Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?

Can Conservatives Care about Black People?

Would you take twenty-five million dollars from a conservative donor?

That’s the question posed recently to the United Negro College Fund.  The love-em-or-hate-em Koch brothers gave a $25 million donation, and some voices in the academic community want the UNCF to give the money back.  We have a different question to ask.

The prominent historian Marybeth Gasman argued that the UNCF should give the money back.  [Full disclosure: Professor Gasman and I will both be contributing chapters to an upcoming volume about agnotology and education.]  For anyone who knows the history of African-American higher education, Gasman wrote, this sort of conservative funding raises ominous red flags.

As Gasman has demonstrated, philanthropists have too often exerted control over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the UNCF.  James Anderson, too, has argued that philanthropists have pushed HBCUs away from liberal-arts education and towards manual training courses.

With that history in mind, Professor Gasman insisted that the Koch money is tainted.  “The Koch brothers,” she wrote,

have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.

Balderdash, say leading conservative intellectuals.  In the pages of Forbes  Magazine, George Leef argued that the UNCF should be celebrating.  First of all, Leef insisted, the Koch brothers’ anti-big-government activism will help African Americans, not harm them.  And in addition, the money is just money.  Take it, spend it, help people, Leef concluded.

In an interview with Michael Lomax of the UNCF, American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess suggested a similar happy ending.  Lomax told Hess that he hoped to take money from whomever he could.  Too much ideological thinking, Lomax said,

has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.  Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship.

Professor Gasman worried that the Koch brothers will use their gift to have a nefarious influence on the UNCF. Lomax insists it won’t. But in the world of conservative education policy, we’ve seen a different struggle.

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservative intellectuals and activists have argued since the end of World War II that their school policies did not make them racist. As we’ve seen in these pages, conservatives have worked long and hard to overcome the accusation that conservatism is inherently anti-black.

In 1950 Pasadena, for example, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin pushed a new zoning plan that would have desegregated Pasadena’s schools by race. Conservatives reacted furiously and eventually booted Goslin. But their opposition to desegregation, conservatives insisted, did not make them racist. To prove it, many conservatives cited the support of prominent African American leaders. As one conservative activist told a packed school-board meeting, her anti-deseg petition could not possibly be racist, since it was signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors.”  Plus, this woman told the meeting, she could not be racist, because she had become friends with a “Negro physician” in her neighborhood.

Similarly, in the fight over textbooks in 1974 Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservatives insisted that their position did not make them racist. In that case, new textbooks included provocative passages from writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. White conservatives hated the books, but not because they were racists, they insisted. In their support, conservatives cited prominent African American voices such as George Schuyler.

In all these cases, conservative educational activists trumpeted the support of African American voices to prove that their conservative ideas did not make them racist. In a way, foes of the Koch brothers could argue that this UNCF gift will serve a similar purpose. If folks like Professor Gasman accuse the Koch brothers of racism, the Koch brothers can now call on Michael Lomax and the UNCF to burnish their anti-racist credentials.

Professor Gasman argued that the Koch gift will come with unacceptable strings. But we could also ask this question: Is the UNCF now vouching for the Koch brothers? Is the UNCF willing to back the Koch brothers when they insist that their conservative activism does not make them racist?