Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

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Are the Culture Wars History?

I don’t get out much. So when I was invited to participate in a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with some nerd all-stars.

Meet me in Saint Looey...

Meet me in Saint Looey…

Our panel will include four authors of books familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. First, Jon Zimmerman will tell us something about global sex ed from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.zimmerman too hot to handle

Then, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela will keep the sex-ed ball rolling while adding in some bilingual ed as she talks about her book, Classroom Wars.petrzela classroom wars

Next, Andrew Hartman will share some insights about education and culture wars from his blockbuster War for the Soul of America.Hartman

Last, I’ll talk a little bit about what it has meant to be “conservative” when it comes to education, from my new book.

What will we talk about? Hard to say until we get there, but the theme that ties these books together is that of educational culture wars. What have Americans (and people worldwide) seen fit to teach their kids about touchy subjects such as sex and God? Who has been allowed to make decisions about school?

One disagreement we might have could be about the winners and losers. If there are such things as educational culture wars, we all have different conclusions about who has won. Jon Zimmerman argues that kids overall—especially in the United States—get very little sex ed, due to consistent activism against it. I think, too, that conservatives have been able to exert veto power over many big educational programs. Both Andrew and Natalia, though, say that by and large progressive ideas have come out the winner in these battles.

What do you think:

  • Are there such things as educational culture wars?
  • If so, are they all in the past?
  • And, maybe most interesting to most people…who won?

Required Reading: Classroom Wars

What should schools teach?  How should they teach it?  Who gets to decide?  These are the questions that keep SAGLRROILYBYGTH up at night, and now we have a great new book to shed light on the infinitely complicated ways they play out in real life.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture examines battles in California over bilingual ed and sex ed during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Petrzela explains,

This book focuses on bilingual (Spanish-language) and sex education in California in order to understand how grass-roots citizens came to define the schoolhouse and the family as politicized sites during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Full disclosure: Petrzela and I are friends and colleagues.  We’ve worked together for several years now, and we’ll be doing some presentations together in upcoming months at academic conferences about history, education, and culture wars.  Even if we weren’t friends, though, I would love this book.   petrzela classroom wars

For one thing, Petrzela’s careful examination of California’s educational politics shows us the ways culture-war politics are not somehow “natural,” but rather develop over time due to specific historical circumstances and activism.

For example, as she describes, in the early 1960s bilingual ed had lots of support among conservatives.  Arch-conservative Max Rafferty pushed for it, and even as late as 1968, many California legislators touted bilingual ed as the “American thing to do.”  Soon, however, bilingual education was tied together with leftist radicalism.  Students in 1968 staged huge “blow-out” protests in LA, carrying “Viva la Revolucion!” signs and demanding that all Anglo teachers be fired.  As Petrzela puts it,

In the two years following the BEA’s [Bilingual Education Act] passage and the blowouts [student walkouts], bilingual-bicultural education evolved from a relatively uncontroversial issue that garnered significant bipartisan support to a lightning rod dividing and defining conservatives and liberals.

Among activists, too, we need to be careful before we assume too much.  In the education bureaucracy of California, for instance, Petrzela introduces us to the complicated positions of folks such as Eugene Gonzalez, associate superintendent and chief of the division of instruction.  Gonzalez was close with conservative leader Max Rafferty, and like Rafferty he spoke out against the methods used by radical student protesters.  But he also continued to push for better and fairer education for latino/as in California schools.  Other Mexican-American activists, such as Alfred Ramirez, refused to go along with the protesting students at all.  He pushed Gonzalez to crack down on the Latino protesters and to get rid of bilingual programs entirely.

Nor were California’s educational culture wars a simple, stereotypical battle between progressive teachers and students on one side against conservative activists on the other.  That may often be the case, but as Petrzela recounts, in 1970 conservative teachers in LA founded their own union, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles.  And, though one conservative teacher lamented her position as a “minority among educators,” Petrzela also reveals that students, too, were split.  In at least one case, a group of conservative students gathered to denounce the “leftist-liberal bias” of their teachers.

We also see in these pages a clearer-than-usual vision of what conservative activists wanted.  At root, Petrzela shows us, conservatives felt as if they had too often been frozen out of discussions of sex ed and bilingual ed.  They felt they had not been included, not been consulted.  Many times, conservative activists and parents worried that a blundering school administration was trying to insert itself between parents and children.

When this wasn’t the case, many conservatives did not protest against sex education.  In conservative San Diego County, for example, sex ed was not at all controversial.  Part of the reason was because the teachers had a strong reputation in the whole community as family women with “high moral standards.”  By the end of the 1970s, Petrzela tells us, policy-makers had figured it out.  By then, most sex ed curricula were no longer so ferociously controversial, largely because parents and conservative organizations had been consulted beforehand.

Petrzela also tackles one of the toughest questions of these educational culture wars: Who won?  She argues that over all, over time, progressives tended to score victories.  In about half the cases of controversy over sex ed, Petrzela found, California districts actually expanded their sex ed programs after the blow-ups.

In every case, Petrzela makes her case well that schools matter.  As she puts it,

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant Chicanos in East Los Angeles, suburban housewives in Anaheim, and political aspirants as varied as Max Rafferty and Julian Nava all pinned their hopes on the public schools as the primary institution for cultivating an ethical, informed, moral next generation.

For all of us who want to look beyond the headlines of America’s continuing educational culture wars, this book is a good place to start.

Socialists, Laggards, Perverts, and Baby-Killers

Why does everybody these days thank soldiers for their “service?” Even when the soldiers themselves don’t like it? At least in part, it must be a hangover from Vietnam-War-era culture-war battles, when soldiers were reviled as “baby-killers.” Here’s my question for SAGLRROILYBYGTH: When will teachers get thanked for their service? After all, for decades, teachers have been called names at least as bad as “baby-killers.”

As I described in my recent book, conservative activists have always accused teachers of terrible crimes and treasons. Teachers fill kids’ heads with lies about evolution, atheism, and communism. Teachers subject innocent young kids to mistruths and calumnies about American history and sex. Such accusations were a standard part of culture-war scripts from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Warning!  Commie Teachers!

Warning! Commie Teachers!

In the 1980s, for instance, Mel and Norma Gabler warned that the ranks of the teaching profession were full of “practicing homosexuals” who hoped to attract young children to their ranks. Such teachers pushed for more sex ed because they suffered from a perverted desire to lure children down the path to sexual sin and depravity.

There’s nothing new about this sort of no-holds-barred accusation against America’s teaching force. Back in 1923, anti-evolution activist T.T. Martin warned audiences about the sinister nature of public-school faculties:

under the cowardly sissy plea of ‘Academic freedom,’ [teachers] demand that we, with our taxes, pay their salaries, while they poison our children against the Bible as God’s real Word, and the Saviour as God’s Son who died for our sins to redeem us from all iniquity and send our children out into Eternity without real redemption; hence, to hell.

This week, I’m reading Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s terrific new book Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Petrzela looks at the ways the fights over sex ed and bilingual ed played out in California between 1960 and 1990. Not surprisingly, she found that teachers were subjected to vicious, unrestrained attacks.

One parent, for instance, excoriated his local school’s teachers, saying they “fill schools with dope and filth and sex” and “teach [students] to make babies so they can kill them” (pg. 123).

Ouch.

As Petrzela relates, however, such extreme accusations were par for the course in culture-war battles over education in California.

So, dear readers, here’s my question for you: When will progressive types begin to thank teachers ostentatiously for their service? After all, it was backlash against the “baby-killer” accusations that led people to start thanking soldiers. Won’t there soon be a similar surge of support for beleaguered teachers? Or is there already and I’m just the last to notice?

We can see some glimmers of it. Progressive bloggers and scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Mercedes Schneider, and Peter Greene make a fetish of valorizing public-school teachers. Will it soon become an article of faith among progressives that teachers are America’s real heroes? Or has it already?

Yoga in School? Yes, No, Maybe So

Is yoga a religious practice?  Can it be taught in public schools?

Here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve been following the story in Encinitas, thanks to contributions from Natalia Mehlman Petrzela.  In that case, the judge said yoga was okay, in spite of the powerful argument made by religious studies scholar Candy Gunther Brown.

Today three evangelical writers weigh in at Christianity Today.  Can yoga be part of public education?

Laurette Willis says no way.  Yoga, she warns, turns children’s minds towards the “idols” of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Even if the practice is taught in a secular, physical way, it instills in young children “warm fuzzies” about Hindu imagery and theology.

Matthew Lee Anderson says, “It depends.”  If it is taught as physical exercise only, then it should be fine.  If it is used to proselytize for Hinduism, then no.

Amy Julia Becker says bring it on.  Yoga as physical exercise should be encouraged in public school.  What’s more, yoga as spiritual exercise should also be encouraged in public schools.  It is important for people of all religious faiths, Becker argues, to insist on the rights of children to engage in spiritual practice in public schools, as long as that practice is student-initiated and student-led.  Just as evangelical Christian students insist on their right to form public-school prayer groups, so evangelical Christian groups should insist on the rights of students of other religions to form their own spiritual groups.

 

Yoga—Not for Public Schools

 

Does the Constitution allow US public schools to teach religion to children?

Only if that religion is not about the Bible, according to religion scholar Candy Gunther Brown.

Thanks to contributions from Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, we’ve been following a case from Encinitas, California.  Some parents complained that teaching yoga forced religion onto their children.  The program had been funded by the Jois Foundation, though classroom teachers developed the specific yoga curriculum on their own.  Recently, Judge John Meyer ruled that public schools may use yoga as an exercise program without violating the Constitution.  The school district, he decided, had sufficiently purged the religious heritage of yoga and engaged in yoga for sufficiently secular purposes.

One of the participants in that trial was Professor Brown.  In a recent interview at the Oxford University Press blog, Brown explains why she thinks Judge Meyer got it wrong.

As she testified at the trial, Brown explains why the yoga practices are inherently religious.  Such practices, in the vision of Ashtanga devotees,

will “automatically” lead practitioners to experience the other limbs and “become one with God,” in the words of Jois, “whether they want it or not.”

Brown argues that the practices in Encinitas would be—and indeed had been—perceived as religious by objective outside observers.  As she puts it,

EUSD teachers displayed posters of an eight-limbed Ashtanga tree and asana sequences taught by the “K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute”; used a textbook, Myths of the Asanas, that explains how poses represent gods and inspire virtue; taught terminology in Sanskrit (a language sacred for Hindus); taught moral character using yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sutras; used guided meditation and visualization scripts and taught kids to color mandalas (used in visual meditation on deities). Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

Furthermore, Brown charges, Judge Meyer ignored crucial evidence and even got his facts wrong.  School district teachers, Brown says, used Jois Foundation funds to take children to an Ashtanga conference.  Nor did teachers secularize the practice as much as Meyer implied.  Meyer stated in his decisions that religious terms such as the “lotus” position had been renamed with neutral names such as “criss-cross applesauce.”  But Brown points out that the term “lotus” appears 194 times in the spring curriculum guide.

So is yoga religious?

Brown makes a powerful case.  Simply because some teachers did not engage in the practice for primarily religious reasons does not make it a secular practice.  Simply because Judge Meyer did not think children would see the practice as religious does not make it so.

Atheists could pray for secular reasons, but teaching children to pray in public schools would not be constitutional.  Similarly, in other religious-dissent cases, the perception of religion has been decided by those who feel marginalized.  For instance, in the Schempp case (1963), the feelings of non-religious people that school prayer forced religion upon them carried legal weight.

The question forced upon us by Professor Brown is a good one: Do we allow yoga in public schools simply because we like it?  To be fair, do we need to recognize the dissent of conservative Christians who find the practice religious and therefore offensive?

 

Sex Ed: Letting Molesters Have Their Way with Our Kids

Sex ed means giving over our children to theories oozed out of the warped minds of pedophiles and child molesters.

That’s the accusation made recently in the pages of Public Discourse by Miriam Grossman.

It’s no secret that conservatives have long opposed sex ed.  As historians such as Jeffrey Moran and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela have explored, sex and children have always been a touchy combination for Americans.

It’s not surprising.  Sex is a touchy subject for anyone.  Talking about sex with young people has always been fraught with awkwardness, at best.  Even more so when the decisions about what to say and how to say it have become political footballs in educational culture wars.

Grossman’s essay pulls no punches.  She identifies the roots of sex ed in the perverted sexuality of early leaders of the movement.

She calls Alfred Kinsey, for instance, “afflicted at his core. . . . a depraved human being.”

John Money, according to Grossman, formed part of the “incest lobby.”  His career followed a path dictated by the fact that he was “troubled, and he molested young boys.”

What can we expect, Grossman argues, from a field pioneered by such sexual deviants and predatory perverts?  It is no surprise, she says, that sex ed has become a moral horror show.

Talk of using sex ed, or “health” education, to fight disease and reduce teen pregnancy, Grossman believes, is a red herring.  In fact, she insists,

Sex ed is not about preventing disease, it’s about sexual freedom, or better—sexual license. It’s about changing society, one child at a time.

For those of us hoping to understand conservative attitudes about sex education, Grossman’s essay is worth reading in its entirety.  Certainly, she does not speak for all conservatives on this issue, nor does she claim to.  But her vision of the roots of sex ed offers conservatives an understanding of sex ed as a sinister and malicious entity, one that must be opposed root and branch.

After all, if conservatives understand sex ed as a ploy to lure young people into the embrace of leering sexual predators, they will be are understandably reluctant to compromise on the issue.

 

UPDATE: Yoga Okay for Public Schools

When is a school prayer not a prayer?  According to Superior Court Judge John Meyer, once the “lotus” position has been transformed into “crisscross applesauce.”

As historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela argued in these pages months ago, the fight in Encinitas, California over the teaching of yoga in public schools flipped some culture-war themes on their heads.  In this battle, conservative Christian parents fought against the use of religion in public schools.

Spearheaded by the National Center for Law and Policy, a conservative activist organization, Christian parents complained that teaching yoga amounted to promotion of a set of religious notions.

Judge Meyer ruled yesterday that the school district had stripped the yoga routine of its religious nature.  An objective observer, Meyer decided, would not perceive the practice as religious.  The program had been funded by a half-million-dollar grant from the Jois Foundation.  The judge found this entanglement “troublesome,” but not enough so to abandon the health program.

This kerfuffle resurrects some old school-prayer controversies in new ways.  First of all, does this case reveal a bias against Christian prayer?  That was the complaint of Dean Broyles of the National Center for Law and Policy.  As Gary Warth of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, Broyles claimed, “If [the school practice] were Christian-based and other parents complained, it would be out of schools. There is a consistent anti-Christian bias in cases like this that involve schools.”  Could a case be made that non-Abrahamic religious traditions get more leeway in public schools?

Also, does this case open the door for a new spate of school-prayer policies?  In the early 1960s, the US Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that school-sponsored prayers violated the Constitution.  The prayer in that case, however, had been composed by the State of New York as a broadly ecumenical prayer, one thought to offend no one.  Could this precedent open the door to a new sort of ecumenical school prayer?  A secular prayer?  If religious groups could argue the health benefits of a prayer and find a prayer practice sufficiently stripped of sectarian meaning, could Judge Meyer’s argument apply here?

Of course, as I’ve noted elsewhere about the Engel v. Vitale case, most evangelical Protestants supported the SCOTUS decision to ban a bland ecumenical prayer.  Would any conservative religious people want to include a prayer in public schools if that prayer had been secularized?  If Jesus on a cross had been transformed to “crisscross applesauce?”

 

From the Archives: Yoga, Schools, and “Those Dirty Books”

As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has argued in these pages recently, a yoga program in Encinitas public schools has raised the ire of some religious conservatives.  The story has subsequently been  picked up by the New York Times and National Public Radio.

As Professor Mehlman Petrzela pointed out in her article, such fears of yoga as religious indoctrination are not new among American conservatives.

During my research into an earlier generation’s fight over school textbooks, I discovered such complaints as early as 1974.  In that year, a school controversy exploded in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  As journalists such as Trey Kay and scholars such as Carol Mason have described recently, the bitter fight over new textbooks led to a months-long school boycott and repeated shootings and bombings.

In 1974, the beleaguered Kanawha County Board of Education appointed an eighteen-person committee to investigate the accused textbooks.  A majority of the committee found the books unobjectionable.  But in November, 1974, a minority splinter committee issued a blistering 500-page denunciation of the textbook series.  The minority report included specific objectionable passages with comment.

For instance, from a first-grade teachers manual from the DC Heath “Communicating” series, the committee extracted the following suggested discussion-starters: ‘Has anyone ever awakened and found a stranger looking at him?  Has anyone ever broken a toy, a chair, or some other article the first time he was visiting an unfamiliar house?  Has anyone ever had a dream in which he talked with some animals?  Has anyone ever seen a deserted house?  Did you go in?’

In the minority committee’s opinion, “A child should not be forced to discuss his own personal feelings.  This constitutes an invasion of privacy.  This is also
behavioral change.  Why should a 6-year-old child be subjected to questions that will implant fears and frustrations in his mind.  Why not have questions on pleasant and wholesome attitudes?”

The minority report complained that the textbooks’ version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story was “more sadistic and gruesome than usual.”  Elsewhere, the minority report objected, students were instructed to make up their own myths, including one about why all humans don’t speak the same language.  “The question why men do not speak the same language,” the minority insisted, “is answered in the Book of Genesis.  The inference that the answer can be classified as a myth again presupposes that the Bible is based on a myth.”

Most interesting to the folks of Encinitas, however, might be the minority committee’s complaint that articles about yoga amounted to “religious indoctrination.”

Makes me wonder where and when else the conservative campaign against the teaching of yoga in public schools has surfaced.  As Mehlman Petrzela points out, school-yoga supporters in the press and school district seem utterly unaware of this longer history.  As she wrote in her December article,

“The press, the EUSD, and scores of online commenters expressed shock that anyone would suggest, ‘a little stress-reducing exercise ever hurt anyone,’ especially in the context of a much-discussed ‘obesity crisis.’ The Los Angeles Times couldn’t believe the degree of the plaintive parents’ worries, as yoga is regularly practiced in San Diego spots as disparate as the Camp Pendleton naval base and the Jois yoga enclave, which funds the school program. Glamour commented, ‘most people associated with the controversy are scratching their heads,’ quoting similarly incredulous Jois chief executive: ‘It’s hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you’re inviting the devil into your soul.'”

Perhaps this posture of surprise is put on only to discredit conservative opponents.  After all, if anti-yoga activism seems startling and unexplainable, it might gain fewer political supporters.  But at least some of the surprise sounds genuine to me.  It seems another good illustration of the ways widespread ignorance of the history of conservative educational activism impairs any sort of useful discussion of current educational policy.

Scooping the New York Times

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” . . . eventually.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times describes the controversy over a yoga program in Encinitas public schools.  The same controversy that guest blogger Natalia Mehlman Petrzela analyzed in these pages a week ago.

I imagine NYT writer Will Carless had a stricter word count, but whatever the excuse, yesterday’s article doesn’t come close to matching the depth or context provided in Professor Mehlman Petrzela’s account.

Sorry, Grey Lady, ILYBYGTH got there first…and better.