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Teachers go to the ‘dumbest colleges’ — who said it and why it matters

Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn at Cool Springs, Tenn., in June. (NewsChannel5Nashville)
11 min

Larry Arnn is president of a small but influential Christian college in Michigan who has become a key education adviser to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R). Last week, at an invitation-only reception, Arnn repeatedly denigrated teachers, saying, among other things that they “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” and that “anyone” can teach. Lee offered no pushback. WTVF NewsChannel5 in Nashville obtained video of the event, and now both men have come under criticism.

Although such sentiments are not exclusive to Arnn (people across the political spectrum have belittled teachers), his comments have resonance at a time when the Christian right — with the Supreme Court’s ultraconservative majority on its side — is gaining ground in a movement to erase the separation between church and state and push Christian values into the public sector.

Hillsdale College — which Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called “a shining city on a hill” and which hired his activist wife, Ginni Thomas, to help establish a full-time presence in the nation’s capital — has became an important force in that movement under the leadership of Arnn, who has allied himself with former president Donald Trump. The college has helped launch dozens of “classical” charter schools across the country (Hillsdale doesn’t own or operate the schools but trains faculty and staff and shares curriculum) — and, now, at Lee’s invitation, Hillsdale is helping to open at least 50 charter schools in Tennessee. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated.

The charter schools use a Hillsdale K-12 curriculum that is centered on Western civilization and designed to help “students acquire a mature love for America.” A Hillsdale K-12 civics and U.S. history curriculum released last year extols conservative values, attacks progressive ones and distorts civil rights history, saying, for example: “The civil rights movement was almost immediately turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders.” Hillsdale College itself offers a “classical liberal arts core” to its students; the website lists more than 30 authors and thinkers that students will encounter — nearly all of them White men.

In Florida, where Hillsdale has helped opening a growing network of affiliated charter schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has welcomed Arnn, and Arnn, in February, called DeSantis “one of the most important people living,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. Hillsdale helped create new K-12 civic standards for Florida public schools and is partnering with the state’s Department of Education to help train teachers on those new standards. Some teachers who underwent the training told the Miami Herald that Christian and conservative ideology ran throughout the material.

At the reception last week, held at a Cool Springs conference center in Tennessee, Arnn made comments while addressing an audience from a lectern and while sitting on the stage next to Lee on a stage. Here’s a sample:

  • “Ed departments in colleges. If you work in a college you know, unless you work in the ed department. Ours [Hillsdale’s] is different. They are the dumbest part of every college. [Audience laughs.] You can think about why for a minute. If you study physics, there is a subject. … How does the physical world work? That’s hard to figure out. Politics is actually the study of justice. … Literature. They don’t do it much anymore, but you can read the greatest books, the most beautiful books ever written. Education is the study of how to teach. Is that a separate art? I don’t think so.”
  • “If you read a book called ‘Abolition of Man’ by C.S. Lewis, you will see how education destroys generations of people. It’s devastating. It’s like a plague. … The teachers are trained in the dumbest part of the dumbest colleges in the country. And they are taught that they are going to do something to those kids. … My wife is English, and she is a gardener, big-time. And she doesn’t talk about what she is going to do to these plants. She talks about what they need. Because if you give them what they need, they will grow.”
  • “The philosophic understanding at the heart of modern education is enslavement. ... They’re messing with people’s children, and they feel entitled to do anything to them.”
  • “Here’s a key thing we are going to try to do. We’re going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child. Because basically anybody can do it.”

Educators and other Tennesseans said they were angry at Arnn for making the comments and at Lee for failing to defend his state’s teachers and teacher preparation programs. Claude Pressnell Jr., president of Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, tweeted: “This is incredibly disturbing. Dr. Larry Arnn’s demeaning portrayal of Tennessee’s Ed prep programs and professors is uninformed and offensive. I’m disappointed that @GovBillLee is not on record with Dr. Arnn defending the integrity of Tennessee’s education programs.”

NewsChannel 5 quoted retired teacher DeWayne Emert as saying: “Teachers do not have an agenda. But what this proves to me, Gov. Lee, is that you do have an agenda, and it’s an attack on public education.”

On Tuesday at a private event, Lee declined again to take on Arnn and said instead, “I disagree with left-wing activism in public education,” according to the Tennessean, “but I fully support the teachers in our state, a vast majority of them who are well trained and who are fully committed to serve the citizens of Tennessee.” Lee had surprised Tennesseans during his State of the State speech in January when he announced the partnership with Hillsdale, asking for 100 charter schools, although Arnn committed to about 50. Lee also announced funding for a new Institute of American Civics at the University of Tennessee, which he said would fight “anti-American thought” in colleges and universities.

Lee’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post, but Laine Arnold, Lee’s press secretary, responded to NewsChannel5 by saying, among other things that did not address the incident, “Under Gov. Lee, the future of public education looks like well-paid teachers and growing a workforce to support our students and build the profession.”

Hillsdale College media director Emily Stack Davis defended Arnn’s comments in an email, saying in part: “In his recent remarks during a conversation with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Dr. Arnn clearly criticized only the educational bureaucracy that has done a great disservice to both teachers and students by depriving them of the high-quality, content-rich education that makes for excellent teaching. A good education program should encourage its students to become masters of the subjects they love and to pass that great knowledge and enthusiasm on to their own students.”

Many members of the Christian right believe that the country was created as a Christian nation — the Founding Fathers were all White Christians — and that government and its institutions should operate on their version of Christian values, with religion fully integrated into public life.

One key goal of the movement has been to provide public funding for private and religious education, efforts that have often been accompanied by attacks on traditionally operated public school districts. Former education secretary Betsy DeVos, a key ally of Arnn’s, has for decades pushed for public funding to pay for private and religious education while attacking public education; she once called it a “dead end.”

DeVos delivers fiery polemic at Hillsdale College

Another goal is to allow religious practices, such as school-sponsored prayer, to become part of public school life. The Supreme Court in June issued two rulings that blurred the constitutional separation of church and state; in one, the justices said the state of Maine cannot deny tuition aid to religious schools if it gives it to other private schools. The second ruling went against a Washington state school board that had disciplined a former football coach for leading postgame prayers at midfield with student-athletes and others. Some constitutional scholars said the decision had opened the door for the court to allow school-sponsored prayer; now, anybody can quietly pray in a public school if they so choose.

Vital education issues the Supreme Court could revisit

Hillsdale’s new civics and U.S. history curriculum comes out of the work he did leading Trump’s 1776 Commission, which was formed in the wake of a racial justice movement after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The commission’s work was also meant to be a rejection of the 1619 Project of the New York Times, essays and articles that put slavery and its consequences at the center of America’s historical narrative, and which was taught in some classrooms.

Trump’s ‘patriotic education’ report excuses Founding Fathers for owning slaves and likens progressives to Mussolini

The commission released a tendentious curriculum in 2021 that equated American progressives with European fascists and said it was “untrue” that the Founding Fathers were hypocrites for enslaving people while calling for equality in the nation’s founding documents. Just a few days after taking office in January 2021, President Biden removed the report from the White House website and disbanded the commission.

NewsChannel 5 in Nashville asked historian David Ewing to review material in the 1776 Curriculum, and he said it rewrote civil rights history. For example, he said, it wrongly says that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did not support “the force of law” to win civil rights for Black Americans. The curriculum itself says, “On the philosophical or moral side, King argued for a voluntary transformation in the heart of each American.”

As for Arnn’s comments about teachers, educators and others are sick of hearing the attack lines that Arnn employed. The reference to teaching being trained in the “dumbest part of the dumbest colleges” involves data released years ago saying that education majors go to schools that have lower SAT scores than more selective schools — as if SAT and ACT scores were an important determinant as to what kind of professional a student graduating from a less selective school will be. They aren’t — and in fact, the majority of America’s highest-ranking schools have suspended or ended the use of SAT/ACT scores for admissions. (Arnn did make an exception for the education department at Hillsdale.)

The notion that anybody can teach is both laughable in its misunderstanding of what disciplines are necessary to do all the things teachers are required to do but also obscene in its intentional denigration of a female-dominated profession that is responsible for educating America’s children. It is worth recalling a revelatory post on this blog written by Pasi Sahlberg, titled “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” Sahlberg, one of world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?”

Sahlberg notes that teachers in Finland are highly regarded professionals but that, even if they came to teach in the United States in place of U.S.-trained teachers, nothing much would change much in those classrooms. Why? Because many states “create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. teachers transported to Finland would thrive, he wrote, “on account of the freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty.”

What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?