Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.


…He’s Sitting over There

The reviews keep coming in! My German is more than a little rusty, but your humble editor noted this morning a new review of The Other School Reformers on the H-Soz-u-Cult page. Thanks to Lukas Boser Hofmann and the H-Soz-u-Cult list.

Does he like it? If my translation can be trusted, then yes indeed. He raises central questions and offers some helpful ideas.

With his Continental perspective, Boser points out a fair criticism. My book really does focus on the experience of American activists and traditions. As he suggests, we would all profit from comparative cross-national studies. As he asks, how have conservative ideas formed European educational policies? How have different nations struggled to determine the content of their curricula? Such comparisons would indeed offer a more comprehensive definition of what it has meant to be “conservative,” about education or any other issue.

I’m grateful for Boser’s claim that my book succeeds in giving conservatism and conservative activists a more accurate place in educational history. (At least, that’s my understanding of this section:

dem es den Konservativen einen Platz im grand narrative der US-amerikanischen Schulgeschichte einräumt. Dieses grand narrative wird von Laats durch die Verknüpfung der vier zeitlich und örtlich unabhängigen Einzelfallstudien und durch den Einbezug der Konservativen als wichtige Akteure ausgebaut und gestärkt und nicht etwa in Frage gestellt.

Maybe the SAGLRROILYBYGTH can offer a clearer translation. As I read it, though, Boser generously says that I’ve succeeded in incorporating conservatism into the “grand narrative” of American educational history. For me, after all, the primary motivation for the book was to find out why conservatives show up in so many educational histories as merely pesky gadflies, roadblocks in the inevitable progress of progressive education.  In my experience, at least, conservatives have played a much stronger leading role in shaping the course of American education.

At the end, Boser notes my sloppy style and predilection for puns (“seinen Hang zu Wortspielereien und Alliterationen – beispielsweise in den Kapitelüberschriften – und den manchmal etwas saloppen Stil.”) Ouch. In spite of such flaws, though, Boser concludes that my book is overall entertaining (“unterhaltsame”).

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, if I can’t be punny, I won’t bother. I wouldn’t like to be thought of as a sloppy writer, though.

In the end, I’m extremely gratified to hear that I managed to make a potentially dry and jargon-y book more pleasant to read, at least in Dr. Boser’s opinion.

Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?

Shelfies II: Electric Boogaloo

Keep those shelfies pouring in!  Send ILYBYGTH a snapshot of your bookshelf.  What is on there?  Why?

Today we’re sharing our second shelfie.  Last time we posted our front-and-center pile of books.  This time, we’re going just to the left.

What's on YOUR shelf?

What’s on YOUR shelf?

Starting at the top, we have George Nash’s crucial 1976 Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.  Everyone who hopes to understand American conservatism should read this volume.  Nash famously argued that the postwar conservative intellectual movement brought together disparate strains of conservative thinking into a consciously fusionist effort.  Burkean traditionalists allied with libertarians and anti-communists to make a newly powerful movement.  The book itself is terrific, though some later readers have assumed that Nash was speaking more broadly than he was.  See below.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind has been just as potent a book as Nash’s among conservative nerds.  Writing in the 1950s, Kirk attempted to establish a long and unbroken chain of conservative intellectualism from Edmund Burke through the mid-twentieth century.  Along the way, Kirk emphasizes an idiosyncratic group of writers and politicians as leaders of conservatism, and repositions conservatism as a central tradition of American life and letters, rather than as a collection of fringe loudmouths.

I also like David Farber’s The Rise and Fall of American Conservatism.   Last spring, I taught a senior seminar for history majors in the history of American conservatism.  I waffled on whether to make Farber’s book the central narrative.  In the end, I chose to have students read Kirk instead.  Why?  Unlike Kirk, Farber writes from outside the movement.  He defines conservatism more narrowly, and in a way that would not challenge the thinking of the undergrads, I decided.  For Farber, conservatism consists mainly of a political fight against “liberalism.”  Conservatism got its start, Farber argued, with Robert Taft’s fight against the New Deal’s big-government approach to social welfare.  To many of the students I worked with, Reagan-esque anti-government conservatism is the only kind they know.  Farber’s book is a great history of that sort of conservatism.  But I wanted to get smart sophisticated students to make the definition of conservatism their central intellectual challenge.  Farber’s book made it too easy for students to think that Reagan’s style of conservatism was the ONLY definition of conservatism.

Jerome Himmelstein’s To the Right is a sociological look at the boundaries of American conservatism.  It is worth reading.  IMHO, though, it takes Nash’s definition too glibly as its starting point.  Himmelstein assumes too comfortably that “conservatism” is nothing more nor less than the definition William F. Buckley and his comrades gave it in the 1940s and 1950s.  Too simple.

Starting with the blue-bound dissertations on the left, I recommend two: Kenneth K. Bailey’s Anti-Evolution Crusade of the Nineteen-Twenties (PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1954); and Ferenc M. Szasz, “Three Fundamentalist Leaders: The Roles of William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and William Jennings Bryan in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy ,” (PhD dissertation, University of Rochester, 1969).  Historians of religion will likely know Szasz’s name; he went on to a glorious academic career.  His dissertation study of these three leaders is still worth reading.  Bailey’s dissertation suffers from a simplistic understanding of the nature of fundamentalism, but his collection of newspaper accounts is still unbeaten.  I relied on both of these dissertation while writing my dissertation book.  For everyone interested in 1920s fundamentalism and anti-evolution, they are worth hunting down.

Laurence Moore’s Religious Outsiders is also required reading.  Though these days no historian of religion would say that Moore’s “outsiders” don’t get academic attention, at the time Moore’s book came out it pushed the field in healthy new directions.

I don’t know why James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage doesn’t get more attention.  It is one of my favorite academic histories.  Gilbert takes a look in this book at a central question for all of us interested in education and culture.  Why was there such an explosion of anxiety in the mid-twentieth century about crime and criminality among young people?

Of course, I have the old dog-eared copy of Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture relegated to a side position now that I’ve finally purchased the 2006 revised edition.

Educational historians out there will recognize Jackie Blount’s Destined to Rule the Schools.  Among educational historians, one of the most studied and fruitful lines of questioning has been the complicated relationship between femininity and schooling.  On the one hand, the systematization of public schooling often put men principals and superintendents in charge of female classroom teachers.  Women were seen as “naturally” more fit for caring for young people; men were seen as more fit for running the show.  But as Blount explores, many women were able to use stereotypes of femininity to build a professional network as school administrators as well.

Next up, two of Barry Hankins’ titles, American Evangelicals and Francis Schaeffer.  For people with an interest in the history of American evangelicalism, I can’t recommend the first title strongly enough.  Hankins is a terrific writer and a keen historian.  In this book he combines readability with academic thoroughness, which is hard to do.  And, as readers are aware, there are few intellectual figures as central as Schaeffer to the mind of evangelical America.  As you can see, I ended up with an extra copy somehow.  If anyone would like it, just let me know; I’ll be happy to put it in the mail for you if you send your land address.

It’s almost impossible to see hidden in there, but I also like Stephen Pyne’s Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.  There are a lot of “so-you-want-to-write-a-dissertation” books out there, and I’m sure every nerd has his or her favorite.  I like Pyne’s book for its combination of nitty-gritty advice and head-in-the-clouds ambition.  It’s not easy to remember how difficult it can be for beginners to write academic history.  I always recommend Pyne’s book for graduate students with whom I work.  They never have any free time for extra reading, but I think Pyne’s guide is worth their time.

Last but not least, I’ve got Barry Franklin’s From ‘Backwardness’ to ‘At-Risk.’ I got this book to use with my doctoral history-of-ed class.  In the end, it got bumped from the syllabus.  But the book is still very much worth reading for those interested in educational history.  As the title suggests, it looks at the history of what we now call “special education.”  In addition to telling this story, though, Franklin offers insights into the way educational policy has been framed and the ways students have been defined.

OK, nuf sed!  Send in your shelfies so we can all get a sense of what you’ve got on your shelf and why.



It’s Your Own Fault

It’s your own fault if you’re bored this fall.

Binghamton University is hosting some events that will certainly be of interest to all ILYBYGTH readers.

For those in the area, there will be some great ways to think and discuss the possible meanings of American educational conservatism.

I’ll keep the list updated, but so far there are three talks of note.  All of them are free and open to the public.

1.) September 11, noon-1:30, IASH conference room, Library North 1106: Adam Laats, “‘Democracy’ and American Education, 1930-1960.”

Yours truly will be presenting some ideas from my current book about American educational conservatism in the twentieth century.  Specifically, I’ll be talking about the ways conservative activists in groups such as the American Legion framed “democracy” in strikingly different ways than did progressive educational thinkers such as John Dewey.  The talk will be part of the series of faculty fellows’ talks at Binghamton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

2.) September 24, 5-6:15, specific topic TBA: Mario Rios Perez.

I’m not sure what he’ll be talking about, but Professor Perez (of Syracuse University) has done some great work with the history of schooling in Chicago.

3.) November 18, 5:00: Warren Douglas Allmon, “Creationism in 2013: Not in the Headlines but Never Far Away.”

Professor Allmon will be talking as part of the EVoS series of Monday seminars.  He is a paleontologist at Cornell, our neighbor to the north.  When I heard he was coming to our friendly campus, I looked up his sort-of recent article about the culture of creationism in Evolution: Education and Outreach.  In that article, Professor Allmon makes the powerful point that resistance to evolution is about more than just the knee-jerk “religion vs. science” clichés that we hear so often.  He argues that Americans’ resistance to evolution comes from five distinct categories.  As Allmon argues, “this multiplicity of causes is not sufficiently appreciated by many scientists, educators, and journalists, and the widespread rejection of evolution is a much more complicated problem than many of these front-line practitioners think it is.”

Hear hear!  Can’t wait to hear his talk in November.

Hope to see you there…