I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Time to give thanks for another batch of hot-mess headlines. This week saw some doozies:

The Roy Moore mess in Alabama; Or, Does anyone really support sexual predators?

Larry Cuban asks what happened to MOOCs.

Bart reading bibleCalifornia approves new guidelines for teaching LGBTQ history in elementary schools.

Williams College president: What if we thought of white-supremacist campus speakers differently?

  • “If the World Wrestling Federation demanded to hold a cage match on the Berkeley campus, would the university be obligated to host it at public expense?”

Is this the end of college? SIU moves to abolish academic departments, from IHE.

Why did white evangelicals vote for a moral monster? Eric C. Miller interviews Stephen Mansfield about his new book, Choosing Donald Trump.

Genocide and Gravy: What should we think about Thanksgiving?


Communism and Creationism, Genocide and Gravy: Thanksgiving’s Greatest Hits

Ah…Thanksgiving. The holiday that brings us together to yell at each other and watch football. How can one Thursday fire up so much culture-war angst? How can it help explain both Rush Limbaugh and creationism?


Carve out some time in the archives…

This year, as your humble editor prepares to head up to an undisclosed location in upstate New York to avoid any hint of culture-war histrionics, we stumbled across the ILYBYGTH Thanksgiving archives. Check out some of the ghosts of ILYBYGTH Thanksgivings past:

First, how does Thanksgiving help us understand the way schools really work? For everything from sex ed to evolution, Thanksgiving dinners can serve as metaphors for the real reasons why it is so hard to get schools to dive into controversial issues.

Second, were the Pilgrims really communists? And why do conservative pundits say they were? It seems to me conservatives would want to defend the tradition of friendly buckle-wearing Pilgrims.

Finally, some bad Thanksgiving advice on how to outsmart your crazy right-wing (or left-wing) uncles.

School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.


PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

Happy Thanksgiving: Our Culture-War Holiday

Ah, Thanksgiving…when families gather to eat birds, watch football, and shout at each other. The Thanksgiving tradition of fighting over issues such as gay rights, abortion, taxes, and school prayer has been hallowed by generations of angry get-togethers. After all, when you put a bunch of people around a table, related only by genetics, and feed them too much tryptophan and wine, culture-war fireworks are bound to happen. Today we’ll share some of the punditry about Thanksgiving culture-war battles we’ve gathered from minutes of browsing the interwebs.

I Disagree with You, but I Respect your Commitment to your Position!

I Disagree with You, but I Respect your Commitment to your Position!

1.) Progressives Use Thanksgiving to Convert Conservatives:

At National Review Online, Katherine Timpf cocks a snook at “ridiculous” progressive suggestions for fixing conservative family members. Progressives, Timpf warns, are out to get conservatives this year. Some progressives threaten to turn the Macy’s parade into a feminist diatribe. Others will blather on about the fact that many Americans don’t celebrate Christmas. Some might seize upon the progressive missionary opportunities of the occasion, buttonholing conservative relatives on the issue of climate change, then following up with an email from the Union of Concerned Scientists. If conservative evangelical or “Tea-Party” relatives try to belittle gay marriage or Obamacare, some progressives advise their minions to take conservatives down with prepared statements from the government or the book of Leviticus. And, of course, just to make sure everyone suffers from indigestion, there is at least one progressive pundit out there advising folks to use Thanksgiving to laud the Common Core.

2.) How to Win a Thanksgiving Argument with Conservative Relatives:

At Policy.mic, Gregory Krieg offers a progressive how-to guide for culture-war arguments. Your conservative “bloviating cousin,” Krieg warns, will certainly bring up some culture-war issues. Krieg offers ways to put conservatives in their places on issues such as the Ferguson riots, Obamacare, Obama’s immigration plans, Bill Cosby’s alleged serial rapes, legalizing marijuana, and more. In each case, we’re told, there are factual, reasonable rebuttals to the sorts of “unreasonable, knee-jerk opinions” conservative relatives will be spouting.

3.) How to Publicly Shame your Conservative Uncle:

From an Iowan progressive, we see a few tips on ways to beat your conservative uncle in holiday arguments. It’s important, progressive Iowan Trish Nelson warns, not to “appear too thoughtful—conservatives may confuse this for weakness.” After pounding your conservative relative with piles of facts to explode his ill-considered myths, Nelson promises,

your conservative Uncle will be roasting in his own myths and half truths, so forgive him if he’s a bit thrown off. Take your time and be patient, let him fully cook, and patiently explain the error of his ways.

4.) Again with the “Crazy Right-Wing” Uncle!

I don’t know why uncles are the repository for conservatism this year, but from the LA Times Joel Silberman offers progressive advice on handling a conservative uncle. Don’t fall for the temptation to be polite, Silberman suggests. It is a “patriotic” act to pick fights with your conservative relatives at Thanksgiving. Why? Because these days we don’t often get a chance to engage with people from the ‘other side’ of culture war issues. [Editor’s Note: Unless, of course, we read and comment in the pages of ILYBYGTH!] To be fair, Silberman is not advising the sort of knock-down, drag-out, drumstick-wielding family kerfuffle that I remember so fondly from my childhood. Instead, he suggests that everyone guide their discussion with “respect and know when to stop, and remember that relationships are more important than righteousness.”

Good advice, and a good place to stop. But just like every Thanksgiving fighter ever, I can’t resist getting in one last word. Instead of preparing arguments to win Thanksgiving showdowns, what if we progressives all spent time learning the best arguments our conservative relatives might make? Certainly nothing is less productive in culture-war battles than sitting back smugly and assuming our mastery of “facts” will soon bring our “myth”-laden opponents to their knees.

Rather, why not take an ILYBYGTH approach? Why not do some homework to learn why intelligent, informed conservatives might hold the positions they hold? Why not assume that people of good will might disagree sincerely on abortion, Obamacare, homosexual rights, evolution, and even the Common Core?

After all, the way to quiet a jerkface loudmouth uncle is not to publicly shame him. Rather, it might be more productive if we all studied the best arguments our culture-war opponents might make. Instead of asking: How can I trounce that argument? What if we asked: Why might someone believe that? Or, most important, what if we asked: How can we enjoy all of our blessings without screaming at each other?

Thanksgiving Reflection: The Pilgrims Were Communists!

Here’s a Thanksgiving riddle: Why do conservative intellectuals and pundits insist that America was founded by communists?

Over the past several years, this idea has become a common theme among conservative commentators.

Rush Limbaugh, for example, has explained that the real story of the Pilgrims might surprise many people duped by mainstream histories.  After all, Limbaugh concluded, “They were collectivists!”

Capitalist from (almost) the Start

Capitalist from (almost) the Start

Similarly, the Heritage Foundation explains that the Pilgrims practiced what early governor William Bradford called “communism.”

Libertarian John Stossel reminded readers recently of the Pilgrims’ communist beginnings:

The Pilgrims started out with communal property rules. When they first settled at Plymouth, they were told: “Share everything, share the work, and we’ll share the harvest.”

The colony’s contract said their new settlement was to be a “common.” Everyone was to receive necessities out of the common stock. There was to be little individual property.

That wasn’t the only thing about the Plymouth Colony that sounds like it was from Karl Marx: Its labor was to be organized according to the different capabilities of the settlers. People would produce according to their abilities and consume according to their needs.

It would seem that conservatives would hate this conclusion.  After all, the notion of the greatness of the American founders has long been a centerpiece of conservative thought.

So why do conservatives insist that the original settlers were communist?

For most conservatives, the communist experiment of early settlers is used to prove the superiority of private property and market principles.  In most tellings, early communism proved disastrous.  As a corrective, leaders such as William Bradford in Massachusetts introduced radical market-oriented reforms.

The original founders may have been communists, the story goes, but they quickly learned the error of their ways.  Capitalism and private property triumphed.

Is it true?

Ironically, unlike the normal historical back-and-forth, in which conservative historians insist that America’s founding was glorious and other academic historians point out the many flaws in that tale, in this case mainstream historians have argued that the early settlers were not really as communist as conservatives say they were.

Speaking to the New York Times a few years back, for example, Richard Pickering of the living-history museum Plimouth Plantation explained that the early Pilgrims did originally hold property in common, but the end goal was private profit.

In Jamestown, the charge of collectivism is even more tenuous, according to some historians.  Karen Kupperman of New York University concluded, “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate.”  Kupperman explained that the entire settlement was part of a joint-stock company, one from which each settler hoped to reap a private, and hopefully enormous, profit.  Kupperman asked, “Is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

So here’s one for your Thanksgiving diary: When it comes to the historical memory of America’s early founders, we see a perplexing reversal.  Conservative pundits insist that America was founded by communists, and mainstream historians rebut that the free-market has always been America’s true guiding star.

Still left unclear: Did the Pilgrims play football?