Coming to a school near you: Stealth religion and a Trumped-up version of American history

Exclusive: Hillsdale College's charter school network pushes "patriotic education." Critics say it's propaganda

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published March 16, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

A portrait of Donald Trump, a copy of The 1776 Report, and an apple with a cross carved into it. (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
A portrait of Donald Trump, a copy of The 1776 Report, and an apple with a cross carved into it. (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

This is the second in a three-part investigative series on Hillsdale College, its charter school network and its connection to the national struggle over education. Read Part 1 here.

In recent years, Hillsdale College, a small private Christian school in Michigan, has quietly become a driving force in America's ongoing fights around education. A "feeder school" for the Trump administration, Hillsdale led President Trump's controversial 1776 Commission and serves as a testing ground for the right's most ambitious ideas: For instance, that diversity erodes national unity, that Vladimir Putin is a populist hero and that conservatives should lure so many children out of public schools that the entire system collapses.

Hillsdale has inconspicuously been building a network of "classical education" charter schools, which use public tax dollars to teach that the U.S. was founded on "Judeo-Christian" principles and that progressivism is fundamentally anti-American. In January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced plans to partner with Hillsdale to launch as many as 50 such schools, which public education advocates fear could be a tipping point in the privatization battle.

In this three-part series, Salon looks at Hillsdale's multifaceted and far-reaching role in shaping and disseminating the ideas and strategies that power the right. In our first installment, we met Hillsdale president Larry Arnn, a Winston Churchill scholar who led Trump's short-lived 1776 Commission and has used his connections to right-wing thought leaders like Ginni Thomas and Betsy DeVos to turn his school into a political powerhouse. He has described education as a "weapon" in the conservative war to reclaim America.

In 2011, Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn began offering slices of his institution's intellectual output to the public with a series of free online courses on subjects like the Constitution, the Bible and, more recently, "American Citizenship and Its Decline." 

This open-source continuing ed project, Arnn says, has attracted 3.5 million pupils to date and social media abounds with conservatives energized by what they've learned. Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, sees the courses as a means of popularizing an extremely conservative "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution, in which "a lot of what the federal government does now, including pretty much anything related to the social safety net, is illegitimate." 

Imprimis, Hillsdale's publication, churns out essays adapted from speeches given at school events, including jeremiads on such topics as "gender ideology," "the Great Reset" and "The January 6 Insurrection Hoax" (which includes a defense of an Oath Keeper arrested for the Capitol assault). Recent weeks have seen the recirculation of a 2017 Imprimis article, "How to Think About Vladimir Putin" (by "traditional measures," perhaps "the pre-eminent statesman of our time"). 

RELATED: How this tiny Christian college is driving the right's nationwide war against public schools

In 2018, as much of the world was horrified by the public unfolding of Donald Trump's kids-in-cages policy, Imprimis offered a provocative defense, arguing that the then-president was taking a "stand on behalf of the nation-state and citizenship against the idea of a homogenous world-state populated by 'universal persons.'" Any honest observer must admit, the essay continued, "that diversity is a solvent that dissolves the unity and cohesiveness of a nation." 

"This is the same stuff you would hear from Dinesh D'Souza or Ann Coulter, but it seems different coming from this classical institution supposedly committed to the search for the truth."

"The idea that birthright citizenship is wrong used to be a very fringe position," said Montgomery. "Promoting the idea that ethnic diversity is not a strength but 'a solvent' is pretty toxic stuff to be saying when white nationalism and antisemitism are on the rise." But that's where Hillsdale's strength lies, he added: in providing an intellectual veneer to right-wing ideology. "This is the same stuff you would hear from Dinesh D'Souza or Ann Coulter, but it seems different coming from this classical institution supposedly committed to the search for the truth." 

Around the same time Hillsdale began offering online courses, it expanded into primary and secondary education as well. The college already ran a private K-12 academy on its campus. According to an old edition of that school's curriculum, students at the Hillsdale Academy memorized Bible verses and attended both weekly prayer services and daily flag ceremonies as part of the school's "advocacy of ceremony and pageantry in transmitting principles, strengthening traditions and making children feel part of something greater than themselves." They were also instructed to stand up whenever an adult entered a classroom and remain standing until they were acknowledged.

Lists of academy-approved books came with a warning to use only original editions, since later versions might "contain revisionist forewords and introductions" that could sway "impressionable children unequipped to recognize and discount the politicization of literary scholarship." Meanwhile, the academy's history curriculum began with the bedrock premise that "The settling of America and the founding of the United States [are] an expression of Christian Intention." (A spokesperson for Hillsdale said the academy's curriculum has since been replaced.)

In 2010, Hillsdale launched a new program, the Barney Charter School Initiative (BCSI), intended to spread that model, adapted to local requirements, nationwide. In the words of the program's head, Hillsdale assistant provost for K-12 education Kathleen O'Toole, BCSI's conception of classical education "is what we used to do in this country back when education was working." Charters launched in partnership with BCSI follow Hillsdale's focus on "the Western tradition," from the Greeks on down, including a heavy emphasis on U.S. founding documents and, somewhat more hazily, an overall "approach to instruction that acknowledges objective standards of correctness, logic, beauty, weightiness, and truth." 

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That's common language at Hillsdale, where classes and promotional materials promise an education driven by "the good, the beautiful and the true" — rhetoric drawn from Plato and Aristotle, but also ubiquitous in conservative Christian discourse. That ambiguous inspiration is also reflected in BCSI's ostensibly secular approach to teaching "virtue." In place of explicit scripture recitation, BCSI students study the Bible as an example of "Lasting Ideas from Ancient Civilizations." Rather than outright sermons, students are taught, as O'Toole says, "to love the right things" and "spend their lives pursuing the good." 

What that means in practice is suggested, at least in part, by BCSI "chief architect" Terrence Moore, who explained in an essay that classical education teaches "students that true freedom and happiness are to be obtained through limited, balanced, federal, and accountable government protecting the rights and liberties of a vibrant, enterprising people" — which is to say, a particularly conservative vision of the proper ordering of society. 

There are further hints in the BCSI K-12 program guide, which Hillsdale licenses for free to both charters and other schools it considers compatible. In one teaching guide shared online, BCSI offers extensive classroom resources and text recommendations, heavy on Hillsdale professors' work, laissez-faire economics and the conviction that progressives have betrayed America's founding principles. Among the suggested titles are former Hillsdale history professor Burton Folsom's "New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America," Reagan education secretary William Bennett's "America: The Last Best Hope" (Volumes 1-3), and Hillsdale economist Gary Wolfram's "A Capitalist Manifesto." 

"There seems to be an agenda behind it, which is not the typical equity that public schools strive for in telling the story of history."

"The concern with the Barney initiative is that it's a stealth way of getting public dollars for 'Judeo-Christian' religious ideology" and a deeply conservative vision of America, said Kathleen Oropeza, founder of the progressive grassroots group Fund Education Now. "There seems to be an agenda behind it, which is not the typical equity that public schools strive for in telling the story of history." 

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Journalist Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism," says recent years have seen a growing number of complaints about charter schools incorporating religious instruction in various guises — particularly through the classical school movement's focus on virtue, heritage and founding principles. One former teacher at a Florida BCSI school told Stewart that his charter had a chaplain teach students that "America is a Judeo-Christian nation" founded on "biblical principles." (A spokesperson for Hillsdale responded, "Because BCSI charter schools — by law — are not religiously affiliated, we would remind school leaders that no visitors can advocate or present to the student body the truth of one particular faith.")

In 2018, Arizona's then-superintendent of public instruction was so inspired by the BCSI curriculum that she sought to institute it in place of the state's history and science standards, which she derided as "vague and incomplete at best, indoctrination at worst." 

"Progressivism was a rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as well as the form of the Constitution," the curriculum argues.

That effort failed, but these days, she might have better luck. Hillsdale's newest K-12 offering, the 1776 Curriculum, has been widely embraced by Republican state and local elected officials. Introduced on Hillsdale's website with the declaration that "America is an exceptionally good country," the curriculum depicts America's founding fathers, even those who owned slaves, as closet abolitionists, while the reformers of the late 19th to early 20th century Progressive era — who sought to address symptoms of Gilded Age inequality such as sweatshops and child labor — were promoters of "group rights" whose activism was fundamentally anti-American. ("Progressivism was a rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as well as the form of the Constitution," the curriculum argues. "Young American citizens must understand why and how the government of the country they now live in was changed from what their country's Founders originally intended.")

The curriculum also suggests that systemic American racism was effectively ended by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and that the ideals of that movement were "almost immediately turned [into] programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders." It argues that most diversity policies amount to a "regime of formal inequality" and asks students to ponder the study question, "How are critical race theory and 'anti-racism' discriminatory?" As a recent analysis from Phil Williams at Tennessee's NewsChannel 5 elaborates, the curriculum further suggests that civil rights sit-ins at Southern lunch counters were an unconstitutional infringement on private property, and falsely implies that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't believe in using "the force of law" to achieve equality, but only an appeal to individual consciences.

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A Hillsdale spokesperson said that the thousands of pages released to date "are just the first portions of a greater whole," and that forthcoming units of the curriculum "will provide a fuller treatment" of civil rights figures like King. But in a letter to teachers included with the curriculum, O'Toole emphasizes that educators should proceed from the principle that "the more important thing in American history is that which has endured rather than that which has passed." 

*  *  *

Although it's long gone from Hillsdale's website, BCSI's original mission was described as an effort to "recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation's original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West." 

Exactly how Hillsdale defines this corrupting tide is unclear. Partly they're referring to the sort of student-led, project-based pedagogy pioneered by figures like John Dewey in the early 20th century. Although historians describe progressive education as a shift from rote memorization and authoritarian classrooms to more child-centered teaching, a Hillsdale spokesperson described its legacy as having "reduced education to a vocationally focused, utilitarian enterprise that merely equips students with the skills required for future jobs."

But Hillsdale's opposition to "progressive" education also defines an ambitious effort, as Arnn often describes it, to turn back the clock on "a great engineering project that was born in the Progressive era," in which educators like Dewey began to conceive of universities as a means to guide society's evolution through a new elite of university-trained experts and administrators. In Arnn's words, educators decided, "We could be the ones who would plan the future of society. Now we will rule." 

With that appropriation of power, Arnn argues, came a relativistic, progressive reinterpretation of America's founding documents, now wrongly construed to empower an activist government commissioned to solve societal problems and establish a new realm of "positive rights" (like the right to food or housing) instead of just the "negative rights" (freedom from government oppression) outlined in the Constitution. And today, Arnn argues, teachers function as "conveyor belts" to feed that top-down progressive ideology to the nation's young. 

In other words, Hillsdale understands the foundational conflicts between conservatives and liberals, at least in part, as fallout from changes in educational philosophy. 

"The public school is arguably among the most important battlegrounds in our war to reclaim our country from forces that have drawn so many away from first principles."

But they see the solution there as well. As BCSI's original mission statement proclaimed, "The public school is arguably among the most important battlegrounds in our war to reclaim our country from forces that have drawn so many away from first principles." And in that war, "the charter school vehicle possesses the conceptual elements that permit the launching of a significant campaign of classical school planting to redeem American public education." 

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Today that campaign is making significant progress, with 53 schools around the country either operating as full BCSI "member schools" or implementing its curriculum. Arnn says the last two years have created surging demand for all of Hillsdale's offerings; that applications to the college — which recruited and fundraised on its lack of COVID-19 restrictions and its anti-"woke" curriculum — are way up; that half a million people registered for Hillsdale's online courses in a recent 12-month stretch; and that there's more public demand for BCSI charter schools than they can possibly fulfill. A December "tele-town hall" for Hillsdale supporters drew an audience of some 13,000 people, along with multiple calls from school board members seeking advice on introducing BCSI charters in their districts. 

On the call, O'Toole said they'd been contacted by officials from 15 states asking for advice. Most prominent among these, of course, is Tennessee, where Arnn says Gov. Lee initially asked him last year to launch 100 BCSI charters. Given BCSI's extensive hand-holding in launching each school, including spending weeks training charter staff, Arnn committed to a somewhat more modest plan of 50 schools over six years. (A Hillsdale spokesperson said no specific plans have yet been formalized.)

But while Lee assured skeptical local reporters that the charters will be secular schools serving a general population, Hillsdale and its supporters seem to see a higher purpose. 

"The war will be won in education."

Last May, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, a close aide to Gov. Ron DeSantis, told a Hillsdale audience, "The war will be won in education. If we can get education right — we can have kids be literate and then understand what it means to be a self-governing citizen in a self-governing country — we'll win it back." 

In a September speech in Tennessee (recently removed from the internet), Arnn went a step further. In answer to an attendee concerned — in a month marred by ugly nationwide school board fights — that America might not "make it," Arnn counseled, "Go home and read some Winston Churchill." Arnn also believed that the country was facing "the greatest danger I've ever seen in my life," but said distressed conservatives should embrace the cold comfort of Churchill's wartime motto, imagining the house-to-house fighting that might follow a Nazi invasion of Britain: "You can always take one with you." 

"Now that's Sparta talk," Arnn said. As though anticipating Donald Trump's call last weekend for conservatives to "lay down their very lives" to fight critical race theory, Arnn continued, "We don't know what our last reserves are; we may be about to find out. But let's say they're insufficient. It is glorious and honorable to give oneself to a beautiful and losing cause. But it is very wrong to think it's going to lose."

Next: Hillsdale's nationwide plan of conquest — is the long-term goal to defund the public schools entirely?

Read more of Kathryn Joyce's reporting on the far right:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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