Rubio’s College Fix: Make Students Profitable

Vouchers. Charters. Conservatives these days like to offer “market” solutions to school problems. In the pre-run-up to the 2016 presidential contest, Florida Senator Marco Rubio is offering a market fix for college students: Sell shares in yourself.

Of course, not every conservative is a free-marketeer. “Traditionalist” conservatives (for good examples, check out the Imaginative Conservative or the American Conservative) decry the dehumanizing effect of ruthless commodification. But there has been a long tradition in these United States of tying traditional values to an apotheosis of the free market.

In education, the most influential voice for marketization has been the late Milton Friedman. As he remembered in the 1980s, when he started advocating vouchers, it was “far out of the mainstream.” But by the twenty-first century, such market ideas had become dominant. Parents should all have the right to choose the right school for their children, Friedman insisted. The only reason they could not, he wrote, was because self-interested teachers’ unions had seized control of education and forced an “excess of conformity.”

Rubio’s plan expands on this principle. In a recent talk organized by the National Journal, Rubio worried that the “American dream” of college education has become unaffordable for many. The danger, Rubio warns, is an increasing opportunity gap between those who have advanced education and those who do not. His plan will help narrow that gap by making it possible for everyone to go to college. Our “new economy,” he says, is still working with a higher-ed system built for the “old economy.”

Sell yourselves, students...

Sell yourselves, students…

Tuition costs have shot up far faster than the rest of the economy. Students from less-affluent backgrounds have been forced out of college, or saddled with impossibly huge debt burdens. Colleges are getting fat on these hefty tuition bills, largely financed by federal student loans. And, according to Senator Rubio, many “high-skilled, high-paying industries suffer from a shortage of labor.”

His solution? Among other ideas, Rubio wants students to sell shares in themselves. Instead of borrowing a fixed amount, students could promise investors, say, four percent of their earnings for ten years after graduation. Students might end up paying far more than they borrowed. Or they might pay less. But that is all part of the promise and peril of the market.

As Rubio notes, this will pusher higher education in “practical” directions. It will push students to pursue “the right degree, geared toward the right industry.” Not a lot of investors will jump at the chance to invest in a philosophy major. But students in “engineering, health services and education,” Rubio thinks, will be a good bet.

There are plenty of conservatives, I think, who would be aghast at this marketization plan. The purpose of education, many conservatives insist, is to humanize.

Rubio’s brand of conservatism is different. He wants to let the market work its magic.

Christianity Kicked Out of Public Universities

Ball State University doesn’t want any more attention. It has been the subject of a nationwide campaign by pundits who were shocked—shocked!—to hear that one professor spoke kindly of intelligent design. But my current work in the archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College shows me just how dramatically things have changed in the past fifty years.

You may remember the intelligent-design case. In mid-2013, Eric Hedin was accused of larding his class with religious content. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, and eventually Ball State’s president announced that religious ideas must not be taught as part of science classes.

Hedin’s use of religious themes became objectionable for two reasons. Mainly, observers complained that he was presenting religious ideas as if they were scientific. But Ball State University was also criticized as a public school using taxpayer dollars to favor one religious group.

According to Jerry Coyne, when Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora made her announcement that religious ideas should not be taught as science, she emphasized both of these notions. Intelligent design should not be taught as science, Gora told the Ball State community, since

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.

But Gora specified that even if such religious ideas were taught as part of humanities courses, they must only be taught as ideas, not as dogma. That is, even non-science classes could not teach religious ideas as true, but only as history or literature. As Gora put it,

Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others. . . . As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state. It is imperative that even when religious ideas are appropriately taught in humanities and social science courses, they must be discussed in comparison to each other, with no endorsement of one perspective over another.

Things have changed. As I’ve dug through the archives here at the Billy Graham Center, I’ve come across an intriguing historical coda to the Eric Hedin story. These days, professors at Ball State may not teach religious ideas as science. They may not even teach any single religious idea as history or literature.

But as late as 1957, Ball State University—like many other public universities—taught evangelical Protestantism explicitly and purposefully. Many public colleges, especially teachers’ colleges, had entire programs devoted to what was usually called “Christian Education.” In these courses, public-school students could learn the basics of evangelical proselytization, usually under the heading of learning to be “Sunday School” teachers. Most typically, students were women who hoped to begin or enhance their careers as part-time religious educators.

The current logo hints at this heavenly history...

The current logo hints at this heavenly history…

In some cases, today’s public colleges used to be religious or denominational schools. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ball State. It claims to have always been part of the government system.

Not only did universities such as Ball State teach courses in spreading the evangelical Gospel to children, but they also accepted transfer credits from unapologetically fundamentalist seminaries. In my archival work, I’ve found several examples of students using their credits from the Winona Lake School of Theology to advance their degrees at public universities like Ball State and the University of Georgia. Even the state of California apparently accepted Winona Lake credits toward public-school teaching certificates.

At the time, Winona Lake School of Theology was a firmly fundamentalist summer school. It was going through an ugly separation from the Fuller Theological Seminary over Fuller’s alleged drift away from Biblical inerrancy. Now defunct, the Winona Lake school refused to go along as Fuller Seminary moved into a more ecumenical attitude.

And in 1957, teachers could use their credits from this religious school to complete their religious program in Christian Education at Ball State University. Though there is too much heated rhetoric about God being “kicked out” of American public education, this example shows us how things really have changed over the past decades.

In 2013, the president of Ball State had no problem announcing that her university must not favor one religion over another; as a public school it must not teach religion, though it can and should teach about religion. But as late as 1957, Ball State and other public universities found it unexceptional to teach entire programs in Christian evangelism. Ball State had no problem taking credits from a fundamentalist seminary, since both programs taught similar course content.

More evidence that we are not just replaying every old culture-war script. Things really have changed.

From the Archives: I Miss Letterhead

How old are you? Do you remember stationery with big, fancy letterheads? In my research this week at the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College, I’m digging through thick files of letters from the 1920s through the 1980s.

And so many of the letters come on pages with enormous, elaborate letterhead designs. Just for fun, I’ll share some of the best images from today’s work. These are mainly from a network of conservative evangelical institutions, dating from the 1940s through the 1970s.

c. 1955

c. 1955

letterhead from BGC 1letterhead from BGC 2letterhead from BGC 3letterhead from BGC 4letterhead from BGC 5letterhead from BGC 6letterhead from BGC 7

Hello, Wheaton!

Rolled into sunny Wheaton, Illinois last night to start my research at the fabled Billy Graham Center Archives. Located on the campus of Wheaton College, this archive is like nerd Disneyland. The collections are beautifully organized and intimidatingly expansive.

I'll be here all week...

I’ll be here all week…

What am I doing here? It’s the natural first stop for anyone interested in the history of conservative evangelical colleges. The collections offer two great things. First, Wheaton College itself has been a leading fundamentalist/ evangelical college since the 1920s. It enjoys a unique and uniquely influential history as a leader in the network of conservative colleges. As leading historian Joel Carpenter put it, in the 1920s

There was only one college of thoroughly fundamentalist pedigree . . . that was neither just half-evolved from Bible school origins nor still waiting for the ink to dry on its charter.

That school, of course, was Wheaton. For my current research, I’ll need to dive deep into the history of Wheaton itself. What was life like for students in different decades? For faculty? I also have some specific questions about interesting episodes. For instance, why did Wheaton kick out its fundamentalist president in 1939? Why did the board of trustees add in 1961 a line to the statement of faith that Adam and Eve were real, historical people? What did Wheaton’s version of the “free-speech” movement look like in 1964?

But these archives offer more than just a look at the history of Wheaton itself. Since the school was such an influential leader in the field of evangelical higher ed, its leaders kept in constant contact with other school leaders. In their correspondence, I’ll be digging to discover the issues that motivated school leaders across the entire network of conservative evangelical colleges. This will include prosaic issues such as admissions and accreditation, but also uniquely evangelical issues such as determining which schools remained orthodox and which threatened to slide into liberalism and modernism.

Best of all, decades of work by the archivists at the Billy Graham Center has created an invaluable collection of oral history interviews. Some of these are available online and I’ve been reading them during the past weeks. But many more are only here at Wheaton. In these interviews, alumni of Wheaton and the rest of the conservative evangelical college network remember what life was like at these schools in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and more recently. Why did they decide to go to Wheaton? Or the Moody Bible Institute? Or John Brown College? Or a ‘secular’ public university? Many of these interview subjects offer unique perspectives on what college life was like.

With such a vast collection, I need to pace myself. There’s no way to take it all in during one short visit. Instead, I’ll see what I can discover and make plans to come back soon.

 

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?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 307 other followers