Last fall Wyoming officials approved the formation of two new charter schools — Wyoming Classical Academy in Mills and the Cheyenne Classical Academy — and in doing so cleared the way for a radical religious-right indoctrination machine to claim your tax dollars. 

Opinion

Neither have held their first classes yet, but Hillsdale College, the private, conservative Christian school slated to provide their “patriotic” curriculum has already managed to make a cantankerous enemy: the ghost of Mark Twain.

The far right is committed to making public education a political wedge issue and Hillsdale and its president, Larry Arnn, have been the pointy end of that wedge for years. The thing with wedges, though, is that they’re only effective if they can spark outrage, or better yet, fear. Hillsdale’s latest “be-very-afraid bogeyman” is the dreaded “liberal political correctness” embodied by many public schools’ failure to teach Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

It is indeed a travesty that Twain’s tale of a Southern boy and his friendship with a runaway slave have been removed from many public and school libraries. The book’s censorship stems primarily from Twain’s use of the “N-word,” which appears more than 200 times. Rather than shield students, why not prepare them to think critically about the racist language they will encounter? 

But Hillsdale picked the wrong spokesperson to make its case that we need a charter school system based on Judeo-Christian values and “moral virtues.” The association would have, at best, amused the cantankerous Twain. Or, more likely, really pissed him off.

“If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be — a Christian!” wrote Twain, in a collection of notebooks unpublished until 1935.

Though he grew up a Presbyterian, later in life Twain expressed disdain for the religion of his youth. “Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, not qualified for that moderately high place,” Twain wrote. “Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.”

Does that sound like a man who would be happy to know a Christian college is seeking $100 “donations” for a supposedly free nine-DVD collection of its course about Twain?

Would he even be welcome as a guest lecturer at Hillsdale’s two private academies in Wyoming whose thinly veiled religious curriculum siphons off money from already underfunded public schools?

Arnn largely developed Hillsdale’s “1776 Curriculum” as an effort backed by then-President Donald Trump to counter the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project.” 

The latter reframes the country’s history through the ongoing consequences of slavery and highlights contributions of Black Americans.  A teaching curriculum based on the 1619 Project is banned — along with critical race theory — from Texas and Florida public schools. Arnn is a vehement opponent of CRT which he claims is Marxist-based and one of the prime reasons he has taken up arms against public education. In his world, racism magically ended with the 1960s civil rights movement, and there’s no longer any reason to discuss it.

Apparently he hasn’t turned on a TV or read a newspaper since his own student days. 

In a fundraising email sent earlier this month, Arnn explained what’s behind Hillsdale’s charter school effort:

“As the forces of anti-Americanism redouble their own efforts to undermine informed patriotism in our schools and our culture, and to subvert constitutionalism in our government, we must engage them ever more aggressively — including on the central battlefield of education.”

This from the same man who claims with a straight face that Hillsdale — whose charter schools get public funding — does not have a political agenda and does not seek to indoctrinate students.

Twain, of course, knew the type: “Patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest,” he said in 1908 in a speech on education and citizenship.

Academica, a Florida-based, for-profit educational management company, operates Hillsdale’s charter school network. The schools agree to center Western tradition in their K-12 curriculum, and students must learn Latin. Core disciplines — math, science, literature and history — are chosen to guide students’ “moral development.”

The Network for Public Education charges Hillsdale’s “free” curriculum “only narrows the course of study available to students [and] rewrites American history, particularly when it comes to civil rights.”

Sometimes its backers admit their true motives. Former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said “greater Kingdom gain” is the ultimate outcome of the religious right’s school choice agenda.

Sounds like less customers for hell, which Twain speculated would be filled with the five-sixths of Christians who couldn’t make it through the narrow path to heaven. 

Arnn’s candidacy for heaven isn’t for me to decide, but his morally dubious behavior is certainly being rewarded here on earth.

In many of his fundraising emails, Arnn claims Hillsdale “conducts its educational outreach efforts on behalf of liberty — as it does all of its work — while refusing to accept one penny of government funding, not even indirectly in the form of federal or state student grants or loans.”

Yet, according to a Washington Post analysis, Academica could siphon more than $580,000 annually from Colorado’s public school funding system for two Hillsdale charter schools in Weld County. Wyoming taxpayers are up next. 

One of the major criticisms of Hillsdale’s charter schools is that their employees do not have collective bargaining. Twain would not be a fan of Hillsdale’s suppression of labor unions.

“Who are the oppressors? The few: the King, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents,” he told the Knights of Labor. “Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.”

I’m sure Twain, if he was still with us, would have sharp, and entertaining, words for Hillsdale and Arnn. But since he’s not, I’ll offer here on his behalf two quotes from the ample record he left behind.

In “What Is Man,” he cautioned against “That desire which is in us all to better other people’s condition by having them think as we think.”

Finally, there’s this sentiment from “Following the Equator”: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Twain’s works have much to teach us, but none of those lessons should be helping fund the religious right’s crusade to use taxpayer dollars to push an agenda that’s the antithesis of the author’s core beliefs.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Dear “Critic of organized religion”:

    Hooey.

    As for Twain’s comment of caution: “That desire which is in us all to better other people’s condition by having them think as we think.”

    Doesn’t that include this commentary, too?

    And: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice” also seems to apply here.

    I might not like the curriculum of Hillsdale’s charter schools but many others might prefer it to the white-washed, hands-tied public school education presented in Wyoming. If history is any guide, public schools are unlikely to deliver the type of education you’ll find at most private schools including those with a nondenominational religious foundation.

    Kids are pretty smart and able to think for themselves not matter the educational venue.

    As for Twain, he was forced to quit school at the age of twelve. “I have never let my schooling interfered with my education”, he said. He did pretty well. The one-shoe-fits-all public education you’ll find in places like Wyoming is not the gold standard by anyone’s measure. Choice is good.

  2. No doubt poorThomas Paine’s bones are writhing in the grave as we struggle to define and redefine the definition of patriotism…….

  3. Senator Ogden Driskell opined on the most recent Open Spaces that charter schools were a top legislative priority. I have never seen a study that proves that charter schools would be a better alternative to public education.

    There is plenty of history that shows paying a starting wage that vaults a teacher into the upper income earners into a community attracts a better teacher. Now this history is somewhat messy to parse but the data is available if one cares to look. However those in Wyoming really do not want to confront what the data will tell them as Wyoming made many decisions in the past that diminished the quality of the education received by its citizens.

    When I came to Wyoming I was shocked to find out that it had decided not to participate in hiring male teachers that took the Vietnam draft deferment. I find this “patriotic” decision quite ironic as some of my best teachers were males that took that deferment and taught me.

    Wyoming fired some of the best educators it’s children could have ever had and sent a Vietnam draft dodger to Congress instead. How did that turn out?

  4. Sir: Me thinks you joust too many windmills: most significantly your anger against or hatred of Charter Schools, the “radical religious right”, Hillsdale College and Larry Arnn, Judeo-Christian values, “moral virtue”, “the 1776 curriculum”, “patriotism”. What is wrong with teaching “The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn”? As I understand it, Twain was a very complex person — an atheist or deist at best; opponent of slavery, of war; supporter of womens’ rights and of labor unions; his critique of “patriotism” was in reference to supporters of war in the Phillipines. Using the “27 most famous Twain quotations” does not describe the man who in the current era would be considered a Libertarian with a good likelihood of supporting Charter Schools which, in my views, teach knowledge which will help one make a living but also wisdom which will help one live a life. In many life situations, one is told to “have faith”, but what does that mean? To me it means the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen. Best wishes and Keep the Faith!

  5. Liz Cheney was ousted for supplanting her judgement over her constituents’ in the impeachment vote of the former president. I can’t help but think many of our state politicians are doing the exact same thing.

  6. Hillsdale College emails read more like late night cable TV hucksterism than anything scholastic or classical. As Kerry notes, Mark Twain seems a strange source of noble cause. Thanks.

  7. When your ideas no longer work, you have to force them upon people. Even the most gullible people are starting to figure out the scam.

    The US has given favor to families with wealth for the past 247 years. When you replace education with nepotism, inheritances and religious fantasies this is what you get – a bunch of mediocre, incompetent people at the top of every industry and government.

    I don’t know if these people really believe that a man on a cloud is their leader, or if they just pretend to believe it. What I do know is if it’s all true, then it’s not going to end well for them on Judgment Day.

  8. I really fear what is going to happen to education in Wyoming with the legislature we have and the new Superintendent Megan Degenfelder.

    1. What did you think about the interim Sec. of Public Instruction , appointee Brian Schroeder of Cody ? He was the head of a private Christian school in Cody , the Veritas Academy.

      p.s. They did not want him back

  9. Nice work Kerry. I have been writing and talking about his disaster for over the past years. You need to believe that there is a connection to the SLIB’s new role as the ultimate licensure board for new charter schools and the nasty garbage which has been occurring at school board meetings as well as the current election of new school board members. In simple terms, this has been an ideological-theological coup d’etat of our public education (the focus isn’t on history alone, keep in mind there is also the mania against LGBTQ+ kids and education). For the life of me I can’t understand why law suits haven’t been filed against state for the decisions which have led to this attack on democracy.

  10. Giving public funds to a religious organization still feels like a slap in the face to our constitution’s Establishment Clause. Why do I keep having that thought?

  11. Thank you, Kerry Drake, for this insightful editorial. May I add another Mark Twain quotation to the discussion, one that exposes the fraud of religious conservatism? Huckleberry Finn spoke what I believe is the most powerful sentence in all American literature when he said, “You can’t pray a lie.”

  12. “All right then, I’ll go to Hell.” Not the kind of critical thinking that a graduate of a Hillside Academe would ever be capable of. Thankfully, Huck went to the school of experience or Jim would still be a slave.

  13. Thank you for another fine column. “conducts its educational outreach efforts on behalf of liberty…” is a frightening statement. So called support of liberty covers a multitude of “sins”: Indoctrination/Lying supporting some mythological construct is only one; using public tax money to support private christian education should be another.

  14. What a fabulous use of Twain’s own words. Thanks for clarifying just what a travesty Hillsdale is.

  15. Curious how that frightful term “indoctrination” is utilized as a boogie man to scare the ignoramus, yet the antidote to so called “Marxism” is indoctrination of our young with Christian beliefs.

  16. I am curious as to how many parents in Wyoming have signed their children up to attend one of the Hillsdale’s schools.

  17. In Utah there is a charter school owned by the Kingston polygamous group. Their objective is to “bleed the beast (government)”.