School Protests and Negative Nellies

Suburban Jefferson County is in an uproar. Teachers and students have taken to the streets. They’re protesting a move by conservative school-board members to modify the new Advanced Placement US History framework. Predictably, conservatives nationwide have rallied behind those school-board members. In ways today’s protesters might not recognize, conservative rhetoric in this case dredges up a long conservative tradition—the fight against excessive negativity toward America. In surprising ways for “The Party of No,” when it comes to educational attitudes, conservatives have often been the party of “Yes, Please.”

This Denver-area protest is not the first to result from the changing framework for the Advanced Placement US History class. Conservative pundits have attacked the changes as pernicious and short-sighted. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, those conservative concerns have a legacy all their own. Conservative intellectuals and activists have protested that the new framework depicts the main themes of US History as oppression and racism. Some conservatives have called for US History to be taught in more traditional ways, more patriotic ways.

In this case, conservative school-board members proposed a new look at the framework. The five-member board has a solid three-member conservative majority, and those three called for a reform that would emphasize “positive aspects” of US History, an emphasis on ideas that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual right.” In addition, conservative leaders want less emphasis on materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In protest, district teachers called for an orderly sick-out. Teachers planned to call in sick to draw attention to both this change in curriculum and a proposed change to teacher pay. As word spread, students joined in. Soon, teachers and students alike took to the streets to protest any change in the history curriculum.

Predictably, conservative commentators huffed and puffed at the student protest. Gretchen Carlson of Fox News called the protesters “punks.” “How can being patriotic or learning about patriotism be a negative?” Carlson asked. “And what does it say about our young people and the teachers joining the protests that patriotism is now a negative?”

Writing in the pages of National Review Online, Ian Tuttle had a similarly dismissive attitude toward these “sign-waving baby barbarians.” Not only did the students expose their own ignorance with their hopelessly ironic protest signs, but their movement could not even count as legitimate social protest. Real protest, Tuttle fumed, was a vital patriotic legacy. This sort of display, in contrast, was only “self-indulgent grievance-mongering.”

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay...?

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay…?

Back in Colorado, one of the conservative board members opined that the student protesters were being used as hapless “political pawns.” The real issue, he said, was the question of teacher pay. The teachers’ unions cynically exploited the naïve enthusiasm of students in order to line the pockets of union members.

There’s more going on here than just 1960s hangover culture wars. Beneath these specific worries about student orderliness and patriotism, there is a decided theme about the proper attitude schools and students should have toward American society in general. As I researched my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across this theme time and again. In addition to worries about political leftism and secularism in schools, conservatives have worried vaguely about a pervading sense of negativity in progressive school curricula. Sometimes this has had to do with the portrayal of America’s past, as in the current Colorado student protests. But sometimes it has been a broader complaint about a general negative attitude in school books.

In what follows, I’ll share three long examples from 1923, 1939, and 1970. In each case, leading conservative activists attacked the negativity of progressive educators. Just as in Jefferson County, conservatives in each case worried that students were being taught that America stunk, that life in general stunk.

First, a speech from April 16, 1923. In this speech, the leader of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned of the creeping negativity and anti-patriotism of America’s teachers. Too many teachers, President General Anne Minor insisted, poured that negativity down the throats of trusting young schoolchildren.

Character and patriotism and obedience to law—there are the essentials of training in the schools. Do we find them everywhere? There are many who feel that there is a weakness of moral fibre [sic] in the teaching in many of our schools. And it is well known that there is an organized movement of many years’ standing among radicals to insinuate their doctrines into the schools and colleges all over the land….We want no teachers who say there are two sides to every question, including even our system of government; who care more for their ‘academic freedom of speech’ and opinion (so called) than for their country. Academic freedom of speech has no place in school, where the youth of our country are taught and their unformed minds are developed. There are no two sides to loyalty to this country and its flag. There is nothing debatable about allegiance to that flag and the Republic for which it stands. Freedom of speech does not give the right to teach disloyalty to our children and college youth. The teacher who does not wish to teach loyalty toward the land that employs him, has one good remedy. He or she may resign and go where disloyal opinions can find expression without harm to anyone. Guard well your schools, lest the life of the nation be poisoned at its source.

Years later, in 1939, a school-board member in Englewood, New Jersey lambasted the leftism and negativity of a popular set of textbooks. In this case, that conservative school board member was B.C. “Bertie” Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine. The textbooks at issue were a set of social-studies books by progressive scholar Harold Rugg. In this snippet, Forbes tells a story he repeated over and over again in his crusade against the Rugg books:

One of [a local teacher’s] pupils came to me, very much upset. In effect, he said that he had always regarded America and the American form of government as wonderful. But, he proceeded to relate that when the class had been asked to record their opinion as to whether ‘The people of the United States have a better government than have the people of any other county in the world,’ their teacher expressed disagreement with those young Americans who had replied, ‘Yes.’ According to this pupil she disabused their minds of any such idea. According to him, she told her young charges that the answer was ‘No’, that ‘there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, forms of government than ours.’

At this critical time, when we are preparing to conscript our youths to become American soldiers, I cannot but question the wisdom of impregnating young minds with any such notion that our system of government is open to question.

If teachers of the Rugg books are seeking ‘subtly’, to use Professor Rugg’s own word, to convey such ideas to the coming generation, ideas which cannot possibly inspire them with veneration for their flag—which they are asked to salute every day—surely the parents of Englewood are entitled to learn the facts.

A generation later, in 1970, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler told the Texas State Board of Education that too many textbooks focused only on the negative. The Gablers went through the list of approved books, one by one. In each case, the Gablers noted the relentless negativity of the texts. In what follows, I’ll include a full long book-by-book quotation from the Gablers’ testimony:

This book contains some of the chilling, horror-type stories that seem to appeal to the morbid imagination of this age’s youth; but so much time spent thinking upon strangeness can make it almost seem normal. The characters in ‘The Jam’ are dope addicts. ‘The Hitchhiker,’ which follows, has an identical climax, both written to horrify. ‘The Birds’ was made into a Hitchcock movie, so is well-known, but in reading it there is so much more blood and gruesome detail that the reader feels the need to escape and cleanse himself from such horror. ‘Zero’ leaves the impression that it is normal for children to hate parents and for parents to be indifferent to the needs of children. Everything in the book is conducive to causing emotional instability in the impressionable mind.

This [Rebels and Regulars] is another very depressing book. As far as the language used, it is in keeping with the characters and plots of the stories, but not the sort of language the thoughtful parent would approve of in his children. There is throughout the book the undercurrent of ‘a cause,’ which gives a prejudiced viewpoint, always picturing the white man as the villain against different minority groups or individuals. Typical of the stories is ‘The Cyclists’ Raid,’ which is militant, lawless, defiant, and completely without consideration for the individual. . . . A whole semester of concentrating upon rebellion as pictured in these stories will have a negative effect upon an impressionable young person. It becomes more honorable to rebel than to obey laws or consider the rights of others. . . .

This book [Ways of Justice] indicates that justice is whatever an individual decides it should be. ‘Junkie Joe Had Some Money’ shows bullies getting away with murder because the only witness is intimidated. In ‘Manuel,’ a kindly act is rewarded with utmost cruelty, written in vivid detail. ‘Mateo [86] Falcone’ tells of a young boy who is bribed to reveal the hiding place of another, then his father kills him. Nothing here to indicate love or understanding is possible between parents and child. ‘Marijuana and a Pistol’ gives all the sordid details of a maladjusted youth who smokes ‘weeds,’ including the uncontrolled giggling and vomiting. ‘They Grind Exceedingly Small’ is a story about the person who has money, taking advantage of the poor, hard-working, underprivileged—indicating that all money and power are in the hands of the cruel, wicked, dishonest, and undeserving. . . .

Couldn’t half of the stories in this series tell about people living together in harmony, love, understanding, and helpfulness?

Is reality only negative? Does not reality also include the many acts of kindness between races that is evident across our nation? It must be remembered that qualities such as morality must be taught. They do not come naturally. Education without morality will result in a depraved society.

Our conclusion is that if these books do not contribute to rebellion, lack of respect for authority, sadism, violence, and disillusionment, they will most certainly defeat the whole purpose for studying literature in our schools; for there is absolutely nothing presented here that would open the wonderful world of the printed page to our youth and cause them to want to pursue reading for the pure joy of doing so!

In all these conservative protests, the notion that school materials must somehow be positive and patriotic takes center place. Whether it was in 1923, 1939, 1970, or today, conservatives have insisted that school materials do more than present the negative side of life. In today’s protest, the issue is the teaching of US History. And that has certainly been a central subject in these battles. But it was not only history that became controversial. As the Gablers pointed out, the negativity of the cultural left showed up in literature selections as well. As they asked so plaintively, “Is reality only negative?”  And, and President General Minor protested way back when, a pervasive, destructive negativity also showed up in teachers’ attitudes.

Again and again, conservatives have wanted students to learn positive messages. Conservatives have worried that too much negativity might produce a generation of cynics. In a sense, we might say that conservatives in schools have sometimes been the party of positivity.


Creationism in Texas: A Foreshortened History

Read it.  It’s good.  But be warned: this story has a fatal flaw.

Brentley Hargrove’s history of the Texas textbook wrangles is a helpful introduction to the recent round of textbook fights in the Lone Star State.

In the pages of the Dallas Observer, Hargrove introduces readers to the recent history of creationist influence in the selection of Texas science textbooks.  He offers the backstory of review-board members such as intelligent-design proponent Raymond Bohlin.

Hargrove takes the story of the Texas Textbook Two-Step back to the 1970s, when self-appointed watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler wielded outsize influence on the adoption of books.

He describes the rise to educational power of creationist dentist Don McLeroy and the board membership of theologue Cynthia Dunbar.

This story is a must-read for everyone interested in today’s culture wars over education, not just in Texas but around the nation.  It joins films such as The Revisionaries and documentaries such as the Long Game in pointing out both the peculiarities of educational politics in Texas and the broader meanings Texas school politics has for all of us.

But as a historian of these school battles, I must protest against the foreshortened history Hargrove describes.  He gives a nod to the long history of cultural battles over education.  He mentions the nineteenth-century Bible wars that rocked America’s cities.  But then he skips from 1844 to 1961.  He leaves out the formative period of today’s educational culture wars.

As he puts it, since the nineteenth century,

the fear of secularism and modernity remains as potent as ever. Yet it wasn’t until the Gablers came along that this fear took shape in Texas and assumed power.

Now, that’s just not true.  I understand Hargrove is interested in the way these battles have developed over the past fifty years.  But the way they did so was decisively influenced by earlier generations of Texas activists.

To be fair, Hargrove’s historical myopia is widely shared.  In his Observer article, he quotes prominent sociologist William Martin.  “The Gablers,” Martin told Hargrove, “were the first people to have taken this on in such as systematic way.”

Even if we make allowances for the contemporary interests of journalists and sociologists, this sort of misrepresentation of the history of Texas’ school battles can’t be given a pass.

The tradition of conservative activism in which the Gablers, McLeroy, Bohlin, and Dunbar take part has direct roots in the 1920s battles in Texas and elsewhere.

As I argue in my 1920s book, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Texas history will recognize the historical importance of J. Frank Norris, for example.  In the 1920s, Norris established the activist precedent that later conservatives followed.  Norris fulminated against the directions of 1920s public schools in ways that McLeroy, Dunbar, and the Gablers would have appreciated.

And he had even more political pull.  In the 1920s, though a state-wide law banning the teaching of evolution failed in the Texas legislature, the governor ordered textbook publishers to remove any mention of evolutionary science from the state’s textbooks.

All well and good, you might say.  But does that pre-history have anything to do with today’s textbook fights?  If we want to understand the current moment, do we really have to go so far back?  Isn’t it enough to look to the Gablers and start there?

The school fights of the 1920s are of interest to more than just nitpicky academic historians like me.  Even if we want to start with the Gablers, we need to understand the formative school battles of the 1920s.  Mel Gabler was ten years old in 1925.  The content and structure of the schools he attended was decided by the activism of pundits such as J. Frank Norris and the pusillanimity of politicians such as the Governors Ferguson.

It was in the 1920s that America first battled over schooling in the terms that have remained so familiar ever since.  The issues and positions laid down in the 1920s have become the durable trench lines in American education.

As Gabler biographer James Hefley described, by the 1960s the Gablers had become

the cream of self-reliant Middle America.  They lived by the old landmarks, took child-rearing seriously, supported community institutions, sang ‘God Bless America’ with a lump in their throats, and believed that the American system of limited and divided governmental power was the best under the sun.

How did they get to be that way?  How did they become so confident that their vision of proper schooling and society must be fought for?  The Texas the Gablers loved had been defined by the activism of the 1920s and succeeding generations.  The vision of proper education that fueled the self-confident activism of the Gablers had been established as such in the controversies of the 1920s.

If we really want to understand what’s going on today, we need at the very least to acknowledge the longer history of these issues.  We need to understand that today’s fights grew out of earlier generations, and those earlier generations did not just spring up full-grown from the Texas soil.