Why Does America Stink?

It’s those damn teachers. At least, that’s the crusty old complaint revived for the Fourth of July holiday by crusty conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. Whether you’re a flag-waver or a flag-burner, there are two big problems with Krauthammer’s sorts of accusations.

Krauthammer was responding to a Fox News poll that says only a bare majority of Americans are proud of America. And a huge majority think the Founding Fathers would be saddened by the way things are today.

Why the funk?

Krauthammer blames a long march of leftists. “Starting in the Sixties,” he told Tucker Carlson,

the counter-cultural left had a strategy…[they] went into the professions – the teaching professions, and they’ve essentially taken over. That generation of radicals runs the universities, they run the teachers’ unions, they run the curricula.

The left-wing teachers, Krauthammer insisted, had taught defenseless kids “abnormal, anti-American, and destructive” ideas. Since the 1960s, Krauthammer explained, the Left’s long game had undermined American patriotism.

Krauthammer Kommentary

Can you spot the two blunders…?

Let’s put to one side the most obvious problem with Krauthammer’s Fox-usations. The Fox poll found—surprise!—that Democrats tended to be less proud of the current state of the county. Well…duh. Of course a majority of Democrats are not “proud” of the current state of the United States. Of course a lot of Americans are feeling sketchy about the current direction of America’s leadership.

And, to be fair, that is the first place Krauthammer looked. He started by saying that people’s feelings about Trump are the most likely culprit for the poll results. But then he goes on to make two common assumptions that drive teachers and historians bonkers.

First, he inflated the power of schools and teachers. He related a story of his own family’s school. He had to protest, he said, to get his children’s school to teach any European history at all. Left to their own devices, the teachers would have utterly ignored anything European in their fervent quest to teach children about the rest of the world.

Ask any teacher, though, and they’ll tell you how it really is: Kids’ politics are shaped by their families and friends, not by their forty-five minute social-studies lessons. All of us who try to teach US History have had experiences similar to the one related by Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. Wineburg studied a history teacher who tried to teach his class about the Vietnam War. To his chagrin, he found that his high-school students had already made up their minds about it. For some students, the moral quandaries of the war had been settled at home around the dinner table, long before the school bell rang.

Moreover, Krauthammer repeats the wrong-headed assumption made by pundits both left and right. He assumes that the tension over patriotism and schooling began in the 1960s. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Krauthammer’s jeremiad about leftist teachers could have come from almost any decade. Conservatives have ALWAYS assumed that left-wing teachers had taken over the schools. There’s nothing “Sixties” about it.

If you switched the dates around, in fact, it would be difficult to tell them apart, whether they came from the 1930s, the 1960s, or today. Consider the punditry of B. C. “Bertie” Forbes. Forbes built up his business journalism into the magazine that bears his name. Long before Fox News, long before the “Sixties,” Forbes was out-Krauthammering Krauthammer with his accusations against sneaky left-wing infiltration of the teaching professions.

Forbes complaint

Cranky before cranky was cool…

The problem, Forbes explained in his syndicated newspaper column, was that universities had been “infested” with “radical professors.” Those left-wingers, Forbes charged, had taken over the teaching profession. A set of textbooks by Harold Rugg, especially, set a dangerous tone. And, just like Krauthammer, Forbes assumed that those books had the power to instantly convert and confuse America’s schoolchildren. “If I were a youth,” Forbes wrote to his local school-board president,

I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

Just like Krauthammer, Forbes relied on his own experiences to prove his accusations. Forbes visited a junior-high school, for example, and asked students if they loved America. They told him they weren’t allowed to. Their teacher—reading dronishly from her left-wing textbook—had informed them that “There are several other countries that have as good a form of government as ours.”

Forbes was shocked. He couldn’t blame the “Sixties,” but he didn’t need to. He took to the pages of his syndicated column to share his outrage. “Do American parents,” Forbes asked,

want their children taught such ideas? Do they want them to be inculcated with the idea that the United States is a second-rate country, that its form of government is open to question, that there are other countries more happily circumstanced and governed than ours?

For Forbes in 1939, just as much for Krauthammer today, the danger was real and immediate. Leftist teachers hoped to warp the minds of their pupils with their anti-American ideas.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let’s keep two things in mind as we celebrate the Fourth of July. First, whatever pundits might say, teachers and schools don’t have the power to dictate patriotism. Even if they wanted to—and they have wanted to!—schools couldn’t cram pro- or anti-American feelings down kids’ throats. In the end, schools only have a smallish influence on what people really think.

Second, if you share Krauthammer’s pessimism about schools today, don’t share his short-sighted historical blunders. We can’t blame or praise the “Sixties” as the roots of today’s culture wars. The Sixties were just another round of a conflict that had started long before.

HT: MM

School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.

simpsonsturkey

PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

Why Don’t Conservatives Like to Win?

You’ve heard the news by now: The College Board revised its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course.  Recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger crowed that this reversal proved that conservatives could influence national education policy.  Unfortunately, Henninger makes the same mistake as every other pundit out there.  He seems to think that conservatives at some point in the past lost their influence over national education policy.  It just ain’t so.

Franklin's In, "neo-Marxism's" out.

Franklin’s in, “neo-Marxism’s” out.

For those of you who were napping, a quick reminder: Under pressure—significant pressure—from conservative thinkers and lawmakers, the College Board agreed to revise these standards for its AP US History course.  Conservative thinkers had complained that the old framework put too much emphasis on

such abstractions as ‘identity,’ ‘peopling,’ ‘work, exchange, and technology,’ and ‘human geography’ while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideas and political institutions. . .

Henninger argues that, with the conservative revision, the new framework is “about as balanced as one could hope for.”  More interesting for our purposes, he argues that this conservative victory is “an important political event.”  He thinks it “marks an important turn in the American culture wars. . . .”  To Henninger, this conservative victory is a new thing, a change in the ways American culture and politics work.  Until now, Henninger intones, conservative ideas about proper education were

being rolled completely off the table by institutions—‘Washington,’ the courts, a College Board—over which [conservatives] had no apparent control.

Until now, Henninger tells us, conservatives had not been able to influence national education policy.  Only “neo-Marxist” experts decided on what vulnerable young minds would learn.

Balderdash.

Perhaps Henninger’s problem is his limited range.  To be fair, he only says that this has been the case since 1992.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, America’s educational culture wars have a vital history that stretches back across the twentieth century.  Henninger ignores it at his peril.

As I argue and detail in my recent book, since the 1920s conservative activists have been able, time and time again, to derail, defang, and water down progressive curricula and textbooks.

But here’s the real kicker: We can’t really single out Henninger for short-sightedness.  For almost a century now, both progressive and conservative intellectuals and activists have assumed that conservatives had been kicked out of the conversation.

You read that right.  Ever since the 1920s, conservative and progressive reformers alike have committed the same sort of Henningerism.  They have assumed in the face of historical fact that “The Schools” had been taken over by progressive ideas and curricula.

To cite just one example of this trend, consider the case of progressive textbook impresario Harold Rugg.  Rugg was a progressive’s progressive, committed to pushing the nation in leftist directions by seizing control of its public schools.

In the 1930s, it looked as if he had succeeded.  Millions of schoolchildren read his tendentious textbooks.  At the end of the decade, however, conservative activists in the American Legion and elsewhere organized to block such progressive “subversion.”

They succeeded.  Just like today’s College Board, school administrators and textbook publishers in the 1930s fled in horror from the potential controversy over Rugg’s books.  Sales plummeted.  Schools hid them away.  School boards thought about burning them.

Seems like any right-thinking observer would conclude that conservative activists could exert significant control over the national curriculum, right?

In fact, Rugg himself concluded that the progressives had won, that a shiny progressive victory was just around the next corner.  As he wrote in his 1941 memoir, progressive schooling

has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools.

You might think that conservative activists would dispute Rugg’s rosy left-wing prediction.  But they didn’t.  Instead, conservatives at the time performed their own odd Henningerisms.  One of the leaders of the anti-Rugg fight, Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America, warned a friend that left-wing educational thinking had taken over schools years before, all part of a “deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.”

We could multiply these examples of Henningerism endlessly.  Time and time again, long before 1992, conservatives have concluded incorrectly that they had been kicked out of the schools.  And progressives gleefully agreed.

It brings us to our interesting question: Why do conservatives and progressives agree—in the face of vast reams of historical evidence to the contrary—that conservatives are have been locked out of national education policy-making?

Conservatives Win US History Fight . . . Again

Why is this so hard to get through our thick skulls? American schooling is not in the hands of progressive teachers and ed-school professors like me. It just isn’t. If we needed any more proof of it, take a look at the College Board’s decision to change its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course. As has always been the case, conservative complaints this time around have been about the implications and tone of classroom materials. My hunch is that many people wouldn’t see what the big deal was about.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my last book, American conservatives battled—and won—time and time again to control textbooks. Any whiff of progressive ideas was snuffed out before it could become the norm in American classrooms.

A set of progressive social-studies textbooks in the 1930s quickly became libri non grata after conservatives mobilized against it. In the 1970s, another set of progressive textbooks sparked a school boycott in West Virginia that caused a future secretary of education to speak out against progressive-type textbooks.

Now, according to an article in the Washington Post, the College Board has revised its framework for its AP US History class after ferocious conservative complaint. As we’ve discussed in these pages, conservative intellectuals and activists pushed hard to win this prize.

But here’s the kicker: I bet most casual readers of the new framework wouldn’t notice the differences. Now as in the past, the arguments are generally about tone and implication, rather than large-scale differences in content.

In the 1930s, conservative critics of Harold Rugg’s progressive textbooks admitted that most readers probably wouldn’t see the problem. Leading conservative critic Bertie Forbes called the Rugg books “subtly written” so that only an expert could notice the anti-American “insidious implication.” Another anti-Rugg leader warned that Rugg’s books were “very subtle,” not obviously anti-American, but packed with “weasel words” meant to subvert American values.

During the 1970s fight over textbooks, conservatives similarly admitted that a regular patriotic American reader might not see the problem at first glance. But as one conservative leader told an interviewer, the books were all bad, since they had been written with “the attitudes of evolution and all that.” Another conservative admitted that he did not even feel a need to read the actual textbooks. “You don’t have to read the textbooks,” he wrote.

If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

Every time, conservatives have warned, it takes an expert eye to detect the problem with sneaky progressive textbooks.

This time around, too, conservative intellectuals protested against the tone and implication of the new history framework. As a group of leading thinkers wrote in their June protest letter, the rejected history framework

Is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

The problem is not that the un-revised new framework didn’t teach US History. The problem, according to conservative thinkers, is that it taught history with a certain attitude, a certain approach.

Is the new framework more conservative? Leading intellectuals seem to think so.

Take the ILYBYGTH challenge: Read the revised framework for yourself. Does it seem “conservative” to you? Where? How? Can you find the differences in tone and approach that conservatives demanded?

Children Must Submit

First learn to obey

First learn to obey

HT: MM

What is the role of the child in school? Many conservative thinkers, now and in the past, have insisted that children must learn to submit to teachers’ authority. Before they can learn to read or figure, children have to learn that obedience is their proper attitude. These days, this penchant for submissive children has leached out of the world of traditionalist thinking into the burgeoning world of charter schooling. A recent interview with a leading scholar highlights the ways conservative values have reasserted themselves as the mainstream norm.

Thanks to a watchful colleague, I came across this interview with Penn’s Professor Joan Goodman. Professor Goodman works in the Teach for America program at Penn and spends a good deal of time in urban charter schools. In many of those schools, Goodman finds a rigorous standardization and a vigorous effort to train children to be submissive. As Goodman told EduShyster,

these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told. . . . They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning.

At the same time, Goodman notes, the schools insist on lockstep performance by teachers. Every teacher is supposed to be delivering the same content at the same time in the same way. Goodman calls it a “very uniform and scripted curriculum.”

Ask anyone familiar with urban charter-school education these days, and you’ll hear similar stories. For those of us trying to figure out what “conservatism” means in education, this leads us to some difficult questions: Did these goals and values move from fundamentalist and conservative activists into the mainstream? And if they did, how?

In my historical research into the worlds of conservative educational activism, I’ve seen it time and again. For decades—generations, even—conservative thinkers have insisted that submission is the first lesson of successful schooling. Without submissive children, teachers will not be able to transmit information. Without the successful transmission of information from teacher to student—according to this conservative logic—education has not happened.

Originally published in 1979...

Originally published in 1979…

In the world of Protestant fundamentalist education, youthful obedience is often elevated to a theological value. Writing for an A Beka guide in the late 1970s, fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee warned that Christian teachers must be stern disciplinarians. “If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.” Combee continued,

Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child. Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting). They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

That same A Beka guide to good fundamentalist schooling promised that good schools always taught in lockstep. At the time, A Beka offered a curriculum for private start-up Christian fundamentalist schools. Not only would schools get curriculum infused with dependably fundamentalist theology, but

the principal can know what is being taught. He can check the class and the curriculum to make certain that the job is getting done. Substitute teachers can also step in and continue without a loss of valuable teaching time.

Some bloggers confirm that fundamentalist schooling has continued to emphasize obedience over intellectual curiosity. Jonny Scaramanga, Galactic Explorer, and Samantha Field have all shared their experiences with this sort of fundamentalist educational impulse. In their experiences, fundamentalist schools and homeschools have insisted on obedience, and have done so in a sinisterly gendered way. Young women and girls, especially, were taught to submit to male authority figures. Every student, however, seems to be pressed to submit and conform, not as a punishment, but rather as a foundation for education.

To be fair, as I argued in an academic article a while back, there has been a lot of disagreement among fundamentalist Protestants about proper education. Just as the folks at A Beka were insisting that proper education began with submission, the equally fundamentalist thinkers at Bob Jones University pushed a very different vision of proper education. Led by long-serving dean Walter Fremont, the school of education at Bob Jones promoted a more child-centered sort of fundamentalist education.

We also need to note that this insistence on submissive children is not just a fundamentalist one. Secular conservatives have long insisted that learning can only begin with obedience. In many cases, this has been a conservative response to a left-leaning progressive pedagogy. For example, leading progressive thinker Harold Rugg began his career with recommendations for proper classroom attitudes. In an article from the 1920s, Rugg instructed teachers to share authority with students. Good teaching, Rugg wrote, did not dictate to children; it did not insist on obedience. Rather, good teaching pushed students to think of themselves as autonomous, self-directed learners. Good teachers, Rugg insisted, asked students again and again, “What do you think?”

In the 1920s, this notion of proper student behavior divided progressives from conservatives. One conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution offered a very different vision of good teaching. Writing in 1923, Anne Minor explained that the best teachers begin with “truth and integrity, orderliness and obedience, loyalty and love of country.”

In the 1950s, another conservative Daughter of the American Revolution warned that teaching had gone astray when it encouraged children to be “persistent in their own ideas, disobedient, and resent[ful of] parental discipline.”

Another secular conservative in the 1950s agreed. One letter-writer to the Pasadena Independent described the problems with progressive education this way:

discipline, as well as the lack of fundamental knowledge teaching [sic], is one of the biggest lacks of the progressive school. Some parents shift the discipline to the school which is wrong, of course, but if the parents are at fault for lack of discipline, so are the schools. . . . Lack of consideration of others is the biggest fault of children today, and should not be too difficult to correct. Tantrums should never be tolerated, sassiness and disobedience should be controlled at an early age.

rafferty what they are doing to your children

And, of course, other conservative educational thinkers and activists also pressed for an obedience-first vision of good education. The leading secular conservative voice of the 1960s, Max Rafferty, agreed that schools could only function if children first learned to submit. As Rafferty put it in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen.

As I researched my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, I found this theme repeated over and over. It goes something like this: Good schooling means the transmission of information to children. That transmission cannot occur unless children submit to teachers’ authority. Therefore, any meaningful education reform must begin with the establishment of an atmosphere of relentless obedience and submission.

Professor Goodman doesn’t talk about “conservatism” or “fundamentalism” in the schools she visits. And many of the reformers these days who push for youthful obedience and teacher standardization would never call themselves conservatives, let alone fundamentalists. But it is difficult not to notice the overlap.

Conservative notions of youth and education, it seems, have become the standard way to think about educational reform among groups such as Teach For America. First and foremost, in this understanding of education and youth, children must submit.

Sneaky Subversion in Teaching US History

If standards and curricula seem balanced and fair, does that mean that subversives have done a good job of disguising their sneaky ideological poison? That has long been the accusation of conservative intellectuals. Leftist academics, conservatives have charged for decades, make their work seem neutral, while really injecting a biased and enervating leftism.

We see this tradition alive and well in conservatives’ recent attack on the teaching of US History. As I noted in an essay in History News Network, Dinesh D’Souza’s new film warns that leftist teachers have taught America’s kids to hate America.

Other conservative intellectuals take a similarly skeptical view of the new curriculum for Advanced Placement US History. Peter Wood of the conservative National Association of Scholars accused the new APUSH curriculum of insisting on a “worldview that emphasizes America as a place of European conquest, economic exploitation, and the struggle for basic rights against the power of the privileged.” Similarly, conservative activists Jane Robbins and Larry Krieger have warned that the new APUSH curriculum peddles a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”

Wood, especially, has offered examples of the sorts of negative attitude he critiques. One of the subtopics for the early period, Wood points out, depicts European settlers as devilish racists:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontation with native peoples.

But more important than the specific examples of egregious anti-American sentiments, Wood charges, is a more subtle attitude embedded within the curriculum. As he puts it, “Sometimes these concerns break out into overt emphasis but they are present throughout.”

Apparently unconsciously, these conservative critics are echoing a long tradition of conservative educational thinking. As I argue in my upcoming book, throughout the twentieth century conservatives warned that schools were being led in leftist directions, often by this same sort of sneaky subversion. The leftists were so sneaky, conservatives warned, that readers might not even notice their subversion.

In the 1939-1941 conservative campaign against Harold Rugg’s social-studies textbooks, for example, critics warned that unwary readers could be duped into thinking the books were balanced and fair. One coalition of conservative activists called the books’ leftism “extremely clever.” Instead of openly proclaiming their leftist bias, Rugg’s books led children “with gentle language and a pedagogic smile . . . through the successive stages of indoctrination.” These conservatives conceded that many readers might find nothing wrong with Rugg’s books. But that only meant, they warned, that the danger was that much greater.

This sort of obvious-only-to-the-initiated analysis of leftist bias seems a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it presents conservative intellectuals with a difficult task. They must convince readers that even seemingly balanced curricular material is secretly anti-American, secretly leftist. That’s a tall order. But when school subversion is embedded cunningly within seemingly neutral material, conservative intellectuals are able to explain why so many popular textbooks and curricula have prospered in spite of their leftist implications.

Are the new APUSH materials really biased? Try it. Read the new curriculum guide. Does it seem like a biased leftist document to you? Its makers didn’t think so. But does that prove that conservative intellectuals are paranoid? Or does it show, rather, that the educational establishment is so dominated by left-leaning academics that they don’t even notice their own bias?

 

 

Kopplin, Creationism, and Liberal Book Burnings

A network of charter schools in Texas uses religious textbooks.  Bad religious textbooks.

That’s the accusation leveled last week by anti-creationism activist Zack Kopplin in the pages of Slate.

For anyone who has looked at the textbooks cranked out by conservative religious presses, as I have, the charges sound true.  But does this sort of expose rely too heavily on shock value?  Does it really tell us anything about what goes on in those charter schools?  Or does it rely on the dangerous mentality of the book burner?

Kopplin’s investigation uncovered the dodgy content of books used by Responsive Education, a network of charter schools that claims 65 schools and a plan to open more in the coming year.  Kopplin, a young but seasoned activist, found textbooks rife with creationist-friendly ideas.  Moreover, the textbooks promote a religious vision of history and repeatedly promulgate half-truths and lies as historic fact.  The books take a questionable tone about homosexuality and seem to embrace a distressingly patriarchal vision of proper family life.  Worst of all, Kopplin argues, these textbooks are used in public schools, schools that ought to be open and welcoming to all students, not just religious conservatives.  These slanted textbooks are peddling fake science, bad history, and sectarian “values,” and they’re using tax money to do it.

Let me repeat: Kopplin’s charges ring true to me.  I agree that public schools must not push theology.  But as I finish up my current book manuscript about the history of conservative school activism in the twentieth century, I can’t help but notice the disturbing echoes of Kopplin’s crusade.  His anti-textbook campaign seems to revive the worst elements of wartime book burning.

Sound outlandish?  Let me offer some specific examples.

First and most worrisome, Kopplin relies on the tried-but-false McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.  In his article, Kopplin points out that some ResponsiveEd schools might assign readings from the Patriots’ History of the United States, a skewed and partisan book.  To discredit the book, Kopplin notes that the book is beloved by conservative blabbermouth Glenn Beck.

More troubling, Kopplin tars ResponsiveEd schools with all the sins of every right-wing theocrat with whom they can be associated.  Consider, for example, Kopplin’s takedown of Oklahoma businessman and curricular contributor Tom Hill.  Hill, Kopplin charges,

is a follower of Bill Gothard, a minister who runs the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Christian organization that teaches its members to incorporate biblical principles into daily life. IBLP is considered a cult by some of its former followers. Gothard developed character qualities associated with a list of “49 General Commands of Christ” that Hill adopted for his character curriculum. Hill then removed Gothard’s references to God and Bible verses and started marketing the curriculum to public schools and other public institutions.

The values taught by Responsive Ed can often be found word for word on Gothard’s website. The Responsive Ed unit on genetics includes “Thoroughness: Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of my work or words if neglected.” The only difference is that Gothard’s website also adds “Proverbs 18:15” after the quote.

What does this really prove?  That some of the origins of ResponsiveEd’s curriculum can be tied to conservative evangelical Protestants?  Is that illegal?  Is that even worrisome?  After all, taken another way, Kopplin’s accusation can be taken as proof that ResponsiveEd’s curriculum has been DE-Biblicized.

This sort of guilt-by-association has a terrifying history in American educational and political history.  Too often, left-leaning or liberal groups earned labels of “subversion” by association with communist thinkers or organizations.  Consider, for instance, the widely circulated “spider-web chart” used by patriotic activists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  Any alleged association with leftist organizations, the chart accused, meant that organizations must not be trusted.

Image Source: Women's and Social Movements in the U.S.

Image Source: Women’s and Social Movements in the U.S.

In the late 1930s, a conservative campaign took off against a set of social-studies textbooks by left-leaning author Harold Rugg.  Time and again, those accusations were based on these guilt-by-association tactics.  Since Rugg taught at Teachers College Columbia, it was alleged, since he was a member of the Frontier Thinkers intellectual group, and since some members of that group had made statements or editorial decisions friendly to communism or Soviet Russia, Rugg was charged with treasonous intent.  His books were charged with all manner of subversive crime.  Just as anti-Rugg activists swung too wildly against Rugg’s books, so Kopplin seems over-ready to ban ResponsiveEd books based on questionable associations.

Another parallel between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning crusades is that Kopplin’s charges do not have much to do with actual classroom practice.  As Kopplin admits, he never actually witnessed the teaching in ResponsiveEd schools.  Rather, he relates that one classroom he looked at had the distinctive set up of an Accelerated Christian Education classroom.  Kopplin cites ILYBYGTH friend and guest writer Jonny Scaramanga as evidence that such classrooms teach terrible Bible-based schlock.

But here’s the problem: just as conservative book-burners in the 1940s gave too little thought to the ways Rugg’s textbooks might actually be used, so Kopplin does not offer any evidence about the actual goings-on in ResponsiveEd classrooms.  Anyone who has spent any time teaching knows that textbooks do not dictate classroom practice.  Take the most obvious example: What should we make of public-school classrooms that use the Bible as curriculum?  As religion scholar Mark Chancey has argued recently, the Bible can and should be taught.  But HOW it is taught makes all the difference.

I’m not saying that the ResponsiveEd curricular materials are wonderful.  But I am saying that jumping to conclusions about the practices at any school based mainly on textbooks is a fundamental mistake.

This is getting long, but here is one other creepy similarity between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning campaigns.  Like earlier campaigns, Kopplin’s charges have been passed along uncritically by allies seeking to discredit ResponsiveEd.  Intelligent, well-meaning critics such as Diane Ravitch, the Texas Freedom Network, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have trumpeted the conclusions of Kopplin’s expose.

None of these liberal organizations seems troubled by Kopplin’s sketchy evidence or guilt-by-association tactics.  As an historian who has spent the better part of the last few years stuck in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1930s and 1940s, this knee-jerk boosterism alarms me.  For many patriotic book-burners in the 1940s, Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network served as a similar sort of convenient sourcebook for denunciation.  Too many conservative activists—even intelligent, well-meaning ones—repeated outlandish charges and baseless accusations from Dilling’s book.  The fact that a textbook author such as Harold Rugg showed up in Dilling’s pages served as proof positive for many school activists that his books must not be allowed in America’s public schools.

Creepiest of all, Kopplin’s language often echoes almost verbatim the language of 1940s book-burners.  For example, Kopplin engages in a sinister sort of hermeneutic when he says the following: “Some of Responsive Ed’s lessons appear harmless at first, but their origin is troubling.”

In other words, Kopplin admits that the books themselves might not be so bad, but since they came from conservative religious sources, we must automatically attack them.  This smacks too much of what political scientist Michael Rogin has described as “political demonology.”[1]

Consider some of the similar language from the 1930s/1940s anti-Rugg textbook fight.  One of the leaders of that anti-book battle, R. Worth Shumaker of the American Legion, told a correspondent that the dangers of the Rugg books only became clear if one went “back of the scenes.”  Reading the books themselves, Shumaker admitted, made them seem bland and harmless.  But once an earnest researcher discovered Rugg’s leftist connections, the slant of the textbooks became obvious.

Another American Legion activist agreed.  Hamilton Hicks admitted in a 1941 article that “intelligent people” could read Rugg’s book and find nothing wrong with them.  “Dr. Rugg,” Hicks accused, “is far too adept a propagandist to disclose his real purpose in any one textbook.”[2]  Just as Zack Kopplin warns that the ResponsiveEd textbooks might seem harmless until we understand their origins, so anti-Rugg activists admitted that Rugg textbooks might seem fine until their sinister backstory was uncovered.

We verge from activism to hysteria when we denounce textbooks for reasons other than the textbooks themselves.  If textbooks seem harmless, the first appropriate conclusion is that the textbooks are likely harmless.

So what is a liberal to do?  Kopplin makes an important point: public schools ought not cram dead science and bad history down students’ throats.  As organizations such as Texas Freedom Network have done, this situation calls for more rigorous examination.  What really goes on in ResponsiveEd schools?  They should not be allowed to use tax dollars to teach sectarian religion and false facts.  It is important for all of us to remember, however, the profound costs of over-hasty accusations.  Calling for book burnings is never an appropriate tactic.

Kopplin has made some serious charges.  So far, however, those charges have not been backed up by adequate proof.  More is at stake here than just one charter-school network.  If we veer into hysteria rather than activism, we repeat the worst mistakes of our history.


[1] Michael Paul Rogin, “Ronald Reagan,” The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), xiii.

[2] Hamilton Hicks, “Ours to Reason Why,” American Legion Magazine (May, 1941): 6, 51.

Pluralism and Progressivism in America’s Schools

Is American public education progressive?  Do most teachers and administrators hope to use schools to instill a sense of individuality, of self-expression, in America’s youth?  Do public schools emphasize the individual construction of knowledge over the traditional emphasis on transmitting knowledge?  In general, I don’t think so, but many informed, intelligent people still assume that they do.

For instance, in this month’s First Things Ashley Rogers Berner makes a smart argument for more pluralism in American public education.  In her essay, she assumes that the ideological training of America’s public school teachers includes a decisive dollop of progressivism.

The primary reason for the stultification of American public education, Berner argues, is the system’s lack of real pluralism.  If we Americans could get over our irrational attachment to a model of public education in which only publicly run schools could receive significant public funding, then we could enjoy the fruits of a truly diverse system.

Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but in short, in her words,

“Lasting, structural change requires reframing ‘public education’ to mean publicly funded or publicly supported, not exclusively publicly delivered, education. This in turn requires a different political philosophy, a turn to a model of education based on civil society rather than state control.”   

In today’s educational culture wars, the first response to Berner’s argument is usually that such pluralism will essentially abandon those students who most need publicly run schools.  By leaching funding away to a universe of school options, those students and families who are last to scuttle away from the sinking ship of publicly administered schools will be left with even fewer resources to scratch together a decent education.

Berner and other advocates of greater diversity in public-funded schooling blame teachers’ unions for clinging to control at the expense of educational quality.  Defenders of our current funding model of public education respond (with varying levels of coherence) that the union model ought to be understood in a different way: Only if all families and teachers stick together, the argument goes, can public education be saved for all.  In this sense, advocates argue, it is a union-like argument.  With unity comes strength; privately run schools that accept public money amount to labor “scabs” that betray the cause of quality education for all.

I won’t make that argument here.  Instead, I’ll challenge Berner’s argument in a different way.  Berner insists that one killing flaw of the current public system is that it falsely purports to be ideologically neutral, while promoting a “progressive” worldview.  Berner calls this “schooling that is supposedly ideologically neutral but in fact reflects a progressive tradition strongly committed to beliefs and to an educational philosophy rejected by many Americans.”  To be fair, Berner notes that public schooling reflects a struggle between several visions of proper education, traditional vs. progressive as well as secular vs. religious.  She notes that two visions contend for ideological control of public education.  In her words,

“Today’s educators have often been trained in progressive pedagogies, but state legislatures are now asking them to teach a more prescribed curriculum and to participate in high-stakes academic assessments. This has caused a struggle in nearly every state.”

But she proceeds with an assumption that public schooling today has been captured by a progressive ideology.  As she puts it,

“American institutions, including public schooling, tend to reinforce individual autonomy and to discourage the habit of commitment. . . . An educational philosophy whose aim is self-expression is ill-equipped to foster attachment to liberal democracy.”

Her assumption that progressivism has maintained a powerful influence in public education in America is widely shared.

But as anyone who has spent any time in public schools can agree, traditional schooling practices and ideology dominate most public schools.  The notion that schools are primarily geared toward engendering a sense of “self-expression” among students does not hold.

This is more than an anecdotal observation, though I’d welcome responses from parents, teachers, and administrators who might agree or disagree.  More systematic research confirms it.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argue in their book Ten Thousand Democracies that American school districts display a wide variety of ideological commitment.  And they conclude in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms that teacher beliefs often fit those of their surrounding community.  Conservative, traditionalist communities hire conservative, traditionalist teachers.

My own historical research confirms that the level of dominance of progressive ideology in America’s public schools is generally not as high as is often assumed.  To cite one illustrative example, consider the deeply and self-consciously progressive vision of one educational leader from the first half of the twentieth century.

Harold Rugg taught at the bastion of progressive education: Teachers College, Columbia University.  As a charter member of the “Frontier Thinkers,” Rugg helped lead the charge for a “reconstruction” of American public education along progressive lines.  After a conservative, traditionalist campaign eliminated most of Rugg’s textbooks from America’s public schools, Rugg retained his belief that progressivism would conquer.  In his 1941 That Men May Understand, Rugg argued that his progressivism

 “has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools” (pg. 293).

Rugg’s predicted transformation of public schooling never took place.  His progressive vision may have changed some outlines of public schooling, but by and large public schools remain dedicated to a deeply traditional model of education, one that views the goal of education as transmission of information to young people in order to prepare them to take their place in America’s hierarchical economy.

The closest observers of public education and progressivism have noted the tendency away from the promised land of progressivism.

Near the end of his singularly influential career in American education and thought, John Dewey concluded glumly that “repressive and reactionary forces . . . increasing in strength” had managed to maintain “the fundamental authoritarianism of the old education.”[1]  A generation later, historian Michael Katz asserted that public education had always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[2]  Arthur Zilversmit, in his history of the successes and failures of Progressive education, agreed that most Americans held a “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”[3] More recently, Michael Apple has argued that conservatives have mounted “a powerful, yet odd, combination of forces” that has won the central battle to define cultural and educational “common sense.”[4]

None of this has much impact on Berner’s central argument for greater pluralism in public funding for schools.  But the notion that progressivism has achieved the sort of domination its advocates hoped for misunderstands both American educational history and the current state of American public education.


[1] John Dewey, “Introduction,” in Elsie Ripley Clapp, The Uses of Resources in Education (New York: Harper and Bros., 1952); reprinted in Dewey on Education: Selections with an Introduction and Notes, Martin S. Dworkin, ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959), 129, 130, 131-132.

[2] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

[3] Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 169.

[4] Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 4, 31, 53, 57.