These developments have been widely panned in the media. The
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These developments have been widely panned in the media. The New York Times editorial board decried such censorship as “the refuge of the weak.” A Washington Post op-ed argued that “the right thinks campuses are hopeless and has resorted to repression as the answer.” In The Chronicle, the historian Ellen Schrecker wrote about how “half-truths, exaggerations, and racist innuendo became entrenched in the popular view of higher education.”
This crackdown is indeed daunting. It is also, as Schrecker points out, just the latest outbreak in a chronic, decades-old conflict. And if that longer-term history is any guide, the real impact will come not from the restrictive laws and bans that grab headlines, but from a different and less heralded direction: right-wing-infused K-12 curricula produced and disseminated by staunchly conservative colleges. This educational activism often happens behind the scenes and to less fanfare, but over the long term it delivers an outsize portion of the culture-war punch. And in this space the action isn’t in big state systems in Florida or Idaho, but rather at a leafy liberal arts college in the Midwest — Michigan’s Hillsdale College, or, as Politico put it, “The College That Wants to Take Over Washington.” Hillsdale has faced a few recent setbacks in its efforts to insinuate its radical ideas into K-12 schools. But, worryingly, it might just have stumbled onto an older, tried-and-true conservative recipe for success.
The playbook for how to deliver a conservative, Christian version of history to schoolchildren was developed in the 1970s and ‘80s by two conservative colleges, Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. Bob Jones University was founded in 1926 by the evangelist Bob Jones to provide an unapologetically conservative and evangelical higher education. In 1954, two BJU alumni, Arlin and Beka Horton, decided their alma mater had slipped too far into liberalism and heterodoxy. They opened Pensacola Christian Academy (and eventually Pensacola Christian College) to provide an even more conservative, even more staunchly fundamentalist alternative.
By the 1970s, both institutions viewed K-12 public education as irredeemably lost. As one BJU faculty member explained in 1979, public schools were dominated by the “Satanic philosophy” of “secular humanism.” In response, both colleges dedicated themselves to producing textbooks that would offer an alternative for private K-12 schools and home-schoolers — a curriculum freed from public oversight and one that would teach a very different kind of history.
Leaders at both BJU and PCC thought mainstream textbooks were too thoroughly infused by secular values. As a group of BJU faculty put it, students needed more than a sprinkling of conservative and Christian ideas on top of a fundamentally secular story — they needed to be taught that “the facts of history are actions either directed or permitted by God.”
And so began, in the early ‘70s, Bob Jones University Press at BJU and Abeka publishing at PCC. They began to produce textbooks in all topics, and their American-history textbooks consistently preached a profoundly, even shockingly, conservative vision of the American past. In the 2012 edition of BJU Press’s United States History for Christian Schools, for example, students read that the early failure of the Jamestown colony in Virginia was due to a lack of respect for Biblical principles and a dangerous aversion to Christian capitalism. Once John Smith “enforced the Biblical principle of 2 Thessalonians 3:10,” the textbook relates (“if any would not work, neither should he eat”), the colony was able to thrive.
The same textbook later prompts students: “In light of what you have learned about religion and liberty, use the Bible to respond to the argument that denying homosexuals the right to marry denies them fundamental liberties that heterosexuals possess.” The authors of the BJU Press textbook hoped that a conservative vision of the past could inspire students to conservative activism in the present.
The writers of Abeka history textbooks had similar ambitions. The 1996 edition of United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom warned that indigenous Americans never developed a real culture or religion, but rather only practiced “superstition” that “kept the Indians from working together to develop the land in which they lived.” In perhaps the most striking departure from mainstream history, the Abeka text also teaches that indigenous Americans had migrated to the Americas a few thousand years ago because of the fall of the Tower of Babel as described in the Bible.
These textbooks are radically different from mainstream textbooks, as the leaders of BJU and PCC intended. The colleges were hoping to corner the market on conservative evangelical Protestant private schools. In this they seem to have succeeded even beyond their own ambitions.
It is difficult to know exactly how many home-schoolers and private K-12 schools use BJU and PCC textbooks. Abeka alone claims over a million children use its materials every year, and there is good reason to think BJU Press could have an expansive reach as well. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016 approximately 1.7 million American children were home-schooled. A significant proportion of home-schooling families choose home-schooling as a way to teach ideas not taught in public schools, including the kinds of ideas on offer in BJU and PCC textbooks. Then there are the approximately 680,000 students who attend private schools and who identify as “Conservative Christian.” The potential audience for conservative Christian textbooks would appear to be in the neighborhood of two-million students.
In a final twist, today’s conservative-majority Supreme Court just handed BJU and PCC a victory far beyond the wildest dreams of the 1970s and ‘80s. In Carson v. Makin (2022), the court ruled that a state that pays for private schools may not rule out private schools merely because they are religious. The specific program at issue is only used in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, but 37 states have some sort of constitutional “no-aid” provision against funding religious schools, and those provisions could be at risk. According to Abeka, both of the private schools in dispute in Carson v. Makin — Bangor Christian School and Temple Academy in Waterville, Me. — use Abeka textbooks. As a result, although they frankly and unapologetically eschew the mainstream version of history, Abeka and Bob Jones University Press books could end up in publicly funded schools.
Roche was doomed by scandal in 1999 when his daughter-in-law committed suicide (she previously claimed that she and Roche had been carrying on a long-running affair, the news of which seemed to spell the end of the institution’s influence). However, the Trump presidency rocketed Hillsdale back to prominence as the leading institution of Making America Great Again. The current Hillsdale president, Larry P. Arnn, took over in 2000 and has made a priority of connecting with conservative luminaries. He introduced Ron DeSantis at this year’s Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar as “one of the most important people living.”
In his 2016 Hillsdale commencement address, Justice Clarence Thomas likened the college to a “shining city on a hill.” Vice President Mike Pence made the conservative vision even more explicit it in his Hillsdale commencement address two years later:
“If you hold fast to Him, if you live according to all that you have learned and the examples that you have seen in this special place, if you rededicate yourselves to the noble mission that has always animated the graduates of this college, I know that once we get done making this nation great again, your generation will make America greater than ever before.”
Toward realizing this vision, Hillsdale has become the home of a free online college curriculum touting the glories of American history. The online courses offer a series of traditional lectures that promise to explain how the United States has been able to create and cherish the “most enduring and successful constitution in history.” During the Trump years, Hillsdale retooled its curriculum for K-12 schools. It pushed a “Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum” into a network of charter schools nationwide. The curriculum includes templates for teaching a celebratory vision of the American past, including learning activities and source materials.
This summer it seemed as if Hillsdale’s drive into publicly funded charter schools was unstoppable. The college was linked to 24 schools in 13 states, and Hillsdale’s curriculum seemed poised to fuel a burst of explicitly conservative charter schools nationwide, with state leaders such as Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee promising financial support for Hillsdale-aligned charters.
Arnn and Hillsdale never made any secret of their extreme culture-war partisanship. Their history curriculum celebrated distinctly conservative themes, harping on the superiority of the United States and its unique role as a glorious land of equality under God. Unlike mainstream K-12 history curriculum, which has tried to get students to think like historians and ask tough questions about the past, Hillsdale’s history classes were intended to fire the “moral imagination” of students by teaching them about the “heroic characters and actions” of the founding fathers.
In the “How Teachers Can Learn More” section of the curriculum, teachers were directed to the report of the 1776 Commission, chaired by Arnn at the behest of then-President Donald J. Trump. That document promulgates an ideologically driven vision of American history, depicting our nation as “the most just and glorious country in all of human history” in a stark and intentional rejection of mainstream academic thinking. Yes, there have always been problems in American society, the 1776 report concedes, but heroic Americans have always solved them with great reform movements such as abolitionism and the anti-abortion-rights movement. According to the report, the founding fathers wisely recognized that good government needed religion, especially and explicitly “biblical faith.”
Unfortunately, the 1776 report explains, America’s greatness has been tarnished by a century of subversive progressivism, which has established a “shadow government,” a powerful network of unelected bureaucrats that has metastasized into every segment of today’s bloated federal government. Even worse, the communist “legacy of anti-Americanism” has become pervasive in mainstream American universities. Unlike the staunch patriotism Hillsdale and the 1776 curriculum embrace, mainstream academics preach a history filled with “anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship” that instilled in students “at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.”
Luckily, according to Hillsdale’s K-12 curriculum, teachers and students now had an alternative, a comprehensive history curriculum that would allow them to teach children a very different version of America’s past. It seemed as if Hillsdale’s alternative history would be moving into more and more publicly funded K-12 schools.
It didn’t last. Arnn attracted negative attention by deriding public-school teachers as coming from the “dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” Soon school boards in Tennessee were rejecting charter applications from Hillsdale schools, and the schools’ backers eventually retreated from their attempts to open new schools in Tennessee. Hillsdale’s failures in Tennessee re-enacted its failures in Arizona, where it had tried and failed to import new conservative curriculum standards in 2018.
The conservative college’s reach into private schools and home-schooling has the potential to be even more far-reaching. A majority of Americans support wider use of vouchers to send students to private schools, according to a 2019 Cato Institute poll.
What if private schools expand and more and more students encounter the dubious lessons of Hillsdale’s curriculum? What if Hillsdale repeats the strategy of BJU and PCC and abandons any attempt to moderate its message to appeal to public schools? Hillsdale’s warnings about a sinister progressive “shadow government” and the need for government to be guided by “biblical faith” may be too extreme for public school boards, but by consistently preaching an even more radical history to students in private schools, Hillsdale could join older conservative colleges in exerting a durable influence on the ways millions of Americans think. This is where higher ed’s culture wars are playing out with the most dramatic reach — and conservative colleges are poised to succeed.