Book Review

Conservatives and the History of School Reform

Adam Laats, The Other Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015)


Review by Mike Wakeford

With The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education, Adam Laats advances the intellectual histories of American school reform and the modern conservative movement. Organized around case studies of four schooling-centered controversies, Laats’ book identifies a strain of reformism that he calls “educational conservatism” and tracks it from the 1920s through the 1970s. Challenging scholarship that ascribes the prevailing traditionalism of American education to institutional inertia, Laats focuses on an “underexplored impulse” (8), the sustained influence of articulate individual and organizational voices in promoting conservative approaches to schooling. He sees a core stance running through the decades—he calls it “the tradition of defending tradition itself” (13)—and treats that prevailing commitment as a consequential player in the past century’s discussion about how schools shape society.

Laats begins in 1920s Dayton, Tennessee, at the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial where progressive firebrand Clarence Darrow and conservative William Jennings Bryan clashed in a show trial about the teaching of evolution. The Scopes affair is a familiar one—usually treated as a distillation of American culture’s halting embrace of modernity—but Laats gives it fresh meaning as a seminal moment for educational conservatives. Lampooned as regressive hayseeds amidst the trial’s media circus, they exited Dayton with a strengthened sense of the “need to organize” (72) around their emergent cause of fighting the progressive tide.

And organize they did. Laats’ next case studies consider two midcentury conservative uprisings that reflect a significant post-Scopes mobilization. In the early 1940s, school reformersconservatives noisily aired their disaffection with the popular “social reconstructionist” textbooks of Columbia University Teachers College’s Harold Rugg. Rugg was a leader among those who thought American schools were too devoted to the acculturating project of uncritical celebration of laissez-faire capitalism and profiteering ethics. Accordingly, his books aimed at reorienting schools toward what he considered more cooperative, rational, and democratic ends. Conservatives, channeling their views through the American Legion, the National Association of Manufacturers, and a proliferating set of smaller organizations, leveled charges of communism and anti-Americanism with some success. Similar energies swirled in 1950s Pasadena, California, where conservatives mounted an effective campaign to remove a prominent school superintendent who they charged—despite little evidence—with driving the district’s schools toward a vision straight out of the leftist halls of Teachers College. Laats presents this conservative coup as an outcropping of a broad national network of educational conservatives and anti-communist agitators coming to maturity in the early Cold War period. In the Pasadena instance, Laats’ readers begin to see clearly how educational conservatism was emerging as a tributary to the New Right that would flower a decade hence.

At book’s end, Laats studies the intense, sometimes violent, controversy over school textbooks in mid-1970s Kanawha County, West Virginia. The central figure is Alice Moore, a Kanawha County woman elected to the local school board atop a wave of popular sentiment that school textbooks were peddling progressive, tradition-eroding ideas—from dialect-sensitive approaches to grammar, to multiculturalism, to franker acknowledgment of human sexuality. The West Virginia debates were a watershed; as Laats tells it, the high-profile episode catalyzed the Christian school movement, provided a touchstone controversy on which a young Heritage Foundation cut its organizational teeth, and helped shape the “back to the basics” policy platform that would be taken to prominence a few years later by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell (232-233).

To his credit, Laats rarely questions his subjects’ sincerity or the authenticity of their curricular visions, crediting them as meaningful participants in an important civic conversation about the purpose of schooling. But he is no sympathizer, and asks difficult questions about what has really made the movement tick. Curious about the animating role of racial attitudes among educational conservatives, for example, Laats returns to this issue several times. He concludes that in Pasadena and Kanawha County both, white animus toward desegregation and racial liberalism, respectively, were an influential component of educational conservatives’ activism.

Laats’ case-study approach is sound, effectively accomplishing his stated purpose of avoiding falling into easy stereotypes and generalizations (5). It also required that he dip into a remarkably eclectic source base, which ends up as one of the book’s strengths. Given the public nature of educational debates, national and local newspapers from Tennessee to Pasadena to West Virginia provide the core. But the study is enriched by Laats’ use of state legislative records and evangelical publications from the 1920s, the archival and published record of the American Legion and other conservative groups, local school board records, and, in the case of Kanawha County, author interviews with key figures.

Today, when the power and agendas of educational conservatives make regular headlines, readers will inevitably understand the book as a prelude to the present. And to be sure, many of the conservative educational views that Laats explores are indistinguishable from the laments of latter-day culture warriors. And as Laats notes repeatedly, there are many ways in which educational conservatives’ commitment to educational stasis, not change, contributes to an inevitable sense of self-similarity between the voices featured in his four case studies. But along the way, there are also profound changes of focus and position. For example, in the 1920s many educational conservatives looked hopefully toward greater federal involvement in K-12 education, reasoning that more top-down control would advance a uniform program of Americanization and mitigate the curricular idiosyncrasies spawned by local control (55). But by the late 1940s in Pasadena, we see the prominent conservative Allen Zoll warning against the growing role of federal money in local districts and peddling paranoid theories of creeping socialist indoctrination (142-144). This kind of malleability—seen also in educational conservatives’ gradual shift from a concern with “communism” at midcentury to “secular humanism” in the 1970s (205)—adds texture both to Laats’ analysis and the movement he studies.

This book should appeal to intellectual historians, especially those with interests in educational reform, American anti-intellectualism (and particularly its anti-academic variant), and the intellectual genealogy of modern conservatism. Far more than a niche publication, however, The Other 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?

Mike Wakeford is Assistant Professor in the Division of Liberal Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. He writes about the arts and education in American Wakeford_headshotlife and the intersections of cultural and political thought. He completed his dissertation, “The Aesthetic Republic: Art, Education, and Social Imagination in the United States, 1900-1960,” at the University of Chicago in 2014.