The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part III: What Thunderbolt?

As we’ve discussed here lately, some fundamentalists harp on the Schempp and Engel Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 as the time God was kicked out of public schools.

Some of the reasons for this go beyond the obvious.  First of all, although the 1963 case took the name of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, it was actually a joinder decision with a case brought by the prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  The Schempp family were religious Unitarians.  Murray (later Murray O’Hair) was an outspoken and aggressive atheist.  Partly as a result, the Schempp case took on overtones of a fight of religion vs. atheism.  It took on overtones, in Fundamentalist America, of a last-ditch defense of God.

Such perceived high stakes led to a perception of a profound loss for Fundamentalist America.  As we’ve argued here recently, conservative evangelical Protestants reacted with profound dismay and disillusionment to the court’s 1963 decision.  A Moody Monthly poll in 1964 ranked the decision as the most important social or political event of the year, more important than the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.  Presbyterian fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire asked, after more than a decade of struggle to pass a Constitutional prayer amendment, “Why aren’t Christians standing where it counts and saying, ‘I’m for America and I’m for the Bible?’”

But what did the 1962 and 1963 decisions actually do?  What effects did they have in America’s public schools?

In the aftermath of the Schempp decision, a pair of political scientists—Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillipp Hammond—studied the effects.  They first consulted survey data.  Not surprisingly, they discovered that the Schempp and Engel decisions had led to a precipitous drop in the amount of school-sponsored religious activity that went on in public schools.  More precisely, they found that the decisions had led public school leaders to report a sharp drop.  About two-thirds of school districts reported that they stopped school-sponsored devotions.  Teachers reported a sharp decline.  Sixty percent reported that they had lead classroom prayers before the decisions, while only 28% admitted they still led such prayers.

Of course, even these large declines meant that many teachers and school districts continued to lead prayers and Bible readings.  But even that stubborn minority was isolated.  Most of such holdouts were in the South.  Reports from the West—where such in-school religious practice had often already been banned—and from the Plains and Northeast gave a much different picture.  In those regions, survey responses indicated nearly full compliance with the Supreme Court decisions.

We must remember that the South at this time was roiling with anti-Brown sentiment.  The white power structure had nearly unanimously agreed to resist school desegregation in spite of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.  Many agreed with Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had declared in 1963, “I don’t care what they say in Washington.  We are going to keep right on beating the Bible in the public schools of Alabama.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent troops into the classrooms and arrested little boys and girls who read the Bible and pray.”

In such a climate, school leaders in the former Confederacy had a much easier time publicly renouncing the Supreme Court’s ban on school-sponsored prayer.  Indeed, it may have been political suicide for many of them to publicly support the Court.

Outside the South, however, most survey respondents claimed they had stopped teacher-led prayers and Bible readings.  But when Hammond and Dolbeare examined those schools and classrooms more closely, they found that even outside the South, teacher-led prayer and Bible reading went on just as they had before the decisions.  In other words, teachers and school administrators outside the South told surveyors that they had stopped leading religious devotions in their public schools.  They knew that such practices had been prohibited.  But when the classroom doors were closed, they continued to pray and read from the Bible with their students.

Most remarkable, in Dolbeare and Hammond’s opinion, was the fact that throughout the communities they studied in the Midwest, everyone knew what was going on and no one complained.  As long as state-level school administrators could claim that they did not know of any teacher-led devotions, the devotions themselves went on undisturbed.  Teachers led prayers in their classrooms.  School building principals led prayers at school ceremonies.  Bible verses adorned graduation speeches and school hallways.  According to Hammond and Dolbeare, most of the people involved were aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Yet they continued to engage in exactly the sorts of practice the Court had ruled against.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and we see a much different picture.  Regional variations in racial desegregation in schools have often flip-flopped, with the most segregated school districts now in places such as New York City, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Similarly, in spite of a relatively recent New York Times article that assumed school-sponsored religious practices had been shunted to “some corners of the country, especially in the rural South,” even a casual observer of the news will see that battles over the proper role of religion in public schools continue all over the country.

For example, we noted recently a remarkable law passed recently in New Hampshire, hardly an outpost of the “rural South.”  This law mandated that parents could request alternate textbooks or curricular materials for any reason.  In theory, this could mean that strict vegetarian parents could object to books that portrayed meat-eating in a flattering light.  The intent of the law, however, was clearly to protect the faith of evangelical Protestant children.  The push for the law began when one family objected to the Jesus-bashing of author Barbara Ehrenreich.

Or the continuing case of Bradley Johnson.  Johnson insisted on putting religion-friendly placards on his classroom wall.  His stubborn activism can only be called “Southern” if we include “Southern” California.  And while San Diego is technically one corner of the country, it is hardly an isolated outpost of ‘hillbilly’ culture.

Just as it was for Dolbeare and Hammond in the 1960s, it is nearly impossible for us to know what really goes on in most public-school classrooms.  Cases like Johnson’s don’t tell us much about what most teachers are doing.  As Dolbeare and Hammond concluded, one of the main reasons for the continuing practices of teacher-led prayers and Bible readings was that everyone involved hoped to avoid any controversy.  Parents did not want to stand out as anti-prayer.  Teachers did not want to appear to denigrate religion.  School administrators did not want to crack down on what many perceived to be wholesome traditional American practices.

These days, it is difficult to predict just what practices might pass for non-controversial in America’s public schools.  Local traditions—even down to the level of individual schools and neighborhoods—trump Supreme Court decisions or New York Times reporters’ assumptions.

For conservatives, this means that traditional practices such as prayer or Bible reading might continue in public schools, as long as there has never been a local complaint against the practice.  It also means that conservative activists such as Bradley Johnson might mount a counter-revolution in any part of the country.

For many such activists, public schools have taken on an aura of secular fortresses.  In the rhetoric of many conservatives, public schools are the headquarters of Jesus-bashing, evolution-teaching, sex-teaching, drug-selling liberals.  A more careful look, like what Dolbeare and Hammond did forty years ago, would likely present a much more traditional, religion-friendly picture of life inside those public-school walls.

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IS There an Education Culture War?

People disagree about the nature and proper direction for American schools.  But do those disagreements rise to the level of culture war?  Unlike the evolution/creation divide, there is a lot of room in the middle.

For instance, are charter schools ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’  Some scholars suggest that charter schools are an attempt to privatize education and undermine the power of teachers’ unions.  They suggest
that charter schools tend to function regressively.

Other charter-school advocates say that charter schools give students and families a fairer chance at a quality
education.  This “Waiting for Superman” crowd promotes charter schools as the ‘progressive’ solution for poor people.

The same could be said for other educational ideas.  For instance, where does the notion of testing fit in?  For most of the twentieth century, the idea that tests could determine the individual strengths and weaknesses of students led the pack of progressive ideology.  With the proper array of tests, progressives believed, schooling could be tailored to each particular student.  The procrustean bed of institutional schooling could be shattered with a more individualized sense of personal experiences and beliefs.

Today, some educational thinkers promote the progressive possibilities of high-stakes standardized testing.  They argue that kids from lower-incomefamilies have been allowed to slip through the educational cracks.  For too long, they argue, such kids have been subjected to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   High-stakes testing promised to turn that around.  Embedded in the language of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was the notion that schools must improve test scores for all kids, including those from groups that historically underperformed on academic
measures.

Other education thinkers disagree.  They dismiss such talk as mere window-dressing for conservative attempts to seize school power.  Famously, New York University professor Diane Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate over the meanings and implication of high-stakes testing.  Ravitch helped design the original testing
megalith.  Now she argues that the focus on tests undermines the proper goals of schooling for all students, especially those from the most vulnerable categories.

This broad expanse of room in the middle for disagreement and debate about foundational ideas in the field of education suggests that there is no real culture war at work.  If people can agree on basic terms and notions, even if they disagree about policy and practice, then they must share fundamental ideas about the proper form and
purpose of schooling.  The fact that issues such as testing and charter schools attract different arguments from
conservatives and progressives implies that each side shares most of the notions of its opposition.  The
disagreements are more prosaic than in the starkly defined ideologies and theologies of creation or evolution.

More telling, I have had only a handful of firsthand encounters with culture-war clashes in my career in education.  We all have heard stories of teachers getting fired for offending people’s religious or political beliefs, but in my
experience parents are far more concerned with grades and achievement than in creeping secularism or dictatorial preachiness in schools.

On the other hand, one could argue that education is the ultimate culture-war battleground, since it forces Americans to define their values and rank the importance of foundational notions such as social inequality, race, religion, and the relationship between family and state.

For example, it is difficult to think of a culture-war issue that has not become a clash over schooling.  For instance, the forum for most disagreements over beliefs in creation and evolution has always been schooling.  Should schools teach evolution?  Creation?

Similarly, clashes over the role of race in American culture have been framed as questions about schooling.
Brown v. Board focused on the legitimacy of educational segregation.  George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school, the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama in 1963 to proclaim “Segregation now, segregation
tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Schools also are the field in which activists contend over fundamental notions of social and economic justice.  Schools in poor neighborhoods look, feel, and are funded in very different ways than schools in affluent ones.  Nicholas Kristof’s recent plea for more equalized funding for early-education programs only rehashes generations of
arguments about the power of schooling to combat the great inequalities of American life.

So IS there a culture war in education?  Do Americans fundamentally disagree with one another about the basic premises of schooling?  As with evolution and creation, do the two sides have such different worldviews that they claim not to be able even to understand the other side’s view?  Or is education an embodiment of Louis Hartz’ famous claim in 1955 that America really only has one fundamental political tradition, that of a general liberalism?

If you are a teacher, parent, or school administrator, have you had experiences with culture wars in your schools?  Or is this more evidence to back up Morris Fiorina’s claim that culture-war rhetoric is merely the creation of a myopic chattering class?