Conservatives: Half Full? Half Empty?

Is the sky falling? Do conservatives think it is? I’ve been pondering these questions since Prof. Seth Cotlar asked about them recently in a tweet. When it comes to schools in twentieth-century America, if I had to pick one word (okay, two) to capture the heart and soul of conservatism, I’d pick “common sense” over “decline.”

cotlar tweet conservatismProf. Cotlar wondered,

According to every conservative since Burke, has ‘the west’ ever not been declining?

The question and several answers made me wonder about the specific tradition of educational conservatism. By and large, my research convinces me to side with Prof. Corey Robin, who pointed out that there has also been

An optimism, if you will, at the heart of the right.

When it comes to education and schools, certainly, the educational conservatives I studied were extremely optimistic or at least hopeful that they could reassert sensible control over their local public schools. Failing that, educational conservatives have generally been confident that they could open and operate their own schools, schools in which the terrible trends of progressive education and politics could be removed.cotlar tweet conservatism Corey Robin

Over and over, conservatives have built their campaigns on a deep and abiding optimism that their beliefs were merely common sense. Yes, conservative activists have often asserted, duped or devious progressives may have taken schools in terrible directions, but by and large conservatives insisted that their ideas were the true middle, the obvious common-sense educational program.

In the 1970s, for example, in the textbook controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservative pundit Elmer Fike didn’t quote Spengler or Burke or Burnham. Rather, he insisted that conservatism was the side of mainstream common sense. It was overreaching progressive bullies who had abandoned the center. For proof, Fike turned to the National Education Association’s 1918 Cardinal Principles report. In a full-page ad in a Charleston newspaper, Fike made the following claims:

We believe that the legitimate purpose of education is to promote the widely accepted Seven Cardinal Principles—command of fundamental processes (the three R’s), health, worthy home membership, vocational preparation, civic education, leisure time activities, and ethical character.  We believe that many of the controversial texts fail to promote these principles.  Rather, they tend to undermine the ethical character and social values of home and community accepted by a large majority of the people.

We believe that the continued use of these controversial books will result in antisocial behavior, further deterioration of social standards, increase in crime, and delinquency.

We believe that these books do not promote, in fact, are an attack on, the American system that has made this country the envy of the world.

While we abhor violence and shun demonstrations, we believe that the affect of these books is of sufficient consequence to warrant the use of any and all available legal means to have them removed.

Or consider the plans and prophecies of California’s Max Rafferty. Rafferty was a one-time State Superintendent of California’s public schools and a popular syndicated columnist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…he didn’t win.

He wrote in 1970 that his “California philosophy . . . has Deweyism in nationwide retreat.” It could be so successful, Rafferty insisted time and time again, because it was built on common sense about the true nature of education. Progressives simply misunderstood humans. It was conservatives who knew what to do. As Rafferty wrote in 1964,

Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1980s, too, Reagan’s second ed secretary William Bennett pushed his reforms as mere common sense. Though voters may think that education is controversial, Bennett liked to say, there was in fact “an American consensus” about what school should look like. Bennett specifically rejected pessimistic thinking, or, at least, he tried to stick progressives with the Chicken-Little label. As Bennett wrote in 1988,

Apocalyptic analyses and Chicken Little stories about an onrushing wave of ‘unteachable’ students should be rejected. In fact, the analyses and stories themselves—and the attitudes they reveal—belong at the top of any short list of real problems now facing American education. [Emphasis in original.]

For Bennett, as for Fike, Rafferty, and a host of other conservative educational activists in the twentieth century, hope sprang eternal. Yes, schools may be in bad shape, ideologically.  But in every decade, conservative pundits and parents rallied around the notion that their ideas represented beleaguered common sense.

How bout it? If you had to pick one word (or phrase) to capture the essence of conservative thinking, what would you use?

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Don McLeroy’s Long Game

What do Phyllis Schlafly, Moses, and country/western music have in common? They all get happy shout-outs in new history textbooks in Texas.  Or at least, that’s what conservative education leaders wanted.  As Politico reported yesterday, new history textbooks in Texas are causing a stir.  But this time, it is liberal activists, not conservative ones, who are denouncing the textbooks as biased and ideological.

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

The new textbooks were written to satisfy new standards approved years ago by the Texas State Board of Education.  Back then, conservatives on the board, led by the genial Don McLeroy and the obstreperous Cynthia Dunbar, pushed through new standards that warmed the hearts of conservative activists.

No one who watched Scott Thurman’s great documentary about these Revisionaries can forget the moments when the SBOE debated including more country-western music and less hip hop.  More positive statements about Reagan and the National Rifle Association.  More happy talk about America’s Christian past and less insistence on the horrors of racial segregation.

The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries

As Don McLeroy said at the time, “America is a special place and we need to be sure we communicate that to our children. . . . The foundational principles of our country are very biblical…. That needs to come out in the textbooks.”

Now those changes in the Texas standards have shown up in new social-studies textbooks.  As Stephanie Simons reports in Politico, liberals have complained that the new texts are woefully biased.  In some spots, the books apparently knock Affirmative Action.  They pooh-pooh the benefits of taxes.  They imply that racial segregation was really not so bad.

For those who know the history of America’s educational culture wars, this seems like a drastic turnabout.  Throughout the twentieth century, conservative school activists complained that they had been locked out of educational influence by a scheming leftist elite.  Textbooks and standards, conservatives complained, had been taken over by pinheaded socialist intellectuals.

In one of the most dramatic school controversies of the twentieth century, for instance, conservative leaders lamented the sordid roots of new textbooks.  That battle took place in Kanawha County, West Virginia, across the tumultuous school year 1974-1975.  Conservatives were disgusted by the sex and violence embedded in new literature textbooks.  But some of them weren’t surprised.

Conservative leader Elmer Fike told readers that the textbooks were bound to be rotten.  In Fike’s opinion, conservatives didn’t even need to read the books.  As he explained,

You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

As the Kanawha County battle ground on, California’s conservative celebrity schoolman Max Rafferty came to town.  Rafferty, too, told a crowd of West Virginians that they shouldn’t put any faith in textbook publishers.  Those publishers, Rafferty explained, only wanted to make a buck.  As he put it,

They have no particular desire to reform anybody, do anybody any good or find a pathway to heaven.

These days—in Texas at least—the shoe is on the other foot.  The conservative standards that the state adopted in 2010 have pushed market-conscious textbook publishers to come up with books that meet them.  And at least some conservatives are delighted with the success of their long game.  As conservative school board member David Bradley told journalist Stephanie Simon, liberals who complain about biased textbooks can lump it.  “They need to put on their big-girl panties,” Bradley crowed, “and go run for office.”

 

 

Authority and Education

When is a school not a school?

According to Anthony Esolen, a school forfeits its rights to that name when it tries to abandon its authority over its students.

Esolen’s essay in Public Discourse is roughly a year old, but I came across it recently.  Esolen reviews Philippe Beneton’s Equality by Default and insists, among other things, that true education requires a submission of student to the authority of the teacher and the school.

For those of us struggling to understand the conservative tradition in American education, Esolen’s article is worth reading in its entirety.  Esolen articulates a position that has long been at the root of American protest against the excesses of progressive education.

True teachers must take on the burden of authority, Esolen believes.  This is not autocracy, but rather a humble assumption of responsibility for the formation of the young students in teachers’ care.  Such authentic, authoritarian teachers, Esolen argues,

“would no doubt have furrowed their brows to try to make the least sense of the educational patois of our day, which insists that school be ‘child-centered.’ It would be like asking a hymn to be ‘choir-centered,’ when the very purpose of a hymn is to bring the singers out of themselves, in devotion. So too the ‘child-centered’ classroom, if indeed it focuses on the tastes and habits of the children who happen to be there, mistakes both the nature of the child and the purpose of education. It ignores what the child, as a human person, most needs, and that is to give himself in love to what transcends his personality or his class or his age.”

Esolen articulates in this essay the philosophic core of traditionalist education.  Before we seek to reform our schools, Esolen argues, we need to clarify the true purpose of education.  “If the object is to produce an elite cadre of technicians,” Esolen argues, “. . . then I fail to see why people should support schools at all.”  True education, Esolen insists, consists of “the handing on of culture, against which the mass phenomena of our time, and the facile reductions of scientistic academe, array themselves in enmity.”

As I argue in the book I’m currently working on, tentatively titled The Other School Reformers, this notion has lodged squarely at the heart of conservative reform movements in American education throughout the twentieth century.  Though many activists and politicians could not express the idea as elegantly and coherently as Esolen does in this essay, conservative activists fighting against evolutionism, socialism, “sexualityism,” secular humanism, progressivism, and other perceived cultural problems in America’s schools usually based their protest on the notion that such doctrines fundamentally subvert the true purpose of education.

To cite just one example from the textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974, conservative businessman and activist Elmer Fike defined the two sides in any education controvery as follows:

“The traditionalists perceive education as a process of teaching the child the basic knowledge and skills.  Since some indoctrination is inevitable, it should promote the accepted social attitudes and morals of the society in which the child lives.  The job of the schools is considered to be the transmission of the tradition of the parents to the children in order to preserve society. . . .The progressives claim to object to any indoctrination because it gives too much power to the agency that determines the thrust of the indoctrination and because it does not teach the child how to examine ideas critically.  They would prefer that the child be allowed to examine all philosophies with a minimum of guidance.  Thus, the child develops the ability to choose what is best and will not, as a mature adult, be easily misled or indoctrinated by demagogues who offer simple solutions.  The philosophy is most easily summed up by the statement, ‘Teach the child how to think, not what to think.’  The progressives also prefer a minimum of discipline and greater freedom for the student to decide what or how he will study.”

For Fike, as for Esolen and generation of conservative educational activists, the first goal of school reform must be a thorough examination of the true purpose of education.  At their core, battles over sex ed, prayer in schools, and evolution education often boil down to competing visions.  Are schools first meant to pass along the cultural inheritance of our civilization?  Or are they mean to train children to challenge all inherited notions?

Does Loving the Bible Make Americans Racist?

Yesterday on GetReligion Terry Mattingly asked a hard question: “does anyone have any hard evidence that moral conservatives are more likely to be racists?”

Mattingly critiqued a pre-election story on NPR, in which David Cohen, a University of Akron political scientist, opined that President Obama’s race was a factor for many conservative voters.

Mattingly suggests issues such as abortion weigh more heavily on the decisions of “moral conservatives” than do issues of race.

The connection between white religious conservatives and racism is one I’ve been wrestling with lately in a book chapter I’m working on.  In the 1974 school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, white conservative protesters (usually) insisted they were not racist.  Yet their liberal/progressive opponents, including an investigating committee from the National Education Association, usually assumed that they were.

It was a generation ago, to be sure, but in the 1974 controversy, some book protesters did indeed seem to be motivated largely by anti-African American racism.  For instance, the local Ku Klux Klan held sympathy rallies for the conservative protesters.

But other conservative protesters presented what seems to me to be solid evidence for their anti-racist conservatism.  Many religious protesters, such as Karl Priest, Avis Hill, and Ezra Graley, noted the racial balance of their church communities, including African Americans in leadership roles.

More secular protesters such as Elmer Fike noted that conservatives voted in large numbers for a conservative African American candidate for the state legislature, while liberals did not.*

Many liberals dismiss all such conservative claims of anti-racism as mere window dressing.  As we’ve discussed here recently, there is a long tradition among conservatives of using coded language to express racist sentiments in an apparently non-racist way.

What would it take for conservative anti-racism to be taken seriously?  One comment on Mattingly’s essay noted a 2007 PhD dissertation by Inna Burdein at SUNY-Stony Brook, “Principled Conservatives or Covert Racists.”  In her study, Burdein concluded that social conservatives tend to privilege racial considerations, while economic conservatives did not.  In other words, Burdein found that white “moral conservatives”–what we’re calling Fundamentalist America–would tend not to vote for African American candidates.

I don’t think Mattingly would insist that all white “moral conservatives” would vote for an African American President.  Some white conservatives are likely motivated by racism, to some degree.  But I think Mattingly’s question is still very important.  It does not seem that NPR’s story consulted work such as Burdein’s.  Commentators such as David Cohen simply take for granted the preeminence of white racism in conservative politics.

*This claim is reproduced in James Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976), pg. 171.