Books by Adam Laats

Quick options {Click on a book or scroll down to read about em all}

Work in Progress:


What’s Cookin’:

Common Sense Schools: The Origins of American Public Education

It’s odd to see the statue still standing there outside the Massachusetts State House, blithely repeating the myth that Horace Mann was the “Father of the American Public School System.” It’s even stranger to see that myth reprinted by journalists and scholars who should know better.Horace Mann Statue

Historians such as Carl Kaestle, William J. Reese, Kabria Baumgartner, Hilary Moss, and others have long since laid that myth to rest. Put simply, there was no “Father” to American public schools. For one thing, public schools had always existed in one form or another. You can’t “Father” something that already exists. Plus, the reforms of Horace Mann and his allies didn’t change things as much as Horace Mann said they did. Yes, there was a big, important common-school reform movement in the 1840s and 1850s, but in the end, reform in practice did not resemble reform in pamphlets.

Because the true story is so complex, the pamphlet version—the self-serving heroic story told by Horace Mann himself—still gets far more attention than it deserves.

Even among historians, there isn’t a single book out there that offers a big-picture look at the ways common schools really came into being. Instead, an outmoded, decades-old framework of reform and resistance still dominates the way historians talk about the emergence of public schools in the 1800s.

The common-school reform movement of the mid-1800s did not simply leap into existence full-grown from the mind of elite reformers like Horace Mann. Rather, the reform had a complex evolutionary history; it worked only insofar as it tapped into evolving ideas about public education, newly common-sense ideas about the ways schools should work. A fuller history will have to recognize the vital role played by non-elite, non-white reformers, not only as resisters and blockers, but as reformers and shapers. It will have to take into account the failures as well as the successes of common-school reform, asking anew the fundamental question: How did common schools happen?George Combe phrenological chart

It won’t be easy. In order to manage the enormous nature of the research, I plan to focus on a few specific reforms of the era, some of which succeeded and some of which did not. For example, Horace Mann himself wanted common schools to be racially segregated, but in Massachusetts at least they were soon integrated, not thanks to Mann. Mann wanted schools to be guided by phrenological science and child-centered pedagogy, but neither of those ideas took hold. Mann hoped schools would be guided by centralized curriculum. He promised that they would bring together children from richer and poorer families, but neither of those things happened, not really. On the other hand, Mann’s vision of more and better education for teachers became a reality. By examining the ways these specific reform ideas evolved in real schools, we will gain a better understanding of the roots of public education.

And it still matters. For too long, Americans have tended to look for simple solutions to complex school problems. They have listened far too eagerly to silver-bullet, high-tech prescriptions for complicated issues. The legacy of Horace Mann, in part, is the American tendency to heed reformers who insist they can make radical improvements without radically increased investments.

I’ll be heading back into the archives soon, so wish me luck. It will be easy to rehash Mann’s famous and well-publicized vision, but the trick will be finding the ways real schools actually changed, and the real reasons why.


Monster. Messiah. Schoolmaster:

Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840

America has always been terrified of its children. Never more so than in the early decades of the 1800s, when packs of youths roamed the bursting new cities of the new united States. Small wonder, then, that a reformer who promised to round up these youths, to Americanize them, civilize them, and educate them, would be greeted with open arms.

lancaster schools
Keep those toes on the line!

As have so many school reformers after him, Joseph Lancaster promised everything.  His new schools would sweep city streets clean of lounging, threatening urchins.  Lancaster’s system would teach them to be citizens, to read, write, and pray properly.  It would turn feckless youth into proper Americans, and it would do it all without costing a single extra cent.

Lancaster’s schools promised to turn New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore into modern cities, not just collections of provincial villages.  They promised more than just new schools; they’d create a whole new system, a new way of ordering urban chaos.

The eager city boosters who pushed for Lancasterian schools learned their lessons the hard way.  They were the first generation of school reformers to find out that school systems needed more than just schematics and instruction manuals.  They needed more than flashy new technology and assurances that they were on the cutting edge of modern city planning.  They needed more than earnest, energized, self-sacrificing teachers, parents, and students. As reformers in every century have discovered over and over again, there is no silver bullet.  No matter how painstakingly modern, how alluringly metropolitan, how theoretically feasible, no school reform can solve all of society’s problems, especially if it promises to do so on the cheap.

By the middle of the 1830s, city leaders in the United States found out what London’s elites had decided years earlier.  Lancaster was no savior.  His overinflated promises couldn’t match the difficulties of corralling and educating a modern city’s children.  His relentless self-promotion couldn’t erase the complicated issues of finance and discipline that modern urban school systems needed.  The promise of Lancasterian schools collapsed just as suddenly as it had taken over.

Historians have tended to walk away from Lancaster’s story at that point. From the ashes of Lancasterian mania, they’ve explained, rose the new, totally different common-school reform movement. But that’s not really the way it happened. Instead, the true importance of the Lancasterian movement emerges in spite of Lancaster himself. Lancaster’s ideas flopped, but by committing city leaders to providing schools for all–what they often called “universal” education–the Lancasterian movement became the starting point for America’s urban public-school systems.

In my new book, tentatively titled Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840, I’m exploring these poorly understood roots of America’s urban public-school systems. Here’s how I’m thinking about it: Lancaster was not the father of American public education, nor even its unintended midwife. No, Joseph Lancaster was more like a bumbling birth-control quack, selling shoddy snake-oil contraceptive devices. When they didn’t work—as it seems clear in retrospect they obviously wouldn’t—American urban public-school systems were born by accident.

new york free school
The bait: Cheap basic education for the masses. The result: Modern public-school systems.

Lancaster’s fantastical descriptions were the bait that hooked urban elites on the promise of education for those who couldn’t afford it. Once they took that bait, they were committed to making the system work, even if it were not recognizable by the time they were through. And here’s the thing: the most important players in the story were not those elite reformers. It was certainly not Joe Lancaster. No, the people who had the biggest impact on the shape of early urban public schools have never been recognized. In this book, I tease out the leading role they played.

PREVIEWS–Lancaster may have died a grisly death way back in 1838, but the legacy of his failed reform is depressingly relevant to today’s schools:

  • At the Atlantic, I gave the real history of religion in public schools, a history that blows big holes in recent Supreme Court decisions.
  • At the Washington Post, I examine the way Chief Justice Roberts mis-read the history of religion in early public schools.
  • When schools run into problems, reformers have always blamed teachers. It’s a story two hundred years old–I lay it out in the Washington Post.
  • With Victoria Cain for Kappan, I tackle the eternal question of school tech. What did the Lancasterians do? Why did it fail? What’s the lesson for today’s school leaders?
  • The pandemic raised centuries-old dilemmas of student attendance. For the Washington Post, I dig up the history. Turns out students have always held veto power over public schools.


Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution

Who are America’s creationists? What do they want? Why do they think Jesus rode around on a dinosaur? In my new book, I argue that common misconceptions about creationism have led us into a full century of hapless and unnecessary culture-war histrionics about evolution education and creationism. In fact, tough as it might be to notice, America does not now and never has had deep, fundamental disagreement about evolution.

If we only read the headlines, that statement might seem obviously false. After all, as we’ve seen in Gallup polls since the 1980s, nearly half of Americans say they think our species was created pretty much as-is within the past 10,000 years. And of those creationists, about a quarter have been to college.

gallup 2014
It sure SEEMS like we disagree…

For those of us who aren’t creationists, it is difficult to understand how so many people—apparently even educated people—can cling to such outlandish anti-scientific ideas. Yet it doesn’t take much time to find more evidence everywhere we look.

In recent state school-board elections in Texas, for example, front-runner Mary Lou Bruner thought dinosaurs had survived Noah’s flood on the ark. For what it’s worth, Bruner was also convinced that President Obama had put himself through law school by working as a prostitute. It’s not only down in Texas. When President Trump picked his cabinet, he chose ardent young-earth creationist Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Education Department Secretary Betsy Devos has done more than just endorse creationism; she has funded creationist pundits and schools.

Are they simply dummies? Wacky conspiracy-theorists like Mary Lou Bruner sure seem like it. But that label is hard to accept in the case of Dr. Carson, a leading pediatric neurosurgeon. Can someone be a dummy if he invents a new way to operate on baby’s brains? Explaining away creationism as mere stupidity doesn’t seem to fit. Yet it is easy enough to find people who will tell you that it does. Atheists such as Oxford’s Richard Dawkins famously dismissed creationism as merely an outbreak of ignorance, insanity, or sheer wickedness. For some people, Dawkins’ explanation might be enough.

For the rest of us, however, Dawkins’ angry harangues don’t really help. We might not like creationism or understand creationists, but the answers don’t seem as stark and simple as Dawkins says they are. So where can we go next? If we hope to understand America’s culture wars over creationism, we tend to get caught in an unproductive loop. The most active pundits and writers about creationism tend to be the angriest on both sides. Radical creationists tell us that evolution equals atheism. Radical atheists agree, and insist that creationism is only for the radically ignorant.

Jesus on a dinosaur.jpg 1
Why do creationists put Jesus on a dinosaur? Short answer: They don’t.

Not surprisingly, the truth is more complicated. Though it might not seem possible to the casual observer, the battle lines in American culture between creationism and evolution are not really between creationists and the rest of us. There is not a stark and simple divide between religious creationists who think the earth was made 6,000 years ago and atheist scientists who disagree.

Americans do have significant disagreements about creationism, though, and once we press into the history of the creationism culture wars, those actual battle lines leap into high relief. Hard as it may be to believe, the real battle is not between creationists and evolution. Americans are not and never have been locked in a culture war between creationists and evolution. We could not possibly be, for two fundamental reasons. First, today as in the past, almost all Americans are creationists of one type or another. At the same time, almost all Americans, including creationist Americans, want their children to learn rigorous, mainstream evolutionary science.

These facts aren’t hidden, yet they remain shocking to those who do not understand the real world of American creationism. Creationism USA explains the history and current state of America’s true battles over creationism. It offers a nuanced but simple prescription to solve them.

The book’s recipe is straightforward. In order to understand the creationist culture wars—the real ones, not the phony headlines—we need to begin with a better understanding of creationism itself. Next, we need to clarify the areas on which we really do disagree about evolution. They are not insignificant, but they can be overcome.

All of us—religious, secular, and not sure—need to recognize a few things: 1.) what creationism truly is in twenty-first century America and 2.) what we really want out of our public schools. In addition, all of us need to accept the fact that we can’t force other people to admit we’re right. In short, we might not agree about religion and science…but that’s okay. The division we’ve gotten used to fighting about isn’t really about those things at all.

In this book, I’m arguing that our true division about creationism is not between creationists and evolution-lovers, but between two other types of believers. Once we recognize this fundamental truth about American creationism we can notice new ways to get over our century-old go-nowhere battles about textbooks and Darwin.

Will everyone agree? Certainly not. But the fiercest opposition to this program will be from the very radicals who have warped and distorted our conversations about creationism for a full century. Once we understand real American creationism, we will be able to see how insignificant those radical voices really are.

Cheapskate Corner! Want to check out the book, but don’t want to cough up twenty bucks for it?

The reviews are coming in:

  • At Science Education, John Rudolph of the University of Wisconsin–Madison offered a smart, insightful review. There’s a paywall, but Prof. Rudolph asks some tough questions and gives some positive answers. For example: Is there any need for yet another book about creationism? Dr. Rudolph: “After spending some time with this highly readable and engaging book, I am happy to report that [Creationism USA] offers something quite new indeed.” Or this one: Why have creationist culture wars lasted so long? Dr. Rudolph: “In a nutshell, [Creationism USA] complicates the longstanding us‐versus‐them, creation–evolution narrative, and demonstrates convincingly that a more accurate framing is really us versus us.”
  • In Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Anj Petto nailed it. What’s the book about? As Petto writes, “we need to make it clear to the non-radical contingent of creationists that evolution education does not threaten their values. But the starting point of this process is to listen to what creationists really are saying about their concerns about the place of evolution in public life. If you are interested in promoting the acceptance of evolution among the general public, you should read this book!”


Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education

Oxford University Press, 2018

If you want to run for President as a Republican these days, there seems to be a new requirement. In addition to shaking hands, kissing babies, and eating barbecue, every GOP hopeful since Reagan has added a stop at a conservative evangelical college. Why? What do these schools mean in the fractious politics of culture-war America?Cover art final

In my new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, I’m exploring the complex history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education. In many ways, these schools have functioned as institutional hubs in the kaleidoscopic world of conservative evangelicalism. From Reagan to Romney, from Cruz to (Jeb) Bush, politicians hoping to woo the conservative religious vote have visited conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty University.

When the GOP contest kicked off for 2016, the tradition continued.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz jump-started the race in March, 2015.  Guess where he headed to make the announcement?  And when it came time for Liberty’s 2015 commencement address, was it any surprise that Liberty welcomed Governor Jeb Bush as a speaker? And today, the connections between the Trump White House and the Falwell mega-campus are tighter than ever. When it came time for President Trump’s first commencement address, there was little doubt where he’d go.

Cruz pays his dues, 2015.
Paying his dues…

It makes sense. Schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty, as well as Wheaton College, Biola, The King’s College, and a host of other institutions, have educated generations of evangelicals in the distinctive intellectual and cultural traditions of their faith. Students at these schools agree to more rigid lifestyle rules than they would on secular campuses. And they agree to have their educations shepherded by faculties who have signed on to detailed statements of faith. Just as alumni of the Ivy League might brag about their alma maters, so alumni of these schools feel a distinct connection to their colleges. Politicians hoping to prove their conservative credentials want to jump on that bandwagon.

But that does not mean that these colleges are somehow monolithic.  The differences between these schools often loom larger than their similarities, at least in the world of evangelical Protestantism.  What does it mean to be “creationist?”  What changes are healthy, and what are dangerously heterodox?  And what is the proper, Godly relationship between men and women?  There is no single “evangelical” answer to these questions.  Just as at pluralist campuses, evangelical campuses have been rocked by controversy on all these issues.

But there is a palpable sense of connection.  There is something that unites the fractious world of evangelical higher education.  And in this book, I’m asking questions about it:  What did such schools hope to teach each new generation of evangelical student?  How did they hope to raise up new generations of faithful young people in a country that was slipping farther and farther into secularism?  And, importantly, how did students respond to these efforts?

If we hope to understand America’s continuing culture wars, we must make sense of the many meanings of these institutions.  After all, our culture wars aren’t between one group of educated people and another group that has not been educated.  Rather, the fight is usually between two groups who have been educated in very different ways.

Cheapskate Corner: Want to read more, but nervous about coughing up twenty bucks for the book? You can read author interviews around the interwebs:

  1. Why is it so difficult to lead an evangelical college? Read my interview with the Trollingers at Righting America.
  2. Why Fundamentalist U? Read an author interview at Inside Higher Ed.
  3. Read more at Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. Listen to an author interview at Phoenix’s KJZZ.
  5. Keeping the faith–read an author interview at Religion & Politics.
  6. Race, confessional theology, and Marilynne Robinson: A talk about Fundamentalist U (and other things) with Adam Holland of The Daily Brew.
  7. Can we ever get beyond our culture-war prejudices? Can studying schools help us understand religion? A talk about Fundamentalist U with Professor Andrea Turpin at Religion in American History.
  8. What do evangelical colleges mean to those of us who aren’t (at all) evangelical? Listen to my interview with Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta to find out.
  9. What are three reasons to read Fundamentalist U? Check out Justin Taylor’s recommendation at The Gospel Coalition.

The reviews are coming in:

  1. Professor John Compton pairs Fundamentalist U with R. Marie Griffith’s Moral Combat in the LA Review of Books. Compton’s verdict? Fundamentalist U “offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.”
  2. In the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley had some nice things to say and some insightful reflections. For example, why do so many evangelical colleges love President Trump so much? As Riley puts it, “Caught between the vast changes in American higher education and the religious families they are supposed to serve, fundamentalist colleges have had to be especially attuned to which way the cultural winds are blowing. Which may occasionally get them some incongruous commencement speakers.” Riley’s overall take? “Mr. Laats . . .  takes a topic that could easily be treated with condescension and turns it into the occasion for a fascinating and careful history. His discussion of the racial policies of these schools is especially enlightening.”
  3. Professor Barry Hankins in Christianity Today: As Professor Hankins notes, the “family feud” between fundamentalists and evangelicals often took place on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. And, as Prof. Hankins puts it memorably, “With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.” . . . “Overall, Fundamentalist U is an exhaustively researched and well-written book, even when it dwells on episodes we might prefer to forget.”
  4. In Reading Religion, Andrew Gardner writes, “At its best, scholarship on religion and American higher education produces fascinating studies about the ways in which religion engages in a unique and complex network of educational institutions that, in many ways, is unparalleled in any other country. Adam Laats’s book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher Education, falls within [this] category.”
  5. In History of Education Quarterly, historian Andrea Turpin of Baylor University, the author of a fantastic, award-winning recent history of American higher education, had this to say: “As a sympathetic outsider to the institutions he studies, Laats pairs depth of research and analysis with a commitment to rigorous fairness to his subjects. In Fundamentalist U, Laats does not merely explain the internal logic of an interesting, but isolated, group of colleges and universities; he also raises critical questions about the nature of broader American higher education and culture in the twentieth century. . . . Laats is an engaging writer, and the book’s chapters are filled with fascinating stories cleverly told. . . . Fundamentalist U reshapes our mental landscape of twentieth-century American higher educational institutions and is essential reading for understanding both their history and their present.
  6. Yes! Thanks to leading historian of evangelicalism Matthew Avery Sutton for a great review in American Historical Review. As Professor Sutton writes, Fundamentalist U is “an engaging, well-researched study of an important, understudied, and underappreciated aspect of American culture and life. The schools that he analyzes have produced generation after generation of students who have had a major impact on American society and politics. . . . Fundamentalist U is an excellent book.
  7. Another good one. From Harvard’s Andrew Jewett in the Journal of American History: Fundamentalist U is a superb book and a significant contribution to the histories of U.S. religion and politics as well as higher education.”
  8. A meaty, insightful review by Tim Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure, in Church History: “essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern evangelicalism. . . .Fundamentalist U further challenges three persistent myths that have also been targets of the new evangelical historiography. First, it demonstrates evangelical “orthodoxy” was an aspiration, a dream—and a fleeting one at that. . . . Second, Fundamentalist U. challenges the myth of fundamentalist “withdrawal from culture” between 1920 and 1970. . . .Finally, Laats demonstrates the utility of defining evangelicalism as a social network anchored by educational institutions. . . . Fundamentalist higher education may be an oxymoron to many outsiders, but Laats has convincingly demonstrated it has been central to American evangelicalism.”


The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education

Harvard University Press, 2015

[UPDATE: More good news!  I just heard that this book has been awarded the History of Education Society’s Outstanding Book Award for 2015.  Wow!  I’m very grateful to HES and to the selection committee.]

What have conservatives wanted out of America’s schools?

What has it OSRmeant to be “conservative” about American education?

When I started asking those questions a few years back, I went at finding the answers the wrong way.  At first, I visited the archives of prominent conservatives such as William Bennett and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But I realized that I was putting the cart before the horse.  If I wanted to find out what made someone “conservative” about education, I couldn’t pick out the proper conservatives ahead of time.  So, instead, I examined the four most famous educational controversies of the twentieth century.  I looked to see who showed up to advocate the conservative position. Using this method, I identified what I call “educational conservatism.”

In short, the tradition of educational conservatism has ranged beyond any single self-conscious movement or organization.  From the 1920s through the 1970s—and, I think, well beyond—conservatives have agreed on a few basic principles.  First, conservative activists have rarely questioned their shared assumption that schools matter, a lot.  Among conservatives just as among twentieth-century progressives, activists have assumed that what goes on in schools will determine what goes on in society.  As a result, conservatives have insisted that schools must push a steady diet of religion and patriotism on their students.  The specific meanings of proper public religion and patriotism have changed significantly, but conservatives have always insisted that schools must never wobble in their firm adherence to the inculcation of traditional values, however those values are understood at the time.

That’s my argument, anyway.  Is it any good?

To find out, you can listen to an interview at National Review with John Miller.

Or read some reviews:

  • In the pages of the Journal of American History, Kevin Kruse of Princeton University, author of One Nation Under God, had this to say:

Well researched, well written, and well argued, The Other School Reformers offers a clear, evenhanded account of conservative activism in public education.

Laats’s analysis of the social and political contexts in which this [conservative] resistance [to educational reform] occurs makes this book a must-read for anyone interested in or hoping to effect educational reform—whether in the sciences or in other disciplines.

  • No one knows more about conservative teachers and the history of efforts to teach anti-racism than Professor Zoe Burkholder.  In the pages of the History of Education Quarterly, here are her thoughts on the book:

The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education is the first comprehensive historical study of conservative educational activism in the United States. . . . Laats makes a compelling argument that a powerful tradition of educational conservatism has played a decisive role in shaping American public schools and culture from the 1920s through the present. . . . The Other School Reformers makes a vital contribution to the history of education by identifying a clearly discernable and politically powerful tradition of conservative educational reform in the United States since the 1920s. One of this book’s strengths is its ability to explain the connections between these four episodes separated by time and space, and also to account for such differences as the changing ways that conservative educational activists dealt with race and religion.

  • Another good one from historian Emily Straus, in American Historical Review (January 2017) 122 (1): 189-190 (subscription required):

    The Other School Reformers directly engages several historiographical discussions and will be of interest to historians in a variety of fields beyond the history of education and the history of conservatism. By looking at conservatives’ fights around education, the book fills in the shadow figures against whom progressives—a group that historians have written much more about—fought. It also broadens our understanding of conservatism in the twentieth century by illuminating the centrality of education. Any scholar interested in how to tell a national story through a local lens will also benefit from reading Laats’s work. By excavating conservatives’ activism around public school education and by helping to reframe the discourse around education, Laats’s account will enrich both historical and contemporary debates on education and politics.

  • Then there’s Mike Wakeford’s opinion in the blog of the Society for US Intellectual History:

The Other School Reformers is about big ideas and big questions. At bottom it is a valuable portrait of how Americans vie, in an ongoing way, to answer the questions that matter most: Why do we educate? What are schools for? And, in the context of crosscutting claims about the intrinsic relationship between ‘education’ and ‘democracy,’ what has, does, and should each of those terms mean?

If we are wont to think that American conservatives mobilized in opposition to Communism or Socialism, secularism, or the political demands of women and minorities, both Kruse and Laats, but especially the latter, show us how much conservative opposition in America has been directed against a modernist philosophical tradition that is uniquely the country’s own.  If American conservatives have long demonized unsavory ideas as foreign imports, they have also demonized the country’s own anti-foundational traditions.


Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

University of Chicago Press, 2016

What do we want out of America’s schoolchildren? . . . out of America’s creationists?  In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, my co-author Harvey Siegel and I tackle these difficult questions head-on.

Harvey and I review the historical and philosophical involved in America’s long culture-war battle over evolution and creationism.  Historically, I argue, creationism (in most of its religiously inspired variants) has worked like other forms of religious and cultural dissent.  Philosophically, Harvey reviews the tricky definition of science, as well as the most common objections to evolution education.teaching evolution in a creation nation

In essence, we argue that the best way to understand creationism is as a form of educational dissent.  By defining creationism that way, we can see some directions in which classroom policy should go.

Most important, we argue that the proper aims of public-school evolution education should be to inculcate a knowledge and understanding of evolution.  No creationist-friendly variants should be allowed in science classes as science.  But dissenting students must be allowed and even encouraged to maintain their dissent.  We can’t insist that students believe this or that about evolution.  Not in public schools, anyway.  We must insist, however, that students know and understand that evolution is the best scientific explanation of the ways life came to be on this planet.

Among the tricky questions raised by our book are these:

1.) Is “belief” an inherent part of good evolution education?  That is, should children in public schools be encouraged not only to know and understand certain facts about evolution, but to believe that evolution is really the best way to understand the roots of our species’ existence?

2.) Does it water down evolution education to allow dissenters to maintain their dissent, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence?

3.) From creationists’ perspectives, is it too much to agree that mainstream evolution science really is the best science?  Will creationists agree that their ideas are more religiously inspired belief than legitimate scientific dissent?

4.) Can teachers in the real world walk this line between teaching facts about evolution and teaching belief in evolution?

What do people think?  Early experts have given us some nice blurbs:

Glenn Branch, deputy director, National Center for Science Education

“What do you get when you cross a historian and a philosopher? If it’s Laats and Siegel, the answer is Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Thoughtful and provocative, historically detailed and philosophically informed, this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the conflict over evolution education in the United States.”
Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design
Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides not only a readable and reliable survey of past encounters but a sensible guide to future practices. Rather than promoting public-school classrooms as pulpits for converting skeptical students to evolution (which has rarely proved an effective technique in any case), they recommend helping students to understand the arguments and evidence for evolution. This book should be required reading for all evolution educators.”
Writing at the Huffington Post, David Moshman gets it.  Here’s how he describes the book:

[Siegel and Laats] take two uncompromising positions: We must not compromise on evolution education and we must not compromise the rights of creationist students. Recognizing the fundamental principles at stake, their goal is to show how we can fully respect both considerations. The key is to distinguish understanding from belief. . . . [TECN] provides a scholarly treatment of a complex issue. The book is short and readable, however, reaching conclusions that can, and should, be implemented in all biology courses. And it may reassure creationists that their children will be treated fairly.

The reviews keep rollin’ in!  Here’s what Professor Amy Lark of Michigan Technological University had to say in the pages of the American Biology Teacher:

Laats and Siegel manage to make this oft-discussed topic feel new and interesting….

The last few chapters are what set this book apart from most on the subject. Laats and Siegel firmly situate the evolution/creationism debate in the realm of culture, rather than science. Many evolution opponents worry that learning about evolution in school will challenge or insult their children’s faiths. The authors point out that this is not necessarily true. . . .Indeed, they argue, it is not the responsibility of science educators to make sure that students believe that evolution is true, but only to ensure that they understand how the process works. Belief, if it comes at all, will follow on its own. The authors  acknowledge the new minority position of evolution opponents and explain that while they value multiculturalism and the protection  of cultural minorities, “that doesn’t mean that their culturally specific beliefs should supplant the findings of mainstream science”(p. 95).

…or how about this one?  In the pages of Teachers College Record, Hasan Deniz of the University of Nevada–Las Vegas called it a:
highly readable historical overview of the evolution-creationism controversy. . . .  Evolution is not just another scientific topic for many students. The fact that learning about evolutionary theory has cultural and religious implications for defining one’s identity makes the publication of this book important for secular and non-secular people alike. The authors make a strong contribution to public understanding of this controversy by approaching the issue from both historical and epistemological perspectives.
In Metascience (requires subscription, sorry) philosopher Graham Oppy offered a great review.  As he described our argument,
it is unproductive to view the dispute between evolution supporters and evolution opponents as a dispute about science. Rather, the dispute between evolution supporters and evolution opponents should be seen as one part of the US legacy of religious dissent and cultural pluralism in public schools. If creationists and proponents of intelligent design are viewed as cultural dissenters with the same kinds of rights and responsibilities as other minority groups, then it is possible to think about how to create public school communities that are broad enough to include these dissenters on equal terms. While teachers have an obligation to teach evolutionary science to students, they also have an obligation to honour student autonomy, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the deep interests of students in cultural identity, continuity, and community. . . . Even those who are not fully persuaded by the policy prescriptions that Laats and Siegel provide will profit from reading this historically and philosophical informed book. The topic is very important; the treatment is careful, accurate, innovative, and fair. Two thumbs up from me.
Or how about this kind review by Victoria Cain in Historical Studies in Education:
After reading Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, I considered ginning up a
seminar in the history of science just to have the pleasure of discussing this lively,
accessible book with students. . . . The argument is optimistic, but not impractical. Like the book itself, the suggestion combines thoughtful logic with a generous respect for the varied participants in this ongoing conflict. . . . The book does an excellent job connecting seemingly isolated dots, explaining how cultural and intellectual realignments during periods of seeming silence on evolutionary education later helped to ignite serious conflict. New approaches to science and university education in the early twentieth century, post-war consensus among biologists about the legitimacy of the evolutionary synthesis, evangelicals’ increasing disillusionment with mainstream schooling and science in this same period, and the emergence of the concept of “intelligent design” all shaped the evolution battles that punctuated the twentieth century. . . . The book is a case study in how to write smart and short. It also offers some excellent examples of basic historical and philosophical procedure — chapter three is a model of how to approach seeming silence in the historical record. It is the perfect length for an introduction to the topic, and a welcome addition to the field’s literature.

Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars

Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Among historians, the Scopes Trial of 1925 hogs all the attention.  In my first book, I wondered what else conservative evangelical Protestants wanted out of American education.  The answers I found surprised me.  1920s book

This book was the result of my dissertation research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, guided by educational historian Bill Reese and historian of science and medicine Ron Numbers.  I couldn’t have asked for better mentors.
Is the book any good?  In his review, Keith Erekson of the University of Texas–El Paso wrote, “Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era convincingly makes the case that the Scopes trial–and the history of education in the 1920s–must be situated within the broader context of fundamentalist activities of the era. Fundamentalists–and, indeed, Protestants, in general–exerted an important influence on public education from elementary through university levels. And historians cannot separate church from state in their narratives of the past without leaving scholars all the more impoverished in the future.”