Spelling and Vaginas: Have We Lost Higher Education?

Are new culture bullies taking over America’s college campuses? Jonathan Chait argued recently that today’s college campuses are suffering a new, more aggressive bout of political correctness. For those of us interested in higher education and America’s culture wars, Chait’s essay raises different questions: Have colleges and universities become hopelessly monolithic? Can students really learn anymore, or will they only be drilled in leftist platitudes?

Like Chait, I’m not asking this as a conservative, but as a liberal. Like Chait, I want college campuses to include a heady mix of ideas. I want students to see and hear a broad range of philosophies, many of which they will disagree with.

Chait catalogs some of the anti-liberal recent occurrences on elite campuses:

Speakers are cancelled; plays are cancelled; lecturers are shouted down. In many high-profile cases, it seems that leftist students are dedicated to blocking any speech they find distasteful. This kind of neo-Comstockery, Chait argues, is a far greater threat to liberalism than any right-wing speaker or writer could possibly create. It has created, as one professor told Chait, an “environment of fear” on college campuses.

Chait explores the way this sort of destructive cultural politics has ranged far beyond college campuses. Those interested in the strange unspooling of America’s culture wars should certainly read his essay in full. But this morning I’d like to ask a slightly different question: What is the relationship between conservatism and mainstream higher education?

It is not as simple as it might seem. Though many conservative intellectuals continue to insist that Chait’s Red-Guardism has squeezed out thoughtful conservatism at many colleges, the truth is more complex. It’s not true that college students these days can’t be conservative. Ironically, the campus climate Chait deplores seems to strengthen some students’ identification as conservative. It does seem, though, that students less committed to a conservative ideology will feel pressured to avoid provoking the wrath of the campus left.

First, there is ample evidence that conservative students are made MORE conservative in college. Sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood recently released their findings of conservative students at two elite universities. In each case, they found that conservative students tended to become more conservative at these purportedly leftist universities.

Beyond that, for students who identify as conservatives, there have long been prestigious schools outside of the mainstream that welcome and nurture conservative cultural values. As I’m finding in the research for my new book, conservative evangelicals have a wide choice of colleges that serve as comfortable intellectual homes for conservatives. Often, these schools also embrace political conservatism.

Finally, we have piles of anecdotal evidence that conservatives are often made more conservative by leftist campus environments. Most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career with an angry memoir about his student days at Yale. Dinesh D’Souza similarly served first as a conspicuous college conservative at Dartmouth. Less famous conservative students have shared similar experiences.

Given all this evidence, it’s not fair to say that conservative students aren’t allowed to be themselves. In spite of what conservative leaders say, conservatism has not been shouted out of American higher education. There is another problem, though. What about students who are not committed to conservatism? Is the climate on campuses today conducive to a true intellectual experimentation among earnest but undecided young people?

This is a much harder question to answer. In some famous cases, colleges have made efforts to include conservative intellectual role models for young people. The most extraordinary case has been that of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Steven Hayward and Bradley Birzer have worked as visiting conservatives. At that school, students in the middle are guaranteed to have at least one committed conservative academic voice on campus.

In other cases, it seems as if conservatives really have been given the squeeze. The best example is the recent treatment of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Intervarsity has been derecognized at leading campuses nationwide. For committed Christian students, it will not be difficult to find a comfortable conservative church near school. But for those who aren’t committed, the exclusion of conservative organizations such as Intervarsity seems to limit students’ opportunities to hear and experience a real range of intellectual and religious ideas.

Chait raises important questions about the goals and limitations of speech-policing on campuses. We need to remember, however, that high-profile cases of neo-PC thuggery do not mean that all universities have been taken over by the leftist thought police. The real situation is more complex. Conservative students and professors seem to thrive. However, those on the fence might be robbed of opportunities to hear more than leftist platitudes.

Do campuses today encourage a real mix of ideas?  What have been your experiences?  Those of your children?  Your students?

Schools Can’t Solve Terrorism

Did you see the story? IMHO, one of the scariest aspects of the murders at Charlie Hebdo was the support given to the shooters by dissident French schoolchildren. Understandably, French society was horrified. Sadly, though, they’ve resorted to an ineffectual tradition of pass-the-buck education reform to address the problem.

We are not all Charlie...

We are not all Charlie…

As reported in the New York Times, significant numbers of kids in French schools refused to honor a moment of silence for the shooting victims. Teacher Eric Bettancourt reported that three-quarters of his class protested in favor of the murderers. One student told Bettancourt that the murders were justified.

What to do?

As have generations of well-intentioned reformers in the USA, the French seem to be engaging in the ineffective and counterproductive symbolic politics of educational culture wars. From now on, the education minister insists, students who sympathize with these kinds of attacks will be punished. About 1,000 teachers will get extra training in the tenets of secularism, or “laicite.” Schools will now have an official day of celebration for laicite. And students will endure a new program of “moral and civic training.”

I don’t know much about French education. But I do know that in the United States, this same impulse toward culture-war educational symbolism has proven useless for generations.

As I argue in my new book (now available), throughout the twentieth century conservative activists have imposed similar cultural symbolism on America’s public schools. If only students recite the Lord’s Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, many conservatives have felt, society as a whole would magically become more reverent and patriotic.

Progressives, too, share this myopic understanding of the relationship between social norms and educational programs. Ever since the glory days of John Dewey at Chicago’s Lab School, progressives have assumed that putting students into cooperative groups will transform America into a true democracy.

French politicians seem to share these simplistic ideas.

I sympathize. It’s easy to want to do something to fix a bad situation. But slapping new punishments and programs on dissenting schoolchildren won’t do the job.

As have generations of American school reformers, these French fixes assume that opposition to laicite stems, at root, from ignorance, rather than dissent. If students can have an annual assembly in which the benefits of secularism are clearly laid out, reformers might suggest, then anger toward the secular order will wither.

In the American case, some earnest school reformers have had similarly naïve ideas about creationism. As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued so convincingly, opposition to evolution does not in fact correlate neatly with ignorance about evolution. Rather, as they put it (emphasis added),

it appears that anti-evolutionists choose not to accept evolution, choose to ignore scientific arguments demonstrating evolution, or express skepticism . . . as a hedge between what they have been taught in school and seen in museums on the one hand, and what they may have heard in church, on the other.

French support for terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo does not result from a simple lack of knowledge.  Punishing it will only make it stronger. Canned speeches and skits for schoolchildren will only make dissenting children laugh.

It does not take professional academic studies of education and schools to understand this point.  All it takes is any experience with schools themselves.  If a teacher told you something and you disagreed, how did that make you feel? If she went on to punish you for disagreeing, did that make you likely to agree with her?

The Wide Wide World of Creationist Sports

When pro athletes start to fight, the officials intervene. What happens when pro sportscasters start to fight about creation and evolution? ESPN has had to silence at least one commentator for defending evolution. We got another taste of that sideline action when star-turned-commentator Bill Walton poked fun at award-winning announcer Dave Pasch.

Pasch has made no secret of his faith, including his Christian beliefs. He sees broadcasting as a perfect opportunity to spread the Word. As part of their jokey relationship, Bill Walton surprised Pasch at a recent game with some presents: a cake and a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Here’s how the dialogue went:

Walton: We wanna make sure that you believe in evolution.

Pasch: I don’t. But I’ll set this over here…. By the way, Bill, I have a book that counters the Origin of Species if you’d like me to bring that to you next game.

Other guy [?]: Crickets…

Walton: I believe in science. And evolution. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon.

Other guy [?]: Alright, let’s…let’s move on here.

Pasch: We’ll take a break. Eat some cake. Talk about the book Bill gave me, and maybe a little irreducible complexity to straighten Bill out.

Sports fans may remember an angrier sideline fight a few months back between pitcher Curt Schilling and commentator Keith Law. The two got into a Twitter shouting match over the fossil record. In the end, ESPN suspended Law from Twitter, not officially for his pro-evolution stance.

What in the wide world of sports is goin on here?

What in the wide world of sports is goin on here?

We could ask if the interchange between Pasch and Walton gives us evidence that intelligent design really is just a stalking horse for conservative evangelical religion. The theorists of the “irreducible complexity” Pasch refers to insist that their ideas are not religious, just scientific. But we clearly see in this interchange that at least one ardent evangelical creationist considers intelligent design to be on His side.

We don’t want to get into all that, though. Instead, let’s focus this morning on some simpler questions:

What’s with all these sports creationists? We know that star athletes from Russell Wilson to Tim Tebow to Jeremy Lin have used their fame to spread the Gospel. Is there something about sports that is friendly to conservative evangelicals?

Jesus vs. Koch Bros. in Kansas

So…what IS the matter with Kansas? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Smarsh offered a mistaken look at the way big money and big religion work together to erode public education in the Sunflower State.

The way Smarsh describes it, “extremist Christians” have been fooled into working with “fundamentalist capitalists.” They both want to privatize public schools, but for different reasons. Her article underestimates and misunderstands the long tradition of American conservatism. New histories, including my new book on educational conservatism in the twentieth century, have laid out the long roots of deep organic connections between religious conservatives and free-market conservatives.

Smarsh describes current education policy in Kansas as dictated from “that ancient place where the religious and the greedy mingle.” As she puts it,

Today, the religious right and wealthy free-marketeers both long to privatize a system that educates 50 million students, but for different reasons. One wants to make 50 million Christians; the other, 50 million paying customers.

As Smarsh explains, at its root this alliance of religion with capitalism results from a cynical conspiracy among the big-money folks. She quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

The unholy union, he told me by phone from his Washington office, begins with the money holders. “They look at the shock troops of the religious right, and they think, ‘How can we tap into that power? How can we get them to endorse our agenda of privatization?” Boston theorized. In matters of public education, which the religious right finds distasteful along moral lines, “they’re already more than halfway there.”

In reality, according to Boston, big-money folks like the Koch brothers don’t care about Jesus. They only want to get their paws on the public-school sector to weaken the influence of the government and strengthen private business.

I’m no Koch fan. Nor am I a conservative Christian. I do indeed find it believable that some big-money types have hoped to co-opt religious conservatives to get their votes. But to say that the alliance of conservative Christians with big-business is some sort of elaborate scam does not fit the facts.

Right fools left...

Right fools left…

Just as Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas did a decade ago, Smarsh’s argument resolves puzzling situations by resorting to conspiratorial explanations. Frank argued, roughly, that conservative schemers managed to convince working-class voters to vote Republican by waving the bloody shirt of abortion and gay rights. In essence, conservative strategists fooled people into voting against their own economic interests by emphasizing culture-war hot-button issues.

In Frank’s argument, conservative voters come off as dupes, conned into voting for Kansas Republicans because of an irrational attachment to pro-life ideas. Smarsh makes similar implications. Big business free-marketeers manipulate conservative Christians into fighting against public education, in this line of argument.

Let me be as clear as I can be: I don’t doubt that some libertarian business folks might HOPE to enact such a scheme, but the notion that conservative Christians are somehow rustic pawns of a corporate megalith are far too simplistic and Manichean.

Folks like Smarsh and Frank (and me, to be fair) have a hard time understanding how conservative Christians could support privatization, so they (we) jump to a false conclusion that big business has somehow fooled religious conservatives.

More careful historical treatments have noted the far more complicated connections between big business and evangelical Christianity. Kim Phillips-Fein, for example, looked at the roots of business conservatism in her 2009 book Invisible Hands. Phillips-Fein is certainly no fan of big business, but she describes the way industry leaders such as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil dedicated much of their fortune to promoting evangelical Protestantism. This was more than a scheme or a scam. It was a long-term effort to promote conservative Christianity and big-business. It was an effort to bring both together for the good of both.

...or does it?

…or does it?

As I’ve found, too, many religious conservatives have embraced big business for reasons that Smarsh and Frank don’t seem to understand. Many religious conservatives have not been fooled into supporting capitalism, but rather see capitalism as an inherent part of their American Christian tradition.

In educational conservatism, at least, the deep organic connections between Jesus and capitalism were not imposed by any move of the sinister Koch brothers. Rather, religious conservatives themselves have long insisted that schools must teach both capitalism and Protestantism. Even a cursory familiarity with the writings of leading conservative activists will make these connections clear.

For instance, in a description of the decades-long educational activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, biographer Jim Hefley connected the dots (emphasis added):

The Gablers also began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America. They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

For its part, big business also has a long tradition of pushing for more Jesus in public schools. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, an industry group, offered in 1939 a new curriculum for schools nationwide. It was vital, NAM leaders argued, for schools to combine “the historical and spiritual foundations of the American system of government, free enterprise and religious liberty.”

I’ll say it again: I don’t doubt that tycoons such as the Koch brothers might hope to manipulate religious conservatives. But it hardly counts as manipulation to encourage conservatives to support a cause they already support.

When journalists such as Thomas Frank or Sarah Smarsh paint a conspiratorial picture of hapless religious conservatives taken in by evil-genius financiers, they do a disservice to those of us hoping to get a better understanding of the ways cultural politics really work in this country.

Homeschooling: A Scheme to Take Over America

What do Sarah Palin, Gordon College, and Christian homeschoolers have in common? According to evangelical-turned-atheist Frank Schaeffer, they are all “still fighting a religious war against their own country.” I’m no homeschooler or Palin fan, but Schaeffer’s accusations just don’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

Schaeffer’s most recent broadside appeared in Salon. In his article, Schaeffer blasted a wide range of “far-right” institutions. When parents choose to pull their kids out of public schools to indoctrinate them at home, Schaeffer charged, it amounts to nothing less than “virtual civil war carried on by other means.” As Schaeffer put it,

the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.

According to Schaeffer, this nefarious plot spreads beyond the anti-democratic practice of homeschooling. The “far-right,” Schaeffer insists, turns women into submissive breeding mares. The Right has opened its own colleges and universities as part of its plan to take over civil society. Jerry Falwell himself, Schaeffer relates, explained his reasons for opening Liberty Law School. “Frank,” Falwell confided, “we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!”

Is the sky really falling?

Is the sky really falling?

Inspired by the apocalyptic rhetoric of wild-eyed prophets such as Rousas Rushdoony, and marshalled by irresponsible self-aggrandizers such as Sarah Palin, the Christian Right will not stop until it has taken over. Conservative religious folks, Schaeffer insists, want nothing less than to impose a rigid theocracy on the United States. They will not be content until they have dictated the morals and mores of their neighbors as well as those of their children.

Are Schaeffer’s charges fair?

Certainly, he has the right to boast of his insider connections. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, really did inspire a fair bit of the social philosophy of today’s conservative evangelicals. Schaeffer Senior articulated in the 1970s and 1980s the notion that US culture had been infiltrated by a sneaky “secular humanist” worldview. In order to properly live as Christians, then, Schaeffer Senior advocated a wide-ranging rejection of modern social mores. Perhaps most important for day-to-day culture-war politics, Schaeffer Senior along with C. Everett Koop denounced abortion rights as equivalent to murder.

At times, Frank Schaeffer seems blinded by his own imagined influence. In this Salon article, for example, he shamelessly name-drops his connections to writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Mary Pride. He claims to have been “instrumental” in bringing together the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such unpleasantness aside, however, do Schaeffer’s charges stick? Are Christian homeschooling and evangelical higher education part of a long-ranging plot to undermine American traditions of pluralism and tolerance?

Short answer: No.

Before I offer a few examples of the ways Schaeffer’s breathless expose doesn’t match reality, let me explain my background for those who are new to ILYBYGTH. I am no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity. I’m no fundamentalist, not even a former fundamentalist. When it comes down to it, I will fight hard against fundamentalist-friendly school rules about prayer or sex ed. I don’t homeschool my kid. I don’t attend or teach at an evangelical college. I’m only a mild-mannered historian, with the sole goal of deflating hysterical culture-war accusations.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of Schaeffer’s claims.

First, is Christian homeschooling really as sinister as he claims? Schaeffer suggests that homeschoolers have been inspired by the work of leaders such as Mary Pride and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The point of homeschooling, Schaeffer charges, is to train girls and women to submit to fathers and husbands, to glory in their second-class role as child-bearers and house-keepers.

There are indeed homeschoolers who adopt these notions. But anyone who follows the work of historian Milton Gaither can tell you that the world of homeschooling—even the more limited world of conservative evangelical homeschooling—is a kaleidoscope of missions, strategies, and techniques. I don’t doubt that some Christian parents hope to impose a rigid patriarchal vision on their children. What falls apart, though, when looked at carefully, is the notion that these folks are somehow the “real” reason behind Christian homeschooling. What falls apart are accusations that Christian homeschoolers are some sort of monolithic force scheming to take over the rest of our society. In reality, Christian homeschoolers are a remarkably fractious bunch.

Second, what about Rousas Rushdoony? As Schaeffer correctly points out, Rushdoony was the intellectual force behind “Reconstructionist” theology. In short, Rushdoony believed that Christians should impose true Christian morality on all of society, including Old-Testament-inspired laws about sex and conduct. In reality, though, the direct influence of Rushdoony’s social ideas has been rather limited. As scholars such as Michael J. McVicar have argued, Rushdoony has had far more influence on liberal pundits than on the conservative rank-and-file.

Next, are evangelical colleges really training a generation of conservative culture warriors? As I conduct the research for my next book, I’m struck by the ways evangelical colleges have been battlegrounds more than training centers. In other words, evangelical colleges and universities have had a hard time figuring out what they are doing. They are hardly in the business of cranking out thousands of mindless drones to push right-wing culture-war agendas.

For one thing, evangelical colleges have usually insisted on maintaining intellectual respectability in the eyes of non-evangelical scholars. Even such anti-accreditation schools as Bob Jones University have used outside measures such as the Graduate Record Examination to prove their academic bona fides. As historian Michael S. Hamilton noted in his brilliant study of Wheaton College, this desire prompted Wheaton in the 1930s to invite outside evaluators such as John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago to suggest changes at the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” This need for intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream intellectuals has continually pulled fundamentalist schools closer to the mainstream. Such colleges—even staunchly “unusual” ones like Bob Jones—have been much more similar to mainstream colleges than folks like Schaeffer admit.

Schaeffer uses Gordon College in Massachusetts as an example of the ways Christian colleges train new generations of young people to see the US government as evil. But as I found in my recent trip to the Gordon College archives, the community at Gordon has always been divided about the purposes of higher education. Back in the 1960s, Gordon College students held protests, sit-ins, and “sleep-ins” to change Gordon’s policies and attitudes. As one student put it during a 1968 protest, “we want to be treated like real college students.” How did the evangelical administration respond? By commending the students’ commitment to “activism over apathy.” To my ears, that does not sound like a brutal and all-encompassing mind-control approach.

The world of conservative evangelicalism, of “fundamentalism,” is one of continuous divisive tension. There is no fundamentalist conspiracy of the sort Schaeffer describes. Or, to be more specific, there are such conspiracies, but there are so many of them, and they disagree with one another so ferociously, that the threat Schaeffer warns us about is more fiction than fact.

Does Christian homeschooling really serve as a first step in a long-ranging scheme to take over America? Only in the fevered imaginings of former fundamentalists such as Frank Schaeffer.

Required Reading: A Boom Year for the Culture Wars

You’ve got no more excuse. As historian Andrew Hartman pointed out recently, we used to be able to shrug our shoulders and say that we really didn’t have many historical examinations of America’s culture wars. That’s not the case anymore. Hartman gives us a list of new books coming out in 2015—including one by your humble editor—that look at key aspects of America’s long fight over morality and education.

Daddy, What did YOU do during the Culture Wars?

Daddy, What did YOU do during the Culture Wars?

Hartman’s list includes his own upcoming War for the Soul of America, as well as my Other School Reformers, Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win, Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela’s Classroom Wars, and Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle.

As you’ll see when you check out Hartman’s full post, these books promise to establish a new tradition among historians and the reading public.

Best of all, these books will give us plenty to read and argue about for the rest of the year.

Americans Love ‘Nazi Propaganda’ Film; Conservatives Celebrate

Conservative pundits are gloating this morning. The new film American Sniper attracted huge audiences this past weekend. Americans love it, even though liberal pundits condemned it.

Most famously, actor Seth Rogen tweeted smarmily that the movie reminded him of a fictional Nazi propaganda film from the movie Inglorious Basterds. Apparently, in that fake film a German sniper is lionized.

Nazi propaganda from Hollywood...

Nazi propaganda from Hollywood…

American audiences, on the other hand, turned out in droves to see American Sniper. As conservative pundit Rich Lowry crowed in the pages of National Review, the movie marks the “return of the American war hero.” For liberals like Rogen, Lowry wrote, the story of real-life sniper Chris Kyle “smacks of backwardness and jingoism.”

At the Weekly Standard, Michael Graham argues that Hollywood liberals can’t seem to get it through their thick skulls that Americans want to see movies that are not aggressively “anti-American.” Mark Hemingway agreed. “Everyone in Hollywood,” Hemingway noted,

skews heavily left. . . . all these people line up to write checks for Hillary Clinton. . . . That might change now that they’ve seen that this film’s gonna make $90 million in one weekend in January. Maybe we’ll start to see more honest attempts at portraying soldiers.

Whose Values Rule the Schools?

What are the dominant values in American public schools? Progressive activists tend to think schools are dominated by conservatism. But conservatives say that progressives are in charge. New poll data suggest that conservatives are wrong. When it comes to general attitudes toward children and education, conservative values seem enormously powerful.

Progressives have always hoped that schooling would soon be transformed into a progressive paradise. But they have also always acknowledged widespread public resistance. As far back as 1925, scholars Otis Caldwell and Stuart Courtis—from the progressive bulwark of Teachers College, Columbia University—argued that the “new philosophy” of progressive education could transform schools into a “childish utopia.” Unfortunately, they wrote, most Americans weren’t interested. Instead, most people “blamed teachers and schoolmen generally for ‘new-fangled methods.’”

These days, leading progressives agree. Pundits such as Alfie Kohn insist that progressive ideas are the best. As Kohn once put it, progressive education is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.” In spite of the clear superiority of progressive methods, Kohn writes, most schools only use them in dribs and drabs. Conservative, traditional schoolrooms, Kohn notes glumly, tend to be the norm.

We might think that conservative activists would celebrate their domination of American public education. But in fact we see just the opposite. Historically, conservative activists have taken progressive dominance for granted. Many conservatives have assumed without question that the progressive nostrums of philosopher John Dewey had long ago triumphed.

Writing in the wake of a tumultuous school battle in 1950s Pasadena, California, for instance, conservative activist Mary Allen explained that “traditional education” had been abandoned in the 1930s. Why? Because at that time “some of Dewey’s followers prepared to use the schools to introduce a new social order.” To Allen as to generations of conservatives, conservative values had long since been kicked out of public education.

Today’s educational conservatives voice similar frustration. For example, Peter Collier has lamented the dominance in public education of the progressive tentacles of Columbia University’s Teachers College. A pernicious leftist stew of “critical pedagogy,” Collier noted, “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

How important is "curiosity" as an educational goal?

How important is “curiosity” as an educational goal?

New poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggest that conservatives have this one wrong. When it comes to basic attitudes about children and proper education, conservative ideas tend to dominate. Those who call themselves “consistently liberal” find themselves on the outside looking in.

Who's the outlier here?

Who’s the outlier here?

To be fair, the poll also suggests that Americans of all ideologies share broad agreement about the proper way to raise children. Huge majorities of the “consistently liberal,” the “mostly liberal,” the “mixed,” the “mostly conservative,” and the “consistently conservative” agree that children must be taught responsibility.

But in a couple of other categories, those who call themselves “consistently liberal” stand out. And those differences tell us something about the values that dominate our schools and society.

For example, the “consistently liberal” place a much higher value on teaching curiosity than do any other groups, by a huge margin. Nearly a quarter of the consistently liberal place this among the three most important factors for children, and over three quarters think it is important. In contrast, none of the other groups, including the “mostly liberal,” thought that teaching curiosity was nearly as important. Only nine percent of the “mostly liberal” called curiosity one of the most important values, and only fifty-eight percent considered it important. And though fifty-seven percent of the “consistently conservative” agreed that curiosity was important, only a paltry three percent of consistent conservatives placed it at the top of their lists.

In addition, large majorities of every group except the “consistently liberal” placed a high value on teaching obedience. Even among the “mostly liberal,” sixty percent found this important. At the high end, two-thirds of the “consistently conservative” thought obedience was an important idea for children, compared to just over one-third of the “consistently liberal.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to define “progressive” and “conservative” ideas about education. But in general, it’s fair to say that progressives tend to value curiosity above obedience, exploration above authoritarianism. Yet those values are only shared by a small sliver of the respondents in this survey.

The good news for conservatives? They are wrong about the values that guide American public education.   Progressive notions of child-centered learning, of students freed from the dictation of authoritarian teachers and exploring the creative curiosity of youth, have not sunk the deep roots that conservatives have often assumed.

Instead, when it comes to central ideas about obedience and curiosity, this poll suggests that conservative attitudes are the norm.

The Girl with No Hands and Other Mysteries of History

Sometimes the archives just aren’t enough. As I research my new book, I’m working this week in the archives of beautiful Gordon College just north of Boston. As is usual in this sort of primary archival research, I’m stumbling across mysteries that I just can’t figure out.

Some of them are curious, but fairly predictable. For example, as was the norm with this sort of conservative evangelical school, parents complained when they heard rumors of student hijinx. Whenever there was a whiff of unchaperoned boy-girl time, parents grew alarmed.

One mother wrote the school’s president in the mid-1960s. This parent was worried about the moral state of Gordon College. Her daughter’s dorm, she complained, had been “raided” by boys. The details of the “raid” were extremely hazy, which makes me think there was some sort of hanky-panky going on. All I can tell from the archival record is that the raiders climbed in through a bathroom window, left “obscene signs,” and did not respect the girls’ repeated disinvitations. At least, that’s what the girl told her mother.

The scanty correspondence leaves many key questions unanswered. What were the “obscene signs?” Were the boys really so unwelcome? How, for instance, would a boy just happen to notice that one particular bathroom window would be unlocked? Didn’t the “raiders” need some inside help?

There’s no way to find out from the archives. All the writers mentioned the “obscene signs,” but decorum prevented them from giving a detailed description. And no administrator suggested even a hint of doubt to the girl’s mother that these boys had been assisted or even encouraged to make their “raid.” No whisper of doubt sullied the stalwart moral righteousness of the girls.

All these questions are tricky, but not utterly confounding. We will never know exactly what transpired in this case, but we can make reasonable guesses that connections between boys and girls went on outside the supervisory gaze of parents and school administrators. It can be tricky to nail down the details from the sketchy and overly polite archival record, but we can distill the basic contours of student life.



Every once in a while, though, I come across a true oddball artifact. One that goes beyond this sort of archival mystery. In 1969, a guy from Pennsylvania wrote to the president of Gordon College with a truly bizarre request. I’ll leave out the guy’s name and address to be polite, but I can’t leave out the rest of his puzzling letter. “I am writing this,” our strange correspondent opened,

                in request of your help in locating a girl that I beleive [sic] may be at your college.

I do not know her name. All I can tell you about her is that she has two mechanical hands, an artificial leg, brown hair, and, except for the mentioned physical detractions, she is quite attractive. I have reason to beleive [sic again] she lives in Cleveland, Ohio, or further west.

The information I need is her name, address, and if possible, her picture for positive identification. I will pay for any valid information leading to her.

For personal reasons, I cannot tell why I need this information, but I can assure you that there is absolutely no intention of harm for her or anyone concerning her.

I would appreciate it if you would answer my letter if you do or do not have her. I am presently writing to seventy-one other colleges and would like to be able to check yours off my list.

If you do have this girl, please do not let this get around, for I feel that she would be deeply hurt if it did, which is something I do not want.

What was going on here? The questions pile up the more we try to knock them down. If the girl was in Cleveland, why was he writing to a school in Boston? What happened to the girl to make her lose her hands and leg? Was the writer in love with her? Or, despite his protestations, did he have some nefarious purpose in mind? Of course, we can’t ignore the obvious explanation that this is all some sort of kooky joke…but to what end?

To their credit, the leaders of Gordon College did not offer any help to this woebegone writer.  I think they were just as puzzled as I am.  Someone at Gordon took a moment to write a single elegant question mark at the top of the page.  That says it all: ?

From the Archives: Fashion & Calvin

As an outsider to evangelicalism, one of the biggest surprises I’ve found is the new hipness of Calvin. No, not THAT fashionable Calvin. Not that one, either. For the past decade or so, Christian intellectuals have been thrilled or horrified by the very old theology of Ur-Protestant John Calvin. As I continue my research into the twentieth-century history of evangelical higher education, I see that the trendiness of Calvinism has longer twentieth-century roots.

Not THAT fashionable Calvin...

Not THAT fashionable Calvin…

Of course, we all know Calvinism as such has a much longer American history. In the early British colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Calvinism served as the de facto governing theology. As time went on, dissenters blasted the rigid dictates of predestination. Most famously, in the early 1800s, febrile anti-Calvinist Lorenzo Dow famously warned, with Calvinism

You can and you can’t

You shall and you shan’t-

You will and you won’t-

And you will be damned if you do-

And you will be damned if you don’t.

As the Second Great Awakening unfolded in Dow’s era, some might think that Calvinism’s days would be numbered. The notion that God has predestined all things and all souls can sound a little intimidating to go-getting Americans. It might be a tough sell, one might think, to convince twenty-first century Americans to embrace such a 16th-century idea. Americans, we might think, prefer the anti-Calvinist Arminian idea that people can choose to embrace the grace that God freely offers.

Not that one either.

Not that one either.

But as Collin Hansen noticed in an attention-grabbing article several years ago in Christianity Today, Calvinism has been making a steady comeback among earnest American evangelicals. The “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” as Hansen called them, had become the most exciting scholars at several leading evangelical seminaries. Writers such as John Piper had fired the hearts of young intellectuals with his “New Calvinism.”

To folks like me—secular types heedless about the internecine theological disputes among evangelicals—such storms raged utterly unnoticed. We were not aware of earnest groups of scholars debating TULIPs and other blooms in the garden of predestination.

In my new research, I’m finding that the “New” Calvinism has always played a role in evangelical intellectual life. Just as secular young folks might continually rediscover the works of Frantz Fanon or Antonio Gramsci, so each new generation of evangelical intellectual seems to feel it has found something radically new and exciting in Calvinism.

In my archive work today, I came across an echo of this sort of intellectual excitement from the 1930s. I’m at storied Gordon College this week, in scenic Wenham, Massachusetts. After I happily survived the drive through storms of Boston drivers, I dug into the papers of second President Nathan R. Wood.

In 1934, Wood wrote to Loraine Boettner, author of The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Wow, Wood wrote (in essence). Wood’s actual words were these:

The thinking of the Christian world has in general drifted a long way to the left, and such thinking as yours will be a tonic and should help to bring back the swing of the pendulum from that extreme. I am a great admirer of Calvin. I do not promise to follow him at certain points, but if anyone could make me do it, it would be you yourself in your candid, devout and virile statement of that great system.

At Gordon College in the 1930s, just as at seminaries today, Calvinism has always been a lurking fashion among evangelical intellectuals. It might have experienced an upsurge in the past few years, as Hansen argues, but that upsurge itself is nothing more, it seems, than a perpetually reoccurring enthusiasm over the stern doctrine.


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