Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University (SUNY) and a recipient of NCSE’s Friend of Darwin award for 2022. His books include Creationism USA, published by Oxford University Press in 2020 (and reviewed in RNCSE 2021; 41:4), and Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, published by Oxford University Press in 2018. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Glenn Branch: You taught in middle and high schools for a decade before entering academia. How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your scholarly work?
Adam Laats: My work as a classroom teacher had a decisive influence on my historical research. In both my Master of Arts in Teaching degree — to begin teaching — and my PhD work, I read a lot about progressive ideas in education. But when I began teaching, in St. Louis and Milwaukee, it seemed pretty obvious that real-world schools tended to be fairly conservative places. It wasn’t just in one school or one community, but in lots of schools, lots of places. I don’t mean “conservative” necessarily in a partisan or ideological sense, but in terms of what they taught and how they taught it. I wanted to know why.
GB: Your research is focused on religiously and politically conservative campaigns to reform public education. How did you become interested in these campaigns?
AL: I’m not from any kind of religious or conservative background. And in fact, my core interest is not in conservatism itself, but rather in the big questions about school: Who decides what goes on in public schools? How is it decided? How can we make schools “better” if we can’t agree on what is “good”? When I started my graduate work in history at the University of Wisconsin 20 years ago, it quickly became clear to me that the existing studies were lopsided. We knew a lot about one side of school culture wars, historically, but very little about the other. So I set out to find out more about what conservatives have thought and done about schools in the USA.
GB: You’ve written two and a half books just on creationism. Have you received any notable feedback from creationists?
AL: I’m optimistic about our creationism culture wars, and my email inbox is one of the reasons why. Over the years, I have received so much email from ardent creationists that I created a separate “cre-mail” folder to hold it. Almost without exception, the correspondence has been extremely polite, even friendly, in spite of the fact that the writers had a strong disagreement with something I’d said about creationism. For the most part, the people who take the time to write to me want to explain their vision of creationism to me. And for the most part, their explanations help solidify my opinion that our fights about creationism are not really about science or theology themselves. Because the arguments I receive — the ones that lay out a careful biblical case for creationism — have absolutely no chance to convert me or convince me. It’s a two-way street: while no argument from biblical principles will convince me, in most cases no argument from mainstream science will convince them. In the end, in my opinion, this is further evidence that the conflicts over creationism will not be resolved in the obvious way, that is, by one side convincing the other to accept mainstream science or creationism. Rather, the fights are instead often two different sides simply speaking past one another. Recognizing this discrepancy is the first step toward seeking a middle ground that can support the teaching of evolution.
GB: You’ve devoted a lot of effort to writing for the public, with op-eds and commentaries in venues like The Washington Post. Why is it so important for the public to understand past controversies over public education?
AL: It’s not only that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. I think it is far more important and straightforward than that. Today’s fights over public schools — about issues such as Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ+-friendly books, and anti-COVID-19 measures — only make sense as the latest outbreak of a chronic condition. Here’s the analogy that works for me: Public schools are America’s family dinner table, and the fights that periodically erupt there are episodes of long-running resentments and disagreements about what schools should be doing. If we don’t discuss current battles in context, they will be almost impossible to understand, just as we can’t understand family feuds without knowing the full backstory.
GB: What’s your next project?
AL: The question that drives my work is this: Who decides what schools will do? For a full century, now, in my opinion, the battles over creationism and evolution education have been the best way to understand America’s profound disagreement about what America means and what students need to know about it. But long before the 1920s, public schools were born in conflict. In the first decades of the 1800s, two very different visions of “public education” confronted one another in America’s cities. Elites wanted to create two tracks of schools. “Public schools,” in their vision, would be tuition-free schools for poor children. White and Black, boy and girl, the hope of elite reformers in the early 1800s was to get every American child into a school — a “public” school. But children themselves had different ideas. Low-income children and their families refused to accept schools only for the poor. They thought “public” schools should instead be for the entire public. Their push for a unified kind of public education wasn’t wholly laudable or wholly modern. White activists always meant only the entire white public, even as Black pundits fought for truly integrated public schools. The movement that captured and eventually resolved this tension was the Lancasterian crusade, named for a narcissistic, abusive, deluded London reformer named Joseph Lancaster. I’m trying to figure out the mystery at the heart of the story. Namely, how did a woeful school-reform failure end up becoming a dramatic success? How did the flop of the Lancasterian movement become the birth of modern public-school systems?