The Biggest Creationists in the World

Is Christianity the most creationist religion?  Islam?  A new study from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East suggests some surprising conclusions about the relationship between religion and creationism.

The study by Pierre Clément of the Université de Lyon used a questionnaire distributed to teachers throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  Fifteen of the questions had something to do with evolution.

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion...

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion…

Perhaps not surprising, in countries where teachers tended to be more religious, they also tended to be more creationist.  In Algeria, for example, 91.9% of respondents identified as Muslim.  Only 1.3% called themselves atheists or agnostic.  And over 90% of those Algerian teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the origin of humanity.

Compare that to France, where just over half of teachers identified as atheist/agnostic, 38.1% called themselves Catholic, and 1.5% said they were Muslims.  Only about 2% of French teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the creation of humanity.

The authors had wondered if Islam tended to push teachers harder toward creationism than did Christianity.  That is, do Muslims tend to be more creationist than Christians?  Their conclusion: Not in these countries, it seems.  As Clément put it,

There is not a specific effect on the Muslim religion itself on the teachers’ conceptions of evolution, but a more general effect of their degree of belief in God, whatever their religion.

In creationist-heavy countries, that is, Christians and Muslims agree.  On creationism at least.

Academic Freedom vs. Creation College

nnu crusaders

President Alexander’s Last Crusade?

What is a college president to do? At conservative religious colleges, leaders are in a real pickle. Hosting faculty with unpopular beliefs could lead to a loss of tuition dollars. Getting rid of them could lead to charges of dictatorial ambition. At Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, President David Alexander fired Thomas Jay Oord. Now Alexander has to deal with the consequences.

First, some background. According to Christianity Today, Alexander’s administration claims that the firing was due to financial straits. Professor Oord taught theology for a decade at the college and had earned a reputation for teaching evolution and “open theology.”

The faculty senate at NNU has protested the administration’s move. The school’s financial future is rosy, according to the faculty. Oord’s firing, they say, is more about reputation than budget.

As at many other conservative religious colleges, that reputation can be difficult to protect. As we’ve discussed in these pages, college leaders face intense pressure to remain orthodox. Parents and alumni control the pursestrings. Such folks can be ferocious defenders of traditional values.

School leaders are forced not only to keep teaching orthodox, but to avoid any appearance of liberalism. If a professor like Oord becomes well known for favoring theistic evolution, it can tarnish the creationist reputation of a college. Parents will send their creationist children elsewhere. Alumni will keep their money.

Do You APPRECIATE Evolution?

HT: MM

I don’t often wish I went to Yale. To my provincial mind, Yale = The Bad Guy from Back to School. Me, I’m more of a Thornton Melon type. But Professor Dan Kahan’s class on the science of science communication at Yale has me wishing I was there.

Indubitably...

Indubitably…

Happily, Professor Kahan is sharing his current syllabus and reading list on his Cultural Cognition blog. This week, he asks probing questions about the relationship between “knowing,” “understanding,” “accepting,” and “believing” evolution. I’m starting to wonder if we need to add a new word to this list: “appreciating” evolution.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are painfully aware, I’ve got a new book on the subject coming out soon. In Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue that science teachers need to be aware of Professor Kahan’s questions. Specifically, teachers need to be aware that there can be an important difference between “knowing/understanding” evolution and “believing” evolution.

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

Come and see me some time when you have no class…

In a nutshell, we argue that teachers must insist on student knowledge and understanding, but remain intentionally and explicitly neutral on the question of student belief. As sharp critics have pointed out, this might be an impossibly delicate task for classroom teachers who have their hands full with more prosaic questions. As a colleague of mine put it, the most common question most real-world teachers ask is not “Am I crossing a line into ‘belief’ when I should be more concerned with ‘understanding’?” Rather, most real-world teachers are asking questions like, “Is Bob sleeping back there?” and “How can I make this more accessible to students?”

Professor Kahan’s blog reminds us of another difficulty with these distinctions. The belief/understanding split has one meaning among mainstream scientists, but it has a very different meaning among the regular joes in K-12 science classes.

Time and again, smart science types have pointed out that NO ONE ought to “believe” in evolution. That’s not how science works. As FrankL commented on Professor Kahan’s recent post (scroll down to the first comment):

I think it’s entirely possible to understand evolution without believing in it. Asking me “do you believe in evolution?” is, in my mind, like asking me “do you believe in your hammer?” or “do you believe in your computer?”. The answer is no, they are just tools. If they work, I keep them, if they do not, I try to fix them, if they are unfixable, I throw them out. The theory of evolution is just a tool, it should not be deified or demonized or “believed in” or not. Part of understanding evolution is understanding its domain of usefulness. I don’t use my computer to hammer nails, and I don’t ask my hammer for my email. That doesn’t mean they are broke, it means that my tools have limited domains of usefulness. Using the theory of evolution to establish or deny the existence of God, or to determine who is “smarter” is so absurdly far from its domain of usefulness that it would be laughable if it were not so sad, because that’s the approach that the partisans take.

FrankL is not alone in pointing out the central undesirability of “belief” in evolution, even among evolution’s most fervent supporters. A few months back, Keith Blanchard offered a similarly smart argument in the pages of The Week:

So if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t.

To my mind, Blanchard and FrankL have offered wonderfully clear articulations of the difficulties of “belief” from the perspective of mainstream scientists. But that is not the perspective in which we are really interested. What we really care about are the resistant students who fill America’s K-12 public-school science classrooms.

What do we want from those students? We agree with Blanchard and FrankL that no one wants to push “belief” in evolution. But we mean it in a different sense. We are concerned about students for whom the central ideas of modern evolutionary theory have an intensely religious meaning. For those students, to “understand” evolution in the Blanchard/FrankL sense would roughly equate to “believing” it. That is, if creationist students “accept” that evolution is simply the truth about what is unquestionably happening, they must wrestle with a theological crisis.

We hope instead to allow students for whom evolution presents a religious problem to sidestep questions of belief.  Or, to be more precise, we want to move those questions of belief out of public schools and into homes and churches. We want students to “understand” what FrankL and Blanchard are saying. We want them to “know” why evolution has become the intellectual coin of the realm in modern science. But we also want to protect their right in public schools to dissent, to say to themselves, “But it’s not really the truth of existence.”

And perhaps for that we need a different word. A recent lecture by a colleague about the history of literary appreciation got me thinking. Maybe we want to push for student “appreciation” of evolutionary theory. The word “appreciation” might be closer to our educational goal for K-12.

After all, we want something more than for students to just parrot back, “Scientists say that species evolved from a common ancestor. [But only because scientists are deluded.]” We want them to “know” why scientists embrace evolution. We want them to be able to “understand” the idea of evolution well enough to see why it has come to dominate modern thinking in biology.

Do you "understand" this?  Do you "appreciate" it?

Do you “understand” this? Do you “appreciate” it?

When my co-author Harvey Siegel uses the term “understand,” it includes these meanings. Professor Siegel does not argue that students should be encouraged to skate by with a surface knowledge of evolution—one that is enough to pass any state test, but does not properly engage with the idea. Rather, for Professor Siegel, “understanding” evolution must mean grasping the deeper implications of evolution as well.

Perhaps “appreciation” would be a better match for the way most people think of these things. After all, we can all “appreciate” a painting, even if we don’t like it. We can understand where it’s coming from, understand why it has become a famous work of art. We can do all those things—get a profound understanding of the painting—and then say equally truthfully, “I don’t think it’s good.”

Isn’t that what we mean when we say we want students to “know” and “understand” evolution, but not (necessarily) to “believe” it?

Hoosiers, Hate, and Homosexuality

When Charles Barclay, Miley Cyrus, Hillary Clinton, and Apple all attack Indiana, you know something big is going down. Many liberals have condemned Indiana’s new religious liberty law as a thinly veiled attack on LGBT rights. Not so fast, says Boston University’s Stephen Prothero. He raises a key question for all of us interested in culture-war issues. Who gets to define what is and what isn’t a religious act?

Defending liberty?  Or spreading hate?

Defending liberty? Or spreading hate?

Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been reviled as a sneaky way to impose a kind of cultural segregation on gay couples. If a baker does not want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, for example, or if a photographer refuses to shoot the pictures, this law gives them some legal protection to do so.

With these intentions, it certainly seems like an intolerant stab at the rights and dignity of LGBT people.

Yet liberal scholar Stephen Prothero defends the law. He is a supporter of full equality and rights for LGBT citizens, but he thinks conservative religious types have every right to refuse service to religious ceremonies of which they disapprove.  Not to refuse service in secular affairs, but to refuse service to religious ceremonies.  As he puts it,

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Professor Prothero’s work. I’m looking forward to his upcoming book, Why Liberals Win. In this op-ed, Prothero raises a key question that ranges far beyond the narrow issue of Indiana’s RFRA and discrimination against LGBT couples.

Namely, who decides when and if something is a religious act? If a lesbian couple gets married in a secular ceremony, is that a religious act? Or, to be specific, is it fair for a religious person to define such a ceremony as a religious act, even if the people involved don’t see it as one?

Here’s another real-world example: Is the teaching of evolution a religious act, even if the teacher does not see it as such? That is, if such teaching has religious meaning to a religious student, does that make it a religious act?  Obviously, public-school teachers have no business committing religious acts in their classrooms.  But what if they don’t think it is a religious act?  Who decides?

These cumbersome distinctions matter. As Professor Prothero points out, no one wants to force a Jewish baker to do anything to affirm a Catholic ceremony. But traditionally, legally, and historically, it has been acceptable to force a Jewish baker to do things that are perceived as non-religious, such as following health codes or serving customers of all races.

Defining the boundaries of religious activity thus takes on enormous political heft. If your actions are religious to me, even if they do not feel religious to you, who gets to decide?

In the checkered history of America’s public schools, time and again these disputes have been resolved against the claims of religious minorities. As I argue in my upcoming evolution book with philosopher Harvey Siegel, in the nineteenth century Catholic activists were told by Protestant school leaders that their complaints lacked merit, since the Protestant Bible could never be objectionable. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, Native American students had their religions suppressed in government boarding schools, since their religious objections were not seen by school founders as legitimate. In light of this history, shouldn’t religious minority groups, including creationists, be allowed to define for themselves if certain topics count as religious?

So far, conservative religious folks have not had too much luck in arguing in favor of their rights to discriminate. Perhaps most famously, Bob Jones University lost its Supreme Court case against the Internal Revenue Service. BJU had had its racial segregation challenged. BJU insisted its stance was religious. BJU lost.

If Indiana’s law is intended to protect conservatives’ right to discriminate, will it go the way of racial segregation? Do conservatives have the right to define the nature of religion, even if other people disagree? Is it fair for conservatives (or anyone) to insist that something is a religious act, even if the people engaged in that act don’t think so?

Briefing from the Evolution Mission Field

HT: BM

There is apparently more going on at the University of Kentucky than basketball.* Professor James J. Krupa has offered a description of his trials and travails as he tries to cram evolution down the throats of creationist students on that historic culture-war battlefield.

Teaching or preaching evolution?

Teaching or preaching evolution?

I’m all for evolution education. But Professor Krupa’s missive shows some of the dangers of an old-school attitude among some mainstream scientists, what I’ve called the “missionary supposition.”

First, though, let me acknowledge that I don’t have any street cred when it comes to science education. I’m a mild-mannered historian. My only experience teaching science came during one short year in which I taught middle-school science, along with reading, history, math, swimming, and camping. So when I critique Prof. Krupa’s approach, I have to do it with the full knowledge that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Professor Krupa shares what he calls his “relentless efforts” to teach introductory biology classes to non-majors at the University of Kentucky. As he notes, the university has had a long history as a front-line institution in the fight over evolution education. Back in the 1920s, Kentucky’s state legislature barely defeated an anti-evolution law. Prof. Krupa explains that the leaders of his school led the fight for evolution. He doesn’t seem aware of how much they gave away in that fight. The only reason Kentucky’s anti-evolution lawmakers agreed to let their bill die, as I related in my 1920s book, was because they received a solemn promise that evolution would not be taught in the state’s schools, even without the anti-evolution law.

That tradition lingers in Kentucky’s K-12 schools. Professor Krupa is quite right in his assertion that few of his students these days have had much evolution education. He shares his experiences with hostile students. Across the course of a semester, the door of his lecture hall often bangs shut as protesting students storm out.

Though I imagine he’d deny it, Krupa seems to derive some satisfaction from these creationist protests. He writes off the large section of his students whose

minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement.

More interesting to Krupa are students on the fence, students who are “open-minded” about evolution. If he can just explain evolution in all its power and beauty, Krupa implies, he can win those students for real science.

Krupa carefully avoids describing his mission as one to get students to “believe” evolution. Among many scientists, such language is frowned upon. After all, we don’t try to get people to “believe” in gravity or germs. Rather, since these things are inarguably true, the attitude goes, we only want students to “accept” and “understand” them.

This is just as it should be, sort of. As philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book, teachers too often seek to change students’ beliefs about life and divinity. It seems to make sense, at first, that if students understand evolution, they will come to believe that it is the best way to understand the origins of diverse species. But students’ beliefs should be beyond the purview of science teachers. The goal for evolution education should be for students to know and understand evolution. What they believe about it is their own business.

Professor Krupa nods to this distinction. At the end of his semester, he writes, he discusses the notion that evolution need not conflict with religious belief. Many Christians accept evolution. There is no need to assume that evolution somehow implies atheism, or leads to atheism.

So far, so good. But Prof. Krupa suffers in two ways from the missionary supposition among mainstream scientists. First, he takes it as his mission to preach the truths of evolution. As he puts it,

I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.

Krupa took the job, he explains, inspired by the mission laid out by biologist EO Wilson. These introductory classes, Krupa believes, might be “the last chance to convey to [students] an appreciation for biology and science.” And in spite of setbacks, Krupa maintains the clear-eyed self-assurance of every missionary. As have all sorts of missionaries, Krupa assumes that the truth of his message is so powerful that simply hearing it will blast away all resistance, at least among the “open-minded.” As he explains,

After a semester filled with evidence of evolution, one might expect that every last student would understand it and accept it as fact. Sadly, this is not the case.

Such a result should not be surprising to anyone who knows the history of missionary work. Too often, old-school Bible-toting missionaries plopped down among local populations and set to work enlightening them. The truth of the Bible, many felt, was so compelling that non-Christians only needed to have it explained clearly in order to convert.

Like these old-school missionaries, Prof. Krupa is well-intentioned but surprisingly naïve. He repeatedly notes his hostility toward creationism, yet he complains that creationist students and community members seem hostile back. He describes creationists as having their “minds sealed shut.” He notes that they “take offense very easily.” The explanations creationist students offer are mind-blowingly ignorant and laughably simplistic.

What does Professor Krupa want? In spite of his careful insistence that he is not trying to change students’ beliefs, he clearly hopes to do more than simply help students to know and understand what evolutionary theory says. He wants his students to get “an appreciation” for evolution, not just an understanding.  In some cases, he relates, his evolutionary lectures are “a message that . . . gets through.” One evangelical student came back to visit after taking Krupa’s class. Though this Christian student had resisted, he eventually thanked Krupa for “turning his world upside down.”

To Krupa, such moments savored of sweet success. Missionaries, after all, have the ambitious goal of changing worlds, of “opening . . . eyes,” and of blowing minds.

With those goals, it is no wonder that Professor Krupa has had a difficult time of it. He has suffered from more than just inadequate K-12 teaching. He has suffered, it seems, from his own missionary supposition.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach evolution to creationists. We should. But it does not help if we assume that creationists are idiots. Instead, we should endeavor to learn all we can about the creationists in our classes. As with all students, we should treat them respectfully and even lovingly.

Many of the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) have real experience teaching science at the college level. Am I off base here? To get students to understand science and evolution, do teachers need to share Krupa’s missionary supposition?

________________________________________________________________________________

*For you nerdwads out there, that is a humorous reference to a popular sporting event going on right now, the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Kentucky has a historic winning streak going on.

Creationism in the Land of the Bible

Quick: When I say “creationist,” whom do you picture? Ken Ham, the Australian-American creationist impresario of Kentucky? Or Arye Dary of Israel’s Shas Party?

Is THIS the face of creationism?

Is THIS the face of creationism?

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education pointed out recently, the question of Palestinian statehood received the lion’s share of attention after the last round of elections in Israel. But those elections could also have significant impact on the teaching of evolution in Israel’s schools.

In a nutshell, the new government will likely be dominated by conservative parties. In Israel, that means a significant political presence for the more conservative religious factions. Many of those groups oppose the teaching of evolution.

...or is THIS?

…or is THIS?

As Rosenau relates, the topic of evolution only recently became a required part of the middle-school curriculum in secular Israeli public schools. Arye Dary of the Shas Party, a likely government partner, made no bones about his opposition to evolution education. “As an ultra-orthodox party,” Dary explained,

that believes that our forefathers were Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that our holy matriarchs were Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, we refuse to teach our children that they originated from apes.

For those few who continue to believe that creationism is uniquely American, or peculiar to conservative Protestantism, this serves as a healthy reminder of the truth.  Creationism as a political and educational impulse is strong worldwide.  Conservatives of many backgrounds in many countries insist that there is more to “truth” than can be divined by human scrabblings.

Who Cares about Adam?

I don’t get it. Even after all these years studying conservative Christianity and creationism, I still don’t really get it. I mean, I understand the logic and history, but I have a hard time making sense of the ferocious emotion that goes into debates over the existence of an historical Adam & Eve. An author interview in Christianity Today outlines some of the tricky questions involved.

Who cares?

Who cares?

But first, a primer for those like me on the outside looking in: The debate over the historicity of Adam & Eve has a long history in conservative evangelical Protestantism. For us outsiders, making sense of this issue will go a long way toward helping us understand the theological underpinnings for young-earth creationist belief. Without making sense of this theology, it can be easy for mainstream scientists and observers to conclude mistakenly that young-earth creationism is nothing but some kind of cult of personality, a quirk of history.

At least since the 1960s (of course it is an ancient belief, but in 1960 it gained popularity among conservative American evangelicals as a vital theological notion central to orthodox belief), conservative evangelicals have insisted that the obvious meaning of Genesis is that God created two first humans in the Garden of Eden. These two, Adam & Eve, became the progenitors of the entire human race. Theologically, creationists have insisted, our belief in an historical Adam & Eve underpins our trust in the Bible. As Simon Turpin of young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis expressed it,

The debate over whether Adam was historical is ultimately a debate over whether we trust what the Scriptures clearly teach. If we cannot be certain of the beginning, then why would we be certain about what the Scriptures teach elsewhere? The uncertainty of truth is rampant in our culture partly due to the influence of post-modernism which is why many believe the issue over Adam’s historicity is unimportant.

For many creationists, believing the plain truth of the creation story in Genesis means believing in the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ. As Andrew Snelling of the Institute for Creation Research explained,

It is impossible to reject the historicity of the book of Genesis without repudiating the authority of the entire Bible. If Genesis is not true, then neither are the testimonies of those prophets and apostles who believed it was true.

Of course, for mainstream scientists, the notion that human genetic diversity came from only two original humans does not fit the evidence. In order to have today’s genomic sequence, I’m told, humanity must have begun with thousands of original humans.

John Walton of Wheaton College explains to Christianity Today why evangelicals can accept this science while still remaining true to a conservative reading of Scripture. In his new book, The Lost World of Adam & Eve, Walton argues that Adam & Eve can be read as the “priests” of early humanity, not the only two first humans.

Again, for those of us outside of conservative evangelicalism, the controversial nature of such claims can be hard to figure. Recently, theologian Peter Enns was booted from Westminster Theological Seminary for advocating similar ideas. Walton explains in this interview why it is possible to respect the authority of the Bible while still reading Genesis in a way that is not contrary to modern science. Walton insists that

You can affirm a historical Adam, but that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological human origins that are often assumed.

The key, Walton argues, lies in reading Genesis as the original readers would have. To them, Walton says, creation would be more about how the world of Adam & Eve was “ordered,” not just how it was “manufactured.” We can understand Adam as both a real person, a real creation, and as an “archetype” for humanity. Though there may have been other early humans, Walton explains, Adam & Eve served as the ones in God’s sacred space.

Why do such ideas matter? Again, for folks like me trying to understand conservative Protestantism from the outside, it can be difficult to make sense of the ferociously controversial nature of such arguments.

Yet they are at the heart of conservative evangelical Protestantism. As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have never agreed on the proper relationship of Genesis to either modernist theology or science. From J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Harold Lindsell in the 1970s, conservative intellectuals battled to affirm the notion that any compromise is deadly to faith.

And as I’m finding in my current research, these battles have long sent shock waves through the world of conservative higher education. Recently, Bryan College has firmed up its insistence that faculty members affirm their belief in an historical Adam & Eve. In 1961, Wheaton College did the same thing.

And fundamentalists are not the only ones who will spring to repudiate theories like Walton’s. Leading atheist pundits, too, agree that Genesis requires an historical Adam & Eve. Jerry Coyne, for example, laments the apologism of folks like Walton. Of course, Coyne does not want people to reject mainstream science in favor of a belief in an historical Adam. Rather, he hopes people will simply accept the obvious conclusion that the Bible is a book of myths.

If all of these whirling debates make your head hurt, join the club. For those of us outside the circle of evangelical Protestantism, it can be very difficult to understand the ferocious feelings at play in the Adam debate. But that ferocity lies at the heart of evangelical belief. Historically, any attempt to rationalize our reading of the Bible, any attempt to explain away the most obvious interpretation of Scripture in favor of one that accords with modern science, any effort to bring our faith into harmony with science…all have been seen as the beginnings of apostasy.

For evangelical readers, Adam & Eve matter. For those of us trying to understand conservative Christianity, this complicated debate will be a good place to start. Why would professors lose jobs over it? Why would Christianity Today dedicate a major article to this interview with John Walton? Why will Walton’s position provoke such furious responses?

Christian School Causes Student to Abandon Creationism

How can parents make sure their children don’t lose their faiths? Enrolling them in religious school is not enough. As a recent story from the BioLogos Forum makes clear, education ranges far beyond schooling. Too many hasty critics, religious and secular alike, have assumed that we can control education by controlling schooling. It’s just not that simple.

This Christian learned to embrace evolution, but not in school...

This Christian learned to embrace evolution, but not in school…

In the pages of the BioLogos Forum, college sophomore Garrett Crawford shared his educational story. Crawford was raised in a conservative evangelical household. He went to a Christian school, one that presumably hoped to shield Crawford’s faith from secularism. While at that school, Crawford relates, he grew curious about the scientific evidence for evolution. After a lot of reading and study, Crawford concluded that he could no longer believe in young-earth creationism. After a lot more reading and study, Crawford concluded that Christian faith does not require a belief in a young earth. It is entirely theologically legitimate, he decided, to accept the science of evolution.

In Crawford’s case, his education took him in directions his school never intended.

Such stories shouldn’t surprise us. After all, with just a moment or two of reflection, we can all think of ways that our “education” has differed from our “schooling.” Yet in all of our tumultuous educational culture wars, pundits rush to make sweeping claims about education based on scanty evidence from schools.

We’ve seen this recently in the pages of the New York Times, when philosopher Justin McBrayer declared–based on data that was not just slim, but positively anorexic–that Our Schools Were Training Amoral Monsters.

Among conservative Christians, too, this tradition of school-bashing has a long history.  In the 1970s, for example, fundamentalist school leader A.A. “Buzz” Baker decried the tendency of many conservative Christians to rush into school-founding for the wrong reasons. In his book The Successful Christian School (1979) Baker warned that too many parents and pastors rushed to open new schools because they thought

Public education has failed! It is failing to provide a good academic education while exposing our children to a godless, secular-humanistic approach to life.

Leading young-earth creationists have long assumed that the best way to protect their children’s faith is by attending creationism-friendly schools. Ken Ham, for example, argued that Christian colleges and universities can lead students astray from true faith when they abandon young-earth thinking. As he put it,

the real issue concerns Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries that break away from the authority of Scripture in Genesis—held to by the majority of scholars up through the Reformation—and teach students that God’s Word doesn’t mean what it says. That’s what makes students doubt the truthfulness of the Bible as a whole, and can be a major reason many of them walk away from the Christian (not “creationist”) faith, as we see happening in our culture today.

From the other side, many secular or liberal critics insist that fundamentalist schools are nothing but indoctrination factories. As friend of ILYBYGTH (FOILYBYGTH) Jonny Scaramanga told the BBC, his fundamentalist schooling experiences were nothing short of “horrendous.” During his sojourn in a fundamentalist school, Scaramanga remembers, he did nothing but recite back theological nostrums. The school was so socially crippling, Scaramanga relates, for the rest of his life he was “always playing catch up.”

Scaramanga’s own case, however, shows that schooling of any sort is only one part of a person’s education. Scaramanga himself has now become a leading voice in the anti-fundamentalist education scene. Like Garrett Crawford, Scaramanga’s education took him in directions that his schooling never intended.

The take-away? Of course we should all care about the way schools operate. Better schools will help produce better educations for all students. At the same time, though, we all need to remind ourselves that formal schooling makes up only one slice—sometimes a small slice—of a person’s education.

How many of us, after all, can say that we came out the way our schools intended?

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.

Religious Students, Secular Schools

HT: HH

Thanks to all those who came out Wednesday to participate in my talk at Binghamton University about fundamentalist colleges in the 1930s.  Not only was a good time had by all, but the conversation made clear that even at this, our most “secular” of colleges, religion is thriving.  Despite the ignorant nostrums of elite secular academics and fuming fundamentalists, conservative religious students and faculty seem to thrive at pluralist schools like ours.

Don't hate me  because I'm beautiful...

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…

For those who are just tuning in, this talk was part of our series in “Religion in the Modern University.”  I shared my current research into conservative evangelical colleges.  The conversation after the formal talk revealed that both students and faculty at our beloved public university come from all sorts of religious backgrounds, including conservative evangelical Protestantism.

Unlike the schools I’m studying, our “secular” college does not actively encourage any specific sort of religious belief.  Nevertheless, our school proves a congenial home for students and faculty who hold conservative evangelical beliefs.

This flies in the face of some common assumptions about secularism and higher education.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found in her study of elite secular academics, many of them have absolutely no idea of the high level of religious belief at their own non-religious elite universities.

Fundamentalists, too, have long assumed that “secular” colleges were hostile to their sort of religious belief.  As fundamentalist college founder Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying in the 1920s, he would

just about as lief [sic] send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions.

At Bob Jones University, as at other fundamentalist universities, this notion that only a truly fundamentalist school can protect students’ faith remained central throughout the twentieth century, as this 1956 advertisement demonstrated.

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

More recently, too, creationist leader Ken Ham took me to task for questioning his insistence that creationist families must send their children to young-earth-friendly colleges.  As Ham concludes,

at the very minimum I do urge parents to ensure they do all they can to equip their children to be able to defend the Christian faith against the attacks of our day, and to stand uncompromisingly on the authority of the Word of God.

Does that mean that religious students need to go to schools that share their faith?  I don’t think so.

I certainly understand the many differences between a pluralist school like our beloved Binghamton University and schools with a unified religious message.  But we need to remember that so-called “secular” colleges like ours are often very friendly places to creationists and fundamentalists.

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