Shout at the Devil

Can religious groups pass out religious literature in public schools? How about if the religion is Satanism, and the literature is The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities?

What's good for the goose...

What’s good for the goose…

Apologies: This news came out about ten days ago, but I’ve been wrapped up in book research and somehow missed it. Better late than never, right?

So here’s the story in a nutshell: In Orange County, Florida, the Satanic Temple has announced plans to distribute its children’s book in public schools. Why? Because evangelical Protestant groups plan to pass out Bibles and Christian literature.

According to the Satanic group’s announcement, the plan hopes to attract attention to the need for secularism. As in other high-profile cases—such as plans for a Black Mass at Harvard—the group insists it does not really worship Satan, but rather wants Americans to shake off their religious blinders.

As the temple’s spokesperson, Lucien Greaves, explained,

if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students — as is the case in Orange County, Florida — we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth.

Indeed, the book uses Satanic imagery to promote notions of pluralism and anti-bullying. The Satanic children are represented as the only ones able to use “patience and open-mindedness” to understand kids who are different. The smiling Satanic children in the book use “inclusive language” and “[spread] knowledge … to dispel fear and ignorance.”

All sounds pretty innocent, right? And, indeed, for secular folks, this publicity stunt might indeed seem to be what one journalist called “a hilarious response to a pro-religion court ruling.”

Spreading knowledge?  Or fueling fundamentalist fears?

Spreading knowledge? Or fueling fundamentalist fears?

Personally, I agree. This effort seems to make a powerful statement about the true possibilities of religious freedom in public schools. In other cases, we’ve seen parents protest against evangelical outreach to public schools. And we’ve wondered if Jesus-loving cheerleaders would really accept similar sorts of religious free speech from other religions. If public schools are really going to work, they don’t need to ban religion. But they can’t support just one sort of religion, either.

In the end, though, I can’t help but wonder if this sort of exposure does more harm than good to the very cause the Satanists claim to espouse. They came to Orange County in an effort to support the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Satanists want to make the point that no religious literature should be permitted in public schools; no religious evangelists should be allowed to target public-school students.

As regular ILYBYGTH readers know, I’m an outsider to the world of conservative evangelical religion. But after having spent some time with conservative evangelicals and “fundamentalists,” I’m now wondering if the Satanists’ tongue-in-cheek deviltry might backfire. With this Florida campaign, the Satanic Temple is literally putting the devil on the side of the atheists. Conservative pundits can and will point to the Satanists’ efforts as evidence of the evil tilt of atheists.

So here’s the question: Is this Satanic Temple effort genius? Or self-destructive?

Does it make the point that “religious freedom” must really mean religious freedom for ALL religions? Or does it simply fuel conservative warnings that secularism is just a front for Satan?

Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

No Free Speech for Conservative Students

In less than a week, we’ll see the official fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. And some conservatives worry that college campuses will celebrate that milestone by cracking down particularly on the free speech of conservative students.

What Free Speech looked like fifty years ago...

What Free Speech looked like fifty years ago…

Some found it ironic that Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks began the commemoration season with an equivocal email. Dirks encouraged the Berkeley community to remember to temper its yen for free speech with an esteem for the value of civility.

Over the past year, too, campuses nationwide have wrestled with their policies of establishing limited “free-speech zones.” In some cases, conservative students have come under special pressure, either for preaching conservative evangelical religion or for protesting against abortion.

This week in the Wall Street Journal, education scholar and historian Sol Stern lambastes the current climate of campus free speech. As he recalls, as a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student, he stood up for free-speech rights at Berkeley fifty years ago. But nowadays, he laments the trajectory of campus politics. “Though the movement promised greater intellectual and political freedom on campus,” Stern argues,

the result has been the opposite. The great irony is that while Berkeley now honors the memory of the Free Speech Movement, it exercises more thought control over students than the hated institution that we rose up against half a century ago.

Why do today’s campus activists face a more restrictive environment? Stern blames the new dominance of academia by closed-minded leftist autocrats. “Unlike our old liberal professors,” Stern writes,

who dealt respectfully with the ideas advanced by my generation of New Left students, today’s radical professors insist on ideological conformity and don’t take kindly to dissent by conservative students. Visits by speakers who might not toe the liberal line—recently including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Islamism critic Aayan Hirsi Ali —spark protests and letter-writing campaigns by students in tandem with their professors until the speaker withdraws or the invitation is canceled.

There seem to be two questions on the table. First, do campuses need to restrict student speech in order to maintain order? And, second, as Stern and other conservative commentators argue, do conservative students sustain the brunt of these anti-free-speech attacks?

Is this what free-speech looks like today?

Is this what free-speech looks like today?

Time to Pray at School!

It’s that time of year again. Time for students to gather together in their public schools and pray. You heard that right: School prayer is alive and well. In this case, it’s almost the fourth Wednesday of September, which has been set aside as a day for evangelical students to meet at their schools’ flagpoles to pray. This tradition started in 1990, and a San-Diego-based group has promoted the practice nationwide. Is this sort of school prayer constitutional? Even more tricky, are conservative evangelicals consciously pushing the limits of constitutionality with this kind of prayer event?

Let’s take those questions one at a time. Is this sort of student-led prayer constitutional in public schools? Short answer: yes. In spite of a great deal of nervousness among evangelical Protestants and other religious groups, the US Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel decision and its 1963 Schempp decision never outlawed prayer in public schools. The first decision ruled that states could not impose a prayer on students, the second that schools and teachers could not lead students in devotional Bible-reading or prayers. But students still may pray all they want in public schools.

The issues get more complicated these days over the question of school sponsorship. Most recently, SCOTUS ruled against student-led prayer in Santa Fe v. John Doe (2000). In that case, though, the Court did not rule that students couldn’t pray. They only said that the type of student-led prayer at issue implied school sponsorship. Students in Santa Fe public schools would use the school’s PA system to lead prayers before football games. Those prayers were always of an evangelical Protestant faith. The court ruled that such prayers implied school sponsorship of one specific sectarian vision of religion.

As ILYBYGTH readers may recall, the issue of school sponsorship has also been at the center of recent cheerleader debates from Kountze, Texas. It can seem a little perplexing. Down in Kountze, the Christian cheerleaders insisted that they were a private, student-led club. But objectors insist that their presence at the school games implies school support for their religious banners.

Student-led?  Or school-sponsored?

Student-led? Or school-sponsored?

What about See You at the Pole? Does it pass the Santa Fe test? Most observers agree that it does. Watchdog groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have noted that students are free to pray all they want, as long as teachers and school officials don’t encourage or discourage student participation.

To this observer, though, it looks as if the organizers of See You at the Pole are intentionally pushing the boundaries of constitutionality. This year’s theme, for example, is Ephesians 6:18a: “Never stop praying, especially for others.” And promotional materials this year show students vowing, “We’ll never stop.”

It might just be my yen for pluralism and inclusion in public schools, but it seems to me as if this language is consciously tweaking the nose of our school-prayer tradition. As I argued a few years back (behind a paywall, sorry), many conservative evangelicals interpreted the 1963 Schempp decision as a constitutional cataclysm. They viewed the decision as evidence that our society had turned its back on God.

When an evangelical group promises, then, that they’ll “never stop,” we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will never accept the notion of pluralist schools. When students insist that they will be praying for others, we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will turn their public schools into revival meetings.

After all, among some conservatives, there has long been a drive to re-assert evangelicalism as the implicit theology of public education. For example, evangelists Brad and Susanne Dacus published a handy-dandy guidebook to “Reclaim Your School.” Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, the Dacuses promised to help readers “evangelizing in the public schools.”

It seems to me as if the SYATP project wants students to do more than simply pray at their schools. The implicit promise is that these students will commit to preaching to other students in their schools. As national organizer Doug Clark told the Christian Post, the event helps students “represent [God] to their schools.”

To my ears, that sounds like more than just protection for the religious rights of students. It sounds to me like a plan to insert evangelical pressure into public schools. It sounds to me as if students are being encouraged to foster an environment in their public schools that might make non-evangelical or non-religious students feel decidedly unwelcome.

Is that my secular paranoia? Or do these SYATP events really encompass a sort of covert promise to reclaim public schools for public Christianity?

From the Archives: Campus Rape in the 1930s

Do fundamentalist colleges encourage sexual assault?  It’s a terrible and difficult thing to talk about.  As we’ve seen in these pages, some alumni insist that fundamentalist schools force victims of sexual assault to blame themselves.  But we’ve also seen that sexual assault is not at all unique to religious schools.  As I continue the research for my new book about the history of evangelical colleges and universities, I’ve stumbled across a story that might shed light on these tricky questions.

Despot in Denver

Despot in Denver

The way we word the questions themselves is controversial: Are fundamentalist schools cults that pander to the lusts of authoritarian leaders?  Or do the strict sexual ethics of conservative evangelicalism help protect young women and men from predatory teachers and authority figures?

Critics of conservative evangelical colleges warn that that the pervasive “purity culture” of these schools leads directly to rape.  Bloggers such as Samantha Fields have accused fundamentalist colleges of blaming victims of sexual assault.  Journalists have blasted schools such as Patrick Henry College for fostering a rape-friendly environment.  Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the problem is not one of theology, but of an authoritarian institutional culture.  For example, Boz Tchividjian famously suggested that abuse can happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.”

I’ve stumbled across a story from the 1930s that might illuminate the longer history here.  In 1936, a high-powered panel of fundamentalist leaders convened to investigate Denver Bible Institute (now part of Colorado Christian University).  At the time, DBI was led by charismatic founder Clifton L. Fowler.  Fowler wanted to join the Evangelical Teacher Training Association, and to do so ETTA demanded that rumors be cleared up.

Unfortunately for Fowler, an extremely disturbing picture emerged.  Fowler, the investigators concluded, ran DBI like a sex-crazed despot.  Students and faculty were pressured to declare lifelong commitments to the schools.  Married faculty members were pushed into pledging “continence.”  (I’m not sure what was meant by “continence” in this context.  Any suggestions?)  Students were encouraged to separate from parents and home churches.  Community members felt pressure to offer Fowler detailed confessions of their sexual sins.  And, yes, Fowler apparently routinely engaged in sexual activities with male students.

From one perspective, this historical episode might seem to confirm the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalist schools.  For as long as there have been fundamentalist schools, we might conclude, leaders have felt free to engage in predatory sexual practices.  Community members felt constrained by their own admitted sexual sinfulness from criticizing the dictatorial leadership.

On the other hand, as Michael Hamilton argued in his excellent 1994 dissertation, Fowler did not have a free hand to do as he pleased.  The accusations against Fowler forced DBI out of decent fundamentalist company.  Local fundamentalist churches cut off DBI.  The Evangelical Teacher Training Association would not let DBI join.  Fowler, in other words, was restrained in his behavior because of the network of fundamentalist schools and churches in which he worked.

As usual, history does not offer any pat solutions.  But this episode does demonstrate the long lifespan of these questions at fundamentalist schools.  It shows that school founders have always been accused of sexual predation.  But it also shows that fundamentalist leaders and communities worked hard to police their own ranks.

In this case, at least, both national leaders and local community members refused to look the other way.

No, YOU’RE the Weirdo

Do you have a smartphone? Does everyone you know have one? If so, that puts you in a small minority, even though you feel like you’re part of a vast majority. And that sort of presumption of normality has a lot to say about our continuing educational culture wars.

I came across the statistic in this week’s Economist. It seems over 1.7 billion people use smartphones. That’s a lot, but it leaves 80% of the human population phone-less.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

So what? We might notice this as more fuel for the WEIRD fire.  As in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argued a few years back that too many subjects of psychological tests came from this relatively restricted background.  The results of those tests, they argued, should really only be claimed to apply to people of similar backgrounds.

But I also think this is a good example of the culture-war dangers of what we might call “majority myopia.” The things to which we are accustomed sometimes seem as if they are common to everybody. With smartphones, for example, it might seem like an eccentricity these days to go without one.* But despite our perceptions, actually a vast majority of people share that “eccentricity.”

When it comes to public schooling, we see this sort of myopia time and again. When it comes to teaching evolution, for example, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that the most important question to ask–after teachers’ personal beliefs–is what the community believes about evolution. If the community tilts toward creationism, then teachers will, too.

As they put it,

traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.

In other words, there are some ideas that seem universally shared. Why? Because everyone we know agrees on them. With science teachers, they may certainly feel as if they are teaching the ideas that everybody agrees to be true. They are teaching the ideas that everyone in their community seems to share.

This spreads wider than evolution, of course. Back in the late 1960s, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond set out to investigate the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp ruling. In that ruling, an eight-to-one court decided that reciting the Lord’s Prayer and devotional reading of the Bible could not Constitutionally be part of a public-school day.

Dolbeare and Hammond journeyed into four municipalities in an unnamed Midwestern state. They found to their surprise that the Schempp decision had had virtually no effect. In schools that had prayed before, students and teachers still prayed. In schools that hadn’t, they still didn’t.

Most puzzling at all to the political scientists, none of this raised any whisper of controversy in any of the towns. For those who lived there, it simply seemed as if the vast majority of people must share their views about school prayer. Even if they knew what the Supreme Court had decided, their “majority myopia” made them see their own praying public schools as the norm.

I’m sure there are other cases out there. For some religious schools, I’m guessing it must seem as if everyone agrees on doctrines such as a young earth. And at some progressive schools, like the ones I attended as a kid, it certainly seemed as if everyone agreed on the basic principles of secularism and left-leaning social justice.

But as this smartphone statistic shows, even those things that seem most universal can really be part of a very small minority.

*Full disclosure: I’m smart-phone-less myself. Don’t judge me.

College Christians Strike Back

Do evangelical Protestants need to boycott pluralist universities? That’s the plan this morning from Joe Carter at the Acton Institute.  To those aware of the longer history of conservative Christianity and higher education, this sounds like déjà vu all over again.

Carter is reacting to the latest round of de-recognition of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. This time, the campuses of the California State University system will no longer accept IVCF as a full member of their communities.  At issue is the system’s newly enforced policy of non-discrimination.  No student organization will be allowed if it does not open its leadership ranks to all comers.  For IVCF, that’s a no go.  The organization insists that leaders must agree with its evangelical statement of faith.

This higher-education controversy has been going on for a while. Most prominently, as we noted in these pages, Tufts University de-recognized its campus IVCF chapter.  Other schools have followed suit.

De-recognition has consequences, but it doesn’t mean the organization is banned. Rather, a de-recognized group is not allowed free use of campus facilities for its meetings.  It is not allowed to take part in campus-wide recruitment fairs.  Perhaps most significantly, de-recognition sends a symbolic message that an organization is no longer part of a campus community.

How should evangelicals react? Joe Carter says they should go their own way.  As Carter puts it,

Colleges and universities are businesses that exist in a competitive educational market. A free market solution is to refuse to support the business’ “product.” In other words, Christians should refuse to attend schools in which their beliefs are “derecognized.” Similarly, alumni should refuse to provide donations to support a college or university that considers our faith not welcome on the campus.

We’ve seen this argument before. As I argued in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalist leaders worried about the state of higher education.  At both pluralist and religious schools, fundamentalists charged, anti-Christian teaching and attitudes threatened the faith of young Christians.

Some leaders insisted that the only answer lay in the boycott. Evangelist Bob Jones Sr., for instance, opened his own college in order to offer fundamentalist parents an alternative.  As Jones remembered decades later in a private letter,

Going about over America in my evangelistic work, I ran into so many people who had lost their faith in schools, some of which were supposed to be Christian schools and that had at least been built with Christian money but that had compromised and brought religious liberals into the school; and young people had lost their faith. I kept one fellow from committing suicide because of what happened to him in a certain school that had been built with sacrificial gifts of Christian people but an institution that had gone modernistic.  I made up my mind there ought to be a certain type school somewhere in America, but I did not want to build it.  I was at the height of my evangelistic career and had open doors all over the world. . . . I went on to tell [his wife] that there is an idea going around that if you have old-time religion you have to have a greasy nose, dirty fingernails, baggy pants, and you must not shine your shoes.  And I told her that religious liberals were putting that over.  I said, ‘I want to build a school that will have high cultural and academic standards and at the same time a school that will keep in use an old-time, country, mourner’s bench where folks can get right with God.’

As a result, conservatives who agree with Joe Carter have a place to go. A network of evangelical colleges and universities offer alternatives to schools that might de-recognize Christian student groups.  Whatever one’s theology and preferences, from fundamentalist Bob Jones University deep in the heart of Dixie to evangelical Wheaton College just outside of Chicago; from Manhattan’s aggressive The King’s College to LA’s laid back academic Biola vibe.

If evangelicals really feel a need to boycott pluralist campuses, they have no shortage of Christian options.

Paul Ryan’s Capitalism-Christianity-Conservatism Cocktail

Who cares about the poor? Congressman Paul Ryan says conservatives do.  After taking heat from Catholic and non-Catholic thinkers alike for his 2012 budget plan, Ryan issued a public mea culpa.  Now he says he wants his conservatism to include both capitalism and caring Christianity.  Will it work?

I'm a conservative, and I care.

I’m a conservative, and I care.

You may recall Ryan’s budget plans of 2012.  As a young darling of free-market conservatives, the Catholic Congressman from Janesville, Wisconsin offered a budget plan that would have slashed public spending.  As he moved into the role of the vice-presidential candidate for Mitt Romney, Congressman Ryan defended his vision as an application of the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity.”  The way Ryan used it, that principle meant that charity should begin at the local level, not be imposed from distant Washington bureaucrats.

With the presidential race of 2016 already heating up, Ryan has offered a heartfelt revision, what one journalist calls a “holy war” on poverty.  As Ryan explained, his new budget proposal will take a more caring approach—a more Christian approach—toward America’s least fortunate.  Conservatives, Ryan said,

can do a better job of describing how our founding principles, which are in perfect keeping with Catholic social teaching, can make a difference in everybody’s life — especially the disaffected and the displaced.

Ryan claims to have had a revelation. As he described it, he absorbed some wisdom from the folks at home. In 2012, he had been using the phrase “makers and takers” to describe the roots of America’s economic woes. At a county fair, Ryan was upbraided for his callous rhetoric by a local Democratic activist. As he remembered last month in the Wall Street Journal, the encounter forced Ryan to reexamine his approach.

that day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way the phrase sounded. Later, I thought about that guy from the Democrats’ tent, and eventually I realized: He’s right.

Who was a taker? My mom, who is on Medicare? Me at 18 years old, using the Social Security survivor’s benefits we got after my father’s death to go to college? My buddy who had been unemployed and used job-training benefits to get back on his feet?

The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead—that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not “takers”; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.

Of course, the phrase wasn’t just insensitive; it was also ineffective. The problem I was trying to describe wasn’t about our people; it’s a philosophy of government that erodes the American Idea.

As a result, now Congressman Ryan is offering a new vision of caring conservatism. His new budget plan, he promises, will bring a more effective approach on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty. As Ryan put it,

When you compare liberal progressivism’s promises with the future that conservatism can actually deliver, the choice is clear. The way forward I’m proposing fosters risk-taking, ingenuity and creativity. Instead of growing government, it grows the economy and offers everyone greater opportunity and prosperity. It can unwind the cycle of dependency and finally defeat poverty. And, perhaps most important, it protects our rights while offering a real safety net for those in need—without overpowering the private economy or our private lives.

We’ve seen this before, of course. When George W. Bush wanted to adjust his conservative brand in 2000, he called himself a “compassionate conservative.”  Now Congressman Ryan seems to be trying a similar strategy.

Will it work? Can conservative politicians marry conservative Christianity with free-market principles?  Can a good-looking young Congressman combine conservative desires for a smaller government with conservative traditions of Christianity?

Traditional Education Is Not Illegal…or Is It?

Nobody thinks men should punch their wives and drag them through hotels. But plenty of traditional educators and parents DO think that corporal punishment is not only proper, but necessary.  The recent controversies in the National Football League seem to show that corporal punishment is now both illegal and morally abhorrent.  Does this mean that traditional education is done for?

In case you don’t follow sports news, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens has recently come under fire for brutally punching his then-fiancee and dragging her face-down through a hotel.  [Warning: This video is disturbing.]  The leadership of the National Football League, too, has been accused of initially downplaying this horrific incident.

Perhaps due to all this attention, another NFL star has been punished severely for physically abusing his son. In this case, Adrian Peterson has been accused of beating his four-year-old son with a switch.  His team immediately deactivated him and now a warrant has been issued for Peterson’s arrest.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not a supporter of corporal punishment in any form. I would not allow my daughter’s school to use physical punishment on her and I do not think schools should use such punishment on any kids.

But I understand that lots of people do support corporal punishment. It has long been a fundamental tenet of traditional education that children must be disciplined, physically if necessary.  In the arguments of traditionalists, this is in the children’s best interest.

For example, arch-conservative school leader Max Rafferty argued in 1964 that American education relied on sensible corporal punishment.  As Rafferty put it,

Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been.  Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

In Peterson’s case, the grand jury did not disagree that corporal punishment was legal. Rather, according to the New York Times, the grand jury concluded that Peterson’s punishment was “not reasonable and did not reflect community standards of what was reasonable discipline.” It seems Peterson hit his son severely enough to leave cuts and bruises.

Again, I fully support the criminalization and condemnation of this kind of severe beating of a young child. But sometimes publicity can have a strange effect.  In this case, Peterson was accused of beating his son TOO SEVERELY, not of beating his son in general.  The grand jury specified that Peterson’s application of corporal punishment violated community norms, not that Peterson’s use of corporal punishment was itself illegal.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the take-away for many Americans will be that all forms of corporal punishment have been rendered illegal. So here’s my question: Will traditionalist parents and teachers now assume that corporal punishment in toto is illegal?  Immoral?

Children Must Submit

First learn to obey

First learn to obey

HT: MM

What is the role of the child in school? Many conservative thinkers, now and in the past, have insisted that children must learn to submit to teachers’ authority. Before they can learn to read or figure, children have to learn that obedience is their proper attitude. These days, this penchant for submissive children has leached out of the world of traditionalist thinking into the burgeoning world of charter schooling. A recent interview with a leading scholar highlights the ways conservative values have reasserted themselves as the mainstream norm.

Thanks to a watchful colleague, I came across this interview with Penn’s Professor Joan Goodman. Professor Goodman works in the Teach for America program at Penn and spends a good deal of time in urban charter schools. In many of those schools, Goodman finds a rigorous standardization and a vigorous effort to train children to be submissive. As Goodman told EduShyster,

these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told. . . . They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning.

At the same time, Goodman notes, the schools insist on lockstep performance by teachers. Every teacher is supposed to be delivering the same content at the same time in the same way. Goodman calls it a “very uniform and scripted curriculum.”

Ask anyone familiar with urban charter-school education these days, and you’ll hear similar stories. For those of us trying to figure out what “conservatism” means in education, this leads us to some difficult questions: Did these goals and values move from fundamentalist and conservative activists into the mainstream? And if they did, how?

In my historical research into the worlds of conservative educational activism, I’ve seen it time and again. For decades—generations, even—conservative thinkers have insisted that submission is the first lesson of successful schooling. Without submissive children, teachers will not be able to transmit information. Without the successful transmission of information from teacher to student—according to this conservative logic—education has not happened.

Originally published in 1979...

Originally published in 1979…

In the world of Protestant fundamentalist education, youthful obedience is often elevated to a theological value. Writing for an A Beka guide in the late 1970s, fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee warned that Christian teachers must be stern disciplinarians. “If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.” Combee continued,

Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child. Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting). They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

That same A Beka guide to good fundamentalist schooling promised that good schools always taught in lockstep. At the time, A Beka offered a curriculum for private start-up Christian fundamentalist schools. Not only would schools get curriculum infused with dependably fundamentalist theology, but

the principal can know what is being taught. He can check the class and the curriculum to make certain that the job is getting done. Substitute teachers can also step in and continue without a loss of valuable teaching time.

Some bloggers confirm that fundamentalist schooling has continued to emphasize obedience over intellectual curiosity. Jonny Scaramanga, Galactic Explorer, and Samantha Field have all shared their experiences with this sort of fundamentalist educational impulse. In their experiences, fundamentalist schools and homeschools have insisted on obedience, and have done so in a sinisterly gendered way. Young women and girls, especially, were taught to submit to male authority figures. Every student, however, seems to be pressed to submit and conform, not as a punishment, but rather as a foundation for education.

To be fair, as I argued in an academic article a while back, there has been a lot of disagreement among fundamentalist Protestants about proper education. Just as the folks at A Beka were insisting that proper education began with submission, the equally fundamentalist thinkers at Bob Jones University pushed a very different vision of proper education. Led by long-serving dean Walter Fremont, the school of education at Bob Jones promoted a more child-centered sort of fundamentalist education.

We also need to note that this insistence on submissive children is not just a fundamentalist one. Secular conservatives have long insisted that learning can only begin with obedience. In many cases, this has been a conservative response to a left-leaning progressive pedagogy. For example, leading progressive thinker Harold Rugg began his career with recommendations for proper classroom attitudes. In an article from the 1920s, Rugg instructed teachers to share authority with students. Good teaching, Rugg wrote, did not dictate to children; it did not insist on obedience. Rather, good teaching pushed students to think of themselves as autonomous, self-directed learners. Good teachers, Rugg insisted, asked students again and again, “What do you think?”

In the 1920s, this notion of proper student behavior divided progressives from conservatives. One conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution offered a very different vision of good teaching. Writing in 1923, Anne Minor explained that the best teachers begin with “truth and integrity, orderliness and obedience, loyalty and love of country.”

In the 1950s, another conservative Daughter of the American Revolution warned that teaching had gone astray when it encouraged children to be “persistent in their own ideas, disobedient, and resent[ful of] parental discipline.”

Another secular conservative in the 1950s agreed. One letter-writer to the Pasadena Independent described the problems with progressive education this way:

discipline, as well as the lack of fundamental knowledge teaching [sic], is one of the biggest lacks of the progressive school. Some parents shift the discipline to the school which is wrong, of course, but if the parents are at fault for lack of discipline, so are the schools. . . . Lack of consideration of others is the biggest fault of children today, and should not be too difficult to correct. Tantrums should never be tolerated, sassiness and disobedience should be controlled at an early age.

rafferty what they are doing to your children

And, of course, other conservative educational thinkers and activists also pressed for an obedience-first vision of good education. The leading secular conservative voice of the 1960s, Max Rafferty, agreed that schools could only function if children first learned to submit. As Rafferty put it in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen.

As I researched my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, I found this theme repeated over and over. It goes something like this: Good schooling means the transmission of information to children. That transmission cannot occur unless children submit to teachers’ authority. Therefore, any meaningful education reform must begin with the establishment of an atmosphere of relentless obedience and submission.

Professor Goodman doesn’t talk about “conservatism” or “fundamentalism” in the schools she visits. And many of the reformers these days who push for youthful obedience and teacher standardization would never call themselves conservatives, let alone fundamentalists. But it is difficult not to notice the overlap.

Conservative notions of youth and education, it seems, have become the standard way to think about educational reform among groups such as Teach For America. First and foremost, in this understanding of education and youth, children must submit.

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