Religious Right “Christian nation” advocate and pseudo-historian David Barton has a special offer for teachers: From March 15-17, he’ll be offering a conference at his home base in Aledo, Texas, “designed to equip teachers from both public and private schools with the principles and techniques that were used in early American education and thereafter for decades.”
Warren Throckmorton, a Barton critic and professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, has an amusing list of things Barton could teach (but probably won’t) at the conference.
What I find curious is Barton’s promotion of techniques used in early American education as if that’s a good thing and a model for education today.
This is a common problem among supporters of the Religious Right, and it goes beyond the realm of education. They pine for the past – or, more accurately, a mythical past of their own making. They’ve conjured up a “Golden Era” that at least some of the people who lived through it would probably not recognize as being all that golden.
An old-fashioned schoolhouse is a charming place to visit but not so practical for education today.
The main problem with holding up the olden days as a model for schooling is that not a lot of children were educated back then. Sure, wealthy elites could hire private tutors to educate their children, but farmers and tradesmen often worked long hours and relied on their children for help. (In urban areas, kids often ended up putting in long hours in factories or mines.) What schooling there was tended to be seasonal and sporadic.
Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory education law in 1854. Most other states didn’t follow suit until after the Civil War. By 1918, all states had compulsory education laws on the books. Even then, drop-out rates were notoriously high. In 1930, only about 30 percent of students graduated from high school. The number didn’t consistently exceed 50 percent until after World War II. (The drop-out rate today is much lower at about 7 percent.)
And, of course, education back in this so-called “Golden Age” wasn’t extended to African Americans. If they had schools at all, black students were shuttled off to “separate but equal” institutions that were certainly separate but in no way equal.
The simple truth is that times have changed – most of us would say for the better. I’ve noticed that the people who yearn for the “good old days” are the folks who were at the top of the heap at that time – usually white Christian males like Barton. African Americans don’t wax nostalgically about the Jim Crow 1950s, nor do most women talk fondly about the days when their educational and professional opportunities were limited. Gays don’t yearn to return to the days when being gay could get you fired or imprisoned.
So, not surprisingly, I don’t recommend that teachers attend Barton’s confab to get a dose of his long-debunked “Christian nation” propaganda. However, I do have a suggestion for those of you who have family members or friends who are teachers, especially those who labor in our increasingly beleaguered public schools: Surveys show that the average teacher spends $500 out of his or her own pocket on supplies every year. A gift card from Staples or Target would sure help offset that a bit.
P.S. You can also support public education by opposing efforts to siphon away its support through vouchers and other schemes. This is especially important as “School Choice Week” wraps up. Arm yourself with some facts and learn how to take action here.