What Does Rosa Parks Barbie Have to Do with 1619?

So…we now have a Rosa Parks Barbie, apparently. In a way, it seems like a triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, right? But only in a way. Like the conservative backlash against the NYT’s 1619 series, Barbie’s version of history proves once again that there is still an unyielding third rail in America’s public conversations about history.theoharis on barbie

What’s wrong with a Rosa Parks Barbie? One might take it as good news—more progress toward giving children a diverse set of heroes to look up to. As scholars have pointed out, however, the Barbie version of Ms. Parks’ story has been whitewashed. Instead of a devoted Civil Rights activist protesting for decades against racial inequality, Mattel tells children that Parks was only a tired woman who had led an “ordinary life” up until her famous refusal to give up her bus seat.

Why would the toy company want to politely ignore real, established history? It has something to do with the NYT Magazine’s recent 1619 series. That series, about the history of racial slavery in the British Colonies, has sparked a ferocious response among conservative historians and pundits. Perhaps most memorably, Newt Gingrich freaked out about it on Fox News.

As Gingrich declaimed,

The whole project is a lie. Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I think putting slavery in context is important. . . . I think, certainly, if you are an African-American, slavery is at the center of what you see as the American experience. But, for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on. There were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves. The fact is that I saw one reference that The New York Times claims that the American Revolution was caused in part to defend slavery. That is such historically factually false nonsense that it’s embarrassing that The New York Times is doing this.

This leads us to our two big questions. First, why do conservatives—even history experts such as Rep. Gingrich—get so flustered over an extremely uncontroversial position like the one taken in the 1619 project? After all, among historians, the centrality of racial slavery in the founding of the United States is a given. And second, what does any of this have to do with a Rosa Parks Barbie?

My two cents: Over the years, conservatives have been very willing to expand the galaxy of American heroes. In addition to the traditional cluster of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, conservatives have been happy to add new heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Sacagawea, and, yes, Rosa Parks.

The idea that a mild-mannered “ordinary woman” could stand up to injustice fits in nicely with the traditional tale of heroic America. Sure, there have been problems—the story goes—but heroic Americans have always stepped up to solve them. Even the curse of slavery, Gingrich pointed out, was solved by the self-sacrificing heroism of “several hundred thousand white Americans.”

What doesn’t fit in is the real story of Rosa Parks. Parks, a life-long civil-rights activist, learned from radical institutions such as the Highlander Folk School, and campaigned against racism long past the 1950s. That real story raises questions most Americans are not comfortable confronting. For example, what were the connections between civil-rights activism and left-wing politics? Why did Parks feel a need to keep campaigning for racial justice long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Why was the second-class-citizenship she endured so entrenched and durable? What did the Civil Rights Movement leave unsolved?

All those questions point to a fundamental fact about American history that conservatives can’t abide. Instead of a flawed-but-improving land of truth and justice, these questions point to a vision of United States history in which the nation has always been fundamentally formed and guided not by heroism, but by racial (and other) hierarchies.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives have drawn the line when it comes to questioning America’s heroic history itself. Any intimation that the United States has fundamental, formative flaws has always drawn ferocious criticism. Consider, for example, the reaction to a popular textbook series in the 1930s and 40s. Harold Rugg’s textbooks sold by the millions. But when rumors spread that Rugg’s books denigrated America’s unique awesomeness, they crossed a culture-war line.

One conservative critic, Bertie Forbes of Forbes Magazine fame, warned in 1940 that the textbooks guided teachers to criticize the greatness of the United States. When one middle-school teacher was asked by her students if the USA was the greatest country in the world, she looked at her Teacher’s Guide and responded, “No. . . there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, form of government than ours.”

Forbes warning rugg books

Forbes raises a stink, October, 1940

Not a particularly shocking statement, but it lit a fire under conservative Americans at the time. Sometimes literally. Soon, Rugg’s books were yanked from school bookshelves and rumors spread of book burnings in Wisconsin and upstate New York.

When it comes to Barbies and popular histories, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find this third rail still firmly in place. We Americans are happy to add heroes to our list. We are happy to have Rosa Parks Barbies as well as Malibu ones. But as a whole we can’t stand to see the big story of our history challenged. We can’t and won’t tolerate public discussions that imply that there are any serious, fundamental, structural flaws in America’s past.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed news stories you might have missed:

Pro-lifers love the new science, by Emma Green at The Atlantic.

What happened to Crusade University? David Swartz tells the tale of the evangelical flop at Anxious Bench.Bart reading bible

Ohio teacher suspended for telling an African American student he would be “lynched,” at NYT.

How can universities promote intellectual diversity? Some presidents are hanging out with campus conservatives, at IHE.

UK report: Evolution acceptance lower among less-talented students. HT: VW.

What does Queen Betsy think went wrong? Politico describes her latest address.

The danger of homeschooling: LA finds “emaciated children chained to furniture,” at NYT.

Cultural bridge or soft censorship? UMass Boston protests against Confucius Institute, at Boston Globe.

Continuing crisis at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute:

A new Bible bill for Iowa public schools, at Des Moines Register. HT: MC

Who can still love Trump?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Halloween, SAGLRROILYBYGTH! There were plenty of tricks and a few treats in the news this week. Here are some of the headlines you might have missed:

School scams? Orlando Sentinel reporters investigate public money going to private-school ripoffs.

B-ding! There’s another one: Rich smart person teaches briefly in low-income school, writes memoir.

The most expensive evangelical building ever? CT reviews Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible.Bart reading bible

A new gen-ed: “Patriotic Education and Fitness.” Will it help students at the College of the Ozarks be good citizens?

“Border science” and Nazi occultism. At Religion & Politics Michael Schulson reviews Eric Kurlander’s Hitler’s Monsters.

  • The takeaway? Schulson: “There’s the fascination with purity. And there’s the belief in secret histories, secret forces, and secret knowledge. These concepts are not fringe ways of thinking. They are familiar, I think, in one form or another, to most Americans.”

What should a conservative PhD student watch out for? Some controversial anonymous advice at IHE.

At HNN, Gary Nash asks why we have forgotten about white Christian anti-racist activists.

What’s a progressive parent to do? Do they have to support public education even if they don’t like public schools? One parent asks for progressive advice at The Nation.

How did Betsy DeVos change her daily routine when she moved from being a private-school activist to a public-school uber-administrator? According to the New York Times, she didn’t.

Schools are left-wing indoctrination centers, Newt Gingrich writes.

What do schools really need? At Flypaper, Michael Petrilli prescribes “a swift kick in the ass.”

The Headline You’ll Never Read

Cereal gets stale after about two weeks. Cheese can last a while. Milk goes bad much quicker. But conservatives never seem to tire of hysterical warnings about left-wing takeovers of public schools. Your humble editor experienced a dizzying bout of déjà vu this morning reading Newt Gingrich’s furious warning about the influence of “radical, left-wing” teachers. I had to check my watch and even my calendar to make sure what year it was. It serves as another reminder: When it comes to culture-war rants about public education, there is one headline that we’ll never see.

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The headlines we’ll never see…

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why conservative activists like Gingrich want people to think left-wingers are taking over public schools. No conservative parent is likely to open her wallet for a politician who tells her there’s nothing much to worry about. So Gingrich tries to build back his political clout by warning FoxNews readers about a “thinly veiled attempt to instill radical, left-wing political views in impressionable children.”

Gingrich is reacting to an obscure story out of Minnesota, dug up by conservative muckrakers. In Edina, Minnesota (population 51,350), the school board is apparently implementing a new inclusivity curriculum. Students will read books such as A Is for Activism. [SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the title from earlier fuss-and-feathers controversies about it.] As Gingrich fumes, “This is pure, unapologetic political indoctrination of American youth.”

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Gingrich is reading word-for-word from an old conservative playbook. In the 1930s, for example, conservative activists went haywire over a textbook series by progressive-ish scholar Harold Rugg. Back then, leaders of the American Legion foamed and fumed that Rugg’s educational scheme “encourages the totalitarian borers-from-within who would destroy our democracy.”

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Boring…boring…boring…(c. 1941)

There’s no doubt that Harold Rugg really did hope to push American school and society to the political left. And I’m guessing some of the teachers in Edina feel the same way. But the notion that teachers and education professors are able to sneakily install a mind-warping left-wing curriculum in American public schools is simply ludicrous. Even if we wanted to—and again, I admit that some teachers and ed-school professors really do want to—such conspiracy theories miss a central truth about American education.

And that fundamental truth about schools and schooling generates the headlines you’ll never see. By and large, when conservatives want to rile up their base, they need to dig pretty hard to find teachers and districts that veer very hard to the political left. By and large, most schools are fairly traditional places, focusing on non-controversial tasks such as preparing students for jobs or college. Teachers, by and large, tend to avoid controversy.gallup people like their local schools

And that, perhaps, is what makes Gingrich’s job so hard. We know that most people—whatever their political affiliation—are happy with their local public schools. When Americans actually send their kids to a public school, they tend to be very happy with that school, even if they are pessimistic about the state of public education as a whole.

For Gingrich to get any attention, he has to pick out unusual examples of school districts far away that are doing something fairly unusual. Why? Because most of Gingrich’s audience is actually HAPPY with their local schools. Those schools don’t dabble in anything even remotely controversial. If a local community is Gingrich territory, the schools will be, too