Revolution Is (Not) Coming to a Classroom Near You!

Time for conservatives to freak out? No, not really, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the Chicken Little-ism of Gilbert T. Sewall in the American Conservative. As have conservatives for a full century now, Sewall makes a fundamental mistake when it comes to American education.

Why is Sewall freaking out? It seems California has introduced a new curricular requirement to its public schools. Soon, to graduate from high schools Californians will have to complete an Ethnic Studies class. What will it mean? According to Sewall, it will be nothing less than

a revolutionary storm sweeping through educational leadership in the nation’s legislatures and metro school districts.

Except…it won’t. Of course it won’t. For good or ill, no single curricular requirement can have that much impact on the goings-on in America’s classroom.

What is Sewall worried about? As he describes,

Ethnic Studies is the “disciplinary, loving, and critical praxis of holistic humanity.” It is the study of “intersectional and ancestral roots, coloniality, hegemony and a dignified world where many worlds fit.” It “critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.” . . .

“The foundational values of Ethnic Studies are housed in the conceptual model of the ‘double helix,’” the text professes, “which interweaves holistic humanization and critical consciousness.” The proposed course of study, while promising to help with the “eradication of bigotry, hate, and racism” and the promotion of “socio-emotional development and wellness,” seems intended mainly to stir ill will and delegitimize the nation’s white majority. The conviction that malign U.S. wealth and power exist at the expense of certified underdogs undergirds the entire document.

So, should conservatives panic? For that matter, should progressives celebrate? No and no. Why not? A little background: As I argued in my history of American educational conservatism, conservatives have long assumed that progressive school rhetoric reflected a revolutionary new reality in America’s classrooms. It doesn’t and it never has.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

How to panic, c. 1949.

Consider, for example, the alarmist language of 1940s pundit Allen Zoll. Zoll was a hard-right hack who managed to build a mailing list of many respectable thinkers and activists. In his pamphlets, he snipped a few bits of progressive-ed language and baked them into an apocalyptic meringue for his readers. Consider this snippet from Progressive Education Increases Delinquency:

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this [progressive education] is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.

We don’t even need to argue that progressive classroom methods will do no such thing. All we have to do this morning is point out that such progressive methods never had anything near the influence Zoll assumed they did. Like many of his conservative allies, Allen Zoll read a few progressive pamphlets then told his many readers that those ideas reflected a terrifying new revolutionary reality in America’s classrooms.

They didn’t then and they don’t now. Think about it: If changing a curriculum could have sweeping revolutionary changes in the ways people think, we would have long ago have abolished both racism and radical young-earth creationism.

Exhibit A: When it comes to creationism, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Erik Plutzer noted, state standards for teaching evolutionary theory are generally pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that people are really learning evolutionary theory in schools. Obvs.

Exhibit B: As for racism, historian Zoe Burkholder argued that anti-racist academic activists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead had some real success introducing anti-racist materials in the New York City curriculum, way back in the 1940s. Did that mean that racism was eliminated? Sadly, no.

The point here is not that anti-racist or pro-evolution curriculum is a bad idea. Personally, I agree that every student should be exposed to such ideas. But just adding an idea to a mandated curriculum does not now and has not ever resulted in sweeping changes in the things people actually learn in school.

For me and my progressive friends, that can come as a sad and sobering wake-up call. For some conservatives, like Gilbert Sewall, it should come as a heavy dose of reassurance.

Because unlike what Sewall predicts, this change in California curriculum does not herald the destruction of traditional values or hierarchies. California, regardless of what Sewall says, has not really “abandon[ed] teaching and learning in favor of political indoctrination.”

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with Sewall. No one would read his article if he said, “I don’t like this change but it’s not really that big of a deal.” As have conservative pundits for a century now, Sewall chose to inflate the real danger in order to attract anxious readers.

However, this kind of educational alarmism is a problem. It leads readers to conclude that something profound has gone horribly wrong with America’s schools. Even when they see counter-evidence with their own eyes, Americans tend to listen to the unfounded panic-mongering of writers like Sewall instead of calmer, boringer voices.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

What should we do instead? It’s not easy, but it is obvious. Instead of browsing through state mandates, we should get to know real schools. We should visit local schools, attend school-board meetings, and talk with teachers and neighbors about what happens on a day-to-day basis. If more people did that, there would less panic and more pragmatism in every discussion of public education.


IN THE NEWS: Arizona Fights the Cult of Multiculturalism

In today’s New York Times, you’ll find an update on Arizona’s remarkable effort to purge its schools of what educational traditionalists might call “The Cult of Multiculturalism.”  We’ve written about traditionalist objections to multicultural ideology here, here, and here.  Arizona’s law makes these theoretic objections legally enforceable.

Today’s article focuses on the dispute between the state and the Tucson school district.  Since January 1st, the school district has been ordered to enforce Arizona’s 2010 law.  According to the Huffington Post, Judge Lewis Kowal agreed with the state in late December that Tucson’s Mexican-Studies curriculum was guilty of “actively presenting material in a biased, political and emotionally charged manner.”

The law itself, passed two years ago, declared that no school curricula in Arizona could legally

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The state superintendent of education at the time, Tom Horne, planned an energetic enforcement of the law.  According to a Fox News story, Horne declared in 2010,

Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds.  This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.

In today’s New York Times story, John Huppenthal, the new state superintendent of public instruction, told a reporter he viewed the enforcement of the law as a war.  Quoth Huppenthal, “This is the eternal battle, the eternal battle of all time, the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality.”

We can’t help but wonder what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would make of this law.  In his 1998 book The Disuniting of America the eminent historian denounced the “cult of ethnicity [that] has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities to denounce the goal of assimilation, to challenge the concept of ‘one people,’ and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities.”

But in Arizona’s case, the fight against the tendency of multicultural education to promote what Schlesinger called the “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life” has included some ideologically extraneous elements and politically unpalatable images.

First of all, the law itself targets not only ethnic-studies classes, but includes a remarkably broad shot at any schooling that “promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government.”  This boilerplate antiradical language would feel entirely at home in earlier generations of legislative attempts to control schooling.  In the 1920s, for example, the bundle of state laws that were generally called “anti-evolution” actually had a much broader goal.  They hoped not only to ban evolution but to assert traditional Protestant control of public schooling.  As I argued in my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, school laws with these limitless mandates are more of a cultural statement than a practical attempt at crafting educational policy.

For example, a law passed by the US Congress in 1924 prohibited teachers in Washington DC from any teaching that smacked “of partisan politics, disrespect for the Holy Bible, or that ours is an inferior form of government.”  The goal was more a statement of support for traditional values than to regulate school policy.  Arizona’s inclusion of a clause banning anti-US-ism seems similarly vague and symbolic.

Also, as Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal made clear, this law is part of a broader political and cultural effort to battle not only multiculturalism, but any perceived victory by “the forces of collectivism.”  Not only does this bundle the Arizona law into a broader package of anti-leftist activism, but it also reflects the simple political partisanship behind Arizona’s efforts.

Part of the energy behind the 2010 law came from a perceived effort by Democratic activists to use ethnic-studies programs as a way to turn Latinos against the Republican Party.  One of the reasons for the law was Republican outrage about a speech at Tucson High School by activist Dolores Huerta in which she assured students, “Republicans Hate Latinos.”

Republican lawmakers have united behind this school law as more than a way to keep schools from teaching what Schlesinger denounced as the “cult of ethnicity.”  They also see the programs as part of a deliberate partisan effort to undermine their influence with Latino voters.

However, their efforts might do more to undermine that influence than any ethnic-studies programs ever could.  It doesn’t take a political genius to see the electoral damage that might result from the image of school administrators going into classrooms in Tucson collecting copies of seven prohibited books.  Such stormtrooper tactics to save children from the likes of Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed  and F. Arturo Rosales’ Chicano! The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement spell political suicide.

I imagine that Schlesinger and others who oppose the ideological overreach of multiculturalist education might recoil from these heavy-handed partisan attempts to control Tucson’s schools.  Such critics of multiculturalism, I imagine, would hope that the effort to ban aggressive assertions of the “cult of ethnicity” must only limit itself to the realm of ideas, not to knee-jerk partisan politics and twenty-first century book burnings.