I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

School reform and the kingdom of God…it’s been a lively week here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few of the stories that might have slipped by us:

Don’t forget the public schools—Erika Christakis looks at the weird history of school-hating in The Atlantic.

Will it work? A student is suing Michigan State for refusing to let white-nationalist pundit Richard Spencer speak on campus, from The Hill.

Trump and his court evangelicals. Is he really the most faith-friendly president we’ve had?Bart reading bible

Teachers think it’s true, but it isn’t. Dan Willingham explores the durable mythology of learning styles.

American Apocalypse and 1920s creationism: Glenn Branch finds some goofs in Matthew Sutton’s history of American evangelicalism.

How resegregation works. A look at Jefferson County, Alabama, from the New York Times.

Why don’t state governments want teachers to get more money for books and supplies? Peter Greene offers an answer.

Why do people hate evolutionary theory? A new survey suggests it’s not necessarily because they hate evolutionary theory.

Think Confederate monuments should come down? I do. Turns out I’m an odd duck. You might be as surprised by the poll numbers as I was.

Time for another name change? Thomas Kidd asks if “evangelical” is still a meaningful label.

A defense of the offended: Penn’s Jonathan Klick explains why he signed the anti-Wax letter. He’s says it wasn’t about political correctness, but to a different sort of correctness.

Theocracy or social uplift? Ed Stetzer makes his case for dogma in the public square at Christianity Today.

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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!)

Climate-Change Party Crashers

I love the analogy, but I don’t know if the story sounds realistic.

Over at the National Center for Science Education blog, Executive Director Ann Reid tells a story about converting skeptics into climate-change believers. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale of her encounter at a dinner party with someone who does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. She explains how she made her case.

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the NCSE. Unlike some of my fellow evolution mavens, I appreciate the NCSE’s accommodating attitude toward life in a pluralistic society. I’ve personally seen the ways leaders at the NCSE speak respectfully and productively with creationists. Instead of labeling conservatives “the enemy,” the thoughtful activists at the NCSE try to understand creationist thinking, try to see things from a creationist perspective.

Will she be invited back?

Will she be invited back?

But Director Reid’s story still sounds a little outlandish to me, on two counts.

Before I describe my objections, let’s hear the story. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale (one and two) in which she chats amiably at a dinner party with a scientist who believes that today’s climate changes are just part of naturally occurring cycles. What to do?

Dr. Reid listens to the skeptic’s reasons, then lays out her best case. One doesn’t need to know everything about everything, Dr. Reid says, to see the overwhelming evidence. Consider just a couple of studies that show the drastic warming of the North American landmass. Species are moving north. And planting zones are shifting, too.

What did her interlocutor say?

Well, I’d never heard that before. That’s very interesting.

The savvy Dr. Reid knows that she won’t convince every skeptic this way. She’s not even sure she convinced this one guy.   But, she concludes,

I certainly made him think a little bit. I didn’t get into a debate, and I gave the rest of the table some conversational fuel for the next time they are seated next to a skeptic. Not bad for one dinner party. Give it a try! And let us know how it turns out.

Can it work? Like Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion, I’m skeptical. Here’s why:

First, I agree that a Thanksgiving dinner is an excellent analogy for our continuing culture wars over climate change and other educational issues. But the analogy really points in a different direction.

As I argue in my new book, conservative activists have usually been able to exercise a veto over new ideas in America’s public schools. And they do so in a dinner-party way. That is, in America’s public schools—like at America’s dinner-party tables—controversial issues are anathema. It is not acceptable at dinner parties (except, of course, at really good dinner parties) to lambaste one’s fellows with offensive phrases or ideas.

Across the twentieth century, conservative activists have used this sort of dinner-party mentality to restrict significantly the advance of progressive ideas in America’s schools. Should we teach evolution? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids how to have safer sex? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids that boys can like pink toys? …that good books sometimes include bad words? …that every idea should be questioned, even religious ideas? …that every country has its flaws, even the USA? …and so on?

When an idea can be labeled “controversial,” public schools will flee from it in terror, as timid as a dinner-party host who has invited the boss over.

In generation after generation, conservatives have been able to maintain fairly traditional classrooms—though the vision of “tradition” has changed over time—by exercising this sort of dinner-party veto. Conservatives do not need to prove their case against progressive textbooks, or science, or literature. All they need to do is prove that those things are considered offensive by some, and the dinner-party rule kicks in.

Of course, that’s not the only reason to be skeptical about Dr. Reid’s optimistic story. In real life, most encounters like hers will go very differently, for a fundamental culture-war reason.

The way she tells the tale, her two mind-blowing pieces of evidence got everyone thinking. They exposed the skeptic to a new way of thinking about climate change. And her story ended there.

In real life, educated and informed culture-war partisans are not simply ignorant of the other side. Creationists know a lot about evolution. Wallbuilders know a lot about academic history. Abstinence-only educators know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion would likely know a lot about climate change. At the very least, he would have some of his own party-pleasing evidence ready to share. Instead of receiving Dr. Reid’s examples in humble silence, he would likely have countered with his own show-stopping studies. The rest of the dinner table would be left in the same position as it was when the party started: Confronted with two competing and seemingly convincing arguments, from two authoritative-seeming sources.

How should they pick?

Like most of our educational culture-war issues, this climate-change dinner party would likely come to a more obvious conclusion. Instead of fighting vehemently for one side or the other, instead of splitting the dinner table into hostile camps, most dinner parties come to a different conclusion. Like public schools, dinner parties choose to avoid any controversial subject, rather than get into a down-and-dirty debate.

Of course, I don’t get invited to many dinner parties, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Does my dinner-party analogy seem too cynical? Too negative?

School Punishes Girl for Modesty

It sounds like a dystopian fundamentalist fantasy: secular school wardens careening out of control, punishing religious students for having decent morals. But in France this week, a girl was really sent home because her skirt was too long.

Of course, things are different in France than they are in the United States. In France, public schools and institutions are governed by the rule of laïcité. No one may wear religious symbols to school, not headscarves, skullcaps, or big crosses.

In this case, “Sarah K.” was sent home when administrators decided her skirt represented religious garb. Like her friends and co-religionists at the school, Sarah had removed her headscarf as she went in. But her skirt still represented religious attire, school leaders believed. The principal wrote a note to her parents, according to the New York Times, warning them to “rectify her clothes if you want her to continue her schooling.”

"Ta jupe est trop longue..."

“Ta jupe est trop longue…”

In this country, we’ve seen our share of outraged religious conservatives kicked out of public schools for culture-war clothing issues. Remember the flap over the Romney shirt in Philadelphia? Or, up north, remember the kid who got kicked out for his “Life Is Wasted without Jesus” shirt?”

To this uninformed observer, Sarah K.’s case seems like an overreach by overzealous school officials. How can they decide if a skirt is part of a religious outfit, or if it is just a skirt? How can they conclude that Sarah K. intended for her maxi-skirt to be a statement of her religious faith?

Kopplin, Creationism, and Liberal Book Burnings

A network of charter schools in Texas uses religious textbooks.  Bad religious textbooks.

That’s the accusation leveled last week by anti-creationism activist Zack Kopplin in the pages of Slate.

For anyone who has looked at the textbooks cranked out by conservative religious presses, as I have, the charges sound true.  But does this sort of expose rely too heavily on shock value?  Does it really tell us anything about what goes on in those charter schools?  Or does it rely on the dangerous mentality of the book burner?

Kopplin’s investigation uncovered the dodgy content of books used by Responsive Education, a network of charter schools that claims 65 schools and a plan to open more in the coming year.  Kopplin, a young but seasoned activist, found textbooks rife with creationist-friendly ideas.  Moreover, the textbooks promote a religious vision of history and repeatedly promulgate half-truths and lies as historic fact.  The books take a questionable tone about homosexuality and seem to embrace a distressingly patriarchal vision of proper family life.  Worst of all, Kopplin argues, these textbooks are used in public schools, schools that ought to be open and welcoming to all students, not just religious conservatives.  These slanted textbooks are peddling fake science, bad history, and sectarian “values,” and they’re using tax money to do it.

Let me repeat: Kopplin’s charges ring true to me.  I agree that public schools must not push theology.  But as I finish up my current book manuscript about the history of conservative school activism in the twentieth century, I can’t help but notice the disturbing echoes of Kopplin’s crusade.  His anti-textbook campaign seems to revive the worst elements of wartime book burning.

Sound outlandish?  Let me offer some specific examples.

First and most worrisome, Kopplin relies on the tried-but-false McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.  In his article, Kopplin points out that some ResponsiveEd schools might assign readings from the Patriots’ History of the United States, a skewed and partisan book.  To discredit the book, Kopplin notes that the book is beloved by conservative blabbermouth Glenn Beck.

More troubling, Kopplin tars ResponsiveEd schools with all the sins of every right-wing theocrat with whom they can be associated.  Consider, for example, Kopplin’s takedown of Oklahoma businessman and curricular contributor Tom Hill.  Hill, Kopplin charges,

is a follower of Bill Gothard, a minister who runs the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Christian organization that teaches its members to incorporate biblical principles into daily life. IBLP is considered a cult by some of its former followers. Gothard developed character qualities associated with a list of “49 General Commands of Christ” that Hill adopted for his character curriculum. Hill then removed Gothard’s references to God and Bible verses and started marketing the curriculum to public schools and other public institutions.

The values taught by Responsive Ed can often be found word for word on Gothard’s website. The Responsive Ed unit on genetics includes “Thoroughness: Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of my work or words if neglected.” The only difference is that Gothard’s website also adds “Proverbs 18:15” after the quote.

What does this really prove?  That some of the origins of ResponsiveEd’s curriculum can be tied to conservative evangelical Protestants?  Is that illegal?  Is that even worrisome?  After all, taken another way, Kopplin’s accusation can be taken as proof that ResponsiveEd’s curriculum has been DE-Biblicized.

This sort of guilt-by-association has a terrifying history in American educational and political history.  Too often, left-leaning or liberal groups earned labels of “subversion” by association with communist thinkers or organizations.  Consider, for instance, the widely circulated “spider-web chart” used by patriotic activists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  Any alleged association with leftist organizations, the chart accused, meant that organizations must not be trusted.

Image Source: Women's and Social Movements in the U.S.

Image Source: Women’s and Social Movements in the U.S.

In the late 1930s, a conservative campaign took off against a set of social-studies textbooks by left-leaning author Harold Rugg.  Time and again, those accusations were based on these guilt-by-association tactics.  Since Rugg taught at Teachers College Columbia, it was alleged, since he was a member of the Frontier Thinkers intellectual group, and since some members of that group had made statements or editorial decisions friendly to communism or Soviet Russia, Rugg was charged with treasonous intent.  His books were charged with all manner of subversive crime.  Just as anti-Rugg activists swung too wildly against Rugg’s books, so Kopplin seems over-ready to ban ResponsiveEd books based on questionable associations.

Another parallel between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning crusades is that Kopplin’s charges do not have much to do with actual classroom practice.  As Kopplin admits, he never actually witnessed the teaching in ResponsiveEd schools.  Rather, he relates that one classroom he looked at had the distinctive set up of an Accelerated Christian Education classroom.  Kopplin cites ILYBYGTH friend and guest writer Jonny Scaramanga as evidence that such classrooms teach terrible Bible-based schlock.

But here’s the problem: just as conservative book-burners in the 1940s gave too little thought to the ways Rugg’s textbooks might actually be used, so Kopplin does not offer any evidence about the actual goings-on in ResponsiveEd classrooms.  Anyone who has spent any time teaching knows that textbooks do not dictate classroom practice.  Take the most obvious example: What should we make of public-school classrooms that use the Bible as curriculum?  As religion scholar Mark Chancey has argued recently, the Bible can and should be taught.  But HOW it is taught makes all the difference.

I’m not saying that the ResponsiveEd curricular materials are wonderful.  But I am saying that jumping to conclusions about the practices at any school based mainly on textbooks is a fundamental mistake.

This is getting long, but here is one other creepy similarity between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning campaigns.  Like earlier campaigns, Kopplin’s charges have been passed along uncritically by allies seeking to discredit ResponsiveEd.  Intelligent, well-meaning critics such as Diane Ravitch, the Texas Freedom Network, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have trumpeted the conclusions of Kopplin’s expose.

None of these liberal organizations seems troubled by Kopplin’s sketchy evidence or guilt-by-association tactics.  As an historian who has spent the better part of the last few years stuck in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1930s and 1940s, this knee-jerk boosterism alarms me.  For many patriotic book-burners in the 1940s, Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network served as a similar sort of convenient sourcebook for denunciation.  Too many conservative activists—even intelligent, well-meaning ones—repeated outlandish charges and baseless accusations from Dilling’s book.  The fact that a textbook author such as Harold Rugg showed up in Dilling’s pages served as proof positive for many school activists that his books must not be allowed in America’s public schools.

Creepiest of all, Kopplin’s language often echoes almost verbatim the language of 1940s book-burners.  For example, Kopplin engages in a sinister sort of hermeneutic when he says the following: “Some of Responsive Ed’s lessons appear harmless at first, but their origin is troubling.”

In other words, Kopplin admits that the books themselves might not be so bad, but since they came from conservative religious sources, we must automatically attack them.  This smacks too much of what political scientist Michael Rogin has described as “political demonology.”[1]

Consider some of the similar language from the 1930s/1940s anti-Rugg textbook fight.  One of the leaders of that anti-book battle, R. Worth Shumaker of the American Legion, told a correspondent that the dangers of the Rugg books only became clear if one went “back of the scenes.”  Reading the books themselves, Shumaker admitted, made them seem bland and harmless.  But once an earnest researcher discovered Rugg’s leftist connections, the slant of the textbooks became obvious.

Another American Legion activist agreed.  Hamilton Hicks admitted in a 1941 article that “intelligent people” could read Rugg’s book and find nothing wrong with them.  “Dr. Rugg,” Hicks accused, “is far too adept a propagandist to disclose his real purpose in any one textbook.”[2]  Just as Zack Kopplin warns that the ResponsiveEd textbooks might seem harmless until we understand their origins, so anti-Rugg activists admitted that Rugg textbooks might seem fine until their sinister backstory was uncovered.

We verge from activism to hysteria when we denounce textbooks for reasons other than the textbooks themselves.  If textbooks seem harmless, the first appropriate conclusion is that the textbooks are likely harmless.

So what is a liberal to do?  Kopplin makes an important point: public schools ought not cram dead science and bad history down students’ throats.  As organizations such as Texas Freedom Network have done, this situation calls for more rigorous examination.  What really goes on in ResponsiveEd schools?  They should not be allowed to use tax dollars to teach sectarian religion and false facts.  It is important for all of us to remember, however, the profound costs of over-hasty accusations.  Calling for book burnings is never an appropriate tactic.

Kopplin has made some serious charges.  So far, however, those charges have not been backed up by adequate proof.  More is at stake here than just one charter-school network.  If we veer into hysteria rather than activism, we repeat the worst mistakes of our history.


[1] Michael Paul Rogin, “Ronald Reagan,” The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), xiii.

[2] Hamilton Hicks, “Ours to Reason Why,” American Legion Magazine (May, 1941): 6, 51.

A Conservative Runs on Charter Schools

How can a Republican get votes in the Big Apple?  Mayoral candidate Joe Lhota thinks promises of charter schools will help.

In a recent advertisement analyzed in the New York Times, Lhota critiques Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio for threatening to charge rent to charter schools.  Lhota, in contrast, promises to double the number of such schools.

Why?  According to the ad, charter schools promise the best educational hope for “inner city” kids.

Charter schools also represent the first best hope for many conservative educational activists.  The free-market conservatives at the Heritage Foundation, for example, insist that expanding the number of charter schools will expand educational opportunity for all.

Lhota does not seem to support charters in order to prove his conservative credentials, however.  Just the opposite.  Charter schools, Lhota claimed, were the real “progressive education approach.”  Lhota insisted that his support for charters proved that he was the real educational progressive in this race.  “If you oppose charter schools,” Lhota told the Association for a Better New York, “and the programs and the other choices that are available for minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants, you cannot call yourself a progressive.”

That’s educational politics for you: the more conservative mayoral candidate endorsing a school program beloved by conservatives and calling it the progressive choice.

 

Beware: “Government Schools”

What’s the difference between a “government school” and a “public school?”

It seems a “government school” is one calculated to impose a sinister ideology of sloth, poor manners, high spending, and bestial morality on its students.

At least, that’s what reading today’s conservative headlines would lead one to believe.

Anyone who browses certain conservative writers and activists will soon notice this ubiquitous usage.  Again and again, we read about “government schools” instead of about “public schools.”

For example, pundit James Ostrowski warns readers to pull their children out of “government schools.”  There’s nothing more important if readers want to “save America, not to mention your own kids.  Government schools,” Ostrowksi warns,

Were not established out of any dire need for them but rather for a variety of crass religious, political and economic motives.  They were not immaculately conceived but rather were born out of a toxic stew of religious absolutism, Prussian militarism, utopian socialist leveling, special interest greed and power lust.

It is not only the history of “government schools” that troubles Ostrowski.  Today’s government schools, he insists, are “loaded with crime, bullying, drugs and sexual promiscuity.  They indoctrinate students into a false view of American history, one that is invariably favorable to ever-expanding government.”

Ostrowski’s jeremiad may sound far-fetched to some readers, but his strident anti-public-school-ism is widely shared among conservative commentators.

“Government schools” force students to act like slaves, we read.

“Government schools” expose children to drugs, sex, and even early deaths, we read.

It seems the phrase “public school” still retains too many positive connotations to suit the taste of some commentators.  In order to convince readers of the terrors of public education, many conservative activists seem to have adopted the label “government schools” instead.  With this flip of a rhetorical switch, those innocent red schoolhouses on the hill have been replaced by gloomy outposts of centralizing overreach.  “Government” schools carry all the terrifying baggage among some conservatives of any other government program.  If schools are outposts of the government, then they must be outposts of the regime to strip Americans of their traditional religion, their ferocious independence, and their hard-earned tax money.

I’ve been intrigued by this common rhetorical switch among conservatives lately.  It is a powerful yet simple change.  After all, no one can gainsay the fact that public schools are, indeed, government institutions.  But if we think of them as “public,” they seem to belong to us all.  If we think of them as the “government,” then we can rally Tea Party angst and energy to reject them.

The historian in me grew curious to track back this change in conservative school talk.  I looked back through all my overstuffed files and reading notes.

The earliest usage I could find traced back to the influential conservative pundit Sam Blumenfeld.  Blumenfeld wielded significant influence in the 1980s.  My research in the National Archives revealed that Blumenfeld’s work was promoted by the highest levels of William J. Bennett’s Education Department.

It was Blumenfeld that offered the earliest example I could uncover of calling public schools “government” schools.

In his 1981 book Is Public Education Necessary?  Blumenfeld warned that public schools did not live up to their own positive reputation.  Public schools did not work to promote democracy.  They did not function as religious and ideologically neutral institutions.  They did not wisely use public money.  They did not hire quality teachers.  In short, public schools, Blumenfeld argued, did not deserve their unassailed reputation as necessary governmental institutions.

In effect, Blumenfeld insisted, a student going to public school “emerges indoctrinated in a body of secular values as if he had gone to a sort of government parochial school.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that today’s conservative pundits are all deriving their use of the term “government school” directly from Sam Blumenfeld.  But his use was the earliest I could find.  My hunch is that Blumenfeld’s considerable influence among conservative educational activists did a great deal to promote the term’s widespread popularity today.

 

 

“Worker Ants in an Insect Society:” The Case for Christian Education

Can government schools produce anything except totalitarian drones?

The folks at Patheos: The Anxious Bench recently re-ran a consideration of this question by the accomplished historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University.  But does this conservative criticism assume too much about America’s public school system?  Are bad schools more like bad haircuts than anything else?

Source: Sodahead

Source: Sodahead

More on haircuts later.  The question of public schools and Christian students has long exercised conservative intellectuals.  I’ve described the history of this perennial concern among American conservatives in general and among conservative evangelical Protestants in particular in a couple of academic articles and in my 1920s book.  As Professor Kidd notes, this question of separate “Christian” schools has long been a central concern among conservative religious thinkers.

Professor Kidd lays out the case: even in his hometown of Waco, “where parents can pretty reasonably assume that Christian students at public schools will not be harassed for their faith,” public-school values do not pretend to match the values of evangelical Protestantism.  The problem, as Kidd notes, has been trumpeted by conservative Christian intellectuals for generations.  Kidd cites J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen as varied exemplars of this intellectual tradition.

Kidd cites Christopher Dawson’s 1961 accusation that public schools were only fit to produce “worker ants in an insect society.”  The problem, Kidd argues, is not simply the familiar laundry list of evangelical complaints.  It is not simply that public schools teach evolution, or that they discourage prayer, or that they teach a skewed secularized history.  The deeper problem is an utter lack of purpose in public education.

As Kidd puts it,

Public education, and private secular education, is floundering to identify any purpose these days, other than perhaps “math and science” training, and the ever-popular “critical thinking skills.” (Excellent standardized test scores and successful football teams are also good.) The modern public school system was originally intended to form citizens for democratic citizenship; perhaps that purpose lingers in some public schools today. But Christians should be wary even of education for democratic citizenship, which can easily shade into nationalism and cloud a child’s understanding that her ultimate citizenship is in the city of God.

At a fundamental level, Kidd argues, parents must spend more time asking what purpose they hope their children’s education will serve.  For conservative evangelical Protestants, in general, even the most efficient public schools may seem only efficient paths to damnation.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we must ask: Are public schools really so profoundly anti-Christian?  And, perhaps more important, what does any of this have to do with poodle haircuts?

After all, the public schools also take their share of accusations from the left.  Liberal watchdogs such as the Texas Freedom Network blast politicians for using schools as catspaws in a rabid anti-leftist witch huntAmericans United for Separation of Church and State warns of the “Religious Right’s Plan to Force Fundamentalism on Our Public Schools.”  Academic leftists such as Michael Apple accuse twenty-first century public schools of being profoundly dominated by the conservative shibboleths of “Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality.”

Is this only a matter of perspective?  Are public schools centrist institutions, forced to muddle down the middle of cultural controversies?  From the left, schools appear dominated by conservatism.  From the right, they look like secularist left-wing indoctrination centers.

Or could this be the oldest public-school question in the book?  That is, could these critics be making the mistake of treating public schools as if they were a single ideological entity, when in fact they are a ten-thousand-member cluster with no discernible goals or guiding ideology?  In other words, if you want to attack the ideology of the public school system, you’ll be able to find convincing and terrifying examples of all sorts of ideas.  With such an incredible diversity of schools and school districts, it is all too easy for commentators to accuse “public schools” in general of problems that may not trouble the majority of real schools.

Now, at long last, let’s consider what schools have to do with haircuts:

Blasting “the ideology of the public schools” in general might be like attacking America’s hairstyles in general.  Of course, there are fashions and historic trends.  And of course, anyone can pull up terrifying examples of how they can go wrong.  But America’s hairstyles, like America’s public schools, have no controlling central intelligence.  Both are the result of thousands, millions, of decisions by individuals on a daily basis.

Of course, parents and pundits of any religious or political persuasion should make the decisions that fit them best.  But when those decisions are pushed as a simple rule about the ideological nature of the public schools in general, we may have veered off into poodle-haircut territory.

 

Bullies, Schools, Homosexuality, and the Confederate Flag

Who is a school bully?  Can it be a teacher who disciplines students for wearing Confederate flags or for denouncing homosexuality?

That is the question conservative commentator Anthony Esolen asks today on The Public Discourse.

Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College, considers a recent case from Michigan.

In this compellingly tangled case of homosexuality, history, religion, and education, a teacher hoped to fight anti-homosexual attitudes among his students.  This teacher participated in a school event in which teachers and students wore t-shirts opposing anti-gay bullying.  The teacher showed his class a video about anti-gay bullying, then engaged in a discussion about it.  During the discussion, the teacher noticed that one student wore a Confederate-flag belt buckle.  The teacher ordered the student to remove the buckle.  When another student asked about the obvious contradiction between the student’s right to wear the buckle and the teacher’s right to wear the t-shirt, the discussion exploded.  The teacher eventually disciplined both students, one for the buckle, and one for insisting that his Catholic faith forced him to disapprove of homosexuality.

Esolen brings up these snarled issues in all their complexity.  Does a Catholic student have a right to disapprove of homosexuality?  Does a teacher have a duty to discipline dissenting students?  Can a student wear offensive belt buckles or t-shirts?  What ideas are too offensive to be protected in schools?

Also, importantly, Esolen considers whether an economics teacher should be engaged in these sorts of pedagogical discussions.  If teachers are, as Esolen argues, “a group of tutors hired by a group of parents,” shouldn’t those teachers respect parents’ beliefs more rigorously?