Us & Them Visits the Gablers

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

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Protests and Negative Nellies

Suburban Jefferson County is in an uproar. Teachers and students have taken to the streets. They’re protesting a move by conservative school-board members to modify the new Advanced Placement US History framework. Predictably, conservatives nationwide have rallied behind those school-board members. In ways today’s protesters might not recognize, conservative rhetoric in this case dredges up a long conservative tradition—the fight against excessive negativity toward America. In surprising ways for “The Party of No,” when it comes to educational attitudes, conservatives have often been the party of “Yes, Please.”

This Denver-area protest is not the first to result from the changing framework for the Advanced Placement US History class. Conservative pundits have attacked the changes as pernicious and short-sighted. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, those conservative concerns have a legacy all their own. Conservative intellectuals and activists have protested that the new framework depicts the main themes of US History as oppression and racism. Some conservatives have called for US History to be taught in more traditional ways, more patriotic ways.

In this case, conservative school-board members proposed a new look at the framework. The five-member board has a solid three-member conservative majority, and those three called for a reform that would emphasize “positive aspects” of US History, an emphasis on ideas that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual right.” In addition, conservative leaders want less emphasis on materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In protest, district teachers called for an orderly sick-out. Teachers planned to call in sick to draw attention to both this change in curriculum and a proposed change to teacher pay. As word spread, students joined in. Soon, teachers and students alike took to the streets to protest any change in the history curriculum.

Predictably, conservative commentators huffed and puffed at the student protest. Gretchen Carlson of Fox News called the protesters “punks.” “How can being patriotic or learning about patriotism be a negative?” Carlson asked. “And what does it say about our young people and the teachers joining the protests that patriotism is now a negative?”

Writing in the pages of National Review Online, Ian Tuttle had a similarly dismissive attitude toward these “sign-waving baby barbarians.” Not only did the students expose their own ignorance with their hopelessly ironic protest signs, but their movement could not even count as legitimate social protest. Real protest, Tuttle fumed, was a vital patriotic legacy. This sort of display, in contrast, was only “self-indulgent grievance-mongering.”

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay...?

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay…?

Back in Colorado, one of the conservative board members opined that the student protesters were being used as hapless “political pawns.” The real issue, he said, was the question of teacher pay. The teachers’ unions cynically exploited the naïve enthusiasm of students in order to line the pockets of union members.

There’s more going on here than just 1960s hangover culture wars. Beneath these specific worries about student orderliness and patriotism, there is a decided theme about the proper attitude schools and students should have toward American society in general. As I researched my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across this theme time and again. In addition to worries about political leftism and secularism in schools, conservatives have worried vaguely about a pervading sense of negativity in progressive school curricula. Sometimes this has had to do with the portrayal of America’s past, as in the current Colorado student protests. But sometimes it has been a broader complaint about a general negative attitude in school books.

In what follows, I’ll share three long examples from 1923, 1939, and 1970. In each case, leading conservative activists attacked the negativity of progressive educators. Just as in Jefferson County, conservatives in each case worried that students were being taught that America stunk, that life in general stunk.

First, a speech from April 16, 1923. In this speech, the leader of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned of the creeping negativity and anti-patriotism of America’s teachers. Too many teachers, President General Anne Minor insisted, poured that negativity down the throats of trusting young schoolchildren.

Character and patriotism and obedience to law—there are the essentials of training in the schools. Do we find them everywhere? There are many who feel that there is a weakness of moral fibre [sic] in the teaching in many of our schools. And it is well known that there is an organized movement of many years’ standing among radicals to insinuate their doctrines into the schools and colleges all over the land….We want no teachers who say there are two sides to every question, including even our system of government; who care more for their ‘academic freedom of speech’ and opinion (so called) than for their country. Academic freedom of speech has no place in school, where the youth of our country are taught and their unformed minds are developed. There are no two sides to loyalty to this country and its flag. There is nothing debatable about allegiance to that flag and the Republic for which it stands. Freedom of speech does not give the right to teach disloyalty to our children and college youth. The teacher who does not wish to teach loyalty toward the land that employs him, has one good remedy. He or she may resign and go where disloyal opinions can find expression without harm to anyone. Guard well your schools, lest the life of the nation be poisoned at its source.

Years later, in 1939, a school-board member in Englewood, New Jersey lambasted the leftism and negativity of a popular set of textbooks. In this case, that conservative school board member was B.C. “Bertie” Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine. The textbooks at issue were a set of social-studies books by progressive scholar Harold Rugg. In this snippet, Forbes tells a story he repeated over and over again in his crusade against the Rugg books:

One of [a local teacher’s] pupils came to me, very much upset. In effect, he said that he had always regarded America and the American form of government as wonderful. But, he proceeded to relate that when the class had been asked to record their opinion as to whether ‘The people of the United States have a better government than have the people of any other county in the world,’ their teacher expressed disagreement with those young Americans who had replied, ‘Yes.’ According to this pupil she disabused their minds of any such idea. According to him, she told her young charges that the answer was ‘No’, that ‘there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, forms of government than ours.’

At this critical time, when we are preparing to conscript our youths to become American soldiers, I cannot but question the wisdom of impregnating young minds with any such notion that our system of government is open to question.

If teachers of the Rugg books are seeking ‘subtly’, to use Professor Rugg’s own word, to convey such ideas to the coming generation, ideas which cannot possibly inspire them with veneration for their flag—which they are asked to salute every day—surely the parents of Englewood are entitled to learn the facts.

A generation later, in 1970, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler told the Texas State Board of Education that too many textbooks focused only on the negative. The Gablers went through the list of approved books, one by one. In each case, the Gablers noted the relentless negativity of the texts. In what follows, I’ll include a full long book-by-book quotation from the Gablers’ testimony:

This book contains some of the chilling, horror-type stories that seem to appeal to the morbid imagination of this age’s youth; but so much time spent thinking upon strangeness can make it almost seem normal. The characters in ‘The Jam’ are dope addicts. ‘The Hitchhiker,’ which follows, has an identical climax, both written to horrify. ‘The Birds’ was made into a Hitchcock movie, so is well-known, but in reading it there is so much more blood and gruesome detail that the reader feels the need to escape and cleanse himself from such horror. ‘Zero’ leaves the impression that it is normal for children to hate parents and for parents to be indifferent to the needs of children. Everything in the book is conducive to causing emotional instability in the impressionable mind.

This [Rebels and Regulars] is another very depressing book. As far as the language used, it is in keeping with the characters and plots of the stories, but not the sort of language the thoughtful parent would approve of in his children. There is throughout the book the undercurrent of ‘a cause,’ which gives a prejudiced viewpoint, always picturing the white man as the villain against different minority groups or individuals. Typical of the stories is ‘The Cyclists’ Raid,’ which is militant, lawless, defiant, and completely without consideration for the individual. . . . A whole semester of concentrating upon rebellion as pictured in these stories will have a negative effect upon an impressionable young person. It becomes more honorable to rebel than to obey laws or consider the rights of others. . . .

This book [Ways of Justice] indicates that justice is whatever an individual decides it should be. ‘Junkie Joe Had Some Money’ shows bullies getting away with murder because the only witness is intimidated. In ‘Manuel,’ a kindly act is rewarded with utmost cruelty, written in vivid detail. ‘Mateo [86] Falcone’ tells of a young boy who is bribed to reveal the hiding place of another, then his father kills him. Nothing here to indicate love or understanding is possible between parents and child. ‘Marijuana and a Pistol’ gives all the sordid details of a maladjusted youth who smokes ‘weeds,’ including the uncontrolled giggling and vomiting. ‘They Grind Exceedingly Small’ is a story about the person who has money, taking advantage of the poor, hard-working, underprivileged—indicating that all money and power are in the hands of the cruel, wicked, dishonest, and undeserving. . . .

Couldn’t half of the stories in this series tell about people living together in harmony, love, understanding, and helpfulness?

Is reality only negative? Does not reality also include the many acts of kindness between races that is evident across our nation? It must be remembered that qualities such as morality must be taught. They do not come naturally. Education without morality will result in a depraved society.

Our conclusion is that if these books do not contribute to rebellion, lack of respect for authority, sadism, violence, and disillusionment, they will most certainly defeat the whole purpose for studying literature in our schools; for there is absolutely nothing presented here that would open the wonderful world of the printed page to our youth and cause them to want to pursue reading for the pure joy of doing so!

In all these conservative protests, the notion that school materials must somehow be positive and patriotic takes center place. Whether it was in 1923, 1939, 1970, or today, conservatives have insisted that school materials do more than present the negative side of life. In today’s protest, the issue is the teaching of US History. And that has certainly been a central subject in these battles. But it was not only history that became controversial. As the Gablers pointed out, the negativity of the cultural left showed up in literature selections as well. As they asked so plaintively, “Is reality only negative?”  And, and President General Minor protested way back when, a pervasive, destructive negativity also showed up in teachers’ attitudes.

Again and again, conservatives have wanted students to learn positive messages. Conservatives have worried that too much negativity might produce a generation of cynics. In a sense, we might say that conservatives in schools have sometimes been the party of positivity.

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.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: AL Take Manhattan

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

Coming soon...

Coming soon…

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

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

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

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

From a 1941 AL pamphlet

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

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

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

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

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

Chaillaux asked,

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

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

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

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

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

If they can make it there...

If they can make it there…

A SOTAL newsletter

A SOTAL newsletter

 

A SOTAL newsletter

…another newsletter cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just the Facts, Ma’am

What should good history teaching look like?  As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, conservative critics have warned that the new Advanced Placement US History framework pushes a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”  Now, two big historical associations have defended the guidelines.  But those associations are downplaying a central reason why so many conservative critics object to the APUSH framework.

Anyone with ears to hear can’t miss the conservative concern about the tenor of the new APUSH framework.  From the Republican National Convention to the blogosphere to the stuffed-shirt crowd, conservative pundits have teed off on the new guidelines for the advanced history classes.

Time and again, conservative activists such as Larry Krieger have warned that the new guidelines leave out key documents such as the Mayflower Compact and teach children that America’s history is the story of white exploitation, greed, and genocide.

The National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have published letters in defense of the APUSH guidelines.  Mainly, these history groups insist that the new framework is not biased.  As the AHA puts it,

The AHA objects to mischaracterizations of the framework as anti-American, purposefully incomplete, radical, and/or partisan.

The 2012 framework reflects the increased focus among history educators in recent years on teaching students to think historically, rather than emphasizing the memorization of facts, names, and dates.  This emphasis on skills, on habits of mind, helps our students acquire the ability to understand and learn from key events, social changes, and documents, including those which provide the foundations of this nation and its subsequent evolution.  The authors of the framework took seriously the obligation of our schools to create actively thinking and engaged citizens, which included understanding the importance of context, evidence, and chronology to an appreciation of the past.

But there is a minor theme in these defenses.  In the snippet above, the AHA signatories mention that good history education goes beyond the “memorization of facts.”  Similarly, the NCHE insists, “The point of education is not simply to acquire a specific body of information.”

But for many conservative activists and their supporters, the definition of education is precisely the acquisition of knowledge.  And that definition has proven enormously politically powerful over the years.  Please don’t get me wrong—I’m an ardent supporter and sometime member of both the NCHE and the AHA.  But these letters downplay the culture-wars significance of what Paolo Freire called the “banking” model of education.

Not that conservative critics aren’t concerned with the partisan tone of the new guidelines.  That is certainly a key motivating factor for many, I’m sure.  But behind and beyond those worries lies a deeper conservative concern with the definition of education itself.  Not all, certainly, but many conservatives want education in general to remain the transmission of a set of knowledge from teacher to student.

This notion of proper education is so deep and so profound that it often goes unarticulated.  Conservatives—and many allies who wouldn’t call themselves conservative—simply assume that education consists of acquiring knowledge, of memorizing facts.  And this assumption lurks behind many of the big education reforms of our century.  The test-heavy aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act and the new Common Core standards rely on a notion of good education as the transmission of information.  If a student has really learned something, the thinking goes, a test can find out.

For over a century, progressive educators have railed against this powerful assumption about the nature of education.  But for just as long, conservative activists have worked hard to keep this idea of education at the center of public schooling.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have been able to rally support for this “banking” vision of proper education in every generation.

In the 1930s, for instance, one leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution defined education precisely as a body of ideas that “shall be transmitted by us to our children.”

And in his popular 1949 book And Madly Teach, pundit Mortimer Smith insisted that true education consisted precisely of transmitting the children “the whole heritage of man’s progress through history.”

Similarly, in 1950, an angry letter-writer in the Pasadena Independent insisted on the transmission model as the only proper method of education.  As this writer put it,

Children have the right to learn by being taught all and more than their parents and grandparents learned—one step ahead instead of backward, through each generation.

Perhaps the most articulate advocate for this notion of traditional, transmissive education was California State Superintendent of Public Education Max Rafferty.  In his official jobs and his syndicated newspaper column, Rafferty insisted that the only worthwhile definition of education was the transmission of knowledge from adult to child.  Two fundamental principles of “common sense” in education, Rafferty argued in 1964, were the following:

  • Common sense told us that the schools are built and equipped and staffed largely to pass on from generation to generation the cultural heritage of the race.

  • Common sense took for granted that children could memorize certain meaningful and important things in early life and remember them better in later years than they could things that they had not memorized.

We could list a thousand more examples.  This tradition among conservative activists has remained so powerful that it often goes without saying.  And it lurks behind conservative agitation against each new generation of progressive educational reform.

So when groups such as the AHA and the NCHE defend the new APUSH guidelines, they should spend more time explaining and defending their notion that good education relies on more than just the memorization of facts.  For many parents and teachers, the transmission of those facts is precisely the definition of good education.

Holocaust Denial, Evolution Denial, and “Teaching the Controversy”

Should students learn to think critically in schools?  Should they learn about both sides of controversial issues?  This morning at the National Center for Science Education blog, Glenn Branch compares creationists’ fondness for “teaching the controversy” to an explosively controversial history lesson from California.  For those of us interested in conservative ideas about schooling, this recent flap again demonstrates the ways “conservative” and “progressives” have swapped sides on this issue.

In the Rialto (California) Unified School District, eighth-grade students were asked to evaluate the arguments for and against the existence of the Holocaust.  “When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence,” the assignment reads, according to the San Bernardino County Sun.

For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.

When the story came out about ten days ago, some conservative pundits tried to use this as proof of the moral monstrosity concealed in the Common Core State Standards.  The standards, some said, pushed school districts into adopting such terrible ideas as Holocaust denial.

Glenn Branch asks a different question.  How is this example of teaching “critical thinking” any different from creationist attempts to have students evaluate evolution and creationism side by side?  In both cases, students are encouraged to look at evidence.  Students are prompted to evaluate arguments and come to their own decisions.

But in the case of Holocaust denial, one side of the balance sheet has been thoroughly discredited.  It is not morally or educationally appropriate to ask students to decide whether or not the Holocaust happened, critics insist.  One of the sources students were given in this assignment stated the following:

With all this money at stake for Israel, it is easy to comprehend why this Holocaust hoax is so secretly guarded. In whatever way you can, please help shatter this profitable myth. It is time we stop sacrificing America’s welfare for the sake of Israel and spend our hard-earned dollars on Americans.

Offering students these sorts of false, hateful lies as “sources,” critics say, demeans the idea of pushing students to think critically.  If creationists thought that students should really explore every side of every issue, even sides with no intellectual or moral legitimacy, Branch argues,

then they should have been enthusiastically supporting the Rialto assignment. It’s to their moral credit that they weren’t, of course, but it proves—as if proof were needed by now—that “teach the controversy” and the like are merely rhetorical legerdemain intended to distract the spectator from the intellectual hollowness of the proposals they are supposed to support.

To suggest that schools ought to “teach the controversy” when there is in fact no controversy among mainstream scientists, Branch concludes, is just as bogus as having students evaluate the claims of Holocaust deniers.

The historian in me can’t help but notice the flip-flop we’ve seen over the course of the twentieth century.  In 1925, it was the pro-evolution side who pleaded with America to consider both sides in public schools.  Most famously, Scopes-trial attorney Dudley Field Malone begged the nation to allow the teaching of evolution.  “For God’s sake,” Malone implored, “let the children have their minds kept open.”  Ironically, as historian Ronald Numbers pointed out in Darwin Comes to America (pg. 91), later creationists adopted Malone’s plea as their own.

This is one of the themes I’m working with in my upcoming book.  Back in the 1920s, it was the conservative side of school battles who protested that these were false choices.  In 1929, for instance, the staunchly conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned DAR members that progressives sneakily insisted on teaching both sides of every issue.  Such choices, she warned, were false ones.  Even to ask the questions tipped students away from truth and morality.  As she memorably argued,

Flagrant cases of un-American tendencies have been brought to light and exposed.  Exotic theories are promulgated in the name of science.  Disdain for law and order, and contempt for our accepted form of Government are subtly injected into the teachings of history.  Such practices are defended by the advancement of the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.  This may be the proper system for the seasoned adult who presumably can, if he will, revoke his errors when faced with the consequences of an unwise choice.  With the young, the chances are too great, for there a dangerous inequality exists.  One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.  Why then apply the very opposite theory when dealing with the delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind? (Emphasis added.)

With this historical lens, it seems doubly apparent that the argument for teaching both sides of any tricky issue has always been politically popular among Americans.  If there’s a controversy, many Americans have always agreed, let children hear both sides.

Back in the 1920s, progressives and evolution educators tried to make this case.  Let children hear about socialism and evolution, progressives pleaded.  At least allow schools to teach the controversy.  Back then, conservatives made the case that one side of those ideas was not equal.  To offer students both candy and cigars to choose from, as our DAR leader insisted, was a false choice, a false controversy.

Today, the sides have switched but the argument has not.  One side argues to let children hear both sides of a controversial issue and decide for themselves.  The other side insists that only one side has any truth, any intellectual legitimacy.

Me personally, I agree that Holocaust denial and evolution denial ought not be offered as equals to better history and better science.  But I know many readers might disagree.  How can creationists defend the legitimacy of “teaching the controversy” when most scientists agree that there is no controversy?  Is it like offering children a choice between heroin and citrus fruits?  Milk and coffee?  Candy or cigars?

 

Sit Down, Shut Up: Old School Teaching for New School Results

What’s the best way to teach children?

Get them to suffer.  Get them to fear.  Get them to obey.

That’s the message, anyway, of a recent essay by Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal.

Lipman, of course, might put in another way.  In her words, she wants us to “revive old-fashioned education. . . . with strict discipline and unyielding demands.”

How should we do this?  Lipman offers eight guidelines.

We should understand that the highest levels of performance are helped, not hurt, by “a little pain.”  We need to get back to memorization.  Kids need to be allowed to fail, to understand that failure is a necessary aspect of improvement.  Plus, “strict” teachers do better than “nice” ones.  Also, creativity can be achieved through hard work.  Not by coddling, but by teaching “grit.”  Teachers need to get out of the habit of fulsome, unearned praise.  Last but not least, children need to experience stress in order to maximize their improvement.

Lipman claims scientific support for her platform, even though some of her cited studies don’t sound rock-solid.  Some have small sample sizes.  Just because something worked for a couple dozen students doesn’t mean it will be generally true.  Others have unconvincing methodologies.  One study, for instance, asked undergraduates about the stresses they had experienced in their lives.  Then the researchers dunked the students’ hands in ice water.  Those who had experienced stress, the study concluded, did not feel as much discomfort.

Such dubious science does not make me clamor to expose my daughter to more yelling at school.  But whether or not we accept the scientific rigor of Lipman’s sources, we cannot deny the political and cultural clout her argument for more traditional teaching has had over the decades.

In the 1920s, one leader of the influential Daughters of the American Revolution denounced innovations in classroom teaching.  Too many ‘modern’ teachers, President General Grace Brosseau lamented in 1929, thought that teaching consisted of presenting students with options.  Balderdash, Brosseau insisted.  Teachers must continue to deliver information to students in an authoritative way.  “One does not place before a delicate child,” Brosseau argued,

a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.

Schools, Brosseau insisted, must return to authoritative teaching.  Teachers must insist on hard work and dedication.  They must decide, instead of foisting all decisions off on immature children.

This traditionalist theme was taken up in the 1960s by the influential education pundit Max Rafferty.  Rafferty insisted that the only way to improve education was to return to traditional methods and content.  Young people need to memorize, to compete, to work hard, Rafferty claimed.

In his 1964 book What Are They Doing to Your Children, Rafferty offered a vision of “Education-In-Depth” that might delight Lipman and other contemporary traditionalists.  Children, Rafferty argued, must submit to sometimes-unpleasant processes.  “Before a child can learn to write creatively and imaginatively,” Raffferty believed, “he must submit to the discipline of learning the writing trade—the metaphor, the syntax, the verb conjugations, and above all the spelling.”

Schools must stress “subject matter,” not feelings.  They must give lots of homework.  They must teach the basics, such as multiplication tables.  Perhaps most of all, they must reverse the “progressive” poison by teaching children to “not be afraid of hard work.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Rafferty’s model still has influential admirers today.  Lipman does not seem to be one of them, at least not consciously.  She does not seem aware of the tradition of traditionalism in education.  My hunch is that she’d like to dissociate her call for “old-fashioned” education with some of the views of Rafferty or Brosseau.  Lipman might prefer to have her vision of traditionalism associated with rigorous social science than with the flag-waving patriotism and anti-communism of earlier traditionalists.

Nevertheless, Lipman and other fans of traditional discipline and memorization might be well advised to study their own history.

 

 

 

From the Archives: Conservatives, Historical Knowledge, and the Political Process

Guest Post by Kevin B. Johnson

How could American History bother conservatives?

Most people probably believe that sex education and evolutionary biology are the most contentious subjects taught in school.

But conservative activists have also targeted American history.  Why?  Because as historians such as Jon Zimmerman and David Blight have argued, America teeters on a culture-war divide in its understanding of its own history; a culture-war divide no less contentious than questions about sex and God.

Nowhere has this battle over the nation’s history been more bitter or grueling than in Mississippi.

A look at the record of conservative activism in the Magnolia State may shed some light on the continuing battle over the nature of history.  It also demonstrates the ways conservatives have scored their greatest successes.  In Mississippi, at least, conservatives managed to win by promoting one central idea: historical knowledge, properly understood, is static and unchanging.

As the Cold War split nations into the Free, Unfree, and Third Worlds, Americans began scrutinizing their communities in search of suspected communists and subversives. In Mississippi, these searches involved the content in state-approved social studies textbooks. Civic-patriotic organizations such as the American Legion, the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation led the charge in exposing objectionable historical knowledge presented in social studies texts.

The civic organizations were not alone in controlling textbook content. In the 1940s Mississippi began providing students with schoolbooks; lawmakers also set up the State Textbook Purchasing Board charged with governing the screening and selection of all texts. In the Cold War context, however, many civic organization leaders believed the state’s education professionals were ill-suited for this job and challenged their role in screening school materials.

A few key figures spearheaded the effort to guard historical knowledge. Mississippi State College education professor Cyril E. Cain, for example, found reading and “doing” history to be a mystical-spiritual experience. In 1949, Cain learned about the California SAR calling for removal from that state’s schools the Building America textbook series. America and its democratic system was not part of a process, the SAR argued. Rather, American democracy had been built and perfected in comparison to rival governments.

Through the Mississippi Patriotic Education Committee, Cain called upon other conservatives guard against the historical knowledge contained in schoolbooks. He wrote to the state regent of the Mississippi DAR—Edna Whitfield Alexander, asking for collaboration between their two organizations “for the common cause of defending America” from textbook authors who espoused “alien ideologies.”

For the next twenty years, Alexander became the South’s preeminent textbook activist. She developed her organizational skills through the Mississippi DAR, which held significant power in the 1950s and 1960s. Many DAR members’ husbands served in state government or were the state’s business leaders; the DAR owned numerous radio stations throughout Mississippi. A segregationist society like other civic clubs, its members naturally opposed perceived egalitarian messages in textbook treatments of history, civics, and economics. History was the DAR’s domain and it held what they believed was magnificent power to order present-day society.

Gaining the attention of Mississippi’s leaders, especially Mississippi House Speaker Walter Sillers, Jr, by 1958, Alexander and DAR activists officially recorded their objection to the content in dozens of state-approved books.

The following are just a few examples:

“Laconic treatment of the South…did not mention Fielding Wright as Vice-Presidential nominee of the States Right party…praises Federal aid to education…Booker T. Washington picture is much later than Thomas Jefferson [sic]” –review of United States History, American Book Company, 1955 reprint.

“This slanted-against-the-South book makes no mention of the fact that Russia offered to help the North [during the American Civil War]” –review of The Making of Modern America, Houghton-Mifflin, 1953.

“…records a good bit of history—some of which we are not too proud, and conspicuously omits some of which we are very proud like religious freedom!” –review of Your Country and the World, Ginn & Company, 1955.

“…advocates creation of a state of social equality…” –review of Economic Problems of Today, Lyons and Carnahan, 1955.

“Formerly history was largely concerned with kings, monarchies, laws, diplomacy, and wars…Today history deals with the entire life of a people. So now were are told that history must change along with this changing world and George Washington, Valley Forge, and the U.S. Constitution are no longer worthy of recognition to be ignored so far as our children’s history books are concerned.” – wrote a DAR reviewer of The Record of Mankind, published by D. C. Heath, 1952.

The DAR, in addition, opposed books citing renowned scholars such as Henry Steele Commager, Charles Beard, Allen Nevins, Gunnar Myrdal, Arthur Schlesinger, John Hersey, in addition to Mississippi writers like Hodding Carter, Ida B. Wells, and William Faulkner.

These comments sent to Sillers demonstrate the DAR’s view of History.  In the DAR vision, History should be dominated by pro-South, segregationist, and patriotic biases. The reason for teaching history in the Cold War context, the DAR and others agreed, was to instill in school children loyalty to state and country.

The DAR, under Alexander’s leadership, began a concerted lobbying effort. In 1959, Alexander informed the Mississippi Superintendent of Education and head of the State Textbook Purchasing Board, Jackson McWhirter “Jack” Tubb, that “youth must be taught Americanism in its purest form if this Republic is to survive.”

The American Legion and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation became important DAR allies. These civic clubs conducted official studies of Mississippi’s approved books and found that many “cater to alien ideologies contrary to the Mississippi way of life.” Boswell Stevens, a Legionnaire and president of the state’s Farm Bureau, believed social studies curricula should cultivate among students adoration of quintessential American values like Jeffersonian individualism, capitalism, and patriotism.

During state elections in 1959, the lobbyist coalition collaborated by staging exhibits of objectionable texts in the lobby of the Robert E. Lee hotel in Jackson. After Sillers intervened the DAR moved the exhibit to the lobby of the state capitol in time for the 1960 legislative session.

Lawmaker-members of American Legion and the Farm Bureau dominated the Legislature, passing amendments to state laws pertaining to textbook screening and adoption. The amendment gave the governor, recently elected Ross Barnett, appointment power over the state’s education professionals on these important textbook screening committees.

These conservative victories were not unopposed, however.  Newspapers editorials considered the DAR efforts as a “witch-hunt” and the state’s teachers association believed that textbook reviews were best left to education professionals.

But politics—in this case, staunchly conservative politics—trumped the claims of journalists and teachers.  Conservative activists also managed to stymie complaints from academic historians. In 1975, for example, James W. Loewen and several co-authors of the history text Mississippi: Conflict and Change had to file a federal lawsuit against Mississippi for adoption of their revolutionary new textbook. Loewen even commented at the time that most of the state-approved books were merely “didactic chronologies.”

Loewen’s lawsuit demonstrated the deeply entrenched nature of conservative visions of History in Mississippi.  For decades, conservative activists had succeeded in establishing state sanction for their vision of History: a static, unchanging field of facts, uniquely useful for promoting patriotism and instilling a love for traditional Americanism.

 

Kevin Boland Johnson is a doctoral candidate in American history at Mississippi State University and a dissertation fellow with the Spencer Foundation. His dissertation, “The Guardians of Historical Knowledge: Textbook Politics, Conservative Activism, and School Reform in Mississippi, 1928-1988,” explores numerous education reform efforts designed either to constrain or improve public school social studies curricula. You can reach Kevin at kbj41@msstate.edu.

 

 

I PROMISE Not to Pervert or Subvert

Good news: I just got a promotion!

But to do so, I had to promise not to subvert the constitution of the United States.

Why?

The answer can tell us something about the history of conservative educational activism in the US of A.

As part of my move to the rank of Associate Professor at the august Binghamton University, State University of New York, I had to reaffirm my pledge to support the constitution of the USA and of the State of New York.  I also had to promise to “faithfully discharge the duties” of my new position.

As I discuss in my current book, The Other School Reformers, conservative school activists throughout the twentieth century insisted on this sort of loyalty oath as an iron-clad requirement for all teachers in public schools.  It seems quaint these days to think of asking enemy agents to solemnly promise not to undermine the American way of life, but from the 1930s through the 1950s and beyond, many leading conservatives considered such oaths a primary means of combating alien influence in American society.

In 1950, for example, conservatives in Pasadena, California, fretted that their award-winning school superintendent had aligned himself too closely with communist-friendly “progressives.”  One of the fixes the conservatives insisted on was to put the Daughters of the American Revolution in charge of administering new teacher loyalty oaths.

The move made sense at the time.  Throughout the 1930s, the DAR had led the fight to pass mandatory loyalty-oath laws in several states.  By the 1950s, the DAR had established itself as the leading proponent of teacher loyalty oaths.  Therefore, it makes sense to think that if we want to understand the reasoning behind such oaths, we should start with the DAR.

At the tail end of the 1920s, for example, Grace Brosseau, national leader of the DAR, told the annual meeting that teachers’ loyalty oaths made up a key component of the DAR’s strategy to improve American education.  Such oaths, Brosseau insisted, could help America’s mothers be confident that “instructors in your communities are of the right calibre and are teaching sound Americanism instead of instilling pernicious doctrines into the minds of their pupils.”[1]

At that same national meeting, the assembled DAR representatives passed a resolution in favor of such teacher loyalty oaths.  Why?  Because, in their words, “anti-American elements are incessantly working to overthrow our constitutional form of government.”  Teacher loyalty oaths could help, they thought, along with “greater care in the selection of instructors for our schools, more widespread interest in curriculum and textbooks and a deeper understanding of methods of instruction.”[2]

In the mid-1930s, a successor to Grace Brosseau agreed that teacher loyalty oaths constituted a key element of right-thinking conservative school reform.  As President General Florence Becker argued in 1935,

A Teachers’ Oath of Allegiance law is but a tardy recognition of the fact that of all public servants holding positions of trust and receiving pay from public funds, the teacher holds the key position of importance.  The education system should be kept free from government control, and the American people should not commit suicide by failure to provide teachers who have faith in America.[3]

One DAR activist in Michigan thought that a teacher oath would at least give parents some legal recourse if they found a subversive teacher in their local school, “spreading his un-American doctrines among our children.”[4]

In sum, it seems that teacher loyalty oaths resulted from anti-communist political pressure in the 1930s and 1950s.  Even at the time, other anti-communists wondered if such oaths mattered.  Would a foreign agent dedicated to subversion be deterred by such an oath?

These days, the United States does not face the threat of a large body of communist agents.  Does it make any sense to continue these loyalty oaths?


[1] Grace L.H. Brosseau, “Annual Message of the President General,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, National Society of the DAR (1929), page 11.

 

[2] “Resolution No. 16, Teachers’ Oath,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, NSDAR (1929), 681-682.

 

[3] Mrs. William A. Becker, Tapestry Weavers: an Address of Mrs. William A. Becker, President General, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution at Fall State Conferences, 1935 (no publisher, no date, [likely DAR published, likely 1935.  Copy in the NSDAR archives, Washington, DC]), pages 6-7.

 

[4] Vivian Lyon Moore, “Michigan’s ‘Oath of Allegiance’ Bill,” DAR Magazine Volume 65 (July 1931), page 404.