Toe the Line: Joseph Lancaster and the Delusion of Early School Reform
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.
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 end of the 1820s, 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.
In my new book, tentatively titled Toe the Line: Joseph Lancaster and the Delusion of Early School Reform, I’m exploring this first episode in America’s long struggle with systematic urban school reform. In the first decades of the 1800s, reformers and politicians learned the bitter lessons that new generations of reformers from John Dewey to Michelle Rhee have found themselves relearning in every century.
Why is school reform so difficult? As Joseph Lancaster’s dramatic story illustrates, reformers overpromise. They sell an impossibly simplistic bill of goods. Politicians latch on, desperate for votes, desperate to be seen taking decisive action. Parents and teachers allow themselves to hope. Every time—in every city, in every century—when the dust settles, ambitious reformers and politicians have moved on and schools stay the same.
Why Is Jesus on a Dinosaur? Finding New Middle Ground in our Creation/Evolution Wars
“Okay, okay,” she said. “But why do they put Jesus on a dinosaur?”
My sister-in-law and I were a lot alike. We were both pretty secular folks. We were both pretty progressive voters. And we were both flummoxed by American creationism. For the past few years, I had made a habit of studying the history of American creationism, fundamentalism, and conservatism. So out there on the porch one night, Liz asked me about it.
Why, oh why, she asked, do so many bizarre images pop up when you do an internet search for Jesus on a dinosaur? How can something like creationism that seems so crazy to me seem so obvious to so many of my fellow Americans? And most important, why are we still arguing about it? How is it possible in this twenty-first century that we still can’t agree about evolution?
In my new book, I’m trying to answer those questions for all the people out there like Liz and me. In some ways, once we get to know it, American creationism is even weirder and more outrageous than we might have thought. In other ways, though, our ideas about it are really more about ourselves than about Jesus or dinosaurs.
If we want to understand creationism, we have to start with a few difficult truths. First and foremost, we need to look in the mirror and realize that we might be profoundly ignorant about both creationism and evolution. If we think we are simply on the side of enlightenment and education, pouring knowledge into a vestigial pool of antiquated ignorance, we are guilty of putting too much faith in our own press releases.
Second, we need to recognize a few things that creationism in America is not. It is not a holdover from an older, stupider America. Today’s sort of creationism is a profoundly modern thing, newer than space travel and rock ‘n’ roll. Creationism is not holed up in hillbilly hollers and other outposts of Deliverance-style Americana. Every big city, university, and government building is full of creationists of one sort or another. And, most important, creationism is not a result of simple ignorance about science. Creationists aren’t people who just haven’t yet heard the news about Darwin and his finches.
Finally, we have to come to terms with the difficult idea that we don’t disagree about evolution as much as we might think. Yes, there are radicals on both sides who keep telling us that we do. But once we spend time getting to know our creationist neighbors, it’s impossible to dispute the fact that we have a large and productive middle ground. Our disputes are not really even about science or religion, but about something else. Once we recognize this fact, we’ll be able to see a clear two-point recipe for a better way to talk about creationism and evolution education.
This book will help bring my academic research about creationism—and that of my many mentors and colleagues—to a wider audience. In seven chapters, I will examine key elements of American creationism in an attempt to help people like me understand what creationism really is. Chapter one will lay out the vast variety of creationism in the United States. Chapter two explores its twentieth-century history. In chapter three, I look at the ways creationists often view evolution as more than just a scientific theory. Next, I examine the fact that most people don’t know much about evolution, whether or not they say they believe it. In the following chapter, I look at creationist schooling. How is it possible, I ask, for someone to be educated and aware, yet not accept evolution? In the last two chapters, I make the argument that too much of our ongoing creation/evolution debate has been stymied by the language of religious conversion, an either/or proposition that pushes both sides into unhelpful positions. If we can avoid apocalyptic thinking, we’ll be better able to take advantage of the obvious fact that we don’t really disagree all that much about evolution. Even radical creationists want their kids to learn about evolution. And even radical secularists want public schools to teach evolution without preaching any religious doctrine.
I’m happy to report that this work has been funded by a generous fellowship from the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. Their program in Humility and Conviction in Public Life has funded me for full-time work on this project.
When will it hit the shelves? Hard to say, but not for a while yet. I have a draft of the manuscript in hand and I’m tinkering with it. I still need to find a publisher and all that will take some time. I’ll keep you posted.
Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education
Oxford University Press, 2018
[UPDATE: The book is coming soon! Pre-orders have shipped and the official release date is March 1, 2018. A million thanks to the funders, readers, and archivists who made it possible and pleasant.]
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?
In my new book, tentatively titled 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, too, 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?
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.
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 meant 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.
- Or how about Andrew Petto’s take in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education, in which he says:
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?
- And don’t forget Kunal Parker’s review essay in the Tulsa Law Review, in which he considers OSR along with Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God:
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.
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
[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).
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.
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.
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.