Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Revisionaries and the Experts

Thanks to all who came to last night’s screening of The Revisionaries at Binghamton University.  Despite some technical glitches, the discussion ranged widely from the meanings of science to the purposes of public education.

One of the most intriguing elements of the film and of our discussion was its theme of “experts.”

That was certainly not the only reason to view this documentary.  It tells the story of the 2010 textbook requirement hearings at the Texas State Board of Education.  As the film describes, the influence of the Texas market in defining the nation’s choices in public school textbooks has long been decisive.

Conservatives such as Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar battled with folks such as Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Ron Wetherington of Southern Methodist University, and Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network.

In the fight over the 2010 textbook requirements, conservatives insisted on a science framework in which textbooks would include creationist-friendly criticisms of evolutionary theory.  They also battled to revise history standards to emphasize the influence of conservative heroes such as Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly, and to underscore the meanings of the United States as a profoundly “Christian Nation.”

In all these battles, Don McLeroy insisted on a populist argument, one with a long and storied tradition among conservatives.  Dr. McLeroy repeated as a sort of motto, “I disagree with the experts.  Someone has to stand up to them.”  To McLeroy, this strategy applied equally well to the scientists who promoted evolutionary theory as it did to the politicians who had moved American culture to the “Far Left.”

The distrust of “experts” has long been a powerful motivator in American politics and culture, of course.  Within the universe of conservative evangelical Protestantism, it has both theological and political taproots.  As I note in my 1920s book, the role of experts played a similar role for the first generation of American fundamentalists.

But this distrust of experts has also often been taken too glibly at face value as a bald anti-intellectualism.  The distrust of experts, as seen by McLeroy’s foes in The Revisionaries, can be interpreted as a dunderheaded insistence that knowledge is a bad thing.

But McLeroy and other conservatives have a more complicated position.  In fact, McLeroy and his allies cherished the status of experts, even as they claimed to be fighting against them.  In the evolution hearings, for instance, conservatives brought in two eminent intelligent-design experts from Seattle’s Discovery Institute.  In his presentation to the board, Stephen C. Meyer prominently displayed his expert qualifications, including a PhD from Cambridge University.

Similarly, McLeroy’s close ally on the board represented the tradition of conservative evangelical expert.  Cynthia Dunbar teaches at Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971 precisely to raise new generations of fundamentalist experts.  And Dunbar wielded her expert club with ferocious abandon.  During the history hearings depicted in The Revisionaries, Dunbar attempted to silence her opponents by reminding them that she taught political philosophy “at the doctoral level.”

The Revisionaries is a must-see for anyone interested in issues of cultural contests in America’s schools.  For those out there like me who teach college classes in educational foundations or history, ask your library if they will purchase a copy for classroom use.

Beyond what I’ve described here, the film includes gems like the awkward conversation between evolutionary anthropologist Ron Wetherington and McLeroy.  The two are able to be congenial, but they aren’t able to do more than disagree with one another smilingly.

Most intriguing, the documentary demonstrates many of the complicated intellectual traditions of American conservatism, including not least McLeroy’s insistence that he plans to combat the intrusions of experts, even as he relies on his own experts to make his points.