Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

The controversy started by British Secretary of Education Michael Gove about how to teach history (exemplified in his Daily Mail column from January 2) has continued for quite a while. With the majority of it focused on the historical causes of the First World War, and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year, it’s probably going to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite sometime.
But I was struck by a comment Gove made a few days earlier during a roundtable/interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on December 30. Towards the very end of the radio programme, Gove made a statement that got me thinking:

Kings and Queens are chapter headings.  They’re ways of dividing up the past and they’re also intriguing personalities.  If you talk about dividing history into Kings and Queens, that doesn’t mean you’re a monarchist.  It just means that you understand that one damned thing follows another.
In America, they break up their history by the personalities of presidents and what happened during that period.


This got me thinking, how do Gove’s pronouncements about how history ought to be taught pertain to the teaching of American history? Particularly, teaching that subject in the UK, as I am doing at present. Although my students all completed their compulsory history education before Gove’s efforts to reform the history curriculum took any effect, if I’m to continue to teach American history in the UK, I eventually would have students whose views of history are informed by Gove’s historiography. How could this matter?
Should I be breaking up my syllabus based on presidencies? The first week we barely discussed US presidents at all (topics: the Pig War, Fenian Raids and US-British relations post-Civil War leading to Canadian Confederation; the Homestead, Morrill Land Grant, and Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862; and the prairie wars with Native Americans from Red Cloud through Wounded Knee), but the second week we talked about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the debates over Reconstruction policies after Lincoln’s assassination, and the effects of Reconstruction on American industry, economy and culture. But are the periodizations we associate with US presidents equivalent to the reigns of monarchs?

So I put the question to my class, and asked for their reaction to Gove’s column. Several points came up:

Presidencies as Eras
With US presidencies, it’s sometimes easy to associate some of those with the terms of 8-year presidents (Eisenhower 50s, Reagan 80s, Clinton 90s, etc.) This led to some speculation as to whether the Obama era will be undervalued because it is split across two different decades. For that matter, why would we consider presidents as equivalent to monarchs, as opposed to, say Prime Ministers? For that matter, Obviously we hear talk about the Regency, the Victorian Era, and other monarchally defined epochs, but are future historians likely to be referring to the second Elizabethan Age as opposed to the Thatcher era or Blair era? Several students suggested that this was in part a function of distance. Thatcher and Blair are close enough to us now that we emphasize their differences, but historians a century from now might be more likely to group them together under the reign of Elizabeth.

Moralized Histories
We haven’t reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different. While US Secretary of State would have no problem agreeing that Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove calls it) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we seen Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

This led to a discussion of what I might call an Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in Moral terms, that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military superiority, or economic superiority. Whether the North had a technological advantage, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.
We then turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir
The narrative that Early gives is one that shows the Souther fight for independence was just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers, the patriotic Southern soldier buried under a mountain of corpses. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith. Like the restoration from exile, or the tribulations faced by chosen people in the past, the true South will rise in messianic fashion.
As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency
So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviors of individuals where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents. that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviors. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.
And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality, if poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology
The conversation then moved to a more general question about history and ideology. If history explains how causes and effects work in human behavior, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was in error all around to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History
What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama. We also discussed the recent debates over the history curriculum in Texas, raising a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

A ‘Forgotten Evolutionist’ – Alfred Russel Wallace at the National Museum of Wales

I had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff this week and to see the new exhibit “Alfred Russel Wallace: Forgotten Evolutionist?” which just opened this past week.  I’m not a Wallace scholar, but I am a historian of evolution and biology, so I came to this with a fair bit of knowledge about Wallace’s ideas and some of his discoveries. But I must admit I didn’t know much about his early life.  I was pleasantly surprised by some of the information the exhibit contained.  At the same time, there were a few frustrating errors in the presentation.  And in one instance, there was even material which I found offensive and racist.  The result was a better knowledge of Wallace than I’d previously had, but a conflicted view of the museum’s curatorial choices.

(note – the Museum expressly prohibits posting photographs of exhibits online, so I will not put any up on this blog.)

While I certainly understand that Wallace gets much less public attention than Darwin, this idea of the “forgotten” Wallace seems to be a bit of overstatement—yet it is the rhetoric that the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales has been employing and which the press has picked up on in this 100th anniversary of his death.

The exhibit is laid out in a single room with several alcoves.  An anti-clockwise progression takes us through Wallace’s early life, to some of his voyages and discoveries, to his connection to Darwin and Darwinism and the fallout from their similar theories, and finally to his public persona by the end of his life.  In the center there are two video screens with headphones.  There are also a few cases of specimens that Wallace collected during his voyages.

There’s a bit of subtext that the collective Wallace-amnesia might be due both to the class differential between him and Darwin’s circle, and also perhaps the tendency of Wales (with only 5% of the UK population) to be ‘forgotten’ within the larger context of Britain.  At one point, the exhibit recounts his collecting voyages and publications with the pithy conclusion: “Not bad for a self-educated man from Usk in Wales!”

It’s not surprising to see the National Museum of Wales emphasising the Welshness of a famous son such as Wallace. But the exhibit does suggest that Wallace’s Welshness wasn’t mentioned just for the sake of patriotism; it actually mattered to his progression in science.  It was the economic and technological circumstances of Wales at the time of his upbringing that led Wallace to employment and background as a land surveyor (although the exhibit also hints at a social activism by claiming that Wallace recognised that much of the surveying was being done to take the land away from local control into national and private economic interest—land surveying as the vanguard of economic and cultural hegemony at the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.)  The point is made that Wallace’s experience and training as a land surveyor was critical to his ability to precisely map the locations and distributions species, and made possible his understanding of biogeography.

That was perhaps the best of the exhibit.  Although there was also some very useful discussion of the rather famous scene where Wallace sent his paper outlining an evolutionary theory to Darwin, leading to the joint presentation of the two’s theory at the Linnean society and the resultant publication of the Origin of Species.  The exhibit slyly suggests that there’s more to this story:

So ends a scientific fairy tale? Two men from very different backgrounds arrive at the same cutting edge idea separately? Maybe not.  Some scholars question these events, arguing that conspiracy robbed Wallace of his proper credit.

What do you think?

I find the – What do you think? –  rhetoric a bit disingenuous.  It’s not as though the exhibit gives its audience the evidence necessary to decide this and relegates historical interpretation (you know, using facts) to be reducible to gut opinion.  Moreover, contrasting Wallace receiving “proper credit” with a “conspiracy that propagated a “fairy tale” to “rob” Wallace certainly slants the story.  There was also the suggestion that his beginnings in a “lesser social class to the ‘eminent men’ of English [of course not Welsh…] natural history like Darwin.” This meant that “Wallace didn’t have a reputation to lose!” The implication is that this made Wallace a bolder naturalist than the overly-cautious, reluctant-to-publish Darwin.

But ultimately because “Wallace was prepared to champion unpopular causes without regard for his own reputation,” his legacy suffered.  The exhibit suggests that this very boldness and willingness to be unpopular was responsible for the quick fading of his fame after his death.  By contrast, “Darwin was remembered thanks to his popular book ‘On the Origin of Species’ whilst Wallace remained in the shadows.”

This has the feeling of trying much too hard.  The effect is one of creating a Darwin who was: cautious of publishing to the point of cowardice (pushed forward only because of Wallace); socially privileged and part of a good old boys club of Victorian scientific elite—and of course English; who usurps Wallace’s rightful legacy because he wrote a ‘popular’ book.

While the exhibit presents some of the important aspects of Wallace’s thought and does so in ways that are not too technical, it doesn’t always do a good job explaining how Wallace’s ideas fit into the broader conversations about evolution.  We are told that Wallace’s evolutionary idea “suddenly flashed before him” “while suffering from malarial fever.” This depiction of a disease-induced hallucinatory revelation doesn’t really fit with the earlier idea of Wallace as a hard-working “self-educated man from Usk.” So is it the case that scientific discovery is the result of a lifetime of hard work or a brief moment of insight?

Wallace is described as having reached “the same brilliant idea” as Darwin.  Elsewhere in the exhibit, points of difference between the two’s theories, such as the development of the human mind and human ancestry are mentioned.  There’s a brief and somewhat distorted presentation of previous evolutionary ideas, which seems to conflate aspects of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.  It also includes the unfortunate phrase: “Lamarck came up with an early theory for evolution called Lamarckism.”  There’s a very simplistic mention of the so-called eclipse period, which states simply that evolutionary ideas fell out of favour in the early 20th century, before experiencing a revival in the 1930s.  There’s been some good criticism of this idea (first put into print by Julian Huxley as a narrative to advance his own ‘modern synthesis’) of the Darwinian eclipse (such as this article by Mark Largent).  The exhibit doesn’t explain the causes for this apparent eclipse but seems to suggest that Wallace’s having died at the peak of it might have further led to his quick forgetting.  Unlike the beatification of Darwin that led to his entombment in Westminster Abbey.

The presentation of Wallace’s theory of biogeography is generally much better, and more directly tied to the claims that his experiences as a land surveyor (and his Welsh background) informed his scientific discoveries.  And there’s a good presentation of the discovery of different species on opposing sides of the “Wallace Line” through Indonesia.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t presented as clearly as it could be.  The line is illustrated against a map of the Malay archipelago.  The Wallace line is projected as a thick red line on a pane of glass mounted several centimetres in front of the actual map.  This makes it hard to tell exactly where the line runs through the map.  The actual Wallace line runs through the Lombok strait, between the islands of Bali and Lombok.  But depending on the angle, the line either covers Lombok (not a large island) entirely, or even appears to put Bali and Lombok on the same side, with the Wallace line appearing to wrongly traverse the Alas strait, dividing Lombok and Sumbawa.  (A map of the three islands here)

There’s a few other odd curatorial choices.  Towards the end of the exhibit there’s a cast of a Homo rudolfensis skull found in East Africa in 1972.  This is given as evidence of the human evolution that Wallace championed.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that the same week the exhibit opened, details of new skull finds in Georgia cast doubt of the existence of Homo rudolfensis as a distinct species from Homo erectus.  But moreover, this is a strange choice of skull.  It’s not one that Wallace would have been associated with in any way, having been discovered long after his death.  And it’s not even from a part of the world where Wallace explored.  Yet within Wallace’s lifetime, fossils of Homo erectus were found in Java, an island that Wallace himself explored.

But the most outlandish thing in the entire exhibit is a serious of biographical cartoons depicting stages in Wallace life.  These are done in a style that could have been from Wallace’s own era, however these are quite clearly not nineteenth century depictions of the naturalist, but present-day ones.  They’re all done by the same artist, and they include events (like young Wallace looking for insects whilst surveying land as a teenager) that certainly wouldn’t have attracted any attention for caricature.

In general the use of cartoons to depict biography is accessible, and easily digested.  It’s also child-friendly and humorous.  I have nothing against the medium.  But it’s precisely because the medium is so accessible, and might be the only part that some children really look at, that the cartoons need to be careful about what messages they reinforce.  Unlike some of the other visuals, (like the biogeography map) this doesn’t really require reading the further text to take away a message, and unlike the video, this doesn’t require wearing headphones or waiting a while for a point to be made.  For many people this is the quickest explanation of Wallace the man.  And that’s why I found them so troubling.

A few are harmless attempts at tongue in check irreverence (Wallace on a sinking ship on return from the Amazon, crying out “Women, children, and rare beetle specimens first!”).  The final one, showing the ghost of a deceased spiritualist Wallace hovering over his grave exclaiming “I was right!” seems a bit disrespectful to Wallace’s religious beliefs.

Two of these cartoons, however are quite blatantly racist and inappropriate.  I can’t post photos of them here, so I’ll just describe them.

One shows a bespectacled and kitted up (backpack, butterfly net, etc) Wallace greeting a person in the Malay Archipelago.  Wallace says: “I’m a collector!” In reply, a dark-skinned man wearing nothing but a loincloth, with a hut behind him filled with skulls, replies “Me too!”

The next one shows Wallace reclining under a lean-to, writing in his journals.  Next to him a well-muscled (topless, also in a loincloth) dark skinned man states: “I tell you what – only the fittest survive out here!” and Wallace replying “Waaaait a minute…”

If these were actual Victorian-era cartoons, the depiction of natives of these lands as naked primitives might be expected.  If these were themselves historical artifacts that showed how Wallace was perceived at the time then they might have a place in the exhibit.  But to newly create and reinforce these stereotypes and to present them as humorous depictions of Wallace’s travels is appalling and inappropriate.  In an otherwise clever, if not flawless, exhibit, what in the world are they doing there?

Antievolution and Statewide Textbook Adoption: Louisiana comes full circle.

Prompted by Zack Kopplin’s excellent column in the Guardian last week, I became aware of Louisiana’s House Bill 116.   If enacted, the bill would devolve the authority to adopt and select textbooks from state-level control to the authority of local schools and school boards.  In effect this would end statewide textbook adoption in Louisiana.

Kopplin has been one of the main advocates for the repeal of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act, which was intended to open the door to the teaching of creation science objections to evolution.  And he rightly points out that although the bill mentions neither science nor biology explicitly, the purpose of the bill is pretty clearly to enable local educators to chose antievolutionary texts when the state’s school board has not adopted anything suitable.  In effect, this law (in conduction with the LSEA) would allow small school district antievolutionists the ability to use the texts of their own choosing without running afoul of the state law.  (This is still presuming that a school district is able to afford the risk of a lawsuit, which I wrote about in a previous post)

What I find fascinating about this legal tactic introduced by State Representative Frank Hoffman is how much it almost exactly reverses what happened in the 1920s school antievolution  movement.  And just like the 1920s era textbook-related legislation had some very unintended consequences, it seems likely that this bill will do the same if it becomes law.

What many people tend to forget is that state-level regulation of textbooks largely came about for reasons having little or nothing to do with interference with school content.  The reason why many states especially in the South took control over textbook adoption away from local school districts was a concern that local boards were subject to corruption.  There are a variety of stories of textbook salesmen arranging kickback schemes with local school board members, salesmen threatening to support an opposing candidate in an upcoming election, and even instances of outright bribery.  The rationale was that a single 5-year adoption before a state board would be less susceptible to corruption, and would prevent the costs of schoolbooks from escalating.

What’s most interesting is the way that textbook publishers reacted.  At last initially, most of them lobbied hard against state-level regulation.  Partly that was because the people doing the lobbying were the salesmen working for the textbook companies, who thought that their own jobs could be at risk if there were fewer adoptions.  Even though a statewide adoption (and the expansion of compulsory schools) potentially meant more textbooks sold by a publisher, the way that many of the companies were set up encouraged resistance to state level adoption.  (If you’re interested in more of this story, read Chapter two of Trying Biology.)

But it was the fact that schoolbooks were adopted at a statewide level that gave more voice to antievolutionism as a school movement.  When, for example, Tennessee adopted George Hunter’s Civic Biology in 1919, the book was seen as more appropriate for urban centers like Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, but its emphasis on the urban applications of biology were not so suitable for more rural and agricultural areas of the state.  The 1925 Scopes trial was in part made possible by the fact that Tennessee operated under statewide control of textbooks.

So in the 1920s, an unintended effect of state-level adoption was the creation of greater support for a school antievolution movement.  In the 2010s, an effort to give more power to antievolutionists by undermining state-level adoption could also have some unforeseen effects.

I don’t think it’s likely that we’re going to go back to the day of the corrupt textbook salesman that pervaded from the 1870s-1920s.  The textbook industry doesn’t have the same clout that it did a century ago, textbooks themselves aren’t as central to classroom practice as they once were.  But it was never only the textbook salesmen who were corrupt; it was also the members of local school boards who took bribes, arranged cozy kickback relationships, and in general abused their position for self gain.  It’s not hard to imagine this coming back with a vengeance if the proposed law passes.  This bill opens the door for a school board to use public funds to purchase textbooks that have not been vetted by experts, but may be written or published by someone with a connection to members of the school board.  Perhaps a school district wants to adopt a supplemental history book written by a brother of a school board member, or a creation science text that was self published by a local church.

It doesn’t seem like Representative Hoffman’s bill has made any provision to replace the anticorruption protections that statewide adoption ensures.  Perhaps one of the most interesting clauses in this bill is the one that changes the way texts are discarded.  Existing law requires that the state board approve of which books a school discards and sells to private individuals and that the board must approve of how those funds are used.  The proposed law would allow local schools to seem any books that they want to as “no longer in use” sell them at whatever price they want to whomever they want, and to sue the funds in any way that they see fit.  The new law would also allow public school boards to allocate funds, books, and other instructional materialist non public school students without any documentation.  This seems like a textbook case (so to speak) of enabling corruption.

Kopplin’s column is excellent, and he explains the real impact of this pending bill on the ongoing fight over the teaching of evolution in Louisiana.  But looking back to the longer history of textbook regulation and its relation to antievolutionism suggests that there’s an even bigger concern.  And perhaps there’s an even bigger reason to be wary of House Bill 116 then the fact that it further enables antievolutionists.

On Eugenie Scott and Historical Memory

Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, is retiring.  That announcement on Monday has had me thinking about the role that the NCSE has played in the past few decades of the history of antievolutionism.  Like many people, my first thought was to wonder about who might be hired to replace her.

But a very close second thought was that someone had better make sure that her papers are saved for historians! Dr. Scott’s retirement announcement came as I was working on an article criticizing her portrayal of a “creation/evolution continuum.”  While I find the goals of the NCSE to generally be admirable; sometimes its portrayals of the groups, people, and ideas that they are opposed to are not always accurate.  That’s not a historical objection per se, but there’s a lesson to be learned from the history of the school evolution controversies: the distorted views that you popularize can become real nemeses, and in doing so, debates become more polarized.

There’s no shortage of historical questions that could be asked about the NCSE and Scott.   There’ve been few individuals and organizations more influential in the public conflict over the teaching of evolution in the past quarter century.  Of course the line between historical questions and contemporary political and policy questions becomes blurry when working on recent history.  There’s a tendency, or at least a temptation, on the part of some organizations and individuals when preparing some materials for archives, to preserve the materials that are seen to best serve the policy aims of the organization.  In fact, a 2008 article on the NCSE’s website suggests that the aim of the NCSE’s archives is to serve the aims of the NCSE—that is to debunk and to legally and politically fight creationism.  Where the archive’s utility to historians is mentioned, it’s with the understanding that by exploring the history of creationism, that present-day antievolutionism can be unmasked a recycling of old ideas.  It’s an archive on the history of creationism, not the history of the NCSE.

I would hope that Dr. Scott’s retirement is going to be an opportunity for the NCSE archives to expand their mission.  While hiring a new director is a huge task and the organization ought to be thinking about its future, it also needs to devote some attention to its past.  Of course a non-profit organization with finite resources can’t spend a huge amount of its budget to preserving its own history.  I’d hope that if the NCSE does not intend to save the bulk of Scott’s papers, that it will arrange for a library to do so.  Even though embargoing financially or legally sensitive material may be reasonable, I would hope that the archive is neither culled of its human element, nor restricted only to highlights of the NCSE’s victories.

One advantage that I had in working on materials in the 1920s is that the fear of legal action prompting a shred-it-all mentality, seems not to have been so pervasive 100 years ago.  And the notes scribbled in margins of letters, or the way a letter was copied and attached to someone else’s note forwarding it on, were preserved in archives.  It’s often if these unintentional details that a picture of the human actors involved in organizations really emerges.  For that matter, I was also fortunate that most of the materials that I wanted to work with were letters written on paper, which has a much better shelf life than the 5 1/4-inch floppy disks of the 1980s, or even more recent forms of data storage.  This is why the question of historical preservation is more urgent.  Even materials that were not well-preserved from the pre-digital era are often accessible.  For example, there is a wonderful article from last week in American Libraries about the discovery, acquisition, and preservation of John Scopes’s suitcase full of papers and memorabilia by the Special Collections at Western Kentucky University.

There’s no question that the history of the NCSE will be an excellent project and an archive of its actors and actions will be invaluable to anyone understanding the history of the evolution battles from the 1980s to the present.  But the ability of that history to be written depends on what sources remain available.  (By the way, if anyone wants to come work on a PhD on this topic, get in touch with me.)

In an interview about her retirement, Dr. Scott stated that “all nonprofits hope someday to put themselves out of business,” but the mission of the NCSE has not yet ended.  It may be too soon to write the conclusion to the history of an organization that has played such a crucial role in science and religion issues in America in the past 30 years.  But it is not too soon (and hopefully not too late) to begin working on the beginnings of that history.  And that starts with the collection of materials.

Congratulations on your retirement, Dr. Scott.

UPDATE (9 May): I heard from Josh Rosenau, who’s the program and policy director for the NCSE.  From what he says, it sounds like 1) the NCSE archives do contain a lot of resources on the administrative history of the center, and 2) there are plans to maintain and preserve Dr. Scott’s papers and make them available to researchers.

This is very good news and certainly not what all organizations and people do, so the NCSE is to be applauded for this.  It also means that there’s the opportunity for some really interesting and important historical work.  Some historians have already worked wit the archives, but there’s a lot more to be said about history of the evolution wars of the past few decades.  A history that’s still unfolding…

Immune to School Controversy: Why Hasn’t Anti-Vaccination Influenced Teaching?

This past week, we took my two-month old baby for his first jabs (for Americans, that’s British for shots, i.e. immunizations.) At the same time, news outlets reported that there’s an epidemic of measles in the UK.  A contributing factor to this outbreak has been many parents choosing not to have their children vaccinated because of a suspected link between the vaccine and autism, a link that has been thoroughly debunked.  This false claim began with an article published by the Lancet in 1998—which was since retracted.  In fact, in 2006, it came to light that the primary author behind the paper had been paid more than £400,000 by lawyers who hoped to reap fees from suing vaccine makers.  Despite the weight of the scientific evidence against anti-vaccination and evidence that the idea was driven by ulterior agenda, belief in anti-vaccination and organizations promoting it persist.

At first glance, there appear to be many similarities between anti-vaccination movements and anti-evolution movements.  Both are depicted as pseudosciences. Both invoke the rhetoric of parental rights over state control (in teaching children about evolution or in having children immunized.)  Both have made similar use of rhetoric attacking the scientific community for being intolerant of their views: in ways that seek to undermine the cultural authority of science while also invoking that authority to validate their own scientific experts.

In terms of who these movement’s adherents or members are, there may not be very much overlap.  It seems that scholarship on anti-vaccination tends to situate it within a broader trend of “alternative medicine” communities, rather than science skepticism.  And some of the attacks on vaccination makes use of anti-corporate/industrial rhetoric against pharmaceutical companies that seems more aligned with the political left than anti-evolution’s typical association with the political right (in the US, at least).  On the other hand, as Josh Rosenau on the NCSE pointed out on his blog earlier this month, offered an interpretation of polling data that suggests that the association with the political left is largely an attempt to create a false equivalence of pseudoscience across the political spectrum.

I find the question of alignment between issues to be an interesting sociological and historical question.  In the nineteenth century, for example, there were perhaps good biological reasons why you might not find any pro-choice creationists (owing to the role embryology played in supporting evolutionary theory.)  But the relative lack of people embracing that position today doesn’t seem to be on conceptual grounds, but cultural ones.  So maybe antievolution and anti-vaccination are movements with very different origins, but who happen to act in some of the same ways.  Or perhaps, as the anti-vaccination movement begins to invoke more anti-state/ant-government rhetoric, it gradually gains more traction among those who already use that rhetoric.

All of this is by way of introduction to the point of this post.  I was left wondering whether any of the anti-vaccination organizations, or anyone influenced by them, had successfully affected (or even tried to influence) what American schools teach about vaccination in health education.  After all, the antievolution movement has frequently made efforts to influence school curricula.  And health education has frequently been a source of political controversy, most notably concerning the teaching of sexuality and sexual health (with accusations of errors and distortions in “abstinence only” versions of sex ed.)  And there’s no question that activist groups on either end of the political spectrum attempt to influence school content.

You’ve got organizations unified by skepticism to a prevailing scientific theory, some of which have been involved in influencing legislation in the past, and a precedent that health education can be influenced by political or ideological agendas.  And in the last couple years, several states have reopened debates about teaching antievolution or opposition to climate change, so you’ve also got state legislatures who are perhaps receptive to this kind of legislation.

So here’s the historical question.  Has anti-vaccination actually influenced recent health education standards in the US?  The quick answer seem to be no.  There’s been no news stories about groups trying to take vaccination out, or writing anti-vaccination curricula. So at first glance, it seems a simple story.

But that’s begging the question of what schools already teach.  For comparison’s sake, one reason that the school antievolution movement in American schools didn’t really begin until the early 1920s (well after Darwin) was the fact that evolution wasn’t really taught in schools until just a few years earlier.  (This is one of the main reasons why I argue in my book that the antievolution movement needs to be seen more as a school movement invoking religion than a religious movement invoking education.)

So what do schools teach about vaccination?  What I discovered in trying to research this is that there’s no single list that describes what every state requires to be taught about vaccination.  So I’m going to try to compile that here.


Before: Ouch! 

WARNING: This is only a preliminary list.  I’m going to provide links to what I found, but I’m not about to claim that I found everything.  (If you know of something I’m missing, please comment below and I’ll update it)


Basically I did a search for each state’s health education standards, and searched within them for any references to vaccination or immunization.  If there was not an explicit reference to one of those two terms, I didn’t consider the state to be requiring the teaching of vaccination.

For example, in Connecticut’s standards, students are expected to “Comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease prevention.”  While the use of vaccinations and state vaccination requirements could be taught as part of this requirement, there’s nothing explicit that says so.  Just because a state is listed as having no requirement doesn’t mean that schools do not teach about vaccines.

Some states don’t have official state standards, leaving curricula up to individual school districts.  Others either echo the National Health Education Standards which are not themselves binding standards, but national recommendations., and which do NOT mention vaccination or immunization.

Herd Immunity

Anti-vaccination advocates often argue that it’s a personal right not to be subjected to state vaccination requirements (the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this claim in 1905.)  The main reason that state interests are seen as superseding the individual is that the refusal to be immunized poses a risk to other people.  That is, people who are not themselves immunized (by virtue of being too young or because of another mitigating health factor) are at a substantially reduced risk of catching a communicable disease when the surrounding population is immunized.  This is called community immunity, or “herd immunity” (because some of the first places where this was demonstrated was with livestock, but the principle applies to humans as well.)

Some anti-vaccination groups and websites claim that herd immunity (they often emphasize this term instead of “community immunity” to make vaccination advocates appear dehumanizing) is not based in science, but has been proposed in order to encourage parents to police other parents’ vaccination decisions.

In order to shed light on the popular understanding of this, in the list that I’ve compiled, I also tried to point out the difference between those states which only included discussion of immunization as a matter of individual disease prevention, and those that also required teaching about immunization as a public health measure.  If a state only requires teaching vaccination for one’s personal benefit, it’s not (necessarily) teaching students why the state claims the superseding right to compel vaccination.  I want to distinguish between those states whose requirements teach that vaccination is a personal choice that people ought to make, and those states that teach that vaccination is a public good that is made as a community choice.  I label each state “Personal” or “Public” to distinguish this.  (If a state only required discussion of vaccination with respect to sexually transmitted diseases, I also label that separately)

I’m not going to list the differences in presentation at grade level.  This is preliminary and intended to be a first attempt at compiling a list like this, but more ought to be done for a truly definitive list.
The states:

AL – Personal disease prevention

AK – “describing the various effects of an innovation (e.g., snow machines, airplanes, immunizations) on the safety, health, and environment of the local community” in Scence, not health.  NOTHING in health.

AZ – Personal disease prevention

AR (and here) – Personal disease prevention

CA – Personal disease prevention

CO – Personal disease prevention


DC – Personal disease prevention

DE – NOTHING (appears to reference National standards)

FL (and here) – Personal disease prevention AND Public health

GA (and here) – Personal disease prevention AND Public health



IL – Personal disease prevention AND Public health

IN – Personal disease prevention AND Public health 

IA (and here) – STD related mention only.  Most curricula is reserved to local districts.

KS – Personal disease prevention (mentioned among “examples of teaching strategies and are not intended to endorse any one specific idea or concept.”)

KY – NOTHING (References national standards)



MD (and here) – Personal disease prevention

MA– Personal disease prevention

MI (and here) – NOTHING

MN (and here) Personal disease prevention, but standards to be developed locally

MS – Mention of flu vaccine, and immunization and vaccine boh listed in Glossary, but otherwise no mention given

MO – Personal disease prevention

MT (and here) – NOTHING

NE – NOTHING (Reference only to National standards


NH – Personal disease prevention

NJ – STD only (2004 version of standards include Personal disease prevention)

NM – STD only


NC – Personal disease prevention

ND – Public health ONLY

OH – No statewide health education standards.



PA – Personal disease prevention

RI – Personal disease prevention AND Public health

SC – Personal disease prevention

SD – Personal disease prevention AND public health

TN (and here) – Personal disease prevention

TX (and here) – Personal disease prevention

UT – Personal disease prevention

VA – Personal disease prevention

VT – Personal disease prevention

WA – Personal disease prevention

WV – Personal disease prevention

WI – “List ways to prevent communicable disease.” nothing specific to vaccination.


There’s been no public effort to reduce the instruction about vaccination in health education, on the other hand, it’s not taught (or not explicitly required to be taught) in many US states.  It’s possible that this is also covered in biology or science classes, and not in health education (although the Next Generation Science Standards don’t explicitly include this topic either.)  It may be that in several places, discussion of immunization is presumed under the rubric of discussing disease prevention (although some of these standards explicitly mention things like washing hands and covering coughs as examples, but not vaccination.)
  It may be that the political capital of anti-vaccination is less focused on school content because there  are more direct issues at hand.  It’s not as though antievolutionists can lobby to prohibit the practice of evolution, but anti-vaccine advocates do lobby to exempt themselves from state immunization practices.  But this difference is of less importance if we think of the antievolution movement as a movement more concerned with influencing schools than with the specific details of their “scientific” claims.  This might be one argument against the claim that these two movements are “pseudoscience” in the same way.
Finally, some people who chose not to vaccinate their children also homeschool in order to avoid school requirements for vaccination.  This may undermine an effort to focus grassroots attention on what’s being taught in state schools.
This post is meant to be speculative, not definite, and it’s meant to start a conversation about just how fundamentally similar two movements that have been typified as “anti-science” really are.
Three minutes later: All better!

Update: Now in map form!

Next Generation of Science-Religion Conflict over School Standards

Some scientific theories offend people.  Evolution offends people! Climate change upsets them! So the publication of the Next Generation Science Standards this week was immediately met with news analysis that virtually promised conflict.  A New York Times article published Tuesday claims that the standards represent “sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States” and tantalizes with a whiff of controversy by noting that the standards include teaching about both evolution and climate science (and won’t some conservatives just hate that!) USA Today breathlessly moved the controversy into its headline, promising that the standards are “likely to raise ‘ruckus’.”

Of course, conflict sells newspapers, but these analyses of the science standards are missing out on a larger picture.  The culture-war drama that conditions the way that we typically look at education controversies helps reinforce the idea that the source of conflict is in specific topics.  This interpretation holds true not just for science education, but in controversies over the teaching of history, literature, and even mathematics.  But the bigger story isn’t the fact that these science standards emphasize the truth of evolution or climate change, or even that they encourage a scientific way of critical thinking.

Historically, the real source of controversy comes from the very fact that these are education standards, whose nationwide adoption is encouraged.  Standardization offends people! There have been several previous efforts to introduce standardization across the states in the past century.  While the creation of Next Generation Standards seems to avoid some of the problems that older efforts encountered, I don’t think it will avoid a similar backlash.

National doesn’t mean the same thing as federal.  The Next Generation Science Standards very prominently includes the tagline “for states, by states”

and emphasizes the fact that this is not an initiative of the U.S. Federal Government in its FAQ.  These standards weren’t written by the Federal Government, they weren’t written by people funded by the Federal government.  It’s a preemptive strike against those who are likely to see the standards as a government takeover of schools.

This language seems to be sensitive not only to recent anti-Federal government rhetoric, but also to the great federal science education initiatives of the early Cold War era.  The Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) were NSF-funded initiatives to improve science education.  (Typically these are described as being reactions to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, but they actually began earlier; Sputnik did influence the adoption of BSCS and PSSC materials by states and schools.)  These initiatives led to the creation of curricula and standards, and textbooks that were rapidly imitated by other publishers.  They were widely successful, but many have argued that the BSCS “reintroduction” of evolution helped pave the way for antievolution trials in the 1960s.  (it’s also been argued, rightly I think, that the extent of the absence of evolution before the BSCS has been largely mythologized.)  Coming shortly after Brown v. Board of Education, the federal creation of science education materials was seen as another step to wrest control of schools, who could attend them and what they taught, away from states.  So the “for states, by states” rhetoric is designed to disavow association with the BSCS/PSSC, and perhaps also give some coded reassurance to those still upset about Brown v Board of Ed.

But to presume that the problem with nationwide science standards in the past was the role the federal government played in it is the wrong lesson to learn from the history of American education.  it makes sense not only to look at the federal efforts of 50 years earlier, but the efforts of the National Education Association 50 years earlier.

100 years ago, the NEA organized the Committee for the Reorganization of Secondary Education.  The Committee went on to issue a variety of reports and suggestions for modernizing the American high school. In 1920, a subcommittee for the Reorganization of Science Education issued its first reports.

Much like the standards released this week, there was an emphasis on using real-life examples in the classroom, and on teaching science as mode of thought, and not as the rote memorization of facts about nature.  This was not considered uncontroversial.  The committee was chaired by Otis W. Caldwell, a member of the faculty at Teacher’s College and co-author of one of the first “general science” high school textbooks.   It also counted as members James E. Peabody, who was the coauthor of several influential biology textbooks; and general science textbook author and former American Book Company science editor Walter G. Whitman.  Members of the committee had a variety of intellectual influences that figured in their work, including the pedagogical theories of John Dewey, the Ethical Culture Society, the labor movement and the rise of teachers unions, and increased concern about sanitation and public health. Many of the suggestions that the Committee made regarding science education incorporated those values.  The result was, in part, that the new modes of teaching sciences, especially the relatively new school subjects of biology and general science, were seen as part of a progressive agenda centered in New York, focused on urban youth, and not really suitable for other parts of the country.

In this, the Next Generation standards demonstrate a lesson learned.  By drawing from a variety of states, there’s less accusation of regional or cultural bias that can be attached to the standards.  But the story in the 1920s grew more complicated: Many states adopted the committee’s recommendations in part because not doing so would give the appearance of not supporting education.  More importantly, textbook publishers started producing and marketing books based on these recommendations (put another way, the recommendations reflected the textbooks that members of the committee had already written.)

This is why the media reports that are promising a fight over evolution or climate science are missing the bigger picture.  In the 1920s, the primary backlash was against the lack of local control and the perceived ideology of education reformers, especially as compulsory schooling became widespread in the rural South.  The antievolution movement, including the law that resulted in the 1925 Scopes trial was a secondary result of that movement.

I question whether it’s going to be enough reassurance to say that there’s an effort to create nationwide standards, but that their adoption will be voluntary and their content will not be dictated by the Federal Government.  It was not enough in the 1920s.

Very recent history has suggested another reason why those who fear federal government input into education might resist the new science standards.  The Common Core State Standards initiative for mathematics and English language were crafted in a way similar to the Next Generation Science Standards, with development headed by the National Governors Association and state boards of education.  Soon after the standards were announced, and after several states embraced them, adoption of the Core Standards was incorporated into the grant competition component of the White House’s Race to the Top Initiative. This has led conservatives in some states to advocate pulling out of the standards.

The website for the NGSS don’t explicitly say that the standards are meant to be the equivalent of Common Core Standards for science however, the answer they give to that question, that the standards are “internationally benchmarked, rigorous, research-based and aligned with expectations for college and careers.” is precisely the language used by Race to the Top.  Along with a claim that the science standards are meant to complement the Common Core Standards, this is likely to give the people opposing the content of the science standards and those opposing federal standardization of education a common cause in opposition.

In the 1920s, the science education overhauls with a nationwide influence helped lead to the Scopes trial.  In the 60s, federally developed science curricula helped trigger another antievolution trial, and helped intensify the culture wars.  The new standards are going to offend people.  But I don’t think their content is going to be the only reason why. News accounts of the potential controversy illustrate how ready we are to accept a science-religion conflict narrative, and how much less interested we are in a deeper conversation (and controversy) about the role of schools in American society.

p.s. I want to talk about the content of the standards, including the scant attention to the history of science, in a future post.