Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in January announced an ambitious plan to improve K-12 education in his state: import 50 charter schools from Michigan. It’s not that Tennesseans lacked expertise in education, it’s just that Lee believes his new Michigan partner, Hillsdale College, is “a standard bearer in quality curriculum” and represents a “high-quality option for Tennessee students.”
Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale, holds far less positive views towards teachers in Tennessee (and other places). In a video recently leaked to a Nashville TV station, Arnn repeatedly disparaged teachers at a private event that featured Lee on stage next to him as a “surprise guest.”
Arnn directed his ire toward the parts of academia devoted to training teachers. He claimed college and university administrators pursued advanced degrees in education because such programs are “easy,” adding, “You don’t have to know anything.”
Adding to the insult, he said “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” Hillsdale’s partnership with Tennessee, he added, seeks “to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.” Perhaps that’s why Hilldale doesn’t even have an education major to train school teachers, instead offering only an “early childhood education” minor focused on running a preschool. But this is the institution Lee wants to trust to create charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated).
Lee failed to defend the quality of his state’s teachers and educational institutions onstage with Arnn. His silence in response to the comments drew widespread criticism from Tennessee’s education leaders. When he finally addressed the controversy yesterday (July 6), he still refused to condemn Arnn’s attack on teachers. Lee instead tried to shift the conversation away from his conservative partner’s offensive remarks to alleged efforts by liberal activists: “I disagree with left-wing activism in public education.”
Both Arnn’s comments and Lee’s silence begin to make sense if the actual goal isn’t improving public schools but transforming them into something different. After all, Lee described the purpose of education as instilling an “informed patriotism” in students. Instead of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, classrooms are ideologically-contested spaces for determining what kids learn about God and country.
As Salon investigative reporter Kathryn Joyce noted, “In an era of book bans, crusades against teaching about racism, and ever-widening proposals to punish teachers and librarians, Hillsdale is not just a central player, but a ready-made solution for conservatives who seek to reclaim an educational system they believe was ceded decades ago to liberal interests. The college has become a leading force in promoting a conservative and overtly Christian reading of American history and the U.S. Constitution. It opposes progressive education reforms in general and contemporary scholarship on inequality in particular.”
Or as Joyce reported Arnn more succinctly explaining, “Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it’s our weapon.”
In this edition of A Public Witness, we study the reactionary views advanced by the president and other leaders of this small Christian college seeking to fundamentally change the face of American public education. Then we look at how Hillsdale puts theory into practice in states like Tennessee and Florida, where conservative governors are using the college to bolster their scores with the Republican electorate. Our final in this summer session warns that the Christian Nationalism emanating from Hillsdale College is another way faith is weaponized against a basic pillar of democracy.