Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

sex abuse at fund indept

The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

Advertisements

Does THIS Explain the Football Fornicator?

It has stymied nerds for years now. How could so many white conservative-evangelical Protestants support Trump? He is hardly a moral model. Could a new term help explain Christian Trumpism, and other evangelical oddities such as Liberty University’s recent hire?

Freeze at Liberty

Victory at any cost?

Coming off a year of glorious victory, Liberty doubled down on its football team. Still pursuing its grand dream of becoming “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically,” Liberty brought on one of the best big-time coaches in today’s football scene.

There was only one problem. Coach Hugh Freeze was only available for a non-elite team like Liberty because he had been fired from Ole Miss for a “pattern of personal misconduct,” including using university resources to hire prostitutes.

Why would an evangelical university—supposedly devoted to conservative morals and buttoned-up lifestyle rules—shell out big bucks to hire a fornicator?

On one hand, the answer’s easy. Coach Freeze built up an impressive winning record at Ole Miss, including defeating Alabama two seasons in a row.

On the other, however, it’s a puzzle. As I described in Fundamentalist U, the selling point of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a safe moral environment, one in which students wouldn’t learn to smoke, drink, and have sex, much less believe mainstream science or liberal religion.

How are we to make sense of this phenomenon? …of supposedly values-driven evangelicals supporting anti-values driven celebrities?

Would it help if we called universities like Liberty something besides “evangelical?” Something that captured more clearly the real values of the school, including Trumpism, guns, and big-time sports?sutton tweet

Recently, some historians have been debating the value of another term. Matthew Avery Sutton proposed “Christian Nationalism” for white conservative evangelicals who put their culture-war positions ahead of their evangelical theology. Professor Sutton asked,

should we make a distinction, using “evangelical” for those who are part of a historic, traceable, bounded (para)church network and use “Christian nationalist” for the right-wing political expression of many of these folks and the many more outside the network?

Calling schools like Liberty “Christian Nationalist” colleges instead of “evangelical” schools would go a long way toward clearing up any confusion about stories like that of Coach Freeze. It could fill in for the old “fundamentalist” label, now out of favor even among the most devoted fundamentalists. It could also help make sense of trends at conservative schools such as Hillsdale, which are now attracting a healthy enrollment from Catholic students. And it could explain where the financial support comes from for conservative flag-waving institutions such as the College of the Ozarks.

In short, using a term like “evangelical” to describe an institution like Liberty University seems inherently confusing. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., the school has embraced a Trumpist worldview, in distinct contrast to the traditional moral values of conservative evangelicals, at least in the late twentieth century.

Calling it “Christian Nationalist U,” on the other hand, seems to fit. It doesn’t seem outrageous to hear that a “Christian Nationalist” school has hired a football fornicator. A “Christian Nationalist” school would obviously support Trump, whereas an “evangelical” school wouldn’t. A “Christian Nationalist” school would value football victory at any cost, while an “evangelical” school wouldn’t.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A chock-full week in evangelical higher ed with a heavy dose of teachers’ strikes. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips:

Our lead story: The Master’s University struggles with the worst legacy of Fundamentalist U: The personality cult. At CHE.

a group of reviewers acknowledged that Master’s is doing some important things right. Under MacArthur, they said, the institution has engendered deep loyalty from faculty, students, and donors. At the same time, the report depicted Master’s as an accreditor’s nightmare: an insular and oppressive institution where loyalty to the president and his church has sometimes trumped both academic and financial concerns.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

How does a “Bible Belt Ivy” thrive? College of the Ozarks wows the number-crunchers at Forbes.

In remembrance of Pearl Harbor:

pearl harbor ng attack mapAre college faculty really as radical as conservatives think? Ed Burmila says not even close, at UW. HT: MM.

The American right is so heavily invested in the fantasy of radical leftist professors that no evidence can convince them otherwise. . . . If you have considerable time on your hands and wish to see just what kind of leftists run universities, go to the graduate school and propose unionizing Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and other itinerant quasi-employees. You’ll discover quickly that senior faculty — the same ones who can’t wait to show you their picture with Tom Hayden or some other talisman of progressive cred — turn into staunch capitalists in a hurry.

Not funny. Columbia students shut down comedian, at IHE.

Bolsonaro’s educational culture war in Brazil, at the Economist.

Tech and reform: Why does every generation think its old ideas are new? By Larry Cuban.

The first teacher strike at a charter school. What will it portend? At NYT.

chicago charter strike

…the wheel of “reform” spins back around…

Liberty U loves Trump, and hires a football coach with a record of hiring prostitutes, at ESPN.

The key to de-segregation? Minnesota’s new reform at Slate. HT: CC.

single-family zoning proved as effective at segregating northern neighborhoods (and their schools) as Jim Crow laws had in the South.

The author of one of the best books about the 1920s KKK explains the complicated history at NPR.

1920s klanHow can we teach about painful historical topics? How about one person’s story at a time, at The Atlantic.

Serving More than One Master

It’s more than a quirk. And it’s more than a coincidence. The savage accreditor’s report about The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) reveals yet again one of the basic structural challenges written into the bones of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

If you haven’t seen the story yet, it is a sad reminder of the dangerous possibilities of evangelical higher ed. As Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently (now available to non-subscribers) the school’s charismatic leader John F. MacArthur has recreated all of the elements of authoritarian evangelical institutions.

  • One-man show

For example, the accreditors warned that TMUS had

a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.

In a speech to the student body about the accreditation report, MacArthur identified such nay-saying as part of the list of things that “God hates.”  His advice to students in this troubling time? “Keep your mouth shut.”

  • Gated community

The accreditors found, too, that TMUS had become an all-or-nothing proposition for its faculty. All institutional power rested firmly in MacArthur’s hands. If they didn’t like it, their only option was to leave, leaving their entire lives behind. As the accreditors put it,

Should they be dismissed or leave TMU over a substantial difference of opinion, they lose their entire support community.

  • Loyalty over experience

As has been the pattern for fundamentalist colleges since the early 20th century, MacArthur’s regime consistently promoted loyalty over every other concern, especially including experience or competence. The accreditors cited the worrisome case of MacArthur’s son-in-law Kory Welch, who was put in charge of many elements of TMUS operations despite having no professional experience or discernible credentials.

  • Internal hiring

As did some fundamentalist schools in the twentieth century, TMUS’s insularity came in part from a habit of hiring its own graduates. As CHE reported,

Of the 20 full-time faculty listed on the seminary’s website, not including MacArthur, 13 have received one or more of their degrees from Master’s; 11 have received two or more degrees from that institution; and eight have held positions within Grace Church. The dean of the seminary faculty, Nathan Busenitz, earned all of his degrees from Master’s, and has served in the past as MacArthur’s personal assistant.

  • My way or the highway—to hell

Predictably, MacArthur offered the TMUS community a stark decision: Either accept his one-person leadership model or succumb to the wiles of Satan. In his August speech, for example, MacArthur decried the report as an attack

orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.

  • All about the benjamins

Finally, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, MacArthur has been able to retain his stranglehold on institutional power in part due to his prodigious fund-raising abilities. Without MacArthur at the helm, TMUS would not be likely to pull in donations by the millions.

For the accreditors, as for many in the higher-ed field, these astonishing institutional traits may seem a singular development at TMUS. In fact, as I argued in Fundamentalist U, they are part of the legacy of the inherent institutional set-up of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

In the 1920s and 1930s, evangelical institutions that had embraced the fundamentalist movement faced a difficult challenge. As interdenominational institutions, they had no presbyteries, synods, episcopates, or conventions to help guide their activities. Moreover, inherent in the fundamentalist movement was a wariness toward such authorities. After all, fundamentalist intellectuals had been burned when denominational controls had been seized by theological modernists and liberals.

What to do? Different institutions responded differently.

At many schools, leadership was split into a messy and imprecise network of presidents, alumni, trustees, and faculty. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, tough decisions were often made even tougher by the array of influential voices that weighed in.

In an institution like this, final authority is difficult to determine and decisions can often be messy. The legacy of this sort of solution to the authority dilemma can still be seen today. Just ask Larycia Hawkins or LGBTQ+ students at Asuza Pacific.

But Wheaton’s diffuse and confusing solution to the authority dilemma was not the only solution. TMUS follows in the mold of authoritarian schools like Bob Jones College.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University in 1947), the answer to the dilemma of authority was solved early and ugly. Bob Jones Sr. established a firm grip on power at the institutions, followed by his son and grandson.

Reaching its fully developed form in the 1930s, Bob Jones Sr. crushed and expelled all dissent. As he put it,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us.  We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school.  We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard.  If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him!  We throw him overboard. . .  ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’  Gripers are not welcome here.  If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

And over the years, the Bob Joneses did just that. As with TMUS, the Bob Joneses quickly learned to rely only on their own graduates. In the 1933-34 school year, for example, three of the twenty-six faculty members were BJC alumni. By 1946-47, thirty-two of sixty-six were.

There was not likely to be much confusion about the way the Bob Joneses treated “Jonahs,” either. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the case of Ted Mercer. Mercer had been a loyal student, teacher, and administrator for years at Bob Jones College and University. By the early 1950s, however, he grew concerned about the dictatorial nature of the school. As with TMUS, the tipping point came from the question of accreditation.

Mercer wanted the school to pursue accreditation, which the Bob Joneses fiercely resisted. As with TMUS, there was no middle way. When Mercer fell afoul of the Bob Joneses, he was out. And the Bob Joneses spared no effort to vilify and smear Mercer. As the TMUS accreditors warn, when a school becomes too insular, dissidents risk losing their entire social networks if they question the will of the leader.

What is in store for TMUS? MacArthur fits the pattern of fundamentalist authoritarians so precisely it is difficult not to hazard a few predictions. If he is able to maintain fiscal solvency—as Bob Jones could but other would-be authoritarians such as Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute could not—TMUS is likely to maintain its authoritarian structure into the future.

Despite its moral, theological, and institutional drawbacks, the authoritarian model has proven a durable solution to the dilemma of authority at interdenominational evangelical universities.

Pearl Harbor

Teaching Pearl Harbor today? Or just interested in finding out more about the attack?pearl harbor ng attack map

If you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend checking out National Geographic’s “Remembering Pearl Harbor.” It has a lot of great features for students of any age, including videos from Japanese attack planes and searchable maps of the islands.

School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

Sorry, I Didn’t Catch Your Name

What do we call them? When we want to talk about white, American, conservative evangelicals, is there a better, shorter, catchier term? Otherwise we either have to keep saying “evangelicals” when we don’t really mean ALL evangelicals, or keep repeating the whole too-long description.

hello-my-name-is.jpg

CAWEP? WACE? ???

I’ll plead guilty. In Fundamentalist U I often talked about “evangelicals,” when I really usually meant white, American, conservative evangelicals from the 20th-century interdenominational fundamentalist tradition. In a book, I feel like I can get away with using “evangelicals” as a short version of that long mouthful, because in context (I hope) it was clear what kind of evangelical I was talking about.

In other formats, though, I would like a better term. For example, in talking with journalist Trey Kay today of Us & Them fame, I kept wanting a better, clearer term. We kept talking about what “evangelicals” thought about the supposed War on Christmas. And I kept having to pause and specify that it wasn’t really evangelicals as a whole we were talking about. We were only talking about that specific subgroup: white American conservative evangelicals.

It is not a nitpick or a quibble. It is a vital and important distinction.

us and them war on christmas

Why are the evangelicals so mad? …they aren’t.

But to my knowledge, there is not a convenient, catchy, everyday term out there to capture what we mean. Is there one out there already? Or can we invent one?

Some of the options out there are no good. I’m not okay with “Christian Right” as a label. It can be useful in some cases, but if we’re talking specifically about conservative evangelicals, then it doesn’t fit. Sure, many evangelicals WANT to claim the right to speak for all Christians, but it doesn’t really do justice to the diversity of conservative Christianity.

Or, how about John Fea’s term “court evangelical?” Since 2016, it has been a great term to understand the kind of evangelical who has jumped on the Trump train. For these purposes, however, “court evangelical” is too specific to our current time and place.

We need a term that captures what we really want to talk about, without having to say “white American conservative evangelical” every time. And without having awkwardly to correct everyone who says “evangelical” when they really mean “white American conservative evangelical.”

It has to be pronounceable. And short enough to use regularly.

How about CAWE? Or WACE? CWAEP? (pronounced see-wape, with the “P” from Protestant) CAWEP? I don’t like any of those, but I prefer them to our current muddled practice. Any better ideas out there?

I Don’t Need to Beat the Bear…

Did you see the recent article in Forbes? The one in which the number-crunchers drool over the financial successes of hard-right evangelical College of the Ozarks? I can’t help but wonder: In these days of college closings and higher-ed austerity, how is such an extreme school thriving? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, it’s not new. As far back as the 1920s, evangelical institutions have succeeded by planting a flag for fundamentalism.

bear chasing man

“I swear none of our professors teach evolution!”

It’s like the old joke about the two hunters and the bear. They’re getting chased by a bear, and one hunter pauses to tie his running shoes. The other guy says, Why bother with those shoes? You can’t outrun the bear. And the first hunter says, I don’t need to beat the bear. I only need to beat you.

The folks at Forbes aren’t wrong. The rude financial health of the College of the Ozarks really is surprising. As they recount, the endowment-per-student ratio puts CofO at 59 of the 650 schools it surveys, higher than many fancy-pants universities. Its acceptance rate is a mere 11%. Its admission yield—meaning the number of admitted students who end up enrolling—is higher than Harvard’s.

College of Ozark Endowment

Lovin ‘Merica all the way to the bank…

Why? As our friends at Righting America point out, it is not because CofO is winning the higher-ed race. Where many schools are improving student amenities and hiring diversity officers, CofO brags about its un-diversity. For example, it claims pride of place as the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus in America. It mandates patriotic education for its students. It grabs headlines for refusing to compete against teams that kneel for the anthem.

As the head fund-raiser Jerry C. Davis told Forbes,

People don’t give us money because we’re like everybody else. . . . They give it to us because we’re different.

In other words, CofO isn’t trying to outrun the bear. It is not trying to be the best university in the United States. It is only trying to be more radically conservative than the other conservative schools with which it is competing.

Such “don’t-have-to-beat-the-bear” success has always been the case for conservative evangelical institutions. When dispensational scholars in the 1920s wanted to found a more consistently premillennial seminary in Dallas, for example—the school that eventually became Dallas Theological Seminary—their single-minded focus on dispensational premillennial theology caused their enrollments to triple in their first six years.

Between 1926 and 1947, the fundamentalist Bob Jones College grew from 88 students to over a thousand.

And when Wheaton College in Illinois joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s its enrollment leaped by over four hundred percent. In 1917, when it was just another small Christian college, sixty percent of its students came from Illinois. By 1938, it welcomed 75% of its students from other states and outside the USA. By declaring itself on the side of the Fundamentals, Wheaton appealed to a much larger national and international constituency. It no longer had to compete against all the other small colleges in Illinois.

None of these institutions promised to be the best colleges in the land. They didn’t need to. All they needed to do to bring in tuition and donation dollars was to satisfy a niche desire for safely conservative evangelical schools.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy December! The ILYBYGTH International offices moved this week to the Situation Room to monitor the “War on Christmas.” But we still had time to gather these stories we thought you might like:

“Education is a business.” Libertarian abandons public schools, at Reason. HT: MM.

History majors keep declining, at AHA.

Background on the missionary-killing Sentinelese at NYT.

Creationism? Evolution? Glenn Branch looks at fifty years of struggle for better evolution education at SA.

How Berkeley students are freeing speech, at IHE.

Oh, wow. The weird, wild scam history of evangelical Olivet University, at NYT. HT: MG.

Tennessee study: Big boost for students who have an African American teacher, at NBER.

Is education a civil right? Students in RI sue for theirs, at the Atlantic.Suzanne WilsonHow to avoid solving educational problems, c. 1942, from Larry Cuban.

When I think of (and listen to) current debates about problems like inequality, racism, and poverty as they influence what teachers do, how schools operate, and effects on students, I recall many times when I heard and saw school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents engage in what Diederich [described in 1942].

Creationism, eh? New poll about evolution and teaching creationism in Canada, at NCSE.

Carts and Horses

I know, I know, it’s dangerous to conclude too much from one research study. Especially if that study seems to confirm our pre-existing ideas. But the news from Tennessee seems to confirm what school-reform mavens know: Just fixing classrooms isn’t enough. If we want to make a more equitable society, we have to include everything.cart before horse

Here’s what we know: A new study suggests that African American students can experience measurable benefits from having African American teachers. The authors say it is more than just about teaching methods; it is more to do with a “role-model effect.” As they put it,

black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible.

We don’t want to exaggerate its importance, but this seems like yet more evidence for our vision of real school reform. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing it, but historically there have been competing visions of how schools can and should help make America a better place. Some well-meaning reformers have hoped to tweak classroom practices to help students from low-income families do better in school. If they can just succeed in school, the thinking goes, then they can go to college, get a good job, make more money, and escape the cycle of poverty.

If we can just scale up that sort of reform—the thinking goes (and we can’t, but that’s another story)—then schools can fix the woes of social inequality.

As I’m arguing in my new book, this vision of school and social reform is as old as public education itself. And it’s not bad, but it is wrong. Don’t believe it? Check out the archive of studies and evidence that all seems to point in the same direction: here or here or here.

And the current study from Tennessee seems to add more fuel to the fire. The real problems of education, poverty, and social inequality are bigger than any single, isolated curricular reform can fix. The problem is that American society includes a bunch of unfair hierarchies: racial, religious, ethnic, and economic. If we try to tweak classroom practices in isolation, we won’t be able to do much.

But, as this study suggests, if students can see a possibility of achievement, they will be more likely to achieve. If students can see glimmers of a society that rewards people like them for talent and hard work, they’ll be more likely to work hard to move ahead.

Is it a good thing to improve classroom practice? Sure. But fixing the insides of classrooms alone isn’t enough. Students need to live in a society that is less biased against people like them. Students need some reason to think that school achievement will pay off.

When it comes to the old chicken-and-egg problems of schools and social reform, we need to remember the refrain: Schools don’t change society; schools ARE society.