School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.


PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

Ignorance: The Heart of Education

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Our educational culture wars are NOT battles between brutish conservatives who want to keep vital information out of the hands of children, on the one side, and scheming progressives on the other, progressives who want to dump information on hapless children, heedless of the moral consequences. Rather, all of us agree that schooling should promote and protect some forms of ignorance among kids. We only disagree on the details.


Known unknowns and unknown unknowns…

Now at long last we will have a collection of scholarly essays about the history of ignorance and education. Thanks to editor AJ Angulo, a new volume will soon hit the libraries. Miseducation will be published in early 2016 with Johns Hopkins University Press.

As the publisher explains,

Ignorance, or the study of ignorance, is having a moment. Ignorance plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion, channeling our politics, and even directing scholarly research. The first collection of essays to grapple with the historical interplay between education and ignorance, Miseducation finds ignorance—and its social production through naïveté, passivity, and active agency—at the center of many pivotal historical developments. Ignorance allowed Americans to maintain the institution of slavery, Nazis to promote ideas of race that fomented genocide in the 1930s, and tobacco companies to downplay the dangers of cigarettes. Today, ignorance enables some to deny the fossil record and others to ignore climate science.

I was honored to be asked to contribute. In my chapter, I look at the publishing efforts of fundamentalist schools such as Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. How have those textbooks, I wondered, promoted a certain form of knowledge? How have they pushed a certain form of ignorance?

Perhaps more interesting, this volume can encourage all of us to examine the ways schools have not simply distributed knowledge. Any school, any educational project, must also encourage certain forms of ignorance.

It may seem outlandish, but it’s really so obvious it can be hard to see. What would we say if a second-grade teacher showed her students a violent movie such as Saving Private Ryan? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s incredibly violent.

What would we say if a second-grade teacher traumatized her students by taking them on a field trip to a slaughterhouse? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s not educational, but because there are some truths we want to keep from young people.

It’s obvious to most of us: Some things are not appropriate for young kids to learn in school. Not because they’re not true, but because we want children to remain ignorant of some things. We expect schools to work hard to keep them ignorant of some things.

Angulo’s collection of essays will help examine these questions in new ways. Make room on your shelves!

I’m Convinced: We Need More Conservatives on Campus

My eyes were opened a few years back. I was offering a senior seminar in the history of American conservatism. Several students—some of whom eventually took the class and some of whom did not—came to my office and said something along the lines of “Thank God we finally have a conservative professor!” When I explained to them—sympathetically but clearly, I hope—that I was not actually conservative myself, students had a variety of reactions. Some were deflated. But another common response convinced me that Jon Shields and Jon Zimmerman are right.

Shields Passing on the Right

Time for more affirmative action?

Shields has made the case again recently that college campuses need to recruit more professors who come from conservative backgrounds. He reviews the available research and concludes that conservatives are victims of explicit, intentional bias. As a result, there are far fewer conservative professors than we need if we want to have truly diverse campuses.

Years ago, Zimmerman made a similar argument. Like me, he’s no conservative himself. But he thinks universities need to be more inclusive places, more representative of our society’s true diversity. The best way to do that, he argued, was to reverse the trend toward intellectual homogeneity among college faculty. As he wrote back in 2012,

Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before. Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.

I’m convinced, and not just because Jon Zimmerman is the smartest guy I know. The things I heard from my wonderful students told me that something was indeed wrong with our current set up.

When I told students that I wasn’t conservative myself, many of them told me something along these lines: You may not be conservative personally, but at least you don’t make fun of me or belittle me for being a conservative.   At least I can be “out” with my conservative ideas in your class. In most of my classes, I feel like I have to keep my ideas to myself or I will be attacked by students and teachers alike.


Please correct me if I’m off base, but isn’t that EXACTLY the problem that our campaigns for campus inclusivity have been meant to address? I know some folks think this notion of affirmative action for conservatives is a travesty, an insult to underrepresented groups that have faced historic persecution and discrimination. I understand that position and I agree that conservatives as a group cannot claim the same history as other groups.

But is there anyone out there who would want a campus climate in which students were belittled and attacked for their ideas?

Even if we want to do something about it, however, it is not at all clear how. As Neil Gross has argued, there is not really a liberal conspiracy when it comes to hiring professors. Rather, there has been a more prosaic tendency for people to go into fields in which they think they will be comfortable.

Maybe we could look to Colorado as a guide. They have had a conservative affirmative-action plan going for a while now at their flagship Boulder campus. How has it worked?

In any case, I’m looking forward to Professor Shields’s new book, scheduled for release next year. It promises to share the data gathered from 153 interviews and other sources. Maybe it will help us break out of this logjam.

What Good Teachers Do

It’s a basic premise here at ILYBYGTH: If we want to understand why some parents are so ferociously opposed to evolution or sex ed or ugly history, we have to make an honest and sincere effort to see where they’re coming from. It works for the other side, too. If we hope to figure out why so many progressive teachers and activists are so deeply emotionally mortified by today’s push for teacher measurement, we need to figure out why they feel that way. As usual, the insights of Curmudgucrat Peter Greene offer an eloquent window into that world.

First, a little background. These days, the term “education reform” has come to be dominated by a certain way of thinking. Reformers such as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan have advocated a new way of looking at schooling. To oversimplify a little, this “reform” mindset wants to measure student progress at regular intervals. Only by getting hard data about student academic performance, the thinking goes, can we know what educational practices are actually effective.

A big part of this “reform” effort has included a new attitude toward teacher evaluations. In the past—again, speaking very generally—most teachers were evaluated by their school principals or department chairs. As today’s reformers are fond of pointing out, those in-house evaluations tended to sugar-coat their reviews. Almost all teachers turned out to be fantastic.

Reformers asked a fairly simple question: If all teachers were so fantastic, why were so many kids failing to learn?

There was also a fairly obvious follow-up: If we can replace faculty deadwood with effective teachers, our schools will improve dramatically.

Completing the syllogism, reformers implemented programs to use student test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness. Good teachers could earn more money. Bad teachers could get help, or they could get the boot.

This approach to school reform has proved very powerful politically. It makes sense to a lot of people.

  • Good teachers = good schools.
  • Good schools = good test scores.
  • Good test scores = good teachers.

Yet for the past dozen years, we education-watchers have seen the rise of a new generation of teacher protests. Teachers have tried to explain to themselves and to the general public why this seemingly obvious logic doesn’t fit educational reality.

Most of these teacher-protests have consisted of patient but frustrated explanations of the difficulties with quantifying education success. Teachers feel beleaguered, attacked, demeaned, and misunderstood, they explain.

Such explanations might be helpful for outsiders to understand the tricky policy questions of teacher measurement. But they don’t quite capture the emotional distress many teachers feel. I think it is entirely reasonable for non-teachers to wonder if teachers are just lazy and spoiled. Why don’t teachers buck up—some might ask—and submit to evaluations that are a standard part of every other profession?

This morning we read an essay that might help bridge this gap. Peter Greene did not set out explicitly to deflate the presumptions of value-added reformers. Not in this essay, at least. His description and prescription for extra-curricular advising, though, is something every quantifier should read.

I’m biased, of course, because I whole-heartedly agree with Greene. On the narrow topic of advising as well as the bigger picture of the essential errors of those who seek to quantify good teaching. As always, I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to point out those places where my personal bias has led me astray.

Here’s Greene’s advice in a nutshell: teachers who serve as faculty advisors for student projects need to keep their priorities straight. Whether it is planning a prom or a yearbook, students need to be allowed to do the work themselves. They need to be allowed to make mistakes. In essence, students need to be allowed to be inefficient, unprofessional, and maybe even just plain wrong.

Why? Because that, Greene argues, is the essence of learning. As he concludes,

Lord knows, I have failed miserably many times. But I keep working at doing better. There are few things as cool as seeing your students realize their own strength, their own voices. For them to look at a project, a performance, a Thing they have created and to realize that the Thing is them, themselves, taken form in the world and taken a form that is completely in-formed by who they are.

But every time you take a choice or decision away from them, you tell them “Well, this is a thing you can’t do” or “You couldn’t handle it if anything went wrong” and that message just makes them smaller. Don’t give them that message. Don’t lead them to suspect that their voices aren’t legit, can’t hold up, shouldn’t speak out.

Confidence comes with competence, but students aren’t always good judges of their own competence (and in some times and places they don’t have much to judge). But we can help them build both by giving them support and freedom. Maybe you are a genius visionary and students will benefit immensely just by following in your wake and sweeping up the crumbs of your attention and direction. But for the rest of us mortals, giving students the safe space to figure out how they will get things done in the world and still be their best selves will just have to do.

What does any of this have to do with teacher evaluation? It doesn’t, at least not directly. For non-teachers, however, those who don’t understand why some teachers are so steamed by the imposition of value-added measures, it can help immensely.

Greene articulates in this essay two things good teachers do that value-added teacher evaluations make difficult. First, as Greene says, good teachers always work to remind themselves that the focus must be on the students, not the teacher. As Greene puts it, “It’s not about you. Yeah, we can type that out in forty-foot font.”

For good teachers, the continuous struggle is to remember that they themselves are not the main point of their work. Their excellent activities and creative lessons mean nothing if students don’t learn from them.

Value-added measurement pushes teachers to reverse that thinking. Instead of helping teachers with the difficult task of what Greene calls “the vanishing test,” value-added measures push teachers to make their own performance their first worry.

And, of course, there’s a more basic lesson to learn here. Good teachers do things that are both extremely difficult to do and utterly impossible to measure. Good teachers have the wisdom to give students what they need, when they need it. Good teachers put themselves last and students first, even if that means the students fail.

How can a test measure that? How can any number capture that?

Maybe more important, value-added measurement misses a basic and vital part of good teaching. Good teachers must allow students NOT to succeed sometimes. Learning, after all, does not happen by simply adding knowledge to ignorance. Real learning consists of fits and stumbles, mistakes and adjustments. Good teaching, Greene reminds us, is the impossible human task of guiding young people through those infinitely complicated steps.

If a test exists that can measure such things, it can’t be taken with a number two pencil.

Intelligent Design?  Evolution?  Depends on your Point of The View

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we notice that yesterday’s episode of The View took on the topics of creationism, evolution, and intelligent design.

The discussion had been roiling about presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson.  One of the personalities opined that Carson could not be considered intelligent, since he believed in creationism.

At that, Candace Cameron Bruce interrupted to point out that plenty of intelligent people—plenty of scientists—do believe in creation and do embrace intelligent design.

The panel seemed split, with two for creationism, two for evolution, and Whoopi Goldberg insisting we can have both.

Which Neighbor Should Evangelicals Love?

Evangelical Protestants are on fire to help Syrian refugees. Except, they’re not. As Chris Gehrz points out, journalists who jump too quickly to define the “evangelical” position on refugees usually miss the boat.

Franklin Graham

What Would Billy Do?

There’s no doubt that leading evangelical organizations have taken the lead on welcoming refugees. The National Association of Evangelicals, for example, has warned policy-makers not to let fear of terrorists get in the way of Christian charity. As President Leith Anderson put it,

We are horrified and heartbroken by the terrorist atrocities in Paris, but must not forget that there are thousands more victims of these same terrorists who are fleeing Syria with their families and desperately need someplace to go.

At flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, too, editor Mark Galli has recently reminded Americans of their moral requirement to welcome and assist refugees.

As usual, though, Professor Chris Gehrz asks a more complicated and insightful question: Do such official and quasi-official statements really represent the thinking of most evangelicals? Gehrz worries it does not. He cites recent poll data that show large majorities of white evangelicals opposing a pro-refugee policy.

Gehrz wonders if other prominent evangelical voices might have more pull than do Galli or Anderson.  For instance, what about Franklin Graham’s warning that Islam is a clear and present danger? In a Facebook post, Graham wrote,

We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war of terror. If we continue to allow Muslim immigration, we’ll see much more of what happened in Paris – it’s on our doorstep.

Similarly, at evangelical WORLD Magazine, Cal Thomas has called a pro-refugee policy “wishful thinking.” Even US passport-holders, Thomas writes, should not be allowed back into the country if they have visited countries that host ISIS training camps.

At The Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung has suggested that the entire question is not cut-and-dried for compassionate Christians. As he wrote,

Christian charity means loving the safety of the neighbor next door at least as much as loving the safe passage of the neighbor far away. It’s not unreasonable or unfeeling to think that in some cases supplying refugee camps with humanitarian aid or protecting safe havens elsewhere could be a responsible approach that avoids the risks of immediate resettlement in the United States.

Those of us who aren’t evangelical Christians should learn a couple of important lessons from this back-and-forth. First, as I’m arguing in my current book about evangelical higher education, there is no simple way to define “evangelical” in strictly religious terms. Throughout the twentieth century, at the very least, to be an evangelical has meant an irreducible blend of religious, cultural, political, and social identities. It may be tempting to try for a clean-and-clear religious definition of “evangelical,” but the term has always been and will always be a mix of things.

Second, as Professor Gehrz points out, we need to be wary when people tell us about the “evangelical” position on any question, political or even theological.

What do “evangelicals” think about refugees? All sorts of things.

Should College Classes Make Students Uncomfortable?

Whitney Cox is right on. In her classes at the University of Houston, she insists that conservative religious students be open to the idea of discomfort as they study the Bible. Can we translate her advice to college students in general?

whitney cox


Cox tells the story of a “star pupil” who worries that her Bible class might shake up his preconceptions. It should, she replies. She doesn’t want to tell the student what to believe. In fact, she insists that she is not willing or able to do so. But she does want her class to challenge him to think about the Bible in new ways.

Hear, hear. That is the purpose of education, especially higher education. IMHO.

So here’s our question: What if we change things around a little bit? What if we replace a conservative religious student with a left-leaning social-action student?

I’ve argued lately that the recent tumults on college campuses result from an “impulse to orthodoxy” among such leftist students. Students demand an end to ideas that make them feel “unsafe.” They demand the ouster of faculty and administrators with whom they disagree.

Could such students and such campuses benefit from Cox’s advice? Here’s what she told her conservative student:

I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from Christians that equates interrogating and examining the texts with destroying faith. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US Christianity that is vile, unbiblical, and deadlier to faith than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.

I am forever angry at the orthodoxies that demand literal belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, not only because that kind of approach makes you immune to reason, but because it means that more likely than not, that one bit of counter-information that makes it through takes down the rest like a Jenga tower. I’ve seen this a lot with people raised as strict creationists but who later realize that the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming — and because they’ve been taught they can’t doubt one part without doubting it all, they end up tossing it all out the window. Because they’ve learned that any questioning is evil, they decide they have to take all their questions elsewhere.

Fantastic, and right on.  SO right on, in fact, that we should broaden it to include other sorts of student worry as well.

What if we tweaked the wording here and there? What if we gave this advice to students?

I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from left-leaning students that equates interrogating and examining the texts with racism. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US society that is vile, anti-social, and deadlier to social justice than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.

Please don’t misunderstand me. As I’ve said repeatedly, I support the moral impulse behind the student activism at many schools today. Like many commentators, though, I worry that the necessary tension has been leached out of campus life.

Schools must be aggressive and decisive in their efforts to make sure every student feels welcome. Incidents such as the repeated racial hazing at Mizzou, for example, are not merely over-wrought snowflake problems.

The flip side of that campus necessity, however, is that students must be intellectually challenged. They must be physically safe. More than that, they have a right to demand institutional action to help them feel confident that they are safe from demeaning microaggressions.

Too often, however, this vital goal of safe spaces has turned into an overzealous drive for intellectual safety. Nothing will kill higher education faster than that.

I’ll say it again.  We need to remember both halves of the higher-education mandate:

  • Students must be physically and even emotionally safe.
  • Students should never feel intellectually safe.

If we’re doing our jobs, as Whitney Cox is, this should apply in equal measure to conservative creationists and progressive anti-racists.

The GOP and the God of Hate

Maybe I was wrong all along. My inbox has been filling up with links to a startling article in yesterday’s New York Times. Is the GOP really under the thrall of violently anti-gay extremists?

I’ve argued in the past that my fellow secular progressives need to relax. The chance, I’ve said, of a fractious bunch of fundamentalists uniting to do anything more complicated than hosting an end-times bake sale were slim to none. Pre-tribulationists can’t get along with post-tribulationists. Lutherans can’t stand Seventh-day Adventists. Catholics look nervously at all of them.

More important, each side in our continuing culture-war debates tends to exaggerate the clear and present danger presented by the other side. Leftists point to abortion-clinic bombers. Conservatives warn of government jackbooted thugs. In general, I think we all need to remember that these boogiemen are distortions, fantastic bugbears trotted out to demonize the opposition.

But the news from Des Moines has me scratching my head. Kevin Swanson, an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, hosted leading GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee at a National Religious Liberties Conference. Swanson has become infamous lately for his repeated calls for homosexuals to be put to death.

Put to death!

According to the New York Times, Governor Huckabee claimed not to know of Swanson’s scary positions. Ted Cruz seemed unruffled. After all, his own father was a featured speaker of the conference.

Is this a simple case of primary extremism? In every election, the far fringes of each party wield outsize influence. We might say that such extremism will expend itself before the primary campaign gets rolling.

Similar claims, after all, have been made of President Obama’s connections with atheist terrorist Bill Ayers. Ayers was a real terrorist. His radical group really did try to bomb people. But he has long since—kinda sorta—denounced violence as a political tactic.

I’m flummoxed. I find it hard to believe that any serious presidential contender would consent to be associated with such a violent extremist.

Students: Customers, Wards, or What?

The devil stalks the University of North Carolina. At least, that’s the impression I get when I read the progressive Nation’s description of new system president Margaret Spellings. Of all the damning evidence against Spellings, perhaps the worst thing, for these progressives, is that she referred to students as “customers.” I wholeheartedly agree that good education, healthy education, shouldn’t be understood this way. But I don’t think progressives like me have come up with a better analogy. The only other likely candidate makes us even more uncomfortable.

Margaret Spellings

Sympathy for the Devil…?

Spellings has a long career in education. She has been one of the fiercest and most successful proponents of Milton Friedman’s prescriptions for better schools. If markets are allowed to do their magic, this school of thought explains, much of the dead hand of institutional lethargy will be stripped away.

In the K-12 world, market reformers have pushed vouchers, charters, and “choice,” with a lot of success. During her tenure as Education Secretary, President Spellings famously promoted a similar sort of market approach to higher education. The solutions to university blahs, the Spellings Report explained, lay in a new vision of students as “consumers,” with schools competing for their business.

“In this consumer-driven environment,” the report argued,

Students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment. . . . Instead, they care—as we do—about results.

A good college, from this perspective, is one that gives students good financial pay-back for their tuition investment. The “results” for “consumers” should be significant, in terms of higher salaries and better economic prospects for families.

Colleges, the Spellings Report insisted, need to adapt or die. If a for-profit college can deliver marketable skills better and faster, it should be encouraged, not deplored. Such law-of-the-jungle competition would push colleges in the right directions, toward “improving their efficiency.” A good higher-education system, the Spellings Report concluded, would give “Americans the workplace skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Those of us who don’t like this vision of the proper form and function of higher education are not without alternatives. But for progressives, the primary alternative would not be an improvement.

For long centuries, colleges and universities operated on a very different model, what we might call the “family” plan. Students were not consumers, but rather more like apprentices. They entered into higher education with an understanding that they would be shaped according to the guidance of the school.

As historian Roger Geiger explained so clearly in his recent history of higher education, this system persisted much longer than did the apprentice system for young workers. Well into the nineteenth century, students had very few rights, very few choices to make.

They didn’t like it. As Geiger relates, the 1810s were a far more turbulent decade on American campuses than were the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed, if today’s students at North Carolina don’t like Spellings’s consumer model, they might learn a lesson from their predecessors. In 1799, UNC students held a week-long riot, in which they captured and horsewhipped their unpopular presiding professor. (See Geiger, pp. 116-129.)

What made these students so angry? The family model of higher education insisted on draconian rules for student life, including onerous daily recitals and endless rounds of mandatory chapel services. Students did not “consume” higher education in this family model, they submitted to it.

During the 1960s, student agitation against in loco parentis rules represented a late protest—and a very successful one—against the persisting vestiges of the family model. Students demanded an end to mandatory curfews and even core curricula.

The family model never totally disappeared, of course. Indeed, today’s “safe space” protests are usually built on an implicit assumption that the university will protect and shield students, implying a continuing authoritative family relationship.

In general, though, progressive students, faculty, and administrators don’t like the family model. They don’t want to impose a set of readings or experiences for students. They want students to be empowered to design their own educational experiences, to a large degree.

But if we don’t like the old family model, and we don’t like the new consumer model, what else is there?

As usual, I don’t have answers, only more questions.

  • If we don’t want to think of college students as customers, and we’re not willing to re-impose an authoritarian system, what should we call them?
  • Put another way: If the family model is out, and the consumer model is out, what’s left?
  • What could it mean to think of students as producers, rather than consumers?
  • If the nature of consumption has changed radically in the past fifteen years with online shopping and etc., might it mean something very different these days to call students “consumers”?
  • Is there wiggle room in the consumer model? Think of the differences, for instance, between equipping someone with tested, high-quality gear for a life-long expedition and equipping them with shiny junk they really don’t need.

Power on Campus: Fundamentalists Have the Last Laugh

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. At places such as Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Missouri, presidents are resigning and faculty are trembling. Ham-fisted protesters are demanding an end to free speech. Halloween costumes have become a disguise for racial oppression. To regular joes and pundits alike, this burst of campus outrage can seem puzzling. But there is one group to whom this phenomenon would make perfect sense.

A brief review of the cases:

The episodes can tell us a good deal about the real levers of power on campus. Who doesn’t have power? Administrators charged with insensitivity toward systematic racism and oppression. They get the boot, and fast, if they seem to oppose racial inclusivism.

Who else doesn’t have power? Students who want bread-and-butter economic reforms of higher ed. Even when a million students protested for lower tuition and lower student debt, it didn’t generate the same feverish buzz as these recent racial protests. To my knowledge, no university president has resigned because his or her school is expensive.

Who else is out? Even protesters against racial insensitivity, if they try to use physical coercion. When that happened recently at Missouri, for instance, the offending bully resigned and even sympathetic leftist pundits agreed that the protesters weren’t “always-wise.”

Just as informative, these protests tell us who really has power on campus. Who has it? Football teams. Duh. But even those athletes are energized by a surprising fact.

The real power on campus these days comes from an ancient but complicated moral idea. We might call it “the impulse to orthodoxy.” It can be tricky to understand, especially since no one is talking about it in those terms. The impulse to orthodoxy includes a moral two-step: Not only must people behave in a moral way, but they must actively seek out and root out those who fail to understand the proper reasons for moral action.

How does this ancient idea work in today’s campus protests? The successful campus protests these days insist not only that school leaders fight racism. More telling, protesters are fired up by the idea that they are under a moral imperative to expose and exclude all those who do not adequately understand the nuances of systematic racism.

At Missouri, for example, system president Tim Wolfe eventually resigned due to a perceived lack of administrative action against repeated racial incidents. The protesters wanted more than new policies. They wanted Wolfe out. Why? Because Wolfe personally seemed to misunderstand or even belittle complaints about systematic racism. One student leader went on a much-publicized hunger strike until Wolfe was kicked out. The student, Jonathan Butler, explained that only the ouster of Wolfe would make the school “a better place.”

At Yale, too, the impulse to orthodoxy has caused some observers to scratch their heads. On one level, it seems like a slightly hysterical protest about a fairly reasonable request. Faculty masters Nicholas and Erika Christakis suggested that students might relax about Halloween costumes. So what’s the problem? Morally orthodox students could not stand Christakis’s suggestion that they simply “look away” from offensive outfits. For the orthodox, looking away from immorality is as bad or worse than the immorality itself.

A similarly insufficient zeal damned an administrator of the elite Claremont McKenna College in California. Dean of Students Mary Spellman wrote a sympathetic email to a student who complained about racial insensitivity. So what’s the problem? Spellman included a line about non-white students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” To protesters, such language smacked of a hidden, intolerable insensitivity.

In all these cases, school leaders and faculty are under attack for two reasons. First, they are accused of displaying an inadequate understanding of and zealousness about racial inclusivity. The oft-confusing part, though, comes from the second reason. The impulse to orthodoxy demands that such inadequate agreement be tirelessly sought out and ruthlessly purged. It is not enough to apologize. Campus protesters feel free to use any coercion, stamp out any speech, if those things seem to promote immorality.

Today’s racial protesters will be surprised at the people who might understand them best: Protestant fundamentalists. As I’m finding out as I research my new book, the history of fundamentalist higher education is mostly the story of a similar impulse to orthodoxy. Beginning in the 1920s, it was not enough for fundamentalists simply to protest against secularization of the academy. It was not enough simply to disagree with the theological implications of evolution. Rather, for fundamentalists since the 1920s, it was necessary to demand that schools purge all such things. When that didn’t work, fundamentalists opened their own schools, places such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, and Bryan College.

Throughout their histories, fundamentalist colleges have taken drastic action to purge any hint of compromise. In 1961, for example, Wheaton scientist Russell Mixter had to offer elaborate apologies to those who thought he might have accepted mainstream evolutionary theory.

These days, similar drastic action is wracking the campus of Bryan College. Faculty who seem not to be sufficiently zealous in their embrace of a young earth are being shown the door.

Of course, the specific moral ideas are extremely different. At fundamentalist colleges, the dangerous trends were toward theological modernism and evolutionary science. At today’s elite mainstream colleges, the moral imperative demands the removal—root and branch—of those who don’t sufficiently act against systematic racism.

Yet the impulse remains the same. The moral imperative of orthodoxy requires more than just a certain set of ideas. It implies a tireless and ruthless dedication to root out all those who do not adequately understand or embody those ideas.


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