Apocalyptic Academics: Conservatives and the Myth of Outrageous Schools

There it is again!

Today we find yet another example of conservative commentators lambasting the outrageousness of public education.  This firmly ensconced tradition of school-bashing doesn’t make much sense to me.  I would think conservatives would want to promote public education in America as one field in which conservative ideas and ideals have taken firm control.

Today’s example comes from the pages of Public Discourse, in an essay by Professor William Jeynes.  The opening paragraph highlights the terrible activism of public schools:

An inquisitive elementary school student asked his teacher, “Is it wrong to steal?” The teacher replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” This incident in a major midwestern public school alarmed thousands of parents, and reminded myriad others why they value religious private schools: these schools are usually guided by a moral compass for academics and behavior that public schools patently do not offer.

This notion of vaguely outrageous teaching in America’s vaguely described public schools is a dominant theme of conservative talk about public schooling.

Browsers of conservative media hear about high-school students strip-searched during exams, or teachers rewarded for “stomping” on the American flag.

In all these stories, public schools and their teachers loom as out-of-control dictators, blasting away at traditional morality, patriotism, religion, and common sense.

Nor is this theme a new one among conservative pundits.

In the 1980s, for example, commentator Sam Blumenfeld warned readers that “the neighborhood school is controlled by a national educational and bureaucratic hierarchy completely insulated from local community pressures and answerable only to itself.”[1]

In the 1970s, US Representative John Conlan (R-AZ) worked hard to control what went on in public schools.  Debating House Bill 12851 in May, 1976, Conlan advised,

I think one of the things that perhaps the gentleman from Michigan is not aware of is that there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.[2]

As I argued in my 1920s book, conservatives in that decade also insisted on the terrifyingly amoral or immoral dominance of public schools.  For instance, one well-funded insurgent group, the Bible Crusaders, warned that public schools had been taken over by a conspiratorial sect determined “to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”[3]

In all these tellings, schools and teachers represent insidious threats to traditional values.  As with Professor Jeynes’ recent warning, a single example, often vague or imprecise, is used as proof of the continuing trend of public schools nationwide. For some reason, conservatives have long tended to exaggerate the perniciousness of public schools.

Of course, this is not only a conservative tendency.  Progressives, too, often hyperventilate over isolated examples of conservative influence in schooling.  As we noted recently, for instance, the specter of creationism often looms much larger in the progressive imagination than it does in actual schools.

In the face of such assertions of apocalyptic academics in public schools, more careful scholarship demonstrates that most teaching fits in with local community values.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have noted that most teachers’ values match those of their school and district.[4]

Of course, there always are and always have been some teachers who flout local values.  But such events are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual.  In general, most teachers prefer to avoid controversy.  Most teachers, like most people, try to fit in.  The notion that teachers and schools are out to demolish the values of their students just doesn’t match experience.

Yet conservatives will presumably continue to trumpet examples of outrageous public-school teaching.  To a non-conservative like me, this does not make sense.  I would think conservatives would rather exaggerate the conservative nature of most public education.  These days, talk about public schooling is dominated by demonstrably conservative themes: privatization, competition, and union-bashing, to name a few.

Wouldn’t it make better strategic sense for conservatives to claim all of these as victories?

[1] Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary?  (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1981), 4.

[2] Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532.

[3] “The Bible Crusader’s Challenge,” Christian Fundamentals in School and Church 8 (April-June 1926): 53.

[4] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 199-200.

Sex as Religion in America’s Public Schools

Try this one on for size: Religious conservatives are fighting to keep America’s public schools free from religion.  And they have been doing so for a long time.

Here’s the catch: the religion they want excluded is the awkwardly named faith of “sexualityism.”  The campaign by some conservative intellectuals to ban this newly identified theology joins a long history of conservative attempts to reframe secular, liberal, “progressive” ideology.  Such ideas as the relativism of value systems and the virtues of commitment-free sex, these conservative argue, are actually theological ideas.  As such, the conservative argument goes, the fabled wall of separation between church and state requires that they be kept far away from public schools.

For example, writing recently for the conservative journal Public Discourse, Greg Pfundstein denounced a new sex policy in New York City schools.  As we’ve noted here, the Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health (CATCH) program offers contraception to public-school students without parental notification.  The program recently expanded to include “morning-after” pills, in addition to condoms and birth-control pills.

Pfundstein insisted that this program made no sense from a public-health perspective.  Instead, Pfundstein argued, “This is the work of religious fanatics, and their religion is sexualityism.”

At the core of programs such as CATCH, Pfundstein concluded, is nothing less than a “theocracy of the sexual emancipation of children.”

The strategy of identifying secular ideology in public schools as a religion has a storied history among conservatives.  In the 1920s, as I argue in my 1920s book, much of the anti-evolution fervor among religious conservatives resulted from the identification of evolutionary ideas as profoundly religious.  In this case, conservatives argued that evolution was merely atheism in disguise.

More recently, beginning in the 1970s, conservatives attacked public-school ideology as “secular humanism.”  Conservative writers, intellectuals, and activists insisted that public-school curricula embodied the religion of secular humanism, and, as such, violated the First Amendment ban on state-supported religion in public schools.

Perhaps the political high-water mark for this strategy came on May 12, 1976.  US Representative John Conlan of Arizona successfully amended a bill about the financing of higher education to include a denunciation of secular humanism.  As Conlan argued on the floor of the House,

“there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.  This is the heart of the First Secular Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and the [13533] Second Secular Humanist Manifesto of 1973.

            “What we are really saying is that much of the social problems that are being dealt with in the schools came from the premise that there are no moral or religious principles.  What I am saying is that since we cannot teach and will not fund those grants and programs to develop the Judaic-Christian ethical concepts, then it seems to me fair that those curriculums opposed to Judaic-Christian concepts should also not be funded.  That is all we are asking.      

            “I have in my hand here the recently published Humanist Magazine article which brags that ‘humanism is alive and thriving in secondary schools.’  But we could go on and on documenting the case of what is happening in our schools.” (Source: Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532-13533)

This argument has had some success in courtrooms.  Most famously, the plaintiffs in Mozert v. Hawkins County (1987) had initial success with their claims.  Though a federal circuit court eventually disagreed, early hearings supported the Mozerts’ claim that textbooks in public schools ought not teach ideas that promoted “secular humanism.”

Could this strategy change the argument about sex-ed in public schools?  Could it shift the debate from talk of public health to talk of public religion?

If the history of conservative attempts to ban “secular humanism” is any guide, the answer is likely no.  In Mozert v. Hawkins County, for instance, federal judges eventually ruled that the Mozerts’ did not have a significant claim to have been harmed.  In essence, the judges disagreed that “secular humanism” represented a state-sponsored religion.

The same will likely be true with the awkwardly named “sexualityism.”  The religious nature of teaching sexuality seems plausible, but courts and public opinion will likely continue to see the public-health benefits of sex ed outweighing the religious objections of conservatives.