But What about All the Dead Bodies?…

Forget about evolution and creationism for a minute. We see more evidence today that the first shot in many educational culture wars takes place not in science, but in history.

When it comes to schooling and culture wars, we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about creationism and science. It makes sense. In that case, we see a stark and shocking disconnect between contending visions of proper knowledge for children.

But some of the most virulent culture-war battles happen over historical issues. Conservative Christians in the United States often embrace an historical narrative that is at odds with mainstream academic interpretations. Counter-historians like David Barton sell just as many books as do counter-scientists like Ken Ham. And the difference between mainstream academic history and dissenting Christian histories can be just as stark as the differences between the modern evolutionary synthesis and young-earth creationism.

In the United States, one of the most stubborn conservative dissenting histories has been that of neo-Confederatism. As David Blight demonstrated in his terrific book Race & Reunion, conservative history activists in the US South scored major successes in limiting public-school histories to those that flattered the losing side in the Civil War.

In nations around the world, culture-war conflicts often show up as debates over the nature of real history. In Japan, for example, the horrific crimes of the Japanese army in World War II are repeatedly minimized or even ignored in mainstream textbooks. In my own ancestral homeland of Estonia, a long Russian occupation has generated a kind of historic cognitive dualism. Most Estonians of a certain age know the pro-Russian history they got in their Soviet-era schoolbooks, but they don’t believe it. In contrast, Estonians tend to believe a folk history of heroic Estonian resistance, even though they don’t know much about it.[1]

In the pages of the New York Times this morning, we see another example of this kind of battle for history. In pro-Russian breakaway regions of Ukraine, new educational directives insist that the Soviet famine of the 1930s was not a Stalinist genocide, but rather a morally neutral tragedy that befell the entire Soviet Union.

Controlling the past to control the future...

Controlling the past to control the future…

According to mainstream historians, including especially Robert Conquest in English, the Ukrainian famine was anything but morally neutral. Instead, the famine—a tragedy that killed millions of people—was the precise goal of Stalinist policy. In order to bring restive provinces in line, Stalin intended for the region to suffer.

According to the NYT, the new “Fatherland History” hopes to emphasize the region’s long ties with Russia. It plans to minimize Ukrainian nationalist ideas. Igor V. Kostenok, the new minister of education in charge of the new historical guidelines, described the goal as the creation of “a culture, a culture for the Slavic world, for the Russian world.”

Will it work? Not likely. As is the case in every aspect of our educational culture wars, dissenting ideas have a way of surviving and even thriving in spite of official condemnation.

[1] See James V. Wertsch, “Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge about History?” in Stearns, Seixas, and Wineburg eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (NYU Press, 2000), pp. 38-50.

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A Patriot’s History: The Movie!

What’s a patriotic conservative to do?  So often, history textbooks have been accused of peddling a leftist mishmash of America-bashing and skewed intellectual flag-burning.  As we’ve argued in these pages, for generations conservatives from the American Legion to David Barton have attempted to publish their own history textbooks that tell a more patriotic, more Christian story.

One of the most successful of those textbook efforts has been Larry Schweikert’s and Michael Allen’s 2004 A Patriot’s History of the United States. The book tells the story of the United States in a way that celebrates the triumphs and tragedies of America from a traditionalist patriotic viewpoint.  According to the book’s Wikipedia page, one reviewer from the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2005 that the book centered on a simple premise: “that there are principles and purposes reflected in American history that make this imperfect country worthy of our affection.”  Other reviewers had more hostile opinions.  David Hoogland Noon wrote in the pages of the History Teacher that this book was “written for an audience of the previously converted . . . hardly worth anyone else’s time.”

Via Andrew Palmer at Conservative Teachers of America we see that Schweikert is hoping to turn the book into a movie.  Schweikert has published a four-and-a-half minute trailer.  Tellingly, the dramatic intro promises the film will tell viewers “the history you always knew.”  In other words, the approach of Schweikert and Allen has been to confirm the traditional story of America’s greatness.  Not that this story has been one of unalloyed heroism, Schweikert and Allen might say, but overall the sweep of history has proven the United States to be the greatest nation on earth.

The choice of bits and pieces for this trailer tells us something about the movie’s approach.  First of all, it begins and ends with fireworks.  It includes scenic panoramas of cherry blossoms on the Mall in Washington DC, Ansel-Adams-like vistas of rocky outcroppings, and other traditional American eye candy.  As I watched, I took sketchy notes of some of the featured elements:

  • Happy colonists
  • Heroic suffering in the Revolutionary War
  • Heroic racing in wagons to settle the West
  • The Civil War
  • An Industrial Revolution with awesome achievement
  • D-day and Iwo Jima
  • Immigrants as ardent patriots
  • The Green Bay Packers!
  • Mount Rushmore
  • The Moon Landing
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • A jet in Vietnam napalming a field
  • Reagan calling on Gorbachev to tear down this wall
  • Baseball
  • The hockey “Miracle on Ice” of 1980
  • Lots of Fireworks.

Clearly, any movie trailer tells only part of the story.  This one certainly skews toward the positive elements of American history.  Unlike some academic histories, the story of the settling of the West is told as a heroic race to fill in land with settlers, not as the invasion of Europeans and the genocide of the native inhabitants.  As much as what was included, this trailer leaves out some important elements.  I saw no suggestion of race slavery, for example, nor of the systematic extermination of native peoples.

Will conservative teachers and schools embrace the film as conservatives embraced the book?  I don’t see why not.  In my experience, conservative intellectuals don’t want children to read patriotic lies about America’s past, but they do want children to read patriotic truths.  In the case of the American Legion’s 1926 textbook series, for example, as soon as the Legion leadership found out that the book was riddled with errors, the Legion pulled its support.  And as soon as David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies accumulated accusations of inaccuracy, its original publisher yanked it.

My hunch is that the makers of A Patriot’s History would argue that they do tell the full story of America’s past.  The trailer, for example, did include clips of America’s troubling policy of napalming villages in the Vietnam War.  To be a success, I’m guessing, this film will have to convince conservative audiences of two things.  First, it must seem like a full and true history of these United States.  Second, it must make clear that this country—despite its historical blemishes—is the greatest nation on the earth.

The hard question remains: Would you want your kids to watch it?

 

Nazis and Sex Crimes

What history should we teach to children? In the United States, conservatives tend to insist that history should be heroic, or at least not vicious and mean-spirited.  But for the losers of World War II, these questions have played out in different ways.

A couple of intriguing recent stories in the New York Times describe the culture-wars over history in Germany and Japan.  In each case, the ways schools and textbooks portray war history have raised hackles.

In Japan, one village refused to use the new triumphalist textbooks distributed by the central education ministry.  The new books, village leaders protested, presented a distorted story of the post-war Constitution.  New books whitewashed Japan’s violent and aggressive record, downplaying the number of people murdered in the rape of Nanking and disputing Japan’s policy of kidnapping women for use as military sex slaves.

In Germany, in contrast, young people have learned a great deal about the Holocaust and Germany’s collective culpability for its epochal crimes.  Camp survivors such as Laszlo Schwartz have become a central part of high-school education.

What about in the US of A?  History has been distorted by both right and left.  Politically motivated histories by conservatives such as David Barton or by the late lefty Howard Zinn have presented distorted visions of the nature of American history.

These debates have gone on for a long time.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have long offered alternative school histories.  In the 1920s, for example, the American Legion commissioned a patriotic textbook that promised to teach children a prouder story.

How are these American history disputes different from those in Germany or Japan?  In each case, it seems that national history itself has dictated the ways history has been taught.  In Germany, for example, de-Nazification proceeded fairly thoroughly and rapidly after the war.  No such purge took place in Japan, politically or culturally.  As a wartime winner, the United States never had any reckoning.  The closest parallel has been the long fight over Civil-War history, with southern partisans insisting on a heroic Confederacy.

Also different is the structure of schooling.  Japan and Germany both have central education ministries.  Issues of history in Japan, for example, are part and parcel of national politics.  One of the leading reasons for the new distorted history textbooks in that country, according to the New York Times, has been the ambitions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  As one researcher told the Times, “Classrooms are one place where [Abe] can appease ultraconservatives by taking a more firmly nationalist stance.”

In the USA, in contrast, there has not been a central educational decision-making body.  As a result, perhaps, history fights have taken place at all sorts of political levels.  In the 1990s, the US Senate flexed its culture-war muscles by decisively rejecting a set of national history standards.  Conservatives in that battle protested that left-wing academic historians neglected traditional knowledge and morals in favor of fashionable but vapid trends.  More often, local or state textbook commissions air out the bitter battles over the nature of America’s past.

What did you learn in your school textbooks?  Do America’s children learn a distorted past?

 

Get In Line, David Barton

What history books should American school children read?

Most recently, the history darling-in-chief among many conservatives has been Wallbuilders’ David BartonGlenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, and other conservative politicians have praised Barton’s vision of American history.

For those who haven’t followed the story lately, here’s a brief synopsis: Barton claims to be the best historian around, the only one honest and dedicated enough to discover the real Christian intention of most of the Founding Fathers.  His latest book, The Jefferson Lies, came under brutal attack for its historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations.  The accusations came not only from partisan leftists, but also from conservative Christian critics.  As a result, the original publisher pulled the book from store shelves.  Glenn Beck’s publishing arm quickly picked up the title.

Image source: Ebay

Image source: Ebay

In the research for my current book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across an eerily similar story from the 1920s.  In that decade, the American Legion resolved to sponsor a two-volume school history.  Too many of the books on the market, the Legion concluded in 1922, “contain misrepresentation of American history.”  Legion leaders contacted Charles F. Horne, a professor of English at City College of New York.  Horne agreed to author the books, to be called The Story of Our American People.

This textbook, the Legion’s special committee in charge of the textbook project declared in 1925, would build “character.”  Too often, the Legion leaders lamented, young people “grow up ignorant or anarchistic or otherwise ‘destructive.’”  There was no chance, the Legion wrote, that such youth, taught that their government deserved nothing but contempt, could mature into healthy, productive citizens.  Most commercial history textbooks only tore down young people’s confidence in their society and government.  A good history textbook could fix this.  The proper teaching of history, the Legion argued, must teach, despite “occasional mistakes,” that American history has been “so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism.”

When a preliminary draft emerged in 1925, it earned some instant praise from conservatives who had long fretted about the deplorable state of most history textbooks.  Walter M. Pierce, for example, in 1926 the Klan-backed governor of Oregon, dashed off a letter to Professor Horne.  The new volumes, Governor Pierce gushed, represented “the finest history of early America that we have ever had.”

But other early readers took a different view.  Writing in the pages of Harper’s Magazine, historian Harold Underwood Faulkner blasted Horne’s books as “perverted American history.”  No professional historian, Faulkner sniffed, would have produced such drivel.  The books represented nothing more than a “bombastic eulogy of all things American.” (Harold Underwood Faulkner, “Perverted American History,” Harper’s, Feb. 1926, pp. 337-346. [Subscription only.]) They could not even be criticized on historical grounds, Faulkner claimed, since the books did not really constitute a history.  Worse, the books were intended to “produce a bigoted and stereotyped nationalism . . . a deplorable subservience to the rule of ignorance.”

Such criticism from snobby historians might not have doomed Horne’s books.  But an internal committee of the American Legion itself also found the books “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements.”  Instead of inspiring American youth to embrace a patriotic vision of America’s past, the Legion investigators concluded, such shoddy history could only mislead youth and heap ridicule on the American Legion.

The Legion abrogated its contract with Horne.  They agreed not to receive any revenue from the book project and withdrew their endorsement.

As a result, the books never made the impact on schools Legion activists had hoped for.  Even among Legionnaires, the 1920s textbook project quickly became a politely forgotten story.  In 1949, for example, one Legionnaire wrote in the pages of The American Legion Magazine that the Legion ought to sponsor its own patriotic textbooks.  Such a textbook series, this writer insisted—apparently utterly innocent of the history of the Horne histories—could replace the overabundance of boring pink textbooks with “the rich and meaty story of American history.” [See John Dixon, “What’s Wrong with American History?” The American Legion Magazine (May, 1949): 40.]

So get in line, Mr. Barton.  You are far from the first to attempt to impose sectarian history on America.  Just as the fiercest and most effective critics of the Horne books were the Legion investigators themselves, so the conservative Christian criticism of Barton’s books helped isolate and neutralize Barton’s influence.

Glenn Beck’s Educational Utopia

“A place of real learning.”

What will life be like when Glenn Beck is finally made Emperor of the Universe?  More interesting for ILYBYGTH, what will education be like?

Beck recently outlined his vision of paradise.  As usual with Beck, the plan is short on details but expansive in its claims.  In short, it seems Glenn Beck’s perfect educational system would have three important components:

1.) apprenticeships;

2.) homeschooling;

3.) intellectual inoculation.

Image source: The Blaze

Image source: The Blaze

Beck described his vision of utopia in his plans for a new theme park, Independence, USA.  Like Walt Disney’s early visions, Beck wants a new kind of park, one that embodies Beck’s vision of proper American culture and society.

Parts of that vision include a radical de-schooling.  As Beck promoted it, this park would include a chance for students to learn by doing.  He asks (video 1—3:25),

“Does everybody have to go to an Ivy League university?  Or can we teach craft, can we teach business, can we teach things?  Are there people willing to teach through apprenticeships? . . . If it’s not possible, then America’s golden streets are dead.”

More profoundly, Beck insists, “Schools are a thing of the past the way we’ve designed them.”  For those who would live inside the boundaries of Beck’s Potemkin, children would learn in “neighborhood” clusters.  Children would be freed from the artificial constraints of institutional education, freed to learn by downloading content directly from the archives in Independence USA.

For those who insist on attending traditional schools, maybe even Ivy League colleges, Beck promises a handy inoculant.  Families should bring their college-age children to Independence for a week of authentic education.  Young people as well as old could receive a thorough training in Beck’s vision of American history and culture.  Such a week, Beck insists, will protect young people exposed to the lies and distortions in mainstream higher education.  Working with David Barton, Beck will teach young people, presumably, that the United States was created as an explicitly Christian nation, and that such Christian principles ought to remain at the center of American public life.  As Beck puts it (video 2—9:11),

“Before you send your kids to college, you come with us.  And you come here.  You spend a week.  You have a kid that’s going into college, you spend a week with us.  We’re going to tell them exactly, we will show them the truth, we will tell that what they’re going to try to do.  And we will deprogram them.  Every summer if you care.”

One is tempted to ask if any of this makes sense, as several commenters have done (see here and here for examples).  In this video, he offers only the vaguest sketches of his utopia, several aspects of which sound at best contradictory and at worst totalitarian.  More intriguing is the combination Beck demonstrates of a fairly radical anti-institutionalism with a keen, combative patriotism.  Beck combines an aggressive distrust of some of the central institutions of American life with an in-your-face defense of the American way of life.  Schools and colleges can’t be trusted, Beck insists, yet American traditions and culture are the strongest in the history of the world.  Young people need to be freed and protected from mainstream education, yet the theme-park plans—if they are to succeed at all—must appeal to large numbers of presumably mainstream folk.

For students of conservative education thinking in the United States, Beck’s paradoxes offer a unique window into the complex attitudes toward education among many American conservatives.  Beck, of course, is enough of an odd duck that his nostrums must not be taken as representative.  Yet he is popular enough that we can assume his fantasies resonate with at least a large number of his followers.

School, in this vision, has become something intellectually dangerous.  Young people, at the very least, need an intense counter-training, an intellectual inoculation against the false notions peddled in colleges.  If possible, in this plan, children should be freed from the outmoded walls of brick-and-mortar schools entirely.  Such institutions, Beck implies, have outlasted their usefulness.  Schools, Beck argues, have become the problem, not the solution.  Yet unlike the unschoolers of the cultural left, such as Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman, or John Holt, Beck’s deschooling promises a return to his vision of authentic American values of hard work, thrift, patriotism and religion.

Barton and Evolution

You might be tired of hearing about David Barton.  I know I am.  But how about just one more point?  This morning, History News Network ran an essay of mine asking a new question about Barton.  In the essay, I ask what might happen if Barton was defending the notion of a young earth, rather than the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian.

Thanks to the History News Network for running that piece.  Since I submitted to their editor, the Barton story has developed in ways that make me even more intrigued in the comparison between (some) conservative Christians’ views of history and creationists’ views of biology and geology.

In a piece that ran in the August 13 online edition of Glenn Beck’s Blaze newsletter, Barton defended his work.  According to the Blaze article,

“Barton seemed anything but shaken by the controversy when he spoke via telephone with TheBlaze. He freely answered questions about the controversy and explained that he’s prepared to respond to some of the critiques, while dismissing what he believes is an ‘elevated level of hostility that’s not really rational in many ways.’

David Barton Responds to Jefferson Lies Controversy and Warren Throckmorton

“While he stands by his central arguments about Jefferson, Barton isn’t pretending to be immune from error. The historian said that the book has already gone through three or four printings and that there have been word and text changes based on spelling or grammar errors along the way. Also, he addressed a willingness to amend historical items, should they be pointed out and proven wrong by other academics.”

What’s intriguing to me in this defense is the way it echoes the challenges posed by 1920s creationists.  Note the phrase “other academics.”  Barton here defends his position as one academic historian among others.

It has been a very long while since scientific creationists insisted that they were part of of the mainstream scientific establishment.  As Ron Numbers described in his classic The Creationists, after the Scopes trial in 1925 leading creationist scientists still fought for creationism’s acceptance in mainstream science.  But they quickly learned that such debates did not offer a real chance to convince mainstream scientists of creationism’s superiority.  Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, for instance, left one debate in London shocked and demoralized by the reaction of the crowd.  “Do not confine your reading wholly to one side,” Price pleaded in response to one scornful outburst from the audience.  “How can you know anything about a certain subject if you read only one side of the case? There is plenty of evidence on the other side, and this evidence is gradually coming out.”  After this debate, Price left the stage feeling humiliated, and he never engaged in another public debate. (Numbers, ed. Creation-Evolution Debates, pg. 186).

This does not mean, of course, that creationists gave up.  No, it demonstrates that creationists moved in the 1920s, in fits and starts, away from fighting for acceptance by mainstream scientists.  Instead, they built their own powerful institutions: schools, publishers, and research organizations.  By 2012 no politician needs to retreat from creationist belief.  Similarly, no creationist feels a need to prove his or her claims to an audience of mainstream scientists.

David Barton, on the other hand, is giving us what might be a new Scopes moment.  Forced to endure the public humiliation of having his book withdrawn, Barton has taken a defiant posture.  He has insisted, like Price in 1925, that readers do more than “read only one side of the case.”  He continues to claim his credentials as one academic historian among others.  I wonder if soon historians like Barton will embrace their outsider status.  If so, as I argue in the History News Network piece, we might be seeing another sort of 1925.

Required Reading: Fundamentalist America Defends Its Borders

The knives are sharp!  At the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens has published a collection of snippets of angry reviews of his recent book and New York Times op-ed.

For all those who are trying to make sense of Fundamentalist America, the book, the op-ed, and the hostile reviews are all worth reading.

Stephens and his co-author Karl Giberson took to task the culture of conservative evangelical Protestantism–maybe the most powerful single faction of what we call Fundamentalist America–for supporting a raft of puffed-up self-declared experts.  Stephens and Giberson themselves are evangelical Christians and teach at a Christian college.  But the false experts, they insist, do not represent the totality of evangelical Protestant intellectual life.  A fundamentalist “Rejection of Reason” is only one possible style of evangelical belief.

The angry denunciations of their work demonstrate the defensive stance of some twenty-first century conservative Christians.  As Stephens points out in his blog post, the “haters” were notable for the “red-faced, veins bulging-out-of-the neck, barking jeremiad passion” of their reviews.

Google Trends and Fundamentalist America

Fundamentalist America is aflutter.  One of Fundamentalism’s favorite sons made a big splash last week.

After David Barton’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to promote his new book The Jefferson Lies, the Beckite Blaze reported that the term “David Barton” had surged to number one on the list of trendy Google search terms.

When I followed up, I couldn’t confirm The Blaze‘s claim.  When I checked Google’s “Hot Searches” for May 2, 2012, Barton shows up as number nine.

The experience led to me tinker around a little bit with Google Trends.  Now, I know I need to apologize for my lateness at showing up to this party.  This is yet another example of the way I am far behind the times in finding out about the possibilities of the Google Mothership.

But I want to share a few of the interesting results for those outsiders interested in Fundamentalist America.  First, for those who are as backwards as I am, I’ll explain the premise a little bit.  Google Trends gives users a chance to find out how many people have Googled specific terms over time.  Today (May 5, 2012), many of the hottest search terms concern the recent death of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.  In general, it seems as if the biggest topics in the daily news tend to attract the most Google searches.

But Google Trends also lets us see what people are googling over time.  If we want to understand what googling Americans are interested in, it gives us a chance to find out.  Now, I won’t make any claims that these results are definitive.  We can’t know very much about the intentions of googlers.  But there are still a few interesting results that I want to share, just to give everyone something to think about.

For example, I checked the trends for terms in tandem and got some interesting results.  For instance, “evolution” has trumped “creationism” by a long sight for the past several years.  On the other hand, comparing the google history of “Bible” and “Origin of Species” shows a huge tilt toward Bible googlers.    And, in the past few years at least, Jesus has almost always been comfortably bigger than the Beatles.  In fact, “Jesus” as a search term has held a comfortable lead over most other topics I could think of, including “David Barton,” “atheism,” and even “cats,” although “cats” seemed to hold its own pretty well.

What does all this tell us about Fundamentalist America?  Not much, really.  But it does demonstrate the enduring popularity of Christian terminology on Google.  Of course, people Google all sorts of different terms for all sorts of reasons.  Are there any other term comparisons that can tell us something about the nature and meaning of life in Fundamentalist America?

The Bible as America’s Book: The View from 1898

Fundamentalists insist that America needs the Bible.  As we’ve explored here before, many argue that America was founded as a Biblical nation.   Fundamentalists will tell you that America went to the dogs when Americans foolishly agreed to kick the Bible out of public schools.  If you have three minutes to spare, check out this video for a brief and dramatic version of this line of Fundamentalist thinking.

As with a lot of historical claims in Fundamentalist America, this one needs some scrutiny.  Outside of angry nostalgia and heated rhetoric, what can we know about the uses and meanings of the Bible in the history of America’s public schools?  Educational historians agree it is notoriously difficult to find out what went on in classrooms in the past.  Reading textbooks only tells us what was in those books, not what teachers and students really did.  Reading memoirs of student life can tell us what students choose to remember from their school days, but it can’t get us behind that closed classroom door.  And reading school laws and regulations only tell us what rulemakers wanted schools to do, not what the schools actually did.  But in spite of all these difficulties, we do have scattered chunks of evidence about classroom practice in the past.

In this post, I’ll analyze one such piece of evidence.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the Chicago Woman’s Educational Union conducted a survey to determine the degree to which the Bible played a leading role in American public education.  In 1898, the CWEU published the results as The Nation’s Book in the Nation’s Schools As the name implies, this was never meant to be a disinterested survey.  The editor, Elizabeth Cook, planned to use her evidence to promote a vision of American public schools as the proper home of a thoroughly Biblical culture.  As she wrote in her preface, Cook hoped to “aid in the beautiful work of guarding and extending the proper use of the Bible in our Glorious Educational System.”  The historical vision of the Chicago group would have made today’s fundamentalist historians such as David Barton proud.  Cook explained to readers that the Founding Fathers had imagined a thoroughly Biblical culture and society.  In 1777, she described, the Continental Congress ordered 30,000 English copies of the Bible for public distribution.  This proved, Cook argued, “how deeply the conviction that a knowledge of Biblical truth was essential to National life and health.”  The Chicago women’s group decided to see if the Bible still retained a prominent role in the nation’s public schools.  They surveyed state, county, and city school administrators.  The results of this survey satisfied the women that the Bible did indeed remain central to American public education.

Of course, we must recognize that the responses of these school superintendents tell us more about the political nature of the inquiry than about actual Bible reading in public schools in the late nineteenth century.  It shows us more about how these school politicians wanted to be seen than about what actually went on in classrooms.  These survey responses framed a political statement about the proper role for the Bible in 1898’s public schools, not a neutral batch of evidence.  Nevertheless, for that very reason the responses can tell us a great deal about contemporary attitudes.

The survey responses from my new home state, New York, described what Cook interpreted as a thoroughly Biblical public school culture.  A significant majority (53 of 94 respondents from across the state) reported Bible reading as an opening daily exercise in their schools.  Yet a sizeable minority (17 of 94) answered that the Bible was not read in their local schools.

In a neighboring state we see a similarly complicated response.  The state superintendent of public education in New Jersey, one CJ Baxter, responded that most schools in his Garden State read from the Bible.  Their reasons for doing so, he insisted, were simple.  Baxter told the Chicago Bible women that New Jerseyans “rejoiced under the reign of God, confident that He would ‘beautify the meek with salvation.’”  This answer from a state superintendent of education certainly sounds different from what one would expect from such an official today.  Not only did he agree with the surveyors that the Bible ought to be part of public education, but in 1898 he publicly aligned himself with the evangelical Protestant tradition.  With such attitudes at the top, it would not be surprising to find New Jersey’s teachers reading from the Bible in many public classrooms.  But it would also be unsurprising to find that significant numbers of parents and teachers quietly ignored their state leader’s loud evangelicalism.  It does not take a stretch of historical imagination to envision plenty of New Jersey schools in 1898 working out a far less evangelical attitude toward the practices in any given classroom.  And, in fact, even Superintendent Baxter confessed that “a few” of the school boards in New Jersey did not allow Bible reading in their public schools.

From Pennsylvania, the state superintendent reported that 15,780 out of 18,109 public schools in the Keystone State read from the Bible.  Such statistics delighted Cook and the CWEU.  But in other places, officials reported that Bible reading would not be allowed.  The curt responses from school leaders in Idaho and Utah, for example, demonstrated different regional attitudes.  John Parks, Utah’s state superintendent, offered a Mormon-powered interpretation of the use of Bible in public schools.  “While morality is taught and inculcated in all of the public schools of this State,” Parks told the Chicago Bible women, “the Bible is not read in any of them.  The belief seems to be quite wide-spread here that moral teaching in the public schools should be wholly non-sectarian, and many believe it to be impossible to introduce the Bible into the schools without at the same time removing one of the strongest guards against sectarianism.”

In 1898 Utah, “non-sectarian” meant no Bibles.  But in many eastern and southern states, non-sectarian had a much different meaning.  Most eastern and southern respondents felt that if the Bible could be used in a way that did not discriminate against or among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, it could be used freely.  In spite of the eager evangelical tone of the New Jersey superintendent, most of those who approved of reading from the Bible in public schools agreed it must be done “without note or comment.”  Most school Bible rules explicitly stated that the Bible’s words must be allowed to stand free of any imposed interpretation.

For example, Baltimore’s Bible rule, according to Cook’s report, specified that schools might use either the evangelical-friendly King James Version or the Catholic-friendly Douay version for their school readings.  The rule in New York City specified,

No school shall be entitled to, or receive any portion of the school moneys, in which the religious doctrines or tenets of any particular Christian, or other religious sect, shall be taught, inculcated, or practiced; or in which any book or books containing compositions favorable or prejudicial to the particular doctrines or tents of any particular Christian or other religious sect, or which shall refuse to permit the visits and examinations provided for in this chapter.  But nothing herein contained shall authorize the Board of Education to exclude the Holy Scriptures, without note or comment, or any selections therefrom from any of the schools provided for by this charter.”

In other words, most school leaders agreed there must be no sectarian books in schools.  In Utah, that meant no Bibles.  But in New York, it didn’t.  In New York, and many other eastern and southern states, the Bible stood out as a uniquely powerful book, beyond all sectarian controversy.  All people, the thinking went, could support the reading of the Bible in public schools, since it transcended all religious differences.

Such differences in New York City and Baltimore focused on Catholic/Protestant/Jewish disagreements about the nature and uses of the Bible.  Those in Utah and Idaho implied LDS/mainstream Protestant disagreements.  Reporting from North Carolina, State Superintendent of Public Instruction John L. Scarborough noted a different division.  The Bible, Scarborough responded to the survey, transcended racial differences, with a “native population, white and black, the majority of whom and their leaders, love the old Book, and its doctrines and morals.  God bless her people every one, and keep her in the old paths.”

Most of the survey respondents who wanted Bibles in their schools argued that the Bible ought to be read in public schools for fundamentally non-religious reasons.  Though some, like New Jersey’s and North Carolina’s superintendents, might have personally agreed with the Protestant evangelical mission of the Chicago Bible women, most framed their arguments in terms of moral indoctrination.  For instance, one school superintendent from Tennessee declared that the Bible was and must remain in Tennessee’s public schools.  He did not say this would lead children to heaven, though.  Instead, he insisted, “The Bible is our rock of public safety.”  Such arguments in favor of Bible reading in public schools seemed to resonate strongly in late-nineteenth-century America.  Cook summed up this patriotic morality by noting, “Even as all political parties of the United States honor our Flag and National Constitution, so should the people of every faith look to our Nation’s Bible for instruction in National righteousness.”

In Cook’s opinion, the Bible stood out as a unique moral guide.  She argued not only that it should be used in America’s public schools, but that it was used in a vast majority of those schools.  Yet her own evidence shows how complicated that use was.  In many parts of the country, the Bible in 1898 was seen in a way very similar to the way it is seen today: as a divisive religious book.  In states such as Utah, Idaho, and Montana, state superintendents responded that the use of the Bible in public schools would mean an un-American imposition of religion in public schools.  In many other regions, however, the Bible seems to have been embraced as an appropriate non-sectarian—or better yet, super-sectarian—book for use in public schools.

Where it was used, however, it generally took its place as a generic moral guide.  Most school leaders did not say they read from the Bible in order to lead children to heaven.  Much more common was the argument that public schools must read the Bible in order to lead children out of the gutter and the prison.

Bible in America: RAH interview with Robert Alter

Fundamentalists don’t always make the best historians.  American fundamentalists tend to insist on an American past that is far too rosy.  When she was still an up-and-coming Presidential nomination contender, for example, Michele Bachmann insisted that the Founding Fathers had “worked tirelessly” to end slavery.   Though she later tacked away from her statement, noting that she meant John Quincy Adams, it doesn’t take a slanted leftist historical perspective to notice that her claim is just not true.  The Founding Fathers may have accomplished a good deal.  Some of them may even have tried to improve the conditions of slaves, or to hurry the day when human chattel slavery would be abolished.  But overall, the issue of slavery was one that the Founders explicitly pushed off on a later generation.

However, as we’ve noted here in the past, one of the historical claims of fundamentalists in America lines up more neatly with the findings of non-fundamentalist academics.  On the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens recently interviewed scholar Robert Alter about his newish book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Alter’s book is focused on the ways Biblical themes and language infuse American literature and culture.  In the RAH interview, he makes the point that American culture in the past was thoroughly Biblicized:

“In nineteenth-century Protestant America, the Bible, almost always in the King James Version, was a constant companion for most people. They not only heard it in church, but very often it was regularly read out loud in the family circle at home.”

Fundamentalists often make the case that America is and should remain a Christian, Biblical society.  They insist on a vision of American history in which early European settlers and Founding Fathers planned to create a Christian Nation.  (For the leading example of these kinds of arguments, check out David Barton’s Wallbuilders articles.)

Academic historians have noted that these historical claims must be treated carefully.  John Fea, for instance, has argued that there was indeed a good deal of Christian intent among the founding generation, but this is often used by activists in unfair and ahistoric ways.

However, it is only fair to notice that in some cases, the vision of the past promoted by fundamentalist activists lines up neatly with that of non-fundamentalist scholars.  According to Robert Alter, at least, American culture in the past really was thoroughly infused with the KJV Bible.