Alfie Kohn: The religious right’s fight over education
By Alfie Kohn
Christian conservatives are banning books and censoring school curricula — and not for the first time. Materials dealing with sexuality and sexual orientation have always been popular targets for them; indeed, researchers have found that literally nothing outrages highly religious people more than “violations of conventional sexual morality.”
Their earlier attempts to restrict what can be taught in science class (such as how life evolves), meanwhile, have given way to prohibitions on what can be taught in history class (such as the prominent role that racism has played in American history).
But the authoritarian impulse has not stopped there. For one thing, many of the same activists have simultaneously mounted a campaign of intimidation against school authorities for implementing public health measures to prevent the spread of Covid. For another, they have begun “targeting school initiatives centered on students’ mental health and emotional well-being” — until recently viewed as an uncontroversial and even “unifying idea” — claiming that social-emotional learning (SEL) programs are efforts to “indoctrinate” children.
Even more ominous is how the right-wing furor over these issues has been leveraged to attack democratic public schooling itself. The primary provocateur stirring up hysteria about teaching unsettling historical truths (and about LGBTQ educators) has acknowledged that these organizing efforts are ultimately intended to destroy public education — a “naked attack on the very existence of public schools” that has been actively abetted by leading Republican politicians.
Alongside new laws to ban certain works of literature or readings about race, 22 states passed laws to expand “school choice” measures just in 2021. And all of this — the censorship, the attacks on public schooling, the anti-vaccine and anti-masking protests — is defended in the name of “parental rights.”
Mindful of Mark Twain’s observation that history often rhymes, I decided to revisit the last major surge in the religious right’s efforts to muzzle educators. It turns out that quite a bit of material from the 1980s and ’90s was available on my bookshelves and in my file cabinets. (Apparently if you live long enough and resist the urge to throw stuff out, you are no longer a mere hoarder but an “archivist.”)
One source I found was an account of how conservative Christians fiercely opposed multicultural language-arts anthologies in the 1970s.
James Moffett spent time talking with the leaders of that movement and came to realize that the rich range of ideas and viewpoints in those books was exactly what fundamentalists don’t want. They believe that most of the topics English teachers think make good discussion are about matters they consider already settled. The censors really wanted to fill up schooling with rote learning of facts and avoid student thinking. They wanted, for example, more grammar, which has no subject matter, and less literature.
As I sifted through other books and clippings, I discovered something interesting. The last time around, groups like the Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum were keen to control not only what students could be taught, but how they could be taught.
The most salient example of politicizing pedagogy concerned how children learn to read. A 1985 essay in Education Week explained that, to conservative activists, “only systematic phonics, employing sound-symbol decoding, is acceptable. . . Reading comprehension is to be taught . . . [using] didactic reading materials and literal-level questions.”
By the 1990s, Nicholas Lemann reported that reading instruction had become “one of the main organizing issues for the Christian Coalition.”
Legislation compelling teachers to rely on explicit phonics instruction was introduced by Republicans in many states — especially those in which the party was dominated by the Christian right.
Mel and Norma Gabler, known for their successful campaigns to censor textbooks in Texas (and then elsewhere), were also outspoken on this issue, as were Cal Thomas, James Dobson, John Rosemond and others. Pat Robertson announced that learning to read is “a breeze . . . if reading is taught the way God made us to talk — by syllables, by what is called phonics.”
The flip side of this defense of phonics was a coordinated attack on a model known as Whole Language, which critics sometimes confused with a “whole word” method of teaching reading and also falsely depicted as representing a complete repudiation of phonics.
Whole Language actually challenged the assumption that traditional phonics instruction is the only way to help kids learn to read and offered a broad array of strategies for decoding, typically teaching letter-sound correspondences in the context of making sense of engaging stories.
A child who is taught only phonics rules may be able to pronounce a word flawlessly without having any idea how it’s related to the words on either side of it or the ideas those words are intended to convey.
(In the decades that followed, conservatives have continued to demand explicit phonics instruction for everyone, but ironically their activism has been amplified by efforts to rebrand this campaign as “the Science of Reading” — even though good science actually fails to support it.) Viewed from a distance, it may seem odd that the way reading (or anything else) is taught would be as politically charged as curriculum content. I mean, you can see why conservatives might object to inclusive sex education or would prefer patriotic propaganda to a troubling discussion of historical realities, but why do they care about pedagogical strategies?
The answer turns on the central role that religious dogma has always played for social conservatives. That link was clear during the heyday of the Moral Majority, but these days less attention is paid to how religion continues to drive right-wing activism on a range of educational, social and political issues: the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol (which has aptly been termed a “Christian insurrection“) and the broader movement to keep Trump in power after he lost the 2020 election, QAnon and similar conspiracy theories (which are “propelled by religious faith and the language of evangelical Christianity”), the Ottawa truckers’ protest, and, indeed, virtually every variant of extremism that has come to define the Republican party.
Just as social conservatism is all about religion, so religion — or at least this version of it — is all about not only order and obedience, but also faith (which means belief without evidence) in the conviction that truth resides, fully formed, in certain texts.
Carole Edelsky, an emeritus education professor at Arizona State University, has explained that “the far right’s love affair with phonics” reflects its “universe of moral absolutes,” the goal being to decode “what is ‘there’ [and to affirm] appropriate hierarchies – the authority of text over interpretation and ultimately of (the Christian) God over man. To the theocratic right, promoting phonics is a tactic for asserting Christian control of schools.”
Whole Language, by contrast, not only encourages active interaction with texts but gives students choices about their reading and writing.
But to Phyllis Schlafly, any departure from strict phonics instruction makes it less likely that students will accept everything in the bible as literal truth.
Of course, obedience also figures prominently in the religious right’s insistence that parents should rely on corporal punishment to break a child’s will. Thus, it’s fascinating to hear conservatives talk about discipline and pedagogy in the same breath, as did one member of the Texas State Board of Education in the 1990s who put a list of rules for her four children “on the refrigerator, what they got a swat for and what they didn’t get a swat for. Those were the rules of the house. You obeyed those rules or you didn’t” — just as in school “we tell children what is right, how to spell a word, what the correct answer is.”
But reading was not the only example of how conservatives’ educational activism made the jump from curriculum to pedagogy. They were also enthusiastic about Direct Instruction, in which teachers read from prepared scripts, drilling children on the basics of each subject in a highly controlled, even militaristic, fashion, offering reinforcement for correct responses as if they were training pets.
In 1998, highly complimentary articles about this method (and its creator, the behaviorist Siegfried Engelmann) appeared in the National Review and the house organ of the conservative Heritage Foundation, while an endorsement of E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy was featured in the Eagle Forum newsletter. (A “bunch o’ facts” conception of education pairs well with a teacher-centered, control-based form of instruction.)
Right-wing activists, in short, didn’t just insist that children must be protected from ideas that might lead them to question their parents’ worldview; they also wanted to make sure that learning itself is conceived as a fundamentally passive process. The teacher’s job is to transmit objective facts and absolute truths; the student’s job is to absorb them.
Educators who instead emphasize active learning, with children invited to construct meaning, pose just as great a threat to those on the right as those who reveal disturbing truths about racism or debunk a beloved fable about the origin of life on earth.
It’s entirely possible that religious conservatives will again decide that issuing education gag orders is not enough and will also demand traditional forms of teaching. That should alarm all of us who want students to read critically and with deep understanding, to think deeply, remain curious, and eventually participate in sustaining — or reviving — a democratic society.
FFRF Lifetime Member Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely about education, parenting and human behavior. His 14 books include The Schools Our Children Deserve, Punished by Rewards, and No Contest: The Case Against Competition. This article is abridged from an essay that appears on his website, alfiekohn.org, and includes references to the material he cites.