This post reviews Adam Laats, “Forging a Fundamentalist ‘One Best System’: Struggles over Curriculum and Educational Philosophy for Christian Day Schools, 1970-1989” in History of Education Quarterly 50, no 1 (February 2010): 55-83. [Read the first page here]
Laats, a professor at the Binghamton University School of Education and respected colleague, here continues a line of research he’s been working on for a good while. Laats has published several articles about the history of Evangelical Protestants and education, and he has a book coming out soon that explains the long term impact of the Scopes trial on modern America.
The article under review here is a wonderful study of the three most widely used curricula in the world of conservative Protestant schooling from the 1970s to the present, both among Christian day schools and among homeschoolers. Laats does not stress the homeschooling application, but his history of these curricula applies just as well to homeschoolers as to the Christian day schools for which they were first developed.
Readers of my book know the basic outline of the story of ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones Complete, but Laats here provides far more detail, based on careful study of fundamentalist periodicals, unpublished archival sources, and oral histories. He begins by explaining why conservative Protestant private schools emerged so quickly in the 70s and 80s. Whether they were solidly fundamentalist, more ecumenically Evangelical, or Pentecostal, the founders of these schools and the parents who patronized them were reacting against “prominent cultural changes” in public schools. These changes included the Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that declared school sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading unconstitutional, the increase in teaching of evolution in the wake of beefed up science curricula after Sputnik, racial desegregation, curricular fads like the “new math” and “whole language,” as well as sex ed and other courses with controversial subject matter. While numbers are very slippery, Laats notes that the three most prominent associations of private Christian schools reported having 4,337 member schools by 1992.
But starting a school (or a homeschool) from scratch is not easy. Rushing to the aid of these upstart schools were several entrepreneurial curriculum makers, each of whom claimed that theirs was the truly Christian product, and each of whom looked disparagingly at their competitors. This is where Laats’ article gets really interesting. It’s impossible to disentangle financial motives from legitimate theological disagreements here, but it’s clear that both motivations were at work in the arguments between rival curriculum designers. Ironically, Laats notes, some of the bitterness expressed between rival curriculum providers “may have sprung from the deep similarities among all three groups.” (63)
All three groups, for instance, rejected “progressivism” and its high priest John Dewey. Why? Because they believed in original sin. Children’s natural instincts should not be allowed free reign, for those natural tendencies are corrupted by the Fall. Instead, children must be subject to authority and must be taught unchanging, Absolute Truth.
The difference came in how this Absolute Truth was imparted. Laats first chronicles the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) program, whose hallmark was its ease of use in fledgling schools (and later homeschools). ACE was an individualized program, with each student working at his or her own pace through a complete prefabricated course of workbooks. Teachers merely roamed the room answering questions and administering periodic tests. ACE was cheap, and teacher competence wasn’t much of an issue, strong selling points for new schools with little capital or expertise. But some fundamentalists derided the occasional use in the curricula of progressive sounding terms and quotes from such heathens as Confucius, not to mention the tedium endured by isolated children working through page after page of dreary worksheets. ACE was first out of the gate though, and at its peak in 1982 it was being used in over 8,000 schools. Though Laats doesn’t mention it, ACE has also exported well to other countries. Several of the international articles I’ve reviewed over the past year on this blog get their data from students enrolled in the ACE program.
A Beka, a curriculum created by Arlin and Beka Horton for their Pensacola Christian Schools, aimed to be more consistently fundamentalist. Influenced by conservative educational theorists like Max Rafferty and Rudolph Flesch, the Hortons emphasized phonics, rote memorization, and authoritarian teachers to help students discipline their sinful natures. Entire lessons were scripted so that no open-ended discussion leading to questions that might challenge the Truth would occur. The Hortons rejected progressive ideals like critical thinking and learning by doing, arguing that such things are actually a by-product of subject matter mastery. The actual content of A Beka consisted largely of out-of-print textbooks from a time when American schools inculcated heavy doses of Protestant morality and patriotism.
In direct contrast to ACE’s drill-and-kill worksheets and A Beka’s “no fun” direct instruction in dated texts by unquestioned authorities, the Bob Jones curriculum was an original product, emanating from the professors at Bob Jones University. The guiding spirit of the endeavor was Walter G. Fremont, dean of BJU’s School of Education from 1953 to 1990. BJU affirmed the importance of well-educated teachers, of conceptual learning in addition to memorization, of thoughtful discussions, field trips, and flexibility. BJU’s school of education taught its student teachers Bloom’s taxonomy, class management skills, and how to make school fun. Of course BJU’s more sophisticated curriculum and ideals required good teachers to pull off, teachers BJU’s school of education was graduating by the dozens.
Laats chronicles the spats between these three curriculum providers and the efforts each made to take market share away from its rivals. But his conclusion is that despite the efforts of all three to cast their curriculum as the only legitimate option, in practice most Christian day schools “mixed their sources of both educational philosophy and curricular materials.” (p.83) Here too the homeschooling experience is closely parallel. Many novice Christian homeschoolers may have started (and still start) with one of the big three, but after a few years most of them tended (and tend) to be more eclectic in their choices, especially as more and more alternatives became available.
I have hit the highlights, but the article provides much rich detail not in my summary. This article is by far the best available on the history these important curricula, and I look forward to much more great stuff from Dr. Laats in the future.