CSCOPE and the Dustbin of History

CSCOPE is dead.

Anyone who hopes to understand the sort of conservative crusade that killed CSCOPE should draw two lessons from the news.

First: Historians should be invited to more dinner parties.

Second: The question is not why CSCOPE was suddenly targeted, but rather why so many Americans are so deeply suspicious of educational experts.

But before we talk about such things, an update: As reported by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Freedom Network Insider, leading Texas politicians announced a few weeks back that the suddenly controversial curriculum management system would no longer be offering lesson plans for Texas school districts.

CSCOPE had come under attack from conservatives in Texas and around the country as promoting a witches’ brew of “progressive,” “Marxist,” “pro-Islam” ideas for Texas schools.  Liberals such as those at the Texas Freedom Network complained in exasperated tones about an irrational “witch hunt” against lessons that had been used without controversy for years.

What does any of this have to do with the loneliness of historians?  The book I’m now finishing looks at the 20th-century history of this sort of school controversy.  Again and again, conservatives discover that the teaching in their schools has been infiltrated by nefarious ideas such as evolution, socialism, progressivism, or filthy sex and violence.  In each case, once a set of textbooks or curricular program gained attention as an example of such ideas, it was quickly tossed out by conservative activists.

I hate to quote myself, but in this case an historian’s perspective makes this outcome seem predictable. As I noted a few weeks back, “CSCOPE might offer an ideologically balanced, pedagogically efficient way for Texas school districts to streamline their teaching systems.  But once it has acquired the reputation for leftist indoctrination, the writing is on the wall.”

This is why historians should be invited to more parties.  Especially if there is food.  Not because historians can predict the future.  Every case is different. But an historical perspective eliminates much of the surprise of unfolding events.  For those who know the 20th-century history of conservative activism in America’s schools, the anti-CSCOPE crusade seems remarkably predictable.

Another important lesson should be drawn from the premature death of CSCOPE.  The career of CSCOPE illustrates the profound cultural divide at the heart of America’s continuing educational culture wars.   Personally, I sympathize with the liberal critics of the Texas Freedom Network, who noted that many of the attacks against CSCOPE seemed “bizarre” or “paranoid.”  As a parent and citizen, I worry about the exaggerated attacks made on this curricular program.

Such attacks, however, must be understood as an irruption of a profound suspicion among Americans about what any outside interference in public school curricula.  Like other commentators, I am deeply skeptical about claims that CSCOPE was a vast conspiracy to subvert patriotic Christian values in Texas public schools.  But the important question is not why this particular program was targeted for attack after years of controversy-free use in schools. The question, rather, is why so many Texans jumped so quickly to join the anti-CSCOPE bandwagon.

This has been the case with every curriculum controversy in the past.  As historians Charles Dorn[1] and Jonathan Zimmerman[2] pointed out about the Rugg textbook controversy in the 1940s, though the Rugg textbooks were banished, similar books continued to be used widely.

In the Kanawha County blow-up of the 1970s, the same sentiment surfaced.  What had seemed like a humdrum approval process for a new set of reading textbooks became a violent struggle over the content of the curriculum.  In that case as in this, many observers scratched their heads and wondered why these particular books had suddenly become such lightning rods.

The depressing truth is that most Americans are deeply skeptical about the intentions of the people who write the books and lesson plans for our public schools.  With curricular materials such as CSCOPE, the Rugg textbooks, or the Interaction series adopted in Kanawha County, as soon as materials were accused of subversion, many Americans believed it.  As conservative leader Elmer Fike explained about the Kanawha County books, “You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.”[3]

The sudden outrage against CSCOPE shows us this same dynamic at work.  In Texas as in the rest of our nation, a politically powerful plurality are willing to believe outlandish accusations against relatively bland curricular materials.  Though the books and lessons themselves may be moderate in tone, a significant number of parents and politicians are quick to believe they have set out to destroy America.

Why did CSCOPE meet such a sudden and violent premature death?  Because for generations, a significant proportion of Americans have looked with grave suspicion at the intentions of “experts” who write such classroom materials.  Parents are not surprised to hear that textbooks contain hateful language and shocking subversion.  Such accusations confirm what too many parents already believe.

We will not understand the CSCOPE story, nor the similar stories sure to come in future years, unless we grapple with the fact that many parents maintain an awkward ambivalence toward public education.  Many parents may approve of their local schools, but they feel a need to defend those schools from the control of grasping autocrats at far-flung universities and think-tanks.  At the bitter heart of the CSCOPE saga lodges the uncomfortable truth that Americans do not trust educational experts.



[1] Charles Dorn, “‘Treason in the Textbooks:’ Reinterpreting the Harold Rugg Textbook Controversy in the Context of Wartime Schooling,” Paedagogica Historica 44:4 (August 2008): 477.

[2] Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 79.

[3] Quoted in James Moffett, Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 70.