Free Speech Firestorm Jumps the Creationist Gap

Everyone supports free speech. But these days, academic “free speech” has become the latest creationist tactic to wedge creation-friendly science into schools. Mostly, that has been a K-12 effort, but it seems like creationist tactics have piggybacked their way into higher education.

The latest incarnation comes from the University of Wisconsin. Conservative lawmakers have promoted a bill to protect free speech on campus. To be fair, the conservatives who push Wisconsin’s bill insist that it has nothing to do with classroom topics, creationist or otherwise. The target, they insist, are leftist radicals who won’t allow conservative speakers on campus.

Wisconsin free speech

Let creationism ring?!!?!???

In Wisconsin’s case, the headline-grabbing incident was a talk by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. In November 2016, Shapiro was shouted down for about twenty minutes before campus police kicked out the shouting protesters. Conservative lawmakers hope their bill will guarantee a balanced ideological environment; an infusion of conservative ideas on campus. The bill is patterned after other campus free-speech bills, inspired by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

To this reporter, though, it seems like the current higher-ed furor over free speech has leaped the curricular gap. Here’s what I worry about: Campus free-speech efforts will be used to protect the “free speech” of creationists and other conservative folks locked out of mainstream science. Attempts to box out creationist ideas will be stymied.

Full disclosure: I can’t even pretend to be neutral on this one. I love my alma mater and I quake at the notion that lawmakers would pass any sort of law demanding or prohibiting certain forms of teaching. It’s not just an intellectual or political thing, either. If big granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health think UW is shackled by creationist science, they will be less likely to fund UW-based projects. Alumni will shy away from sending in donations. Students will be less likely to bring their tuition dollars. In short, the possible negative ramifications of a move like this could be huge.

But at this point, my dear SAGLRROILYBYGTH, you may be asking yourself a smart question: What does this conservative political move to welcome conservative speakers have to do with creationism?

First, the background: For years now, creationists have pushed for “academic freedom” bills in K-12 schools. The idea is to protect teachers and students from harassment or discrimination if they choose to voice their creationist ideas. Seattle’s Intelligent-Design mavens at Discovery Institute, for example, have offered the following language in their “academic-freedom” petition:

Teachers should be protected from being fired, harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for objectively presenting the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory. Students should be protected from being harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for expressing their views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory in an appropriate manner.

The idea is to mandate the intellectual rights of creationists in K-12 schools, to protect teachers and students from any sort of negative reaction to their zombie science. If successful, these bills put science education in a legal gray area. A school can’t insist on teaching mainstream science. Teachers can’t insist that students learn it.

We’ve seen glimmers of this sort of creationist “academic freedom” dispute in higher ed, too. Remember Eric Hedin at Ball State? He earned tenure after facing charges of preaching intelligent design. Or Mark Armitage at Cal State Northridge? He successfully sued after facing discrimination for his creationist publications.

The Wisconsin bill, however, introduces a new element to these creationist “academic freedom” battles in higher education. According to Madison’s Capital Times, the bill’s sponsor is a convinced young-earth creationist. His bill would create a Council on Free Expression. Creationist students who feel persecuted could file complaints with this Council.

In the give-and-take in the Wisconsin legislature, skeptical Representative Terese Berceau questioned Jesse Kremer, the bill’s sponsor, on this question. What if, Berceau asked, a student in a geology class argued that the earth was only 6,000 years old?

“Is it okay for the professor to tell them they’re wrong?” Berceau asked during the lengthy session on May 11.

“The earth is 6,000 years old,” Kremer offered.  “That’s a fact.”

Representative Kremer insisted the new law would not affect classroom discussions. But he affirmed that a creationist student—any student—who felt discriminated against could take his or her complaint to the Council on Free Expression.

Again, I know I’m not thinking clearly and calmly on this one. I’m nervous about the possible ramifications of Kremer’s bill and I’m likely to make creationist mountains out of conservative molehills.

Am I being overly paranoid? Or will conservative free-speech bills end up giving creationist students in college the ability to jam up the works of mainstream science classes? Will efforts to set up an intellectual preserve for conservative ideas on campus end up giving creationists more control over college classes? And, most important, will that new creationist influence stymie the mainstream science that usually goes on in Madison?


One Colorado, Two Systems

There has been plenty of news coverage. Everyone from Fox News to Bloomberg to ILYBYGTH has written about the history protests in Jefferson County, Colorado. But what I haven’t seen anywhere is any notice of the startling international connections here: teenagers in Colorado and China are protesting against the same things. What does that tell us about the nature of educational conservatism and the teaching of patriotic history?

The Colorado story can be told in a few words: Conservative school-board members suggested changes to the way Advanced Placement United States History was taught. They worried that the new framework distorted America’s past. As have many conservative thinkers, they worried that the new guidelines skewed the story toward genocide, racism, and oppression.

In response, students and teachers took to the streets. They demanded freedom to learn about America’s tradition of protest, about America’s traditions of civil disobedience.

Here's what it looks like in Colorado...

Here’s what it looks like in Colorado…

And journalists have offered great continuing coverage of the Jefferson County kerfuffle. For example, there are great stories here, here, and here. Conservative scholar Stanley Kurtz—an early and influential critic of the new AP history framework—has agreed that “The issue is spreading nationally.”

But it is doing more than that. This is an international story, and I’m flummoxed by the lack of coverage of those international connections.

At the same time as the Colorado protests, much bigger protests have roiled the enclave of Hong Kong. Again, there has been no lack of coverage of the “Umbrella Revolution.” We don’t need to re-hash the whole story in these pages—you can check out the unfolding protests here, here, or here.

On some levels, the international connections of the Hong Kong protests are hard to miss. After all, the movement has modeled itself on the international “Occupy” protests. But I can’t find anywhere the international connections between Hong Kong and Colorado that seem so central to this story.

In Hong Kong, after all, the protests emerged, in part, from a movement called “Scholarism.” One leader of this movement, seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong, has protested for years against the imposition of a “patriotic” history curriculum in Hong Kong. That curriculum has been ferociously controversial in Hong Kong, since it glorifies the “China Model” and erases distinctions between Hong Kong and mainland China.

And here’s what it looks like in Hong Kong (Joshua Wong in center)…

And here’s what it looks like in Hong Kong (Joshua Wong in center)…

The parallels are hard to miss. Conservatives in China and Colorado want to see history taught a certain way. Of course, the heroes are different, but the central ideas are the same: Any mention of anti-government protest is suspect. The exceptional nature of the country is emphasized. Students should be taught that their country is the best on earth.

I can’t help but think that Colorado’s conservatives wouldn’t like the comparison. But it’s staring us in the face. Students in Colorado, just like students in Hong Kong, protest against any heavy-handed effort to swing history in conservative directions. What does it mean that teenagers from Colorado to China are protesting against “patriotic” changes to their history curriculum? Is there some thread linking conservative ideas about the proper teaching of the past?

And the big question remains: If this parallel is so noticeable, why don’t we see it in news coverage of these student protests?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

What should good history teaching look like?  As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, conservative critics have warned that the new Advanced Placement US History framework pushes a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”  Now, two big historical associations have defended the guidelines.  But those associations are downplaying a central reason why so many conservative critics object to the APUSH framework.

Anyone with ears to hear can’t miss the conservative concern about the tenor of the new APUSH framework.  From the Republican National Convention to the blogosphere to the stuffed-shirt crowd, conservative pundits have teed off on the new guidelines for the advanced history classes.

Time and again, conservative activists such as Larry Krieger have warned that the new guidelines leave out key documents such as the Mayflower Compact and teach children that America’s history is the story of white exploitation, greed, and genocide.

The National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have published letters in defense of the APUSH guidelines.  Mainly, these history groups insist that the new framework is not biased.  As the AHA puts it,

The AHA objects to mischaracterizations of the framework as anti-American, purposefully incomplete, radical, and/or partisan.

The 2012 framework reflects the increased focus among history educators in recent years on teaching students to think historically, rather than emphasizing the memorization of facts, names, and dates.  This emphasis on skills, on habits of mind, helps our students acquire the ability to understand and learn from key events, social changes, and documents, including those which provide the foundations of this nation and its subsequent evolution.  The authors of the framework took seriously the obligation of our schools to create actively thinking and engaged citizens, which included understanding the importance of context, evidence, and chronology to an appreciation of the past.

But there is a minor theme in these defenses.  In the snippet above, the AHA signatories mention that good history education goes beyond the “memorization of facts.”  Similarly, the NCHE insists, “The point of education is not simply to acquire a specific body of information.”

But for many conservative activists and their supporters, the definition of education is precisely the acquisition of knowledge.  And that definition has proven enormously politically powerful over the years.  Please don’t get me wrong—I’m an ardent supporter and sometime member of both the NCHE and the AHA.  But these letters downplay the culture-wars significance of what Paolo Freire called the “banking” model of education.

Not that conservative critics aren’t concerned with the partisan tone of the new guidelines.  That is certainly a key motivating factor for many, I’m sure.  But behind and beyond those worries lies a deeper conservative concern with the definition of education itself.  Not all, certainly, but many conservatives want education in general to remain the transmission of a set of knowledge from teacher to student.

This notion of proper education is so deep and so profound that it often goes unarticulated.  Conservatives—and many allies who wouldn’t call themselves conservative—simply assume that education consists of acquiring knowledge, of memorizing facts.  And this assumption lurks behind many of the big education reforms of our century.  The test-heavy aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act and the new Common Core standards rely on a notion of good education as the transmission of information.  If a student has really learned something, the thinking goes, a test can find out.

For over a century, progressive educators have railed against this powerful assumption about the nature of education.  But for just as long, conservative activists have worked hard to keep this idea of education at the center of public schooling.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have been able to rally support for this “banking” vision of proper education in every generation.

In the 1930s, for instance, one leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution defined education precisely as a body of ideas that “shall be transmitted by us to our children.”

And in his popular 1949 book And Madly Teach, pundit Mortimer Smith insisted that true education consisted precisely of transmitting the children “the whole heritage of man’s progress through history.”

Similarly, in 1950, an angry letter-writer in the Pasadena Independent insisted on the transmission model as the only proper method of education.  As this writer put it,

Children have the right to learn by being taught all and more than their parents and grandparents learned—one step ahead instead of backward, through each generation.

Perhaps the most articulate advocate for this notion of traditional, transmissive education was California State Superintendent of Public Education Max Rafferty.  In his official jobs and his syndicated newspaper column, Rafferty insisted that the only worthwhile definition of education was the transmission of knowledge from adult to child.  Two fundamental principles of “common sense” in education, Rafferty argued in 1964, were the following:

  • Common sense told us that the schools are built and equipped and staffed largely to pass on from generation to generation the cultural heritage of the race.

  • Common sense took for granted that children could memorize certain meaningful and important things in early life and remember them better in later years than they could things that they had not memorized.

We could list a thousand more examples.  This tradition among conservative activists has remained so powerful that it often goes without saying.  And it lurks behind conservative agitation against each new generation of progressive educational reform.

So when groups such as the AHA and the NCHE defend the new APUSH guidelines, they should spend more time explaining and defending their notion that good education relies on more than just the memorization of facts.  For many parents and teachers, the transmission of those facts is precisely the definition of good education.

Core Wars

What do conservative activists hate about the Common Core State Standards?

A recent essay by conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz in National Review points out some conservative objections.

As we’ve noted recently, conservatives share with progressives a fervent opposition to the CCSS, though usually for different reasons.  Everyone from Phyllis Schlafly to the Heritage Foundation has warned of looming implications for culture, politics, religion, and education.  For those of us trying to understand conservative attitudes toward American education, these diatribes against the CCSS are a good place to start.

Kurtz was responding to an article in the Washington Post about Tea Party objections to the new shared standards.  Obama officials, Kurtz complained, responded with deceptive statements and obfuscation.  In the end, Kurtz argued,

. . . the Tea Party is right when it accuses the Obama administration of nationalizing education standards through the back door. The Founders opposed that for a reason. Once de facto nationalization is achieved, parents will lose their ability to influence their children’s education. Leverage that can be easily exercised at local school-board meetings or through representatives in state legislators will be lost to unaccountable federal bureaucrats (like Lois Lerner), and worse, to the even less accountable private education consortia that are developing the Common Core. So if educators try to impose politicized curricula or “fuzzy” math, parents will have no recourse.

Kurtz’s “local control” argument echoes a long tradition among conservative education thinkers.  Most powerfully, California State Superintendent of Schools Max Rafferty pushed hard during the 1960s to combat increasing federal control.  Rafferty’s colorful prose often made the case more lyrically than I’ve seen it since.

In one speech from the archives,[1] Rafferty articulated a conservative position for local control that I suspect might still be appealing to today’s Tea Partiers.  As he told the California Small School Districts Association Convention on March 8, 1965,

You live and work in an out-of-the-way corner of this county.  A small town where the sky is still blue, where the roar and tension of freeway traffic has not yet penetrated; where a little boy can still run and play in open fields.  You’re there because you want to be.  You moved there deliberately a few years before because you liked that feeling of grassroots independence.  That unique sense of having an equal share in the controlling of one’s own destiny which has been the legacy of every American ever since the first little villages began to dot the New England countryside more than three centuries ago.  You’ve been happy there.  Your children are growing up clear-eyed and self-reliant with that indescribable look of quiet confidence which comes from life spent in a region where hills and trees are very real, very close at hand.  Where a neighbor is a lot more than someone who just happens to live close to you.  Suddenly, something goes wrong at your local school house, as things sometimes do.  Maybe it’s a new course of study which just doesn’t quite fill the bill.  Maybe it’s a neurotic old school administrator, we do run across one now and then!

No matter, you tell yourself, nothing can possibly happen in your community which can’t be solved by you and your neighbors, working and acting together in the traditional American spirit of mutual tolerance and good will.  But this time you’re wrong.  Shockingly, unbelievably wrong!  You and your friends try to arrange an appointment with your district superintendent to tell him of your problems and make your suggestions.  But you don’t have a district  superintendent anymore, in fact you don’t even have a district!  You try to contact your local school board, but it’s gone too!  A hundred miles away, a group of county or state officials meet once a month to decide the destiny of your children.  You don’t know any of them personally, in fact you never even heard most of their names!

But in our nightmare today, they tell you what your children will be studying.  They hire the teachers who will be molding the thinking and the behavior of your children throughout the years that lie ahead.  They decide whether or not the school bus is going to stop near your home or indeed if there is going to be a school bus at all.  Whatever they decide, you’re stuck with.

Rafferty worried about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the direct progenitor of No Child Left Behind.  As several of the commentators on Stanley Kurtz’s essay pointed out, the centralization of public schooling can be traced back through several generations of federal leaders, including President George W. Bush.

From the Hargis Collection.

From the Hargis Collection.

But that doesn’t mean that today’s version, the Common Core State Standards, will be greeted with anything but alarm among some sectors of conservative thought.



[1] This speech survives as a typescript in the Billy James Hargis Papers, University of Arkansas Mullins Library Special Collections, MC 1412, Box 48, Folder 2, Public Schools, 1950-1978 (1 of 2).  This collection of papers represents, IMHO, the best single-stop shop for any scholar hoping to understand the career of twentieth-century educational conservatism.  The Reverend Hargis was a leader in the Christian conservative movement in the second half of the twentieth century, and he was an avid collector of newsletters, correspondence collections, and other ephemera that shed a unique light on conservative thinking about education during the period.