What Do Conservatives Want from Public Schools?

We often hear of conservative attacks on this or that curricular item in public schools.  Conservatives want sex ed out.  They want evolution out.  They block this and they block that.

But many conservative school activists also have a strong idea of the kinds of things they want IN public schools.  The Texas Freedom Network Insider shared recently a review form from the Texas State Board of Education.  The questions asked by the SBOE tip readers squarely in the direction of conservative, traditionalist textbooks.

These Texas conservatives might take a page from their grandparents’ playbook.  In the 1920s and 1930s, conservative activists promoted their own textbooks in America’s public schools.  Tired of seeing books that bashed capitalism or traditional family values, conservatives in those decades took matters into their own hands.

The tactics from today’s conservative activists seem more modest.  As the TFN Insider points out, the review form used by the Texas SBOE asks reviewers to respond to “politically loaded” questions such as the following:

“Does this lesson present positive aspects of US heritage?”

“Does this lesson present unbiased materials and illustrations?”

“Does this lesson present generally accepted standards of behavior and lifestyles?”

“Does this lesson promote respect for citizenship and patriotism?”

“Does this lesson promote the free enterprise system?”

These questions hint at the kinds of things conservatives would like to see in textbooks and classroom materials.

Conservatives in Texas might find inspiration from their grandparents’ generation.  There’s nothing new about conservative hopes for textbooks that promote capitalism, patriotism, traditional lifestyles, and a good attitude about the USA.  But in the past, conservative activists did more than just ask reviewers to look for such things.

In the 1920s, for example, the American Legion sponsored a new textbook that promised to give students a patriotic yet accurate story of America’s roots.  When Charles Hoyne’s The Story of the American People appeared in 1926, conservatives lavished praise upon it.  The Klan-backed governor of Oregon, Walter M. Pierce, sent Hoyne a gushing letter.  Pierce called the volumes “the finest history of early America that we have ever had.”  Other conservatives agreed, calling the book a blessing to “the loyal and liberty-loving people of our country” and books that defended “the spirit of American patriotism.”

Unfortunately for Hoyne, for the American Legion, and for the conservatives who jumped to embrace the new textbooks, other readers had different opinions.  A Legion-appointed review committee found the books to be full of errors.  Writing in the pages of Harper’s, critic Harold Underwood Faulkner called the books “perverted American history.”

Image Source: Amazon.com

Image Source: Amazon.com

In the end, despite high hopes for schoolbooks that would finally put a positive—but accurate—spin on all things American, the Legion withdrew their support and Hoyne’s books went nowhere.

The National Association of Manufacturers had much more success producing capitalism-friendly school materials.  Starting in 1939, NAM sent educational literature and classroom posters to roughly 17,000 classroom teachers and school administrators.  Being savvy businessmen, the leaders of the NAM wanted to know if this investment was a good one.  They wanted to know if the pamphlets made people like capitalism better.  To find out, they hired pollster Henry Abt to survey the schools.  Abt reported that most of the teachers considered the NAM-produced books “primarily as an informational service; an authoritative source of economic and social data.”  From the NAM’s perspective, nothing could be better.  Students read NAM’s paeans to capitalism and took them as authoritative social science.

Perhaps the book reviewers in Texas might take a page from the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s.  If conservatives really want to see more conservative textbooks, they might have to publish them themselves.  Of course, they’d want to watch out for the Hoyne trap.  Any classroom materials must be more like the slick, glossy pamphlets and posters distributed by the National Association of Manufacturers.  Anything else will end up just an embarrassment.




CSCOPE and the Dustbin of History

CSCOPE is dead.

Anyone who hopes to understand the sort of conservative crusade that killed CSCOPE should draw two lessons from the news.

First: Historians should be invited to more dinner parties.

Second: The question is not why CSCOPE was suddenly targeted, but rather why so many Americans are so deeply suspicious of educational experts.

But before we talk about such things, an update: As reported by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Freedom Network Insider, leading Texas politicians announced a few weeks back that the suddenly controversial curriculum management system would no longer be offering lesson plans for Texas school districts.

CSCOPE had come under attack from conservatives in Texas and around the country as promoting a witches’ brew of “progressive,” “Marxist,” “pro-Islam” ideas for Texas schools.  Liberals such as those at the Texas Freedom Network complained in exasperated tones about an irrational “witch hunt” against lessons that had been used without controversy for years.

What does any of this have to do with the loneliness of historians?  The book I’m now finishing looks at the 20th-century history of this sort of school controversy.  Again and again, conservatives discover that the teaching in their schools has been infiltrated by nefarious ideas such as evolution, socialism, progressivism, or filthy sex and violence.  In each case, once a set of textbooks or curricular program gained attention as an example of such ideas, it was quickly tossed out by conservative activists.

I hate to quote myself, but in this case an historian’s perspective makes this outcome seem predictable. As I noted a few weeks back, “CSCOPE might offer an ideologically balanced, pedagogically efficient way for Texas school districts to streamline their teaching systems.  But once it has acquired the reputation for leftist indoctrination, the writing is on the wall.”

This is why historians should be invited to more parties.  Especially if there is food.  Not because historians can predict the future.  Every case is different. But an historical perspective eliminates much of the surprise of unfolding events.  For those who know the 20th-century history of conservative activism in America’s schools, the anti-CSCOPE crusade seems remarkably predictable.

Another important lesson should be drawn from the premature death of CSCOPE.  The career of CSCOPE illustrates the profound cultural divide at the heart of America’s continuing educational culture wars.   Personally, I sympathize with the liberal critics of the Texas Freedom Network, who noted that many of the attacks against CSCOPE seemed “bizarre” or “paranoid.”  As a parent and citizen, I worry about the exaggerated attacks made on this curricular program.

Such attacks, however, must be understood as an irruption of a profound suspicion among Americans about what any outside interference in public school curricula.  Like other commentators, I am deeply skeptical about claims that CSCOPE was a vast conspiracy to subvert patriotic Christian values in Texas public schools.  But the important question is not why this particular program was targeted for attack after years of controversy-free use in schools. The question, rather, is why so many Texans jumped so quickly to join the anti-CSCOPE bandwagon.

This has been the case with every curriculum controversy in the past.  As historians Charles Dorn[1] and Jonathan Zimmerman[2] pointed out about the Rugg textbook controversy in the 1940s, though the Rugg textbooks were banished, similar books continued to be used widely.

In the Kanawha County blow-up of the 1970s, the same sentiment surfaced.  What had seemed like a humdrum approval process for a new set of reading textbooks became a violent struggle over the content of the curriculum.  In that case as in this, many observers scratched their heads and wondered why these particular books had suddenly become such lightning rods.

The depressing truth is that most Americans are deeply skeptical about the intentions of the people who write the books and lesson plans for our public schools.  With curricular materials such as CSCOPE, the Rugg textbooks, or the Interaction series adopted in Kanawha County, as soon as materials were accused of subversion, many Americans believed it.  As conservative leader Elmer Fike explained about the Kanawha County books, “You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.”[3]

The sudden outrage against CSCOPE shows us this same dynamic at work.  In Texas as in the rest of our nation, a politically powerful plurality are willing to believe outlandish accusations against relatively bland curricular materials.  Though the books and lessons themselves may be moderate in tone, a significant number of parents and politicians are quick to believe they have set out to destroy America.

Why did CSCOPE meet such a sudden and violent premature death?  Because for generations, a significant proportion of Americans have looked with grave suspicion at the intentions of “experts” who write such classroom materials.  Parents are not surprised to hear that textbooks contain hateful language and shocking subversion.  Such accusations confirm what too many parents already believe.

We will not understand the CSCOPE story, nor the similar stories sure to come in future years, unless we grapple with the fact that many parents maintain an awkward ambivalence toward public education.  Many parents may approve of their local schools, but they feel a need to defend those schools from the control of grasping autocrats at far-flung universities and think-tanks.  At the bitter heart of the CSCOPE saga lodges the uncomfortable truth that Americans do not trust educational experts.



[1] Charles Dorn, “‘Treason in the Textbooks:’ Reinterpreting the Harold Rugg Textbook Controversy in the Context of Wartime Schooling,” Paedagogica Historica 44:4 (August 2008): 477.

[2] Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 79.

[3] Quoted in James Moffett, Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 70.

CSCOPE Blues: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Curriculum

**Warning: This post contains selections from textbooks that include potentially offensive language.**

Just when conservative Texans thought it was safe to go back to their public schools, they are told that a new curriculum will pervert their children’s values.

The culprit this time is CSCOPE, a curriculum “management system” designed in 2005-2006 and currently used in many Texas school districts.  The goal of the system was to streamline curricular decisions and align classroom teaching with state tests.

Recently, the curriculum has come under conservative fire.  Conservatives in Texas accuse the system of being President Obama’s plan to teach “our children how wonderful socialism is and that communism is even better.”  Nationally, pundits such as Glenn Beck have blasted the teaching system as a smear campaign against the nation’s founders.  The liberal Texas Freedom Network has publicized local attack ads that have accused CSCOPE of delivering “Communist, Marxist, Progressive, Leftist Dogma, Propaganda, and Indoctrination at the expense of taxpayers!”


Source: TFN Insider

The Texas Freedom Network complains that such accusations veer dangerously into the “bizarre” and “paranoid.”  TFN writers point out that many Christian schools in Texas have adopted CSCOPE.  The curriculum system, the TFN argues reasonably, has long been used without a whisper of protest, even in conservative private schools.

Unfortunately for liberals like me and the TFN crew, animosity against CSCOPE is about more than just one set of classroom lessons.  This conservative crusade is about more than just CSCOPE, but involves a long and intractable history of suspicion against curricular systems in general.  Throughout modern American history, conservatives have worried—often with a great deal of justification—that curriculum systems hoped to do more than educate children.  In many cases, curricula have hoped to inject dramatic cultural change into America’s schools.

Many of the accusations, like the newspaper ad from Marble Falls and Burnet, seem outlandish and irrelevant.  But such sentiments often reflect the rightward edge of a widely held notion that school culture seeks to pervert the morals of the young.  In those cases, reasonable protests like that of the Texas Freedom Network do not make much of an impact.  Once a curriculum has become an object of conservative ire, the issue has grown beyond the details of any specific school lessons.  It has become a fight over the cultural control of American schools.

We saw this same dynamic in the 1970s.  When the school district of Kanawha County, West Virginia considered a new set of textbooks, wild rumors spread about the content of those books.  In some cases, distributed fliers included materials that were not in the books under consideration.  One flyer included instructions on the use of condoms from Sol Gordon’s Facts about Sex for Today’s Youth (1973).  In that book—again, not part of the series under consideration—Gordon explained sexual ideas in a frank manner.  The circulated flyer included excerpts meant to highlight this frankness.  “Some ‘street’ words for vagina,” Gordon wrote,

Are ‘box,’ ‘snatch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘hole,’ ‘pussy.’  It is not polite to say any of these expressions.  However, since they are sometimes used, there is no need to be embarrassed by not knowing what they mean.

Many parents in Kanawha County objected to this sort of language.  The fact—as many liberals protested at the time—the fact that such language did not appear in any of the new textbooks did not change the political discussion.  Conservative parents objected as much to the tendency of school books in general as to the content of any specific books.  As conservative leader Elmer Fike wrote at the time of the controversy, “You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.”

This sense that textbooks and school curricula might set out deliberately to change the morals of young people has a longer history, too.  The source of the cultural danger may have shifted, but at the start of the Cold War conservatives fretted about the threat from subversive communism in school books.  One pamphlet from 1949 Chicago asked, “How Red is the Little Red Schoolhouse?”

Cover imageA decade earlier, Harold Rugg had to defend his popular textbook series from charges of socialist, collectivist subversion.  As Rugg complained, many of his critics had never read the books themselves.  Conservatives, Rugg charged, would say, “I haven’t read the books, but—I have heard of the author, and no good about him” (Rugg, That Men May Understand, 1941, pg. 13).

Seventy-plus years later, Rugg’s books do not seem particularly subversive.  But just as CSCOPE’s critics bundle every anti-American rumor into the Texas curriculum system, so Rugg’s critics blamed him for every anti-patriotic sentiment of the day.

Most important, once school materials get a reputation for left-leaning propagandizing, whether it is Rugg’s books in 1940, or the Interaction series in Kanawha County in 1974, or the CSCOPE materials in 2013, the books seem sure to attract ferocious and effective political attack.  Sometimes, as in the newspaper ad from Marble Falls and Burnet, these attacks seem far-fetched.  But behind even such far-fetched notions lies a germ of uncomfortable truth.

Curriculum developers often DO want to introduce culturally challenging and provocative ideas into America’s schools.  Howard Rugg wanted his books to help along a sweeping “social reconstruction.”  One of the editors of the book series under consideration in Kanawha County dreamed that the controversial books might lead to “further innovations in schooling” [James Moffett, Storm in the Mountains, 1988, pg. 5].

Though CSCOPE insists it is “not designed to show favor toward any special interest group/ organization,” conservative critics can claim some justification for their worries.  For generations, curricula have been introduced to public schools that HAVE hoped to show favor to certain ideas.

CSCOPE might offer an ideologically balanced, pedagogically efficient way for Texas school districts to streamline their teaching systems.  But once it has acquired the reputation for leftist indoctrination, the writing is on the wall.

No matter how fervently the Texas Freedom Network or other supporters might protest, history has shown that in cases like this, among conservatives, school curricula are guilty until proven innocent.