Tough Crowd

Woo! We were tickled pink to come across another academic review of The Other School Reformers. It’s in the (subscription only; sorry) January edition of American Historical Review.

AHR is the journal of the American Historical Association, the leading professional association for academic historians. As the editors humbly explain, AHR is

the journal of record for the historical profession in the United States since 1895—the only journal that brings together scholarship from every major field of historical study.

Its reviews are famous for no-holds-barred nerd attacks. So when we dialed up our library to access the review, it was with some trepidation. Was the author going to rip my book apart?

She was Emily E. Straus, author of Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and School in Compton, California, published in 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Clearly, Professor Straus knows the terrain of schooling, culture, and tumult.straus

I’m happy to report that Straus both understood what I was trying to do and thought I did a good job of it.

For one thing, she wrote that the book

fills in the shadow figures against whom progressives—a group that historians have written much more about—fought.

Excellent. That was my primary driving question in this research. Most of the books that I read in grad school found the progressive side to be the obvious protagonists of educational history. I did, too, but my experience as a high-school teacher made me think those histories were missing a big part of the story.

I also hoped to contribute to the growing history of American conservatism. A lot of my favorite books strangely sidestepped the obvious point that conservative activists and intellectuals cared a lot about schooling and education. Did I succeed? Straus says yes. According to her, my book

also broadens our understanding of conservatism in the twentieth century by illuminating the centrality of education.

In addition, I hoped to write something that could help people like me think about schools and education policy today. Straus kindly noticed my  efforts. As she put it,

By excavating conservatives’ activism around public school education and by helping to reframe the discourse around education, Laats’s account will enrich both historical and contemporary debates on education and politics.

Best of all, Professor Straus thought that my book might be a good way to go about this sort of thing in general. In her words,

Any scholar interested in how to tell a national story through a local lens will also benefit from reading Laats’s work.

Thank you, Professor Straus! You are obviously a scholar of great taste and discernment!


Tough Crowd…

The reviews keep comin in!  I’m delighted to report another review of The Other School Reformers.  This one is by Princeton’s Kevin Kruse, in the pages of the Journal of American History (sorry, subscription required).

Non-academic readers might not know Professor Kruse, but every nerd knows that he has done as much as anyone to help us understand what it has meant to be “conservative” in American history.  Naturally, I was anxious to see what this uber-expert would think about my book.  Did he think my argument about the development of “educational conservatism” was worthwhile?

kruse one nation under god

Required reading…

Kruse’s first book, White Flight, examined racial politics and their implications in Atlanta.  His more recent book, One Nation Under God, has stormed the best-seller lists.

So when it comes to expert opinion about the history of American conservatism, it would be hard to find a more qualified reviewer than Professor Kruse.  It was with some trepidation that I first opened his review of The Other School Reformers.

What did he think?  If you have a library membership, check out the whole review, but the good news is that he liked it.  As he concluded,

Each of these case studies is carefully drawn, built upon a deep foundation of original research and a strong engagement with the secondary literature. Together they demonstrate quite ably that “educational conservatism”—and, indeed, conservatism writ large—was constantly evolving, site to site, moment to moment, across the twentieth century. Taking aim at the historian George Nash’s 1976 claim in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 that modern conservatism resulted from a deliberate campaign to bring together Burkean traditionalism, libertarianism, and Cold War anticommunism, Laats argues convincingly that “conservatism, for most educational activists, was not a deliberate fusion of disparate strands of ideology but rather variegated fruit from the same tangled vine” (p. 12). Over the years, conservative thinking on the key issues of race, religion, and science changed dramatically, as did conservatives’ belief in the proper role of educational experts and the federal government.

Well researched, well written, and well argued, The Other School Reformers offers a clear, evenhanded account of conservative activism in public education. It also makes a persuasive case for studying the lessons of their struggle seriously, as insight into the larger workings of modern conservatism and the traditions it sought to define and defend beyond the classroom.

Almost makes me want to read it myself!

…He’s Sitting over There

The reviews keep coming in! My German is more than a little rusty, but your humble editor noted this morning a new review of The Other School Reformers on the H-Soz-u-Cult page. Thanks to Lukas Boser Hofmann and the H-Soz-u-Cult list.

Does he like it? If my translation can be trusted, then yes indeed. He raises central questions and offers some helpful ideas.

With his Continental perspective, Boser points out a fair criticism. My book really does focus on the experience of American activists and traditions. As he suggests, we would all profit from comparative cross-national studies. As he asks, how have conservative ideas formed European educational policies? How have different nations struggled to determine the content of their curricula? Such comparisons would indeed offer a more comprehensive definition of what it has meant to be “conservative,” about education or any other issue.

I’m grateful for Boser’s claim that my book succeeds in giving conservatism and conservative activists a more accurate place in educational history. (At least, that’s my understanding of this section:

dem es den Konservativen einen Platz im grand narrative der US-amerikanischen Schulgeschichte einräumt. Dieses grand narrative wird von Laats durch die Verknüpfung der vier zeitlich und örtlich unabhängigen Einzelfallstudien und durch den Einbezug der Konservativen als wichtige Akteure ausgebaut und gestärkt und nicht etwa in Frage gestellt.

Maybe the SAGLRROILYBYGTH can offer a clearer translation. As I read it, though, Boser generously says that I’ve succeeded in incorporating conservatism into the “grand narrative” of American educational history. For me, after all, the primary motivation for the book was to find out why conservatives show up in so many educational histories as merely pesky gadflies, roadblocks in the inevitable progress of progressive education.  In my experience, at least, conservatives have played a much stronger leading role in shaping the course of American education.

At the end, Boser notes my sloppy style and predilection for puns (“seinen Hang zu Wortspielereien und Alliterationen – beispielsweise in den Kapitelüberschriften – und den manchmal etwas saloppen Stil.”) Ouch. In spite of such flaws, though, Boser concludes that my book is overall entertaining (“unterhaltsame”).

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, if I can’t be punny, I won’t bother. I wouldn’t like to be thought of as a sloppy writer, though.

In the end, I’m extremely gratified to hear that I managed to make a potentially dry and jargon-y book more pleasant to read, at least in Dr. Boser’s opinion.

Are Schools Conservative?

Binghamtonians!  Come on down to RiverRead Books on April 21 at 6:30 PM.  Five Court Street in scenic downtown Binghamton.  I’ll be sharing some thoughts from my new book about schooling and conservatism.  Free and open to all.  I’m planning to bring brownies, but we’ll see if I actually get it done.

The place to be...

The place to be…

The book works through several questions:

  • ARE most of America’s public schools conservative places?
  • What has it meant to be “conservative” about education in the USA?
  • How have ideas of “conservatism” and “progressivism” in schools changed over time?
  • What kind of brownies should I make?

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, in my new book I examine four of the most famous educational controversies of the twentieth century: the Scopes Trial of 1925; the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939/40; the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950; and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974/75.   In each case, conservative activists articulated their ideas about proper education.  In each case, conservative leaders and thinkers viewed education as the best way to improve society.  If schools could be reformed, the thinking has always gone, then society could be saved.

What did they fight for?  How did they envision good schools?  How successful were they?

I’ll try to make the case that these “other school reformers” have played a leading role in determining the course of schooling in this country.  Whether we like it or not (and generally, I don’t), conservative thinking and political clout have played decisive roles in shaping America’s educational system.

So come on down to RiverRead to take place in the conversation.

What Do Conservatives Think?

I’ve been dying to know: What will conservatives think of my new book? Will they agree that I’ve tried to take an even-handed approach? Will they protest that I misunderstood the nature of “conservatism?”

Last week we received an encouraging review from a conservative ILYBYGTH reader. Today we read with interest the opinion of a conservative activist who played a leading role in the events described in the book.

Years ago, when I journeyed down to Charleston, West Virginia to research chapter five, Karl Priest was kind enough to take time to talk with me about his memories of the 1974-75 textbook protest. We also talked about his ideas of evolution, creationism, Christianity, and proper education. Since the 1975 protests, Priest has been an educational activist. On his blog, he recently posted a detailed review of my book.

According to Mr. Priest, the book has some good parts, but it also misrepresents the conservative side of the 1974-75 protest. He is consistently kind to me personally, noting that I am “a gentleman and a scholar.” He also concludes by saying,

For anyone willing to study, Dr. Laats’s book provides a comprehensive history of major conservative battles against progressivism.

Mr. Priest also concedes that at some points I capture fairly the thinking of Kanawha County’s conservatives. But he warns that my liberal biases blind me to the truth of the Kanawha County textbook battle. He insists that I “intentionally slurred” the book protesters in the opening of chapter five.

For those who would like to read his detailed critique of my argument, Mr. Priest has added a section to the review in which he moves point by point through the chapter.

Is he correct? In a few cases, I think he makes valid points. For example, he notes that I awkwardly wrote that one protester prayed with a fellow inmate and “saved” him. As Mr. Priest points out, no protester would use such language. The child was saved, but through the power of God, not through the doings of the protester.

More often, however, I think Mr. Priest is blinded by his own partisan interests. I say it with great respect and with gratitude for the time Karl has spent talking with me. In general, however, I think he is overly convinced that the textbook protesters could do no wrong. He assumes too much about the radical nature of textbook supporters.

For instance, he writes that the National Educational Association was not a mainstream group, but rather “an outside left-wing extremist group.” That does not seem a fair statement. The NEA was indeed generally associated with left-of-center politics, but it was entirely within the mainstream of American politics and culture.

As an historian, I have to examine the evidence and come to conclusions about controversial events. Karl is entirely correct that I’m influenced by my own biases, even when I don’t think I am. I encourage readers to check out his review and chime in with their own thoughts.

Something New for the Shelfie

The first copies are in!  Thanks to the folks at Harvard University Press, I’ve got my hands on my new book, The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education.

A snappy addition for the bookshelf...

A snappy addition for the bookshelf…

As far as I can tell, they should be getting into stores in the next few weeks.  So here’s my suggestion: Let’s all dress up as our favorite conservative activist, a la Harry Potter, and camp out outside our local bookstores until these babies hit the shelves!

Dibs on Max Rafferty…

The Perfect Valentine’s Day Gift

Nothing says “I Love You” more than a book about conservatism and education in American twentieth-century history. Looks like the timing will be perfect.

How to say "I Love You" (But You're Going to Hell)

How to say “I Love You” (But You’re Going to Hell)

My new book is slated for release in early February. Hard to know how it will be received, but one pre-reviewer has called it “a major rethinking of the history of American education.” Another has added, “it would be flat-out wrong to ignore this important book.” Pshaw. . .

For the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH, the content might not be surprising. In this book, I try to figure out what it has meant to be “conservative” about education in the United States.  How have issues such as creationism, school prayer, and sex ed developed over the course of the twentieth century?  How are they related?  How have conservative attitudes and strategies changed?  How have they remained the same?

In the early days of my research, I had planned to explore the educational activism of leading conservative groups such as the American Legion and the Institute for Creation Research. I was stuck with two big problems, though.

First, the Legion and other conservative groups remained active throughout the twentieth century. How could I describe different conservatives without rehashing the chronology over and over again? I didn’t want to work from the 1920s to the 1970s in every chapter. What to do?

My second problem was one of definition. How could I choose which “conservative” groups to study? I could copy the method of leading conservative scholars such as Russell Kirk or George Nash and use my selection to make an argument about the definition of conservatism. Both Kirk and Nash picked their subjects to give a particular definition to conservatism. For both writers, being a true conservative has meant being a heroic intellectual battling waves of ignorance and knee-jerk leftism. But I’m no conservative myself, and I wasn’t interested in imposing a flattering (or un-flattering, for that matter) definition on American conservatism. What to do?

Luckily for me, I had some help. At a conference back in 2009, I was describing my research. One of the audience members suggested a new approach. Instead of picking and choosing which activists counted as “conservative,” instead of describing the activism of one group after another, why not do it differently? Why not let conservative activists define themselves? This leading historian suggested that I investigate events, not groups.

That’s what I did. I looked at the four biggest educational controversies of the twentieth century: The Scopes Trial of 1925, the Rugg textbook fight of 1939-1940, the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950, and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974-1975. In each case, conservative activists and organizations fought for their vision of “conservative” schools. By looking at controversies instead of organizations, I could let conservatives define themselves. And I could move chronologically through the twentieth century without rehashing the stories in each chapter.

Did it work? Now I have to let readers and reviewers be the judge. My goal was to explore what it has meant to be “conservative” in the field of education. I did not want to make the relatively simpler argument that conservatism has really meant X or Y. I did not want to give conservatives a heroic history they could draw upon. Nor did I want to give their enemies a catalog of conservative sins. I’m hoping readers think this approach has worked.

So if you’re looking for that perfect romantic gift, consider The Other School Reformers!

Does Anyone Actually Read the Index?

My eyeballs are beginning to chafe.  This week, I’m finishing up the index for my new book.  It’s a lot of work, even though I had a gifted grad student do most of the intellectual heavy lifting.

How the sausage gets made...

How the sausage gets made…

So now I’m wondering: Does anyone actually read the index?  I know professional academic historians do.  In fact, that’s one of the first cheap tricks we learn in our PhD programs.  We flip quickly to the back to see what we can glean from the index.  What are the book’s themes?  What are its main ideas?  Its blind spots?

But do any normal people read a book’s index?  Make no mistake, I’m compiling a kick-ass index, whether anyone ever reads it or not.  But I can’t help but wonder if readers will find useful my painstaking distinctions between “authoritarian teaching” and “traditional education.”

Coming soon...

Coming soon…

Will anyone care that I spent so many long hours in a stuffy library teasing out the nuances of “educational conservatism” as opposed to the broader category of “conservatism” in general?



The Files Are In!

Well, there’s nothing more to be done about it now.  I’ve just sent my final draft of my next book manuscript to the publisher.  There’s a sense of relief at being done, but also trepidation at the impossibility of further revisions.  After years of researching, writing, then revising, revising, revising, it’s hard to believe I won’t be able to keep tweaking and improving.

Pre-order your copy today!

Pre-order your copy today!

In general, though, I’m extremely pleased with the shape of the manuscript.  In a nutshell, I try to make the case that we’ve seen a potent tradition of educational conservatism in the United States, one that has had a decisive impact on the structure and content of schooling.  And, I argue, that tradition has not been recognized by historians or education scholars.

To make this case, I examine in four looooong chapters the four biggest school controversies in twentieth-century America: the Scopes Trial of 1925, the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939-41, the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950, and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974-75.  What did conservatives say and do in these controversies?  In each case, the attention-grabbing events attracted conservative participation from both locals and national leaders.  In each case, the issues prompted conservatives to articulate their visions of proper schooling.  To me, that’s the interesting question.

We’re still a ways from final publication.  The publisher will send me proofs in July.  At that stage, I’ll put together the index and fine-tooth-comb the proofs for any typos.  But I won’t be able to make substantive changes at that point, just minor corrections.

During these last weeks, as I’ve been going over the copy-edited chapter files, I’ve been very grateful for the careful work of the editor.  She or he pointed out some embarrassing errors on my part and I’ve been able to make changes in the argument.  Hopefully this draft is as crystal-clear as I can make it.

I’m looking forward to hearing what readers think of the book.  For that, I’ll have to wait until 2015.  The press will release the book on January 12, 2015.  Pre-orders are available!