School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.

simpsonsturkey

PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

Bill Gates Pushes a Rope

Must be tough. All that money and doodly-squat to show for it.

Bill Gates gave a speech yesterday about his plans to fix American education. He has found the secret, he explained. It took him seven years and ba-jillions of dollars, but he has found it. Seems like he could have just spent a few hours and thirty bucks to discover why his big plans are still doomed to failure.

Gates isn’t alone. Other new-rich tech types have also crashed on the reefs of education reform. Most recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg frittered away $100 million in a good-hearted but wrong-headed attempt to help Newark’s public schools.

To be fair, Bill Gates has spent more time and effort (and moolah) than Zuckerberg in his attempts to improve America’s public schools. His foundation has funded a host of reform efforts.

What has he learned? As he put it yesterday,

We set out on this path seven years ago. If I had to place our foundation somewhere on our own learning line today—where the starting point is absolute ignorance and the end point is knowing everything about great teaching and how to spread it—I would say we’re not even halfway to our goal.

But I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.

Gates’s current plan focuses on improving teachers. In his words:

Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.

Good teachers make a huge difference, he argues correctly. And good school districts do what it takes to make their teachers better.

So what is wrong with Gates’s strategy? It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise. Mr. Gates could have spent a few hours with David Tyack’s and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia to figure out something that every veteran teacher knows already. And it would only have cost him thirty bucks.

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair...

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

To wit: Good teachers are hungry for help. They want reform that will help them do a better job at what they are already doing well. But ALL teachers are good at dodging fads and gimmicks. They have to be. Every experienced teacher has survived wave after wave of “the latest thing.” We have tall bookshelves stacked with chart-packed three-ring binders about how to implement each new reform.

Teachers know what to do. When someone offers them something that helps them do it, they jump on board. Smartboards, for example, or teaching teams, are one-time “reforms” that have now become standard operating practice in many public schools. Why? Because they work. They help teachers do a better job at their jobs.

As Tyack and Cuban document, however, history is littered with the Ozymandian dreams of earlier generations of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. At the advent of television in the 1950s, for example, the US government and the Ford Foundation plunked down tens of millions of dollars to have a plane always circling the Great Plains states, broadcasting the latest educational TV programming for schools. No kidding. The plan was to have the country’s smartest experts teaching kids directly. No more vagaries of teacher quality or school efficiency. This multi-million-dollar reform was going to use the latest technology to fix American public schools in one fell swoop.

Did it transform schools? No. Why not? Because good teachers struggled to find a way to incorporate that expensive “reform” into their teaching. For some reason too mysterious for the experts to divine, students in Kansas did not want to sit quietly while fuzzy black-and-white professors laboriously explained sentence structuring or osmosis.

Bill Gates is pushing a rope. Trying to fix America’s teachers from the outside is a losing proposition. The language itself generates its own defeat. Instead of fixing America’s teachers, Gates and other well-heeled know-it-alls should focus on HELPING America’s teachers.

Scott Walker’s Collapse Means School Is Still Cool

Governor Scott Walker dropped fast. According to the conservative Weekly Standard, Walker led the field of GOP presidential hopefuls in April, dropped to second in August, then plummeted to last place in no time flat. Why? Perhaps his campaign collapse proves that conservative voters do not hate the devils of public education as much as Walker (and I) thought.

Maybe school bashing's not enough...

Maybe school bashing’s not enough…

Walker had built his national reputation on a consistent diet of education-bashing. He famously attacked teachers’ unions. More than that, though, he blasted lazy university professors. Perhaps most uniquely, he himself had never completed college, having dropped out to pursue more worthwhile goals.

Make no mistake. As a voter and a teacher and a lazy college professor, I’m glad to see Walker crumble. But as an historian, I’m surprised. Whatever his faults, I thought Walker had shown some savvy in following a conservative script with nearly a century of success behind it.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the story, but for new folks, here’s a quick history lesson: When Governor Reagan was elected president, his first decorating move was to put a large portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the Oval Office. Reagan, after all, modeled himself after Coolidge’s brand of small-government conservatism.

Coolidge had come to national prominence for his stern opposition to a police strike in Boston. Reagan, too, made his bones by combatting an air-traffic controllers’ strike.

I thought Walker could win by using the Coolidge playbook. I thought his union-bashing policies were terrible, but I thought they would win.

We were both wrong. Walker went from conservative hero to zero practically overnight.

Why? There might be education-related reasons other commentators have missed. Maybe GOP voters really don’t hate public-school teachers as much as people think they do. Maybe GOP voters expect their candidate to have a college degree. Could it even be—perish the thought—that voters don’t hate university professors as much as Governor Walker thought they did?

Conservative pundits offer different reasons. Jonathan Last at the conservative Weekly Standard found Walker’s collapse “shocking.” Unlike other meltdowns, Walker’s campaign had suffered no embarrassing gaffes or scandals. Walker had real credentials, so his early front-runner standard was not a fluke. Last concluded that Walker’s loss was likely due to the weirdly broad field of candidates this year and to Donald Trump’s “disruption” of the nominating process.

Over at the progressive Nation, John Nichols focused instead on Walker’s tired and unpopular anti-unionism. As Nichols put it,

A lot of Republican voters work for a living, and a substantial number of them are union members. While grassroots conservatives have been instructed by corporate America’s amen corner in the media to be angry with unions and living wages and teachers and public employees, they have never been so enthusiastic in that anger as the billionaires who seek to build their empires on a foundation of income inequality and wage stagnation.

So Walker’s core message—union busting—never really resonated to the extent that the governor and his strategists imagined it would.

But don’t forget that Walker’s union-busting was only one leg of a broader strategy based in educational culture-war thinking.  He loudly and proudly fought against teachers’ unions, certainly, but also aggressively went after lazy college professors. Even his own story of dropping out of college to do something more important shows a long-term dedication to bucking the educational status-quo.

I admit it. I thought Governor Walker had hit upon a winning program, even if it was a program I didn’t like. In my last book, I argued that Walker’s brand of educational conservatism had proven politically unbeatable time and again. Throughout the twentieth century, it became a winning strategy among conservatives to bash teachers in no uncertain terms.

I thought it would still work, especially in the howling scramble of this year’s GOP presidential contest. But maybe I got it as wrong as Governor Walker did. Maybe that time has passed.

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?

The Missionary Imposition in Our Public Schools

They’re out there. In spite of decades of talk about “Godless” public schools, there are plenty of Christian teachers who see their work as a missionary endeavor. That ain’t right, but conservative Christians aren’t the only ones to use public schools to spread religious ideas.

As a new cartoon from young-earth creationism ministry Answers In Genesis makes clear, lots of conservative Christians like the idea that public-school teachers will do their best to preach the Gospel as part of their jobs.

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

The creationists at AIG are certainly not alone in their celebration of public-school missionary work. At the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute, for example, Brad and Susanne Dacus encourage teachers to evangelize on the job. As Marc Fey of Focus on the Family writes about their work, it will help teachers spread the Gospel in “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today, our public schools.”

This sort of missionary vision for America’s public schools has a long history. Going back to the 1940s, groups such as Youth For Christ worked to get old-time religion into modern public schools. Beginning in 1945, as the idea of the “teenager” took on new cultural clout, YFC founder Torrey Johnson hoped to make YFC a group that would speak in the language of the new teen culture. As he explained to YFC missionaries, young people in the 1940s were

sick and tired of all this ‘boogie-woogie’ that has been going on, and all this ‘jitterbugging’—they want something that is REAL!

As early as 1949, YFC leaders such as Bob Cook argued that “high school Bible club work [was] the next great gospel frontier.” As he put it, YFC must aggressively evangelize among secular public high school students, since “atomic warfare will most certainly finish off millions of these youngsters before routine evangelism gets around to them.” By 1960, YFC claimed to have formed 3,600 school-based Bible clubs in the United States and Canada.

By 1962, these ad-hoc Bible clubs had been organized into a YFC program known as “Campus Life.” Campus Life included two main components, outreach to non-evangelical students and ministry to evangelical students.

In order to engage in this public school evangelism, national YFC leaders told local activists they must “invade the world where non-Christian kids are.” As an operations manual for Campus Life leaders warned its readers, their first entry into that hostile territory could be frightening. It described common feelings among YFC evangelists on their first approach to a public high school:

There it looms—a huge, humming, hostile high school. Hundreds, thousands of students, a professional corps of teachers and administrators, all busily turning the wheels of secular education.

To you, it’s a mission field. It has masses of kids who need spiritual help, even though most of them don’t know it. You and the Lord have decided to invade that field through the strategy called Campus Life.

This missionary attitude about public schools has also had a long and checkered history among creationists. Writing in 1991, for example, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research called public schools “the most strategically important mission field in the world.”

As have other conservative Christians and creationists, the ICR repeatedly described public schools as unfairly biased against Christianity. As Henry Morris’s son and intellectual heir John D. Morris put it, “today’s public high schools and state universities are confrontational to the creationist student.” Aggressively secular teachers, John Morris warned, “take it upon themselves to ridicule Christianity and belittle and intimidate creationist students.”

Throughout the 1980s, ICR writers described the double impact of their missionary work in public schools. First, it would protect creationist kids from secularist hostility. Second, it could bring the Gospel message of creationism to students who would not hear it elsewhere. Missionary teachers had a unique opportunity. In 1989, one ICR writer explained it this way: “As a teacher,” he wrote, “you are a unique minister of ‘light.’ Your work will ‘salt’ the education process.” Similarly, in 1990 John Morris argued that the greatest hope for a decrepit and dangerous public school system lay with “Christian teachers who consider their jobs a mission field and a Christian calling.”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear young-earth creationist activists insist that they do not want to push creationism into public schools. But they certainly do want to make room for creationism. They hope to use public schools as a “mission field” to spread their Gospel.

They shouldn’t. But before we get too angry about it, we need to reflect on what this really means for our creation/evolution debates.

To folks like me, the most important value of public education is that it is welcoming to all students and families. It should not push religious values upon its students. It should not even imply that one sort of belief is proper and others are not.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book (available in February!), the goal of science education must not be to indoctrinate children into any sort of belief about human origins.

Modern evolutionary science is currently our best scientific explanation of the history of human life. Therefore, we need to teach it in science class, unadulterated with creationist notions of design or supernatural intervention.

But too often, the implied goal is to free students from the shackles of their outdated religious ideas. Too often, the goal of evolution education is to change student belief about natural and supernatural phenomena. Progressive teachers like me sometimes slide into an aggressive ambition to help students see the world as it really is.

We shouldn’t. Not if students have religious reasons for believing otherwise. As I’ve argued at more length in the pages of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, too often evolution educators make the same mistaken “Missionary Supposition” that has tarnished conservative Christianity.

Are creationists in the wrong when they use public schools as a “mission field?” Definitely.

But they are not wrong because their religion is wrong.

They are wrong because public schools by definition must remain aggressively pluralist. They must welcome people of all religious faiths, and of none. In order for evolution education to move forward, we must all remember that public schools can’t promote any particular idea about religion, even the religious idea that young-earth creationism is silly.

Here’s Why Public Schools Will Never Eliminate Creationism

If the spotlight-loving science pundit Lawrence Krauss really thinks public schools can eliminate creationism in one generation, he’s off his rocker. But he’s in good company. Through the years, all sorts of writers and activists have made grandiose plans to use public schools for one sweeping reform or another. Unfortunately for them, that’s just not how America’s schools work.

The original bus from hell...

The original bus from hell…

To be fair, in the Krauss quotation pirated here by the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, Krauss does not say that this will be a school thing. He only says that we can teach our kids—in general—to be skeptical. Clearly, in the conservative creationist imagination of the folks at AIG, this teaching will take place in the public schools.

This AIG cartoon illustrates the many ideological trends that they think are taught in the public schools. Evolution, homosexuality, abortion, . . . all these ideas are poured down the throats of innocent young Christians in public schools. Furthermore, AIG thinks, Christian belief and practice are banned and ridiculed.*

In culture-war battles like this, both sides made sweeping and incorrect assumptions about public schooling. If the schools teach good science, Krauss and his allies assume, then creationism can soon be eliminated. If the schools teach good religion, AIG thinks, then children will go to heaven, protected from evolution and other skepticism-promoting notions.

As I argue in my recent book, these assumptions are hard-wired into our culture-war thinking. Both progressives and conservatives tend to assume that the proper school reform will create the proper society.

In the 1930s, for instance, at the progressive citadel of Teachers College, Columbia University, Professor George Counts electified his progressive audiences with his challenge. Public schools teachers had only to “dare,” Counts charged, and the schools could “build a new social order.”

Decades later, conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler repeated these same assumptions. Conservative parents, the Gablers warned, must watch carefully the goings-on in their local public schools. “The basic issue is simple,” they wrote.

Which principles will shape the minds of our children? Those which uphold family, morality, freedom, individuality, and free enterprise; or whose which advocate atheism, evolution, secularism, and a collectivism in which an elite governs and regulates religion, parenthood, education, property, and the lifestyle of all members of society?

Professor Counts would not likely have agreed with the Gablers on much. But he would have agreed that the ideas dominating public schools matter. If the wrong ideas leach into the schools, then society will lurch in dangerous directions.

These days, both Professor Krauss and the creationists at AIG seem to have inherited these same assumptions. However, as this screenshot from AIG’s facebook feed demonstrates, public school classrooms are far more complicated places than any of our school activists have allowed. No matter what standards we write about science or religion, public schools will continue to function in ways that represent the wishes of their local community. No matter how daring they are, a few progressive teachers do not have the power to build a new social order.

Similarly, we cannot use schools to eliminate creationism. If we want people to think scientifically, then we need to wage a much broader campaign. We need to convince parents and children that modern evolutionary science is the only game in town.

Because even if we wanted to, we could never ram through any sort of school rule that would be followed universally. Even if public schools officially adhere to state standards that embrace modern evolutionary science, schools themselves will vary from town to town, even from classroom to classroom. The only way to change schools in toto is to change society in toto.

Chicken and egg.

As we see in this facebook interchange, one evangelical teacher claims she teaches with the “overwhelming support of parents and administration.” Another says she teaches her children in public schools to recognize the logical necessity of a creator.

These facebook comments are not anomalies. According to political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, about 13% of public high-school biology teachers explicitly teach creationism. Another 60% teach some form of evolution mixed with intelligent design and creationism.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Why do so many teachers teach creationism? Because they believe it and their communities believe it. As Berkman and Plutzer argue, teachers tend to embrace the ideas of their local communities. In spite of the alarmism of the folks at AIG, public schools just aren’t well enough organized to push any sort of agenda. Public schools will never eliminate creationism. They just can’t.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again: Schools don’t change society; schools reflect society.

*(Bonus points if you can explain why AIG is against saving the whales!)

What’s Left? Bernie Sanders on Education

It doesn’t really matter. But it has become a central part of the process nonetheless.

Even though the vast majority of thinking and funding of public schools is still done at the state and local levels, presidential candidates these days spend a good deal of time sharing their plans for fixing America’s schools. On the right, we’ve heard from all the GOP contenders. This week, Forbes Magazine summed up a few of Bernie Sanders’s positions on education. Some of the ideas are predictable, but some are surprising.

...and to my left...

…and to my left…

On the conservative side, candidates have a few hoops to jump through. Whatever their personal beliefs, contenders have to sound at least friendly to creationism. And these days—though as I argued recently this has not always been the case—GOP hopefuls have to denounce furiously any federal role in local schools.

Senator Sanders has a little more wiggle room. As a self-declared socialist representing the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont, Sanders has no real chance of snatching the nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton. So his campaign can be more about ideas than votes.

What does the Socialist Senator say about schools?

First—no surprise—he has denounced the “privatizing” tendencies of vouchers and charter schools. Also, in February Senator Sanders suggested a federal program to cut college tuition in half. The federal government, Sanders thinks, must stop making profits off of student loans. More radically, Senator Sanders wants to make public universities tuition-free. Beyond higher education, Sanders has pushed for better pre-school options for all. And he has decried the fact that “the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.”

It all fits. But there are some ideas that are conspicuous by their absence. Unlike other progressive pundits, we don’t hear from Senator Sanders an attack on the dehumanizing standardized tests that have taken over so many public schools. Nor do we see a strident defense of teachers’ unions.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates in the Democratic Party can win votes by adopting those popular positions. It’s still early days, of course, but we can’t help but wonder why Senator Sanders has not made more noise about these issues.

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.

Jesus vs. Koch Bros. in Kansas

So…what IS the matter with Kansas? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Smarsh offered a mistaken look at the way big money and big religion work together to erode public education in the Sunflower State.

The way Smarsh describes it, “extremist Christians” have been fooled into working with “fundamentalist capitalists.” They both want to privatize public schools, but for different reasons. Her article underestimates and misunderstands the long tradition of American conservatism. New histories, including my new book on educational conservatism in the twentieth century, have laid out the long roots of deep organic connections between religious conservatives and free-market conservatives.

Smarsh describes current education policy in Kansas as dictated from “that ancient place where the religious and the greedy mingle.” As she puts it,

Today, the religious right and wealthy free-marketeers both long to privatize a system that educates 50 million students, but for different reasons. One wants to make 50 million Christians; the other, 50 million paying customers.

As Smarsh explains, at its root this alliance of religion with capitalism results from a cynical conspiracy among the big-money folks. She quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

The unholy union, he told me by phone from his Washington office, begins with the money holders. “They look at the shock troops of the religious right, and they think, ‘How can we tap into that power? How can we get them to endorse our agenda of privatization?” Boston theorized. In matters of public education, which the religious right finds distasteful along moral lines, “they’re already more than halfway there.”

In reality, according to Boston, big-money folks like the Koch brothers don’t care about Jesus. They only want to get their paws on the public-school sector to weaken the influence of the government and strengthen private business.

I’m no Koch fan. Nor am I a conservative Christian. I do indeed find it believable that some big-money types have hoped to co-opt religious conservatives to get their votes. But to say that the alliance of conservative Christians with big-business is some sort of elaborate scam does not fit the facts.

Right fools left...

Right fools left…

Just as Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas did a decade ago, Smarsh’s argument resolves puzzling situations by resorting to conspiratorial explanations. Frank argued, roughly, that conservative schemers managed to convince working-class voters to vote Republican by waving the bloody shirt of abortion and gay rights. In essence, conservative strategists fooled people into voting against their own economic interests by emphasizing culture-war hot-button issues.

In Frank’s argument, conservative voters come off as dupes, conned into voting for Kansas Republicans because of an irrational attachment to pro-life ideas. Smarsh makes similar implications. Big business free-marketeers manipulate conservative Christians into fighting against public education, in this line of argument.

Let me be as clear as I can be: I don’t doubt that some libertarian business folks might HOPE to enact such a scheme, but the notion that conservative Christians are somehow rustic pawns of a corporate megalith are far too simplistic and Manichean.

Folks like Smarsh and Frank (and me, to be fair) have a hard time understanding how conservative Christians could support privatization, so they (we) jump to a false conclusion that big business has somehow fooled religious conservatives.

More careful historical treatments have noted the far more complicated connections between big business and evangelical Christianity. Kim Phillips-Fein, for example, looked at the roots of business conservatism in her 2009 book Invisible Hands. Phillips-Fein is certainly no fan of big business, but she describes the way industry leaders such as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil dedicated much of their fortune to promoting evangelical Protestantism. This was more than a scheme or a scam. It was a long-term effort to promote conservative Christianity and big-business. It was an effort to bring both together for the good of both.

...or does it?

…or does it?

As I’ve found, too, many religious conservatives have embraced big business for reasons that Smarsh and Frank don’t seem to understand. Many religious conservatives have not been fooled into supporting capitalism, but rather see capitalism as an inherent part of their American Christian tradition.

In educational conservatism, at least, the deep organic connections between Jesus and capitalism were not imposed by any move of the sinister Koch brothers. Rather, religious conservatives themselves have long insisted that schools must teach both capitalism and Protestantism. Even a cursory familiarity with the writings of leading conservative activists will make these connections clear.

For instance, in a description of the decades-long educational activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, biographer Jim Hefley connected the dots (emphasis added):

The Gablers also began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America. They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

For its part, big business also has a long tradition of pushing for more Jesus in public schools. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, an industry group, offered in 1939 a new curriculum for schools nationwide. It was vital, NAM leaders argued, for schools to combine “the historical and spiritual foundations of the American system of government, free enterprise and religious liberty.”

I’ll say it again: I don’t doubt that tycoons such as the Koch brothers might hope to manipulate religious conservatives. But it hardly counts as manipulation to encourage conservatives to support a cause they already support.

When journalists such as Thomas Frank or Sarah Smarsh paint a conspiratorial picture of hapless religious conservatives taken in by evil-genius financiers, they do a disservice to those of us hoping to get a better understanding of the ways cultural politics really work in this country.

No, YOU’RE the Weirdo

Do you have a smartphone? Does everyone you know have one? If so, that puts you in a small minority, even though you feel like you’re part of a vast majority. And that sort of presumption of normality has a lot to say about our continuing educational culture wars.

I came across the statistic in this week’s Economist. It seems over 1.7 billion people use smartphones. That’s a lot, but it leaves 80% of the human population phone-less.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

So what? We might notice this as more fuel for the WEIRD fire.  As in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argued a few years back that too many subjects of psychological tests came from this relatively restricted background.  The results of those tests, they argued, should really only be claimed to apply to people of similar backgrounds.

But I also think this is a good example of the culture-war dangers of what we might call “majority myopia.” The things to which we are accustomed sometimes seem as if they are common to everybody. With smartphones, for example, it might seem like an eccentricity these days to go without one.* But despite our perceptions, actually a vast majority of people share that “eccentricity.”

When it comes to public schooling, we see this sort of myopia time and again. When it comes to teaching evolution, for example, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that the most important question to ask–after teachers’ personal beliefs–is what the community believes about evolution. If the community tilts toward creationism, then teachers will, too.

As they put it,

traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.

In other words, there are some ideas that seem universally shared. Why? Because everyone we know agrees on them. With science teachers, they may certainly feel as if they are teaching the ideas that everybody agrees to be true. They are teaching the ideas that everyone in their community seems to share.

This spreads wider than evolution, of course. Back in the late 1960s, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond set out to investigate the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp ruling. In that ruling, an eight-to-one court decided that reciting the Lord’s Prayer and devotional reading of the Bible could not Constitutionally be part of a public-school day.

Dolbeare and Hammond journeyed into four municipalities in an unnamed Midwestern state. They found to their surprise that the Schempp decision had had virtually no effect. In schools that had prayed before, students and teachers still prayed. In schools that hadn’t, they still didn’t.

Most puzzling at all to the political scientists, none of this raised any whisper of controversy in any of the towns. For those who lived there, it simply seemed as if the vast majority of people must share their views about school prayer. Even if they knew what the Supreme Court had decided, their “majority myopia” made them see their own praying public schools as the norm.

I’m sure there are other cases out there. For some religious schools, I’m guessing it must seem as if everyone agrees on doctrines such as a young earth. And at some progressive schools, like the ones I attended as a kid, it certainly seemed as if everyone agreed on the basic principles of secularism and left-leaning social justice.

But as this smartphone statistic shows, even those things that seem most universal can really be part of a very small minority.

*Full disclosure: I’m smart-phone-less myself. Don’t judge me.