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.