The E-Word

You don’t have to love your enemies. You don’t even have to like them. But a founding principle of ILYBYGTH is that we should all try to understand those with whom we disagree. Indeed, as journalist and FOILYBYGTH* Trey Kay notes in a recent episode of his podcast Us & Them, there is a critical difference between disagreeing with someone and calling him or her an “enemy.”

And don't forget about frenemies!

And don’t forget about frenemies!

If you haven’t yet checked out Us & Them, it’s worth a listen. Different episodes explore issues near and dear to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, such as neo-confederate history, gay rights, and conservative textbook watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler.

In the most recent episode, Kay explores the question of the enemy. As Kay reports, these days it’s not shocking to hear leading politicians describe the opposing party as the “enemy.” What sort of tone does that set for our day-to-day civil discourse? Can I have lunch with someone who is an “enemy?” Could I work on a school board with one?

Trey includes parts of a conversation he had with your humble editor. We talked about the origins of the name of this blog, and about the difficulties of understanding those with whom we disagree. As I told Trey, this blog is, in part, an effort for secular folks like me to understand what conservative religious people might mean if they say “I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

As he included in the segment, I think there are more important goals than simply winning culture-war battles. If we disagree about issues of religion and politics, we need at least to try to include those with whom we disagree in a civil discussion. We can’t do that if we resort to knee-jerk demonization.

That’s easy enough to do with things we don’t really care about. But what about when it hits home? What about when it is a question of what our kids are learning in school, or what rights we have? For example, for creationists it can be very difficult (I imagine) to relax and talk civilly to someone who wants to teach their kids that humans were not created by God. For people like me, it is enormously difficult not to demonize opponents who don’t agree with us about same-sex marriage rights.

So what do we do? To start, we can listen to the Us & Them podcast.

*Friend of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, natch.

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Let’s Fight about Evolution and Climate Change

Put your money where your mouth is. That’s the message Trey Kay explores in his new Us & Them podcast. What happens when creationists and scientists put up a challenge to their foes? Trey talks with a creationist and a mainstream scientist, both of whom have put up big money to lure their enemies into a losing debate.

The two sides are represented by creationist Karl Priest and physicist Christopher Keating. Priest has offered a $10,000 Life Science Prize. Anyone who can debate Joseph Mastropaolo and can convince a judge of the evidence for evolution will win the money. Keating has put up $30,000 to anyone who can come up with scientific evidence against human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it doesn’t get much better than this. Trey talks with both men alone, then puts them together for a culture-war conversation. What makes creationists so confident? Mainstream scientists?

As Trey concludes, both men offer their prizes in an attempt to get attention for their side. Neither really hopes to convince the other.

That’s been the case for evolution/creation debates for a long time now. Some of us remember the recent head-to-head debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As we discussed at the time, this sort of debate tends to preach to the choir on each side. For mainstream scientists, Bill Nye’s arguments sounded iron-clad. For creationists, Ken Ham made his case.

As historian Ron Numbers has documented, these evolution-creation debates have a long and checkered history. Time and again, high-profile public figures have challenged their foes to debate the issue. Does anyone really hope to solve the issue this way?

As Trey Kay explores in this podcast, it is easy enough to talk politely to one another. But once creationists and evolutionists try to debate, we quickly end up just spinning our wheels.

The Talk: Sex Ed at Us & Them

For a society so drenched in sexual imagery and innuendo, we have a surprisingly difficult time talking about sex.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, our American sex paradox leads to one of the most difficult and stubborn issues of our educational culture wars.  This week, Trey Kay explores the question of sex ed at Us & Them.  Is it too much to ask of schools to fix a wider culture that can barely talk about sex?

Can We Talk...?

Can We Talk…?

Kay describes a talk at his alma mater by conservative sex education activist Pam Stenzel.  Watch out, Stenzel yelled at the assembled teens.  If you get an STD, you could be ruined for life.

Kay also chats with a mother who wants kids to learn about sex in a rational, non-judgmental way.  Kids will be having sex, she thought.  It was criminal to leave students floundering without basic information about it.

Other conservatives such as Texas’s Don McLeroy weigh in, too.  If we really want to heal our sex-ed problem, McLeroy argues, we need to do more than teach a class or two about it.  We need to reform our whole society top to bottom.

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman might not agree with McLeroy on much, but he agrees that schools do not take the lead in sex education.  Zimmerman talks with Kay about his new book, Too Hot to Handle.  In that work, Zimmerman examines the history of sex ed and concludes that it has been most conspicuous by its absence in schools.  As Zimmerman explained in a recent talk here on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in the United States the problem of sexually transmitted diseases was treated first and foremost as a problem for the schools to fix.  In Paris, they changed the laws.  In the US, they changed the curriculum.

The assumption in America has always been that schools can fix any problem.  But, as person after person told Kay about their own real-life sex ed, almost nobody learned anything of importance about sex from classes at school.  Perhaps the real culture-war battle over sex ed needs to learn from these interviews and move out of school onto the streets and TV rooms where the real education seems to take place.

As usual, Trey Kay does a great job of including people with very different perspectives.  Want to know what smart people on both sides of our culture-war divide think about sex ed?  Check out the whole podcast.

Required Listening: Us & Them

Can we talk across the culture-war divide?  That’s the question journalist Trey Kay is asking in his new podcast series, Us & Them.  Is it worth talking to someone with whom we have fundamental disagreements?

In his first episode, Trey Kay describes his culture-war-defying friendship with conservative activist Alice Moore.  Kay first got to know Alice Moore when he was working on an earlier documentary about the 1974-75 textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, this Kanawha County story also plays a prominent role in my recent book about educational conservatism.  Alice Moore played a leading role as a conservative leader in that tumultuous school boycott.

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing...

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

In his first podcast, Kay describes his continuing friendship with her.  The two of them inhabit different culture-war realms; Kay is a self-identified “blue-state liberal,” while Moore is a “red-state conservative.”  More than that, Ms. Moore believes in a conservative evangelical Protestantism that liberals often find intellectually outrageous.

Can the two of them be friends?

At the very least, it would take careful diplomacy on both sides. As Kay asked himself, “I have core beliefs.  What if I truly felt that they were under attack?”

Check out the whole episode when you’ve got a few spare minutes.  Kay and Moore manage to do the things friends do: Get a meal together, talk about politics and religion.  Yet neither of them budges an inch on his or her core beliefs.

Are such conversations worth having?  As Kay includes in this episode, his editor wasn’t sure.  She told Kay, “I don’t know how you can stand to have this conversation.”  It seemed to Kay’s editor that he was listening to Moore, but Moore wasn’t listening back.

Frenemies?

Frenemies?

Yet Kay remained convinced there was some value to such outreach programs.  He asked historian Jonathan Zimmerman’s opinion.  Zimmerman insisted that Americans need to speak with each other; we need a common language to discuss “American problems . . . shared by all of us.”  The most dangerous culture-war idea going around, Zimmerman said, is that those who disagree with us are either morally warped or ignorant.

Trey Kay hopes his new series will help figure out “what might happen if we take the time to listen to each other.”  Can it work?

“The Long Game” Is Coming to Binghamton

What do schools teach?  What SHOULD schools teach?  The problem is not that we don’t have an answer to this question.  The problem is that can’t agree on which answer is the right one.

Tomorrow night award-winning documentarian Trey Kay is bringing his latest radio documentary to the scenic campus of Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York.  This work, “The Long Game: Texas’ Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom,” explores school politics in the Lone Star State.  As ILYBYGTH readers know well, those Texas politics tend to be more exciting versions of the sorts of school fights we hear all over the country: Can cheerleaders use the Bible at public-school football games?  Can textbooks preach a neo-Confederate vision of US History?  Can creationism and evolution jostle along side-by-side in public-school science classes?

long gameThe battles in Texas schools reflect our cultural disagreements over the proper form of public schooling.

Tomorrow evening, Trey will share an excerpt from his earlier documentary, “The Great Textbook War.”  Then we’ll listen to “The Long Game.”  Afterwards, we’ll benefit from Trey’s commentary, as well as that of world-renowned historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University.  Binghamton’s own Matt McConn, a recent émigré from Houston public schools, will also join the panel.

Unfortunately, we won’t be web-streaming the event.  But for all those who can make it to the Binghamton area, you are most welcome to attend.  The fun will begin at 6 PM, Thursday, February 27, in University Union room 120, on the campus of Binghamton University.  The event is free and open to the public.  Pre-registration has closed, but everyone is still welcome to come by without registration.

Registration Is Open!

You are invited.

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

long game

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

There will even be cookies.

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

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

Save the Date!

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

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

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

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

Texas Charter School Promotes Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do White Conservatives Hate Black People?

What is the connection between conservatism and school segregation?  A new “retro report” in the New York Times about the desegregation project in Charlotte, North Carolina assumes that “conservatives” obviously opposed desegregation.  Is that connection really as obvious as it seems?

The desegregation documentary describes Charlotte’s experience.  In the 1970s, Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County became the focus of a newly aggressive court-ordered busing program.  Schools and school districts, the Supreme Court ruled, must do more to ensure racial balance in public schools.

The initial reaction in Charlotte was furious, but the program eventually became the poster child for busing.  So much so that a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the district had fulfilled its deseg obligations.  At least partly as a result, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are now resegregated by race and income level.

For historians of race and education, the story is not news.  But for those of us trying to understand the meanings of “conservatism” in American education, the way it is told is important.  The New York Times piece includes comments by journalist B. Drummond Ayres Jr. In that “Reporter’s Notebook,” Ayres offers an explanation for the winning campaign to resegregate America’s schools.  As Ayres explains,

White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill. [Emphasis added.]

In this telling, “conservatives” have been the brake on the progress of racial desegregation.  Politicians who considered themselves conservative had a prescribed opinion toward school desegregation.

Is that a fair accusation?  Did conservatives as a rule really push for slower desegregation?  More interesting, how did conservatism come to be perceived as the side of white racial status-quo-ism?

In my current book, I explore two twentieth-century school controversies in which race and school deseg played leading parts.  The first took place in Pasadena, California, in 1950, the second in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974.

In Pasadena, a “progressive” school superintendent added racial desegregation to his list of progressive reforms.  Conservatives kicked him out.  In Kanawha County, a new textbook series included provocative excerpts from black militants such as Eldridge Cleaver.  Conservatives boycotted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the books.

Each time, the conservative side became the side of anti-black racism.  But in each case, conservatives insisted they were not racist.

In Pasadena, for example, one woman stood up at a heated school-board meeting and denied all charges of racism.  She opposed the desegregation plan but said she could not be racist, since one of her closest friends was African American.

In Kanawha County, too, book protesters often insisted they were not racist.  Teacher and activist Karl Priest, for example, has insisted for decades that the conservative protesters embodied the true anti-racist position.

But evidence contradicts these conservative anti-racist claims.  In Pasadena, conservatives rallied political support based on opposition to race mixing in public schools.  Conservatives accused the progressive superintendent of raising taxes and dumbing down white schools by including students of other races.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

And in Kanawha County, as documentarian Trey Kay has shown, conservatives really did see the book protest as a race war.  Steve Horan remembered in 2010 that a rumor spread among white conservatives in 1974: African Americans planned to invade.  The men readied their guns.   Women and children took shelter in church basements.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

There seems to be at least some justification for journalists’ assumptions that “conservatism” stands staunchly opposed to racial integration in schools.

But it is also important to recognize the complexity of conservative attitudes toward race and schooling.  It is not enough to simply say that “conservatives” block school desegregation because they dislike black people.

The case of Kanawha County helps make this more complicated point.  Many of the conservative leaders of the protest, such as Karl Priest and Avis Hill, belonged to conservative churches with a thoroughly biracial membership.  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

And conservative leader Alice Moore built her anti-textbook arguments on the work of African American activist Stephen Jenkins.  Jenkins had argued that textbooks that included only violent writings by African Americans actually represented the true anti-black racism.  Those who wanted to oppose the depiction of African Americans as violent anti-American criminals, Jenkins argued, needed to oppose the wrong-headed push for “multiculturalism.”  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

Across the country, “conservative” anti-busing protesters made similar claims to be the true anti-racists.  In Boston, for example, as Ron Formisano has shown, “conservative” anti-busers in the 1970s accused “liberal” federal judge Arthur Garrity of being the true racist.  Garrity had ordered busing to achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools, yet he lived in the affluent lily-white enclave of Wellesley, where his children would attend all-white schools.  Who was the racist in that scenario?

Did conservatives oppose busing and forcible school desegregation?  In most cases, yes.

Will we understand conservatism in schooling if we explain that position as simple racism?  In most cases, no.

White conservatives seem, in many cases, to have been motivated by anti-black racism.  But in almost all cases, that racism was only one component of a complex conservatism that also included issues of school funding, textbook content, religious rights, classroom practice, and a host of other issues.

Calling it “racism” and walking away doesn’t do enough.  Ayres deserves credit for noting that leading conservatives often supported anti-racist policies.  Conservatives often insisted that they opposed forcible busing and forcible integration.  They did so as part of a complicated conservative worldview, one that looked toward the status quo–including but not by any means limited to the racial status quo–for support.

So did white conservatives hate black people?  Did conservatives oppose school desegregation out of disdain for non-whites?

In some cases, probably.  But it is not very useful to assume that such racist attitudes are the end of our discussion.  Rather, understanding the complex attitudes toward race among conservatives–as among Americans as a whole–requires a more careful understanding of a complex conservative ideology.