Building a Conservative Base - Teaching History and Civics in Voucher- Supported Schools

By Paterson, Frances R. A. | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Building a Conservative Base - Teaching History and Civics in Voucher- Supported Schools


Paterson, Frances R. A., Phi Delta Kappan


As we debate the wisdom of various proposals to privatize all or part of American education, we should consider whether such training might increase the Balkanization of our society and lower the quality of public discourse, Ms. Paterson points out.

IN 1987, Dan Fleming and Thomas Hunt examined Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) materials used in approximately 5,000 evangelical and fundamentalist Christian schools.1 Although the phenomenal growth in private school enrollment that they noted has continued through the 1990s, a variety of initiatives that Fleming and Hunt did not foresee have encouraged families to seek private education, thus giving new importance to their conclusion that the materials they examined were biased and "appear[ed] to distort truth to fit a particular political/religious belief."2 These initiatives include the contemporary voucher movement, private scholarship programs, and proposed legislation to give tax relief to families choosing private schooling and to private school scholarship programs. These initiatives and programs are supported by a number of groups, including the Roman Catholic hierarchy, libertarian organizations, groups associated with the Christian Right, and other socially conservative organizations. Each of these groups stands to benefit from the privatization of American education.

Setting aside the benefits to the Roman Catholic Church, those who espouse libertarian or politically and socially conservative beliefs would be the particular beneficiaries of public funding for private education because many schools that would receive such funding use textbooks and other curricular materials that transmit highly conservative values. In many respects, the content of the textbooks produced by A Beka Books and Bob Jones University Press and the content of the booklets published or distributed by ACE - all of which are commonly used in Christian schools, including a small number of schools receiving public funds in the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs - is virtually identical to the materials produced and disseminated by the Christian Right and other economic, political, and socially conservative organizations.3 Aside from the factual information related to the content areas of these materials, the textbooks and booklets frequently resemble partisan, political literature more than they do the traditional textbooks used in public schools.

Examining textbooks is a relatively efficient method of determining curricular content. To the dismay of many scholars and practitioners, curriculum is largely a function of textbook content. With its emphasis on traditional teaching methods and teacher-directed instruction, the curriculum of Christian schools can be assumed to be at least as textbook-driven as that of the public schools. However, a comprehensive view of what students are taught in Christian schools requires that a variety of textbooks and booklets from several publishers be examined. Fleming and Hunt examined six social studies booklets (referred to as "units") from ACE. Although I could not obtain up-to-date sales figures for Bob Jones University Press or ACE (used in 5,000 schools, according to Fleming and Hunt), as of 1998 A Beka Books were being used in approximately 9,000 schools.4 I examined seven social studies textbooks published by A Beka Press (grades 4 to 12), eight social studies textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press (grades 3 to 12), and 84 social studies booklets published or distributed by ACE.5 The following discussion attempts to telescope my findings into a relatively short article. Consequently, much material has been omitted.6

Overarching Characteristics Of Christian School Textbooks

Christian school textbooks differ from the secular materials used in public and other nonpublic and religious schools in several ways. Textbooks published for the Christian school market have the following distinctive characteristics:

* integration of religious and nonreligious material;

* juxtaposition of persuasive and factual material;

* explicitly didactic passages in both elementary and secondary textbooks;

* absence of gender-inclusive language;

* frequent use of identifying descriptors for people, groups, and movements, often implying that some are acceptable and some are not; and

* inclusion and exclusion of individuals and groups - that is, conservatives are cited and quoted with approval, while liberals are given less coverage, omitted, or treated in a critical fashion. …

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