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.


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.


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.


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.


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).