obedience, loyalty and love of country.”

In the 1950s, another conservative Daughter of the American Revolution warned that teaching had gone astray when it encouraged children to be “persistent in their own ideas, disobedient, and resent[ful of] parental discipline.”

Another secular conservative in the 1950s agreed. One letter-writer to the Pasadena Independent described the problems with progressive education this way:

discipline, as well as the lack of fundamental knowledge teaching [sic], is one of the biggest lacks of the progressive school. Some parents shift the discipline to the school which is wrong, of course, but if the parents are at fault for lack of discipline, so are the schools. . . . Lack of consideration of others is the biggest fault of children today, and should not be too difficult to correct. Tantrums should never be tolerated, sassiness and disobedience should be controlled at an early age.

rafferty what they are doing to your children

And, of course, other conservative educational thinkers and activists also pressed for an obedience-first vision of good education. The leading secular conservative voice of the 1960s, Max Rafferty, agreed that schools could only function if children first learned to submit. As Rafferty put it in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen.

As I researched my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, I found this theme repeated over and over. It goes something like this: Good schooling means the transmission of information to children. That transmission cannot occur unless children submit to teachers’ authority. Therefore, any meaningful education reform must begin with the establishment of an atmosphere of relentless obedience and submission.

Professor Goodman doesn’t talk about “conservatism” or “fundamentalism” in the schools she visits. And many of the reformers these days who push for youthful obedience and teacher standardization would never call themselves conservatives, let alone fundamentalists. But it is difficult not to notice the overlap.

Conservative notions of youth and education, it seems, have become the standard way to think about educational reform among groups such as Teach For America. First and foremost, in this understanding of education and youth, children must submit.

Required Reading: Wal-Mart and Fundamentalist U

A recent exposé in the New York Times attacked Wal-Mart’s funding of charter schools. Conservative pundits defended Wal-Mart. But neither side took notice of a more profound tradition of educational activism by the leaders of the mega-retailer.

Historian Bethany Moreton, in her not-so-recent-anymore book To Serve God and Wal-Mart, describes a different sort of educational work by the founders and leaders of Wal-Mart. In addition to funding charter schools, the Waltons and Wal-Mart developed a network of fundamentalist colleges and universities that may have had far more long-term impact on American society and culture than any charter school.

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

The 2009 book garnered plenty of rave reviews from academic historians. I won’t try to offer a full review here, but if you’re interested, you can check out this one in Church History, or this one in the American Historical Review. Instead, I’ll sketch a few of Moreton’s points about the links between the Wal-Mart fortune and a network of evangelical colleges in the Ozark region. As I move into the research for my next academic book, a twentieth-century history of conservative evangelical colleges and universities, it seems clearer and clearer to me that these colleges have played a huge role in determining some of the basic culture-war landscape of recent United States history.

As Moreton describes, Wal-Mart and Walton money helped support some schools that desperately needed financial help. Especially close to Wal-Mart were the University of the Ozarks, John Brown University, and Harding University. Each of these schools embraced a Wal-Mart friendly combination of evangelical Protestantism and free-marketeering. And each benefited from substantial financial support from the Wal-Mart empire. Indeed, as Moreton relates, University of the Ozarks students joked that they should just change the name of their school to “Wal-Mart U” (pg. 144).

In the mid-1980s, as Moreton tells the story, with help from the Waltons, the faculty of the University of Ozarks spelled out the connections between traditional evangelical higher education and an intellectual embrace of the values of capitalism. In 1983, Mrs. Walton launched a series of “Free Enterprise Symposia” to trumpet the achievements—both moral and economic—of capitalism (pg. 154). A few years later, the faculty agreed that a new student concentration in entrepreneurship would include traditional courses in Old and New Testament, government, and liberal-arts electives. But the focus would be on business and the moral triumph of capitalism over “socialism/marxism” (pg. 155).

Students at these capitalist/Christian colleges embodied a very different sort of student identity from those of the hippies and leftists dominating headlines at other schools. For instance, Moreton describes one example of student activism at the University of the Ozarks in the late 1970s. Students joined with downtown merchants to encourage Christmas shopping. Students combined patriotic displays of red, white, and blue with traditional Santas to connect Jesus, America, and consumerism (pg. 143).

Wal-Mart also supported student organizations such as Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE). These pro-Christian, pro-capitalism student groups claimed to enroll 40,000 college students at 150 campuses nationwide. Together, SIFE bragged that it reached 100,000,000 people with its message of Christian free enterprise. Moreton described one example of that sort of student outreach by the SIFE chapter at Harding. Harding students tromped about the region with a student in a giant pencil costume. They spoke at schools, club meetings, and any other venue that would have them. Their message? Following the work of pundit Leonard Read, the students explained that worldwide capitalism managed to produce goods and services for all without central guidance. The humble pencil, for example, took materials and know-how from all around the world, bringing profit and uplift to all involved. Yet the invisible hand of the market accomplished this incredibly complex task without oversight from bumbling and greedy governments (pp. 193-197).

Leonard Read's Free-Enterprise Tale

Leonard Read’s Free-Enterprise Tale

As Moreton tells it, Wal-Mart’s college activism did not limit itself to the borders of the United States. In the late 1980s, the Waltons funded scholarships for students from Central America to study at colleges such as Harding, John Brown, and the University of the Ozarks. The goal was to train managers and workers in the pro-business, pro-Christian approach to big-block retailing and worldwide supply chains (pp. 222-247).

Moreton rightly emphasizes the centrality of higher-educational activism by conservatives such as the Waltons. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argue in both my 1920s book and my upcoming book on educational conservatism more broadly, the nature and purpose of higher education remained a central focus of American conservatism. As Moreton’s study reveals, the brains behind the Wal-Mart phenomenon took an active part in sponsoring the sorts of college and university “experience” that they thought would promote proper, traditional Americanism.

If I were to quibble with this book, I’d note that Moreton sometimes seems unaware of the longer, broader connections between pro-business groups and educational institutions. She describes what she calls the “national context of business colonization of education generally” (pg. 151) in the 1970s, but she doesn’t adequately note that the roots of that colonization go back into the 1930s, at least. Groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, for example, actively conducted the same sorts of pro-business educational outreach that Moreton describes. A quick consult with Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America? would have helped Moreton flesh out the longer history.

But this sort of historian’s quibble does not detract from the importance of Moreton’s book. As the recent New York Times attack makes clear, conservative activism in K-12 education will always get plenty of attention. But the more profound cultural work of changing higher education may have much bigger impact on the nature of America’s culture wars. Who teaches the many conservative teachers in K-12 schools, for instance? Where do Christian executives learn to combine Jesus with Milton Friedman? Moreton’s look at the connections between Wal-Mart and higher education help illuminate the core intellectual premises of Christian capitalism.