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REVEALED: Hillsdale president says racism is like sexuality - neither should be discussed in classroom

Larry Arnn email highlights questions about what charter schools would teach and Hillsdale's complicated history on race
Posted: 6:41 AM, Sep 22, 2022
Updated: 2022-09-23 14:01:17-04
Larry Arnn Hillsdale College.jpg

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A new email from Gov. Bill Lee's friend and education adviser could throw gasoline on the already fiery debate over education in Tennessee.

In that email, Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn — the man trying to set up those controversial taxpayer-funded charter schools across Tennessee — says talking about racism is like talking about sexuality, that neither has a place in the classroom.

"Over the last several years, parents have taken more interest in what their children are learning at school. What many have found is troubling," Arnn said in an email sent last week to the Michigan college's mailing list.

"In many instances, instead of classes of substance, they find lectures on highly-charged subjects like racism and sexuality — subjects that should be broached, not by teachers, but by the child’s own parents."

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Larry Arnn email

Arnn ignited controversy this summer when NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained video showing him making comments about public school teachers coming from "the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges." He also claimed that university diversity officers have education degrees because "you don't have to know anything."

Related: Teachers come from 'dumbest parts of dumbest colleges,' Tenn. governor's education advisor tells him

His latest comment comes as the Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy is asking the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission to approve charter schools in Madison, Montgomery and Rutherford counties over the objection of the local school boards.

Hillsdale has faced continuing accusations that its charter school initiative is designed to teach a whitewashed view of American history. Lee has characterized Hillsdale's approach as offering a "patriotic" perspective.

Related: Charter school program favored by governor rewrites civil rights history

Clarksville-Montgomery County school board member Jimmy Garland, who is also president of the local NAACP chapter, said American history cannot be properly taught without discussing racism.

"To teach history, you've got to teach the whole history," Garland said. "You've got to teach a little bit about slavery, you've got to teach a little bit about lynching, all of that stuff is going to have to be incorporated if you are going to teach real history."

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Jimmy Garland

NewsChannel 5 Investigates wanted to know what Joel Schellhammer thought.

He's the Hillsdale graduate personally picked by Arnn to set up a network of charter schools across Tennessee.

Schellhammer refused to stop and talk.

We asked, "Should students not be taught about racism?"

After a pause, he answered: "Sorry, I didn't hear your question."

Again, we asked. "Should students be taught about racism?"

At that point, Schellhammer ducked into a restroom, saying only: "Thank you."

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Phil Williams with Joel Schellhammer, American Classical Education CEO

While the governor has openly embraced Hillsdale's way of telling the American story, a peek at the faculty roster for the conservative Michigan college shows a faculty that is virtually all white.

Hillsdale refuses to accept federal funds, partly so it does not have to report its record on diversity.

While the college's defenders often point to its roots as an abolitionist institution, its more recent history on questions of race is much more complicated.

Going back to the 70s, Hillsdale urged the White government of Rhodesia not to allow Black rule, demanding in its newsletter: "The answer to the cry for majority rule is No, No, Never." It also argued: "The right of private discrimination is a fundamental human right.”

These days, an online course — which Hillsdale recommends as a resource for its charter school teachers — portrays Black Lives Matter and other modern-day civil rights movements as being a threat to the country.

When Schellhammer emerged from the men's room, NewsChannel 5 Investigates continued, "Why should racism not be part of what students are taught?"

At that point, the head of the charter school effort pointed to principal Phillip Schwenk.

"I'm sure he's happy to speak with you."

Schwenk's reaction?

"I don't know that you can have an honest conversation without that concept of racism."

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Phillip Schwenk

As our investigation previously revealed, a key part of Hillsdale's plan is its 1776 Curriculum for teaching American history and civics.

On the civil rights movement, Hillsdale says students should be taught that it "was almost immediately turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Schwenk, "Do you agree with that?"

"So, I think the question you are asking about is: is the civil rights movement part of our history and should we discuss it? And the answer again is yes," he answered.

We pressed, "Did it deviate from the lofty ideals of the founders?"

"Well, I think that's up for discussion," Schwenk continued. "We'd have to go up to certain areas and what ideals you're talking about. Is it possible that we have inconsistencies in remarks that we have in history with original intent? Of course, and that's why we have transparent conversations around ideas."

Then, there's what Hillsdale teaches about the civil rights laws of the 60s that banned racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels and theatres.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the principal, "Should students be taught that business owners have a constitutional right to practice racial discrimination?"

Schwenk responded, "I think what you're doing, and that's what's interesting as an educator, you've moved into a political realm."

We noted, "I am asking you about the 1776 curriculum. I can show it to you. Have you read it?"

"Well, of course."

Hillsdale's curriculum says those laws "was where the line between private conscience and government coercion began to blur," adding that getting into the business owner's private affairs would lead the country down a bad path.

Schwenk downplayed the role of Hillsdale's own curriculum.

"The 1776 Curriculum, though, it's important to recognize, is something that informs instruction, it is not our curriculum."

We were curious. "The 1776 curriculum is not your curriculum?"

"It's not 'the' curriculum," he claimed.

"When you think about school, you usually think of like a textbook. So if I was a history teacher, which I was for years in LA, I was given a book that I taught that book. So if you are looking at the 1776 curriculum the same way, that's not fair to what we do."

But a review of data from states where Hillsdale schools are located shows they tend to be more affluent than the communities they serve, and more white.

Schwenk started Toledo's Northwest Ohio Classical Academy, where state records show the district is 88% economically disadvantaged, compared to the school's 36%.

While less than a third of the district's students are white, at the school they make up 81% of the student body.

At Hillsdale's Atlanta Classical Academy, 50% of the district is economically disadvantaged — the school just 7%.

The district is 16% white; the school, 72%.

So what does that say about Hillsdale's commitment to diversity?

"Well, you can be committed to diversity and have an introduction and people could decide not to go there," Schwenk said.

"That's what a school of choice is."

Critics worry that Hillsdale, if allowed to open, will likely end up with schools here in Tennessee that are more affluent and more white than the districts they would serve. That's because it does not plan to offer transportation to/from school, which means its students will come from families with the resources to take care of transportation themselves.

Jimmy Garland said, in Hillsdale, he sees a reaction to America's changing demographics, a hearkening back to a time when race and racism was something we just didn't talk about.

"America is browning," Garland said. "Clarksville-Montgomery County is browning, our school system is browning....

"People want to get their tax dollars and send their kids to private school. That's what this is all about."

Hillsdale points to student achievement scores, which — at first glance —- look pretty good.

But children tend to come from more affluent families, and those kids tend to do well wherever they are.

The local school districts that oppose these schools say, if you factor out those demographics, there's nothing special about how well these schools perform.

Hillsdale's recent history on race and racism

  • In 1973, Hillsdale's newsletter featured an essay urging the White government of Rhodesia not to allow Black rule. "The answer to the cry for majority rule is No, No, Never," the Imprimis newsletter insisted. It also argued: "The right of private discrimination is a fundamental human right.”
  • In 1989, then-president George Roche explained Hillsdale’s decision not to accept federal funding after Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 requiring compliance with laws against racial and sexual discrimination. “The words ‘civil rights’ bestow magical protection these days." Roche wrote. "Few politicians have the courage to go on record as voting against any bill related to civil rights, even if it may actually encourage unequal treatment before the law or other abuses of individual rights.”
  • In 1990, Roche expounded on Hillsdale’s decision not to comply with federal requirements for reporting racial and gender make-up. “What began (let us allow) with the best of intentions, the decent impulse to protect the weak, the needy, the handicapped, has evolved into a federal bulldozer to flatten the rights of all Americans.”
  • In 2018, Imprimis pushed an issue on immigration, featuring the words of a speaker questioning whether diversity is a worthy goal.“Our progressive politicians and opinion leaders proclaim their commitment to diversity almost daily, chanting the same refrain: ‘Diversity is our strength.' … Greater diversity means inevitably that we have less in common, and the more we encourage diversity the less we honor the common good.”
  • In 2020, the Hillsdale newsletter highlighted an essay thatblamed the nation's current political divide on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that integrated public facilities and outlawed discrimination in hiring. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 divided the country…. It created new crimes, outlawing discrimination in almost every walk of public and private life. It revoked – or repealed – the prevailing understanding of freedom of association as protected by the First Amendment.”
  • In 2021, the Michigan college spotlighted the message of activist Christopher Rufo on the supposed threat of "critical race theory." “Diversity as most of us understand it is generally good, all things being equal, but it is of secondary value," Rufo said. "We should be talking about and aiming at excellence…. On the scale of desirable ends, excellence beats diversity every time.”
  • In 2022, Imprimis again featured Rufo on the topic of "laying siege to the institutions." Though left out of the printed version, video shows Rufo told a Hillsdale audience, “I think you want to create the conditions for fundamental structural change, to appropriate some language. For example, school choice. To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public-school distrust – because, in order for people to take significant action, they have to feel like they have something at stake.”
  • Also, in 2022, Hillsdale professor David Azerrad, who teaches about civil rights at Hillsdale,ignited controversy with a speech on another campus. "I would argue that the real color of visible privilege in America today is Black.... There is an established consensus amongst our elites that our fellow Black citizens should not be held to the same standard of conduct as White people…. Standards are continuously lowered in the name of diversity; and when they can’t be lowered any farther, they are just abolished.... On ascribing any share of blame whatsoever to Black people for their collective lot in life, Black people are collectively absolved of any responsibility for their actions. It is never their fault.... If he were not Black, no one in America today would know who George Washington Carver is. History is constantly be rewritten to magnify beyond all reasonable proportions the contributions of Black Americans.... In some important regards, I choose my words carefully, the condition of Black America has really deteriorated since the 1960s when we got rid of formal, institutional racism.”

Even now, seizing on the controversy, Hillsdale has deployed digital ads to re-enforce the notion that America is threatened by what it describes as "Marxist" ideas that have made their way into critical race theory in the country.


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