The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education

Author(s): Adam Laats

Source: Laats, Adam. 2015. The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press


Conservative and religious forces have established separate religious schools in the U.S. throughout the nation’s history. Have these same voices had an impact on American public education as well? Can educational conservatism be traced through the history of public schooling in the U.S.? And to what goals and influence? A new book by Adam Laats explores four historical conflicts in American education to consider how educational conservatism has shaped both schools and the culture of schooling in the U.S.

Four Historical Cases
Laats, a former high school teacher and historian, examines the role of conservative activism in education through four historical case studies, searching for commonalities of purpose and motive that shed light both on American education and larger conservative ideology. Spanning the twentieth century, the cases present some of the most famous school battles in American history, each attracting national attention and resulting in conservative definitions of what “proper education” should be. The cases include (1) the Scopes Trial of 1925, a public debate over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, (2) conservative activism related to social studies textbooks and questionable content in the form of anti-capitalist sentiment in the 1940s, (3) reaction to a progressive educational leader in Pasadena, California, who proposed changes to structure, funding, and zoning in the 1950s, and (4) controversy surrounding language arts textbooks and questionable moral content in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, which led to a school boycott. Through these cases, Laats demonstrates that education reform has not been solely a progressive endeavor; conservative efforts have also helped to shape our educational system.

Unifying Threads in Educational Conservatism
Laats argues that each episode, while rooted in a local issue, represented more than local concerns and brought conservative issues related to evolution, science, traditional v. progressive education, patriotism, communism, youth and peer culture, gender, and religion to the public square. Woven through each of these episodes is the central idea that schools matter for society and therefore what happens in schools is important. Laats interprets conservative effort in these conflicts as aimed at protecting both children and the nation. Through activism, conservatives sought to increase patriotism and public religion and thus ensure the continuation of traditional American values.

Although progressive reforms in education have led to the removal of prayer in public schools, more child-centered instruction, and increased development of critical thinking skills, current education reforms of today echo ideas of educational conservatism. Policies aimed at giving parents more choices in their children’s education, the importance of using market forces in education to improve the system, and greater oversight of teacher performance and classroom content, Laats argues are all rooted in ideas of educational conservatism.

While Laats focuses on conflicts in the area of public education, the same conservative forces that led to activism in the public schools also shaped the creation of private religious schools throughout U.S. history, beginning with the establishment of the Catholic school system in the 1800s through to the founding of evangelical Protestant schools in the 1960s and 1970s. Laats touches briefly on the founding of Christian schools in response to the textbook conflict and school boycott in the Kanahwa case, highlighting the strength of conviction that parents and church leaders held regarding the importance of classroom content in the formation of young people.

School-choice programs in a growing number of U.S. states are expanding access to religious schools to low-income families who otherwise would not be able to provide their students with religious, private education.  As these options expand nationally, Laats’s book demonstrates that opportunities for religious school leaders and parents to help shape education reform and influence the formation of a growing and diversifying group of students is possible via advocacy and activism at the local level and beyond.

Rather than solely a liberal or progressive effort, education reform in the public and private school sector suggests that educational conservatism has had and continues to have an important influence on what Americans consider to be central aims and objectives of education: the formation of youth for the good of society.    

Keywords: educational conservatism

Sector: Public

Outcomes: Civil and Political

Date Posted: 2015-06-05