Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

Anti-creationists have warned about it for generations: Creationists are joining forces to sweep away reason and science. A growing conspiracy of dunces threatens to upend centuries of progress. But a recent tiff between leading American creationists demonstrates just how fractured and divided creationists really are.  And it demonstrates the ways hysterical anti-creationism may do more harm than good.

The threats of a creationist conspiracy go back to the roots of America’s evolution/creation culture wars. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.” Like Shipley, Asimov noted that not all religious people are creationists, but also like Shipley, Asimov failed to notice the differences between creationists. The only religious people one could trust, Asimov wrote, were those “who think of the Bible as a source of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.”

What Asimov missed was the crucial fact that many creationists DO endorse real science; many folks who think of the Bible as more than just symbolic also accept the ideas of an ancient earth and human evolution.

This is more than just a quibble. When leading scientists and science pundits lump together all creationists as “armies of ignorance,” they needlessly abandon and heedlessly insult potential allies in creation/evolution debates. When science writers such as Jerry Coyne attack all religious discussion as “accommodationism,” they unnecessarily alienate creationists who want to teach more and better evolution.

A recent interchange between leading creationists demonstrates the way international creationism really works. Creationism in practice is not a horde of Bible-believing fanatics, relentlessly unified on the age of the earth and the origins of humanity. In practice, rather, creationism is a splintered and fractious impulse, fighting internal foes more viciously than external ones.

The “evolutionary creationist” Deborah Haarsma, leader of BioLogos, recently reached out to young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Haarsma was “troubled” by Ham’s angry polemic about a third creationist, Hugh Ross of the old-earth Reasons to Believe.

We all have our differences, Dr. Haarsma said. But why can’t we come together over our shared Biblical faith? About our shared concern that young people are leaving the church? Why can’t we at least sit down together for a cordial dinner and talk over our differences?

Ken Ham publicly rebuffed Haarsma’s efforts. Ham agreed that his animus toward Ross was not at all personal. As Ham explained, “I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy . . . he is actually a pleasant person.” But Ross was also an “enemy of biblical authority.” And Haarsma was no better. “People like Dr. Haarsma,” Ham wrote,

make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!

There will be no dinner. There will be no grand alliance of creationists. Instead, we see the ways some creationists will tend to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller like-minded communities.

This story spreads beyond the borders of the United States. As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421). And Islamic creationism, much of it based in Turkey, has thrived. However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

There will be predictable tensions between different types of creationists. Though some conservative religious voices will work to spread evolutionary theory among evangelicals, others will focus on what Ken Ham called “rebuilding a wall” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).

Folks like me who want to see more and better evolution education will be wise to reach out to those conservative religious folks who also believe in evolution. Instead of copying the tactics of Ken Ham, as Jerry Coyne is prone to do, science promoters should embrace allies and make friends. Instead of shrieking about the “armies of ignorance,” science promoters will do well to look closer at the creationist population. There are plenty of friends there.

“The Talk:” Evolution Edition

What do young people need to know about evolution?  A recent commentary from University of Washington professor David Barash has sparked a new round of debate.  For us at ILYBYGTH, it sparks a different question: When and how should ‘resistant’ students learn about evolution?

We all know that some religious students get uncomfortable when the subject of evolution comes up.  “Until recently,” Barash wrote, “I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine.”  They should be uncomfortable, Barash concluded.  There were foundational ideas in many religious traditions that science simply made untenable.

For example, students who really understood evolutionary science would have a hard time maintaining a belief in a fundamentally good and all-powerful deity.  As Barash put it,

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

Also, students who hope to maintain a belief in the special nature of humanity will be in for a rude awakening.  Humans, evolutionary scientists have demonstrated conclusively, are “perfectly good animals,” but not anything specially created.

Finally, the old watchmaker argument just doesn’t hold water.  Though life might seem irreducibly complex, modern evolutionary science has demonstrated that, as Barash put it,

an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness.

Not surprisingly, creationists have reacted with outrage.  Stephen Meyer of the intelligent-design bastion Discovery Institute blasted Barash as “willfully ignorant” of recent scientific developments.  Other creationists have called Barash “intellectually dishonest.”  Even Catholic writers berated Barash.  As one Franciscan blogger put it, “His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence.”

Such reactions, it seems to this writer, accomplish Barash’s goals perfectly.  With his insouciant attitude toward religious perspectives and his history of anti-religious polemics, it’s hard not to conclude that Barash and the editors at the New York Times hoped for exactly this sort of outraged response.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we want to ask different questions.  For instance, we want to know if students from anti-evolution homes can be taught about evolution without simply rejecting it.  We want to know if our deep culture-war trenches over evolution education can be bridged by a different approach.

As we’ve learned from scholars such as Dan Kahan, what people say they know about evolution tells us about their identity, not their knowledge base.  As Kahan puts it, it tells us about who they are, not what they know.  There is not a significant difference between evolution-supporters and evolution-deniers when it comes to knowledge about evolution.  That is, people who say they believe in evolution or agree with evolutionary theory don’t actually know more about it than people who say they don’t.

And, as ethnologist and science-education guru David Long has demonstrated, “evolution” is tied to a bundle of non-scientific meanings for many resistant students.  Knowledge of evolutionary theory was not a problem for the creationist students Long studied.  Instead, acceptance of the idea of evolution presented identity challenges to these students.

Perhaps more shocking to culture warriors like Barash, creationists WANT their children to know about evolutionary theory.  But they want their children to be protected from attitudes like his; creationists want their children to learn about evolution from people who understand and respect their religious qualms.

How do we know this?  Because many conservative religious schools INSIST that all students take a course on evolutionary science.  Liberty University, for example, has made an evolution/creation course a requirement for graduation.  And here at ILYBYGTH, I have been educated by creationist parents who earnestly hope to teach their children about evolution.

Learning about evolution, Liberty style

Learning about evolution, Liberty style

In an upcoming book, philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue that the way forward in evolution education is to promote an “understanding-not-belief” approach.  Public schools must teach students the best available science.  And right now, that includes the modern evolutionary synthesis.  But public schools must also refrain from imposing religious (or anti-religious) ideas on students.

It’s a tall order, and many smart commentators have pointed out the difficulties with our prescription.  As David Long has suggested, our book might just be a “red herring” in these discussions.

But imagine how very different our version of “the talk” would be from David Barash’s.  Like Barash, we want teachers to tell all students that evolution is the best current science.  It is.  But that doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t have good reasons for speaking out against it.  Students should be allowed, no, encouraged, to separate their personal identities from their knowledge about evolution.  Knowing evolution makes them educated, not evil.

Perhaps most important, a teacher’s attitude can make all the difference.  If a teacher hopes to make students “shift uncomfortably in their seats,” then Barash’s approach will work.  But a good teacher recognizes the world of difference between a healthy, growthful intellectual discomfort and an antagonistic, coercive one.  Barash hopes to jolt creationist students out of their intellectual blinkers.  But his approach will only weld those blinkers on more securely.

A better “talk” will be one that helps students understand that evolution is an idea, not an identity.

Who’s the HERO in Houston?

Turn ‘em over. That’s the order from Houston’s mayor to the city’s conservative pastors. According to Fox News, Houston Mayor Annise Parker has subpoenaed sermons from pastors. She wants to see if those folks are bashing homosexuality. Though she has backtracked recently, Mayor Parker accuses conservatives of bigotry and anti-gay hate speech. Most important, legally, she accuses them of using their pulpits for political agitation. Not surprisingly, conservatives have reacted with furious indignation.

Parker puts political pressure on pastors.

Parker puts political pressure on pastors.

At issue here is a new anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, the Houston Equal-Rights Ordinance (HERO). Back in August, conservatives submitted a petition challenging the new rule. Among other things, conservatives worried, the rule would have forced Houstonians to allow women in men’s bathrooms, and vice versa. The city threw out the petition, claiming a lack of legitimate signatures. In response, conservatives sued.

The city ordered conservative pastors to turn over their sermons as part of the lawsuit. According to World Magazine, Mayor Parker tweeted her reasons for ordering the subpoena: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”

Conservatives suspect more cynical motives. The activist group Alliance Defending Freedom jumped in to defend the pastors. The ADF accuses the mayor of quashing any political dissent. In a brief filed to fight the subpoenas, the ADF claimed,

The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. . . . These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council.

Writing in Forbes Magazine, conservative intellectual David Davenport agreed. Davenport, former president of Pepperdine University, called Mayor Parker’s action “outrageous. . . . legal intimidation.”

Even the mayor herself might agree. According to World Magazine, the mayor’s office has backed off its initial subpoena claims. A city spokeswoman said the mayor now planned to “narrow the scope” of the subpoenas.

Writing from the sidelines, I can’t help but wonder if conservatives have this one right. I personally support rules such as HERO, and I think more and more Americans are with me on this one. To the chagrin of conservatives, religious opposition to equal rights for homosexuals is increasingly seen as bigotry and hatred. But that does not mean that Americans will stand by as religious speakers are hounded by aggressive and unconstitutional demands from a city government.

Whatever the legal merits of the case, headlines about subpoenaing sermons make the mayor look bad. It changes the culture-war discussion. Instead of framing Mayor Parker as the brave defender of equal rights for all, this kind of move makes her look like an anti-religion crusader. No matter how much Americans might be shifting towards acceptance of homosexuality, we still love our churches, and we love our freedom.

War of the World Histories: Or, Is Bill Gates Smarter than H.G. Wells?

Tom Cruise might remember him best for his science fiction, including War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. But in the 1920s and 1930s, author H. G. Wells tried to save the world by saving the history classroom. Wells’ plan sounds eerily similar to a new revolutionary plan by gagillionaire Bill Gates. Why didn’t Wells’ scheme work, and what does that tell us about Gates’ chances?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Alert ILYBYGTH readers may remember our snarky critique of Bill Gates’ ingenuous entry into the evolution/creation controversies. Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history by replacing today’s tired curriculum with a breathless new “Big History.” Students would learn about everything ever, from the Big Bang to today’s Big Game.

As scholar Ken Osborne describes in the latest issue of the journal Historical Studies in Education, Gates is unknowingly following in the footsteps of H. G. Wells. As Osborne describes, Wells dedicated the latter half of his career to an ambitious but ultimately fruitless mission to reform history education. As Wells put it in 1921, “Upon this matter of the teaching of history, I am a fanatic.”

Just as Bill Gates did, Wells noticed that most school histories were dry and lifeless. As Wells argued in 1931,

If so many of us had not experienced it, few would believe it possible. . . . It is partly like heavy stale gossip about incredible individuals, partly like trying to get interested in the litigation of an unknown people in a remote country, and partly like watching a university don playing soldiers on his study floor.

To Wells, this was more than just a matter of wasted time. History as taught, Wells believed, had led directly to the cataclysm of World War I. Young people in each country had been drilled to believe in patriotic pablum instead of understanding themselves as part of the great unfolding of humanity. Wells was not alone in this belief. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George argued in the last year of the Great War,

The most formidable institutions we had to fight in Germany were not the arsenals of Krupp, or the yards in which they turned out submarines, but the schools of Germany. They were our most formidable competitors in business and our most terrible opponents in war.

In the years following the war, Wells published his sweeping Outline of History. As he described it,

Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling toward consciousness . . . through millions of years . . . until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.

Like Bill Gates, Wells wanted students to see themselves in cosmological time. Not only as citizens of a particular country, but as denizens of a universe of abiding mystery. And just as Gates wants to do with his Big History project, Wells hoped to do an end run around a hopelessly hidebound educational system. In Wells’ opinion, schools remained “a conservative force in the community . . . controlled by authority and bound officially as well as practically to respect current fears and prejudices.”

From dinosaurs to diplomacy...

From dinosaurs to diplomacy…

To overcome these prejudices, Wells devised a painstaking hour-by-hour plan to fix education. Just as Bill Gates is hoping to do, Wells hoped his ideas would take off with teachers first. Then, bit by bit, those teachers would use Wells’ grand healthy history to supplant the old musty stories.

It didn’t work. As Ken Osborne concluded, “when [Wells’ plans] were not simply ignored, dismissed as impractically utopian, or condemned as rigidly doctrinaire, they were domesticated and de-radicalized.”

It seems Bill Gates is traveling down this same road in all innocence. It seems ironic that Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history, but does not seem to have spent any time actually studying history. If he had, he might have learned from the doomed efforts of predecessors such as H. G. Wells. Or, even more simply, he might have learned from historians such as David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Twenty years ago, Tyack and Cuban offered a compelling argument about why the reform efforts of folks such as Gates and Wells end up so often in the dustbin of educational history.

The best-intended plans—and even the best-funded ones—never have much effect if they do not adapt themselves to the ubiquitous “grammar of schooling,” Tyack and Cuban argued. When a new reform helps teachers do what they already want to do, it is adopted with alacrity. Blackboards, for example, and now smartboards, offer good teachers a way to do a better job. On the other hand, when reforms ask teachers to change everything, those reforms end up collecting dust in a back closet in a school-district warehouse somewhere.

It’s always tricky to use the past to predict the future, but in this case the parallels between Bill Gates and H. G. Wells seem too blatant to ignore. Both men hoped to ride to the rescue of schools. Both men hoped to sidestep the people who could actually make their “Big Histories” happen.

As a result, both plans will end up the same way.

How Columbus Became Conservative

Christopher Columbus used to vote Democratic, but now he’s a leading voice among America’s cultural conservatives. Not the man himself, of course. But celebrations of Columbus’ life used to be lean to the left. These days, conservatives have become the leading celebrants. How did that happen?

What are the children learning about Columbus?

What are the children learning about Columbus?

In these United States, today is officially a federal holiday. Columbus Day was only established as a federally recognized holiday, though, due to the complicated politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Italian immigrants had long lobbied for recognition of their greatest ethnic hero. As Roosevelt cobbled together his powerful but shaky New Deal coalition, he couldn’t afford to alienate any urban constituency. Establishing a federal holiday was a politically cheap way to symbolize Roosevelt’s sympathy with Italian-American voters.

At the time, Christopher Columbus represented Italian pride. Columbus stood for the fact that Italy had produced world-beating explorers and scientists. By the early 1900s, of course, Italy had become a leading source of poor, sometimes-desperate immigrants to the United States. The image of Italian-Americans in the yellow press at the time had become one of poorly educated “garlic-eaters.” Columbus Day’s federal recognition in the 1930s represented both a repudiation of those stereotypes and a recognition of the increasing political clout of Italian-Americans in the Democratic Party.

Today, of course, Christopher Columbus has acquired entirely new meanings as a cultural symbol. Instead of representing the heroic triumph of Italians, Columbus has come to embody the culture war over the settlement of the Americas. On the left, Columbus personifies the nature of that settlement. To leading leftist historian Howard Zinn, for example, Columbus’ quest was for loot, and his method was rapine. As Zinn wrote in his popular People’s History of the United States:

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Today’s leftist activists, too, hope to puncture the heroic legend of Christopher Columbus. As one described it, the main legacy of Christopher Columbus was to turn North America into a “crime scene.

In response, conservative intellectuals have tried to maintain Columbus’ place in the halls of heroes. As the recent controversy over the new Advanced Placement United States History framework has demonstrated, conservatives will unite against anything they perceive as a smear of America’s traditional heroes. For example, long before Dinesh D’Souza rolled out his recent patriotic film, he bashed the left’s tendency to bash Columbus. As D’Souza argued in 1995, Columbus had the moxie to cross a dangerous ocean. And Columbus may have misunderstood Native Americans, but he admired them. The violence came from the native side. As D’Souza put it,

While the first Indians that Columbus encountered were hospitable and friendly, other tribes enjoyed fully justified reputations for brutality and inhumanity. On his second voyage Columbus was horrified to discover that a number of the sailors he left behind had been killed and possibly eaten by the cannibalistic Arawaks.

For many conservatives, as for D’Souza, Columbus has come to represent more than just the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas. For conservatives, Columbus has become the poster child for the proper attitude toward the past. Historians on the left, many conservatives believe, have been very successful in spreading their anti-patriotic smears. The proper thing for conservatives to do, then, is rally around those symbols of traditional American exceptionalism.

Bryan College: Creationism Déjà vu All Over Again

It’s all over but the shouting.  That’s the news from Bryan College.  Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see that Bryan College has settled its legal dispute with two of its professors.  The creationist courtroom drama may have been avoided, but we are left with one question: If this is part of a predictable pattern at conservative evangelical colleges, can we learn a better way to handle each new episode?

Why can't we all just get along...?

Why can’t we all just get along…?

Two Bryan College professors, Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge, have settled their lawsuit with the school, according to the local newspaper.  Readers may remember that the school abruptly changed its statement of faith to insist that Adam and Eve did not descend from another species.  Faculty members had to make a tough decision: Could they agree to the newly explicit language about humanity’s origins?  Barnett and DeGeorge argued that it was not fair—nor even legal—for the school to impose such a decision on faculty.  It appears they have decided to drop the lawsuit, though the terms of this settlement have not been made public.

Why did Bryan’s leadership feel a need to make such a change?  They were in a tight spot.  As I’ve argued before, leading young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham are able to wield outsized influence on evangelical colleges.  Even the whiff of suspicion that a school has abandoned the true faith is enough to drive away students and their precious tuition dollars.  At Bryan—and I’m claiming no inside knowledge here, just a historian’s best guess—the leadership felt obliged to shore up its orthodox creationist bona fides.

This tension is nothing new at evangelical colleges.  Perhaps the most startling example of the deja-vu nature of the Bryan situation is an eerily similar case from Wheaton College in 1961.  In that case, faculty such as Russell Mixter hosted a conference on origins.  Whatever actually occurred at that meeting, rumors flew that Wheaton had opened itself to the teaching of evolution.  As a result, anxious trustees rammed through a change to the obligatory faculty creed.  From then on, faculty had to attest to their belief in “an historical Adam and an historical Eve, the parents of the human race, who were created by God and not descended from lower forms of life.”

Back then, Mixter signed.  He was more interested in the broad outlines of what he called “progressive creationism” than the details of the Garden of Eden.  But the nervousness of the leadership at Wheaton was palpable.  In addition to the change in creed, the school took out big advertisements in evangelical magazines such as Christian Life that trumpeted Wheaton’s continuing creationism.

The stories are so similar that it is hard to believe they are separated by over fifty years.  And they lead us to obvious questions: Why do evangelical colleges have such anxiety about their reputations as creationist colleges?  Why do leaders feel such a compelling need to publicize their continuing orthodoxy?  And perhaps most important, if these controversies are so predictable, why is there no better way to handle them?

As historian Michael Hamilton has argued about Wheaton, “Anxiety about constituent response hangs over virtually every decision the college has made since 1925.”  The same could be said for Bryan and every other school that relies on conservative evangelical families for its student bodies.

Each of these schools’ identities, after all, relied on the notion that they have been “safe” alternatives to mainstream schools.  At the more conservative Bob Jones University, for example, founder Bob Jones promised a different sort of college experience.  In 1928, just a few years after the school was founded, Jones promised,

fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

And even though Wheaton College was a very different sort of evangelical school, this central notion was the same.  In the 1930s, Wheaton advertised itself as a “safe college for young people.”

This pledge means more than just institutional window-dressing.  For conservative evangelical schools, the issue of orthodoxy looms large.  This stretches beyond the issue of creationism.  As we see in cases such as the recent controversy at Gordon College, ideas about sexuality also prove intensely controversial.  If schools want to change their policies, or sometimes even to clarify existing policies, they risk sparking a no-holds-barred fight that might threaten the continuing existence of their college.

No wonder school leaders are nervous.

The most recent episode at Bryan seems to have limped its way off the public stage.  But not without resentment, bitterness, and feelings of betrayal all around.  So we are left with a few questions for the leaders of conservative colleges: If this is such a central organizing principle of conservative orthodox colleges, why do they seem never to learn?  Why does today’s controversy at Bryan copy the pattern of Wheaton’s in 1961 so exactly?  Is there no better way to handle this predictable tension?

One Colorado, Two Systems

There has been plenty of news coverage. Everyone from Fox News to Bloomberg to ILYBYGTH has written about the history protests in Jefferson County, Colorado. But what I haven’t seen anywhere is any notice of the startling international connections here: teenagers in Colorado and China are protesting against the same things. What does that tell us about the nature of educational conservatism and the teaching of patriotic history?

The Colorado story can be told in a few words: Conservative school-board members suggested changes to the way Advanced Placement United States History was taught. They worried that the new framework distorted America’s past. As have many conservative thinkers, they worried that the new guidelines skewed the story toward genocide, racism, and oppression.

In response, students and teachers took to the streets. They demanded freedom to learn about America’s tradition of protest, about America’s traditions of civil disobedience.

Here's what it looks like in Colorado...

Here’s what it looks like in Colorado…

And journalists have offered great continuing coverage of the Jefferson County kerfuffle. For example, there are great stories here, here, and here. Conservative scholar Stanley Kurtz—an early and influential critic of the new AP history framework—has agreed that “The issue is spreading nationally.”

But it is doing more than that. This is an international story, and I’m flummoxed by the lack of coverage of those international connections.

At the same time as the Colorado protests, much bigger protests have roiled the enclave of Hong Kong. Again, there has been no lack of coverage of the “Umbrella Revolution.” We don’t need to re-hash the whole story in these pages—you can check out the unfolding protests here, here, or here.

On some levels, the international connections of the Hong Kong protests are hard to miss. After all, the movement has modeled itself on the international “Occupy” protests. But I can’t find anywhere the international connections between Hong Kong and Colorado that seem so central to this story.

In Hong Kong, after all, the protests emerged, in part, from a movement called “Scholarism.” One leader of this movement, seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong, has protested for years against the imposition of a “patriotic” history curriculum in Hong Kong. That curriculum has been ferociously controversial in Hong Kong, since it glorifies the “China Model” and erases distinctions between Hong Kong and mainland China.

And here’s what it looks like in Hong Kong (Joshua Wong in center)…

And here’s what it looks like in Hong Kong (Joshua Wong in center)…

The parallels are hard to miss. Conservatives in China and Colorado want to see history taught a certain way. Of course, the heroes are different, but the central ideas are the same: Any mention of anti-government protest is suspect. The exceptional nature of the country is emphasized. Students should be taught that their country is the best on earth.

I can’t help but think that Colorado’s conservatives wouldn’t like the comparison. But it’s staring us in the face. Students in Colorado, just like students in Hong Kong, protest against any heavy-handed effort to swing history in conservative directions. What does it mean that teenagers from Colorado to China are protesting against “patriotic” changes to their history curriculum? Is there some thread linking conservative ideas about the proper teaching of the past?

And the big question remains: If this parallel is so noticeable, why don’t we see it in news coverage of these student protests?

Why Don’t More College Christians Fight Campus Rape?

The fight against sexual assault on college campuses has cranked into high gear. At least one conservative intellectual is asking where the conservatives are in this fight. We could get even more specific: Where are all the campus Christians? Wouldn’t it make sense for conservative religious folks to lead the charge against drunken fornication?

California attracted attention recently for its new “yes means yes” law. Both (or all) partners in any sexual activity must give continuing and explicit consent to every new advance. Just because someone grinds on the dance floor, the reasoning goes, she or he has not consented to sex. Even the White House has gotten involved, launching a task force to investigate campus rape culture.

Allies in the fight against hook-up culture?

Allies in the fight against hook-up culture?

In this week’s Weekly Standard, Heather Mac Donald wonders why more conservatives aren’t participating in the current campaign against campus rape. As she puts it,

Sexual liberation is having a nervous breakdown on college campuses. Conservatives should be cheering on its collapse; instead they sometimes sound as if they want to administer the victim smelling salts.

She argues that the so-called “epidemic” of campus rape is a figment of the overheated leftist imagination. Yet Mac Donald acknowledges that college leftists have succeeded in their fight to redefine sexuality on many college campuses. They have done so, Mac Donald writes, by unintentionally creating a “bizarre hybrid of liberationist and traditionalist values.”

As we’ve seen, some evangelical groups have found themselves at loggerheads with secular schools. Why don’t they jump on this bandwagon? Could campus evangelical groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship build bridges to campus feminists on this issue?

In the past, we’ve seen efforts in this direction. This same not-coalition of feminists and cultural conservatives has struggled to come together to fight against pornography.

Of course, what seems like an obvious partnership has even more obvious reasons to stay separate. Even when both groups staunchly oppose pornography or fornication, their yawning differences tend to split them apart.

The new batch of anti-rape rules, for example, never suggest that casual sex should be avoided. Rather, the rules imply that pleasurable, consensual sex is a valuable experience.  Schools should improve this experience, not eliminate it. In other words, the new campus affirmative consent rules do not hope to limit fornication, but rather to encourage it by making it safer and more pleasurable for all. As one proponent of affirmative-consent laws put it, “good communication between sexual partners can be fun, even sexy.”

It might make conservative campus Christians a little queasy to become political partners with activists who have this sort of attitude about the proper relationship between sexual partners. But historically, conservative evangelicals have managed to forge political partnerships with other groups they found theologically objectionable.

Perhaps the most dramatic example has been in the fight against abortion rights. As historians such as Daniel Williams have demonstrated, at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, many conservative evangelical Protestants viewed the anti-abortion cause as a peculiarly Catholic issue. Yet over time, the pro-life cause united conservative Protestants with conservative Catholics. Though it may be hard to remember in retrospect, for decades—centuries even—conservative evangelicals viewed the Catholic Church as the embodiment of the Anti-Christ. For evangelicals to team up with Catholics required—for some—an enormous amount of nose-holding.

Couldn’t conservative evangelicals do the same here? They don’t need to agree with the sexual-liberationist ideology that guides many campus activists. Instead, they could partner with feminists to fight campus rape, while maintaining their own very different reasons for doing so.

Only Conservatives Can Be Good Teachers

Quick: What’s the most important trait a child needs in order to do well in school? Brains? A cool retro lunchbox? At World Magazine this morning, Amy Henry offers what she calls the “conservative” answer.

All I need is the Hoff...

All I need is the Hoff…

She tells the story of her struggles as a classroom teacher. No matter how dedicated, no matter how creative, Henry argues, no teacher can make any headway if students offer determined resistance. As Henry tells the tale,

Four times I asked him to take out a piece of paper. Four times I asked him to find a pencil. Each and every time we reached a new vocabulary word, I stopped reading and told him to write it down. By the time the history lesson was over, I was exhausted and so was he, I suspect. Whether the directive is to get out a book, pick up a piece of trash, or sit in a particular seat, I am met with stiff resistance, if not outright refusal to cooperate.

No student, Henry insists, can be taught if he or she isn’t willing to obey. As she puts it,

without obedience none of that [good teaching] can happen. I can teach an ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic child with severe anxiety issues the world, but I cannot teach a high-functioning, intellectually bright, whippersnapper of a kid who won’t obey a doggone thing.

For conservatives, Henry says, the most important ingredient in education is obedience. This is not just her off-hand observation. As evidence, Henry cites new-ish poll data from Pew Research. Those who identify as “consistent conservatives” are more likely than “consistent liberals” to place a high value on children’s obedience. She interprets those numbers in a sketchy way, I think, but let’s save that argument for another post. For now, let’s talk about why so many conservatives agree with Henry.

For Henry, conservatives are the only ones who really get it.  Liberals fudge and whine, but they avoid the obvious conclusion: education in classrooms can only happen if kids come to school equipped with an obedient attitude. As we’ve talked about in these pages, this notion has proven extremely influential among certain conservative activists throughout the twentieth century.

For example, from the mid-1960s, Max Rafferty attracted a huge popular following with his traditionalist nostrums on good education. [For any up-and-coming historians out there, we really need a good academic history of Rafferty’s career and ideology. It’s a fabulous dissertation just waiting for you in Iowa City and Sacramento.] Rafferty served as the state superintendent of public education in California, but he attracted the most attention with his syndicated columns about the nature of childhood and proper education. In one such column from the early 1960s, Rafferty explained why children must begin by learning to obey. In Rafferty’s words,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1970s, too, leading conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler agreed on the primary importance on obedience. The Gablers are best known for their indefatigable textbook commentary. At every Texas textbook-adoption meeting in the 1970s, the Gablers were there with long detailed lists of ideologically suspect material from the books under consideration. Given the influence of the Texas textbook market among publishers, the Gablers managed to punch far above their weight in terms of national textbook selection.

But the Gablers cared about more than conservative histories and science books. They prided themselves on their attitude toward children and obedience. As an admiring biographer wrote,

The Gabler boys were expected to be respectful and they were. A black friend of the family was always marveling, ‘Your boys are the only ones who call me, “Mister.”’ And the parents’ response was always, ‘They’d better.’

For the Gablers, as for so many cultural conservatives, parents needed to ensure that kids came to school ready to learn. That didn’t mean just pencils and lunchboxes. That meant children must come to school ready to submit to teachers’ authority.

In the narrower world of conservative evangelicalism, too, Henry’s focus on obedience has long roots. Many conservative Christians have agreed with Henry that children must obey, for both classroom and churchly reasons.

For example, as fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee argued in a late-1970s guide to good Christian schooling,

Without Biblical discipline the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8). Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . . . If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.

Certainly, among many conservatives, Henry is absolutely correct. Only conservatives can be good teachers, because only conservatives embrace the primary need for obedience. Without obedience, all the fancy-pants progressive toys and tricks in the world will do no good. But with obedience, any child from any background can learn.

Evangelicals and Homosexuality on the College Campus

Maybe President Lindsay feels better knowing that only high pressure can create diamonds. Because the leader of evangelical Gordon College is feeling intense pressure from two sides right now. On one hand, the school’s accrediting agency has threatened to take away its accreditation if Gordon does not revise its policy on homosexuality. On the other, the school’s conservative supporters insist the policy must stay in place. If history is any guide, it appears one group might make the crucial difference in this case.

Are all welcome?  MUST all be welcome?

Are all welcome? MUST all be welcome?

This Gordon-ian knot is one that all conservative evangelical colleges have tried to pick apart. Schools such as these are in a pickle: they need to remain intellectually respectable and financially viable, yet a decision either way threatens both intellectual consistency and the bottom line.

As I’m finding as I research my new book, similar schools have had a difficult time walking this line. In the 1930s, for example, Wheaton College leaders moved fast to bring Wheaton up to accreditors’ standards. As historian Michael Hamilton argued, the president at the time, Oliver Buswell, viewed accreditation as more than just a piece of paper. To Buswell, accreditation was the “one of the best ways to earn intellectual respect for fundamentalist Christianity.”

But college leaders such as Buswell were also under intense pressure to maintain both the appearance and the reality of theological steadfastness. Leaders needed to maintain the confidence of the evangelical community that their schools were not slipping into secularism. In 1929, for instance, Buswell withdrew from publication a controversial book he had written. Why? As he explained to a colleague, above all Buswell felt the need to keep “the confidence of fundamentalist leaders . . . in the administration of Wheaton College.”

Losing either accreditation or the respect of the “fundamentalist” community could mean a wasting death for an evangelical college. And the two have often pushed in opposite directions.

WWBD?

WWBD?

Much has changed since then, but President Lindsay at Gordon College finds himself coming under similar pressure from both sides. [Full disclosure: I worked with Michael Lindsay in the Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellows program. I consider him a friend and colleague.]

For those who are just joining us, this story began back in July, when President Lindsay signed an open letter to President Obama about religious exemptions to an anti-discrimination law. Now, the question has become whether Gordon’s Statement on Life and Conduct violates the rules of its accrediting agency.

At issue is the Gordon ban on “homosexual practice.” The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has collaborated with Gordon in setting up a “discernment” group to examine the policy.  (As an aside, we could ask why only this part of the policy has come under investigation. After all, the Gordon policy also bans “blasphemy” and “profanity,” not to mention heterosexual sex outside of marriage. Doesn’t this impinge upon the free speech rights of potential students?)

For a host of reasons, the accrediting agency doesn’t care about blasphemy. But it is threatening to withdraw accreditation over the ban on “homosexual practice.” For Gordon College, loss of accreditation would have serious consequences. Its graduates would not necessarily be considered qualified for graduate school. Nor could they receive student loans backed by the federal government. Perhaps most important, though, loss of accreditation would be a symbolic slap in the face. Gordon would face the challenge of proving its continued intellectual respectability.

But that is not the only pressure facing Gordon right now. Just as President Buswell at Wheaton worried about both mainstream intellectual respectability and credibility within the world of conservative evangelicalism, so President Lindsay faces a double-sided threat.

Beyond accreditation pressure, Lindsay must consider the opinions of the far-flung community of conservative evangelicals. As one conservative pundit wrote recently in the pages of the Christian Post,

To Michael Lindsay, the gifted president of Gordon, and to the board of trustees, I remind you: Many eyes are watching you, knowing that the decisions you make could either strengthen or dishearten many other schools that will soon be put under similar pressure.

As this conservative writer worried, Gordon might be willing to “sell its soul” to maintain accreditation.  If it did, conservative students and parents might take their tuition dollars elsewhere.  But if it doesn’t it might lose accreditation.  Without that sort of mainstream credibility, students and parents might take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

So what is a conservative school leader to do? How can President Lindsay balance the pressure to reform with the pressure to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints?

In this case, there is a new wrinkle. Traditionally, alumni are one of the groups most likely to push school leaders to maintain conservative positions. Today, though, some Gordon alumni are hoping to convince Gordon to change its ways. A group of two dozen alums have published a letter encouraging Lindsay to remove any hint of anti-gay discrimination from Gordon’s policies.

In the past alumni have been one of the most vocal groups fighting any change at evangelical colleges. Conservative evangelical colleges have long been keenly aware of the pressures to modernize and secularize. Traditionally, alumni of these schools have been staunch foes of any perceived change, since any change could lead to an utter loss of the school’s steadfast character. Historian Michael Hamilton described this alumni attitude this way:

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.

In Gordon’s case, however, alumni—at least some of them—are pushing in the other direction. It is impossible to predict what will happen at Gordon. The board of trustees may decide this policy needs updating. Or they may not. And President Lindsay might decide that this language is a central part of the school’s evangelical character. Or he may not.

This case highlights the double pressure faced by conservative evangelical colleges. In a sense, they must serve two masters: the pressure to maintain a vague and shifting “respectability” with mainstream institutions; and the pressure to remain bastions of orthodoxy in a world hurtling headlong into secular mayhem.

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