I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another rip-roaring week has come and gone in the offices of ILYBYGTH. Here are some stories you might have missed:

Anti-Muslim? Or pro-secular? School-prayer debates in Ontario.

Forget about free speech and violent protests for a second. At WaPo, Jeffrey Selingo argues that there are much bigger problems to worry about in the world of higher education.Bart reading bible

Southern evangelical churches wonder what to do about their Confederate monuments.

Summer vacation is here. From the Fordham Institute, Christopher Rom says we need to get rid of it. And it’s not because we’re not all a bunch of farmers anymore.

Jerry Falwell wants in. But other university leaders want out. Queen Betsy’s Ed Dept is having trouble filling its ranks.

The more things change…Southern Baptist Convention debates an anti-racism resolution.

More Trumpian tragedy: Cabinet meeting relives the opening of King Lear.

Helicopter parenting and the authoritarian personality: Pratik Chougule makes the case at the American Conservative.

Teaching climate change: A rundown of the latest developments.

DeVos’s Ed Dept. closes a sexual-assault investigation at Liberty University.

What do we do when a religion is all about racial violence? The question of Odinism.

Will vouchers help? Only at the edges, two researchers claim. Positive effects from vouchers are due to something else.

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Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

sexual assault at school

A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.

Creationism, Conservatism, and the Common Core

What does creationism have to do with the newish Common Core Learning Standards? Some conservative activists and politicians are rejecting both in a knee-jerk attack on educational reform. In one new educational bill in Ohio, conservatives simultaneously threw out the Common Core and opened the door to creationism. But this isn’t just a question of creationism. Rather, this is a symptom of a broader conservative attitude toward public schooling.

Not just science, but history and literature are also targeted in this conservative educational power grab.

We first became aware of this new bill in Ohio thanks to the watchdoggery of the folks at the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE, naturally, worried first about the apparent opening of Ohio’s public-school science classes to intelligent design and creationism. Ohio’s House Bill 597 would insist on new standards that specifically “prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another.”  The sponsor of the bill, Andy Thompson of Marietta, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he included that language to allow school districts the freedom to include a variety of ideas about evolution, not to mandate that districts include intelligent design or creationism.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

But the anti-Common Core bill also includes a broad-spectrum attack on the purportedly progressive nature of school curricula in other subjects as well. The original draft of the bill specified that 80% of the literature taught must be from American or British authors before 1970, though Thompson quickly backpedaled from that goal. But why was such a target included in the first place? As I detail in my new book, conservatives since the 1970s have looked skeptically at the trend toward “multicultural” literature. Conservative leaders from Max Rafferty to Bill Bennett have insisted that proper education—conservative education—must be based on the classics of our Western civilization. Anything else, they insisted, dooms children to a savage unawareness of their own cultural heritage.

In history, too, the Ohio bill insisted that history instruction include

the original texts and the original context of the declaration of independence, the northwest ordinance, the constitution of the United States and its amendments with emphasis on the bill of rights; incorporate the Ohio constitution; define the United States of America as a constitutional republic; be based on acquisition of real knowledge of major individuals and events; require the study of world and American geography; and prohibit a specific political or religious interpretation of the standards’ content.

Here also we hear echoes of long-time conservative worries. From Lynne Cheney to Dinesh D’Souza, it has become a commonplace of the conservative imagination that leftist history has taken over public education. As I argued recently in a commentary in History News Network, conservatives assume that students are taught that American history is the record of cruel white hate crimes against Native Americans, women, and African Americans. The Ohio bill hopes to rectify this America-bashing by mandating “real knowledge,” not just hate-filled Zinn-isms.

As we’ve seen time and again, conservatives are not united in their thinking about the Common Core. Some conservatives love them….or at least like them. Others blast the standards as yet another attempt at sneaky subversion from Washington.

In this new Ohio legislation, we see how some conservatives combine their loathing of the Common Core with a grab-bag of other conservative educational goals: Less evolution in science class, more America-loving in history class, and less multiculturalism in literature class. Taken together, conservatives such as Ohio’s Andy Thompson hope to broaden the anti-Common-Core juggernaut into a more ambitious conservative panacea.

 

Are We Post-Racial Yet? Conservatives and Affirmative Action

It appears the US Supreme Court’s non-decision today about affirmative action won’t settle anything. In its 7-1 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court sent the case back down to lower courts to decide.  This doesn’t rule out university use of affirmative action policies in admissions, but it does not exactly endorse it either.

Significantly, Court conservatives including Justices Scalia and Thomas voted with the majority today, but both indicated they would be willing (eager?) to rule such affirmative-action policies unconstitutional.

Legal and higher-ed policy wonks will have plenty to chew over in coming days.

For me, the recent ruling underscores the ways debates over affirmative action in university admissions policies have become a stand-in for conservative sentiment about race and racism in America.  Though it is too simple to say anything about conservatism as a whole, the last forty years have established a new kind of anti-racist conservatism.  These self-described anti-racists, however, have struggled to convince anyone besides themselves of their sincere dedication to fighting racism and traditional preferences that favor whites.

The recent SCOTUS history alone has given the debate over race and schooling a kick in the pants.  In the late 1970s, in the Bakke case, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of any racial quotas in college admissions.

More recently, in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), SCOTUS decided that race could be used in admissions decisions, as one category among others.  The key element in this decision was that race could be used to further the state’s interest in fostering a diverse learning environment.

One influential strain of opinion among conservatives can be summed up in a pithy statement by Chief Justice Roberts from 2007.  In a case from Seattle, Roberts insisted, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

Conservative thinking on this issue has, in some ways, remained remarkably constant for the past generation.  In the mid-1980s, for instance, writing for the Heritage Foundation, Philip Lawler articulated a conservative critique of affirmative action admissions policies that sounds fresh today.  Such policies, Lawler argued, effectively promote racism against African Americans and other historically underrepresented college populations.  Affirmative action degrades true achievement and breeds resentment towards all African Americans.  It also leads to a racist dismissal of the true achievements of some African Americans.

Former US Representative Allen West made similar arguments in his amicus brief filed in the Fisher case.  “Race-conscious policies do not advance – in fact, they harm – the most compelling of all governmental interests: protecting and defending our Nation’s security. This is true whether practiced by colleges and universities (which, together with the Nation’s military academies, produce the majority of the commissioned officers in our country’s military), or by the military itself in the selection and advancement of its officer and enlisted personnel,” West argued.  West, a prominent African American conservative, argued that affirmative action policies degraded all applicants, African Americans most of all.

The problem with these kinds of conservative arguments is that they are often dismissed as mere window dressing.  With important exceptions such as Representative West and Justice Clarence Thomas, most African Americans support affirmative action policies.  The NAACP, for instance, has consistently and energetically supported Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy.  The National Black Law Students Association, in its amicus brief in the Fisher case noted the “systematic racial hierarchy that produces and perpetuates racial disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes.”  Affirmative-action admissions policies, the NBLSA insisted, remained necessary to promote a truly non-racist society.  Conservative insistence that such affirmative action policies actually support anti-black racism tends to fall on deaf ears among the majority of African Americans and whites who consider themselves racial liberals.

Conservative activists and intellectuals—white and black—often express what seems like honest surprise when accused of anti-black racism.  Perhaps one episode that illustrates this kind of conservative anti-racism might be that of Alice Moore and the 1974 Kanawha County textbook protest.  In this battle from the Charleston region of West Virginia, conservative parents and activists protested against a new series of English Language Arts textbooks.  Among the many complaints were protests against the inclusion of authors such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.  Such militant African American voices, many Kanawha County residents insisted, did not belong in school textbooks.  Conservative leaders insisted that this was not because they were black, but because they were violent and criminal, and apparently proud of it.

Conservative leader Alice Moore came to the 1974 controversy freshly schooled in the ideology of anti-racist conservatism.  She had attended a conference in which conservative African American politician Stephen Jenkins blasted the anti-black implications of multicultural literature.  Such literature collections, Jenkins insisted, implied that the violent, angry, criminal voices of militants such as George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver represented the thinking of African Americans.  Such implications, Jenkins explained, proved that the true racists were the multiculturalists.  By pushing a skewed vision of African American culture, such multicultural textbooks implied that African Americans as a whole were criminal and violent.

Moore embraced this sort of anti-racist conservative ideology.  When she (politely, as always) confronted African American leader Ron English at a heated board of education meeting, Moore seemed honestly flummoxed that the English did not agree with her.  Moore pointed out that voices such as Jackson and Cleaver did not fairly represent the truths of African American life.  But The Reverend English rebutted that such militant voices represented an important part of the American experience, stretching back to Tom Paine.

Moore’s befuddlement in 1974 matches that of anti-racist, anti-affirmative action conservatives today.  Many conservatives feel that their opposition to affirmative action makes them the true anti-racists.  Yet they consistently find themselves accused of racism.  The fight over Fisher never seemed to be changing this dynamic.  Now that the Court has punted, there is even less resolution on offer.  Conservative notions that true anti-racism requires the elimination of race-based considerations in college admissions will likely continue to fall on deaf ears among leading African American advocacy groups.

From the Archives: August Heckscher and Conservative Multiculturalism

Could American conservatives embrace their own, distinctly conservative vision of “multicultural” education?

Thanks to Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative, we find a resurrected 1953 argument that forces us to wonder.  This essay, by historian and parks administrator August Heckscher II, insists that true conservatism must never be an “ideology,” but rather

a way of thinking and acting in the midst of a social order which is too overlaid with history and too steeped in values, too complex and diverse, to lend itself to simple reforms. It is a way of thought which not only recognizes different classes, orders, and interests in the social order but actually values these differences and is not afraid to cultivate them.

Heckscher himself could not claim conservative credentials.  He worked in the Kennedy administration and gushed at the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson.  As one conservative commentator complained about Heckscher on the American Conservative, Heckscher was merely “another liberal Democrat explaining to Conservatives politely, but firmly, the need for them to shut up and get out of the way until certain debatable ‘reforms’ are irrevocably in place.”

Yet other conservative thinkers, notably the editors at The Imaginative Conservative and The American Conservative, consider Heckscher’s 1953 polemic worth revisiting fifty years later. Today’s Burkean, traditionalist conservatives were likely attracted by Heckscher’s Burkean, traditionalist definition of true conservatism.

It seems too strange to be a coincidence that Heckscher’s essay came out in the same year as Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind.  Kirk transformed American conservative intellectual life by promoting this sort of Burkean traditionalism.

Heckscher, like Kirk, insisted that American conservatism must be, and has always truly been, more than simply rock-throwing at government expansion.  True conservatism, Heckscher wrote, would embrace programs such as social security, if those programs were “conceived as a means of strengthening local ties, strengthening the family, and strengthening the true spirit of inde­pendence in the citizens.”

At ILYBYGTH, our attention was drawn to Heckscher’s comments about the nature of truly conservative education.  Heckscher offered a 1950s preview that sounds strangely familiar.  Since the time of Herkscher’s essay, we have become accustomed to “multicultural” ideology in education.  But we generally have not thought of this as a particularly conservative idea.  Here is Heckscher’s vision:

Education in conservatism can come, I suggest, in part from a schooling that makes men aware of the values in a community, and tolerant of their differences. It can come in part, also, from the common everyday discipline of living in an environment where multitudinous groups think in their own ways and set a varying hierarchy of values upon the goods of life. In such a community the doctrinaire approach is impossible. Rationalism cuts athwart the basic understandings which hold all together; and the search for a unique solution would drive men to distraction were it not aban­doned for a spirit of practical accommodation and acceptable com­promise. The diversity with which the citizen learns to live sanely comes by degrees to seem a virtue; and the climax of the wise man’s education is when he turns about and begins consciously to preserve and nourish the institutions in which diversity has been bred. That is the moment, too, in which he becomes a conservative.

Recognizing the value of diversity, in other words, is the sine qua non of truly conservative education.  Since the time of Heckscher’s 1953 essay, “multiculturalism” has earned a negative reputation among many conservative intellectuals.  Many conservatives might line up more happily with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s blistering 1990s critique of multiculturalism than with Heckscher’s 1953 endorsement.

But in the context of Heckscher’s Burkean vision, this definition of proper education needs another look.  In the twenty-first century, when we hear a call for “diversity” and a non “doctrinaire” inclusion of “multitudinous groups,” our minds jump first to the sort of “multiculturalism” heralded by scholars such as James Banks.  Banks and other education scholars argued that good education must emphasize the contributions of many different cultural groups.  At its heart, this sort of multiculturalism suggests a radical egalitarianism.  Cultures are different, but all deserve equal respect.  This approach, Banks promised, would not only be good for students of minority ethnic groups, but for all students.  A multicultural curriculum, in this vision, would help overcome America’s history of white Christian hegemony.

Read in the context of his full essay, Herkscher’s call for multicultural education looks much different.  The various voices Herkscher wants to hear are those of different “classes, orders, and interests.”  Herkscher’s conservative multiculturalism does not seek to overcome or diminish those differences between classes and orders, but rather to cherish and promote those differences.

A conservative, Heckscher seems to be saying, learns that every class, every social group, has its intrinsic value as part of a well-ordered society.  Every member of each class must learn to think of himself or herself not primarily as an individual acting in isolation, but as an individual representative of his or her social class.  Harmony comes from valuing the diverse contributions of each group, not by trying to make each group equal.

This is a profoundly different sort of multiculturalism than the explicitly racial vision promoted by later generations of multicultural educators.  The ultimate vision of a harmonious and hierarchical society differs radically from the later multiculturalists’ ultimate vision of an egalitarian utopia. Today’s “multicultural” ideologues might recoil in horror at the notion that education should teach people to see society as a hierarchical structure in which every person must find his or her proper place.

Evidence from Heckscher’s career, too, supports the notion that Heckscher’s multicultural vision differed markedly from multiculturalism’s later incarnation.  As New York City Parks Commissioner between 1967 and 1972, Heckscher applied his vision of social justice in tricky circumstances.  According to his 1997 obituary, Heckscher removed a Black Panthers flag when it had been raised instead of the Stars and Stripes.  Other officials, including the police commissioner, had refused to confront the Panthers, fearing violence.  But Heckscher simply walked alone to the flagpole, took down the flag, and presented it to the African American crowd.  He told them not to put it up again.

Conservatives today might embrace Heckscher’s personal bravery and refusal to truckle to race-based bullying.  But they might also consider the educational ramifications of Heckscher’s 1953 essay.  What would a Burkean multiculturalism look like?  Could students learn to value different groups and classes, not as a way to overcome hierarchy, but as a way to preserve it?

Deneen on Bloom, Conservatism, and Multiculturalism

What does it mean for schools to embrace “multiculturalism?”

One of the sternest and most popular condemnations of the implications of multicultural ideology was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Political philosopher Patrick Deneen recently evaluated the book and its legacy.  Deneen concludes that the book could have done much more to condemn the pernicious influence of “multiculturalism.”

As Deneen notes, Bloom explicitly refused the label “conservative.”  Nevertheless, his book became a favorite of those culture-war activists who battled over the cultural content of higher education.  Should colleges teach Plato, Locke, and Shakespeare?  Or should they instead teach Fanon, Derrida, and Gloria Anzaldua?

Bloom plaintively argued that American higher education had abandoned its central mission.   In order for young people to doubt, Bloom argued, they must have some ground from which to question.  They must understand themselves as inheritors of a cultural tradition.  Higher education, Bloom argued, had willfully denied its central role as caretakers of students’ souls.  Instead of teaching young people to explore and question Truth, higher education shamefully evaded its responsibility and taught students instead that Truth was an illusion.

It is easy to see how this argument endeared Bloom to many conservative activists.  Yet Bloom himself did not argue for any specific tradition.  He was not a religious man himself, nor did his book insist that any religion embodied the truth.  Rather, he argued that students must be recognized as yearning souls, rather than transformed into indifferent spiritual husks.

Deneen’s critique raises many intriguing points and is worth reading in its entirety.  Deneen wishes Bloom might have pursued the analysis of multiculturalism to its logical conclusion.  As Deneen writes,

The stronger case would have been to expose the claims of multiculturalism as cynical expressions from members of groups that did not, in fact, share a culture, while showing that such self-righteous claims, more often than not, were merely a thin veneer masking a lust for status, wealth and power. If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.

If Bloom could have seen the current state of American higher education, Deneen argues, Bloom would have seen that his 1987 book underestimated the scope of the problem.  In the late 1980s, Deneen believes, advocates of multiculturalism shared Bloom’s sense of the importance of curriculum.  These days, even that awkward defense of multiculturalism has been eclipsed by what Deneen calls “an age of indifference.”  The cultural left no longer insists on a left-leaning set of counter-readings.  Instead, Deneen points out,

not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.

Whatever Bloom’s personal views, the notion that schools at every level must teach a set of core values has been and remains central to conservative thinking about schooling and education.  The central issue remains the question of the function of schooling.  Conservatives embraced Bloom the skeptic because he made a powerful argument in favor of school as a transmitter of cultural values.  “Multiculturalism,” in contrast, became a label for a very different vision.  For multiculturalists, the purpose of school was to help students overcome their inherited cultural values, clearing the way for a logical, tolerant, reasonable set of beliefs.

IN THE NEWS: Arizona Fights the Cult of Multiculturalism

In today’s New York Times, you’ll find an update on Arizona’s remarkable effort to purge its schools of what educational traditionalists might call “The Cult of Multiculturalism.”  We’ve written about traditionalist objections to multicultural ideology here, here, and here.  Arizona’s law makes these theoretic objections legally enforceable.

Today’s article focuses on the dispute between the state and the Tucson school district.  Since January 1st, the school district has been ordered to enforce Arizona’s 2010 law.  According to the Huffington Post, Judge Lewis Kowal agreed with the state in late December that Tucson’s Mexican-Studies curriculum was guilty of “actively presenting material in a biased, political and emotionally charged manner.”

The law itself, passed two years ago, declared that no school curricula in Arizona could legally

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The state superintendent of education at the time, Tom Horne, planned an energetic enforcement of the law.  According to a Fox News story, Horne declared in 2010,

Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds.  This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.

In today’s New York Times story, John Huppenthal, the new state superintendent of public instruction, told a reporter he viewed the enforcement of the law as a war.  Quoth Huppenthal, “This is the eternal battle, the eternal battle of all time, the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality.”

We can’t help but wonder what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would make of this law.  In his 1998 book The Disuniting of America the eminent historian denounced the “cult of ethnicity [that] has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities to denounce the goal of assimilation, to challenge the concept of ‘one people,’ and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities.”

But in Arizona’s case, the fight against the tendency of multicultural education to promote what Schlesinger called the “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life” has included some ideologically extraneous elements and politically unpalatable images.

First of all, the law itself targets not only ethnic-studies classes, but includes a remarkably broad shot at any schooling that “promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government.”  This boilerplate antiradical language would feel entirely at home in earlier generations of legislative attempts to control schooling.  In the 1920s, for example, the bundle of state laws that were generally called “anti-evolution” actually had a much broader goal.  They hoped not only to ban evolution but to assert traditional Protestant control of public schooling.  As I argued in my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, school laws with these limitless mandates are more of a cultural statement than a practical attempt at crafting educational policy.

For example, a law passed by the US Congress in 1924 prohibited teachers in Washington DC from any teaching that smacked “of partisan politics, disrespect for the Holy Bible, or that ours is an inferior form of government.”  The goal was more a statement of support for traditional values than to regulate school policy.  Arizona’s inclusion of a clause banning anti-US-ism seems similarly vague and symbolic.

Also, as Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal made clear, this law is part of a broader political and cultural effort to battle not only multiculturalism, but any perceived victory by “the forces of collectivism.”  Not only does this bundle the Arizona law into a broader package of anti-leftist activism, but it also reflects the simple political partisanship behind Arizona’s efforts.

Part of the energy behind the 2010 law came from a perceived effort by Democratic activists to use ethnic-studies programs as a way to turn Latinos against the Republican Party.  One of the reasons for the law was Republican outrage about a speech at Tucson High School by activist Dolores Huerta in which she assured students, “Republicans Hate Latinos.”

Republican lawmakers have united behind this school law as more than a way to keep schools from teaching what Schlesinger denounced as the “cult of ethnicity.”  They also see the programs as part of a deliberate partisan effort to undermine their influence with Latino voters.

However, their efforts might do more to undermine that influence than any ethnic-studies programs ever could.  It doesn’t take a political genius to see the electoral damage that might result from the image of school administrators going into classrooms in Tucson collecting copies of seven prohibited books.  Such stormtrooper tactics to save children from the likes of Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed  and F. Arturo Rosales’ Chicano! The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement spell political suicide.

I imagine that Schlesinger and others who oppose the ideological overreach of multiculturalist education might recoil from these heavy-handed partisan attempts to control Tucson’s schools.  Such critics of multiculturalism, I imagine, would hope that the effort to ban aggressive assertions of the “cult of ethnicity” must only limit itself to the realm of ideas, not to knee-jerk partisan politics and twenty-first century book burnings.

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION, Part II, The Cult of Multiculturalism (cont.)

In the last few posts (here and here), we have imagined the arguments traditionalists might make that multicultural ideology contains an unacknowledged bias against those who maintain traditional beliefs.  Even if we take multiculturalism on its own terms, however, we run up against unacceptable results in practice.  As even its most earnest promoters recognize, “multiculturalism” has come to include a vast muddle of conflicting meanings.  James Banks, for instance, one of the most prominent advocates of multicultural ideology in schools, sums up the many meanings of multiculturalism into three tendencies.  Multiculturalism, Banks argues, can be an idea, an educational reform movement, and a process.

As an idea, at least in Banks’ exposition, multiculturalism refers to the notion that “all students—regardless of their gender, social class, and ethnic, racial, or cultural characteristics—should have an equal opportunity to learn in school.”  Embedded in this notion is the idea of reform.  Banks argues that in order to achieve this kind of equal opportunity, multiculturalism implies a sustained effort to change schooling.  This must be more than simply including a unit on different ethnic groups in a history class.  This must be more than reading stories about all kinds of ethnicities.  Rather, Banks argues that multiculturalism must include a thorough overhaul of the school as an institution.  Students, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents must all work to create a total environment in which every person feels welcomed and represented.  The totality of this scheme is part of what leads Banks to argue for multiculturalism as a process.  Too many schools and school districts, in Banks’ opinion, merely slap some multicultural window-dressing on traditional schools and call it a day.  Instead, multiculturalism must include a continuing effort to create a truly multicultural environment.

In essence, multiculturalism is the latest attempt to get schools to correct the fundamental injustices of American society.  The promise is appealing.  For most of American history, schools have promised to equalize opportunity.  Do well in school, the tradition assures us, and anyone can be President.  Yet the reality of American education has usually merely reproduced social, economic, and racial hierarchies.  For instance, poor kids went to worse schools.  They tended to be tracked into educational programs that would fit them only for the worst-paid, lowest-prestige jobs.

Multicultural ideology hoped to help remedy that problem.  By including all cultures in schools, multiculturalism promised to achieve many goals simultaneously.  First of all, it would erode the racial hierarchy that kept white people on top.  That hierarchy has often been reproduced intentionally in schools, especially up through the middle of the twentieth century.  After that point, however, many schools have tended to reproduce white privilege unintentionally.

One promise of multicultural ideology is that schools will teach each new generation of white kids that other cultures are equally valid, equally American.  This will have the double value of weakening the power of traditional white supremacy while also showing students of other ethnic backgrounds that their experiences are equally legitimate.  Such non-white students will come to feel welcome in school and able to succeed.  The implicit dominance of white culture that had ruled schools for so long will no longer force students to feel they must abandon their culture in order to do well in school.

This will not just be a racial or ethnic difference.  American schools have a long and ugly history of serving as “sorting machines,” to use Joel Spring’s term.  Multicultural ideology promised to smash that machine.  To allow students of every gender, every race, every economic class, every religion, every sexual identity, to feel equally welcomed by the institution of school.

Inclusive, multicultural schools would open up the benefits of education to everyone, not only those who come to school already skilled in the implicit culture of schooling.  Just as important, multicultural education would deliver better education to those who come from traditionally dominant groups—in other words, for the well-off white kids.  By incorporating and valuing the wealth of cultural experiences into schooling, students of every group would achieve a richer, more authentic education.

Multiculturalism, in short, promised to improve education for all, to eliminate any notion of a zero-sum game.  Multiculturalism would help kids from minority backgrounds while also improving education for those who had started out on top.  In this way, multiculturalism served as only the latest in a long series of panaceas in public education.  By fixing schools in a multicultural direction, the argument went, we could fix society.  We could finally achieve the sort of racial, class, and gender equality that we had been striving for for so long.  Again, a very tall order.

The vast ambition of multiculturalism is part of what led Banks to insist this must be at once an educational reform movement and an ongoing, continuous process.  If not, as Banks and other multicultural proponents recognized, multicultural ideology can easily become something far less promising.

And, in practice, multiculturalism has failed on its own terms.  The way schools and teachers have used it, multiculturalism has degraded into a mishmash of ideas that reify overly simplistic notions of identity among students.  In other words, the effort to include and celebrate the rich cultural mosaic of American life in public schools has instead had an unintentional dehumanizing effect.  Students are trained to see people as expressions of stylized cultural identity, instead of as fully realized persons.  For instance, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos are pigeonholed into exclusively ethnic stereotypes.  The fact that those stereotypes are now cast in a flattering light does not change the fact that non-whites tend to be reduced to mere racial identity.

In addition, multiculturalism in practice tends to promote an idea of ethnicity as something other people have.  Whiteness remains the norm, and other cultures become colorful exceptions to the rule.  So, for instance, multiculturalism in practice promotes the notion that culture means traditional cultures from other countries, perhaps the home countries of American immigrant society.  It tends to promote those cultures as quaint and archaic, not as authentic contemporary notions.

For example, one recent study of purportedly multiculturalist children’s literature found a much more conflicted ideological message.  The authors, Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, and Claudia Haag, found that many non-white, non-English-speaking characters in such literature are presented as outsiders.  In other words, in practice, multicultural ideology implied that other cultures were legitimate places to be from, but in order to achieve full personhood, protagonists needed to assimilate to traditional white English cultural norms.

Even uglier, multiculturalism in practice can degrade into a call for racist preferences for traditionally put-upon ethnic groups.  We see this most starkly in the call for Afrocentric curricula.  Led by many scholars based in universities such as Molefi Kete Asante, Maulana Karenga, and Asa Hilliard III, the push for Afrocentric school history began in the early 1980s.  Activists argued that traditional schools had miseducated students for generations, especially African American students.  Instead of forcing a biased and inaccurate European-based history down the throats of black kids, these theorists argued, schools ought to adopt a thoroughly Africanized curriculum.  At the very least, this should put Africa at the center of historical study.  It should teach students that they are not primarily Americans, but primarily Africans in America.  It should also teach students that they share essential racial characteristics.

This was not just ivory-tower theorizing.  Several large school districts adopted some form of Afrocentric curricula during the 1980s and 1990s.  In the Washington DC school district, for instance, one school had an Afrocentric program that started each day with an opening ritual patterned after purportedly African-derived practices.  Students were taught that they were part of a people that saw themselves as spirits that have a body, not bodies that have spirits.  Students were taught that Western culture derived from Africa, stolen, diluted, and bastardized by Greeks and Romans who learned at the feet of Black African teachers.

In the 1990s, superintendent Matthew Prophet encouraged teachers in Portland, Oregon to teach their students that Africa represented the source and inspiration of all culture, including literature, politics, mathematics, and science.  Students should be taught, according to the social-studies material available for Portland teachers, that Africans had colonized South America long before Asians or Europeans.  They should learn that Africa was the source of the Pythagorean theorem and of every significant scientific breakthrough of modern times.  Anything less, in the words of one author of this curriculum guide, would cause “great harm” to students.

These were not unfortunate misinterpretations of multiculturalism’s lofty goals.  Instead, they form a predictable result of an overambitious and overly vague cultural ideology.  The promise of racial and cultural equality that forms the core of multicultural ideology will predictably be used to promote a new version of racism, new visions of cultural hierarchies.  Multiculturalism promises to include all students in schools; it promises to open educational opportunity to all; it insists it can improve education for all.  But in practice, what schools are left with is simply a new racist ideology, one that inverts the traditional pyramid.  In the new multicultural order, however, racism is not eliminated but celebrated in a new way.

As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. complained, multiculturalism waters down real learning.  It turns the study of history and literature into “therapies whose function it is to raise minority self-esteem.”  Left unchecked, such ideas about the proper values for schools will not only dumb down public schools.  By asserting racism in the guise of multiculturalism, by encouraging students and teachers to think of themselves not primarily as individuals but first and most importantly as members of an ethnic group, Schlesinger argues that multiculturalism will lead to the “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.”  Schlesinger was no right-wing crank.  He was one of the most prominent liberal historians of mid-twentieth century America, well known for his elegant prose and for his role as the Kennedys’ “court historian in Camelot.”  It was precisely his embrace of the liberal values of an open, egalitarian, individualistic, humanitarian society that led him to attack the race-driven vagaries of multiculturalist ideology near the end of his career.

Schlesinger was not concerned with protecting the rights of students from traditionalist or conservative Christian backgrounds.  He did not hope to reinstall a regime of prayer and Bible reading in American schools.  He worried that multiculturalism would “disunite” America.  He worried that multiculturalism made true learning impossible.  He worried that multiculturalism heralded a return to racial supremacy as an organizing idea for American schools and culture.

 

Further reading: James A. Banks & Cherry A. McGee Banks, eds., Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, 7th Edition (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010); Amy J. Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine: National Educational Policy Since 1945 (Longman, 1976); Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, Claudia Haag, “Assimilation Ideology: Critically Examining Underlying Messages in Multicultural Literature,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54 (2) October 2010, pp. 109-119; Matthew W. Prophet, ed., African American Baseline Essays, revised edition (Portland, OR: Multnomah School District, 1990); Michael Olneck, “Terms of Inclusion: Has Multiculturalism Redefined Equality in American Education?” American Journal of Education 101 (1993): 234-60; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, revised and enlarged edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION IIa: The Cult of Multiculturalism (cont.)

In an earlier post, we argued that the dominant ideology of public schooling speaks in the language of inclusion and tolerance, but it therefore must exclude and suppress any traditionalist notions of a single transcendent truth.  Fundamentalists have complained long and loud that such unacknowledged discrimination is at the heart of contemporary education.  They have appropriated the language of the twentieth-century civil rights revolution to appeal for their own rights as an aggrieved minority.

For instance, in 1984 the pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science invited prominent creationist Duane Gish to a meeting between creationists and evolutionists.  When he arrived, Gish complained that he had not been afforded the equal treatment he had been promised.  The conveners of the “confrontation,” Gish claimed, had disingenuously told Gish that they had not had time to invite more creationists, but they had found time, he noted, to include more evolutionists.  Such unfair treatment, Gish complained, allowed biased evolutionists “to do what is done every day in practically every university in the United States.”  The evolutionists could dominate the proceedings and relegate the science of creationism to the role of the unwelcome outsider.  Gish protested against such unfair treatment by concluding, “I will proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”

Like other beleaguered minority groups, Gish implied, fundamentalists could not get a fair hearing in mainstream academic culture.  Other fundamentalist authors agreed.  Jerry Bergman, for example, complained that he had been refused tenure at Bowling Green State University merely because he held fundamentalist views.  He admitted that he had spoken with students about his beliefs, but not as part of his instruction.  He had talked with students about it, but to refuse him tenure for that reason, Bergman argued, was as if a “black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”  Those who might be expected to come to Bergman’s defense, he complained, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, did not, since “many members are intolerant, narrow-minded, anti-religious bigots.”  In Bergman’s opinion, “Not since Nazi Germany turned on the Jews has such widespread intolerance existed in a modern, ‘advanced,’ educated nation.”

Other examples of discrimination against fundamentalists and especially creationists in America’s pluralist schools have become legendary in fundamentalist circles.  One of the most well-worn sagas of intolerance in American higher ed among fundamentalists is the story of Clifford Burdick.  Burdick attracted attention among both creationists and evolutionists for two of his most controversial claims.  First, Burdick insisted that he had found evidence of pollen in layers of core samples that, according to an evolutionary interpretation, ought to have been laid down before any such pollen had evolved.  Second, Burdick found what he claimed were human footprints in rock layers that also included dinosaur fossils.

More relevant, though, Burdick and his supporters insist that he had been denied his PhD from the University of Arizona because of Burdick’s religious beliefs.   Burdick completed all his work for the degree, but one of his professors adamantly refused to grant a fair hearing.  The only reason for this hostility, Burdick claimed, was because that professor had found out that Burdick was a committed creationist.

Of course, the professors had a different explanation.  They found Burdick’s scientific work sloppy and incompetent.  More damning, Burdick—as he himself later admitted—could not answer many of the questions posed during his oral examination.  Even some relatively sympathetic creationists considered Burdick to be more of an intellectual liability than a persecuted martyr.

But COULD such discrimination play a role in the millions of minor decisions Americans make about one another every day?  Could fundamentalists fairly complain—even if stories like that of Clifford Burdick don’t hold water—that they are the targets of bigotry and unfair prejudice?  Consider the results of a 1993 Gallup poll, in which 45% of respondents admitted they had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “religious fundamentalists.”  Or a similar Gallup finding from 1989, in which 30% of Americans admitted they would not like to have “religious fundamentalists” as neighbors, while only 12% said out loud they would not like to have African American neighbors.

Such poll results, one might object, do not fairly specify the meaning of “fundamentalist.”  The folks answering such questions might have objected to living next door to Osama bin Laden as much as they did to Jerry Falwell.  The 1993 poll, for instance, found that only 25% of respondents had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “born-again Christians” in general.  And in the 1989 poll, even 24% of the respondents who identified themselves as “evangelical” said they would not want to live next door to a “religious fundamentalist.”  Even more befuddling, these polls merely ask respondents for their views of fundamentalists in general.  They do not shed much light on whether or not a creationist doctoral candidate can get a fair hearing before a committee of evolutionists, or whether a fundamentalist who opposed gay marriage can get a fair hearing before a school board staffed with people committed to equal status for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.  But it makes a good deal of intuitive sense to suppose that those situations would be even more slanted against fundamentalists.  That is, if almost half of Americans don’t want fundamentalists as neighbors, think how much more strongly those people would feel about having fundamentalists as their children’s teachers.  If such respondents don’t even want fundamentalists living in the same neighborhood, think how unsympathetic they would be to fundamentalist worries that the public schools are indoctrinating their kids with ideas that break down their home morality.

We can’t know much for sure from such polls.  But taken as yet another piece of evidence, they suggest that some Americans tend to see bias against fundamentalism as a badge of honor.  They openly admit to this kind of bias, ironically, because they think it demonstrates a fashionable open-mindedness.  This kind of convoluted belief runs especially strong among the cultural left.  In some circles, it is fashionable to go to excessive rhetorical lengths to bash fundamentalists.  Consider the case of Timothy Shortell of Brooklyn College.  This case came to light in 2005 when Shortell was elected chair of the Sociology Department.  In a 2003 article published in the online journal Fifteen Credibility Street, Shortell used highly derogatory language to describe not just fundamentalists, but all people of faith.  As he put it:

On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying—like pop music or reality television. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot.

The phrase that garnered the most attention was Shortell’s “moral retards.”  Ouch.  To be fair, the bigotry and cruelty of Shortell’s comment caused the higher-ups at Brooklyn College to block his advancement to department chair.  Yet the fact that his hostile anti-religious beliefs did not disqualify Shortell in the eyes of his colleagues from taking on a leadership position speaks volumes.  Imagine if an academic writer had used such language to condemn any other social group.  He or she would likely be hounded from his or her position; he or she would become a social pariah as well.  Yet Shortell was not only accepted but lauded by his colleagues in spite of his use of such offensive language.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance argues that “Fat discrimination is one of the last publicly accepted discriminatory practices. Fat people have rights and they need to be upheld!”  Fundamentalists might make a similar claim.  Like the plight of fat people, fundamentalists in American life have reason to complain that they are one of the few cultural groups that it is still considered socially acceptable to attack.  When nearly half of surveyed adults say that they would not want you as a neighbor; when your children in public schools are forced to repudiate central beliefs of their families and faith traditions; when every group in society except yours is apparently granted special rights and privileges to counteract the pervasive prejudice to which Americans are prone; these conditions make it difficult to deny fundamentalists’ claims of a unique form of cultural persecution.

 

FURTHER READING: Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984). Ron Numbers, The Creationists (2006); Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 25-37; George Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1993 and George Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1989.

 

Traditional Education II: The Cult of Multiculturalism

If we agree that education includes values, as I’ve argued in previous posts, then it is hypocritical to say we will remove traditional values from classrooms and encourage students to develop their own moral systems.  That is not what schools do.  The language of open moral dialogue and self-directed student moral learning is embedded within a cluster of ideological notions that has come to be called “multiculturalism.”  It can get confusing, since one of the primary moral claims of this ideology has been that it promotes tolerance and diversity.  Yet that tolerance, by definition, cannot extend to those who do not accept its premises.  Those who insist on traditional moral values, in which certain values have transcendent right on their side, cannot easily accommodate the notion that different value systems must be respected and even celebrated.  It is impossible, in other words, for someone who earnestly believes that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation to agree that other religions are equally valid representations of the human quest to comprehend divinity.

Schools, therefore, will continue to actively discriminate against all those who have traditional moral values.  This is not merely fundamentalist paranoia.  Some of the most articulate voices of the cultural left have called explicitly for this kind of intolerant tolerance.  In a short 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse called for the outright restriction of freedom of speech and assembly for right-wing opponents.

Marcuse’s argument hearkened back to much older debates.  In the seventeenth century, Roger Williams famously argued for tolerance of religious dissenters.  His argument has often been mistaken by current multiculturalists as an early call for modern pluralism.  It was not.  Though Williams advocated religious liberty for all believers, including Catholics and Muslims, he did not do so because he valued a diversity of belief.  Rather, Williams was worried that the Boston church would debase itself if it stepped into the role of civil authority.  If the church assumed such authority, it would put itself in the unchristian role of persecutor for the sake of religious conscience.  Further, if the church insisted on a role as civil authority, it must include those who did not embody the true beliefs of the church.  That church, Williams believed, must be strictly limited to true believers.

Williams did not argue that each culture had intrinsic worth and deserved respect.  Instead, Williams used extensive biblical proofs to prove that the church must actively root out those who did not share fully in its beliefs.  This, in Williams’ argument, was the reason why the church must not attempt to assert power in the civil sphere, since to do so would make the church far too inclusive.  In other words, if the church sought to punish those who did not uphold its beliefs, then it implied that all the people were members of the church and subject to its rules.  Such a wide inclusive policy would destroy the true church, Williams argued.  Tolerance must be nearly unlimited in the public sphere, he insisted, not because every belief was of equal value, but rather because only one belief was true.  Only the biblical belief in the salvation by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was true.  The rest were pernicious doctrines leading to damnation, Williams insisted.  But to force such unbelievers to follow the dictates of the true church would corrupt that church.

Consider Williams’ interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares.  In this story, Jesus warned his followers not to pull up such weeds, as they would likely disturb the wheat as well.  In other words, do not jump too quickly to judgment, lest you destroy all that is good as well.  One might think, based on Williams’ later reputation as the champion of multiculturalism, that he would use this story as proof that all people must be welcomed and all beliefs must be celebrated.  But that was not Williams’ argument.  Instead, Williams made the more complicated case that the tares were not meant to represent hypocrites.  That is, Williams argued that Jesus did not insist that the church ought to tolerate unbelievers.  Rather, Williams insisted that the church must earnestly exclude and remove such threatening belief.  Jesus’ parable, in Williams’ interpretation, did not insist that the church should leave unbelievers alone.  Instead, Williams argued, the church must aggressively seek out and remove all those whose faith did not live up to Williams’ high standards.  The tares, Williams argued, only meant those whose belief was demonstrably different from true Christian belief.  For Williams, then, the church could and must dig out false belief from among its members.  It must not allow any fence-sitters or backsliders to call themselves Christian.  But that persecution, Williams believed, must not extend to the entire society.  The church must control itself, but it must not control the rest of society.  Thus, Williams might better be understood to be the first American fundamentalist, rather than the first multiculturalist.  His objection to John Cotton was not that Cotton had acted in a way that insisted on only one truth—that was what Williams wanted—but rather that Cotton inserted state power in a religious dispute instead of leaving the dispute in the hands of the godly.

Marcuse’s 1965 essay, in any case, did not range itself on the side of Roger Williams and religious tolerance, for whatever reason.  Marcuse did not insist on tolerance of those with whom we disagree.  Instead, Marcuse revised the argument of Williams’ foe, John Cotton.  In the 1640s, Cotton was stuck arguing for the moral imperative of an overtly repressive state.  Cotton defined the question as one of civil order.  “The Great Question of this Present Time,” Cotton wrote, was “How far Liberty of Conscience ought to be given to those that truly fear God?  And how far restrained to turbulent and pestilent persons, who not only raze the foundations of Godliness, but disturb the Civil Peace where they live?”  Exactly as Marcuse would argue centuries later, Cotton insisted that toleration of those who would destroy the fragile society was a mistaken application of the value of toleration.

To be sure, there were some important differences.  The seventeenth century debate focused on the propriety of punishing Christians for following their own conscience.  Cotton was not in favor of persecution for the sake of conscience, but in favor of persecution for sinning against conscience.  He believed that the “Fundamentals [of religion] are so clear, that a man cannot but be convinced in Conscience of the truth of them after two or three Admonitions: and that therefore such a person as still continueth obstinate, is condemned of Himself: and if he then be punished, he is not punished for his Conscience, but for sinning against his own Conscience.”  In other words, he did not oppose Williams for Williams’ beliefs, but for Williams’ insistence on his right to mistaken, heretical belief when the truth was apparent to all.

Cotton’s and Marcuse’s arguments were very similar in their insistence on the perceived threat such dissidence posed to a fragile society.  Cotton asked what should happen if he should continue to espouse heretical ideas, even after being counseled by the orthodox.  “If God should lead me so far,” Cotton asked, “as to fall fearfully into this three-fold degree of Heretical wickedness, what am I better than other men? Better myself cut off by death, or Banishment, than the flock of Christ to be seduced and destroyed by my Heretical wickedness.”  In the seventeenth century, Cotton was not speaking merely theoretically about the use of state power.  He had it, and he used it.  Williams was forced to flee into a nighttime storm, eventually finding sanctuary with Wampanoag leader Massasoit near Narragansett Bay.

In some important senses, this Protestant cultural hegemony lingered well into twentieth century.  It had been challenged, certainly, by a dynamic American society, including the increasing political power of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.  By the 1920s, cultural and demographic changes left this traditional Protestant domination of the public square vulnerable.  For instance, at the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925, where a Tennessee schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching evolution, one of his lawyers made a plea for tolerance.  That lawyer, Dudley Field Malone, pleaded with the court and the assembled audience to “Let the minds of the schoolchildren be kept open!”  Tolerance, in 1925, meant not inflicting Protestant orthodoxy on public schools by force of law.

Reflecting on the balance of tolerance and intolerance on display at that 1925 trial, journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann concluded that the main danger to liberty came from the kind of majoritarian dominance on display in Dayton, Tennessee.  Yet in his widely read 1928 book American Inquisitors, Lippmann argued that true tolerance could only be extended to those willing to abdicate their claims to transcendent values and moral claims rooted in those values.  Lippmann acknowledged that “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.”  Unlike most of his non-fundamentalist colleagues, Lippmann recognized that this demand placed an impossible burden on those, like the fundamentalists of his day, who claimed that truth derived from the Holy Scriptures.  Lippmann recognized that any dedicated fundamentalist “would cease to be a fundamentalist if he were no longer convinced that above human reason and the available evidence there is a gospel which contains a statement of facts that are the fundamental premises of all reasoning.”

By the time of Marcuse’s entrance into this long-running debate, the monocultural hegemony of Protestant republicanism had been much diminished.  Marcuse no longer needed to plea, like Scopes’ lawyer Malone, for open-mindedness about ideas other than traditional Bible-believing Protestantism.  By 1965, Marcuse argued against tolerating those who do not accept the foundational principles of toleration.  He fulminated against those who use the language of toleration to mask continuing dominance by an elite class.  In Marcuse’s mid-1960s analysis, he identified the apparent tolerance of liberal democracies as a sham.  Such apparent tolerance only served to limit true debate to those ideas which supported the status quo.  And that status quo, according to Marcuse, funneled dollars and influence into the already stuffed pockets of the existing elites.  In order to “reopen” the public square to truly democratic ideas, Marcuse argued, activists must embrace “apparently undemocratic means.”  First, Marcuse called for “the withdrawal of toleration from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”  Marcuse made here a sweeping call for the disempowerment of a shockingly wide segment of his political opposition.  Not only would these policies silence those who called for political aggression and white supremacy, but also anyone who disagreed with the increasing power of the government to provide public services.  Not only would those extremists who advocated violence against racial minorities or communists be barred from participation in public life, but even those who believed in the inherent superiority of the United States.  Furthermore, Marcuse explicitly renounced the notion that these repressions should be reserved only for those who posed a “clear and present danger” to public peace and welfare.  Such hesitant liberal policies, he insisted, had done nothing to stop the rise of totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany.  No, the current state of political threat, Marcuse argued, called for more decisive action.  Political movements of the Right must be preemptively silenced, banned from public life, before they could muster enough power to inflict harm.  More directly relevant in this context, Marcuse specified the need for “new and rigid restrictions on teaching and practices in the educational institutions” in order to promote the true opening of society to democratic ideas.

Marcuse was no bogeyman plucked from academic obscurity to illustrate the paranoid fears of fundamentalist America.  He was among the most prominent public intellectuals of the 1960s, often called—against his will—the “Father of the New Left.”  His ideas about the suppression of dissent in the name of true freedom became and remain enormously influential.  For example, in a late-1980s debate over the nature of the cultural canon sparked by a curricular change at Stanford University, Harper’s Magazine sponsored a forum on the notion of America’s common culture.  One of the eminent scholars invited to participate in this roundtable discussion echoed Marcuse’s call for strict limits on the boundaries of toleration.  That scholar, Gayatri Spivak, now University Professor at Columbia University, insisted at the time, “Tolerance is a loaded virtue because you have to have a base of power to practice it.  You cannot ask a certain people to ‘tolerate’ a culture that has historically ignored them at the same time that their children are being indoctrinated into it.”

In other words, tolerance must not extend to all viewpoints.  In the world of today’s public schools, in which the dominant—if sometimes muddled—ideology of multiculturalism is often the only moral system in effect, those who do not embrace the equal status of every idea are not to be tolerated.  Those who insist on one transcendent truth not only are not tolerated, but must not be tolerated.  Marcuse’s call for a “democratic educational dictatorship of free men” has come to pass in many ways.  Those who disagree with the pluralistic, multicultural ideology of public schools have found themselves fired or constrained in their public speech.

FURTHER READING: Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969), John Cotton, The Bloudy Tenent Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb (1647); Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644); “Forum: Who needs the Great Works?,” Harper’s, Sept. 1989, pp. 43-52, quotation on p. 46; Walter Lippmann, American Inquisitors: A Commentary on Dayton and Chicago (New York: Macmillan, 1928).