How the Supreme Court Ruined Your Child’s Civics Education
Part one of our excerpts from the forthcoming book, The Rise of Stupidity – how dumb ideas are remaking America in their own image, argued Ronald Reagan’s seminal role in today’s broken politics. In part two we look at the Supreme Court decision that forever changed your child’s civics education.
In the 1980s the United States was in one of its periodic one-step-forward, two-steps-back conservative retrenchments. The battles for Civil Rights and the Vietnam War had divided the country for two decades. By 1980 conflict-weary Americans were hungry for civil calm. Meanwhile, new President Ronald Reagan was claiming “a mandate to impose a voluntary return to traditional values.” He also called for a constitutional amendment that would require students to hear (arguably Christian) prayer in public schools. During that time much attention was also devoted to how to create greater order in the public school classroom.
It was in this context that a hoax about school discipline was making the rounds. The widely read (and reported) chain fax compared a list of trivial school discipline problems teachers named in the 1940s – gum chewing, making noise and running in the hall – to a similar list from the 1980s that included rape, assault and robbery. Widely cited during the era by hundreds of newspapers, conservative columnist George Will and even some university presidents, the comparison turns out to have been entirely made up by a man named T. Cullen Davis. Davis was an anti-sex education, anti-evolution activist who had earlier been acquitted in killing his wife’s lover.
And so, while Reagan speeches harkened back to an uncomplicated past that never existed, and opinion leaders were relying on made-up facts, the United States Supreme Court agreed to take the case of BETHEL SCHOOL DISTRICT. NO. 403 v. FRASER. The case was brought by the father of Matthew N. Fraser, a student who had given a speech (that arguably contained sexual double-entendre) at a school assembly. This kind of small infraction probably didn’t warrant SCOTUS review.Continued on the next page