A Field Test for Progressive Education

I’ve spent the past few years of my life trying to figure it out.  What has it meant to be “conservative” about American education? It’s not as obvious as it might look. Similarly, it can be extremely tricky to figure out what makes something educationally “progressive.” Peter Greene offers what might be a handy field test.

A test for the tests...?

A test for the tests…?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, my recent book argues that an identifiable tradition of “educational conservatism” emerged in the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, educational conservatives mixed free-market structures with Christian morality; they mixed traditional pedagogy with traditionalist social norms. Jesus and phonics, Friedman and fundamentalism. Time and again, conservative activists successfully asserted their right to be heard about textbooks, school rules, and classroom practices.

In recent months, I’ve been expanding my reading list to include more non-conservative arguments about education. One of my favorite progressive anti-testers has been Peter Greene at Curmudgucation.

Greene repeated his argument recently that there is an easy way to find out if any evaluation is authentic. Or, more precisely, he offers a quick way to decide if one is inauthentic:

The hallmark of inauthentic assessment is that it’s easy to cheat, because you don’t have to be good at what you’re allegedly being judged for– you just have to be good at the assessment task which, because it’s inauthentic, consists of faking proxies for the real deal anyway. What it really measures is the proxy-faking skills.

If we want a handy-dandy field guide to progressive education—a notoriously slippery concept to define—perhaps Greene’s warning might help.

We might call classroom practices “progressive” if they fundamentally make it impossible for students to cheat. Not by eagle-eyed watchfulness or elaborate security precautions, but because of the nature of the tasks themselves.

In a traditional classroom, for instance, information is transferred from teacher and textbook to student. The student is expected to incorporate this knowledge. At some point, a “test” will be administered, in which said student repeats back the knowledge. He is measured by how much and how well he repeats back the knowledge.

In a progressive classroom, in contrast, students will not have tests of that sort. Rather, they will be expected to make something, perform something, achieve something. Since the parameters are not set up in advance, it is impossible for a student to cheat.

For instance, if assessment is based on a student’s performance in a research-informed discussion, she is free to bring in as many notes as she wishes. If she is able to use that information in a coherent and convincing way, she will have done well on the project.

In a traditional classroom, methods of cheating are as traditional as the lectures themselves. Students cheat by writing facts on their arms, by copying answers from another student, or by any of an enormous corpus of tried-and-true methods.

Pssst...I find these methods of assessment inauthentic....

Pssst…I find these methods of assessment inauthentic….

Indeed, we might conclude that the overwhelming political support for traditionalist policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top results from the fact that progressive education has sunk such shallow roots in the United States. Even the most ardent fans of progressive education admit that it is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.”

By and large, progressive education—as classroom practice, not as political decision—has crashed on the reefs of testing. By and large, American parents and voters cling to the notion that “real” education means acquisition of knowledge. We cling to the idea that “real” education can be evaluated by “real” tests.

Is it true? I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH include self-styled progressives as well as self-styled conservatives. Do the “progressives” out there yearn for evaluations that simply can’t be cheated? And do conservatives agree that the heart and soul of real education can be measured with a good test?

Sex In, Kids Out

Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Elementary School started its year half empty. Why? Parents were concerned that students would gain knowledge, so they pulled their kids out in protest.

Will Toronto parents trust the public school?

Will Toronto parents trust the public school?

It sounds weird when we say it that way, but it is true. In this case, parents worried that a new sex-ed curriculum imposed by the provincial government would expose kids to too much information, too early. In some ways, the story is a repeat of a familiar culture-war pattern. In others, it shows how things are changing.

First, the facts: Last spring, the Ontario government released its new health curriculum. Outraged parents organized to protest against the content. As one protesting parent put it last spring,

I want my kids to come home from school and play with toys, not their body parts. . . . Why are we introducing these concepts to kids who aren’t even old enough to tie their shoelaces?

As schools opened this fall, parents continued their protest, nearly emptying one elementary school and holding protest school meetings in a park across the street. An unknown protester spray-painted “Shame On You” on the school building.

In some ways, this protest is playing out the familiar culture-war script we saw throughout the twentieth century. As I argued in my last book, time and again conservative parents insisted on their right to decide what their kids should be taught about sex.

We also see a familiar fight over the terms of the debate. What is actually in the curriculum? Protesters in Toronto have distributed fliers warning that kids are encouraged to have sex, encouraged to masturbate and to exhibit their full anatomy to friends and strangers. Not so, reply the writers of the curriculum. In earlier protests, such as the school boycott in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974-75, protesters distributed similar fliers making similarly inflated claims about the content of controversial textbooks.

Another familiar sight is the undercurrent of traditional pedagogy. Yes, the protesting parents are teaching their children in a park, but they are also imposing a traditional style of teaching. One volunteer teacher, for instance, expressed surprise that the seven- and eight-year-olds in her group had never been taught basic sentence structuring. Not only did she teach her makeshift class without any reference to sex, but she also imposed a more traditional style of teaching grammar.

But Toronto’s school-sex boycott is also different in some ways. Instead of the whitebread “100% American” protests of the twentieth century, this protest largely emanates from the Muslim community. Parents are defending their right to have a say about the curriculum. They are also insisting that school lessons must not conflict with their religious values. In this case, though, those religious values are not the implicit Protestantism that we see so often here in the United States. Rather, in this neighborhood of Toronto, the traditional values being defended are those of Islam.

Keep em innocent...?

Keep em innocent…?

Perhaps most telling, this protest underlines one of the central truths of public schooling. Though it seems weird to say it, parents assume that schools must keep certain forms of knowledge away from their kids. In this case, parents do not say that the sex-ed curriculum is untrue. Rather, they only insist that it is too early for their kids to know such things, or that such knowledge conflicts with their religious values. As this widely circulated photo suggests, protesters want their kids to be kept “innocent” of some forms of knowledge.

What is school for? Not only to spread knowledge, but also to protect certain forms of ignorance.

When Did Tests Become Conservative?

Something happened.

The idea of administering standardized tests to check the success of schooling has had a strange ideological career. Tests have been seen as a progressive panacea as well as a conservative coup. These days, a welter of standardized tests are used to evaluate teachers as well as students. In the eyes of some, these tests have become a hallmark of conservative educational policy. How did that happen? …and what does it mean?standardized-testing-comic3

Last night, historian and pundit Diane Ravitch talked to a crowd of teachers in my hometown, scenic Vestal, New York. Those familiar with Ravitch’s recent book and blog will have a good sense of her argument: Today’s testing regime is a scam by false-faced school “reformers” bent on installing corporate control over public education.

Testing was not always seen this way. As historian William J. Reese demonstrated in his latest terrific book, the first round of fights over standardized tests occurred way back in the nineteenth century. Early test mavens hoped to protect students from idiosyncratic and tyrannical schoolmasters who evaluated students by whim.

In the twentieth century, early testers hoped to use tests to help individualize instruction for children. They did not hope to replace the human touch. Rather, they hoped a set of tests could serve to move education in profoundly progressive directions.

These days, leading progressive pundits such as Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider denounce the testing regime as an attempt to corporatize education. They point to the suspicious support of billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family. Why do these corporate titans push for more tests? In order to strip teachers’ unions of power; in order to remake schooling in the image of corporate America.

Of course, the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLROILYBYGTH) know that the real situation is more complicated than these sorts of conspiracy theories allow. There are plenty of conservative pundits, too, who hate and fear the tests that accompany the Common Core standards. To these conservatives, a national testing regime gives progressives the opportunity to inject sneaky leftist ideas into classrooms across the country.

Plus, there are plenty of progressives who support more rigorous standardized testing as a way to ensure that lower-income students get their share of educational attention. Ravitch herself, in an earlier ideological incarnation, helped create today’s testing policy.  And Education Secretary Arne Duncan is no William J. Bennett. Duncan’s enthusiastic support of high-stakes tests does not come from the same sorts of cultural conservatism that animated President Reagan’s second Education secretary.

But there is something to Ravitch’s charges. There are plenty of conservatives who see testing as a way to find out what is really going on in public schools. Ravitch drew vigorous applause last night when she said she did not want to quantify kindergarteners’ college-and-career readiness. It was more important, Ravitch insisted, to be sure that children were happy, healthy, and improving every day.

And this, I think, is at the heart of today’s divide over standardized testing. Such tests have become “conservative,” I’m guessing, to the extent that they satisfy Americans’ traditional ideas about education. As I argue in my new book, across the twentieth century battles over education had a similar backstory: progressives wanted education to be mainly about the improvement of children; conservatives and traditionalists wanted education to be mainly about the delivery of information from teacher to student.

If the central goal of education is the transmission of information, then the success of that education can be measured by a simple paper-n-pencil test. This is an idea that resonates with lots of people. Not only self-identified “conservatives,” not only the scheming Walton family, not only Mayor Bloomberg, but lots of parents, teachers, and students buy into this fundamental notion of proper education.

To my mind, this situation is a good indicator of the tenuous hold of progressive education on the hearts and minds of Americans. Even self-identified progressive reformers such as Michelle Rhee embrace the notion that tests are a good measure of educational improvement.

The reason today’s test mania has been able to make such huge progress in public schooling is not due only to the funding of billionaires and the schemes of plutocrats, in spite of what smart people like Diane Ravitch may say. We Americans, with rare and beleaguered exceptions, never took to heart the central notions of progressive education. We tend to agree that real education means, in essence, the transfer of information from an authoritative adult teacher to a receptive child.

If that attitude is “conservative,” then it’s no wonder conservatism has come to dominate American public education.

OK: AP not OK

What does creationism have to do with the Continental Army? What does George Washington have to do with the Genesis Flood? This week the news from Oklahoma gives us an example of the ways conservative ideas influence every classroom, not just the science labs.

We will have more success understanding those ideas if we see them as part of a conservative notion of proper education. These are not just ideas about science, or the Book of Genesis, or George Washington at Valley Forge, but they combine all these things into a powerful educational impulse. As I argue more extensively in my new book, in order to make sense of any aspect of educational conservatism, we need to look at it as a whole, not just as a series of separate incidents.

First, let’s look at the goings-on in the Sooner State. Representative Dan Fisher has introduced a bill that will challenge the teaching of Advanced Placement US History in Oklahoma’s public schools. Why? As do many conservatives, Fisher believes that APUSH teaches a warped, slanted, leftist view of America’s past. The new APUSH framework, Fisher explains, emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

Fisher wants to blast progressive history out of Oklahoma's schools.

Fisher wants to blast progressive history out of Oklahoma’s schools.

Fisher is not alone. As we’ve explored in these pages, conservative activists have lashed out at the new APUSH framework. I’ve argued also that many conservatives see these AP standards as only the latest efflorescence of a vicious left-wing assault on real American history. These conservative notions about sneaky progressive subversion in history classrooms have a long history themselves, as I describe in the book. At least since the 1920s, conservative thinkers and activists have lambasted history curricula as hopelessly skewed. Children learn that the USA has been built on a legacy of greed and genocide. Children learn that traditional heroes such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have feet of clay, or worse.

Representative Fisher, for instance, is a member of the Black Robe Regiment, according to the Tulsa World. As do many religious conservatives, this group ties together a romantic history of the United States with conservative attitudes about Scripture and religion. In those connections we catch a glimpse of the ways conservative thinking about education can link creationism with US History.

I want to be careful about what I’m saying here. I’m not arguing that there is some sort of vast underground conservative conspiracy connecting creationism with Fisher’s anti-APUSH activism. Nor am I saying that Fisher’s brand of religious conservatism is somehow the most real sort of conservative attitude about education. There are plenty of conservatives who will have no truck with this kind of religious and traditionalist interpretation of America’s past. But I do believe that deeply held attitudes about proper education fuel both creationism and Fisher’s sort of historical revanchism.

What’s the connection? At its heart, I suggest that this sort of conservatism springs from a notion that real education must come from a delivery of correct information from authoritarian sources to learners. That is, many conservatives—perhaps a better word would be “traditionalists”—believe that education must be a transmission of truth from top to bottom. That truth, if we back it up to its source, must come from God as the ultimate authority.

Perhaps this definition of proper education as the delivery of truth to each new generation seems unobjectionable. It is not. For about a century, educational thinkers have suggested that this “transmission” method is not good education. These “progressive” reformers have tried to impose instead an idea that students must construct knowledge on their own, not merely accept it or download it from authoritarian sources.

In the specific case of the new APUSH framework at issue in Oklahoma, historians have insisted that historical learning does not simply mean transmitting facts to children. And smart conservatives acknowledge that real education includes much more than just telling young people things that are true. But at its core, we might separate “traditionalist” from “progressive” ideas about education along these lines: Traditionalists think of education primarily as moving information from authoritative source to learners. Progressives think of education primarily as having learners construct knowledge.

With this sort of general attitude about education and knowledge, it’s easy to see the connections between creationism and the Continental Army, between George Washington and the Genesis Flood. For some religious conservatives, including apparently Representative Fisher of Oklahoma, knowledge about any subject must rely on traditional truths. Those truths have been delivered to us from on high. Proper education, in this mindset, consists of passing those truths along, not subjecting them to smarmy and self-satisfied criticism.

What Conservatives Want in Schools

When I started the research for my new book, lo those many years ago, my first stop was College Park, Maryland. The National Archives hold the papers of William J. Bennett, Reagan’s second Secretary of Education. To my thinking back then, Bill Bennett personified the tradition of conservative activism in education. In a recent long interview with Bill Kristol on The Weekly Standard, Secretary Bennett shares his memories of his conservative leadership in education. Among other things, Bennett articulates a long twentieth-century tradition of conservative thinking about proper education.

In addition to some wacky stories of practical jokes by President Reagan, Secretary Bennett explains what motivated him about America’s schools.

When he first took the job, Bennett explains, he visited 120 schools. Over and over again, teachers and students told him they needed some way to teach basic truths about American virtue, about American culture. The question he heard again and again, he explains, was, “How do we teach these kids moral values? They’re so different. They come from diverse backgrounds.”

It’s simple, Bennett insists: “There are certain common values.” Not only that. Students should not be taught vaguely how to learn, but rather should be taught knowledge. As he put it, “You have to start by learning something. . . . Content is what really develops the mind, the brain.”

The most important thing he has done in his entire career, Bennett explains, is his publication of his best-selling Book of Virtues. After it came out in 1993, the BoV spent eighty-eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The big accomplishment of the book, Bennett says, is that it salvages traditional stories from our culture that are in danger of being lost. It insists that we all share common values, no matter our religious or cultural backgrounds.

As I argue in my new book, this notion about the first goal of American education has long been a central unifying theme of diverse conservative politicians and activists. Long before Bennett took over as Education Secretary, Max Rafferty had articulated similar sentiments from his post as State Superintendent of Public Education in California.

In addition to his bully pulpit in California, Rafferty authored a syndicated column that took his conservative ideas nationwide. Many of those ideas sound as if they could come directly from the mouth of Bennett himself. For instance, in one column from the 1960s, Rafferty argued,

Without the great hero-stories, we are left in the schools with statistics on immigration and economic development, dry-as-dust treaties and proclamations, accounts of population trends and antitrust legislation to give the children in the guise of history. They will grow up inevitably with the same amount of love and reverence for their native land which they would feel for a mathematical theorem or a chemical formula.

The best education, Rafferty wrote in another 1960s column, must include

the grand old stories that you and I remember so fondly from our childhood. Ben Franklin and his famous pun about hanging together or hanging separately. . . Sam Houston at San Jacinto, reminding enemy dictators for all time to come that Americans would forget attempts to enslave them only when Texans forget the Alamo—these and a hundred more great stories cluster about our history, bulwarking and supporting it, mingling it in a Red, White and Blue mist, clamorous with voices out of our past, dramatizing American history and American institutions so that wide-eyed children will always remember.

As Secretary Bennett remembers in this interview, his biggest success has been in putting a compilation of these traditional stories into the hands of millions of students, parents, and teachers. Like his boss President Reagan, Bennett argues that traditional stories teach virtue. Having students memorize these ancient nuggets of wisdom has done more to educate generations of Americans than all the progressive nostrums oozing out of high-falutin schools of education.

There is no simple definition of “educational conservatism.” But in this interview, Secretary Bennett articulates something that comes pretty close: the notion that proper education consists of transmitting traditional facts and values into each generation of schoolchildren.

Whose Values Rule the Schools?

What are the dominant values in American public schools? Progressive activists tend to think schools are dominated by conservatism. But conservatives say that progressives are in charge. New poll data suggest that conservatives are wrong. When it comes to general attitudes toward children and education, conservative values seem enormously powerful.

Progressives have always hoped that schooling would soon be transformed into a progressive paradise. But they have also always acknowledged widespread public resistance. As far back as 1925, scholars Otis Caldwell and Stuart Courtis—from the progressive bulwark of Teachers College, Columbia University—argued that the “new philosophy” of progressive education could transform schools into a “childish utopia.” Unfortunately, they wrote, most Americans weren’t interested. Instead, most people “blamed teachers and schoolmen generally for ‘new-fangled methods.’”

These days, leading progressives agree. Pundits such as Alfie Kohn insist that progressive ideas are the best. As Kohn once put it, progressive education is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.” In spite of the clear superiority of progressive methods, Kohn writes, most schools only use them in dribs and drabs. Conservative, traditional schoolrooms, Kohn notes glumly, tend to be the norm.

We might think that conservative activists would celebrate their domination of American public education. But in fact we see just the opposite. Historically, conservative activists have taken progressive dominance for granted. Many conservatives have assumed without question that the progressive nostrums of philosopher John Dewey had long ago triumphed.

Writing in the wake of a tumultuous school battle in 1950s Pasadena, California, for instance, conservative activist Mary Allen explained that “traditional education” had been abandoned in the 1930s. Why? Because at that time “some of Dewey’s followers prepared to use the schools to introduce a new social order.” To Allen as to generations of conservatives, conservative values had long since been kicked out of public education.

Today’s educational conservatives voice similar frustration. For example, Peter Collier has lamented the dominance in public education of the progressive tentacles of Columbia University’s Teachers College. A pernicious leftist stew of “critical pedagogy,” Collier noted, “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

How important is "curiosity" as an educational goal?

How important is “curiosity” as an educational goal?

New poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggest that conservatives have this one wrong. When it comes to basic attitudes about children and proper education, conservative ideas tend to dominate. Those who call themselves “consistently liberal” find themselves on the outside looking in.

Who's the outlier here?

Who’s the outlier here?

To be fair, the poll also suggests that Americans of all ideologies share broad agreement about the proper way to raise children. Huge majorities of the “consistently liberal,” the “mostly liberal,” the “mixed,” the “mostly conservative,” and the “consistently conservative” agree that children must be taught responsibility.

But in a couple of other categories, those who call themselves “consistently liberal” stand out. And those differences tell us something about the values that dominate our schools and society.

For example, the “consistently liberal” place a much higher value on teaching curiosity than do any other groups, by a huge margin. Nearly a quarter of the consistently liberal place this among the three most important factors for children, and over three quarters think it is important. In contrast, none of the other groups, including the “mostly liberal,” thought that teaching curiosity was nearly as important. Only nine percent of the “mostly liberal” called curiosity one of the most important values, and only fifty-eight percent considered it important. And though fifty-seven percent of the “consistently conservative” agreed that curiosity was important, only a paltry three percent of consistent conservatives placed it at the top of their lists.

In addition, large majorities of every group except the “consistently liberal” placed a high value on teaching obedience. Even among the “mostly liberal,” sixty percent found this important. At the high end, two-thirds of the “consistently conservative” thought obedience was an important idea for children, compared to just over one-third of the “consistently liberal.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to define “progressive” and “conservative” ideas about education. But in general, it’s fair to say that progressives tend to value curiosity above obedience, exploration above authoritarianism. Yet those values are only shared by a small sliver of the respondents in this survey.

The good news for conservatives? They are wrong about the values that guide American public education.   Progressive notions of child-centered learning, of students freed from the dictation of authoritarian teachers and exploring the creative curiosity of youth, have not sunk the deep roots that conservatives have often assumed.

Instead, when it comes to central ideas about obedience and curiosity, this poll suggests that conservative attitudes are the norm.

Only Conservatives Can Be Good Teachers

Quick: What’s the most important trait a child needs in order to do well in school? Brains? A cool retro lunchbox? At World Magazine this morning, Amy Henry offers what she calls the “conservative” answer.

All I need is the Hoff...

All I need is the Hoff…

She tells the story of her struggles as a classroom teacher. No matter how dedicated, no matter how creative, Henry argues, no teacher can make any headway if students offer determined resistance. As Henry tells the tale,

Four times I asked him to take out a piece of paper. Four times I asked him to find a pencil. Each and every time we reached a new vocabulary word, I stopped reading and told him to write it down. By the time the history lesson was over, I was exhausted and so was he, I suspect. Whether the directive is to get out a book, pick up a piece of trash, or sit in a particular seat, I am met with stiff resistance, if not outright refusal to cooperate.

No student, Henry insists, can be taught if he or she isn’t willing to obey. As she puts it,

without obedience none of that [good teaching] can happen. I can teach an ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic child with severe anxiety issues the world, but I cannot teach a high-functioning, intellectually bright, whippersnapper of a kid who won’t obey a doggone thing.

For conservatives, Henry says, the most important ingredient in education is obedience. This is not just her off-hand observation. As evidence, Henry cites new-ish poll data from Pew Research. Those who identify as “consistent conservatives” are more likely than “consistent liberals” to place a high value on children’s obedience. She interprets those numbers in a sketchy way, I think, but let’s save that argument for another post. For now, let’s talk about why so many conservatives agree with Henry.

For Henry, conservatives are the only ones who really get it.  Liberals fudge and whine, but they avoid the obvious conclusion: education in classrooms can only happen if kids come to school equipped with an obedient attitude. As we’ve talked about in these pages, this notion has proven extremely influential among certain conservative activists throughout the twentieth century.

For example, from the mid-1960s, Max Rafferty attracted a huge popular following with his traditionalist nostrums on good education. [For any up-and-coming historians out there, we really need a good academic history of Rafferty’s career and ideology. It’s a fabulous dissertation just waiting for you in Iowa City and Sacramento.] Rafferty served as the state superintendent of public education in California, but he attracted the most attention with his syndicated columns about the nature of childhood and proper education. In one such column from the early 1960s, Rafferty explained why children must begin by learning to obey. In Rafferty’s words,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1970s, too, leading conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler agreed on the primary importance on obedience. The Gablers are best known for their indefatigable textbook commentary. At every Texas textbook-adoption meeting in the 1970s, the Gablers were there with long detailed lists of ideologically suspect material from the books under consideration. Given the influence of the Texas textbook market among publishers, the Gablers managed to punch far above their weight in terms of national textbook selection.

But the Gablers cared about more than conservative histories and science books. They prided themselves on their attitude toward children and obedience. As an admiring biographer wrote,

The Gabler boys were expected to be respectful and they were. A black friend of the family was always marveling, ‘Your boys are the only ones who call me, “Mister.”’ And the parents’ response was always, ‘They’d better.’

For the Gablers, as for so many cultural conservatives, parents needed to ensure that kids came to school ready to learn. That didn’t mean just pencils and lunchboxes. That meant children must come to school ready to submit to teachers’ authority.

In the narrower world of conservative evangelicalism, too, Henry’s focus on obedience has long roots. Many conservative Christians have agreed with Henry that children must obey, for both classroom and churchly reasons.

For example, as fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee argued in a late-1970s guide to good Christian schooling,

Without Biblical discipline the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8). Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . . . If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.

Certainly, among many conservatives, Henry is absolutely correct. Only conservatives can be good teachers, because only conservatives embrace the primary need for obedience. Without obedience, all the fancy-pants progressive toys and tricks in the world will do no good. But with obedience, any child from any background can learn.

Traditional Education Is Not Illegal…or Is It?

Nobody thinks men should punch their wives and drag them through hotels. But plenty of traditional educators and parents DO think that corporal punishment is not only proper, but necessary.  The recent controversies in the National Football League seem to show that corporal punishment is now both illegal and morally abhorrent.  Does this mean that traditional education is done for?

In case you don’t follow sports news, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens has recently come under fire for brutally punching his then-fiancee and dragging her face-down through a hotel.  [Warning: This video is disturbing.]  The leadership of the National Football League, too, has been accused of initially downplaying this horrific incident.

Perhaps due to all this attention, another NFL star has been punished severely for physically abusing his son. In this case, Adrian Peterson has been accused of beating his four-year-old son with a switch.  His team immediately deactivated him and now a warrant has been issued for Peterson’s arrest.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not a supporter of corporal punishment in any form. I would not allow my daughter’s school to use physical punishment on her and I do not think schools should use such punishment on any kids.

But I understand that lots of people do support corporal punishment. It has long been a fundamental tenet of traditional education that children must be disciplined, physically if necessary.  In the arguments of traditionalists, this is in the children’s best interest.

For example, arch-conservative school leader Max Rafferty argued in 1964 that American education relied on sensible corporal punishment.  As Rafferty put it,

Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been.  Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

In Peterson’s case, the grand jury did not disagree that corporal punishment was legal. Rather, according to the New York Times, the grand jury concluded that Peterson’s punishment was “not reasonable and did not reflect community standards of what was reasonable discipline.” It seems Peterson hit his son severely enough to leave cuts and bruises.

Again, I fully support the criminalization and condemnation of this kind of severe beating of a young child. But sometimes publicity can have a strange effect.  In this case, Peterson was accused of beating his son TOO SEVERELY, not of beating his son in general.  The grand jury specified that Peterson’s application of corporal punishment violated community norms, not that Peterson’s use of corporal punishment was itself illegal.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the take-away for many Americans will be that all forms of corporal punishment have been rendered illegal. So here’s my question: Will traditionalist parents and teachers now assume that corporal punishment in toto is illegal?  Immoral?

Children Must Submit

First learn to obey

First learn to obey

HT: MM

What is the role of the child in school? Many conservative thinkers, now and in the past, have insisted that children must learn to submit to teachers’ authority. Before they can learn to read or figure, children have to learn that obedience is their proper attitude. These days, this penchant for submissive children has leached out of the world of traditionalist thinking into the burgeoning world of charter schooling. A recent interview with a leading scholar highlights the ways conservative values have reasserted themselves as the mainstream norm.

Thanks to a watchful colleague, I came across this interview with Penn’s Professor Joan Goodman. Professor Goodman works in the Teach for America program at Penn and spends a good deal of time in urban charter schools. In many of those schools, Goodman finds a rigorous standardization and a vigorous effort to train children to be submissive. As Goodman told EduShyster,

these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told. . . . They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning.

At the same time, Goodman notes, the schools insist on lockstep performance by teachers. Every teacher is supposed to be delivering the same content at the same time in the same way. Goodman calls it a “very uniform and scripted curriculum.”

Ask anyone familiar with urban charter-school education these days, and you’ll hear similar stories. For those of us trying to figure out what “conservatism” means in education, this leads us to some difficult questions: Did these goals and values move from fundamentalist and conservative activists into the mainstream? And if they did, how?

In my historical research into the worlds of conservative educational activism, I’ve seen it time and again. For decades—generations, even—conservative thinkers have insisted that submission is the first lesson of successful schooling. Without submissive children, teachers will not be able to transmit information. Without the successful transmission of information from teacher to student—according to this conservative logic—education has not happened.

Originally published in 1979...

Originally published in 1979…

In the world of Protestant fundamentalist education, youthful obedience is often elevated to a theological value. Writing for an A Beka guide in the late 1970s, fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee warned that Christian teachers must be stern disciplinarians. “If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.” Combee continued,

Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child. Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting). They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

That same A Beka guide to good fundamentalist schooling promised that good schools always taught in lockstep. At the time, A Beka offered a curriculum for private start-up Christian fundamentalist schools. Not only would schools get curriculum infused with dependably fundamentalist theology, but

the principal can know what is being taught. He can check the class and the curriculum to make certain that the job is getting done. Substitute teachers can also step in and continue without a loss of valuable teaching time.

Some bloggers confirm that fundamentalist schooling has continued to emphasize obedience over intellectual curiosity. Jonny Scaramanga, Galactic Explorer, and Samantha Field have all shared their experiences with this sort of fundamentalist educational impulse. In their experiences, fundamentalist schools and homeschools have insisted on obedience, and have done so in a sinisterly gendered way. Young women and girls, especially, were taught to submit to male authority figures. Every student, however, seems to be pressed to submit and conform, not as a punishment, but rather as a foundation for education.

To be fair, as I argued in an academic article a while back, there has been a lot of disagreement among fundamentalist Protestants about proper education. Just as the folks at A Beka were insisting that proper education began with submission, the equally fundamentalist thinkers at Bob Jones University pushed a very different vision of proper education. Led by long-serving dean Walter Fremont, the school of education at Bob Jones promoted a more child-centered sort of fundamentalist education.

We also need to note that this insistence on submissive children is not just a fundamentalist one. Secular conservatives have long insisted that learning can only begin with obedience. In many cases, this has been a conservative response to a left-leaning progressive pedagogy. For example, leading progressive thinker Harold Rugg began his career with recommendations for proper classroom attitudes. In an article from the 1920s, Rugg instructed teachers to share authority with students. Good teaching, Rugg wrote, did not dictate to children; it did not insist on obedience. Rather, good teaching pushed students to think of themselves as autonomous, self-directed learners. Good teachers, Rugg insisted, asked students again and again, “What do you think?”

In the 1920s, this notion of proper student behavior divided progressives from conservatives. One conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution offered a very different vision of good teaching. Writing in 1923, Anne Minor explained that the best teachers begin with “truth and integrity, orderliness and obedience, loyalty and love of country.”

In the 1950s, another conservative Daughter of the American Revolution warned that teaching had gone astray when it encouraged children to be “persistent in their own ideas, disobedient, and resent[ful of] parental discipline.”

Another secular conservative in the 1950s agreed. One letter-writer to the Pasadena Independent described the problems with progressive education this way:

discipline, as well as the lack of fundamental knowledge teaching [sic], is one of the biggest lacks of the progressive school. Some parents shift the discipline to the school which is wrong, of course, but if the parents are at fault for lack of discipline, so are the schools. . . . Lack of consideration of others is the biggest fault of children today, and should not be too difficult to correct. Tantrums should never be tolerated, sassiness and disobedience should be controlled at an early age.

rafferty what they are doing to your children

And, of course, other conservative educational thinkers and activists also pressed for an obedience-first vision of good education. The leading secular conservative voice of the 1960s, Max Rafferty, agreed that schools could only function if children first learned to submit. As Rafferty put it in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen.

As I researched my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, I found this theme repeated over and over. It goes something like this: Good schooling means the transmission of information to children. That transmission cannot occur unless children submit to teachers’ authority. Therefore, any meaningful education reform must begin with the establishment of an atmosphere of relentless obedience and submission.

Professor Goodman doesn’t talk about “conservatism” or “fundamentalism” in the schools she visits. And many of the reformers these days who push for youthful obedience and teacher standardization would never call themselves conservatives, let alone fundamentalists. But it is difficult not to notice the overlap.

Conservative notions of youth and education, it seems, have become the standard way to think about educational reform among groups such as Teach For America. First and foremost, in this understanding of education and youth, children must submit.

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.