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.


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