A Brazillion Creationists Out There

How powerful is creationism worldwide? Some pundits have suggested that creationism is unique to the USA. But recent news from Brazil indicates that global creationism may be gaining steam.

The latest report from Brazil comes to us from the National Center for Science Education. Proposed legislation in that country would introduce US-style creationism to Brazilian public schools. My Portuguese is no good, but according to the NCSE report, this bill insists that schools include creationist science, including “the ideas that life has its origin in God, the supreme creator of the whole universe and of all things that compose it.”

Why? Because, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”

Is it? Some science pundits, such as Bill Nye, contend that this sort of creationism is “unique” to the United States.

In this case, The Science Guy is flat-out wrong. Creationism—even if we limit it to just the Christian kind—is a global phenomenon. And the reasons for that globalism matter.

Pundits like Bill Nye might assume that creationism thrives in those corners of the globe that have not yet been incorporated into the global conversation. In some isolated regions, this theory goes, the obvious truths of evolution have not yet penetrated.

But that explanation gets it backward. The reason for thriving creationism in Brazil is not due to ineffective science education. It is due, rather, to explosively effective religious education. That is, Brazilian creationists are not simply religious primitives who have been isolated from the gospel of evolution. Instead, they are religious innovators who have been connected to a global gospel of creationism.

As usual, historian Ron Numbers—my grad-school mentor—put it best. In his book The Creationists, Ron captures this experience with a pithy chapter title: “Creation Science Floods the World.”

A growing force in Brazilian politics...

A growing force in Brazilian politics…

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelical Protestants have successfully spread their religion throughout Latin America, finding a particularly congenial home in Brazil.

As a recent study from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life makes clear, US-style evangelicalism has aggressively moved into Brazil, courting the country’s Catholics and converting them in large numbers.

For a hundred years, evangelical groups have spread via missionary organizations into Brazil. As Andrew Chestnut of Virginia Commonwealth University explains, groups such as the Assemblies of God have been particularly successful in Brazil. With this Pentecostal denomination, at least, Brazilian locals have taken over and made it their own. And they are now asserting their power politically.

For instance, the author of the recent creationist legislation, Marco Feliciano, is an Assemblies of God pastor. And he insists that Brazilians are on his side. Poll numbers back him up. According to the NCSE report, fully 89% of Brazilian respondents think creationism should be taught in Brazil’s public schools. Nearly that many, 75%, think ONLY creationism should be taught.

I’ve argued in the past that evolution educators often have a missionary zeal to spread the truth about evolution. This news from Brazil suggests that evolution’s missionaries are just not as good as the creationist types.

From the Archives: Christian Comix against Communism

In this century, it can be difficult to remember the way most Americans used to feel about communism. As I describe in my upcoming book, the campaign against communism had an enormous influence on American education, one that is hard to overemphasize. As I work this week in the abundant archives of Bob Jones University, doing research for my next book, I’ve come across reminders of the ways conservative Christians saw communism as an existential threat. This evening, I’d like to share a few snippets from just one of those historical artifacts, c. 1965.

As the comics below demonstrate, for many conservative evangelicals, this was not just a question of politics, but of religion. Communism represented an aggressive atheism, the apotheosis of perverted human pride.

Other conservatives, of course, did not worry as much about religious issues. As historian George Nash has argued, the many meanings of communism allowed conservative intellectuals to coalesce around a vibrant anti-communism. Libertarians could join with Burkeans, who could clasp hands with religious conservatives and free-market conservatives. All could agree that the fight against communism outweighed any differences they might have among themselves.


Are Teach-Bots “Conservative?”

When Arnold Schwartzenegger played a robot, it was the mean, human-killing kind (at first). But when he played a teacher, it was the cute, love-them-kids kind. But in the real world, we will soon have machines performing crucial teaching tasks. Will this be embraced by conservatives?

Hasta la Vista, Human Teachers...

Hasta la Vista, Human Teachers…

According to Politico, the company that is in charge of producing Common-Core-related standardized tests has promised to introduce computer grading. The company, Pearson, wants computers to grade student essays in order to cut down on the costs of test processing. In fact, those algorithm-guided grading programs were an essential part of Pearson’s original contract with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the folks behind the Common Core tests.

Caitlin Emma of Politico reports that those robo-graders have been delayed without explanation. Pearson’s original plan was to phase in computer grading. This year, all Common-Core tests would be graded by humans. Next year, two thirds would be done by computer. After that, computers would “read” and evaluate all student essays.

For us here at ILYBYGTH, this raises a tricky question: Is this plan “conservative?” As we’ve seen, conservatives have been bitterly divided over the plans to introduce Common Core curricula. Some conservatives have insisted that the CCSS are the best, most conservative way to reform education. Others have called the new standards a “progressive beer bong,” or a socialist plan fomented by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.”

So what will conservatives say about robo-grading? I can imagine some free-market types will embrace the new technology. If computers can grade tests quickly, efficiently, and accurately . . . why not? This will represent, after all, the triumph of business principles in the hopelessly sclerotic world of public education, some might say.

On the other hand, conservatives might be aghast at the dehumanization of the process. It is one thing to use machines to grade multiple-choice answer sheets, but another thing entirely to have them grade essays. For one thing, conservatives might agree that computer grading is simply inaccurate. Conservative critics might side with progressive pundits who insist that computers can’t possibly evaluate the complex meanings of student writing.

My hunch is that this issue will divide the traditional “conservative” constituency. I’ve argued that the Common Core has forced a re-shuffling of what it has meant to be “conservative” on educational issues. This question of computer grading will only deepen that divide among conservatives.

From the Archives: Fundamentalist Luxury

Why do families choose fundamentalist colleges? As regular ILYBYGTH readers know, I’ve been wondering about this question as part of the research for my new book. Today’s work in the archive of Bob Jones University offered one surprising answer from the early days.

I’ll be working in the archive here all week. The archivist has been extraordinarily helpful and productive, digging through piles of files to track down whatever I’ve mentioned.

I'll be here all week...

I’ll be here all week…

One of the questions I’m curious about is the appeal of these schools. In its early days, Bob Jones College (it only became Bob Jones University in the late 1940s) worked hard to attract new students. In the early files, I found an example of a personal letter written by a college official to a potential student in 1928.

It’s not clear who wrote it, but it may have been any of a handful of early 1920s administrators. In any case, the letter starts out as you’d expect. As I argued in my 1920s book, back then schools such as BJC promised a safe haven from the developing higher-education world of evolution, smoking, and flappers.

So the letter’s first questions are about what we’d expect:

Would you like to attend a school where you would be taken care of physically, where you have fine Christian boys and girls for associates—where you would have fine, scholarly, Christian teachers who would give you personal and constant attention, and where expenses are reasonable? If so, fill in the enclosed application blank.

But as always, it’s more complicated than that. Check out the promises at the end of the letter:

I will give you and [your friend] a room together. This is one of the nicest dormitories you ever saw. There is a connecting bath between every two bed rooms, hot and cold running water in every room and steam heat for winter time. It is the last word in physical convenience and comfort.

Not what I expected! But of course, it makes sense that a college recruiter would pull out all the stops in an effort to get students for a brand new college…any brand new college. To me, this is more evidence that the world of fundamentalist higher education shared a good deal more with mainstream schools than we tend to think.

Rah rah

Rah rah

Just as colleges these days go broke building climbing walls and luxury dorm suites, so colleges in the 1920s fell all over themselves to attract paying students. Even fundamentalist colleges—or, at least, this one fundamentalist college—promised a collegiate life of luxury.

Firing Creationist Scientists


Can a scientist be fired for simply being a creationist? Or for teaching what Glenn Branch has called “zombie science?” In contrast to what sharp-tongued activists on both sides may say, the answer is not at all clear. The case of Mark Armitage in the California State University system brings these questions back to the fore.

Armitage, a microscopist formerly at Cal State Northridge, is suing his former employer for wrongful termination. Armitage had discovered some soft-tissue residue in a fossil from a Triceratops horn. Like many young-earth creationists, he took this as proof that the fossil layer was thousands of years old, not millions.

Though he left his creationist conclusions out of his peer-reviewed publications about the fossil, he did not leave those conclusions out of conversations with students. And, though Nature magazine could not get a satisfying answer from Cal State Northridge, it seems those conversations were the problem. Armitage was not accused of doing a bad job as a microscopist. That’s why he’s suing.

Armitage complains that he was fired for his religious beliefs. According to Armitage, he had always been open and forthcoming with his colleagues about his religious beliefs. He had always been praised for his work in the microscope labs. But he had also been open and forthright in sharing his views with students. And that seems to have been the problem. After one such conversation, Armitage claims that the department chair of biology “stormed” into Armitage’s microscope lab and roared, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!!”

Does Armitage have a case? Can a public university fire a scientist for being a creationist? Or for teaching students creationism?

It seems as if it would be easier to decide these issues at the K-12 level, but the case of John Freshwater demonstrates how complicated it can be even there. Freshwater was an Ohio middle-school teacher fired for teaching creationism in a public-school science class. Freshwater hoped to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He didn’t make it, but the lower courts didn’t give us the satisfying precedent we might hope for. The Ohio Supreme Court avoided any decision about Freshwater’s constitutional right to his religious and academic views. Instead, the Ohio court decided against him due to his insubordination.

When it comes to teaching creationism in public higher ed, the case is even more fudgy. Consider the case of Emerson McMullen at Georgia Southern University. McMullen attracted negative attention from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his blatant preaching of creationist religion in his history of science classes. The FFRF asked GSU to discipline McMullen, but the issue raises difficult questions of academic freedom. Even staunch anti-creationists such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran worry about this kind of college crackdown on creationists.

Even more confounding, the federal government does not seem to have any qualms about employing young-earth creationists as scientists. As we noted a while back, Douglas Bennett and Brent Carter worked for decades as geologists for the US Bureau of Reclamation, all the while actively promoting young-earth creationism.

Maybe the long government careers of Bennett and Carter provide the central clue. Maybe the government can employ creationists as scientists, but it can’t pay them to teach creationism as science. As far as I can tell, neither Bennett nor Carter taught anyone anything. And Armitage was fired, it seems, not for believing creationist ideas, but for teaching them as science.

Which returns us to our central question: Should public universities get rid of creationist scientists? Should they only get rid of them if the creationists in question actually teach creationism as science? Or should there be a more energetic inquiry into the scientific thinking of publicly funded scientists?

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution?  Jerry Bergman says yes...

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution? Jerry Bergman says yes…

For their part, creationists have long complained, like Mark Armitage, that they have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Over thirty years ago, Jerry Bergman insisted that he had been fired from Bowling Green State University solely for his religion. As he argued in his 1984 book The Criterion,

Several universities state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’ . . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices. This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue. But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’

Creationists today are just as positive that Armitage is the victim of both religious and scientific persecution. As the Pacific Justice Institute put it,

It has become apparent that ‘diversity’ and ‘intellectual curiosity,’ so often touted as hallmarks of a university education, do not apply to those with a religious point of view. This suit was filed, in part, to vindicate those ideals.

Similarly, the headline in the ferociously conservative World Net Daily screamed, “Scientist Fired for Making Dinosaur Discovery.”

As Armitage’s lawsuit wends its way through the courts, I have a hunch that even the most conservative creationists might privately acknowledge that Armitage was not fired for his discovery. Rather, Armitage seems to have been fired for teaching students that the earth is likely only several thousand years old.

As Nature magazine concluded in its recent story about the affair, employers can’t legally fire someone for his or her religious beliefs. But employers can fire employees for conduct that goes against the mission of the institution. If radically dissenting visions of science undermine the assumptions of secular mainstream science, can a creationist scientist be fired?

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

If Fundamentalists Hate So Many People, Why Do They Love Artists?

Why does the leading fundamentalist university in America also have one of its best private art collections? Not just a collection of Jack Chick cartoons, either, but a diverse collection of religious art from the greatest of European old masters? One writer recently called this bewildering. The answer lies in the misunderstood nature of fundamentalism itself.

This is not what fundamentalist art looks like at Bob Jones University.

This is NOT what fundamentalist art looks like at Bob Jones University.

In the pages of The Imaginative Conservative, Dwight Longenecker recently described his trip to the art museum on the campus of Bob Jones University. As Longenecker explained,

I thought the art gallery would be perhaps a small and preachy collection of kitsch Evangelical art: pictures of the rapture taking place, memorabilia of the Jones family or stilted illustrations of Bible stories. I was wrong. The Bob Jones gallery houses an astounding array of old master paintings, icons, antiques, sculpture and Biblical antiquities.

And Longenecker asks the right questions: How can a school famed for its rigid fundamentalism host such an eclectic display of non-fundamentalist art? How can Bob Jones Jr. denounce Jerry Falwell as “the most dangerous man in America” in 1980 due to his willingness to work with conservative Catholics, yet splurge on a collection of Catholic and Russian Orthodox art treasures?

Fundamentalist art, BJU-style.

Fundamentalist art, BJU-style.

One question Longenecker doesn’t ask is also vital: How can a university pay faculty and staff much less than going salary rates, while its leader travels across Europe, purchasing world-class art for a private gallery?

The answer lies in the history of fundamentalist higher education itself. As I’m exploring in my new book, beginning in the 1920s, fundamentalist colleges struggled to figure out how to remain fundamentalist. After all, too many religious colleges had slidden into liberalism and eventually into secularism. Harvard, University of Chicago, Duke…too many leading schools had begun with conservative religious intentions, only to drift into worldly liberalism and pluralism.

Different schools worked out different solutions. One leading college, Wheaton College in Illinois, eventually settled into a pattern. The board of trustees kept careful watch on the goings-on among students and faculty. But the wider fundamentalist world, too, constantly questioned Wheaton’s leaders about on-campus events and tendencies. Conservative evangelicals around the country felt a right and a responsibility to keep Wheaton safely orthodox.

Wheaton’s archives are full of this sort of fundamentalist scrutiny. To pick just one example, President Hudson Armerding received a short, scrawled note in late 1968 from a woman who had no apparent personal connection to Wheaton. She was not an alumna, not a parent of a student. She was just a concerned fundamentalist who worried about the school’s continuing conservatism. “Recently after a church meeting,” she wrote to Wheaton’s president,

a group of persons was discussing Wheaton College. Some said that your school now teaches ‘theistic evolution’ and has departed from the fundamentals of the Bible. Is this true? Would you please investigate your curriculum? Also—statements made were that [sic] the school allows ‘worldly practices’—movies, smoking, etc. Please reply. Thank you.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University only in the late 1940s), on the other hand, the 1930s wrought a very different way of maintaining orthodoxy. During that period, the school’s founder, Bob Jones Sr., established a principle of “loyalty.” The school community would be guided and maintained in its fundamentalist rigor by unswerving loyalty to the school’s original fundamental purpose. Faculty would be expected to support the school fervently and unstintingly. As Bob Jones Sr. put it in one chapel talk,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school. We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard. If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him! We throw him overboard. . . ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’ Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

In practice, this expected loyalty to the school became an expected loyalty to the school’s leader. The Bob Joneses—Senior, Junior, then III—embodied the meanings of “fundamentalism” at the school. As outsiders have struggled to understand, this development allowed Bob Jones College to be more liberal in some matters, while still maintaining its status as a ferociously fundamentalist school.

For example, at the far less conservative Wheaton College, students were not allowed to put on plays until the 1960s. The worry of the broad fundamentalist community was that “worldly” drama might tarnish students’ religion.

But throughout its existence, Bob Jones University has encouraged students to dive into drama, especially the not-particularly-Christian work of Shakespeare. This may seem like a paradox, a mystery, but it is explained by the principle of loyalty at BJU. At BJU, the entire fundamentalist community did not debate whether or not Shakespeare was acceptable for fundamentalists. The leaders decided.

And once they decided, it became a principle of loyalty for faculty and community members to go along. One faculty member in the 1930s criticized the school’s policy of putting on Shakespearean dramas. Such worldly amusements, she argued, could not help guide the fundamentalist faith of BJC students. At a school like Wheaton, those arguments carried a lot of weight. But not at Bob Jones College. As Bob Jones Sr. later explained,

She walked around and said, ‘You know, I’m so concerned. They have drama at Bob Jones College, and I think we should have a prayer meeting.’ . . . that’s her privilege. You don’t have to love Shakespeare. . . . But she knew Bob Jones College loved Bill Shakespeare.

She was fired.

For many observers, this is the constant paradox of Bob Jones University. As Dwight Longenecker reports from his visit to the art gallery, the school combines an indefatigable insistence on rigid fundamentalism with an embrace of non-fundamentalist art that might shock even moderate evangelicals. From the worldly Shakespeare to the Catholic Old Masters, Bob Jones University has the ability to be less conservative about some things than more moderate schools.

Dwight Longenecker attributes this seeming paradox to the “eccentric and unique flair” of Bob Jones Jr., president of the school between 1947 and 1971. There’s truth to that, but only part of the explanation. At Bob Jones University, the loyalty/leadership principle allowed Bob Jones Jr. to indulge his taste for non-fundamentalist art and drama in ways that less conservative fundamentalist institutions could never have allowed.

This history matters for more than just the campus surprise of BJU’s beautiful art museum. The influence of BJU among fundamentalists is hard to overstate. Due to its extensive network of influential alumni and its powerful school-publishing arm, the meanings of “fundamentalism” at Bob Jones University can influence the meanings of fundamentalism nationwide.

And with so much of that meaning determined by the school’s leaders, the personality and taste of a leader such as Bob Jones Jr. can have an enormously outsized influence on fundamentalism in general.

MOOCing Jesus

Does online education work? A new survey of college faculty by Gallup for Inside Higher Education offers an unstartling new answer: It depends. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different question: Does online education work for conservative religious colleges?

After all, as I’m exploring in my new book, conservative religious colleges have always had a different goal from secular schools. Instead of just hoping to prepare students for careers and intelligent life, conservative schools have also intended to bolster the faith of their students. They have worried that any change might lead them into a slow slide into secularism. As a corollary, most conservative schools have maintained stricter lifestyle rules over students than secular colleges have. Conservative schools have insisted that classes be led faithfully, not just competently. But can they do this in online classes?

The survey of faculty for Inside Higher Ed includes some interesting points. [You can click to get the entire report, but you have to register.] In brief, faculty remain unconvinced that online education can deliver equal results to old-fashioned in-person classes. Online classes might do a good job—in some cases—at delivering content. But most faculty agree: there is something important lost when face-to-face interaction isn’t a leading part of university classes.


Source: Carl Straumsheim, “Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology,” Inside Higher Education, October 29, 2014.

The survey specifically excluded some of the schools we’re interested in, what it calls “Bible colleges and seminaries.” And none of the questions included anything about student faith.

But no one interested in online higher education these days can ignore the fundamentalist elephant in the room. Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, now claims almost 100,000 online students. In addition to standard online coursework, Liberty offers online spiritual help, too. Students can join online prayer groups and Bible blogs.

But this menu of religious fare does not seem to match the traditional goals of conservative religious colleges. At most schools, the faith of students has been the primary concern, not merely an additional click on a webpage. And most college administrators have been keenly worried about sliding into heterodoxy and secularism. In his brilliant 1994 dissertation about Wheaton College, historian Michael Hamilton explained this sentiment like this:

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the [twentieth] century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

This mindset, I believe, is common among conservative evangelical schools. From Wheaton, to Biola, to Gordon, to more conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty…all have worried that change will equal declension. All have been concerned, first and foremost, that novelty will lead faculty and students to abandon their faiths.

So here’s the question we wished Inside Higher Ed had asked professors at conservative schools: How can online education remain orthodox? How can the faith of students be preserved if student/teacher interaction is weakened?

And perhaps this is the toughest question for the folks at Liberty University: Has their wildly successful pursuit of online education changed their goal? Has Liberty abandoned its religious mission? Or, rather, could this massive online presence be compared to the televangelism of an earlier generation? Could the thousands of online students be seen as an enormous “mission field” for Liberty’s evangelical message?

Peddling Ignorance? Or Pushing Knowledge?

Okay, so here’s the question: If a teacher or textbook tries to block children from getting knowledge, is that still education? Or is it instead the deliberate promotion of ignorance?

In the case of US History, conservative textbooks deliberately set out to block children’s understanding of the kinds of historical ideas kids might hear in public school. Does that count as education? How about if the textbook and teacher sincerely believe the truth of what they’re teaching instead?

Here’s why I’m asking: I’ve spent the last couple of days debating these questions with a group of high-power historians and sociologists at the annual meeting of the Social Science Historical Association in scenic Toronto. Just next to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Our panel was convened by Winthrop University historian AJ Anjulo.  It was chaired by Kim Tolley of Notre Dame de Namur University, and joined by Dan Perlstein of Berkeley and Karen Graves of Denison. Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago offered comments. Professor Anjulo is editing a book about the historical construction of ignorance in American education. The rest of the group has contributed chapters.

My chapter, and the subject of my presentation in sunny Toronto, concerned history textbooks cranked out by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book. Both publishers come from the firmly fundamentalist side of conservative evangelicalism. And each of them has produced textbooks that tell a very different story than the one you might find in a public-school textbook.

a beka babel big

A Beka on where Americans came from

a beka babel detail

The Babel argument, close up

A Beka, for example, explains the origins of humanity in the Americas as the direct result of the collapse of the Tower of Babel. When that happened, people were pushed all over the earth, including into the Americas. And the BJU Press textbook asks review questions you would never find in any public-school history book: How does the early colonial history of the British teach lessons about the biblical morality of gay marriage in today’s world? What can Deuteronomy tell us about the Puritans?

No one doubts that these textbooks tell a very different history from the ones you’d find in a public school. History, in these tellings, is the unfolding of God’s plan over time. Human activity is but a scrabbling, either towards or away from the divine.

And the makers of these books have made no secret of their desire to replace mainstream historical thinking with conservative biblical interpretations. In other words, the entire point of these textbooks is to replace the histories kids might be hearing elsewhere with a profoundly biblical story.

As the faculty of Bob Jones University argued in a 1992 book, there is a “basic difference between Christian and secularist thinking about the human past.” Whereas mainstream or secular historians might hope to teach students to question sources and consider their own biases, BJU’s goal was different. The first goal of teaching history, they wrote, was to help a student “shore up his doctrinal beliefs and reinforce his Christian view of the world.”

BJU press review big

The main ideas, BJU-style

BJU press review detail

A close up: Living as a Christian Citizen

So does this count as the active construction of ignorance? Or is this, rather, simply a different version of what we usually call simply “education”? After all, kids come to public schools filled with historical knowledge, much of it bogus. Many of them get that knowledge from movies such as Forrest Gump. They think that history has been made up of Tom Hanks’ travels though time meeting famous people. Every good history teacher has to try to squeeze out those false historical notions and replace them with better ideas about history.

Activists such as Jonny Scaramanga might blast fundamentalist textbooks as near-criminal impositions of ignorance on hapless kids.  But these textbooks, we could argue, are doing the exact same thing as textbooks in public schools. They are trying to help children block out what they consider to be false knowledge with something they consider more true.

Can we call that peddling ignorance? Even if we think the history is wrong? Or do we have to admit that all education consists of an attempt to push out some kinds of knowledge to replace them with better kinds?

Were the Fundamentalists Right All Along?

Is it time for atheists to celebrate? ThinkProgress calls a recent federal court decision a “major win” for them. In that decision, Oregon’s Judge Ancer Haggerty declared that Secular Humanism deserved to be counted as a religion.

But isn’t that what fundamentalists have been saying for decades? Is this decision really a long-term win for conservative religious folks, who have long argued that secular humanism is a religion? If SH is a religion, it can’t be promoted in public schools. Will fundamentalists be able to use this court decision to demand SH-free textbooks and state standards?

SH SchaefferI take a detailed look at this anti-SH school campaign in my upcoming book. The notion that SH functioned as a religion was popularized among fundamentalists by evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer. In his 1982 book A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer defined SH as a religion that made the terrible error of denying God and making humanity the “measure of all things.”

Mel and Norma Gabler, the school watchdogs who pushed Texas’ schools in profoundly conservative directions during the 1970s and 1980s, denounced SH as a “religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.” Beginning with John Dewey in the 1930s, the Gablers believed, humanists had taken over schools and pushed leftist, amoral ideas on generations of schoolchildren. SH was not a neutral arbiter between religions, the Gablers argued, but rather a pernicious religion of its own. As such, it should not be allowed to do its damning work in public schools.SH Gablers

Tim LaHaye agreed. The blockbuster fundamentalist author argued in his Battle for the Public Schools (1983) that SH taught kids in public schools to be “anti-God, antimoral, antifamily, anti-free enterprise and anti-American.” By 1980, LaHaye wrote, humanism had achieved a “stranglehold” on the US government. As LaHaye put it,

Public education today is a self-serving institution controlled by elitists of an atheistic, humanist viewpoint; they are more interested in indoctrinating their charges against the recognition of God, absolute moral values, and a belief in the American dream than they are in teaching them to read, write, and do arithmetic. I call these people humanist educrats.

SH LaHayeThis claim among fundamentalists has become ubiquitous over the years. Conservatives insist that public schools are only interested in freezing out real religion. False religions, especially SH, receive special treatment. Kids in public schools, fundamentalists insist, are not actually in a neutral environment. They are, instead, effectively in an SH madrasah.

So here’s the $64,000 question: will last week’s federal court ruling fuel this fundamentalist fire? In coming years, will fundamentalist activist groups be able to prove their claims about SH and schools by citing Judge Haggerty’s argument?

It will help to look at the specifics of the case. In this case, an SH prisoner complained that he was being treated unfairly. He had demanded similar privileges for his SH group to those given to a list of religious groups. If Catholics, Shias, Sikhs and Druids could have special meeting times, Secular Humanists should too.

The judge agreed. In Haggerty’s words, “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” That is, as far as the Constitution is concerned, the government cannot favor any one religion over another. Judge Haggerty pointedly noted that his decision was in line with earlier court decisions that differentiated between Secular Humanism in general and organized groups of Secular Humanists who demanded equal treatment. It does not matter if SH in general is a religion. Those who claim equal privileges to religious groups deserve them.

So, in short, the judge did not decide that SH was or was not a religion. His decision was based on the notion that any religion or non-religion deserves equal treatment by the government. But here’s my hunch: For the coming few decades, fundamentalist pundits will refer to this case as proof that SH is a religion. They will ignore the niceties of Judge Haggerty’s decision. We might even see a re-do of the Mozert v. Hawkins County case from the 1980s. In that case, fundamentalist parents insisted that school textbooks pushed the religion of SH on their trusting children.

A new generation of fundamentalist activists might take heart from this decision. It is proof, fundamentalists might conclude, that they’ve been right all along.


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