When Did Tests Become Conservative?

Something happened.

The idea of administering standardized tests to check the success of schooling has had a strange ideological career. Tests have been seen as a progressive panacea as well as a conservative coup. These days, a welter of standardized tests are used to evaluate teachers as well as students. In the eyes of some, these tests have become a hallmark of conservative educational policy. How did that happen? …and what does it mean?standardized-testing-comic3

Last night, historian and pundit Diane Ravitch talked to a crowd of teachers in my hometown, scenic Vestal, New York. Those familiar with Ravitch’s recent book and blog will have a good sense of her argument: Today’s testing regime is a scam by false-faced school “reformers” bent on installing corporate control over public education.

Testing was not always seen this way. As historian William J. Reese demonstrated in his latest terrific book, the first round of fights over standardized tests occurred way back in the nineteenth century. Early test mavens hoped to protect students from idiosyncratic and tyrannical schoolmasters who evaluated students by whim.

In the twentieth century, early testers hoped to use tests to help individualize instruction for children. They did not hope to replace the human touch. Rather, they hoped a set of tests could serve to move education in profoundly progressive directions.

These days, leading progressive pundits such as Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider denounce the testing regime as an attempt to corporatize education. They point to the suspicious support of billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family. Why do these corporate titans push for more tests? In order to strip teachers’ unions of power; in order to remake schooling in the image of corporate America.

Of course, the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLROILYBYGTH) know that the real situation is more complicated than these sorts of conspiracy theories allow. There are plenty of conservative pundits, too, who hate and fear the tests that accompany the Common Core standards. To these conservatives, a national testing regime gives progressives the opportunity to inject sneaky leftist ideas into classrooms across the country.

Plus, there are plenty of progressives who support more rigorous standardized testing as a way to ensure that lower-income students get their share of educational attention. Ravitch herself, in an earlier ideological incarnation, helped create today’s testing policy.  And Education Secretary Arne Duncan is no William J. Bennett. Duncan’s enthusiastic support of high-stakes tests does not come from the same sorts of cultural conservatism that animated President Reagan’s second Education secretary.

But there is something to Ravitch’s charges. There are plenty of conservatives who see testing as a way to find out what is really going on in public schools. Ravitch drew vigorous applause last night when she said she did not want to quantify kindergarteners’ college-and-career readiness. It was more important, Ravitch insisted, to be sure that children were happy, healthy, and improving every day.

And this, I think, is at the heart of today’s divide over standardized testing. Such tests have become “conservative,” I’m guessing, to the extent that they satisfy Americans’ traditional ideas about education. As I argue in my new book, across the twentieth century battles over education had a similar backstory: progressives wanted education to be mainly about the improvement of children; conservatives and traditionalists wanted education to be mainly about the delivery of information from teacher to student.

If the central goal of education is the transmission of information, then the success of that education can be measured by a simple paper-n-pencil test. This is an idea that resonates with lots of people. Not only self-identified “conservatives,” not only the scheming Walton family, not only Mayor Bloomberg, but lots of parents, teachers, and students buy into this fundamental notion of proper education.

To my mind, this situation is a good indicator of the tenuous hold of progressive education on the hearts and minds of Americans. Even self-identified progressive reformers such as Michelle Rhee embrace the notion that tests are a good measure of educational improvement.

The reason today’s test mania has been able to make such huge progress in public schooling is not due only to the funding of billionaires and the schemes of plutocrats, in spite of what smart people like Diane Ravitch may say. We Americans, with rare and beleaguered exceptions, never took to heart the central notions of progressive education. We tend to agree that real education means, in essence, the transfer of information from an authoritative adult teacher to a receptive child.

If that attitude is “conservative,” then it’s no wonder conservatism has come to dominate American public education.

Save the Date!

I’ll be giving a talk in scenic downtown Binghamton, New York about my new book. The central question won’t be a surprise to the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLROILYBYGTH): What has it meant to be “conservative” about education in the United States?

The place to be...

The place to be…

The talk will take place on April 21, at 6:30 PM, at the RiverRead Bookstore on Court Street, next to the riverwalk.

For those of you who can’t make it, there are still some good ways to get the gist. First, you can buy the book, you cheapskate.   Second, check out the short interview about it on National Review.

For those lucky enough to live in the Binghamton area, come on down!

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.

What Does It Mean to Be Conservative about Education?

John Miller of National Review recently sat down with yours truly to talk about my new book, The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education. For you cheapskates out there who haven’t yet bought your copy, you can listen to this ten-minute interview to get the gist. Then go buy a copy.

What is "educational conservatism?"

What is “educational conservatism?”

Miller asks great questions that get at the heart of my efforts:

  • What does it mean to be “conservative” about education?
  • What lessons should conservatives learn from this history?
  • What can this history tell us about current conservative angst over the Common Core?
  • …and more!

A Strange Poll Question for Conservatives

What would “Christian America” look like? No one really knows, but plenty of Republicans want to make it official. At least according to a new poll from the Public Policy Polling firm, significant majorities of likely GOP primary voters—57%–want to make Christianity the official religion of the USA. This brings us to a tough question: Do today’s religious conservatives intend to make a break with conservative tradition? Or are they just unaware of their own history?

The PPP poll gives some intriguing breakdowns. For those GOP voters who prefer Governor Mike Huckabee, a whopping 94% support the notion. Even those who support the more secular Rand Paul like the idea, by a margin of almost two to one.

Younger GOP voters are MORE likely to back the proposal. Among 18-45-year-olds, 63% say they support the idea. Only 51% of those over 65 do.

There are other intriguing aspects to this poll. For example, among supporters of Huckabee and of Paul, we see a neat flip-flop when it comes to evolution. Only a tiny margin (7%) of Huckabee backers say they “believe” in evolution, while a whopping 85% of Paul supporters do. Clearly, there’s a lot of daylight between the notions of “conservatism” and “creationism” these days.

But that’s not nearly as compelling, IMHO, as this weird question of establishing Christianity as the national religion. What would that mean? Would public schools nationwide all look a lot more like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana? Would other religions have to pay some sort of tax?

Perhaps most interesting from an historical perspective, do these likely GOP voters know that conservative Protestants—especially Baptists—have always been the leaders in making sure that the government was kept entirely separate from religion?

My hunch is that most of these respondents think of “Christian America” as a conservative concept, something along the lines of David Barton’s Wallbuilders and Representative Fisher’s Black Robe Regiment. In short, this strain of conservative thought emphasizes that the United States was founded by Christians, for Christians. The Founding Fathers, that is, were guided explicitly by Christian ideas and they never intended for any sort of wall of separation to be built. Judges should be free to have the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in their courtrooms. Town meetings and football games should be free to start with a prayer. Currency should continue to Trust in God. And so on.

Was America founded as a Christian nation?  Should we make it official?

Was America founded as a Christian nation? Should we make it official?

As I argue in my new book, this kind of Christian patriotism has had a long and strong pull on the conservative imagination. In the 1930s, for example, big-business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers trumpeted the connection between religiosity, democracy, and free enterprise.

Traditionally, however, conservative Christians have always taken the lead on maintaining a strict separation between government and religion. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, for example, many conservatives jeered, but conservative evangelicals cheered. Secular conservatives like Herbert Hoover declared that the Court had just killed public education. But religious conservatives like William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute thanked the Supreme Court for its “protection in this important area.”

In that decision, of course, SCOTUS ruled that state governments could not impose a prayer on public schools. For some conservatives, that meant that the Court had kicked God out of the public square. For religious conservatives, it meant that religious belief and practice could never be dictated by a government body.

Which brings us back to this curious recent poll. Among the front runners for the GOP nomination, Governor Huckabee leads, along with Dr. Ben Carson, as the most religious of the conservatives. One might think that Huckabee’s supporters would be horrified at the idea of establishing a national religion. ANY national religion. But that is clearly not the case. As the demographics suggest, younger conservatives seem more comfortable with the idea of establishing Christianity as the national religion.

Maybe they know something we don’t. My guess, though, is that these young conservatives have a new understanding of “Christian America.” Unlike their grandparents and great-grandparents, conservative Baptists today do not seem convinced that their first job is to keep the government at arm’s distance.

What Does School Look Like in Christian America?

Talking about education in general is like talking about sex in general. There are a few things that are usually true, but it’s only interesting once you get down to specific cases. A recent article in the Kokomo [Indiana] Tribune gives us a look at the way evangelical Christianity still dominates the public schools of Greenwood, Indiana. As tempting as it might be for pundits to say that the Supreme Court kicked God out of public schools in 1963, in reality God is still very much a fact of life in many American schools.

We need to remember, though, that this is not simply a time warp. A public school run by conservative evangelical Protestants today is profoundly different from the way that kind of school would have been fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago.

In Greenwood, it seems, the public schools are not just friendly to evangelical Protestantism. They are dominated by it. The Bible class, for example, is taught by the gregarious and popular Peter Heck. As the article notes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching classes about the Bible in public schools. Constitutionally, the courses need to be taught about the Bible as an historical and literary document. They should not be taught devotionally, as a way for students to deepen their Christian faith.

What the Heck is going on here?

What the Heck is going on here?

Heck’s class seems to do the latter. On the day the reporter went in to observe, students were learning how to use the Book of Judges to consider ways that God could use anyone to accomplish His goals. The watchdog group Americans for the Separation of Church and State charged that Heck’s conservative religion influenced the message in his classroom. On his radio show, Heck blasted President Obama and articulated his support for the conservative group American Family Association.

If Heck allowed his conservative Christian activism to influence his teaching, he was not the only one. Karol Evenson told the Kokomo Tribune that she used the school’s Christmas pageant to help spread the Gospel. When she’s teaching about the birth of Christ, Evenson told the newspaper,

I just get real passionate about that when I’m teaching it, so it allows me to share things. A lot of times, I tell the kids, ‘I’m not asking you to believe, I’m hoping that you do and that you will, but I’m trying to get you to feel the music and what we’re singing about.’ A lot of the kids here do believe it, so when they are singing those pieces, it’s such a blessing for me.

At the highest levels, too, the district supports this sort of religious infusion in the classroom. Superintendent Tracy Caddell denied that the Greenwood schools taught any religious doctrine. But he admitted that he saw the teaching staff as

a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values. However, we’re not promoting or teaching Christian doctrine. There’s a big difference.

As Professor Mark Chancey found in his study of Bible classes in Texas, this sort of attitude is not uncommon in America’s public schools. Nor is this new. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp (1963), in which prayer and Bible reading had supposedly been ruled unconstitutional in American public schools, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found that many schools simply continued with their traditional prayers.

Depending on where you go to school, it seems, you might just get a dose of religion as part of your public-school day. Yet things have changed in the past fifty years. Back in 1963, I doubt the teachers and superintendents in towns like Greenwood would bother to say that they did not teach Christian doctrine. Back then, it is likely that a school like Greenwood High would not think twice about teaching Christian values.

Does that matter? I think it does. Fifty years ago, in places like Greenwood, the Bible teacher would not have the same pugnacious spirit as Peter Heck has today. On his radio show, it seems, Heck not only speaks from the perspective of a conservative evangelical Protestant, but assumes that his values are under attack. In his first book, Heck argues that “Christians Can Save America.”

Similarly, Greenwood’s superintendent acknowledged that his district flouted some of the norms of today’s secular culture. “Over time,” Superintendent Caddell told the Kokomo reporter,

we’ve gotten so worried about political correctness in this country that people have not had the opportunity to feel comfortable being a Christian in a public school. I think that’s sad, because that’s who you are.

The conservative Christians running public schools in Greenwood, Indiana—like Christians who do similar things in other American schools—are not simply trapped in the past. As I argue in my new book, in order to understand American education, we need to understand the ways conservative attitudes have shifted over the generations.

In Greenwood, at least, conservative school leaders understand that they are doing something outside of the norms. They just disagree with those norms.

Religious Students, Secular Schools


Thanks to all those who came out Wednesday to participate in my talk at Binghamton University about fundamentalist colleges in the 1930s.  Not only was a good time had by all, but the conversation made clear that even at this, our most “secular” of colleges, religion is thriving.  Despite the ignorant nostrums of elite secular academics and fuming fundamentalists, conservative religious students and faculty seem to thrive at pluralist schools like ours.

Don't hate me  because I'm beautiful...

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…

For those who are just tuning in, this talk was part of our series in “Religion in the Modern University.”  I shared my current research into conservative evangelical colleges.  The conversation after the formal talk revealed that both students and faculty at our beloved public university come from all sorts of religious backgrounds, including conservative evangelical Protestantism.

Unlike the schools I’m studying, our “secular” college does not actively encourage any specific sort of religious belief.  Nevertheless, our school proves a congenial home for students and faculty who hold conservative evangelical beliefs.

This flies in the face of some common assumptions about secularism and higher education.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found in her study of elite secular academics, many of them have absolutely no idea of the high level of religious belief at their own non-religious elite universities.

Fundamentalists, too, have long assumed that “secular” colleges were hostile to their sort of religious belief.  As fundamentalist college founder Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying in the 1920s, he would

just about as lief [sic] send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions.

At Bob Jones University, as at other fundamentalist universities, this notion that only a truly fundamentalist school can protect students’ faith remained central throughout the twentieth century, as this 1956 advertisement demonstrated.

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

More recently, too, creationist leader Ken Ham took me to task for questioning his insistence that creationist families must send their children to young-earth-friendly colleges.  As Ham concludes,

at the very minimum I do urge parents to ensure they do all they can to equip their children to be able to defend the Christian faith against the attacks of our day, and to stand uncompromisingly on the authority of the Word of God.

Does that mean that religious students need to go to schools that share their faith?  I don’t think so.

I certainly understand the many differences between a pluralist school like our beloved Binghamton University and schools with a unified religious message.  But we need to remember that so-called “secular” colleges like ours are often very friendly places to creationists and fundamentalists.

Jesus and American Sniper


Every smart Christian knows that real religion is bigger than any one country, any one patriotic tradition. But in the United States, conservative evangelicalism has become so tightly bound with traditions of patriotism and national pride that it can be difficult to separate the two. Just ask Randy Beckum.

Until Monday, Dr. Beckum served as both University Chaplain and Vice President for Community Formation at Mid-America Nazarene University, a small-ish holiness school in Kansas. After a controversial chapel talk, Beckum found himself out of a job. Beckum had wondered aloud if America’s fascination with the film American Sniper meant that “our culture is addicted to violence, guns, war, revenge and retaliation.”

Evangelical Christians need a reminder, Beckum said, that

We have to be very careful about equating patriotism with Christianity.   We never say God and…anything.  God is above all, everything else is underneath. I love my country and am thankful for freedom. But the earliest Christian creed was very politically incorrect and dangerous. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. We have put “our way of life”/freedom on the top rung.

For those of outside of the world of MidAmerica Nazarene University, these seem like rather unremarkable sentiments. But at that school, they sparked a firestorm of controversy. As one MNU student tweeted, “So your [sic] saying that my long list of family members in military [sic] are not good Christians?”

MNU President David Spittal denied that Beckum’s removal from the VP job had anything to do with the patriotism controversy. But Blake Nelson, a “resident educator” at MNU, objected. As Nelson wrote in an open letter to the MNU community,

When one exercises his or her right to wrestle with big questions, and is demoted the next week, it feels as if we have all been demoted. If someone’s job security isn’t safe in the aftermath of their wrestling with the Word of God, none of us are safe. No matter what language it is couched in, a demotion like this creates fear where there should be freedom. Whether or not it was intended to be, this is an implicit attack on free expression. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. The message is clear. This is a censure.

For conservatives throughout the twentieth century, too, it has been difficult to separate patriotism from religious sentiment. As I argue in my new book, educational conservatives have long blended the two into an organic whole. Conservative Texas leaders Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, always linked creationism, traditional Protestantism, patriotism, and free-marketism in an seamless conservative fabric.  As an admiring biographer wrote in 1986,

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.”

Dr. Beckum and the MNU community are finding out just how hard it can be for conservatives to separate out their love for Jesus with their love for America.

Harvard Brings Lynching Back

Have college campuses welcomed a new generation of lynch mobs? It is a disturbing question raised recently by Harvard Law School Professor Janet Halley in the pages of the Harvard Law Review.

New home of the academic lynch mob?

New home of the academic lynch mob?

Last November, Halley publicly critiqued Harvard’s new policy for handling accusations of sexual assault. Under pressure from the federal Office of Civil Rights, Harvard and many other schools, Halley charged, felt

immense pressure to decide flimsy, weak, doubtful and difficult cases favorably to complainants, or face the wrath of a government agency that can cut off all federal funding to the entire institution.

In her commentary in the Harvard Law Review, Halley takes her argument a step further. How can we decide cases of alleged sexual assault, Halley asks, when policy is decided more by emotion than by reason? As she asks, new policies at many schools include

a commitment to the idea that women should not and do not bear any responsibility for the bad things that happen to them when they are voluntarily drunk, stoned, or both. This commitment cuts women off — in theory and in application — from assuming agency about their own lives. Since when was that a feminist idea?

More disturbing, Halley raises the obvious but horrifying parallel. In America’s brutal history, there is plenty of precedent for what can happen when those accused of sexual assault have no legal right to defend themselves. We call it lynching. As a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative makes painfully clear, America’s white population often brutalized and murdered African American men on the merest whiff of accusations.

Is it hyperbole to suggest that today’s campus-rape rules threaten to bring back such lynch-mob mentalities? The danger, Professor Halley suggests, is that colleges are under intense pressure to convict someone accused of sexual assault, even if there is not enough evidence to do so. She cites a widely publicized case from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In that case, the college decided that it did not have enough evidence to charge anyone with sexual assault, in spite of ample evidence that a rape had occurred.

Halley does not suggest that the victim was lying or making it up. But she worries that colleges will feel pressure to convict someone in such cases, even when there is not enough evidence to do so. In this case, Halley argues that the rush to bring justice for the victim blinds us to the rights of the accused. As she puts it,

the Colleges had to assign blame to one or more of their students despite their complete lack of direct evidence about which of them actually deserved it.

Halley wonders if such policies will bring lynching back. She writes,

American racial history is laced with vendetta-like scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women that become reverse scandals when it is revealed that the accused men were not wrongdoers at all.

These are difficult charges to hear, much less evaluate. After all, the more obvious moral challenge facing colleges is not the violent history of lynching, but the shameful history of ignoring the pleas of victims of sexual assault. For decades, universities—including the evangelical schools I’m studying these days—covered up campus rape in an ill-conceived quest to preserve their reputations as safe havens for young people.

Nevertheless, these are vital questions we must ask. Do Professor Halley’s worries have merit? Are colleges these days—in an understandable rush to correct past abuses—heading too far in the other direction? Must the rights of the accused be protected with the same vigor as the rights of the accuser?

On the Reviewing Block

How do you decide what to read?  For nerds, academic journals provide page after page of book reviews.  I love to read and write these sorts of academic reviews.  But are they really worth the time?

Right now, for instance, I’m reviewing four books for a variety of journals.

For History of Education Quarterly, I’m writing a review of Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Hartman

For the journal Church History and Religious Culture, I’m reviewing Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial (Fordham University Press, 2014).rios

For Teachers College Record, I’m working on a review of Roger Geiger’s new book The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2014).geiger

Last but not least, I just agreed to write a review of Bradley J. Gundlach’s Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929 (Eerdman’s, 2013), for History: Reviews of New Books.gundlach

For those outside of the academic realm, here’s how the process works: Publishers send out review copies to a variety of journals and magazines.  Book review editors hunt down an appropriate reviewer, usually through word of mouth and academic reputation.  If the first person they ask can’t or won’t write a review, the editor asks for suggestions of other possible reviewers.

I love to write reviews for academic journals.  In each case, putting together a coherent review forces me to do more than simply absorb a book’s argument.  It forces me to take a sharper look at the sources, the implications, and the book’s strengths and weaknesses.  In all of the reviews I’m currently writing, I had planned to read each book already.  Writing the review simply forbids me to read any of them lazily.

But beyond the benefits for the writer, do these reviews matter?  After all, very few people read academic journals.  These days, the long peer-review process means that reviews in academic journals sometimes come out long after the books are published.  We might be tempted to conclude that these kinds of academic book reviews are merely an exercise in higher-education navel gazing.

I think there’s more to it than that.  After all, these reviews are not intended solely for individual readers or book buyers.  This is not just a “rotten-tomatoes” kind of review, in which readers might check out what has been said before choosing one book over another.  This is not simply “like”-ing something on Facebook or scrawling out an angry smear job on Amazon.  Those things may boost or crush sales and reach, but they don’t provide readers with careful descriptions of a book’s structure.

Book reviews in academic journals are different.  The audience for these book reviews is mostly university types, the professors who are choosing books to use with their classes and their students.  No one has time to read every book that comes out, but these short reviews allow academics to remain broadly aware of new trends in their fields.  A “good” review in this context does not mean glowing praise, but rather careful description of the book’s argument and significance.  A professor can choose which books to use in his or her classes.  Professors can also recommend certain titles to graduate students for further study.

Some things that are old fashioned deserve to wither away.  Cassette tapes, large lecture hall classes, and phones with cords come to mind.  This tradition of slow and careful review, on the other hand, may have its roots in a very different technological time.  Nevertheless, it remains a vital part of academic life.


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