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.
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 wrote Twain, in a collection of notebooks unpublished until 1935.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.