School Wellness Programs: The Latest Frontier in the Culture Wars?

By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

It was “showdown day” last Tuesday at a packed-to-capacity meeting of the Encinitas, California school board, during which the board faced angry threats of litigation in a heated dispute far afield of those predictable curricular lightning rods, sex education or science instruction. The embattled program is yoga.


In late October, about 60 Encinitas parents approached the board to strenuously oppose an Ashtanga yoga curriculum offered 30 minutes twice weekly to students district-wide. “I will not allow my children to be indoctrinated,” one parent insisted. Another expressed “a deep concern [the District] is using taxpayer resources to promote… religious beliefs and practices” on children “being used as guinea pigs.” Anxieties that opposing parents were forced to “segregate their children” reached fever pitch – one said kids opting out faced ostracism, comparing the situation to Nazi Germany.

As the local and national press has been quick to report, this vocal minority of parents “bent out of shape” or “in a twist” about savasana at school want the program terminated immediately. Their attorney, Dean Broyles, whose firm National Center for Law and Policy, is devoted to defending “faith, family, and freedom,” as well as “traditional marriage” and “parental rights” articulates the core issue as “the EUSD using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religious system of beliefs and practices.” The yoga community in Encinitas and beyond has responded fast and furiously, gathering over 2,500 signatures on a petition to preserve the program.

California is no stranger to heated educational controversy – beginning in the 1960s when the state was known (renowned by some, reviled by others) for its breakneck pedagogical innovation, the region became ground zero in some of the nation’s fieriest debates over sex education, character education, ethnic studies and bilingual education.  Such progressivism, conservatives charged, was expensive, immoral, academically unserious, and even un-American. Perhaps worst of all to grass-roots groups like POSSE (Parents Organized to Stop Sex Education) and CPR (Citizens for Parental Responsibility), the emphasis on critical reflection shared by these diverse initiatives undermined parental prerogative to determine their children’s worldview.

Encinitas might just be the perfect theater for a contemporary battle in these culture wars pitting traditionalist parents advocating for “the 3 Rs” against “hippie” pedagogies. The beachfront community embodies the cultural extremes defining California: Encinitas is known as a mecca for kale-eating freethinkers who seek out the diverse yoga practices with local strongholds and the open-minded environment, while surrounding San Diego County remains one of the country’s most politically conservative regions.

But the Encinitas yoga battle is more than just a new skirmish in an old fight waged by familiar combatants; it represents what will likely be a new theater of war in the educational culture wars in the 21st century.

The complaints among conservatives about yoga promoting Hinduism and mysticism are hardly of a piece with recent resistance to Christian Texas cheerleaders reading scripture at football games, as some press accounts have assumed. The rhetoric of the Encinitas parents’ protests may nominally be to free schools of religious influence, but the mission of Broyles’ firm is actually to defend the very principles the Christian cheerleaders espouse. A linchpin of the traditionalist perspective since the 1960s has been that liberals “took God out of schools and put sex [or Chicano studies or black children or the New Math] in,” as said one disgruntled father in the late 1960s. In the Encinitas case, however, the complaint is that there is too much God in the schools, just the wrong deity. This shift speaks to a transformation in how conservatives and liberals envision the appropriate role of spirituality at school… here conservatives position themselves as the defenders of civic secularism, in stark contrast to the stance which first galvanized their movement.

1960s culture warriors of any stripe couldn’t have fathomed the popularity “school wellness” would attain in the last two decades — enfolding not only yoga but also gardening, cooking, exercise, and meditation– and contemporary advocates of such curricula have difficulty understanding how these innocuous initiatives can inspire controversy. The press, the EUSD, and scores of online commenters expressed shock that anyone would suggest, “a little stress-reducing exercise ever hurt anyone,” especially in the context of a much-discussed “obesity crisis.” The Los Angeles Times couldn’t believe the degree of the plaintive parents’ worries, as yoga is regularly practiced in San Diego spots as disparate as the Camp Pendleton naval base and the Jois yoga enclave, which funds the school program. Glamour commented, “most people associated with the controversy are scratching their heads,” quoting similarly incredulous Jois chief executive: “It’s hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you’re inviting the devil into your soul.”

Onlookers should not be so surprised at the perspectives Broyles raises, and should expect expanding wellness programs to generate more concerns, on the right and left. Encinitas parents are not the first social conservatives to oppose yoga; there’s even a cottage industry of Christian alternatives to the practice. Moreover, historians remind us that yoga’s well-scrubbed image today – think wholesome spectacles such as children doing yoga on the White House Lawn to celebrate Easter – elides the practice’s overtly spiritual and erotic origins. On the other end of the political spectrum, the field of Fat Studies argues the whole “obesity crisis” that provides the rationale for many wellness programs – including that in Encinitas – is fundamentally flawed, based more on our cultural aversion to fat bodies than on any objective health criteria. Michael Pollan, patron saint of the “real food” approach core to so many wellness programs, acknowledges that this new cultural terrain “mixes up the usual categories” even as the origins of the food and wellness movement are the same 1960s impulses that fueled the first round of the polarizing culture wars.

A familiar indignation over squandered tax dollars fuels the frustration of the Encinitas parents, though here it is largely misplaced, as the program is financed by a $533,000 grant from the private non-profit Jois Foundation. If the wellness movement suggests a newly fraught educational politics, so too does this funding situation. Nationwide, budget constraints are making public districts increasingly dependent on private initiative, especially for offerings such as wellness, which despite their popularity are usually deemed as “enrichment” rather than as a core academic need. As outside groups step in to fill curricular gaps and districts have fewer resources to shape these interventions, wellness programs are likely the next theater of battle in our ongoing but evolving educational culture wars… in which the earnest claim of the Encinitas superintendent that “it is just physical activity” sounds ever more naïve.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of Education Studies and History at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts and is also co-founder of HealthClass2.0, a school-based wellness
program ( Her forthcoming book on culture wars in education is tentatively entitled SCHOOLED RIGHT: THE EDUCATIONAL ORIGINS OF CONTEMPORARY CONSERVATISM.





Creationists: Sass Your Teachers?!?!

Apparently, that is the new strategy promoted by Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse.

Sometimes, studying cultural battles over America’s schools seems like Yogi Berra’s déjà vu all over again.  But this one sounds new to me.

Thanks to the Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of Kruse’s new strategy.  Apparently, having failed to promote a two-models creation/evolution bill in the last legislative session, Kruse plans to offer a bill that will encourage students in Indiana’s schools to ask teachers to back up ideas with facts.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Kruse defended his plan as a “truth-in-education” measure:  “. . . if a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true.”

Kruse’s new strategy comes on the heels of new rules in New Hampshire and Missouri that will allow every public school student to recuse himself or herself from curricular materials he or she finds objectionable.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, these laws just won’t work.  Ideology and theology and biology aside, the classroom implementation of such regulations seems utterly impossible.

As the Indianapolis Star reports, critics have pointed out similar flaws with Kruse’s plan.  Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, argued that teachers could be asked to supply proof of everything, from evolution to the moon landing.  “It’s not workable,” Schnellenberger concluded.

The intention of such bills is clear: conservatives hope to protect students from indoctrination in ideas they find loathsome.  In Kruse’s case, he takes a weatherbeaten play from the old progressive playbook to make it happen.  If students can direct their own educations—challenging the classroom authority of their teachers on every point—then the chances of swallowing objectionable ideas decreases dramatically.

As in Missouri and New Hampshire, conservatives find themselves fighting for the old progressive dream: an individualized education for every child in public schools.  Will it work in Indiana?



Pluralism and Progressivism in America’s Schools

Is American public education progressive?  Do most teachers and administrators hope to use schools to instill a sense of individuality, of self-expression, in America’s youth?  Do public schools emphasize the individual construction of knowledge over the traditional emphasis on transmitting knowledge?  In general, I don’t think so, but many informed, intelligent people still assume that they do.

For instance, in this month’s First Things Ashley Rogers Berner makes a smart argument for more pluralism in American public education.  In her essay, she assumes that the ideological training of America’s public school teachers includes a decisive dollop of progressivism.

The primary reason for the stultification of American public education, Berner argues, is the system’s lack of real pluralism.  If we Americans could get over our irrational attachment to a model of public education in which only publicly run schools could receive significant public funding, then we could enjoy the fruits of a truly diverse system.

Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but in short, in her words,

“Lasting, structural change requires reframing ‘public education’ to mean publicly funded or publicly supported, not exclusively publicly delivered, education. This in turn requires a different political philosophy, a turn to a model of education based on civil society rather than state control.”   

In today’s educational culture wars, the first response to Berner’s argument is usually that such pluralism will essentially abandon those students who most need publicly run schools.  By leaching funding away to a universe of school options, those students and families who are last to scuttle away from the sinking ship of publicly administered schools will be left with even fewer resources to scratch together a decent education.

Berner and other advocates of greater diversity in public-funded schooling blame teachers’ unions for clinging to control at the expense of educational quality.  Defenders of our current funding model of public education respond (with varying levels of coherence) that the union model ought to be understood in a different way: Only if all families and teachers stick together, the argument goes, can public education be saved for all.  In this sense, advocates argue, it is a union-like argument.  With unity comes strength; privately run schools that accept public money amount to labor “scabs” that betray the cause of quality education for all.

I won’t make that argument here.  Instead, I’ll challenge Berner’s argument in a different way.  Berner insists that one killing flaw of the current public system is that it falsely purports to be ideologically neutral, while promoting a “progressive” worldview.  Berner calls this “schooling that is supposedly ideologically neutral but in fact reflects a progressive tradition strongly committed to beliefs and to an educational philosophy rejected by many Americans.”  To be fair, Berner notes that public schooling reflects a struggle between several visions of proper education, traditional vs. progressive as well as secular vs. religious.  She notes that two visions contend for ideological control of public education.  In her words,

“Today’s educators have often been trained in progressive pedagogies, but state legislatures are now asking them to teach a more prescribed curriculum and to participate in high-stakes academic assessments. This has caused a struggle in nearly every state.”

But she proceeds with an assumption that public schooling today has been captured by a progressive ideology.  As she puts it,

“American institutions, including public schooling, tend to reinforce individual autonomy and to discourage the habit of commitment. . . . An educational philosophy whose aim is self-expression is ill-equipped to foster attachment to liberal democracy.”

Her assumption that progressivism has maintained a powerful influence in public education in America is widely shared.

But as anyone who has spent any time in public schools can agree, traditional schooling practices and ideology dominate most public schools.  The notion that schools are primarily geared toward engendering a sense of “self-expression” among students does not hold.

This is more than an anecdotal observation, though I’d welcome responses from parents, teachers, and administrators who might agree or disagree.  More systematic research confirms it.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argue in their book Ten Thousand Democracies that American school districts display a wide variety of ideological commitment.  And they conclude in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms that teacher beliefs often fit those of their surrounding community.  Conservative, traditionalist communities hire conservative, traditionalist teachers.

My own historical research confirms that the level of dominance of progressive ideology in America’s public schools is generally not as high as is often assumed.  To cite one illustrative example, consider the deeply and self-consciously progressive vision of one educational leader from the first half of the twentieth century.

Harold Rugg taught at the bastion of progressive education: Teachers College, Columbia University.  As a charter member of the “Frontier Thinkers,” Rugg helped lead the charge for a “reconstruction” of American public education along progressive lines.  After a conservative, traditionalist campaign eliminated most of Rugg’s textbooks from America’s public schools, Rugg retained his belief that progressivism would conquer.  In his 1941 That Men May Understand, Rugg argued that his progressivism

 “has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools” (pg. 293).

Rugg’s predicted transformation of public schooling never took place.  His progressive vision may have changed some outlines of public schooling, but by and large public schools remain dedicated to a deeply traditional model of education, one that views the goal of education as transmission of information to young people in order to prepare them to take their place in America’s hierarchical economy.

The closest observers of public education and progressivism have noted the tendency away from the promised land of progressivism.

Near the end of his singularly influential career in American education and thought, John Dewey concluded glumly that “repressive and reactionary forces . . . increasing in strength” had managed to maintain “the fundamental authoritarianism of the old education.”[1]  A generation later, historian Michael Katz asserted that public education had always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[2]  Arthur Zilversmit, in his history of the successes and failures of Progressive education, agreed that most Americans held a “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”[3] More recently, Michael Apple has argued that conservatives have mounted “a powerful, yet odd, combination of forces” that has won the central battle to define cultural and educational “common sense.”[4]

None of this has much impact on Berner’s central argument for greater pluralism in public funding for schools.  But the notion that progressivism has achieved the sort of domination its advocates hoped for misunderstands both American educational history and the current state of American public education.

[1] John Dewey, “Introduction,” in Elsie Ripley Clapp, The Uses of Resources in Education (New York: Harper and Bros., 1952); reprinted in Dewey on Education: Selections with an Introduction and Notes, Martin S. Dworkin, ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959), 129, 130, 131-132.

[2] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

[3] Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 169.

[4] Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 4, 31, 53, 57.


Authority and Education

When is a school not a school?

According to Anthony Esolen, a school forfeits its rights to that name when it tries to abandon its authority over its students.

Esolen’s essay in Public Discourse is roughly a year old, but I came across it recently.  Esolen reviews Philippe Beneton’s Equality by Default and insists, among other things, that true education requires a submission of student to the authority of the teacher and the school.

For those of us struggling to understand the conservative tradition in American education, Esolen’s article is worth reading in its entirety.  Esolen articulates a position that has long been at the root of American protest against the excesses of progressive education.

True teachers must take on the burden of authority, Esolen believes.  This is not autocracy, but rather a humble assumption of responsibility for the formation of the young students in teachers’ care.  Such authentic, authoritarian teachers, Esolen argues,

“would no doubt have furrowed their brows to try to make the least sense of the educational patois of our day, which insists that school be ‘child-centered.’ It would be like asking a hymn to be ‘choir-centered,’ when the very purpose of a hymn is to bring the singers out of themselves, in devotion. So too the ‘child-centered’ classroom, if indeed it focuses on the tastes and habits of the children who happen to be there, mistakes both the nature of the child and the purpose of education. It ignores what the child, as a human person, most needs, and that is to give himself in love to what transcends his personality or his class or his age.”

Esolen articulates in this essay the philosophic core of traditionalist education.  Before we seek to reform our schools, Esolen argues, we need to clarify the true purpose of education.  “If the object is to produce an elite cadre of technicians,” Esolen argues, “. . . then I fail to see why people should support schools at all.”  True education, Esolen insists, consists of “the handing on of culture, against which the mass phenomena of our time, and the facile reductions of scientistic academe, array themselves in enmity.”

As I argue in the book I’m currently working on, tentatively titled The Other School Reformers, this notion has lodged squarely at the heart of conservative reform movements in American education throughout the twentieth century.  Though many activists and politicians could not express the idea as elegantly and coherently as Esolen does in this essay, conservative activists fighting against evolutionism, socialism, “sexualityism,” secular humanism, progressivism, and other perceived cultural problems in America’s schools usually based their protest on the notion that such doctrines fundamentally subvert the true purpose of education.

To cite just one example from the textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974, conservative businessman and activist Elmer Fike defined the two sides in any education controvery as follows:

“The traditionalists perceive education as a process of teaching the child the basic knowledge and skills.  Since some indoctrination is inevitable, it should promote the accepted social attitudes and morals of the society in which the child lives.  The job of the schools is considered to be the transmission of the tradition of the parents to the children in order to preserve society. . . .The progressives claim to object to any indoctrination because it gives too much power to the agency that determines the thrust of the indoctrination and because it does not teach the child how to examine ideas critically.  They would prefer that the child be allowed to examine all philosophies with a minimum of guidance.  Thus, the child develops the ability to choose what is best and will not, as a mature adult, be easily misled or indoctrinated by demagogues who offer simple solutions.  The philosophy is most easily summed up by the statement, ‘Teach the child how to think, not what to think.’  The progressives also prefer a minimum of discipline and greater freedom for the student to decide what or how he will study.”

For Fike, as for Esolen and generation of conservative educational activists, the first goal of school reform must be a thorough examination of the true purpose of education.  At their core, battles over sex ed, prayer in schools, and evolution education often boil down to competing visions.  Are schools first meant to pass along the cultural inheritance of our civilization?  Or are they mean to train children to challenge all inherited notions?

The Child in Fundamentalist America

A question for the parents and teachers out there: What are your kids like?  I don’t mean, do they like soccer, or are they picky eaters.  I mean: How are your kids not adults?  Besides simple lack of experience and physical maturity, how are they different from adults?

This question is at the root of many disputes over what schools should be doing with kids.  Many of us believe–often without even examining the assumption–that a child is mainly a sponge.  He or she will learn from his environment.  If he is surrounded by anger, violence, and hatred, those notions will fester inside him.  But if he is surrounded by love, happiness, and acceptance, he will develop a healthy strong personality.  In most cases, if protected from negative influences, children will develop healthy morals and values.

But this implicit understanding of the nature and needs of children stands in stark contrast to the vision of many cultural conservatives.  If we want to understand conservative educational activism, we have to dig into the implicit understanding of many conservatives about the nature of childhood.

Let’s look at some examples.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mel and Norma Gabler exercised outsized influence on American education.  The Gablers lived and worked in Longview, Texas, and they made it their mission to clean up Texas’ textbooks.  For decades, the Gablers presented detailed complaints about the progressive bias in publishers’ textbooks.  They critiqued sex ed, anti-religious content, anti-patriotic content, and a host of other perceived problems.  Because Texas adopted textbooks for the whole state, and because the state represented such an enormous market, the Gablers’ influence in Texas meant they had influence nationwide.

Fueling the Gablers’ textbook activism was their vision of the nature of childhood.  Children, as the Gablers explained to the Texas Textbook Selection Committee in 1970, are not simply small adults.  They must not be allowed to make their own decisions about complicated moral questions.  Rather, left on their own, children will revert to the worst kinds of immorality: violent domination of the strong over the weak, unrestrained sexual license, and other throwbacks to pre-civilized humanity.

“It must be remembered,” the Gablers told the committee, “that qualities such as morality must be taught.  They do not come naturally.  Education without morality will result in a depraved society.”  By the mid-1980s, the Gablers warned that children must not be allowed to drift in a choppy and dangerous sea of contrasting moralities.  Instead, young children must be taught directly that some things are right and some are wrong.  “The school’s duty,” they insisted, “is to transmit the moral values held by the majority of Americans.”

Let’s pick apart these ideas about what makes children different from adults.  If children lack the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, then allowing them to develop their own moral beliefs becomes a cruel and dangerous strategy.  If children on their own will tend toward immorality, then proper moral ideas must be imposed on them by adults.

This vision of the nature of childhood stands at the core of much traditionalist educational philosophy.  If children will not develop healthy moral codes on their own, what must schools look like?  For one thing, each classroom should have a strong, authoritarian teacher.  And that teacher must impose a series of correct moral values on students.

With this understanding of the nature of childhood, it makes sense to impose tight restraints on children’s ability to make decisions on their own.  It makes sense to dictate a list of right and wrong ideas to children, and require children to memorize such lists.  With this understanding of the nature of childhood, it is not only uncomfortable but downright dangerous and irresponsible to encourage children to experiment with a variety of ideas.

So what are your children like?  Do they need to be taught directly that some things are right and others are wrong?  Or do they need to be allowed to experiment with a variety of ideas?

Further reading: James C. Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976); Mel and Norma Gabler with James C. Hefley, What Are They Teaching Our Children? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986).

REQUIRED READING: Protester Voices

For those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America in the twenty-first century, a good place and time to start would be Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1974.

The raucous 1974-1975 school year in this county surrounding Charleston saw a burst of public controversy over the teaching in its public schools.  Protesters vilified a set of textbooks adopted by the school district.  At its peak, the protest and school boycott included a sympathy strike by the area’s miners and even a spate of gunshot attacks and the bombing of a school-administration building.  The fight in Kanawha County, as argued by both protesters and historians, can correctly be seen as the birthplace, or at least the midwife, of an emerging populist conservative movement.

The controversy has attracted its share of recent attention from scholars such as Carol Mason and journalists such as Trey Kay.

Thanks to the energetic activist Karl Priest, we now also have an account of the controversy written from a prominent member of the movement itself.  Priest’s 2010 book Protester Voices offers a view from inside the textbook protest movement.

Priest’s story is unabashedly partisan.  The tone and style of his book are those of a bare-knuckled culture warrior rather than those of a disinterested academic.  Priest has achieved a reputation as one of today’s leading anti-evolution internet brawlers.  In addition to his anti-evolution work, Priest is also currently active in Exodus Mandate.  This organization promises “to encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling.”  Those who hope to explore the worlds of conservative Christian activism in twenty-first century America will soon run into the work of Karl Priest nearly everywhere they turn.  Indeed, when ILYBYGTH first starting imagining how intelligent, educated people could embrace creationism (see, for instance, here, here, here, here, and here), we were accused of being merely a front for Priest.

In his 2010 book, Priest takes other writers to task for their anti-protester bias.  He dismisses Carol Mason, for example, as someone who “concentrate[s] on the exception to the rule” (37).  The protest movement, Priest insists, must not be understood as an irruption of racism or vigilante violence.  The protesters themselves cannot fairly be dismissed as “wild-eyed ignoramuses” (xiii).  Such accusations, Priest insists, demonstrate the bias of left-leaning scholars more than the lived reality of the protest itself.  The leaders of the movement, in Priest’s view, “suffered financial loss. . . . [and] endured snide remarks and mocking.”  They did so in order to defend their schools and community against the imposition of taxpayer-funded textbooks that included aggressive racism and sexual depravity.  Priest defends the rank and file of this movement, also slandered mercilessly by other writers, as “Norman Rockwell Americans” (63).

Priest agrees with other commentators that this textbook controversy provided the launching pad for a new kind of conservative activism.  Kanawha County attracted national leaders such as Mel Gabler and Max Rafferty.  The fledgling Heritage Foundation sent legal advisers.  The 1974 protest, Priest claims, heralded the new generation of populist conservatism that continues in today’s Tea Party movement.

For anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America, this book is an important resource.  Not only does Priest’s account offer a staunch defense of the fundamentalist side of one of the most significant controversies of the late twentieth century, he also includes a reflection on the meanings of fundamentalism itself.  Though he prefers the term “Bible-believing Christian,” Priest insists that “Being a fundamentalist, contrary to what liberals have propagandized, is nothing to be ashamed of just by the attachment of the term” (3).

Traditionalist Teaching for Progressive Teachers? Lisa Delpit and Fundamentalism in Black and White

Fundamentalists don’t like progressive education.  They may not realize that they have some potential allies deep in the heart of the academic education establishment.

What do fundamentalists mean when they fight against “progressive education?”  For one thing, fundamentalists tend to pooh-pooh reading instruction that allows children to ‘discover’ reading on their own.  And they dismiss the notion that classroom teachers should put authority in the hands of students.  Also, fundamentalists often look askance at education professors who advocate soft-heading, child-centered classroom teaching that fails to deliver basic information and academic skills.

Generally, fundamentalists make these complaints from outside of the academy.  Some historians and other prominent academics—folks such as Arthur BestorRobert Hutchins,  or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—have critiqued the claims of progressive education, but most of the effective critics have worked outside of higher education.  But in the past generation, at least one prominent academic educator has critiqued “advocates of any progressive movement” who fail to consider the opinions of those “who may not share their enthusiasm about so-called new, liberal, or progressive ideas.”  The work of this world-famous educational activist is read at every school of education, especially ones in which teachers are trained to use progressive teaching methods.

Then why does she talk this way?  Because she framed the issue not as traditional and progressive, but as black and white.  Her name is Lisa Delpit, and her traditionalist critique of progressive education did not lead to her exclusion from the education academy.  On the contrary, she has received some of the academy’s most prestigious awards for her work, including a MacArthur “Genius” award in 1990 and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Outstanding Contribution to Education award in 1993.

To be clear, Delpit demonstrated considerable differences from many other traditionalist education activists.  For example, she backs a multicultural approach to education, most conservative traditionalists do not.  (See the ILYBYGTH discussion of traditionalist critiques of multicultural education here, here and here.)  She supports reading in depth and excoriates rote instruction.

But she also pushes a traditionalist ideology of teaching.  She offers withering criticisms of progressive teachers’ justifications.  In one career-making speech and article from the late 1980s, Delpit castigated progressive educators for their misplaced softness toward students.  She cited with approval one African American classroom teacher who described her anger at white progressive teachers as “a cancer, a sore.”  This teacher had stopped arguing against progressive methods.  Instead, she “shut them [white progressive teachers and administrators] out.  I go back to my own little cubby, my classroom, and I try to teach the way I know will work, no matter what those folk say.”  Delpit suggested that a direct-instruction model matched more closely the cultural background of most African American students.  In one model Delpit described favorably, the teacher is the authority.  The goal is to teach reading via “direct instruction of phonics generalizations and blending.”  The teacher keeps students’ attention by asking a series of questions, by eye contact, and by eliciting scripted group responses from the students.  Such traditionalist pedagogy, Delpit noted, elicited howls of protest from “liberal educators.”

In a sentence that could come straight from such conservative traditionalist leaders as Bill Bennett or Max Rafferty, Delpit supported the notion of many African American educators that “many of the ‘progressive’ educational strategies imposed by liberals upon Black and poor children could only be based on a desire to ensure that the liberals’ children get sole access to the dwindling pool of American jobs.”

In another critique, Delpit argued that white, middle-class teachers hid their classroom authority in ways that were confusing to poor and African American students.  Teachers of all backgrounds, Delpit suggested, need to be more explicit about their power and authority in the classroom.  A good teacher, Delpit noted, was seen as both “fun” and “mean” by one African American student.  Such a teacher, Delpit’s interviewee argued, “made us learn. . . . she was in charge of that class and she didn’t let anyone run her.”

More important for fundamentalist activists, Delpit’s voice is not alone.  A call for traditional pedagogy and schooling seems to be gaining adherents among African American parents and educators.  We could look at the deep traditionalism of such prominent schools as the New York Success Academy Charter Schools.  Or we could probe the attitudes of those who run KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Schools, which tend to serve significant numbers of African American students.  In a recent article about school “paddling” in USA Today, one African American school administrator confirmed that she believed in spanking “because I’m from the old school.”

The numbers indicate African American students tend to receive corporal punishment more often than students of other racial backgrounds, but don’t indicate the level of support for such punishment among African American teachers as opposed to teachers of other races.  There are some indications that African American parents tend to use corporal punishment more often than other groups.  This would support Delpit’s assertion that many African American students have different cultural expectations from other students when they get to school.  But the same study asserts that a huge majority of parents of other groups also use corporal punishment at home.  And, indeed, there is a lot of support for corporal punishment at school among white conservative activists.  But such support generally comes as part of a broader traditionalist, anti-progressive ideology of schooling.

Delpit’s argument is different.  She argues for traditional authoritarian teachers within a progressive, multicultural educational system.

What does this mean?  I’ve got a couple of reflections, and I’d welcome more.

For one thing, it tells us something about the current state of education scholarship.  Seen optimistically, we might conclude that the popularity of Delpit’s work proves that education scholars are willing to embrace a true diversity of opinion.  That is, education scholars might not be the petty intellectual tyrants some traditionalists accuse them of being.  To cite just one example, arch-traditionalist Max Rafferty in 1968 accused the “education bureaucrats” of only speaking to regular people “with that air of insufferable condescension.”  Such “educationists,” Rafferty charged, only listened to one another; they only hoped to turn America’s schools into something approaching a “well-run ant hill, beehive or Hitlerian dictatorship.”  Delpit’s example of progressive traditionalism might suggest that education scholars are more open to dissent than Rafferty and others have consistently charged.

In a less rosy light, though, we might conclude that this is yet another example of the ways the mainstream academy is hamstrung over racial ideology.  We might wonder if Delpit’s ideas would be welcomed as fervently if education scholars weren’t so terrified of being considered racially insensitive.  It helps, of course, that Delpit is a wonderful writer and powerful polemicist.  But it is hard to ignore the question: How warmly would a scholar be welcomed who trashed the idea of progressive pedagogy in general?  Not just for one group of students, but for students and schools in general?

One other point jumps out at us: we apparently need to be more careful when we talk about traditionalist education.  I’ll plead guilty.  I am most interested in those traditionalists who act out of what we can fairly call a conservative impulse to transform American schools and society.  Folks like Rousas Rushdoony, Max Rafferty, Sam Blumenfeld, Mel and Norma Gabler.  Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion.  Activists from these groups have long believed that teaching must be made more traditional so that American society itself can reclaim some of its lost glory.  But there are traditionalists like Delpit who hope that schools will transform school and society in a vastly different way.

Perhaps we need to treat “educational traditionalism” the way we treat “evangelicalism.”  A lot of folks, scholars and normal people alike, tend to treat “evangelicalism” as if it were the sole domain of white, conservative folks such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  But religious historians are also interested in other forms of evangelicalism.  There have always been leftist evangelicals, for instance, as Raymond Haberski has recently noted.  And, of course, there has always been a strong evangelical tradition among African Americans.

Perhaps the most important notion to think about here is that we have more than one kind of educational traditionalism.  Bashing progressive education has long been the national pastime of educational conservatives.  For the last twenty-five years or so, such conservatives have been joined by an influential cadre of mainstream education scholars.

Further reading: Lisa Delpit, “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Harvard Educational Review 58 (Fall 1988): 280-199; Delpit, (1986). Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. Harvard Educational Review, 56(4), 379-386; Delpit, Lisa. (1995). Other People’s Children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press; Delpit, L & Perry, T. (1998). The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children (Eds.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press; Delpit, L. & Dowdy, J. K. (2002). The Skin That we Speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (Eds.). New York, NY: The New Press; Delpit, L. D. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York:The New Press.


What are schools for?  Why go to school?  For traditionalists, the answers to these questions call on some fundamental truths about human nature, culture, and youth.  In the traditionalist vision, progressives have deformed American education because they have operated with a radically inaccurate understanding of these basic truths.  To begin healing American schools, traditionalists could insist, we need to recognize a few of these central ideas:

  • People are not all the same.
  • Left to their own devices, people will not naturally choose to improve themselves.
  • Left alone, children will act viciously and often wallow in their own ignorance and slothfulness.

If we acknowledge these fundamental truths, traditionalists could insist, we will be able to think about schooling in a clear-eyed, practical, effective way.  We will recognize the genius of the cultural legacy we have inherited.  We will be able to see that the answers schools used for generations are better than the answers offered students in so-called progressive education.  In the traditionalist view, once we understand these important facts about culture, education, and youth, a few basic notions about formal schooling will become clear:

1.) School is for transmitting information to students.  New information; things they did not already know.  Not a chance for them to develop themselves as people.  That is the job of the family and church.  And not simply a way for them to explore their own lived experience; that’s fine for rich kids but it leaves the disfranchised disfranchised.

2.) School is a chance—not a guarantee but an opportunity—to improve one’s economic position.

3.) Schools must transmit values.  We can articulate those values without imposing traditional Biblical Christianity on the unwilling.

In a nutshell, the traditionalist idea of schooling can be based on much more than a vague nostalgia for the America of the past.  It can be more than just a knee-jerk insistence on a return to the Little Red Schoolhouse, to the good old days when we all walked ten miles to school, uphill both ways.  In its most compelling form, the argument in favor of more traditionalist education offers more than just a masked insistence on a return to schools dominated by Protestant theology or ruled by racial and class segregation.  At its best, traditionalist education can suggest a compelling argument about the nature of education.


Everyone wants America’s schools to teach values.  Progressive types tend to imagine schools that teach children the value of egalitarianism, of celebrating the rich mosaic of cultures that make up America. Traditionalists tend to imagine schools that train students in traditional cultural values.  As we have argued in earlier posts about the “Cult of Multiculturalism” (see here and here), traditionalists could argue that the values of progressive education aren’t real values at all.  Traditionalists might argue that the only real moral instilled by the progressive educational regime is a lamentable and decadent relativism.  According to this traditionalist argument, children are indoctrinated by progressive educators in the pernicious notion that there are no transcendent values, that all values must be welcomed equally.

Such traditionalists have insisted that America’s schools must instead lay out an explicit menu of true moral values for their students.  In its more sophisticated forms, this traditionalist argument has pointed out that we can distill a reasonable list of these values that does not simply impose traditional Christian values in public schools.  Rather, it is simple enough to create a short list of moral values that will incorporate the traditions of all cultures.

For example, writing in the 1960s, California School Superintendent Max Rafferty built his career, in large part, on his insistence that public schools must return to their original mission of instilling traditional moral values in children.  The problem with progressive education, Rafferty believed, was that it denied the obvious and inescapable truth that there are “positive and eternal values.”  In such an educational environment, which Rafferty believed had dominated America’s schools since the 1930s, this moral irresponsibility had drastic effects.  Not only did students fail to grasp obvious moral truths, but under the progressive educational regime,

the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

In the place of time-tested values, Rafferty argued, progressives offered “such airy and ephemeral soap bubbles as ‘group dynamics,’ ‘social living,’ and ‘orientation.’”

Rafferty noted that such innovations meant both educational and moral failure.  It also ignored the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.  As Rafferty argued in 1964,

Parents, by and large, want what they have always wanted for their children.  They want them turned into civilized, patriotic citizens speaking and writing good English; able to succeed both in business and college; possessing at least a passable knowledge of our great cultural heritage; trained in such minimum essentials as reading, basic mathematics, spelling, grammar, history, and geography; and, above all, well enough grounded in habits of diligence, perseverance, and orderly thinking to enable them to prepare for adult life. 

Such values did not imply, in Rafferty’s opinion, that minority groups and non-Christians would be made to feel unwelcome in public schools.  Rather, Rafferty believed that everyone agreed on a few basic values that schools must impart.  For Rafferty, these included love of country, non-sectarian religiosity, and character traits such as bravery, honesty, thrift, and hard work.

Writing in the late 1960s, Rafferty noted with alarm that public schools had been divested of their traditional role as moral guardians.  As he wrote in 1968,

Parents pay us to introduce their children to the accumulated culture, wisdom and refinement of the ages, not to give them a mud bath in vice and suggestiveness.  They expect us to inspire in those children a love for the good, the true and the beautiful.

Anybody can pick up obscenity and irreverence on any street corner.  You don’t have to go to school to learn four-letter words and ugly racial slurs.  The schools are built and supported to fight against this sort of dry rot, not to go over to it and embrace it.

We teachers need to set standards, understand them and then uphold them.  And this we cannot do until we abandon an educational philosophy which holds that all standards are fictitious and all truths mere fantasy.

The problem with progressive education, in Rafferty’s opinion, was its “bizarre and even creepy” insistence that public schools must “uproot the ethical standards of 2000 years and to substitute for them the moral criteria of a pack of sex-starved alley cats.”

Max Rafferty’s unabashed insistence on traditionalist education for California did not take his career quite as far as he had hoped.  He ran for U.S. Senate in 1968, on an unapologetically conservative platform that included, in the words of one Newsweek article, “shooting looters, summary street courts-martial for other rioters, more capital punishment, abolishing most foreign aid, and escalating the Vietnam war (perhaps with nuclear weapons).”  Unlike other conservative California politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for governor in 1966 and Richard Nixon’s win as President in 1968, Rafferty lost his election by a huge margin.  Nevertheless, his fulminations on the importance of including traditional values in America’s public schools won him a large and dedicated following among traditionalists.

William J. Bennett shared many of Rafferty’s beliefs about the importance of traditional values for America’s public schools.  As U.S. Secretary of Education in the mid-1980s under President Reagan, Bennett encouraged American schools to encourage “Moral Literacy.”  Bennett built his educational program around what he called the “Three C’s:” Content, Choice, and Character.  He insisted that teaching students traditional moral values was a necessary function of public schools.  Only by doing so, Bennett believed, could schools help young people develop their character, their unique individual moral quality.  Such moral values, Bennett argued, did not imply the imposition of one set of moral values on a culturally diverse American population.  They did not, as his critics allege, yearn for a return for an imagined past in which only the values of White European Americans were valued.  No, Bennett insisted in 1986, “there is a good deal of consensus among the American people about these character traits.”  Americans of all cultural backgrounds, Bennett believed, could agree that schools ought to teach such traits as “thoughtfulness, fidelity, kindness, diligence, honesty, fairness, self-discipline, respect for law, and taking one’s guidance by accepted and tested standards of right and wrong rather than by, for example, one’s personal preferences.”

Bennett worked during his tenure as Secretary of Education to encourage public schools to teach these values formally and explicitly.  He also published the phenomenally successful Book of Virtues to help parents, educators, and young people learn these time-tested standards of right and wrong.

More recently, two academics have attracted attention beyond the usual ranks of committed traditionalists with their concoction of a list of universal character traits that schools ought to be teaching.  Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson claimed by 2004 to have distilled twenty-four universal values from their survey of moral thinkers from all cultures, from all periods.  As one New York Times article described their work, Seligman and Peterson “consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters.”  As we might expect, their list of character traits included some of Bennett’s and Rafferty’s favorites, including bravery and integrity.  They also include personal traits such as gratitude.  As many commentators have noticed, Seligman and Peterson also added a few that might surprise traditionalists, such as the need for “zest” among young people.

Most important for our discussion here, the notion that schools ought to do more than expose children to a variety of moral values has continued to attract vehement supporters among large numbers of parents, scholars, and educators.  According to these supporters, the fundamental presumption of progressivism—that schools ought to help students discover their own morality rather than imposing an external list of disembodied moral values—has proven to be both ineffective and morally indefensible.  Instead, schools must teach students actively and explicitly that they must practice a short list of traditional values.  They must be honest.  They must be charitable.  They must be kind.  They must be brave.  At times, of course, students may stumble and fail as they learn these traits, just as they might not master long division on the first try.  But one of the primary functions of schooling, in this traditionalist argument, must be to guide students toward learning these fundamental values.


FURTHER READING: Max Rafferty, What Are They Doing to Your Children (1964); Rafferty, On Education (1968); William J. Bennett, Moral Literacy and the Foundation of Character (1986); Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004).

IN THE NEWS: Santorum on America’s Educational History

This just in from the Republican presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum knows what conservatives want to hear.  Not much of a surprise there; Santorum’s knack for positioning himself as the true conservative has led him to a surprisingly strong showing lately.

Of interest to ILYBYGTH readers, Santorum recently described his views on the proper nature of American education.  In doing so, he zeroed in on issues that have long resonated deeply with conservatives.

According to stories in the New York Times  and Los Angeles Times (here and here), Santorum outlined his thinking about the nature of public education in a speech on Saturday to the Ohio Christian Alliance in Columbus.

Santorum has already attracted attention as a homeschooler and advocate of government vouchers.  As his official website articulates, Santorum believes parental choice is one way to “restor[e] America’s greatness through educational freedom and opportunity.”

In Saturday’s speech, Santorum blasted the current “factory model” of education.  Today’s public schools, Santorum insisted, represented an “anachronism,” a period in which “people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories . . . called public schools.”

Proper schooling, Santorum declared, should begin—and often end—at home.  Santorum appealed to a historical vision that is near and dear to the hearts of many American conservatives.  For most of American history, Santorum argued, even the Presidents homeschooled in the White House itself.

Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Santorum asked.  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.

As I argue in an essay coming out this month in Teachers College Record,  this vision of the history of American education has been extremely influential among conservatives.  Since at least the 1950s, prominent conservative activists have based their prescriptions for healing American society on the notion that American education went wrong at a specific point in America’s past.  Of course, they also point out the corollary: conservative reforms can put it back on the right track.

Santorum appeals to a glorious educational past in which public schools had not yet tightened their stranglehold on educational opportunity.  This has been a common trope among conservative activists hoping to free traditionalists’ minds from the pernicious notion that education must look like today’s public education system.

Other common ideas that conservatives have insisted upon in their vision of American educational history:

  • schools started out as frankly religious institutions,
  • schools in the past did a better job of teaching more kids with less public money,
  • a set of notions known as “progressive education” ruined America’s strong tradition of real education, and
  • creeping state control led to ideological and theological totalitarianism in public schools.

On Saturday, Santorum indicated his agreement with these notions.  However, just as “progressive” educators have long fought over the proper meaning and function of schooling, so have conservatives.  In my TCR article I take a closer look at four leading activists since 1950:

  • Milton Friedman,
  • Max Rafferty,
  • Sam Blumenfeld, and
  • Henry Morris.

Each of these writers described a different vision of America’s educational past.  Like Santorum and generations of other conservatives, each agreed that the system had broken down.  However, also like Santorum’s unique insistence on the importance of Presidential homeschooling in the White House, each pundit laid out a unique educational past.

Anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America will be wise to listen to Rick Santorum this year.  He seems to have a knack for dishing out all the ideas Fundamentalists want to hear.