The School Headline We Won’t See

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the brave Parkland students who have done so much in the past few weeks to push for change. I’m as distressed as my friends when I hear conservative politicians belittling their activism. But whatever our political views on student activism, we’re likely to believe something about schools that just isn’t true. In spite of what all of us might think if we just read the papers, America’s schools are safe and getting safer. Why don’t we hear more about it?

school safety

Where are the cheers?

Here’s what we know: The National Center for Education released its new report today about school safety. By any measure, schools today are much safer places than they’ve been since 1992. Crime reports from schools are down, security measures are improved, staffs are better trained in safety measures, and students report less crime.

Why won’t we hear more culture-war blather about this news? Here’s my guess: Whether you’re a conservative, a progressive, or other, you want people to think that schools are dangerous places.

Let’s look at the conservative side first. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives told one another that schools—especially public schools—had gone to the dogs. For example, as Reagan’s second Ed Secretary memorably lamented, by any “index of cultural indicators,” schools had failed catastrophically.

It wasn’t only Bill Bennett who worried. Religious conservatives also warned that public schools had

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. . .

In most cases, if conservatives hate something, progressives will love it. But that hasn’t been the case with public schools. From the left, critics charge that public schools are abusive places, especially to students from minority backgrounds. In one recent case from Maryland, for example, activists note that African American students

are subject to daily abuse and humiliation. . . . [from] a decades-long pattern of resistance to change and the creation of a hostile environment for children of color.

Conservatives don’t agree with progressives about much. When it comes to school safety, however, both sides agree that public schools are dangerous and getting worse. Both sides, it seems, won’t allow themselves to be troubled by inconvenient truths.

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Why Conservatives Should Love Obama

He did it! I don’t how it happened, but somehow President Barack Obama managed to accomplish one of the most dreamed-for educational goals of America’s social conservatives. During his presidency, that is, early teen sexual activity dropped significantly, according to the CDC.

I know, I know, it’s ridiculous to give Obama credit for something that merely happened to coincide with his time in the White House. But that’s what culture-war pundits do all the time. In this case, the numbers are pretty significant, and the cause is among those nearest and dearest to the hearts of American conservatives.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, helping kids avoid the allure of premarital sex has always been one of the fondest educational dreams of social conservatives, especially conservative religious reformers. Why was evolutionary theory dangerous? If we taught children they were nothing but clever animals, they would certainly behave that way. Why was old-fashioned discipline important? Because children needed to learn to control their sinful, lusting nature.

I hate to do it, but let me quote myself here. When Alice Moore first joined the school board in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the 1970s, one of her first acts was to close down a progressive middle school. When I interviewed Moore I asked her about it. Here’s what I wrote in the book about Moore’s experience:

The school, Moore recalled, was not a proper learning institution. It had become a cesspool of unrestrained sloth and lust. The students, she recalled, did “whatever they wanted to.” As she walked in for her first inspection, a young couple stood in the doorway, wrapped in each other’s arms. She had to ask them to move out of her way, which they did only with notable resentment. Other students wandered around the school and neighboring fields, smoking and engaging in all kinds of sexual activity in nearby barns. When Moore asked the principal to explain this sort of behavior, he informed Moore that the school hoped to do more than simply transmit information to students; it hoped to transform them into agents of social change. Teachers should see their roles as co-learners, not as dictators.

This sort of progressive shibboleth exasperated Moore.

At the heart of warped progressive-ed thinking, Moore believed, was a mistaken notion of the nature of humanity. Lust needed to be schooled out of children, not winked and nodded at as a “natural” thing. Moore was not at all the only conservative activist to think this way. Consider William J. Bennett’s conservative index of cultural indicators. Bennett’s accusations were clear: Hippies had wrecked everything. Progressive attitudes in education had led to woeful increases in dangerous sexual activities among young people, in addition to crime, drug use, etc.

In short, for a hundred years now, educational conservatives have desperately dreamed of reducing the progressive dominance of “If it feels good, do it” attitudes among young people. And now, at long last, we seem to have some evidence that those dreams have come true, at least in part.

CDC teen sex chart 2

The  good news no one will holler about…

Here’s what we know: The excitingly named “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” from the Centers for Disease Control notes significant declines in sexual intercourse among America’s 9th and 10th graders (roughly 14- and 15-year olds). As the authors state,

Nationwide, the proportion of high school students who had ever had sexual intercourse decreased significantly overall and among 9th and 10th grade students, non-Hispanic black (black) students in all grades, and Hispanic students in three grades. A similar pattern by grade was observed in nearly half the states (14), where the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse decreased only in 9th grade or only in 9th and 10th grades; nearly all other states saw decreases in some or all grades. The overall decrease in the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse during 2005–2015 is a positive change in sexual risk among adolescents (i.e., behaviors that place them at risk for human immunodeficiency virus, STI, or pregnancy) in the United States, an overall decrease that did not occur during the preceding 10 years.

Why? We don’t know. And of course I’m kidding when I give President Obama credit. There are some things we can confidently predict, however. First of all, I don’t think we’ll see pundits shouting about this good news. As we’ve lamented here at ILYBYGTH in the past, good news about America’s schools and youth just never gets headlines.

Second, the warped popular myths about America’s public schools will continue to dominate. Gallup polls make it startlingly clear: When people know public schools, they like them. But when they describe public schools in general, people call them terrible. The notion that America’s public schools are cesspools of drugs, sex, and sloth is not true, but it is very widely held. Similarly, this data about trends in youth culture will not likely change people’s assumptions about schools and youth.

Finally, this student data points out yet again that the common story about the history of American public education is just not true. Many of us assume that progressive types took over public education back in the 1930s. We think that since the 1930s (or maybe since the 1960s) public schools have been dominated by progressive educators from fancy teachers’ colleges and think tanks. It’s just not true. Throughout their existence, public schools have reflected the values of their local communities. When those communities change their ideas about sexual activity, so too do their local schools. Educational change hasn’t come from high-level meetings by New York leftists, but rather from more nebulous and  hard-to-trace shifts in social trends.

Why do more and more young people seem to be avoiding early sexual activity? I don’t know, but I’ll guess: It’s not due to any sex-ed curriculum they’re receiving in their Health classes. No, the change in reported sexual activity is more likely due to changes in our whole society about the allure of sexual intercourse. After all, as we like to say here at ILYBYGTH, schools don’t change society, schools ARE society.

Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.

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Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Read This Before You Freak Out…

Conservatives might be shooting their guns in the air to celebrate. Progressives might be shedding a tear in their IPAs. Whether it’s a triumph or an apocalypse, it’s not a surprise: The Ed Department is filling its ranks with more and more conservative, creationist leaders. Before we freak out, though, let’s take stock of the real situation.

zais

He’s coming for your public school…

First, the creationism part. The new pick for the education department’s undersecretary has made no bones about his creationist sympathies. As head of South Carolina’s schools, Dr. Mick Zais supported the removal of the idea of natural selection from the state’s science standards. As Zais told a local newspaper, “We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions.”

It’s not only creationism. Queen Betsy’s pick for undersecretary of education will make conservatives happy for a lot of other reasons as well. Zais comes to the nomination fresh off his post as South Carolina school superintendent. As Politico reports, Dr. Zais became a conservative ed hero for refusing to truckle to the Obama administration’s carrots and sticks.

In South Carolina, Zais pushed hard for vouchers. Time and time again, vouchers are embraced by conservatives who hope to shift public-school money to private schools, often religious schools.

When Zais’s zeal is added to DeVos’s enthusiasm, it might seem to progressives and conservatives alike that conservatives have finally triumphed in the world of educational politics. If ILYBYGTH cared about clickbait, we would certainly write something that exploited that sort of attitude. But we don’t and we won’t. Because, in historical perspective, this moment of conservative triumph looks much less triumphant than it might seem at first.

First, let me repeat the caveats SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing: My own politics skew progressive. I think creationism has no place in public-school science classes. I am horrified by Queen Betsy and I think President Trump’s leadership is a blight on our nation that won’t be easy to recover from.

Having said all that, I’m not interested this morning in fighting Trumpism but rather in understanding it. And when we see Queen Betsy’s reign from the perspective of the long history of conservative activism in education, we see just how wobbly her throne really is.

First, as I noted in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, today’s conservative push for charters and vouchers is both a novelty and a concession. Milton Friedman promoted the idea of charter schools way back in the 1950s, and nobody listened. Even the free-marketiest of Reaganites didn’t care much about promoting alternatives to traditional public-school funding.

Take, for example, Reagan’s second ed secretary, William J. Bennett. He was far more interested in pushing traditional moral values and classroom rules in public schools than in gutting public-school funding.

What happened? Only in the 1990s did conservative education pundits embrace the notion of charters and vouchers. They did so not as a triumph, but as a grim concession to the obvious fact that they had been stumped and stymied by their lack of influence in public schools.

So when conservative heroes like Queen Betsy and Superintendent Zais push for alternatives to traditional public schools, progressives should fight back. But we should also recognize that the conservative drive to fund alternatives results from conservatives’ ultimate failure to maintain cultural control of public schools.

Plus, the language used by conservatives these days represents another long-term progressive victory. In his public argument for voucher schools, for example, Superintendent Zais voiced his agreement with progressive ideas about the purposes of schooling and public policy. Why should we have more vouchers? Quoth Zais, vouchers will provide “more options for poor kids stuck in failing schools.”

I understand Zais may be less than 110% sincere in his zeal to promote social equity through public school funding. Nevertheless, the fact that he felt obliged to use that sort of progressive reasoning shows how dominant those progressive ideals have become.

In other words, if even South Carolina’s conservatives adopt the language—if not the authentic thought processes—of progressive thinking about the goals of public education, it shows that progressive ideas have come to dominate our shared beliefs about public education.

On the creationist front, too, Zais’s conservatism shows the long-term decline of conservatism. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that creationists fought and often won the battle to have evolution utterly banned from public schools. These days, all Zais can dream of is maybe wedging some worse creationism-friendly science into public schools alongside real science.

Science educators won’t like it. I don’t like it. But once again, before we freak out, we need to recognize the long-term implications of our current situation. The dreams of creationists are so far reduced they no longer preach the abolition of evolution. If you ask creationist leaders these days what they want in public schools, they’ll tell you they want children to learn evolution, “warts and all.”

We don’t agree about that. And we don’t agree about the value of vouchers. I’m not even ready to concede that Dr. Zais and I agree on the best ways to use public schools to help alleviate poverty and improve the economic life chances of kids in lower-income families.

And I’m perturbed. I’m frightened by Queen Betsy. If he’s confirmed, I’m guessing I’ll be alarmed by Dr. Zais’s work.

I also know, though, that the seeming strength of conservative thinking these days is an illusion.

Obama-Core?  More like Conserva-Core!

Who’s to blame?  In this year’s ferocious presidential debates, GOP candidates are falling all over themselves to point fingers about the Common Core State Standards.  Jeb Bush, who still supports the standards, has come under withering attack from folks such as Mike Huckabee, who used to.  A new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution lays out the real history of the standards.  It’s true: If we have to assign praise or blame for these standards, we should be looking to the right.

Report author David Whitman does a nice job of detailing the story back to the 1980s. Still, I can’t help but be miffed when he says that this is a “surprising” story, one that “few are familiar with, and even fewer have written about.”  Of course, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, your humble editor has been trumpeting this history in these pages and in venues such as Time Magazine.

Conservative intellectuals, too, have done what they can to draw attention to this history.  In the pages of The Weekly Standard, for instance, free-market maven Michael Petrilli has told the story to anyone who will listen.

Such complaints aside, however, Whitman’s report is still worth reading.  He details the history of the Common Core standards themselves.  As he describes correctly, in the 1980s the drive for “high standards” was a leading conservative issue.  As Ronald Reagan’s second Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett pushed hard to make these standards a reality.

In the 1990s, Lamar Alexander continued the conservative push for more rigorous state standards.  Alexander never envisioned increasing federal control of local education.  Rather, he saw these standards as an appropriate way that the federal government could provide help to state governments as they hammered out their education policies.

Whitman also argues convincingly that conservative opposition to the standards is really about something else.  The standards themselves are fairly popular when they are not called “Common Core.”  Whitman blasts conservative politicians for using “the big lie technique” to smear the standards, to create misinformation among the public.  As Whitman cites, many Americans think the standards force children to learn about sex and evolution, when they really don’t.

Make no mistake about it: Whitman’s report is a partisan attack on conservative opposition to the Common Core.  And the SAGLRROILYBYGTH know that I generally don’t go for knee-jerk partisanship.  In this case, however, Whitman has his historical facts straight.

The Common Core was meant to be a conservative initiative.  It was meant to push schools toward more rigorous learning, away from touchy-feely progressive nostrums and toward ol-fashioned book learnin.

Whitman’s liberal glee at pointing out this irony is overdone at times, but his argument is still solid.  The Common Core represents an historic win for educational conservatives.  Why won’t they admit it?  Why do conservatives love to lose when it comes to education policy?

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.

Creationism, Conservatism, and the Common Core

What does creationism have to do with the newish Common Core Learning Standards? Some conservative activists and politicians are rejecting both in a knee-jerk attack on educational reform. In one new educational bill in Ohio, conservatives simultaneously threw out the Common Core and opened the door to creationism. But this isn’t just a question of creationism. Rather, this is a symptom of a broader conservative attitude toward public schooling.

Not just science, but history and literature are also targeted in this conservative educational power grab.

We first became aware of this new bill in Ohio thanks to the watchdoggery of the folks at the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE, naturally, worried first about the apparent opening of Ohio’s public-school science classes to intelligent design and creationism. Ohio’s House Bill 597 would insist on new standards that specifically “prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another.”  The sponsor of the bill, Andy Thompson of Marietta, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he included that language to allow school districts the freedom to include a variety of ideas about evolution, not to mandate that districts include intelligent design or creationism.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

But the anti-Common Core bill also includes a broad-spectrum attack on the purportedly progressive nature of school curricula in other subjects as well. The original draft of the bill specified that 80% of the literature taught must be from American or British authors before 1970, though Thompson quickly backpedaled from that goal. But why was such a target included in the first place? As I detail in my new book, conservatives since the 1970s have looked skeptically at the trend toward “multicultural” literature. Conservative leaders from Max Rafferty to Bill Bennett have insisted that proper education—conservative education—must be based on the classics of our Western civilization. Anything else, they insisted, dooms children to a savage unawareness of their own cultural heritage.

In history, too, the Ohio bill insisted that history instruction include

the original texts and the original context of the declaration of independence, the northwest ordinance, the constitution of the United States and its amendments with emphasis on the bill of rights; incorporate the Ohio constitution; define the United States of America as a constitutional republic; be based on acquisition of real knowledge of major individuals and events; require the study of world and American geography; and prohibit a specific political or religious interpretation of the standards’ content.

Here also we hear echoes of long-time conservative worries. From Lynne Cheney to Dinesh D’Souza, it has become a commonplace of the conservative imagination that leftist history has taken over public education. As I argued recently in a commentary in History News Network, conservatives assume that students are taught that American history is the record of cruel white hate crimes against Native Americans, women, and African Americans. The Ohio bill hopes to rectify this America-bashing by mandating “real knowledge,” not just hate-filled Zinn-isms.

As we’ve seen time and again, conservatives are not united in their thinking about the Common Core. Some conservatives love them….or at least like them. Others blast the standards as yet another attempt at sneaky subversion from Washington.

In this new Ohio legislation, we see how some conservatives combine their loathing of the Common Core with a grab-bag of other conservative educational goals: Less evolution in science class, more America-loving in history class, and less multiculturalism in literature class. Taken together, conservatives such as Ohio’s Andy Thompson hope to broaden the anti-Common-Core juggernaut into a more ambitious conservative panacea.

 

Learning by Discipline

What should schools do with students who behave badly?  Who assault other students?  Who treat teachers disrespectfully?

A new announcement about school discipline from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder might drive some conservative pundits to distraction.  Discipline, the two leading officials of the Obama Administration announced yesterday, must be more sensitive to student background and more responsive to individual situations.  Blanket zero-tolerance policies, they proclaimed, lead to worse school discipline, not better.

Those zero-tolerance policies, however, grew out of a groundswell of popular conservative opinion throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Conservative commentators and activists long complained that schools treated students too gingerly.  Good old-fashioned discipline, some conservative writers insisted, would help return schools to their proper role.  Instead of being places where polite students and teachers cower and wince at the domineering swagger of loud-mouthed punks, schools should be calm and orderly places where infractions of the rules are not tolerated.

Some studies have demonstrated the central importance of a reinvigorated school discipline to many conservative parents in the 1980s.  One Stanford study[1] of two new fundamentalist schools in the 1970s and 1980s found that leaders put bad discipline in public schools as one of their top reasons for opening their own school, right up there with “secular humanism,” “evolution teaching,” and the fact that “kids weren’t learning.”  In a fundamentalist school that opened in September 1974 with a grand total of eleven students, one teacher informed the Stanford researcher that most parents assumed that the fundamentalist school was “solving discipline problems the public schools could not.”

Another study, this one from Temple University in Philadelphia,[2] found that parents listed poor discipline as one of their top reasons for abandoning public schools in favor of private Christian ones.  Nearly 65% of switching parents listed “discipline” as a leading reason for changing schools.  By way of comparison, just over 68% of parents listed “secular humanism” as a primary reason for their switch.

It may come as no surprise that some conservative parents choose Christian schools out of fear of disorderly public schools.  Leading conservative religious writers throughout the 1980s insisted that public schools had utterly abandoned all attempt at imposing discipline.  Jerry Combee, for example, warned readers in a 1979 book,

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.

Similarly, in his 1983 book The Battle for The Public Schools, blockbuster fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye insisted that one of the vital reforms that could save education was a return of traditional discipline.  As LaHaye put it, “We must return discipline, authority, and respect to public schools”

In 1986, conservative Texas school watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler asked readers, “Why has discipline become so bad that policemen must patrol the halls of many schools?”  The Gablers’ answer was simple:

We were taught that if you plant potatoes, you get potatoes.  If you plant rebellion and immorality in children’s minds by teaching them that only they can decide what is right and wrong, that parents are old-fashioned, and that the Judeo-Christian Bible is a book of fairy tales, then what can you expect?  Garbage in—garbage out!

These conservative critiques of the sorry nature of school discipline were not limited to conservatives of a primarily religious background.  After his turn as Education Secretary under Ronald Reagan, William J. Bennett lamented the sorry state of school discipline.  In his 1994 book Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, Bennett cited a fraudulent but evocative historical comparison:

In 1940, teachers identified talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the halls; cutting in line; dress code infractions; and littering [as “top problems”].  When asked the same question in 1990, teachers identified drug abuse; alcohol abuse; pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault.

Due at least in part to this widespread sense that American public schools had reached a nadir of weak discipline, many states and school districts imposed variants of “zero-tolerance” policies.  According to these policies, student infractions would be met with an escalating series of ever-harsher punishments, including out-of-school suspensions and reports to police.  Politicians could claim that they were taking action to ensure a no-nonsense disciplinary attitude in America’s schools.

Yesterday’s announcement by Arne Duncan and Eric Holder represents the Obama administration’s repudiation of that zero-tolerance approach.  Though “zero-tolerance” may sound good, Duncan told an assembled crowd at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, “Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehavior.”  According to the Baltimore Sun, Duncan described a new federal approach that would de-emphasize suspensions and put more emphasis on creating nurturing in-school environments.  Attorney General Holder agreed.  Principals, not police, should be responsible for school discipline, Holder insisted.

Will conservatives care about this shift in school disciplinary policies?  If history is any guide, I’m guessing that conservatives will paint this new policy as yet another soft-headed, over-complicated liberal approach to a simple problem.  Folks such as Eric Holder and Arne Duncan may worry that zero-tolerance policies unfairly target racial minorities, but I’ll be surprised if conservative educational activists don’t complain that such social-science talk only obscures a far more obvious point.

If students misbehave in school, conservatives will likely insist, they should not be allowed to be in school.


[1] Peter Stephen Lewis, “Private Education and the Subcultures of Dissent: Alternative/Free Schools (1965-1975) and ChristianFundamentalistSchools (1965-1990),” PhD dissertation, StanfordUniversity, 1991.

[2] Martha E. MacCullough, “Factors Which Led Christian School Parents to LeavePublic   School,” Ed.D. dissertation, TempleUniversity, 1984.

Decadence and the Fall of American Public Education

Things today ain’t as good as when I was young.

That’s the central notion, the vaguely articulated impulse, the often-unexamined presumption behind a good deal of conservative educational rhetoric.  Schooling these days has declined from glory days of the past.

In an essay in The American Interest, Charles Hill warns of the real consequence of decadence in American life.

As Hill notes, the idea of civilizational decline and fall is an old one.  Yet Hill insists that it retains explanatory power; Hill makes the case that twenty-first century America is sliding into a dizzying downward spiral.  Everything from technologically induced “screen culture” to awkward proletarianization of elites can be better understood as part of a lamentable decadence.

As Hill concludes,

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, “decadence” arose as a romantically thrilling elitist fashion, providing a “sweet spot” in which a privileged, self-selected class could revel in dissolute practices while applauding their own cultural superiority. At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century something akin has emerged—call it a democratized form of decadence—among a far wider swath of the population, with the support of government and approbation of the cultural elite. Many observers have gazed upon such phenomena, then and now, and have seen mainly the sources of shifts in the art world. We move from the 1913 New York Armory Exhibition to mainstreaming of “street art” a century later rather effortlessly. But if what is at stake is world order, with national character and identity as its foundation stone, and democracy as the procedurally and practically most efficacious political form, then the fate of the art world may be the least of our concerns.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety.

Of particular interest here are its implications for American education.  Hill makes a few points about this himself.  For one thing, he notices the disturbing intellectual ramifications of “screen culture” especially among the young.  A generation accustomed to viewing people on computers, tablets, TVs, and phones, able to view without being viewed, Hill argues, adds a “new dimension” to old ideas about decadence.  Weaned on screen culture, Hill says, young people “can become oblivious to others.”

In a nuts-and-bolts way, Hill notes the way our current decadence has squeezed out learning in favor of training.

Of more consequence than the specific educational ramifications argued by Hill is the sense of decline Hill articulates.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is nearly impossible to understand the conservative impulse in American educational thought and activism without grasping the power of the idea of decadence.  Leading conservative intellectuals—even ones from very different backgrounds—have all grounded their educational philosophy on a notion that the educational system in the United States has ground down in a systematic pattern of decline.

In his landmark work Capitalism and Freedom, for example, free-market theorist Milton Friedman insisted that American public education entered a noticeable period of decline after the American Civil War when the government “gradually” (page 85) stumbled into the near-total “‘nationalization,’ as it were, of the bulk of the ‘education industry’”(page 89).

Conservative education leader Max Rafferty agreed about the decadence, but argued for a different time and cause.  The problem really began, Rafferty believed, in the 1930s, when “Dewey-eyed” reformers injected a deeply flawed notion of education into the American cultural bloodstream.  Instead of learning heroic truths and facing moral challenges, students in post-1930 “life-adjustment” classrooms only learned to revel in their own inability to determine right from wrong.  Such decadent teaching and learning, Rafferty argued in his 1963 book Suffer, Little Children, produced a weak generation, unable to combat the existential threat from “a race of faceless, godless peasants from the steppes of Asia [that] strives to reach across our bodies for the prize of world dominion.”

Though he viewed the goals of education very differently from Rafferty and Friedman, creationist leader Henry Morris agreed that public education had declined dramatically.  The root of the problem, Morris argued in his 1989 book The Long War Against God, lay in a one-two punch of Unitarianism and secularism.  The first blow had come in 1869, when Unitarians took over Harvard University.  Their example led American education away from its roots in what Morris considered to be authentic Christianity (pages 46-47).  The second decisive weakening came later, with John Dewey’s rising influence in public education.  That influence, Morris argued, led public schools away from religion into a markedly anti-religious humanism.

These examples could be multiplied nearly endlessly.  William J. Bennett, for instance, has argued with his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators that American culture as a whole—especially including its public schools—has declined terrifyingly since 1960.

It is taken as an article of faith among many conservative educational thinkers and activists that education today is worse than it has been.

This is more than the common griping about “kids these days.”  This is more than the old story about how when I was young I had to walk to school barefoot, through ten feet of snow, uphill both ways.

To understand conservative thinking about education, we have to understand this assumption of decadence.  Not many activists articulate this sentiment as clearly as the intellectuals described here.  Not many offer the careful examination of the meanings of decadence expressed by Charles Hill’s recent essay.

But behind many of the policies promoted by educational conservatives lurks this ubiquitous sentiment: things today are worse than they have been in the past.  Schools today are worse than they have been in the past.

 

Does Reading the Bible Make Children Violent?

Does reading the Bible lead to violent crime?  That’s the question nobody is asking these days.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask: Why not?

After all, it seems violent crime has been falling in the past few decades.  Those have been the decades in which American children no longer prayed or read the Bible in their public schools, officially at least.

Religious conservatives have long bemoaned the social dangers of kicking God out of public schools.  Is it only fair, then, to blame God for all the rapes, burglaries, and assaults that haven’t been happening lately?

That doesn’t seem like a comfortable suggestion for most religious conservatives.  Yet thoughtful conservatives must recognize that they have long warned about the dangers of removing traditional religion from public schools.  Some of those warnings, at least, seem to have been flipped on their heads.  Without mandatory Bible-reading in public schools, American society has grown noticeably less violent.

This is not what religious conservatives have predicted.

In 1942, for example, Bible activist W. S. Fleming insisted that more states must pass mandatory Bible laws for their public schools.  As I noted in my 1920s book, these mandatory Bible laws were a prominent but little-noticed element of 1920s educational culture wars.  Fleming, a former Chicago pastor and full-time activist for the National Reform Association, claimed that Bible laws for public schools would enable society to maintain basic morality.  Fleming pointed out that most states gave Bibles to prison inmates.  Why not skip the middle man, he asked, and deliver the Bibles to the schools?  If Ohio had followed this suggestion in 1925, he recalled, “as her neighbor, Pennsylvania, did, with the same result, more than half of her present 9,310 convicts would now be law-abiding citizens.”[*]

Two decades later, just after the Schempp decision by the US Supreme Court seemed to eliminate Bible reading from public schools, William Culbertson of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute warned that the decision did not bode well for America’s public safety.  “No nation can turn its back on God without tragic consequences,” Culbertson cautioned.  “We have traveled a sorry road of unbelief in the less than two hundred years of our country’s history.  The Supreme Court decision—and our willingness in many cases to justify it—say plainly that a sorrier road may lie yet ahead!”[†]

Similarly, in the early 1980s, Donald Howard, creator of the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum and an energetic supporter of independent evangelical schools, preached a fiery jeremiad about the dangers of removing Bibles from public schools.  Because “the Bible by judicial review [had been] legislated out of the schools,” Howard warned, schools in the 1970s suffered from an array of terrible problems, including “X-rated textbooks,” 70,000 assaults on teachers in one year, violence, vandalism, alcohol and drug abuse, a profusion of “witchcraft and the occult,” and rampant deviant sexuality.  This lamentable situation, in Howard’s opinion, underscored the need for independent evangelical schools.  Only there, he argued, could students be safe from the perils of the now-Godless schools.[‡]

In the 1990s, prominent conservative intellectual William J. Bennett published his blockbuster Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.  This collection of worrisome statistics demonstrated, Bennett claimed, what happened when a society abandoned its traditional moral teachings.  Crime soared, despair ruled.  Though Bennett noted a dip in crime during the 1990s, he argued that since 1960 the trend was clear: less traditional morality meant more violent crime.

Less prominent conservatives, too, warned that schools without prayer and Bibles led directly to a wave of violent crime.  By “kicking God out of public schools,” Americans traipsed foolishly down the path to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Without prayer and the Bible, religious conservatives have insisted, public schools had turned into sin factories.  Young people did not learn to check their carnal instincts.  They killed and fornicated with abandon.

So what does it mean about Bibles in schools if violent crime has dropped precipitously in recent decades?

As reviewed in a fascinating article in this week’s Economist, violent crime has plunged in industrialized nations around the globe in the past twenty-five years.  As the article describes, talking heads have ascribed this happy circumstance to an array of possible causes: more abortions, fewer young men, better policing, even better violent video games.

Back in the 1950s, when the US Supreme Court had not yet “kicked God out of public schools,” violent crime skyrocketed.  To be consistent, we must ask: Did all that violent crime result from students reading the Bible?  Saying the Lord’s Prayer?  If conservatives predicted that removing Bibles from schools would cause more violent crimes, must they now acknowledge that the USA is a safer place without all that school Bible-reading?

 


[*] W. S. Fleming. God in Our Public Schools. 3rd ed. (1942; repr., Pittsburgh: National Reform Association, 1947), 90.

[†] William Culbertson, “Is the Supreme Court Right?” Moody Monthly 63 (July-August 1963): 16.

[‡] Donald Howard, “Rebirth of a Nation,” Facts About A.C.E. (Lewisville, TX: Accelerated Christian Education, n.d. [1982?]), 25.