The 1950s as the Height of Conservative America

Part III: The School

Connor Kaeb

The next stop on our tour of the 1950s town takes us to the school. Here, two main features of the period add credence to the argument that the 1950s were the height of conservative America: the acceptance of religion in schools and duck-and-cover drills. One promoted the sense of virtue that the Founders believed was vital for the success of a republic while the other steeled the resolve of a new generation of Americans against a common enemy, promoting an admiration and love of America in the process.

Part I of this series addressed the major role religion played in the everyday life in the 1950s and why it was a highlight of conservative America. Those same arguments apply to religion’s presence in schools. Many of America’s Founding Fathers saw the teaching of religion in schools as vital to the development of the youth in the character needed to preserve the American republic. Benjamin Rush expressed this sentiment when he wrote:

In the next place, to inquire what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all the advantages that are to be derived from the proper instruction of youth; and here I beg leave to remark that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

So important was the teaching of religion in schools to Rush that he argued that, even though he believed Christianity to be the ideal religion to teach, the teaching of any religion was better than the teaching of no religion at all. “Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments,” Rush stated, “that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.” Many who lived through the 1950s agreed with this sentiment. We return now to Wayne Drayer and his book Softer than Velvet, Stronger than Steel. In the book, set in the 1960s, a group of students are accosted because of the religious tone of a public presentation they are giving on the history and principles of the United States. A member of the community then rises to defend the students and speaks to the benefit of religion in schools. The exchange is presented as follows:

Ron took his place behind the podium. As he prepared to speak, a sharp voice from the audience shattered the stillness.

“If I would have known we were going to have church all evening, I might not have come! I think you’re getting plenty heavy with the Bible. In light of the recent court rulings, carrying on like this looks kind of risky.”

Murmuring voices could be heard. A.J. started to get up from his chair. Before he could, another man rose to speak. His calm, deep voice with a slow drawl permeated the room.

“I’ve been farming in this community well over thirty years. I served in World War II. I remember JFK’s assassination like it was yesterday. America’s been good for me and my family, and from what I read and hear, she’s done a lot for people around the world too.

“Yes, I know that a few years ago a ruling came down that we can no longer have prayers in school. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why. It seems to me our country has done well with a little religion in our schools for over one hundred seventy-five years. Why is it wrong now? I hope we’re not putting our country in jeopardy by doing this. It kind of worries me.”

By the end of the decade and into the early years of the 1960s, religion was being forced from schools as the nation grew more secularized. In 1962, for example, the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools with its decision in Engel v. Vitale. In an opinion authored by Justice Hugo Black, the Court ruled that holding prayers in public schools was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, thereby violating the separation of church and state. This shift brought the nation away from what the Founders desired and away from the height of conservatism.

The other facet of 1950s schools that makes them an essential part of the height of conservative America was the use of duck-and-cover drills. While the famous advertisements featuring Bert the Turtle commissioned by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in the early 1950s are now the subject of jokes about how silly it seems to hide under a desk in the face of nuclear attacks, this action actually could save your life in the event of a distant nuclear attack, as the desk would serve as a barrier against falling debris (just like in an earthquake). Additionally, the drills helped inculcate a form of patriotism in a new generation of Americans.

Stills from the Duck and Cover video.

Children who grew up and attended school in the 1940s were aware of World War II raging on around them. Many or most of them would have had family members serving and likely most of them would have been involved in the war effort through civil defense in at least some capacity. Children growing up in the 1950s would have had a much more difficult time grasping the geopolitical conflict of the Cold War. It would have been much more difficult for these students to understand why communism was a threat for them in the same way that Nazism had been a threat to their parents.

Duck-and-cover drills would have made the experience real for them, however, by highlighting the dangers of the Soviet Union and providing the opportunity to again participate in civil defense. Through the procedure, the threat became clear to them. It was no longer a concept too high-minded for them to grasp, it became a matter of life or death for themselves, just as the Second World War had in the previous decade. By understanding just what the enemy was capable of, they could associate the ideology of the enemy with the threat posed to their lives. Communism was the threat, that is why they had to get under their desks. Understanding the juxtaposition of that threat with their life at home, these students could truly understand and love the country they lived in. Educators also understood this. JoAnne Brown, taking a critical assessment of this, states:

Teachers, principals, and superintendents had complicated and varied reasons for overwhelmingly supporting—rather than criticizing, actively opposing, or simply ignoring—civil defense activities in the 1950s. Among the reasons were genuine fears about the possibility of war with the Soviets and the widespread belief that atomic weapons were just like conventional weapons, only bigger, and therefore answerable by civil defense measures. Many educators also expressed fear of ideological defeat by totalitarian and communist philosophies and held “education for democratic citizenship” to be more than an empty slogan.

Harry Truman, no conservative himself, understood this when he proclaimed that “education is our first line of defense. In the conflict of principle and policy which divides the world (today), America’s hope, our hope, the hope of the world, is in education.” Teaching these lessons of America allowed for there to be a growth of patriotism, and this innate patriotism and resilience against a foreign adversary represents a prominent characteristic of conservative America.

Our stop at the school has showed us how students were taught the values of religion and love of country. Sadly, this is far from the case in schools today. Today, students are taught to mock religion and to shame their country. As is shown throughout this series, this nation has declined far from the height of conservatism. In many ways, the lessons our youth are taught shape the future. The sharp departures in education following the 1950s are responsible for setting into motion much of that decline.

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