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).


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?


Creationist Credentials and the Toilet-Paper Doctorate

What does it take for a creationist to earn a PhD?  As arch-anti-creationist Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, not a whole lot.  Coyne looked at the embarrassingly weak doctoral work of young-earth creationist Kent Hovind.  This sham dissertation leads us to ask again about the paradoxical relationship between creationism and credentials.

patriot bible university

Hovind’s Alma Mater

It does not take a creationist-hater like Professor Coyne to find big problems with Hovind’s doctoral work.  Hovind cranked out a hundred awkward pages of claptrap about creationism under the auspices of Patriot Bible University of Del Norte, Colorado.

Intelligent creationists might cringe at this sort of hucksterism, with good reason.  It allows even the most accomplished creationists, such as Harvard-educated Kurt Wise, to be lumped together with this sort of snake-oil academic flim-flam.

Throughout the history of the creation/evolution debates, creationists have struggled to prove their intellectual bona fides.  It hasn’t been easy.  For the first generation of modern anti-evolutionists, it came as a surprise to find that their ideas no longer held sway at leading research universities and intellectual institutions.

As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education demonstrated recently, this 1920s revelation led anti-evolutionists to scramble for certifiable creationist experts.  The most famous anti-evolutionist of the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, groped awkwardly among scientists to find some who opposed “Darwinism.”

Bryan wasn’t alone.  As I note in my 1920s book, all the anti-evolution activists of the 1920s were obsessed with demonstrating that creationism[*] had expert support.  T.T. Martin, for example, who attracted attention with his eye-catching booth at the 1920s Scopes monkey trial, listed his expert supporters relentlessly.  In his book Hell and the High School, 67 out of 175 pages consisted of nothing more than lists of anti-evolution experts and their backgrounds.

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Another anti-evolution activist from the 1920s showed similar determination.  On a typical page of Alfred Fairhurst’s Atheism in Our Universities, Fairhurst included only 23 original words.  The remaining 107 consisted of quotes from “leading writers on evolution.”

Writing in 1922, Arthur Brown used the same tactic.  He piled up impressive-sounding lists of experts and scientists who disputed evolution.  Why should readers accept evolution, Brown asked, when it had been discarded by the likes of

world-renowned men like Virchow of Berlin, Dawson of Montreal, Etheridge of the British Museum, Groette of Strassburg University, Paulson of Berlin, Clerk Maxwell, Dana, Naegeli, Holliker, Wagner, Snell, Tovel, Bunge the physiological chemist, Brown, Hofman, and Askernazy, botanists, Oswald Heer, the geologist, Carl Ernst von Baer, the eminent zoologist and anthropologist, Du Bois Reymond, Stuckenburg and Zockler, and a host of others. . . .  It seems to be a fact that NO opinion from whatever source, no matter how weighty or learned, is of any account with those who are consumed with the determination to reject the Bible at any cost, and shut God out of His universe.

As I traced in my 1920s book, following the work of historian Ron Numbers, this impressive-sounding list did not really make the point Brown hoped it would.  The names he listed came from earlier generations or from scientists who agreed with evolution’s broad outlines but disagreed on details.  But Brown, like Bryan, Martin, Fairhurst, and virtually all other creationist activists felt compelled to establish the academic credentials of anti-evolutionists.

Hovind’s case reminds us of this peculiar conundrum of credentials among creationists.  One does not have to be an evolutionary bulldog like Professor Coyne to find Hovind’s academic pretensions silly and reprehensible.  Hovind’s work certainly gives skeptics such as Professor Coyne an easy route of attack.

For those of us who don’t care to attack or defend creationism, though, Hovind’s doctoral ouvre offers different lessons.  Once a dissenting group has been turned away from mainstream institutions, credentials become both more precious and easier to attain.  At least since the 1920s, that is, anti-evolutionists have scrambled to find expert backing for their beliefs.  But once creationism had been kicked out of elite research universities, it became far easier for creationists to claim credit for academic work at bogus universities.  If universities themselves are suspect, in other words, the ridiculousness of diploma mills like the Patriot Bible University becomes less damning.

[*] The term “creationism” is an anachronism here.  Anti-evolutionists in the 1920s did not call their beliefs “creationism” yet.  But I’ll use it just to keep things readable.

Help! My Teacher’s a Girl Now!

Do young children need to be protected from transgender teachers?

Ryan T. Anderson thinks so.  And in his argument, he joins a long conservative tradition of insisting on special culture-war protections for children.

Anderson, a prominent voice in the anti-gay-marriage coalition, argued recently in the pages of the National Review that transgender teachers would force young people to wrestle prematurely with issues of sexuality and gender identity.

His argument came in the context of his opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that would make it illegal for some employers to discriminate against gay or transgender people.

In Anderson’s opinion, this is not the latest civil-rights bill.  Sexual identity and gender identity, Anderson argues, are self-identified and self-defined, unlike race.

Perhaps most compelling, Anderson thinks, this bill might force elementary schools to employ men who used to be women, or women who used to be men.  It would force children, Anderson says, to know too much too soon.

As he put it,

Issues of sex and gender identity are psychologically, morally, and politically fraught. But we all ought to agree that young children should be protected from having to sort through such questions before an age-appropriate introduction. ENDA, however, would prevent employers from protecting children from adult debates about sex and gender identity by barring employers from making certain decisions about transgendered employees.

Although ENDA includes some exemptions for religious education, it provides no protection for students in other schools who could be prematurely exposed to questions about sex and gender if, for example, a male teacher returned to school identifying as a woman.

Anderson’s argument about age-exemptions for culture-war issues echoes a traditional theme among educational conservatives.  On the issue of evolution, for example, many conservative intellectuals of the first generation of fundamentalists argued that evolution could fairly be taught, but only at the college level.

As I argued in my 1920s book, this seemingly moderate view was held by some of the most vituperative anti-evolutionists.

William Jennings Bryan, for example, the Bible-believing man-of-the-people who stood up for the Bible at the Scopes Trial, repeatedly insisted that evolution should be taught, but with proper regard for the intellectual maturity of students.  In colleges, it should be taught as an influential theory about the origins of life.  But in primary grades, students must not be taught that evolution was the simple and only truth.

Even the hot-headed polemicist T. T. Martin, author of the relentless Hell and the High Schools, didn’t insist that evolution must be utterly banned from all schools.  In a 1923 speech, Martin suggested a new set of “graded books, from primary to university.”  These books could introduce evolutionary ideas gradually, until at last for the most mature students the books would present “fairly and honestly both sides of the Evolution issue.”

Martin's Booth at the Scopes Trial, 1925

As Anderson’s recent argument about transgender teachers makes clear, the notion that young people in school must enjoy special protection from threatening ideas still has punch in today’s culture-war debates.  Conservatives have long insisted that children must be protected from premature exposure to issues of sex and origins.



Agnotology and Education

Late-night comics must miss the days of Cheney and Rumsfeld.  Dick Cheney shot people and literally had no heartbeat due to a special kind of pacemaker. Donald Rumsfeld offered rhetorical gems during press
conferences, none better than the following from 2002:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some
things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Along these lines, although with pithier prose, historian of science Robert Proctor  has suggested a promising line of study, about the things we don’t know and the ways we don’t know them.  He calls the field agnotology, or the study
of ignorance.  Others have suggested different terms, such as agnoiology.  (See Tim Lacy’s discussion of the history on the US Intellectual History blog for more.)

In a recent collection of essays co-edited with Londa Schiebinger, Proctor laid out a three-part structure of agnotology.  In Proctor’s view, it will be helpful to differentiate between types of ignorance:

ignorance as native state (or resource), ignorance as lost realm (or selective choice), and

ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy (or active construct).

Proctor and some of the other essay contributors are especially interested in the ways that ignorance can be a strategic ploy.  Proctor, for instance, describes the ways tobacco companies constructed plausible ignorance about the negative health impacts of smoking.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their contribution “Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War,” explore the conspiratorial history of the George Marshall Institute and its quest to create ignorance about the causes of global climate change.

It seems to me the study of ignorance has another productive application in our thinking about the cultural and intellectual role of institutional education.  Notions of education usually include the implicit claim to be combating ignorance.  But in fact, some kinds of ignorance have long been part and parcel of educational goals.  In general, this has taken the form of certain types of information from which young people must be shielded.  This has a long and storied legacy.  Anthony Comstock, for example, made his career on protecting youth, women, and other “vulnerable” classes of people from exposure to lewd information.

In American schools, a Calvinist hangover has implicitly shaped ideologies of mandatory ignorance, especially for the young.  Pre-1857 editions of McGuffey’s Third Reader included a short anonymous selection that typified this tradition.  In the short dialogue, “Knowledge is Power,” the first speaker asserts confidently, “Knowledge is an excellent thing.”

An old man replies, “It may be a blessing or a curse.  Knowledge is only an increase of power, and power may be a bad as well as a good thing.”  The old man goes on to give examples that overwhelm the initial reluctance of his optimistic interlocutor: A horse without a bridle can wreck a barn. A pond without dams can flood a field.  A ship well steered goes faster, but if steered wrong, “the more sail she carries, the further will she go out of her course.”

The younger man is convinced.  Without tight control, such things can cause damage.  “‘Well, then,’ continued the old man, ‘if you see these things so clearly, I hope you can see, too, that knowledge to be a good thing, must be rightly applied.  God’s grace in the heart will render the knowledge of the head a blessing; but without this, it may prove to us no better than a curse.”

This short bit captures the powerful drive toward ignorance that long ruled the Reformed tradition in the United States.  Knowledge, in this view, was not a simple good.  It must be carefully examined and weighed before being pursued.  By itself, knowledge could be the sinful knowledge first banned for Adam and Eve.  It could be the knowledge of pernicious doubt and skepticism.  To become wise, in this tradition, meant remaining ignorant of such fields.

This tradition of mandatory ignorance has been enormously influential on American thinking about education and youth.  Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the notion that ignorance must be actively promoted and defended among young people has proven culturally and politically powerful far beyond the circles of religious conservatives.  Knowledge about sex, violence, and—among certain circles—scientific topics such as evolution has been seen as an intellectual poison.  Building and defending walls of ignorance around such notions has been asserted as the primary aim of education.

For instance, in the 1920s, when the culture wars over the teaching of evolution first heated up, anti-evolutionists insisted that any chink in the armor of ignorance protecting young people would be worse than death.  In 1923, anti-evolution evangelist T.T. Martin demanded relentless defense of the ignorance of young people.  “Ramming poison down the throats of our children is nothing,” Martin accused, “compared with damning their souls with the teaching of Evolution.”

Other anti-evolutionists in the 1920s argued that this ignorance should only extend through children’s formative years.  By the time they reached college age, many thought, they could be safely allowed to know.  For instance, Alfred Fairhurst, a fundamentalist educator active in the 1920s controversies, had always argued that “in the colleges and universities [evolution] ought to be taught honestly and fully to the select few who have the ability to comprehend it in all its bearings.”

Similar arguments were made throughout the twentieth century about the importance of ignorance about sex for young people.  One of the most prolific fundamentalist writers about education and ignorance has been Tim LaHaye.  In his 1983 Battle for the Public School, LaHaye decried the fact that explicit knowledge about sex had been “jammed down the throats of our children.”  LaHaye described one passage of a sex-ed book:

thescene of intercourse portrays a naked father astride his equally naked wife,
intent on three areas of contact: lips, breasts/chest, penis/vagina.  The genital area offers an ‘inner’ diagram,
so that the child can perceive the mother’s vagina and uterus; the father has
inserted his penis into the vagina and is emitting sperm cells.

Such knowledge, LaHaye insisted, exemplified “this reckless policy of inflaming young minds with adult information.”  For LaHaye as for Protestant fundamentalists of the 1920s, this was not an undifferentiated insistence on ignorance, but rather a belief that certain types of ignorance must be maintained for young
people specifically.  As many conservative Protestants did not—and do not—object to the teaching of evolution
to older students, so LaHaye famously celebrated sex knowledge for some audiences.  In his 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, LaHaye promoted frank, explicit knowledge of sex for adult married couples.

This distinction between young unmarried people and married couples runs throughout current conservative Protestant thinking about sex education.  Ministries such as Joe Beam’s Family Dynamics promote knowledge about sex, but only within a traditional marriage.

For such Christian conservatives, knowledge as such is not dangerous, but the boundaries around knowledge must be vigorously defended.

The notion that young people must be protected from certain types of knowledge has powerful influence beyond the ranks of Protestant fundamentalists.  Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v.
Entertainment Merchants Association
(2010) that the state of California could not ban violent video games for those under eighteen years of age.  The Court agreed that such a ban violated the game-makers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Justice Clarence Thomas made a curious rejoinder.  In his dissenting opinion, he argued that California could ban violent video games because the founding generation believed in and rigidly enforced parents’ ability to severely curtail the outer bounds of knowledge accessible to their children.

Thomas argued that the founding generation demanded strong control over what young people could know.
He stated, “Adults [in the founding era] carefully controlled what they published for children.  Stories written for children were dedicated to moral instruction and were relatively austere, lacking details that might titillate children’s minds.”

Like LaHaye and the 1920s anti-evolutionists, Thomas insisted on the educational tradition of promoting, defending, and enforcing ignorance.  Certain topics, especially concerning sex, violence, and religiously charged notions such as evolution, must not be broached with young people.  There is an inherent danger, according to this line of thinking, in the merest exposure of young people to such forms of knowledge.  In this view, schools join parents as gatekeepers of such forbidden forms of knowledge.  The role of the school, parent, and society, is to become active purveyors of constructed ignorance for young people.