The School Headline We Won’t See

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the brave Parkland students who have done so much in the past few weeks to push for change. I’m as distressed as my friends when I hear conservative politicians belittling their activism. But whatever our political views on student activism, we’re likely to believe something about schools that just isn’t true. In spite of what all of us might think if we just read the papers, America’s schools are safe and getting safer. Why don’t we hear more about it?

school safety

Where are the cheers?

Here’s what we know: The National Center for Education released its new report today about school safety. By any measure, schools today are much safer places than they’ve been since 1992. Crime reports from schools are down, security measures are improved, staffs are better trained in safety measures, and students report less crime.

Why won’t we hear more culture-war blather about this news? Here’s my guess: Whether you’re a conservative, a progressive, or other, you want people to think that schools are dangerous places.

Let’s look at the conservative side first. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives told one another that schools—especially public schools—had gone to the dogs. For example, as Reagan’s second Ed Secretary memorably lamented, by any “index of cultural indicators,” schools had failed catastrophically.

It wasn’t only Bill Bennett who worried. Religious conservatives also warned that public schools had

grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . .

In most cases, if conservatives hate something, progressives will love it. But that hasn’t been the case with public schools. From the left, critics charge that public schools are abusive places, especially to students from minority backgrounds. In one recent case from Maryland, for example, activists note that African American students

are subject to daily abuse and humiliation. . . . [from] a decades-long pattern of resistance to change and the creation of a hostile environment for children of color.

Conservatives don’t agree with progressives about much. When it comes to school safety, however, both sides agree that public schools are dangerous and getting worse. Both sides, it seems, won’t allow themselves to be troubled by inconvenient truths.

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Only Conservatives Can Be Good Teachers

Quick: What’s the most important trait a child needs in order to do well in school? Brains? A cool retro lunchbox? At World Magazine this morning, Amy Henry offers what she calls the “conservative” answer.

All I need is the Hoff...

All I need is the Hoff…

She tells the story of her struggles as a classroom teacher. No matter how dedicated, no matter how creative, Henry argues, no teacher can make any headway if students offer determined resistance. As Henry tells the tale,

Four times I asked him to take out a piece of paper. Four times I asked him to find a pencil. Each and every time we reached a new vocabulary word, I stopped reading and told him to write it down. By the time the history lesson was over, I was exhausted and so was he, I suspect. Whether the directive is to get out a book, pick up a piece of trash, or sit in a particular seat, I am met with stiff resistance, if not outright refusal to cooperate.

No student, Henry insists, can be taught if he or she isn’t willing to obey. As she puts it,

without obedience none of that [good teaching] can happen. I can teach an ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic child with severe anxiety issues the world, but I cannot teach a high-functioning, intellectually bright, whippersnapper of a kid who won’t obey a doggone thing.

For conservatives, Henry says, the most important ingredient in education is obedience. This is not just her off-hand observation. As evidence, Henry cites new-ish poll data from Pew Research. Those who identify as “consistent conservatives” are more likely than “consistent liberals” to place a high value on children’s obedience. She interprets those numbers in a sketchy way, I think, but let’s save that argument for another post. For now, let’s talk about why so many conservatives agree with Henry.

For Henry, conservatives are the only ones who really get it.  Liberals fudge and whine, but they avoid the obvious conclusion: education in classrooms can only happen if kids come to school equipped with an obedient attitude. As we’ve talked about in these pages, this notion has proven extremely influential among certain conservative activists throughout the twentieth century.

For example, from the mid-1960s, Max Rafferty attracted a huge popular following with his traditionalist nostrums on good education. [For any up-and-coming historians out there, we really need a good academic history of Rafferty’s career and ideology. It’s a fabulous dissertation just waiting for you in Iowa City and Sacramento.] Rafferty served as the state superintendent of public education in California, but he attracted the most attention with his syndicated columns about the nature of childhood and proper education. In one such column from the early 1960s, Rafferty explained why children must begin by learning to obey. In Rafferty’s words,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1970s, too, leading conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler agreed on the primary importance on obedience. The Gablers are best known for their indefatigable textbook commentary. At every Texas textbook-adoption meeting in the 1970s, the Gablers were there with long detailed lists of ideologically suspect material from the books under consideration. Given the influence of the Texas textbook market among publishers, the Gablers managed to punch far above their weight in terms of national textbook selection.

But the Gablers cared about more than conservative histories and science books. They prided themselves on their attitude toward children and obedience. As an admiring biographer wrote,

The Gabler boys were expected to be respectful and they were. A black friend of the family was always marveling, ‘Your boys are the only ones who call me, “Mister.”’ And the parents’ response was always, ‘They’d better.’

For the Gablers, as for so many cultural conservatives, parents needed to ensure that kids came to school ready to learn. That didn’t mean just pencils and lunchboxes. That meant children must come to school ready to submit to teachers’ authority.

In the narrower world of conservative evangelicalism, too, Henry’s focus on obedience has long roots. Many conservative Christians have agreed with Henry that children must obey, for both classroom and churchly reasons.

For example, as fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee argued in a late-1970s guide to good Christian schooling,

Without Biblical discipline the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8). Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . . . If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.

Certainly, among many conservatives, Henry is absolutely correct. Only conservatives can be good teachers, because only conservatives embrace the primary need for obedience. Without obedience, all the fancy-pants progressive toys and tricks in the world will do no good. But with obedience, any child from any background can learn.

The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp

If we listen to the voices of Fundamentalist America, we might conclude that public schools in America are terrible places to be.  Twenty years ago, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research warned that public schools had become “aggressively anti-Christian.”  The problems, Morris declared, went beyond the obvious:

Open drug sales and use, ethnic gang wars, and student/teacher violence are easily recognized problems, but how about the more subtle attempts at “values clarification,” or the encouragement of experimentation in “sex education” classes, or the inclusion of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, or easy access to abortions through school clinics.

Other conservative Christian activists agree.  Thirty years ago, Jerry Combee wrote,

the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

More recently, activists involved in the Exodus Mandate have warned that public schools “are no more reformable than Soviet collective farms. . . . Conservative school reformers are a lot like Civil War reenactors who specialize in Pickett’s Charge.  They never take the high ground; they never really win.”

This staggering decline in the quality of public schools began, many conservatives insist, when the US Supreme Court kicked God out of schools in 1962 and 1963.  In 1962, as we’ve seen, the court decreed that states could not impose a non-sectarian prayer in public schools.  More devastating to many conservative Christians, in 1963 the court ruled in the decision Abington Township School District v. Schempp that even Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer had no legitimate place in those schools.

Despite what many outsiders might think, the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism in America is truly kaleidoscopic, to borrow the phrase of religious historian Timothy L. Smith.  Different schools of thought among Bible believers disagree vehemently on questions of politics, culture, and theology.  Ask twenty “fundamentalists” what the Bible means and you’ll get at least twenty different answers.  Yet when it came to the Schempp decision, a variety of voices from around this diverse world all agreed.  This decision meant not only that God had been kicked out of public schools, but that Christianity itself had been kicked out of American public life.

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Schempp decision, separatist Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire still hoped that concerted political action might overturn it.  McIntire helped organize “Project America” to press politicians to adopt a Constitutional amendment in favor of prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  At first, McIntire repeatedly stressed his feeling that huge majorities of Americans would support such an amendment.  After a bitter political fight, however, McIntire acknowledged that it was hopeless.  Writers in McIntire’s Christian Beacon began to emphasize the notion that their beliefs made them a beleaguered minority in American life.  In 1965 one writer warned that America was “moving farther and farther from its Christian heritage.”  Another predicted that soon mainstream Americans would resort to “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

Other evangelical voices made similar about-faces in the aftermath of Schempp.  Baptist fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice reflected that the relationship between evangelical faith and public schooling had changed drastically.  He recounted for his readers how things had been radically different in the not-too-distant past:

Once when I was engaged in revival services in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I was invited to speak in every high school in the city and in the principal grade schools, both white and colored, and was gladly received.  The only people offended were those involved in the few elementary schools where I could not come for lack of time. 

Such halcyon days, however, had been destroyed by the cowardly Supreme Court.  Worst of all, Rice concluded, the court seemed to have the support of “the public sentiment.”

This sense of a drastic and sudden shift in the relationship between evangelical belief and public life was widely shared among all different sorts of conservative evangelical Protestants in the aftermath of Schempp.  One writer in the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly, for example, concluded that evangelicals must retreat to play the role of God’s “witnesses and lights in a dark place” in mainstream American culture.

Similarly, the intellectuals at Christianity Today articulated their shock and dismay of the implications of Schempp. At first, the editors believed that America’s “devout masses” still supported school prayer.  As did other evangelicals, however, they concluded bitterly that “In the schools secularization has triumphed.”  Instead of relying on devout masses, the editors soon hoped only to energize the “believing remnant” in America to support Bible-reading and prayer in public schools.

As we’ll see in future posts, the Schempp decision might not have had the drastic impact many of these writers assumed at the time.  Nevertheless, the degree of unanimity among a wide variety of conservative evangelical Protestants is remarkable.  From separatist fundamentalists to more ecumenical neo-evangelicals, prominent voices all agreed that this momentous decision had done more than just kicked God out of public schools.  In their opinions, Schempp had forced a sudden recalculation of the role of Bible believers in all of American public life.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part III: What thunderbolt?