I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

While we were getting ready for Memorial Day, the world kept on turning. Here is some of what we might have missed this past week:

Polite protesters pique Pence. Notre Dame students walk out on VP Mike Pence’s commencement address.  HT: MM

reading cat

Words, words, meow…

If you want to keep your job at Yale, don’t make fun of your “white trash” neighbors.

What happened at Duke Divinity School? A professor retires angrily after a blow-up over mandatory diversity training.

Kicking white supremacists out of your gym. A Georgetown professor takes on the alt-right.

The state school board in Texas gets more power to reject textbook content.

From CNN: ten tweets that define the weird Trump/Pope Francis relationship.

What school cuts will the Trump budget make? Politico dishes on the slices. There are a few surprises.

How non-Christian does a charter school have to get? Allie Gross explores the conversion of Michigan’s Cornerstone schools to officially secular charters.

Thanks to all who sent in stories and tips.

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Registration Is Open!

You are invited.

In a few weeks, Binghamton University’s Graduate School of Education will be hosting a terrific event.  Documentarian Trey Kay will be sharing his new radio documentary, “The Long Game: Texas’ Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom.”  You probably remember Trey from his award-winning documentary about the textbook battle in West Virginia, 1974-1975.  In his new work, Trey explores the themes so close to the hearts of ILYBYGTH.  Should schools teach creationism?  Should they teach sex?  If so, how?  And what sorts of history should public-school students learn?  Should students be taught that America is awesome?  Or that the United States has some skeletons in its closet?  There has been no place more interesting than Texas to see these politics in action.

long game

After the listening session, Trey will offer a few comments.  He’ll be joined by the world-famous historian Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU.  ILYBYGTH readers will likely know about Zimmerman’s books, including especially his seminal work Whose America.  In addition, BU faculty member Matt McConn will say a few words.  McConn is new to New York, fresh from a long career as a teacher and school administrator in Houston.

There will even be cookies.

So please come on down if you’re in the Upstate area.  It will take place on Thursday, February 27, at 6 PM, in room G-008 in Academic Building A, on the beautiful main campus of Binghamton University.

We’d love to have you.  The event is free and open to all, but registration is required.  To register, please go to the BU registration site.

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.

Save the Date!

Keep your evening free on Thursday, February 27th.  Here on the beautiful campus of Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York, we’ll be hosting a listening session and panel discussion about Trey Kay’s new radio documentary, “The Long Game: Texas’ Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom.”

Readers may remember Trey Kay’s earlier award-winning radio documentary, “The Great Textbook War.”  In that piece, Trey explored the 1974-1975 battle over schooling and textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  In that fight–a fight that is also the subject of a chapter in my upcoming book–conservatives worried that a new textbook series presented students with perverted values and distorted grammar.

In his new documentary, Trey looks at ongoing ideological battles in Texas.  As filmmakers such as Scott Thurman and activists such as Zack Kopplin have demonstrated recently, there has been no better field for exploring cultural conflicts in education than the great state of Texas.

The details of our upcoming February 27 event are not yet finalized, but the general plan is clear.  We’ll be listening to “The Long Game,” then Trey and NYU’s electrifying historian Jon Zimmerman will offer a few comments, followed by a general discussion and Q & A.  I’ll post more details as they come available.

Creationism in Texas: A Foreshortened History

Read it.  It’s good.  But be warned: this story has a fatal flaw.

Brentley Hargrove’s history of the Texas textbook wrangles is a helpful introduction to the recent round of textbook fights in the Lone Star State.

In the pages of the Dallas Observer, Hargrove introduces readers to the recent history of creationist influence in the selection of Texas science textbooks.  He offers the backstory of review-board members such as intelligent-design proponent Raymond Bohlin.

Hargrove takes the story of the Texas Textbook Two-Step back to the 1970s, when self-appointed watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler wielded outsize influence on the adoption of books.

He describes the rise to educational power of creationist dentist Don McLeroy and the board membership of theologue Cynthia Dunbar.

This story is a must-read for everyone interested in today’s culture wars over education, not just in Texas but around the nation.  It joins films such as The Revisionaries and documentaries such as the Long Game in pointing out both the peculiarities of educational politics in Texas and the broader meanings Texas school politics has for all of us.

But as a historian of these school battles, I must protest against the foreshortened history Hargrove describes.  He gives a nod to the long history of cultural battles over education.  He mentions the nineteenth-century Bible wars that rocked America’s cities.  But then he skips from 1844 to 1961.  He leaves out the formative period of today’s educational culture wars.

As he puts it, since the nineteenth century,

the fear of secularism and modernity remains as potent as ever. Yet it wasn’t until the Gablers came along that this fear took shape in Texas and assumed power.

Now, that’s just not true.  I understand Hargrove is interested in the way these battles have developed over the past fifty years.  But the way they did so was decisively influenced by earlier generations of Texas activists.

To be fair, Hargrove’s historical myopia is widely shared.  In his Observer article, he quotes prominent sociologist William Martin.  “The Gablers,” Martin told Hargrove, “were the first people to have taken this on in such as systematic way.”

Even if we make allowances for the contemporary interests of journalists and sociologists, this sort of misrepresentation of the history of Texas’ school battles can’t be given a pass.

The tradition of conservative activism in which the Gablers, McLeroy, Bohlin, and Dunbar take part has direct roots in the 1920s battles in Texas and elsewhere.

As I argue in my 1920s book, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Texas history will recognize the historical importance of J. Frank Norris, for example.  In the 1920s, Norris established the activist precedent that later conservatives followed.  Norris fulminated against the directions of 1920s public schools in ways that McLeroy, Dunbar, and the Gablers would have appreciated.

And he had even more political pull.  In the 1920s, though a state-wide law banning the teaching of evolution failed in the Texas legislature, the governor ordered textbook publishers to remove any mention of evolutionary science from the state’s textbooks.

All well and good, you might say.  But does that pre-history have anything to do with today’s textbook fights?  If we want to understand the current moment, do we really have to go so far back?  Isn’t it enough to look to the Gablers and start there?

The school fights of the 1920s are of interest to more than just nitpicky academic historians like me.  Even if we want to start with the Gablers, we need to understand the formative school battles of the 1920s.  Mel Gabler was ten years old in 1925.  The content and structure of the schools he attended was decided by the activism of pundits such as J. Frank Norris and the pusillanimity of politicians such as the Governors Ferguson.

It was in the 1920s that America first battled over schooling in the terms that have remained so familiar ever since.  The issues and positions laid down in the 1920s have become the durable trench lines in American education.

As Gabler biographer James Hefley described, by the 1960s the Gablers had become

the cream of self-reliant Middle America.  They lived by the old landmarks, took child-rearing seriously, supported community institutions, sang ‘God Bless America’ with a lump in their throats, and believed that the American system of limited and divided governmental power was the best under the sun.

How did they get to be that way?  How did they become so confident that their vision of proper schooling and society must be fought for?  The Texas the Gablers loved had been defined by the activism of the 1920s and succeeding generations.  The vision of proper education that fueled the self-confident activism of the Gablers had been established as such in the controversies of the 1920s.

If we really want to understand what’s going on today, we need at the very least to acknowledge the longer history of these issues.  We need to understand that today’s fights grew out of earlier generations, and those earlier generations did not just spring up full-grown from the Texas soil.

 

Texas Charter School Promotes Religion

Doesn’t seem like news that publicly funded schools in Texas promote religion.  But this story from the New York Times has a twist you might not have expected.

Anyone who pays attention to this stuff might expect Texas public schools to be woefully (or wonderfully, depending on your POV) entangled with religion.  Whether it is preaching in the form of Bible classes, cheerleaders with Bible verse banners, creationism in the science textbooks, or just a general Long-Game style fight for more Jesus and less Devil, Texas schools have long seemed friendly to Jesus.  Texas’ conservative “Revisionaries” have worked long and hard to make public schools friendly for faith.

A recent story in the New York Times features a different sort of religious entanglement.  In this case, it is not a question of teachers leading Protestant prayers, or students protesting against learning evolution.

In this case, a charter school has been accused of using public money to promote the Jewish religion.

The San Antonio school, Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy, teaches in Hebrew and has classes about Israeli culture.  Doesn’t seem to be a problem there.  Lots of publicly funded charter schools focus on a specific non-English language and culture.

But according to journalist Edgar Walters, the school has drawn attention as a potential church/state problem since the new charter school seems to be nothing more than a cynical reincarnation of an existing religious school.  Critics worry that religious schools are simply conducting a name change on paper in order to win public money.

School leaders insist they don’t teach religion.  But one board member admitted they have the same head of school and most of the same staff as they did when they were an explicitly religious school.  As a private Jewish day school, the Eleanor Kolitz Academy used no public money.  But now as a charter school in the same building with the same staff, they receive public funding.

Can religious schools reinvent themselves this way?  It does not seem paranoid to assume that things will go on largely as before at the Kolitz Academy.  It seems a little iffy for religious schools to simply make a name change to start raking in public moolah.

 

Creationist Textbook Fight: A Progressive Victory?!?

Déjà vu all over again.  That might be the sensation for those of us who have followed Texas’ political battles over textbook content.  Recent politicking has demonstrated the continuing influence of creationists in textbook decisions.

But debate-watchers may not realize that these Texas-textbook headlines represent a progressive victory.

Here’s why: Back in the 1920s, states such as Texas adopted state-wide textbook adoption policies precisely in order to make the process more transparent.  Recent work by liberal watchdogs in the Texas Freedom Network demonstrates the long-term progressive success of those 1920s efforts.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As I describe in my 1920s book, debates over the content of Texas textbooks began way back.  In the 1920s, Texas officials insisted that textbook publishers produce “Texas” editions, with large sections on evolution cut out.  More than that, Texas officials demanded textbooks that ratified a Protestant-dominated vision of American history and culture.  Ever since, as I discuss in my current book, conservative activists such as the Gablers have been able to wield outsized influence on the textbook adoption process in Texas.

Yet this long history of conservative influence in Texas textbooks is not merely the story of conservative domination of Lone Star public education.

As Adam Shapiro argues in his excellent new book Trying Biology, progressives in the 1920s fought hard to ensure that these textbook decisions were made openly and publicly.  Previous textbook purchases had been made at the local level.  Sweetheart deals between publishers and school-district officials often left students with low-quality, high-priced textbooks.

Progressive reformers wanted more open discussion of textbook purchasing decisions.  In several states, including Texas, they passed state-wide adoption laws.  In Texas a state board selects a list of approved textbooks, from which districts can choose.  Those deliberations are public events, with legal requirements to share documents and content.

In a sense, therefore, recent headlines about creationist influence on textbook purchases represent a long-term victory for those early progressive reformers.  Liberal activists in the Texas Freedom Network have been able to monitor these deliberations.  The Texas board of education is legally required to provide public access to many of their discussions and debates.  As a result, concerned liberals and science-education types have been able to mount effective and informed protests over creationist influence.

Do progressives have a long history of winning culture-war battles in Texas?  Not really.  Conservative influence in Texas public education remains dominant, as Scott Thurman documented in his film The Revisionaries.  Indeed, the Texas Freedom Network has lamented the delays and obfuscations of conservative officials as the TFN has demanded access to public records.  Nevertheless, the TFN’s strong legal case—their insistence on access to those records—represents the hard-fought victories of earlier generations of progressive activists.