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.

 

William F. Buckley and a Party already in Progress

There it is again!  Every now and then we see some commentator who starts her historical discussion of conservatism in American education in 1951, or 1968, or 1980. 

This week we got another dose: In her Salon.com article about the conservative attack on liberal-arts education, Katie Billotte claimed William F. Buckley “pioneered these attacks [on liberal-arts higher education] in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, and his claim that universities serve as indoctrination camps for liberalism has become a standard talking point on the right.”

Billotte made her claim as part of a rebuttal of a Joseph Epstein article, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?”  Her argument, and Epstein’s, are both worth reading.  But once again, we must point out that conservative attacks on the nature of higher education must be traced back at least to the 1920s.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, for instance, complained bitterly about the ideological and theological perversions of liberal-arts higher education.  Texas Baptist fundamentalist leader J. Frank Norris, to cite just one example, warned in 1921 that college students went wrong when they studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

The tradition of conservative attacks on leftism and radicalism among liberal-arts educators in higher education was not limited to religious conservatives.  For example, in 1938, American Legion National Commander Daniel Doherty took an audience at Columbia University to task for becoming “the Big Red University.”  To a chorus of boos from his Columbia audience, Doherty warned, “The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution.”  The problem, Doherty felt, stretched far beyond Columbia.  Later in 1938, he accused,

It is well known that many of our institutions of higher learning are hotbeds of Communism.  They disseminate theories and philosophies of government which are entirely alien to the American concept and American principles under which we have prospered more than a century and a half as no other people.

Such sentiments were standard fare among conservative activists and thinkers long before William F. Buckley criticized the trends at his alma mater.  Indeed, Buckley himself may be presumed to be familiar with the work of Albert Jay Nock.  We know Nock spent time at the Buckley home in Buckley’s youth.  And Nock’s attitude toward higher education, at least as expressed in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) leaves little room for Buckley to “pioneer.”

Nock remembered his own liberal-arts education fondly.  Since his time, however, Nock claimed a far-reaching “educational revolution” had destroyed the liberal-arts tradition (85).  The “purge” was “based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy” (88). 

The conservative protest against the theological and ideological tendencies of higher education and its liberal-arts program long preceded William F. Buckley Jr.  In addition to drinking in long conservative traditions, Buckley cribbed much of his enfant-terrible critique of Yale directly from Nock and his ilk. 

Billotte might protest that her interest lay with today’s conservative attacks, not those from the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s.  But like many other commentators, she makes claims about the history of conservatism without any apparent familiarity with the subject.  Buckley’s criticism of Yale only makes sense when we understand that it was not a pioneering effort at all.  Billotte’s argument will make sense only when she takes time to understand the legacy of her opponents’ ideas.

 

Leftist Bias in the Academy?

Conservatives have long complained that American higher education faculty displayed an intellectually crippling ideological bias.  This has been called “anti-intellectualism,” but a more precise term would be something like “anti-professoriate.”  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the non-conservative sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Research argues that conservatives may be right.

The accusation of academic bias has been so durable in the intellectual world of Fundamentalist America that one is tempted to dismiss it as sour grapes.  For instance, in the 1920s, Presbyterian orthodox leader J. Gresham Machen finally left his beloved Princeton Seminary to start his own school, driven out, he claimed, by his colleagues’ growing intolerance of Machen’s Biblical orthodoxy.  Less intellectually gifted 1920s fundamentalists made similar charges, in more colorful language.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

Around the time of the Scopes Trial, a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal captured this anti-professoriate feeling among fundamentalists:

 

Education in the Higher Branches

More recently, in the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

In the twenty-first century, small-f fundamentalist blockbust author Tim LaHaye agreed.  University faculties, LaHaye argued, had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.” 

“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

Christian Smith’s recent article argues that this leftist orthodoxy is not merely a figment of conservatives’ imaginations.  His article bemoans the attacks on sociologist Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus published an academic article in which he concluded that children raised by same-sex parents have more emotional disorders as adults.  According to Smith, Regnerus followed the guidelines of academic research and publishing.  His conclusions may or may not be correct, but his work followed the traditions of peer review and editing.  Regnerus’ conclusions may be disagreeable to some, but his research methods stand above reproach.

Yet, according to Smith, the attacks on Regnerus demonstrate the problems with today’s left-leaning academy.  As Smith argues,

“The temptation to use academe to advance a political agenda is too often indulged in sociology, especially by activist faculty in certain fields, like marriage, family, sex, and gender. The crucial line between broadening education and indoctrinating propaganda can grow very thin, sometimes nonexistent. Research programs that advance narrow agendas compatible with particular ideologies are privileged. Survey textbooks in some fields routinely frame their arguments in a way that validates any form of intimate relationship as a family, when the larger social discussion of what a family is and should be is still continuing and worth having. Reviewers for peer-reviewed journals identify “problems” with papers whose findings do not comport with their own beliefs. Job candidates and faculty up for tenure whose political and social views are not ‘correct’ are sometimes weeded out through a subtle (or obvious), ideologically governed process of evaluation, which is publicly justified on more-legitimate grounds—’scholarly weaknesses’ or ‘not fitting in well’ with the department.” 

As we have argued elsewhere, this bias is often wrapped in a near-total ignorance about life in Fundamentalist America.  One of the main reasons for this blog has been to introduce the ideas and culture of Fundamentalist America to outsiders who don’t know much about it.  Like Smith, we do not have to actively defend conservative ideas in order to protest against this sort of myopic academic bias.  Rather, we can promote a true diversity of ideas in higher education.  We can push for a true university, one in which the universe of ideas can be discussed calmly, without fear of the vindictive witch-hunts Smith describes.

In order to do so, we need to actively separate the jumble of issues.  The question is not whether children of same-sex parents have a tougher time in life.  The question is whether we will allow that conclusion to be reached in academic journals.  The question is whether researchers will be free to follow their data wherever it may lead, or whether, as Smith concludes, academic life will be governed by a crippling and unnecessary Stalin-lite motto: “Play it politically safe, avoid controversial questions, publish the right conclusions.”

 

Required Reading: Louis Menand and the Left-Leaning Ivory Tower

Louis Menand,  The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the
American University.
  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2010.

Fundamentalists have long argued that America’s colleges and universities had been captured by a sinister left wing.  Now they have some evidence to back up their complaints.

Most often, those accusations branded mainstream American univeristies as hopelessly lost to pernicious non-fundamentalist ideas.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

This hostility among fundamentalists toward the professoriate was noted by one cartoonist in the Wall Street Journal around the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925.  In this cartoon, hillbilly fundamentalists sic their legislative dogs on a hapless professor.

In the run-up to that Scopes Trial, the greatest fundamentalist scientist of the 1920s, George McCready Price, informed William Jennings Bryan confidentially that evolutionists had fallen prey to a debilitating group-think.  Because they only listened to one another, Price insisted, such evolutionists had become “out of date,–behind the times,–and don’t know it.”

This outright hostility toward the academic classes continued throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, one pamphlet from the American Legion in 1930 warned that too many college professors saw their jobs as indoctrinating each new generation of young, impressionable minds.  In this author’s opinion, college professors did not try to authentically educate their students, but only saw their jobs as a chance to make new “teachers of communism and atheism out of them.”

In the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

More recently, fundamentalist blockbuster author Tim LaHaye agreed.  In the twenty-first century, LaHaye believed, university faculties had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.”
“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

This trope has remained so ubiquitous among fundamentalist activists that is tempting to dismiss it as sour grapes.  In this sour-grapes line of thinking, fundamentalists attack the intellectual pretensions of college professors since those professors show universal disdain for the Biblical belief of fundamentalists.  Fundamentalist attacks, this argument goes, actually prove the intelligence and perspicacity of college professors.

Louis Menand’s new book suggests otherwise.  Menand, best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Metaphysical Club, now takes aim at the sclerotic intellectual culture of American higher education.  Menand is no fundamentalist.  Nor does he have an axe to grind against the left-leaning cultural politics of today’s universities.  However, he does agree with fundamentalist critics that the professoriate encourages group thinking and intellectual conformity rather than innovative ideas and iconoclasm.

Unlike fundamentalist critics of higher education, Menand does not blame evolution, socialism, or secularism for this state of affairs.  Rather, Menand’s critique is more prosaic.  In order to become a tenure-track professor in the humanities, Menand points out, aspiring professors must endure years, even decades, of powerless apprenticeship.  Those who survive this ordeal do so not by bucking the intellectual party line but rather by honing their ability to locate and placate the institutionally powerful.

In Menand’s view, this leads to a dangerous state of affairs in which “The academic profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself” (153).  Until and unless research universities find a new way to train the next generations of faculty, Menand frets, the trend toward intellectual conformity will accelerate.  [UPDATE: For a full review of Menand’s book, be sure to check out the H-Education list review commissioned by Jon Anuik:  https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33892 Thanks, Jon, for this notice.  –Editor]

Fundamentalists won’t be surprised.  For generations they have dismissed the protestations of the kept intellectuals at America’s universities.  Menand’s book should serve to give them support from outside their own ranks for their deeply held distrust of pointy-headed professors.