Is Zinn the Darwin of the History World?

There are few things more troubling than a book ban.  Yet conservative activists keep trying to ban Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.  The latest effort takes place in Arkansas.  To us, this raises a tricky question: Is Zinn the Darwin of the history world?

Of course, that’s not the only question that might keep us up at night.  We might ask why this particular book is so offensive to conservatives.  We might even ask how banning books and ideas unites the left and the right these days.

Maybe we’ll get to those questions some fine day.  Today, though, we want to ask about the Zinn/evolution connection.

Who’s afraid of the big bad Zinn?

First, some catch up: If you don’t know Howard Zinn, you might get a tax break for your energy-saving under-a-rock lifestyle.  His People’s History has long been touted as a welcome correction to the flag-waving, Bible-thumping, chest-beating stories that so often get taught in US History classes.  In Zinn’s history, European explorers aren’t heroes, but exploiters and rapists.  In Zinn’s telling, “Manifest Destiny” was nothing but a shill for robbery and genocide.  In a word, Zinn offered a leftist counter-history to the standard textbook tale.

And opposition to Zinn has been ferocious.  A few years back, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels tried to ban the book from Indiana.  And now, Representative Kim Hendren has introduced a bill in Arkansas to ban everything written by Zinn since 1959.

As I argued in my book The Other School Reformers, conservative educational activists have always been a fractious bunch.  On one thing, though, they agreed without even having to talk about it: Schools must be “safe spaces” for students.  They must not introduce ideas that shake students’ religious faith, patriotic pride, or traditional notions of family.

The most obvious intellectual threat to the conservative vision of proper education has been evolution.  Since the 1920s, conservatives worked hard—often with great success—to have evolutionary theory banned or watered down in American public schools.

But history books have often come under fire, too.  Long before Zinn freaked out the squares with his People’s History, Harold Rugg’s textbooks were purged from millions of American schools.  Rugg’s books were yanked from shelves, and one hapless school board member in my sunny hometown of Binghamton, New York suggested they should be piled up and burned.

The parallels seem striking.  Like evolution, leftist history is seen as a deadly threat, a spiritual and intellectual contaminant.  Many conservative activists think they must eliminate it entirely in order to protect students.  Consider former Governor Mitch Daniels’ comments from Indiana.  “How do we get rid of [A People’s History],” Daniels asked, “before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or its neo-Darwinian progeny, many conservatives see Zinn’s historical ideas as a terrible threat to their children’s well-being.  They might well want their children to consider a broad range of diverse ideas, but Zinn’s telling of US history, like Darwin’s telling of the origins of humanity, seems to veer far out of bounds of acceptable thinking.  Like evolutionary theory, Zinn’s history sparks an immediate fear among conservatives.  Some activists worry that mere exposure to such ideas will harm their children.

Look out, children!

For reasons like these, it seems fair to conclude that Zinn does indeed serve as a sort of Darwin of the historical world.  Zinn’s vision of US history seems to match Darwin’s vision of speciation, in the perceived intellectual threat it poses to the helpless children of conservative America.

But we can’t stop there.  There are also important differences between Zinn and Darwin.  When it comes to evolutionary theory, academic biologists agree: the modern evolutionary synthesis is our best current understanding of speciation.  Banning evolution, or even watering it down by suggesting that it is only one idea out of many equals, means giving schoolkids worse science.

Fans of Zinn’s People’s History can’t say the same thing.  True, the American Historical Association condemned Governor Daniels’ ban.  But historians as a whole don’t love Zinn’s book.  Sam Wineburg, for example, has famously pointed out the problems with Zinn’s work.  Michael Kazin, too, agreed that Zinn’s book was “stronger on polemical passion than historical insight.”  Neither Kazin nor Wineburg liked Indiana’s attempted ban, but neither of them loved Zinn’s book, either.

So as Arkansas gears up to debate (again) the notion of banning leftist history, we can agree that banning Zinn is a bad idea.  Straight-up dumb.  But we don’t want to fall into the obvious trap.  Zinn is no Darwin.  Banning evolution means banning science.  Banning Zinn doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating good history.

Let’s say it again: Banning Zinn is a terrible idea.  It is good for students to consider different ideas about history.  His book, though, should be understood for what it is: a political book about history, not a history book about politics.

Does Life Imply Creation? Don McLeroy Says Yes

Should mainstream scientists debate with creationists?  This morning we have another chance to discuss the nature of life, science, and evolution with a prominent creationist intellectual. Will anyone take it?

Don McLeroy

Science, c’est moi…

Some mainstream scientists affect a pose of exhaustion. Speaking with creationists, they say, is not worth the effort. Some folks criticize popularizers such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy” for deigning to debate young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Doing so, critics say, only feeds creationist pretensions to the label “science.” Doing so, critics insist, only gives creationists a win; it falsely implies that evolution is “controversial,” a controversy worth sharing in America’s classrooms.

Dr. Don McLeroy, erstwhile head of the Texas State Board of Education, has shared an essay he’s penned about the deficiencies of materialism.

I hope readers will take time to read and consider Dr. McLeroy’s intellectual claims. Dr. McLeroy, after all, is not your run-of-the-mill creationist. While other creationists fume and fuss over new evolution-heavy textbooks, Dr. McLeroy encourages kids to read em. Why? Because, Dr. McLeroy thinks, the truth will out. If students read about evolutionary science, they will quickly see that the evolutionary emperor has no clothes.

In his essay, Dr. McLeroy insists that only “biblical explanations” pass the test of science. As he puts it,

materialist explanations concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness, fail the test of science.

Dr. McLeroy claims allies such as Richard Lewontin, who insisted in 1997 that only our “prior commitment” to materialism makes it seem convincing.

If we can only lay aside for a moment our faulty assumptions in favor of materialism, McLeroy argues, we can see how empty they really are. For example, the astounding suggestion that something—everything—could come out of nothingness only makes sense if we assume that God is involved as the Uncreated Creator.

As McLeroy concludes,

we do see a cosmos that had a beginning and thus had a cause; we do see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we do see creatures with a life and not just a living form; and we do see man in a separate class from all the other unique creatures. All these simple observations support the ideas of Genesis; they pass the test of science. Therefore, why not give the biblical explanations a better look? As [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

Are you convinced? More important, if you’re not convinced, why not?

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Be a Creationist on Campus…

Who’s the racist? In creation/evolution debates these days, you’re likely to hear creationists tar evolution as a racist idea. Recently, however, young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham complains that creationist anti-racism has now been labeled a racial “microaggression.”

It has long been a favorite claim of creationist activists. At the end of the twentieth century, for example, veteran creationist campaigner Jerry Bergman argued that Darwin’s evolutionary ideas led in a direct line to the Nazi Holocaust. From the Institute for Creation Research, too, Henry Morris insisted that creationists were the true anti-racists, since they believed all humans came from the same original two ancestors.

Small wonder, then, that creationists today are flummoxed by their renewed role as racists. Ken Ham took umbrage at a new list of microaggressions published by the University of California. As have many campus commentators, the UC list warns that some statements intended to be innocent or race-neutral may actually carry undertones of white privilege. For instance, to say that race doesn’t matter, or that one does not believe in race, can be seen by some as a fair-minded anti-racist statement. For others, however, such “color-blind” statements de-legitimize the unique difficulties experienced by racial minorities.

Ken Ham does not seem interested in those sorts of distinctions. Rather, he tackles the UC accusation head-on, insisting that his creationist anti-racism is the only truly scientific position. As he puts it,

Really, “races” is just an “evolutionized” term we shouldn’t use anymore because the idea is simply not true. So for the University of California to say that we shouldn’t say there’s only one race flies in the face of what observational science has clearly shown to be true! And of course, the Bible makes it obvious there is only one race because all humans are descended from Adam! The University of California (and many other campuses) is trying to suppress certain ideas and promote only one worldview—even contrary to observational science. Our starting point really does matter!

To this reporter, Ham’s umbrage seems to miss the point. By the time California students had time to be offended by his creationist anti-racist microaggression, wouldn’t they already be even more put out by his macro-aggressive creationist evangelism?

Intelligent Design?  Evolution?  Depends on your Point of The View

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we notice that yesterday’s episode of The View took on the topics of creationism, evolution, and intelligent design.

The discussion had been roiling about presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson.  One of the personalities opined that Carson could not be considered intelligent, since he believed in creationism.

At that, Candace Cameron Bruce interrupted to point out that plenty of intelligent people—plenty of scientists—do believe in creation and do embrace intelligent design.

The panel seemed split, with two for creationism, two for evolution, and Whoopi Goldberg insisting we can have both.

Ignorance Unto Death

It is a dilemma at the heart of Christian faith: To know or to obey? The original sin of Adam & Eve, after all, was to become as gods by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This week, a state supreme court judge in Oregon faced the unenviable task of ruling whether faithful people knew by faith or by fact. Not surprisingly, she punted. Especially in schools and universities, questions of knowledge and faith will continue to bedevil us all. I’m arguing in upcoming books that religious people deserve considerable wiggle room when it comes to requiring knowledge about evolution or US history, but it’s not impossible for policy-makers to be bolder than they have been.

What did you know? And when did you know it?

What did you know? And when did you know it?

In the Oregon case, two parents from a strict religious sect were convicted in 2011 in the death of their infant son David. The boy had been born prematurely. The parents did not call for medical help but rather treated David at home. After nine hours, David died. Were the parents criminally liable for their faith-based failure to get medical help?

Oregon Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder recently said yes. Sort of.

For our purposes, the most intriguing elements of this case are the tangled web of meanings in this case surrounding faith and knowledge. If the parents “knowingly” allowed their baby to suffer from treatable ailments, according to Oregon law, then they are criminally liable. But they hoped to force the state to prove that they “knew” it. They hoped to force the government to prove that they must know something that they refused to know.

Justice Linder did not decide the big question. Instead, she noted that the parents defended their actions with a different set of knowledge claims. The parents said they did not know the baby was sick. They said he appeared healthy until the very last minute. Doctors disagreed. They said any reasonable person could have discerned that the baby was in severe medical crisis.

In other words, the parents did not claim that they “knew” their faith could save the baby. They said instead that they didn’t “know” he was so very sick. The parents DID insist that the state had to prove that they “knowingly” refused care to their baby. As Linder summarized,

At trial, defendants argued that, because they withheld medical treatment from David based on their religious beliefs, the Oregon Constitution requires the state to prove that they acted “knowingly”—that is, they knew that David would die if they relied on prayer alone and, despite that knowledge, failed to seek medical treatment for him.

Justice Linder affirmed earlier court decisions that the parents were guilty of criminal neglect for their actions. The state, she ruled, did not have to prove that they “knew” of the harm they caused. But she did not decide if the parents must have known something they refused to know.

The complexity of the case shows yet again the durability of questions of knowledge and faith. Can the government insist that parents provide medical care for their children? In Oregon, yes. But can the government insist that parents “knew” their child needed medical care? That is a far more difficult question, and one that this ruling painstakingly sidesteps.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, nowhere do these questions of faith and knowledge clash more regularly and predictably than in the area of education. Can the government require that students “know” evolution? …that kids “know” how to prevent sexual transmitted infections? …that kids “know” how the first humans came to North America?   Also, how have private schools and universities attempted to shield young people from these sorts of knowledge?

Alas, secular progressive types like me cannot relax and claim that public schools should always promote knowledge over ignorance. After all, I agree that certain types of knowledge are not appropriate for certain groups of students. For example, we should teach all children about horrifying historical episodes, such as lynching in the USA or the Holocaust.   But we should not expose young children to gruesome images of charred corpses, sexually mutilated before being lynched. At least, I don’t think we should.

Such images are true. People should know about them. But I do not think seven-year-old children should be exposed to that sort of knowledge. I agree that schools should work to keep young children ignorant about such knowledge, even though I acknowledge that it is true and important.

The difference, in other words, is not that conservative religious people want to keep knowledge from children, while progressive secular folks want to give knowledge to children. The difference is only in what sorts of knowledge we want to shield students from, and how.

As I argue in a chapter in an upcoming book about ignorance and education, we can see these questions starkly exposed in the history of curriculum for private conservative evangelical schools. I looked at US History textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book. In each case, from the 1980s to the end of the twentieth century, publishers made claims about historical knowledge in each succeeding edition that were farther and farther afield from mainstream historical thinking.

Know this, not that.

Know this, not that.

In a later edition, for example, a history textbook from A Beka explained that humanity expanded around the globe after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Obviously, that is a very different explanation from what kids would read in a mainstream textbook. Publishers like A Beka hoped to shield students from mainstream knowledge about history by replacing it with an alternate body of knowledge. These textbooks do not simply try to create ignorance by blocking knowledge, but rather try to foster ignorance about a certain sort of knowledge by producing a convincing set of alternate knowledge.

When it comes to evolution, too, questions of knowledge and belief quickly become tangled and tricky. I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel that students in public schools must be required to “know” evolution. But too many public-school enthusiasts, we argue, have a cavalier attitude about this sort of knowledge. Yes, students must “know” and “understand” the claims of evolutionary theory. But if they choose not to believe them, that is their business.

Perhaps an easier way to make the distinction is to say that public-school students can be required to “know about” evolution. They must be able to explain it correctly. They must be able to describe accurately its main points. But if they think it would harm their religious beliefs to say they “know” that humans evolved via natural selection, then they have the right to insist that they only “know about” it.

It’s not an easy distinction. Nor was it easy for Justice Linder to decide what to say about the Oregon case. Do parents have the right to their religious beliefs? Yes. Can they not know something that everyone else knows? Yes, certainly. Do they have the right to insist on that relative ignorance if it causes palpable harm to others? Not in Oregon.

But this ruling does not decide if the parents in this case “knew” that their faith would save Baby David. It only states that parents do not have the right to insist that the government prove that they knew it.

HateMyProfessor.com

HT: JG

Can fundamentalist colleges trust their faculty? We see this week an unfortunate blow-up in the continuing saga of power struggles at Bryan College in Tennessee. Does this bitter squabble between president and faculty represent an inherent problem for conservative evangelical schools? The history of these colleges suggests something along those lines.

According to Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, Bryan President Stephen Livesay has doubled down on his fight for control. As we’ve documented in these pages, for the past few years the college has gone back and forth in its struggle, with faculty approving a no-confidence vote last spring, and members of the board resigning this past summer.

He said, he said, c. 1953

He said, he said, c. 1953

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my elbows in my new book about the twentieth-century history of conservative evangelical colleges. Time and again, administrators and trustees have demonstrated a deep distrust of their faculty.

In the 1930s, for example, Bob Jones College purged a suspect group of teachers. One of the fired faculty, Joseph Free, penned a protest letter. He had previously worked at three different colleges, Free wrote,

two of them orthodox. (But not obnoxious.) My loyalty was never questioned. . . . It simply never occurred to me that I was not free to express my opinions and I did express them. How was I to know that loyalty meant dictatorship?

Perhaps more famously, this pattern was repeated at Bob Jones University in the 1950s. Ted Mercer was fired in the summer of 1953, accused of a host of crimes including planning a “revolt of many faculty members.” Mercer himself claimed to have been blindsided by his dismissal. Maybe he had become too popular with students and faculty. Perhaps Bob Jones Sr. was too zealous in his jealousy of other administrators. In any case, Mercer went on to a long career at Bryan College.

The abiding distrust of faculty at fundamentalist colleges has not been unique to Bryan and Bob Jones U. At Wheaton College as recently as 1961, faculty scientists were pressed into a needless and humiliating mea culpa. After a conference on evolution and creationism in 1960, anxious trustees forced Wheaton administrators to tighten the school’s official position on the origins of humanity. No longer would it suffice for faculty to agree that God created. Since 1961, they have had to affirm that Adam and Eve were real historical personages and the true parents of the species. Professor Russell Mixter had to affirm his orthodoxy over and over again in order to allay the fears of Wheaton’s guardians of orthodoxy.

Nor was Dr. Mixter’s ordeal out of the ordinary at Wheaton. As historian Michael S. Hamilton wrote in his brilliant 1994 study of Wheaton’s history, the board of trustees has always been distrustful of the faculty. In Hamilton’s words, trustees have believed “the faculty represented the single greatest danger to maintaining the college’s Christian character.”

As usual, Hamilton’s history proves prescient. According to the Times Free Press, new rules at Bryan College seem intended to crush any whisper of faculty independence. New rules restrict professors’ ability to call meetings, for example. As the TFP explains,

Under this new policy, a faculty member is required to go through a seven-step process that includes approval from the Academic Council, a written rationale stating the purpose of the meeting and a waiting period of at least a week.

This sort of contrived impotence may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with the unique traditions of fundamentalist higher education. Within that charmed circle, however, it seems like nothing more than a new take on an old tradition: When the going gets tough, the faculty get blamed.

New Evolution Stickers for Alabama

What should they say instead?

Alabama’s famed textbook-warning stickers might be on their way out. The National Center for Science Education reported recently that new science standards in the “Heart of Dixie” make the old stickers outdated.

Watch out!  Learnin' ahead!

Watch out! Learnin’ ahead!

Alabama’s textbooks have carried the warning since the beginning of the twenty-first century. New standards, though, suggest that evolution will no longer be scientia non grata in the state.

So here’s a puzzler for the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If the old stickers are out, what should new stickers say instead? Of course, smart-alecks will suggest that we leave science textbooks sticker-free. That is the smart answer, but it leaves us with nothing to talk about on a Tuesday.

So let’s make up new stickers. A few ground rules:

1.) The language has to be readable and straightforward. No jargon.

2.) Maximum 250 words.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve been working on a new evolution/creation book with my co-author Harvey Siegel.  For years now, we have wrestled with this big-picture question.  In short, we want science teachers to teach evolution and nothing but evolution in their public-school science classes.  But we need to help teachers, students, and families understand that learning evolution does not need to impinge on any sort of religious belief.

Our simple prescription: Students need to know about it.  They need to understand it.  But they do not need to believe it.  Students need to be able to explain intelligently what scientists think about evolution.  If they choose not to accept it, that is their business.  More than that: It is the public schools’ business to make sure students and families feel welcomed, whatever their religious beliefs.  It is the schools’ business to encourage students to be who they are.

With all that in mind, here’s my entry:

These textbooks include information about evolution. Evolution is our current best scientific understanding of the ways species came to be different from one another.

Science encourages you to be skeptical about evolution and every other idea. If you choose not to believe that evolution is the best explanation of the origin of species, you have every right to doubt it.

You need to know about evolution. You need to be able to explain how scientists think it worked. You do not have to agree with these scientists.

Okay, okay,…it’s a long way from perfect.  Can you do better?

Alabama’s Fractured Evolution

So…will kids in Alabama learn about evolution? Depends on who you ask. The state just published its new science standards. If you listen to NPR or read the update from the National Center for Science Education, then the new standards are unabashedly pro-evolution. But if you read the Christian Post, then the new standards offer students a choice. This is more than a question of headlines. It helps us see the tricky nature of teaching evolution and other controversial subjects.

Po-tay-to...

Po-tay-toe…

All parties concerned seem to agree that the new standards require more evolution. And they agree that the new standards will move students away from repeating rote facts. The goal of the new standards will be to allow students to get their hands dirty in the evidence itself. As the NCSE describes, [the new standards no longer seem available online], students will soon be expected to

“[a]nalyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection” and to “[a]nalyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution” (p. 48).

For pro-evolution folks [like me], this means kids in Alabama will learn more evolution. As Alabama science teacher Ryan Reardon told NPR,

“I’m gonna let the data smack ’em in the face,” Reardon says of his students. “I’m gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I’m gonna ask ’em what the ramifications are.”

To Reardon, the message of the new standards is clear: His students will be learning the truths of evolution and climate change. But for the editors at the Christian Post, the new standards mean something very different. The Christian Post reported that students would “Decide If Evolution Is Theory or Fact.” Decide. Allowing students to wade into the evidence themselves does not necessarily mean that they will conclude that evolution happened.

NPR wondered why these new evolution-friendly standards passed with so little “pushback.” Why have conservative evangelicals in Alabama seemed so willing to support these new standards? Perhaps the reason is more obvious than it seems. While teachers like Ryan Reardon plan to push students to see the truths of evolution, perhaps other teachers plan to push students to see for themselves the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued, state science standards are not the best predictor of the ways evolution is actually taught.

Alabama teachers like Ryan Reardon will likely guide their students toward a full understanding of evolutionary theory. But other teachers in the state will likely guide students differently. By helping students “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” many science teachers in the state will likely continue to teach a mix of religious ideas in with their state-approved science curriculum.

...po-tah-toe.

…po-tah-toe.

Certainly, readers of publications such as the Christian Post might not see the new standards as an undiluted victory for evolution. If students are allowed to “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” creationists will be able to claim a victory.

Are the new standards better? For those of us who want to see more and better evolution education, they certainly seem to be. But we need to be cautious about our expectations. These contradictory headlines show that teachers and schools will implement the new standards in contradictory ways.

Creationists and the New “Ape-Man”

Evolutionary science marches on, it seems. The possible discovery of another extinct human species might seem to deflate creationists’ intellectual bubble. How have creationists handled the news?

In the long history of the evolution/creation wars, creationists have always pointed to gaps in the fossil record as proof of evolution’s empty claims. And evolutionists have repeatedly found evidence of “ape-men,” which turned out to be hoaxes as often as not.

Will the REAL ape-man please stand up?

Will the REAL ape-man please stand up?

The latest discovery of a collection of hominin fossils in a cave in South Africa has brought this old argument to the surface again. These days, creationists are more prepared to handle these sorts of scientific revelations.

Some of the scientists involved have claimed that the bones belong to a previously unknown human species, homo naledi. They’re not sure how old they are, and they’re not sure how the bones got into this cave, but they’re confident the bones come from a new sort of old human.

For creationists who accept mainstream evolutionary science, the news is nothing but exciting. But for those who insist on a young earth and an instantaneous creation of modern humans by divine fiat, the existence of other ancient human species would seem to present a pickle.

At Answers In Genesis, the answer is simple: these bones are probably from some form of ape, and if they are from a type of human, then it was a type descended from Adam & Eve. At the Institute for Creation Research, there are fewer ifs. As ICR writer Frank Sherwin reported,

As always, we at the Institute for Creation Research are extremely skeptical, taking such breaking news stories with a little more than a grain of salt. We have found that with more time and research, the preliminary spectacular claims of alleged “human ancestors” dissolve into a footnote, a non-story. We predict, on the basis of the creation model, Homo naledi too will become just one more dead end in the questionable human evolution parade. In fact, the story itself is rife with caution, unanswered questions, and speculation.

For those of us outside the world of creationism looking in, these sorts of distinctions are a source of continuous puzzlement. Why are Neanderthals okay, but more than two human ancestors not? How can young-earth creationists allow for Homo Naledi, but not make room for a necessarily diverse genetic background for our species?

Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.