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Educational Psychology Meets the Christian Right: Differing Views of Children, Schooling, Teaching, and Learning

by David C. Berliner - 1997

Among the most unrelenting contemporary critics of public schools are members of the Christian Right, some of whom seek the destruction of public education. The theories of child rearing espoused by the Christian Right are analyzed in this article. They emphasize physical punishment, the breaking of children’s will, and obedience to authority. Such theories cannot be supported by modern psychology. Furthermore, these childrearing practices are totally incompatible with the constructivist models of learning that form the basis for the educational reforms undertaken by science, mathematics, and social studies educators. The school curriculum used in many fundamentalist Christian schools was also analyzed and found to be limited, biased, and sometimes untrue. The arguments made against outcomes based education and whole language programs were found to be confused and chaotic. The antagonism of the Christian Right to these programs is based on a fear of losing control over their children’s thinking, rather than any compelling empirical data. It is concluded that many among the Christian Right are unable to engage in politics that make a common school possible. They may be unable to compromise and live with educational decisions reflecting a pluralistic democracy keeping separate church and state.

Among the most unrelenting contemporary critics of public schools are members of the Christian Right, some of whom seek the destruction of public education. The theories of child rearing espoused by the Christian Right are analyzed in this article. They emphasize physical punishment, the breaking of children’s will, and obedience to authority. Such theories cannot be supported by modern psychology. Furthermore, these child-rearing practices are totally incompatible with the constructivist models of learning that form the basis for the educational reforms undertaken by science, mathematics, and social studies educators. The school curriculum used in many fundamentalist Christian schools was also analyzed and found to be limited, biased, and sometimes untrue. The arguments made against outcomes based education and whole language programs were found to be confused and chaotic. The antagonism of the Christian Right to these programs is based on a fear of losing control over their children’s thinking, rather than any compelling empirical data. It is concluded that many among the Christian Right are unable to engage in politics that make a common school possible. They may be unable to compromise and live with educational decisions reflecting a pluralistic democracy keeping separate church and state.

These are difficult times for America’s public schools. For over a decade now they have been attacked unremittingly. But as Bruce Biddle and I have argued in our recent book The Manufactured Crisis (Berliner & Biddle, 1995), too many of those who criticize our public schools do so without evidence, out of confusion or malice, to further a narrow social agenda or to foster privatization. As Biddle and I explored the origins of the many unsubstantiated criticisms of the public schools, we discovered a particularly odd literature emanating from one of the organized groups that most vociferously attacks public education. This group has often attacked psychology, in general, and educational psychology in particular, and thus my interest in their criticisms was heightened. The group I refer to is a loosely knit coalition of individuals from all races and ethnicities, all social classes and regions of the country, acting in concert on issues concerned with how children are raised. They are collectively identified by the media as the Christian or Fundamentalist or Religious Right.


Like many other Americans, members of the Christian Right have expressed concerns about issues of family and schooling, teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment. In our democracy such concerns should be welcome and prove helpful to school people working in a predominantly Christian country.1 A substantial proportion of the Christian Right identify themselves as conservative Evangelical Christians. Kosmin and Lachman (1993) estimate that Evangelicals comprise about 20 percent of the U.S. population and that they “tend to be more rural, more southern, less affluent and less well educated than the rest of the population” (p. 197). In comparison to many other Christian subgroups, Evangelicals frequently take “extreme right” or “ultraconservative” positions on educational issues. These highly reactionary, extreme right conservatives—Evangelicals as well as others—are the group referred to when the term “Christian Right” is used in this article. This distinction is important because the Christian Right is made up of individuals who speak for themselves as well as for the group. It is often the writings and pronouncements of individuals, rather than the entire group, that are the focus of this article.

When looking at the overall population of the United States, the millions of people that make up the Christian Right seem to be small in number. But they are well organized, well funded, and politically active. They are often visible and vocal at school board meetings, textbook adoption meetings, and other community forums where issues of family, youth, and schooling arise. They have expressed their intention of closing down public education or modifying it to conform to their vision of how schooling should be conducted. Given their political power and extreme views, it is appropriate to examine the full range of educational beliefs held by the Christian Right.

Members of the Christian Right do not, of course, talk with unanimity on most subjects and, for that matter, neither do the members of the educational psychology community. But there is a sense of mission and purpose for each group, as well as a set of central ideas that bind the people in each group together. In the discussion that follows it is to these central ideas that I will refer. It is my belief that the tenets, central ideas, or world views of the two groups—the Christian Right on the one hand and the professional educational psychology community on the other—are very different on issues of childhood, schooling, teaching, and learning. In fact, I believe that these views are inherently incompatible. Thus I believe that educational psychologists—as well as most classroom teachers and mainstream Christian and non- Christian parents—will be unable to work out with the Christian Right the political compromises that are needed to allow the public schools to function.

Given the rhetoric of the extreme religious Right, politics as we know it—the art of the possible, finding an acceptable common ground for running our public schools—may not be possible. If you are of the Christian Right, to be pragmatic, to give in, to compromise, to bargain or negotiate—that is, to engage in politics—is to lose to Satan. Political compromise defies God’s commandments, because it allows secular humanism (a godless religion) to have influence over our children, to take Christ out of the lives of our youth.


It is important that I make my personal views clear as we explore these sensitive issues, especially since I am not a Christian. Although Jewish, I believe that peace in the Middle East is being prevented, in part, by fundamentalist, far-right, religious Jews who insist that some of the land occupied by Palestinians was land given to them by God. These biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, from which the Jewish people had been absent for 2,000 years, are now claimed by divine right. The fundamentalists eschew negotiation and compromise, they seek no common ground, caring only that they get their way, for they believe their demands are divinely sanctioned. My animosity toward fundamentalists, therefore, is general, not specific to a particular sect or denomination. It is my fear of and distaste for theocracy that fuels my dyspepsia. I believe that fundamentalists of all stripes lack the desire for political discussion—for compromise, for solutions to problems that recognize the legitimacy of alternative views of the matter at hand, for tolerance of difference. Fundamentalism and democracy, as I understand these concepts, are in conflict. And when fundamentalist religious beliefs are coupled with an extreme right, nationalistic view of one’s country, politics in its usual sense, whether in Israel or the United States, is nearly impossible.

With my personal views now visible, let me present some of the general beliefs and goals publicly stated by the Christian Right in the United States. I will then analyze whether those beliefs are compatible with those held by contemporary educational psychologists and other educational scholars.


In general, the Christian Right argues that federal controls have been used to deny students the “right” to pray in schools; to restrict unfairly the teaching of “scientific creationism”; to encourage the appearance of “dirty,” “antifamily,” “pro-homosexual,” and “anti-American” books in school curricula; and to enforce “cultural relativity” in courses on values and sex education. In the rhetoric of religious fundamentalists, these “evils” are bundled together as “secular humanism,” a catch-all phrase that refers to educational philosophies that are “human-centered rather than God-centered” (Diamond, 1989, p. 85; Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996). Leading secular humanists include influential educators and psychologists—John Dewey, Abraham Maslow, and B. F. Skinner. In the view of right-wing extremists, the “evils” of the secular humanists and psychological relativists can be countered only by doing away with federal controls in education or, paradoxically, by promoting federal laws or constitutional amendments that prohibit the government from imposing secular humanism on public schools.

In addition, advocates among the Christian Right argue that because public schools are inevitably used to promote secular humanism, they are iniquitous and should be abolished completely! Christian Right advocate and educator Robert Thoburn, of the Fairfax (Virginia) Christian School, said: “We believe public schools are immoral . . . they breed criminals. They teach [children] they’re animals, that they evolved from animals” (quoted in Gehrman, 1987, p. 14). Thoburn’s goals are stated clearly in his widely read book The Children Trap (1986):

I imagine every Christian would agree that we need to remove the humanism from the public schools. There is only one way to accomplish this: to abolish the public schools. We need to get the government out of the education business. According to the Bible, education is a parental responsibility. It is not the place of the government to be running a school system.

And how should Christians proceed to dismantle public education? Thoburn (1986) urges Christians to run for school boards but not to reveal their motives or their strong Christian beliefs:

Christians should run for the school board. This may sound like strange advice. After all, I have said that Christians should have nothing to do with the public schools. What I meant was that Christians should not allow their children to have anything to do with public schools. This does not mean that we should have nothing to do with them. . . . Our goal is not to make the schools better. . . . The goal is to hamper them, so they cannot grow. . . . Our goal as God-fearing, uncompromised . . . Christians is to shut down the public schools, not in some revolutionary way, but step by step, school by school, district by district. (p. 159)

How will they shut down the public schools? After election Thoburn recommends that the new board members vote against all taxes, promote larger class sizes, reduce the salaries of teachers, harass teachers and administrators by demanding tighter accounting practices whenever they request reimbursement for anything, keep the board from making any decisions that might improve instruction, keep textbook adoption committees in turmoil, and so forth. Other committed Christians are urged to take all legitimate actions to hamper and discourage public schools, such as arguing against them in public debates and voting no in all school-bond elections.

Thoburn is not alone. Robert Simonds (1985), head of the Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE), has written How to Elect Christians to Public Office. There he states:

We need strong board members who know right from wrong. The Bible, being the only true source on right and wrong, should be the guide of board members. Only godly Christians can truly qualify for this critically important position. (p. 4)

A “stealth” strategy for gaining power was recommended by Simonds (1985).2 Simonds advised his Christian candidates to be up-beat and avoid saying things that could sound “kooky” and cause a backlash. He even noted that “the name ‘Citizens for Excellence in Education’ was adopted because it is a ‘friendly’ name to a school board. No one is against citizens, or excellence, or education” (pp. 30–31; emphasis in original). With Simonds’s book you can also get a Public School Awareness (PSA) kit, which teaches how to organize committees to win school elections. Audiotapes in the kit have Simonds telling his listeners that there is demonic activity going on in the schools and that the schools are persecuting Christians. In fact, in his newsletter he claimed that “it now appears that Christians in America are beginning to share the treatment Jews received in Nazi Germany” (Kaplan, 1994). How effective have these efforts been? The CEE claims that its efforts resulted in the election of 7,153 board members in 1993, and the CEE appears to have had a budget of $710,000 in 1994 (Kaplan, 1994). By January 1995, 1,700 politically active committees had been set up in school districts to elect Christian school board members (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996).

The goal of many Christian school board members and their constituents is to hamper the public schools so completely that another 2 or 4 or 6 percent of the parents of public school children will feel compelled to withdraw their children and enroll them in private or religious schools. This strategy rests on the belief that vouchers for private and religious schools will not come about until more parents enroll their children in private schools, thus creating a larger demand for vouchers. These Christian activists believe, and they may be right, that they are near the tipping point on this issue. That is, just a small increase in the percent of parents with children in private school will result in the change they seek—the end of state-run public educational systems. Because their goal is “pure,” the Christian Right believes that the destruction of publicly supported education by whatever means is justified. So the first possibly irreconcilable issue between educational psychology and the Christian Right is that many in the Christian Right seek to destroy the public schools, while I believe that most in the educational psychology and broader educational research communities support public education.

Second, the Christian Right believes that educational psychologists have played a role in the perversion of the schools, destroying their central mission, the communication of factual knowledge, in order to promote secular humanist objectives. Thomas Sowell, a senior scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a nationally syndicated columnist, says that the educational bureaucracy “has been conducting a systematic brainwashing of America’s children” (quoted in Robertson, 1993, p. 219). Sowell continues:

The techniques of brainwashing developed in totalitarian countries are routinely used in psychological conditioning programs imposed on American school children. These include emotional shock and desensitization, psychological isolation from sources of support, stripping away defenses, manipulative cross-examination of the individual’s underlying moral values, and inducing acceptance of alternative values by psychological rather than rational means. (p. 219)

Sowell, along with former presidential candidate and founder of the Christian Coalition Pat Robertson, condemns educational psychologists in particular for helping to prepare and distribute sex education, drug education, death education, and multicultural materials for classroom use (Robertson, 1993). John Dewey, as psychologist and philosopher, is singled out as particularly evil. He is credited with inventions and ties to schools of psychology that, were Dewey following the debate, would befuddle him completely. Robertson (1993) charges that

the newest application of Dewey’s model is outcomes-based education (OBE), which holds that it doesn’t matter whether or not children know the specific facts so long as they feel good about themselves and develop “tolerance for cultural diversity.” . . . This form of behaviorism has wreaked havoc with every level of achievement of American public school students. (p. 229)

In one fell swoop, Robertson places John Dewey, B. F. Skinner, and William Spady (the leading contemporary advocate for OBE) in the same pot. Robertson reports that people are fleeing the public schools because educators are trying to force on students and parents “the extremist mindset of John Dewey and psychologist B. F. Skinner” (p. 230). Robertson asks his followers why we cannot have the schools we need, and his answer is that “an entire generation of Skinnerian psychologists [block] the way” (p. 241). Because Pat Robertson is one of the most visible leaders of the Christian Right, his words must be chosen carefully for they are echoed by others. We can, therefore, take him seriously when he stated on his popular television show that “Satan has established certain strongholds. . . . He has gone after education and has been very successful in capturing it” (Howard, 1996, p. 14, citing data collected by the Houston Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State). He has also said on the air that public schools are places where “radical lunatics expose students to corpses, teach bestiality, and develop curricula that are destroying the minds of our children” (Howard, 1996, p. 14).

On his television broadcasts Robertson has accused teachers of being, among other things, Nazis, socialists, communists, atheists, and devil worshipers, or more charitably, the dupes of those kinds of individuals (Boston, 1996a). The combination of Robertson’s beliefs and the enormous fiscal and political power that he wields gives credence to Boston’s concern that Pat Robertson may be the most dangerous man in America. Neither educational psychologists nor other educational scholars will find it easy to develop common ground with Robertson, his protégé Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, or others who believe what they believe about our schools and teachers.

Three general points are clear. First, some of the beliefs about America’s schools and teachers that are held by people with power among the Christian Right are bizarre and unsupportable. Second, there are many among the Christian Right who would rejoice if public education were destroyed. Third, educational psychologists have played a prominent role among the educational scholars who have allegedly caused our nation’s schools to decline and become the loathsome places for children they are now.

Let us now move from the general to the specific level and examine some of those issues where the core beliefs of educational psychology and the Christian Right appear to be irreconcilable.


Adults get frustrated with young people and want to punish them—for disrespect, poor grades, graffiti, to say nothing of more serious offenses. Sometimes the desire to punish children is overwhelming among parents and citizens, despite the fact that almost all of behavioral psychology agrees that using positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors gains greater and longer lasting behavior change than does the use of punishment. Although much evidence can be mustered to support this principle, most Americans still believe there are times when it is right and proper to punish youth. It is the nature of that punishment that I want to discuss because some of the recommendations emanating from the extreme Christian Right include physical punishment. After almost a half century of research, creatively and convincingly carried out by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, most of the educational psychology community holds that physical violence against children is harmful. It is very difficult to ever justify scientifically, and most of the educational psychology community condemns it on moral grounds as well. The resolution on corporal punishment passed by the American Psychological Association (1975) sums up what psychologists know and believe, and this is provided in Exhibit 1. But in clear opposition to this resolution, members of the Christian Right claim it is good to physically punish disobedient youth because, they say, pain cleanses and the Bible justifies it.


The claim for biblical support is sometimes based on the aphorism “spare the rod and spoil the child,” which is not biblical, though it often is claimed to be and easily could be (Greven, 1992). The King James edition of the Old Testament includes, among Solomon’s proverbs, aphorisms with similar sentiments:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. (23:13–14)

The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. (29:15)

Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. (22:15)

In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding. (10:13)

Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying. (19:18)

My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth. (3:11–12)

When the New Testament is examined there is no evidence that Jesus ever condoned violence toward children. The only statement in the New Testament that supports physical punishment comes from Hebrews 12, and that is a rehash of the Old Testament’s “whom God loveth he correcteth.” But in the New Testament God’s chosen representative is designated: Acting for Him is the family’s father.

The author of The Christian Family (Christenson, 1970), which over the last two decades has sold over one million copies, says, “The scriptural method of discipline is simple and unequivocal: the rod.” And he reminds families that “God holds you accountable for the discipline of your children.” Another book of advice to Christian parents (Lessin, 1979) says, “Spanking is God’s idea. He is the one who has commanded parents to spank their children as an expression of love. Spanking is not optional” (p. 30). And Christian pop psychologist James Dobson (1985), in his million-copy best-seller The Strong-Willed Child, interprets the teachings of the Bible this way: “A child learns to yield to the authority of God by first learning to submit to the leadership of his parents” (p. 238).

These are some of the roots of the recent promotion by parents and legislators for the paddling of youthful offenders. In California, AB 7, a bill to paddle children for misbehavior, was defeated last year. It was introduced and supported by fifteen members of the house and co-sponsored by five state senators. So we are not talking about a single odd or unsupported member of the legislature. AB 7 mandated paddling, also known as corporal punishment, physical punishment, or beating children and youth. The 1995 legislation, sounding more like the legislation of the year 1695, decreed that

the paddle shall be made of hardwood that is one-half inch thick. The handle of the paddle shall be six inches long and one and one-half inches wide. The paddle area shall be 18 inches long and six inches wide. (California Senate Rules Committee, 1995)

The California legislature went on to decree that parents must administer this punishment but if they refused, a bailiff would. The state would have paid up to $1,000,000 to reimburse local governments for implementing those procedures.

Recently in Arizona, my state, admittedly crazier than most, the newspapers reported on a school where the principal whipped children, with the full and willing support of the parents and the local educational authorities—at least until the story made the press. This principal’s violent and perverse sexual needs went even beyond the authority he had been granted, as was seen when a fifteen-year-old girl convinced police to arrest the principal and then went on television to show her scarred buttocks. She charged that the principal stripped her and then beat her in front of her mother as they all prayed to God together. The mother confirmed the story and the principal was later found to have a police record of child abuse of this kind in one other state and in one other country. Such behavior is not called abuse but was, instead, called “discipline” by the parents at this particular Phoenix Christian school. Even after the story was made public many of the parents, including those whose children had been bruised by the headmaster’s discipline, continued to support their principal “because the public schools are too lenient” (Sowers, 1995, P. A1).

Bandura’s research and theory of social learning convince almost all of our profession that violence begets violence. The research literature on this issue is clear: The vast majority of those who physically abuse their spouses and their children were themselves physically punished often and strongly. Alice Miller (1990, 1993), in a brilliant analysis of the origins of violence among Germans, makes a strong case that the roots of Nazism, in general, and Hitler’s evils, in particular, are in the physically violent childrearing practices endemic in that country. Miller convincingly argues that brutalizing attacks on children in Germany, vividly recounted from personal experience by Adolf Hitler, have helped to form the pre–World War II Germanic national character.

In sum: Social science views on punishment are not compatible at all with those of the Christian Right. On these issues there can be little negotiation.


Miller (1990, 1993) makes the point that saving children from evil is just one rationale for physical punishment, but a related goal is to promote obedience from children, a characteristic of a “proper” Christian household. In this view, man should not question God, and children should not question the adult who wears the cloak of divine omnipotence.

This view of family easily leads to child-rearing practices that are at odds with virtually all contemporary theories of the constructivist mind—one that actively seeks to make meaning for oneself. The recent revolution in learning theories from behaviorism to cognitivism includes a profound change in the way we view children (see Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996). Contemporary constructivist and situationist views of learning do not begin with an “obedient mind”; rather, they start with a view of the mind as active and socially mediated. The new psychology has changed how learning and instruction are thought about in the different subject matter fields (e.g., De Corte, Greer, & Verschaffel, 1996; Linn, Songer, & Eylon, 1996 ). These various subject matter fields now require of a learner curiosity, agency, and thoughtfulness—characteristics that cannot develop well when obedience is the primary goal of child rearing.

For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989) promotes the “belief that learning mathematics is a sense-making experience” (p. 15). Based on our psychological models, reformers in mathematics advocate that the mathematics classroom become a society populated by “active individuals who construct, modify and integrate ideas” (p. 17). Teachers create environments that encourage children to explore, develop, test, discuss, and apply ideas so they can construct mathematical understandings. Young people learn to uncover for themselves the underlying mathematical features of a topic, issue, or situation. And since mathematics learning is a collaborative as well as an active process, students need to interact not only with varied teaching materials and the physical world, but also with classmates and community people.

Science educators also base curricular revisions on the notion of “ideas and thinking skills and downplay specialized vocabulary and memorization of procedures” (Project 2061, 1989, p. 4). In the desired contemporary science classroom young people explore questions rather than acquire predetermined answers; they interact and argue rather than sit and recite; they do rather than read and listen. A model lesson opens with questions about phenomena rather than answers to be committed to memory. As learning experiences continue, young people form hypotheses, collect data, and analyze their findings. They design investigations and processes, and in so doing they raise the levels of curiosity and creativity in the classroom. Young scientists, not their teacher, determine the questions for investigation and develop research designs. With teacher guidance, they select appropriate apparatus and identify data collection procedures, presenting their findings for review by other investigators. If they cannot justify results, students recast their experiments and try again (Project 2061, 1993).

The National Council for the Social Studies (1994) also embraces constructivist pedagogy. In their ideal classrooms students build civic competence by searching for information and by manipulating data; they develop and present arguments and stories; and they participate in groups and make social choices (National Council for the Social Studies, 1993). As social studies lessons unfold, teachers and learners think reflectively and make informed decisions. Important social understandings result from a “process of active construction of knowledge” that features interactive discourse among all learners (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994, p. 16). Teachers gradually but intentionally move from direct instructional strategies (e.g., modeling, explaining, supplying information) to less directive approaches that promote having students become independent and self-regulated learners (National Council for the Social Studies, 1993).

Contrasted with these visions of teaching and learning that have been shaped by educational psychologists is a quote from a nineteenth-century fundamentalist tract on child rearing:

Just as we must act with humble faith in the higher wisdom and unfathomable love of God, so the child should let his actions be guided by faith in the wisdom of his parents and teachers and should regard this as schooling in obedience toward the Heavenly Father. Anyone who alters these circumstances is flagrantly replacing faith with presumptuous doubt and at the same time overlooking the nature of the child and his need for faith. I do not know how we can continue to speak of obedience once reasons are given. These are meant to convince the child, and, once convinced, he is not obeying us but merely the reasons we have given him. . . . The adult who gives reasons for his orders opens up the field to argument, and thus alters the relationship to his charge. The latter starts to negotiate, thereby placing himself on the same level as the adult; this equality is incompatible with the respect required for successful education. Anyone who believes he can win love only if he is obeyed as a result of explanations is sorely mistaken, for he fails to recognize the nature of the child, and his need to submit to someone stronger than himself. (in Miller, 1990, p. 39)

These strategies for child rearing are at direct odds with contemporary views in educational psychology. But this centuries-old penchant for obedience over thoughtfulness, for commands rather than explanations, reappears in the child-rearing advice given by many past and current religious counselors, and such guidance has affected American social life and schooling (e.g., McCaslin & Good, 1992). The language used in recommendations to parents is strong—it has to do with breaking the will, and the destruction of the independent intellect during childhood. For example, here are the views of John Robinson, the minister of the Puritans, in Holland, before they left for America:

Surely there is in all children . . . a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon. (quoted in Greven, 1992, p. 65)

The mother of John Wesley, Susanna, expresses similar thoughts in a letter to her son:

A child must be conquered. . . . And when the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies . . . may be passed by. . . . I insist on the conquering of the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education . . . [and] when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents. (quoted in Greven, 1992, p. 66)

Modern advice for child rearing reflects the same themes. The Reverend Jack Hyles, in How to Rear Children (1972), says it this way:

The parent who spanks the child keeps him from going to hell. . . . A child who is spanked will be taught that there is a holy God Who punishes sin and wrong. Hence he will learn to heed authority and obey the laws and rules. When he hears the Word of God he will obey what he hears and will accept the Gospel as it is preached. (pp. 95–96)

The spanking should be administered firmly. It should be painful and it should last until the child’s will is broken. It should last until the child is crying, not tears of anger but tears of a broken will. As long as he is stiff, grits his teeth, holds on to his own will, the spanking should continue. (pp. 99–100)

More currently, William Bennett, our former Secretary of Education, in his introduction to Children at Risk (Dobson & Bauer, 1990, p. xvii), says he has “long admired Jim Dobson. Few Americans have done more to get all of us to ‘focus on the family’.” Dobson, a popular Christian Right psychologist, has sold over two million copies of his 1970 book Dare to Discipline (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996). In that book, Bennett’s esteemed colleague advises that “pain is a marvelous purifier” and that parents ought to use spankings to control their children’s willfulness and rebelliousness (Dobson, 1970). Although claiming to be a psychologist, Dobson has not distinguished well between physical punishment and punishment resulting from response cost or time-out, methods of punishment for children that are more compatible with the beliefs held by most educational psychologists. In another of his books that sold over one million copies, The Strong-Willed Child (1985), Dobson says:

If punishment doesn’t influence human behavior, then why is the issuance of speeding citations by police so effective . . . ? Why, then, do homeowners rush to get their tax payments in the mail to avoid a 6 percent penalty for being late? If punishment has no power then why does a well-deserved spanking often turn a sullen little trouble maker into a sweet and loving angel? (p. 38)

In that same book he writes, “Should a spanking hurt? Yes, . . . a small amount of pain for a young child goes a long way” (p. 53). And for those parents who cannot think of how to administer pain to a child, he has advice: “There is a muscle, lying snugly against the base of the neck. Anatomy books list it as the trapezious muscle, and when firmly squeezed, it sends little messages to the brain saying, ‘This hurts; avoid reoccurrence at all costs’ ” (p. 138).

This advice to families given by Secretary Bennett’s friend stands in sharp contrast to that offered by the American Psycholological Association and professional educational associations. Dobson’s interest is in blind obedience. That is his bottom line. Independence of thought must be stopped, even beaten out of the child if necessary. Many other advisors to contemporary Christian parents are in complete agreement on this point. For example, Hyles (1972, cited in Greven, 1992) asserts that

obedience is the foundation for all character. It is the foundation for the home. It is the foundation for a school. It is the foundation for a country. (p. 145)

Require strict obedience. This obedience should always be immediate, instant, without question or argument. When the father says do, the son does. He does it well, he does it immediately, and he does it without argument. The parents allow no exceptions to the rules. Hence, obedience is the law of the land and the child should not deem it necessary to have an explanation for the orders he has received from his parents. (p. 144)

Yet another child-rearing specialist, Roy Lessin (1979) says:

Obedience from children should be unquestioned; it should not be based upon how reasonable a command sounds to a child. A parent’s directive does not have to be reasonable to the child in order to be obeyed. (p. 44)

And the best-selling Larry Christenson (1970) says:

The bible . . . does not say, “Children obey your parents when they are right.” It says: “Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right”—even if they are wrong! (See Ephesians 6:1.) The child who obeys a “wrong” command will bask in the light of God’s approval. In the long run, he will be a happier and better adjusted child than the one who is given freedom to challenge and question the parents’ authority. For the obedient child is living according to Divine Order, and therefore, participates in a deep sense of harmony and fitness. (p. 55)

While some may regard this as a sensible and proper Christian upbringing, I side with Alice Miller (1990, 1993) in calling it “poisonous pedagogy.” I think she is right to point out that we see here the roots of systems dependent on obedience, such as Nazism. Here are the words of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höess, from his memoirs (Höess, 1963, quoted in Miller, 1990):

It was constantly impressed upon me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers, and priest, and indeed all adults, including servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty. Whatever they said was always right.

These basic principles by which I was brought up became second nature to me. (p. 68)

The kind of upbringing recommended by the contemporary advisors to Christian families easily leads to the warping of personality and the stunting of psychosocial growth, as described by the noted psychologist Erik Erikson (1968). The psychosocial challenges faced by children and adolescents—trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, and so forth, cannot be resolved in ways to promote healthy adult adjustment in households that demand obedience through punishment. And when personality is looked at through the psychometric lens (e.g., Snow, Corno, & Jackson, 1996) we must wonder how the recommendations for parenting made by the experts of the Christian Right affect the child’s development of the “big-five” major personality factors:

Hostility vs. agreeableness, altruism, and affection.

Introversion vs. extroversion, energy, and enthusiasm.

Impulsivity vs. conscientiousness, control, and constraint.

Neuroticism, negativism, and nervousness vs. emotional stability.

Intellectual narrowness, simplicity, and shallowness vs. intellectual openness, originality, and flexibility.

It is not implausible to speculate that when a child is raised in a climate that demands the kind of blind obedience proposed by the “experts” cited above, the negatively valued characteristics among the big-five factors— hostility, introversion, impulsivity, neuroticism, and intellectual shallowness—are likely to develop.

In sum: The standard fundamentalist upbringing is a mind-numbing one that cannot be reconciled with contemporary developmental, educational, or clinical psychology. None of the professional educational associations— mathematicians, physical scientists, social studies teachers—can make use of their best instructional practices if they teach children raised in the manner advocated by the Christian Right.

Children of the Christian Right are too often raised in cultures that are the antithesis of what we now hope to have in schools operating as “communities of learners” (cf. Brown, 1994; Bruer, 1993). But the other side of this issue is equally problematical: The Christian Right cannot raise a child the way they would like to if professional educators use the kind of constructivist pedagogy that has been advocated in recent standards and guidelines for teaching and learning. That is why many among the Christian Right fight for vouchers and engage in home schooling. They acknowledge that there is little to negotiate here, little to work out, no common ground. Perhaps more than the educational community, the Christian Right recognizes that these differing visions of childhood are irreconcilable.


Since 1961, Mel and Norma Gabler, “the first couple of conservatism” (Clevenger, 1994), have examined curricular material on their own and as consultants for various Christian Right groups. Their research team looks for textbooks that could hurt children by representing the secular humanist position, a position that undermines religious authority and corrupts youth. Secular humanism is the most easily identifiable enemy for Christian Right groups. In various tracts it has been identified as responsible for declining academic standards, rebellion against parental authority, sexual permissiveness and perversion, drug and alcohol addition, divorce, abortion, pornography, child abuse, murder, euthanasia, vandalism, suicide, mind control, unwanted pregnancy, telepathy, witchcraft, idolatry, socialism, communism, Satanism, and the decline of U.S. Power. . . . One Christian school pamphlet even blames humanism for causing “stomach- and headaches, nightmares, and other inexplicable maladies among elementary and secondary school children.” (Gehrman, 1987, p. 12)

The criteria used by the Gablers for their judgments of offensiveness in teaching materials are not clear. But almost anything modern that cannot be traced to some biblical teaching seems to them to be the product of secular humanistic thought, and therefore harmful to children. The Gablers’ reviews contributed to a great many angry debates about school curricula, including the famous Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1974 battle over textbooks. There, passions reached such heights that the Reverend Mr. Quigley asked his fellow Christians to pray for the death of some of the local school board members (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996).

Nothing can help make the Gablers’ opinions about textbooks clearer than Mrs. Gabler’s own words:

Too many of today’s textbooks leave students to make up their own minds. Now that is not fair to our children. What some textbooks are doing is giving students ideas, and ideas will never do them as much good as facts. (quoted in Parker, 1981, p. 13)

With the Gablers and others like them on the alert for nontraditional teaching materials and methods, it is not likely that the curriculum of a Christian Right school will be rich in the ways educational psychologists and the new standard-setters in mathematics, science, and social studies might hope a curriculum to be. And that seems to be the case.

The curriculum of many Christian Right schools includes packets of materials from the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) program. In many of these schools the students work on the packets in their own small offices or cubicles. The work consists of low-level cognitive tasks that emphasize simple association and recall activities, as is typical of instruction from workbooks. Despite the reviling of B. F. Skinner by the Christian Right, the materials make heavy use of behavioral objectives, programmed learning, and rewards (Hunter, 1987, cited in Speck & Prideaux, 1993). Students are not supposed to communicate with other students, get up, or turn around without obtaining permission from a supervisor. Students who are having difficulty are expected to raise a small American or Christian flag signaling that they need help. In many of the Christian Right schools interaction between students has been cut off and intellectual activities in groups rarely occur because group work is not valued. Cooperative learning, which invests some power in and attributes some wisdom to the group, is seen to undermine the relationship of subservience of children to adults and to God. Cooperative learning is considered bad learning.

The operation of many Christian Right schools is such that uncertified managers of instruction are allowed to run classrooms, thereby eliminating the need for professional, trained, and certified teachers. This allows the costs for private Christian Right schools to be low. The supervisors of the children follow a rigid teacher’s guide that is quite prescriptive in design. Speck and Prideaux (1993) note that nearly all speculative activities about the world and the human condition have been purged from the curriculum, and so, therefore, have all of the teaching methodologies that promote speculation—field trips, inquiry learning, laboratory learning, cooperative learning, and so forth. When questioned on these matters, the vice president of ACE said, “ACE does not necessarily embrace philosophical beliefs compatible with those of most contemporary writers of curriculum” (quoted in Speck & Prideaux, 1993, p. 284). The vice-president might have said, as well, that ACE also rejects all of contemporary learning and curriculum theory.

The 144 ACE packets, to be completed over twelve years of schooling, are not just content based, but provide fundamentalist philosophy as well. Gehrman (1987) and Speck and Prideaux (1993), in particular, have analyzed Christian Right curriculum materials and found the following:


Christian Right educators, like those who designed the ACE packets, believe that mathematics is a factual enterprise, and should be taught as an example of God’s orderly universe. This belief was expressed by the Gablers when they opposed the “new math” of the 1960s. They claimed that the new math would undermine faith in absolute values, and therefore could lead to relativistic thinking, which is precisely what the secular humanists want. Relativistic thinking inexorably leads to an erosion of the students’ faith in Christianity (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996).


English is taught as a way to spread God’s word, and language use is emphasized through exercises like “Jesus died for (your, you’re) sins.” and “God (is, are) good.” Missing from high school reading lists is such literature as The Diary of Anne Frank and Romeo and Juliet (too sexual), Othello (promotes interracial marriage), and Catcher in the Rye (multiple issues—sexuality; profanity; self-indulgence; lying; defamation of women, people with disabilities, God, and minorities). Other books challenged frequently by the Christian Right include Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Christian Right censors also apparently believe that young children are in danger from Dr. Seuss books. Gaddy, Hall and Marzano (1996) describe how Samantha Smith of the Colorado Eagle Forum found danger in both The Cat in the Hat (it shows how a child’s will can be compromised) and Green Eggs and Ham. In the middle of the latter book, writes Ms. Smith, are illustrations “where the train tunnel doesn’t quite look like a train tunnel and the end of the tunnel seems to have hair on it. Could that be?” (p. 120)

Social Studies

The ACE social studies curriculum pays homage to capitalism and contains a great many patriotic messages. These themes are often blended with Christianity, communicating the message that this is God’s chosen country. An equally important message conveyed by the materials is that women have their place. In one story that is part of the Social Studies ACE packet, a mother says to her son:

Your father is the head of our home. It is God’s plan for the father to be head of his family. I talk to your father about things, but he is the one who decides what we must do. I would do wrong not to obey your father because he is the head of our home. God is pleased when a mother obeys the father in the home. (Speck & Prideaux, 1993, p. 287).

In social studies materials in use at the Center Road Christian Academy of Buffalo, New York, students learned that

men are often better at math and science because of the way their minds work. . . . To fulfill their duties as protectors and providers, men usually have stronger, heavier muscles. . . . Men usually enjoy work outside the home, while women usually find greater enjoyment working within the home. . . . Some vocations are distinctly for men, while others are distinctly for women. (Gehrman, 1987, p. 16)

Interestingly, and somewhat paradoxically, at the Dade Christian School in Miami, Florida, students must pledge not to “draw, wear, or display in any way the ‘peace’ symbol” (Gehrman, 1987, p. 16). Other social studies materials vociferously condemn the United Nations and the evil people who are trying to create one world order, subjugating this nation, God’s nation, to a greater authority. The United Nations is abhorred because it has as a working premise the tolerance of, and respect for, other religions. That becomes intolerable for some of the Christian Right since there is only one true God and those that do not find him are damned for eternity.


Both science processes and science facts appear to be taught poorly in Christian Right schools. One science ACE packet (1986) defines science as “the search for the principles of God’s creation based upon reproducible experiments. . . . We should always subject a principle to the test of the Bible” (p. 3). In contrast, science was described by the National Academy of Sciences in this way: “Scientific interpretations of facts are always provisional and must be testable” (quoted in Knight, 1985, p. 118). Science as a process was best described for me in an offhand remark made by the eminent and witty American physicist Richard Feynman. He defined science as “the belief in the ignorance of authority—that all the experts are wrong.” Thus, among the “stuff” that makes up science are notions about challenging authority, the need to observe phenomena oneself, the ability to develop testable hypotheses about the phenomena of interest, and the belief that all ideas about the natural world are provisional. Each and every one of these notions is anathema to the religious fundamentalist who maintains a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. The inerrancy belief, of course, is the root of the dispute about evolutionary theory.

It is to be expected, therefore, that science in many Christian schools would be taught inadequately by secular standards. And that is what is found (Speck & Prideaux, 1993). ACE Packets for Year 8 Earth Science include a unit that provides “proof” of creationism and another unit that provides “proof” of the flood. Year 9 Physical Science includes a unit on the limitations of science and another on the Bible and scientific method. Year 10 Biology has units on the facts of creation, and critiques of evolution, ecology, and conservation.

As might be expected, the demand for obedience by youth to authority and the Bible leads to direct conflicts with the processes and the theories of contemporary science. The much debated Christian Right alternative to evolutionary theory, Creation Science, is offered to the public schools as a way to present the facts of science in such a way as to be fair to Christian children. However, Creation Science simply is not science. It cannot be taught as science without distorting science. When public school boards and administrators seriously consider Creation Science as science curriculum they demonstrate their ignorance of science, their ignorance of U.S. law, and their lack of understanding of the goals of the Christian Right. But private fundamentalist schools of the Christian Right do not have to compete with evolutionary theory—they can teach whatever they want. Thus the ACE science packet (1986) used in private Christian schools says that Darwin is an important figure in science but that his theory of evolution is wrong:

The Bible is completely against any such theory. Evolution claims that man arose through a series of random changes. The theory leaves no room for man’s responsibility or man’s sin. If evolution were true, no man would be born a sinner because Adam would never have fallen and committed the original sin of disobedience to God. If evolution were true, Christ would not have needed to die for our sin. (p. 12)

In discussing the sediment from core samples of earth obtained when drilling for oil off the coast of Guatemala, the ACE science packet notes:

Much of that sediment was deposited during the Flood, but even without the deposition of sediment by the Flood, the yearly deposition rates tell us that the Earth is quite young. (p. 16)

There is no problem in educating the young for the Reverend Lee of the Center Road Christian Academy. His school does not have to worry much about secular science, for he announces: “Daily lessons in the Scripture are designed for programming the mind to enable the child to see life from God’s point of view. . . . Teaching is training” (quoted in Gehrman, 1987, p. 16).

Educational psychologists are trained and educated in the ways of science. They accept the theory of evolution, provisionally, as the best theory we currently have, useful in understanding the development of cognition, personality, perception, and motor skills. Our core beliefs about science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular, are directly antagonistic to and irreconcilable with those held by the fundamentalist Christian Right. Dialogue between the two groups, which is necessary for working out a common public school curriculum, may be impossible.

In fact, part of the current Parent’s Rights bill, now seeking passage in about thirty states and as a constitutional amendment (Boston, 1996b), attempts to give parents the right to exempt their children when schools teach anything not approved of by the parents in advance. Exemptions will surely be requested for health courses and for science courses that teach evolution and promote the idea that challenging authority is acceptable. The Parent’s Rights bill will also hamper investigation of child abuse. Psychology’s leadership, as well as that of the American Educational Research Association and almost all the other social science groups, along with the Parent-Teacher Association, the National Education Association (NEA), and about forty mainstream religious and educational groups oppose the Parent’s Rights bill because it will make it many times more difficult to conduct public schools and do research with children in those schools. For example, parents would be able to exempt their children from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and any other research study or testing program in which the school participates. But the Parent’s Rights bill may be even more problematic than that. Honoring parental rights of the kind sought by the Christian Right would cause no end of litigation problems for the public schools, not to speak of a decline in academic learning. But this may be precisely what is desired. Two advocates for the Parent’s Rights bill have acknowledged that the legislation will surely bring chaos to the public schools, and therefore it will help to promote parental support for school vouchers (Boston, 1996b).


I am neither an advocate for nor an enemy of OBE. There is, however, some convincing evidence that many of the school systems that adopted some version of OBE have increased their academic achievement (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996). But mixed evidence is not uncommon in education, and it is also clear that OBE has not been successful everywhere it has been tried. Regardless of OBE’s virtues or deficiencies, it has become a symbol of the secular humanist demon for the Christian Right. Thus, when we examine the Christian Rights’ interpretation of OBE we find that many of their concerns are confused and wrong-headed. For one example, Rev. Simonds of Citizens for Excellence in Education is quoted as saying that under OBE affective education would constitute about 50 percent of a child’s school day and that OBE is “an insidious development to lock all children into mind control—creating a robot citizenry.” An OBE curriculum, Rev. Simonds notes, comes complete with “witchcraft, shamanism, black magic, necromancy (talking to the dead), hypnotism, and psychological manipulation of children’s minds” (Kaplan, 1994, pp. K6–K7).

Another example of muddled thinking is presented as Exhibit 2. It is a slightly abridged and edited handout for parents that was “prepared and researched” by the Michigan Alliance of Families (n.d.), a state-level affiliate of a national Christian Right group. As described in this list, the odious OBE seems to be a program that includes everything modern in education.

Opposition to most of the features of contemporary education and educational psychology cited in Exhibit 2 is elaborated on by Poeppelmeyer (1994). For example, Poeppelmeyer says that a belief that all children can learn means that children will be given the time to learn that they need, a la the Bloom and Carroll models (in which allocated and engaged time are seen as more important variables in learning than are aptitude and ability [Bloom, 1968; Carroll, 1963; Fisher & Berliner, 1985]). This is intolerable because children will not work without competition; they can dawdle, taking all the time they want, which means that the Bloom and Carroll models of instruction encourage sloth. Cooperative learning is seen as the Robin Hood approach—giving by the mentally talented to the less talented. It is “unfair to the A student and is academic abuse to the lower achievers who get by without doing much” (Poeppelmeyer, 1994, p. 6). Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools is objected to because it bought the fallacious notion that learning less, but in depth, is more important than learning widely, even if shallowly. Such theories result in a deceleration of learning, intended to dumb down our kids, because everyone knows that “in order to have a highly intelligent and literate nation, MORE CONTENT KNOWLEDGE, not less must be taught” (Poeppelmeyer, 1994, p. 7; emphasis in original). The critical thinking agenda “is the discovery/constructivist method advocated by John Dewey, Piaget, and the developmental theorists. . . . Rote memorization and factual knowledge are discouraged or elimination [sic] altogether. Spelling words and memorizing math facts in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division become obsolete and deemed unimportant” (Poeppelmeyer, 1994, p. 7). Use of portfolios and criterion-referenced tests in assessment are a problem for Poeppelmeyer because she says they are both subjective, and therefore students cannot be compared with one another. She believes the promotion of these assessment devices is part of a plot to get rid of norm-referenced tests, which document school failure and tell parents how their children are really doing.


Using the theory of multiple intelligences as a framework for the curriculum is also attacked by Poeppelmeyer and the Christian Right because the theory asserts that there is both an interpersonal and an intrapersonal intelligence. Worse yet, Howard Gardner (1983) and others advocate the cultivation of these characteristics. But cultivating the former leads to group work and group work is always bad, for it detracts from the relationship to God. Cultivating the latter, the inner spirituality of an individual, is too much like some kind of new-age belief system that allows the school to intrude into the religious upbringing of children. Schools should be clear about their academic mission: They should teach facts and cultivate only academic abilities. Gardner’s full theory, therefore, is not acceptable.

The Poeppelmeyer (1994) document goes on to demand as much protection for children from dangerous people like us, the educational psychology community, as this nation is willing to give to the spotted owl. Recommended additional reading includes Iserbyt’s (1985/1993) Back to Basics Reform or Skinnerian International Curriculum; related documents that “prove” that the government is forcing upon us a “Skinnerian Dumb Down Values-Changing Program”; and reports that our educational outcomes are being aligned with those of other nations because of the desire of those in authority to promote one world system of government (Poeppelmeyer, 1994, Appendix titled OBEL/ML Important Resources, unpaginated). Even nationally prominent congressman Dick Armey, majority leader of the House, apparently has added his ignorance to the debate. He is quoted as saying:

Goals 2000 takes OBE national. . . . Boil away all the rhetoric about “world class standards,” etc., and it’s simply the behaviorist teaching of B. F. Skinner applied to education . . . OBE shifts a school’s focus from how much students know (cognitive outcomes) to how well they’re socialized (affective outcomes). . . . It weans children from their parents’ values to instill in them politically correct secular-left values. (Arizona Eagle Forum, 1996, p. 2)

The opposition to OBE is against many educational practices that have nothing to do with OBE, and therefore the rhetoric associated with such opposition is thoroughly confused (see Burron, 1994; Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996; Zitterkopf, 1994). Like those of many in the educational psychology community, my views are often in total contradiction to those held by the vocal anti-OBE fundamentalist Christian community. Many educational psychologists do not fear specification of outcomes; in fact, we are often appalled when a district, school, or teacher cannot tell us what they intend to have happen to third graders or in an algebra class. Without being die-hard believers in behavioral objectives, many educational professionals support the use of objectives as a way of designing both instruction and assessment. But there is much to debate about these issues and the educational research community has no singular position on these issues. Nevertheless, I think that most of our scholarly community finds it untenable to reflexively reject the specification of outcomes, the efforts to establish content and performance standards, and the use of authentic forms of assessment to evaluate whether outcomes are achieved.

Moreover, like many other educational psychologists, I find nothing wrong in stating affective goals for children. It is simply not possible for me to believe, as do some of the Christian Right, that affective concerns and values are outside the scope of public schooling. For example, most people I know, of all religions and no religion, believe it is important to raise youngsters who care for others. I would hope that schools would take such a goal seriously. A school system that has expressed “caring for others” as a desirable outcome of schooling, and includes service learning activities and cross-age tutoring programs as instructional means to achieve that outcome, is acting in the best Christian and national traditions, as I understand both those traditions.

Although never a diehard Mastery Learning advocate, like many in our scholarly community I have admired John Carroll’s (1963) model of school learning and its derivatives. Carroll (1968) and Benjamin Bloom describe an alternative to schooling as we know it. The current system of education fixes the time allocated to learn but allows the outcomes that are achieved to vary. Carroll and Bloom suggest that we can design a system where the time allocated for learning varies, while the outcome levels that we want to achieve are fixed. Educational psychologists know that these ideas already have a rich research base to support them, and therefore should not be absolutely and reflexively condemned (Berliner, 1990). And it is worth noting that the reduction in competition inherent in the Carroll model of school learning appears to be a worthy goal. Many members of the educational research community study motivation and have written eloquently on the pernicious effects of competition and extrinsic reinforcement (Covington, 1992). They have also demonstrated the advantages of intrinsic motivation. It seems clear that the educational research community worries a lot more about the negative side of competition than does the anti-OBE Christian Right, thus making conflict on this issue inevitable.

Like many other educational researchers, I promote the development of a thoughtful curriculum. Many of us would prefer to see a curriculum of depth over breadth, one that emphasizes problem solving rather than rote memorization and that makes use of group projects and authentic tests and portfolios, rather than relying exclusively on individual work and norm-referenced assessments. In fact, I even support the apparently radical belief that all children can learn—a philosophy that is far more helpful than one that consigns some children to the ash heap early in their academic careers because of some accident of birth—like their family’s income, their skin color or language, or their physical problems.

There is a point in providing this personal expression of support for ideas that are eschewed by the Christian Right. That is, without enthusiastically endorsing any of the ideas purportedly associated with OBE, members of the broad educational research community can find a good deal more in contemporary theory to take seriously than to dismiss out-of-hand. In fact, because of the breadth of practices the Christian Right opposes when it attacks OBE, such opposition is best seen as an attack on the professional credibility of the entire educational research community. Our openness to ideas without using a biblical screen to determine the appropriateness of those ideas and our penchant for empirically testing ideas to determine their usefulness (our basic American pragmatism) are clearly not practices the Christian Right can support.


Along with OBE, whole language is another secular humanistic invention to be feared. I am neither a partisan nor an enemy of whole-language instruction. Like many who are not part of the reading community I hold a middle-of-the-road view of the whole-language/phonics instruction debate. My views are close to those held by Michael Pressly (1996), Calfee and Patrick (1996), and other experimental psychologists who have looked at the evidence and found merit in some form of balance. I cannot abide teachers who think phonics is reading, for it is not. Phonics is simply a tool to help children move as rapidly as possible to self-directed reading of interesting prose. Those who overstate the importance of systematic phonics may drill children to cognitive death, teaching in ways that prevent a child from acquiring an intrinsic love for reading. But those who think all children will naturally acquire reading skills without some help in breaking the phonetic code appear to me to be equally misguided. Too many children may flounder, for too long a time, if left to discover reading methods on their own. Fortunately, teachers are not often extremists on these issues. Teachers tend to be pragmatists—using anything that seems to work—which is a reasonable strategy when confronted with children displaying a remarkable range of individual differences affecting how they learn.

But in developing my own position I became aware that the attack on whole language is not just about empirical claims and linguistic philosophy. It is as much about religion and the control of children’s minds as about reading acquisition. The Christian Right has entered this debate between reading researchers and has taken the controversy beyond the professional community. The debate is now very public and political, and thus we can be sure that the press will muddle the facts and misrepresent the protagonists!

For example, the press and politicians in California have declared whole language a total failure, and in other states bills have been offered to prevent the teaching of whole-language methods by schools of education, and even forbidding teachers in the public schools to use that method of instruction (e.g., Tennessee Senate Bill No. 2878, 1995). The legislation is reminiscent of what happened when political entities and the clergy tried to forbid the teaching of evolution or the heliocentric theory of our solar system. Leading the charge against whole language has been the Christian Right. Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum and a longtime promoter of systematic phonics instruction, gleefully reported this spring that “whole language has caused serious declines in reading achievement” (Education Reporter, 1996). Many issues of her newsletter have featured stories about the evil promoters of whole language. Many issues of the newsletters from the Right to Read Foundation also condemn whole language and praise the use of phonics in reading, in particular, but direct instruction of any kind, in general. For example: “Common sense has been abandoned with the promotion of such nonsense as invented spelling, reality math and undisciplined child centered play as a substitute for the orderly, disciplined, study of subject matter, including memorization and drill” (Sweet, 1995, p. 7).3

The conservative magazine New American featured an issue on our purportedly awful public schools. In that issue, Samuel Blumenfeld (a vitriolic critic of American education who has written one book [1994a] condemning the NEA and another [1994b] on why we do not need public education) credits the godless socialist ideology of John Dewey as the origin of America’s decline, and gives Dewey credit, as well, for beginning the whole-language movement, which has ruined the country. So the Christian Right appears to be unanimously and vehemently against whole language, and politicians such as presidential contender Bob Dole and California governor Pete Wilson are supporting them in condemning educators who promote these procedures.

But without taking sides, it is important to note some facts. The 1992 and 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading tests (Campbell et al., 1996; Miller et al., 1995) revealed that (1) teachers who used literature-based approaches to reading had students who scored higher than teachers who used basal reading books; (2) students who reported regular participation in silent reading in their classrooms scored considerably higher than students who reported they did not often engage in silent reading; and (3) pupils who had a chance to choose their own books to read scored higher than students who had their reading choices controlled for them. These data are important because whole-language advocates are much more likely to have used genuine literature rather than basal readers, while phonics advocates are much more likely to have used basals in teaching reading. Furthermore, both the personal choice of literature to read and the promotion of silent reading periods in class are key elements of whole-language approaches to teaching reading. So it appears that the NAEP data are not at all hostile to some of the program components recommended by whole-language advocates.

California’s own test, the California Assessment Program (CAP), showed stability, not decline, over the years when there was a modest implementation of some of the components of the whole-language approach to reading (McQuillan, 1996). But because the overall reading performance of California students on the NAEP was low, California politicians and citizens needed an explanation. The Christian Right was quick to provide a scapegoat; they led a campaign to identify whole language as the culprit in California’s achievement problems. It was a campaign for which they were already geared up. So politicians and the Religious Right joined forces to purge whole-language methods from the schools and thus provide the scapegoat sought by the politicians.

In the frenzy to blame the whole-language approach for California’s low NAEP performance, certain facts were ignored. Few noted that California ranked next to last in books available per pupil in its elementary school libraries; that its ratio of full-time school librarians to students was 1:5,496 while the national average was 1:895; that per capita spending on books over the last eight years was down in the state by 36 percent; that California is among the top ten states with the most children in poverty, and therefore is likely to also have one of the largest populations of children with few books in the home. As McQuillan (1996) notes, there are few books at school, few books in the community, and few books at home. Might this have something to do with California’s poor NAEP performance? Moreover, in comparison with other states California is low in what it spends on schooling per pupil; has the largest percentage of classes with more than twenty-five students in the nation; has the second highest rate of absenteeism from school in the nation; and is well over the national average in the percent of less-experienced teachers employed in the work force (Campbell et al., 1996; Miller et al., 1995). McQuillan (1996) has good grounds to believe that the California Task Force came to the wrong conclusion when it declared whole language to be the culprit in the low NAEP performance of California’s students. As he notes: “The deficit that California’s schools suffer from is financial, not phonological” (p. 10).

But why does the Christian Right so detest whole language that they leap at any chance to discredit it, spend large sums of money to do so, make removal of whole-language teaching a plank of their platform when they run for school boards, and adamantly maintain the position that only phonics and patterned drills can teach reading effectively? Five reasons seem plausible and they all relate to issues discussed above.

First, at the root of the whole-language movement is the notion that meaning is not just on the page, but in the mind of the reader as well. That is, we construct our own meaning of prose based on our own prior experiences. Reading, therefore, is an interactive process between writer and reader, and each reader may be expected to make a different kind of sense out of the materials read. This vision of the learner and of the reading process is quite dangerous to fundamentalists, of course, because it could result in reliance on personal interpretation of the Bible and that would be a challenge to the belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That cannot be tolerated.

Second, the view of the learner in whole-language approaches to reading is compatible with a constructivist theory. This view assumes that the learner has an active mind that seeks meaning, and a mind that is creative too—in writing and spelling. Whole-language instructors interpret reading and writing errors as creative acts on the road to achieving literacy, hardly worth correcting. Because they usually do not correct the errors that learners make, whole-language teachers allow the child a freedom that is intolerable to the Christian fundamentalist community. Error correction fosters obedience to authority, so relaxation of vigilance in correcting errors will only lead to trouble as the child matures.

Third, although Christian fundamentalists can and do influence the textbooks that schools use, they do not exert nearly as much control over the trade books (general literature) that are available to children. The Christian Right’s censorship campaigns have been fought off much more successfully by school and public librarians than by the school textbook committees within each state. Whole language is strongly literature-based. It relies on general trade books, not basal texts and workbooks, as the material to be used in the development of reading skills. Thus Christian Right parents are more likely to lose control of what reading material their children are exposed to in schools that have adopted whole-language instructional practices. In addition, whole-language teachers believe that children should choose their own books on the basis of their own interests—a well-established motivational strategy. This practice, of course, is unacceptable to the Christian Right for the same reason; parents lose control of what their children read.

Fourth, whole-language educators believe that the development of language occurs through the processes students choose and the decisions they make. Reading is not so much taught as learned; it is an act of volition. Thus language development is a process of personal “empowerment” of the students. This too is unacceptable because the Christian Right prefers an obedient, not an empowered, child.

Finally, whole language views all literacy activities in a holistic way, eschews what they call drill-and-kill exercises, is less orderly, and conceives of reading and writing as fun and as integrated activities. In contrast, the phonics programs break down reading and writing into skill areas, require order and hard work, and are not usually fun. Thus systematic phonics instruction is more compatible with the beliefs about how learning takes place in the community of Christian fundamentalist educators. Phonics is even linked to divine origins by Pat Robertson (1990). He has written that learning to read is “a breeze . . . if reading is taught the way God made us to talk—by syllables, by what is called phonics, not by the ‘look say’ method forced on the schools by the behaviorist models” (p. 171).

It is not surprising that the Christian Right finds whole language an inherently evil system of instruction. And the passion with which phonics instruction is embraced by members of the Christian Right appears to be related to their beliefs about punishment, obedience, breaking the will, controlling the mind through control of curriculum, and a fear of any challenge to the inerrancy of the Bible. The data relevant to the whole-language/phonics controversy suggest that there is room for much more serious debate than the Christian Right and the politicians they influence will admit.


The lengthy analysis of OBE and whole language given above could be repeated for other areas of the curriculum. Some of the thinking there is as muddled and distorted as in the areas just described, but space considerations prevent as lengthy an analysis of these areas. Suffice it to say that psychologists do worry about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and they do help to design health education programs. We have psychologists who do worry about the scourge of drug addiction and help to design programs that could affect incidence and recidivism. We have psychologists who do worry about the scourge of racism and intolerance and help to design multicultural instructional programs that attempt to increase tolerance in our nation. We have psychologists who do worry about self-esteem; who are concerned about the problems of adolescence—particularly sexual relationships and sexual identity; and we have psychologists who offer career counseling for women and for men. The case loads of these psychologists are large because the pressures on youth are enormous.

I am proud that educational psychologists, my professional colleagues, are involved in these kinds of activities. Most Americans are glad that we professional, well-trained, social scientists are worrying about these issues, for they do too. But the Christian Right is against public school involvement with every one of these activities (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996). Their attacks are on our profession, our moral and social commitments, and our livelihoods. It may be imprudent for educational psychologists and other educational scholars to continue their silence, sitting on the sidelines, as the school wars continue. We have a lot at stake too, and schoolteachers and administrators can use our support to keep the public schools open, the curriculum nonsectarian, and youth provided with appropriate guidance in their journey to a competent adulthood.


After eighteen months of intensive study of a Christian fundamentalist school, the “Bethany Academy” (a pseudonym), noted anthropologist Alan Peshkin (1986, 1987) was in a good position to discuss the kinds of total institutions the theologically pure would have us develop. Educational psychologists and other educational scholars would agree that these are not good places for youth, though the parents of those students and the students themselves would heartily disagree. Peshkin, with obvious compassion and concern for the people he studied, expresses his worries eloquently:

I am concerned by a group whose beliefs permit no uncertainty, whose members frequent, accordingly, a polarized world where things are either this or that, not this and that. Scriptural truth, as Bethany holds it, rejects negotiation; compromise is unthinkable; purity of doctrine is the scriptural standard. To me, such Truth is awesome, its implications intimidating. (1987, p. 9)

I feel anything but indifferent to the Bethany Baptist Academies of America because I fear people who believe they know the Truth and are convinced that everyone else should adhere to this same Truth. Their implacable logic is never moderated by the need to be pragmatic, to find compromise, or to see things in terms of degrees. (1987, p. 10)

The fundamentalist Christian Right is well organized, well funded, and politically active. Its primary goal is the destruction of public education. In lieu of that they seek to take over and make over public education to create Christianized public schools. Many of the beliefs that are held by this group appear to me to be muddled and paranoid, but of course, our perspectives differ and I cannot see the world from their point of view. The problem is that their world allows no politics, no negotiation, and their views are often irreconcilable with those held by most of the educational community. What can be done?

I believe that educational psychologists, along with other professionals who work with or in the public schools, should listen politely to the views of the Christian Right, and certainly take them seriously. But we need to keep in mind that their goals are subjugation of our schools to theological purity, or their outright destruction. If we find their demands unreasonable, a proper response is to remind these adamant school critics that by law and by tradition, public schools cannot accommodate narrow sectarian beliefs. If the schools now operate in ways that are unacceptable to these people, they should be told to remove their children from the public schools.

The respected journalist George Kaplan (1994) thinks some kind of accommodation between the schools and the Christian Right is possible. The sensitive and even-handed authors of School Wars (Gaddy, Hall, & Marzano, 1996) also believe that people of good will can sit down and negotiate a common agenda. But I think that negotiation on many issues is impossible. Mainstream parents, school administrators, educational psychologists, and other educational scholars should recognize that on many issues—corporal punishment, blind obedience, Creation Science, a basics-only factual curriculum, drill as a preferred method of instruction, individualistic and highly competitive classes, and so forth—accommodation should not take place. School administrators, in particular, need the support of the majority of Americans who do recognize that there are ways to educate other than those recommended by the Christian Right. School administrators in these difficult times need to hear from mainstream Christian parents and others who recognize and value the meaning of “public” when they think about our nation’s public schools.

It is one of the great paradoxes of democracy that in the interest of pluralism, we must tolerate a group out to destroy a public institution dedicated to the preservation of pluralism. An even greater paradox, notes Peshkin (1987), is that the mark of our vitality as a democratic nation is the very presence of a small but vocal Christian Right whose ideas are not democratic at all. All who are interested in the preservation of our public schools must be polite to the Christian Right and respectful of their concerns—some of which are shared by all of us. But we must also be extraordinarily vigilant to prevent them from gaining control of the public’s common schools.

A version of this article was first given as the E. L. Thorndike Award Address for the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychologist Association, Toronto, Canada, August 1996. The author gratefully acknowledges the help of the division of Psychology in Education, chaired by Gail Hackett, for providing resources and allowing Kari Knutson to work as a research assistant for this project during the 1995-1996 academic year. Ms. Knutson’s work was of great value in the preparation of this article. The intellectual contributions and editorial assistance of Ursula Casanova and Thomas McGowan, as usual, improved the author’s thinking and this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 3, 1997, p. 381-416
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9603, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:05:23 AM

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About the Author
  • David Berliner
    Arizona State University
    David C. Berliner is Regent's Professor of Education, Arizona State University. He is an educational psychologist who has specialized in the study of classroom teaching, with interests in teacher education and educational policy.
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