DeVos’ Trump Card

Why, oh why, would anyone think Secretary Betsy DeVos was qualified to serve as leader of the Department of Education?  We see a hint this week from pro-DeVos protesters in Maryland.  Secretary DeVos is tapping into the most powerful impulse in American schooling.  Schools have always promised first and foremost to do something more important than readin, writin, and rithmatic, and DeVos gets it.

First, the background: Secretary DeVos teamed up with friendly GOP Governor Larry Hogan to visit a Bethesda elementary school.  They planned to read some Dr. Seuss to compliant little kids.

Recent Trump politics, however, turned the visit into a forum about Trump’s immigration policies.  As Politico reports, Governor Hogan attracted anti-Trump ire by insisting he would veto a school sanctuary bill for undocumented students.  Protesters blasted DeVos and Hogan for targeting immigrants.

Trump’s team, though, shifted the discussion to America’s primal fear about schooling.  Why should undocumented immigrants be rooted out of American schools?  Spokesperson Sean Spicer focused on the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl at a Maryland high school.  Her alleged attackers were in the country illegally, Spicer explained.

Secretary DeVos didn’t miss a beat.  Before she ventured out to visit another school, DeVos offered a public statement.  She didn’t talk about Dr. Seuss or the Common Core.  She didn’t talk about school vouchers or charter schools.  Instead, she talked about rape:

As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of this terrible crime.  We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.

At least some of the Bethesda protesters thought DeVos hit the nail on the head.  While most of the signs protested against DeVos’s policies, at least two of the protesters agreed with her.  One sign read, “Protect Children in Our Schools.”  Another said, “Thanks Betsy.”

pro devos protesters

Safety First. Photo by Sonya Burke

For those Bethesda supporters and for DeVos fans across the nation, the most important job of schools is not teaching kids to read or to share.  Rather, the most important thing a school needs to do is keep children safe.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, no matter what the issue, conservatives were able to win when they built their arguments about children’s safety.  Because no one, of course, wants to put kids in danger.  So when anti-evolution protesters wanted to ban evolution, they compared evolution to poison.  When sex-ed protesters wanted to ban sex-ed, they compared sex-ed to rape.

Over and over again, protesters focused on safety.  And conservatives aren’t the only ones who win with this strategy.  These days, leftist college students and their faculty allies have scored terrific success in a seemingly quixotic campaign to ban controversial speakers from their campuses.  Pundits and professors have often been flabbergasted at the ways college administrators cave to such censorship.

Why is it so easy for protesters to ban ideas?  Because they appeal to administrators’ prime directive: Keeping students safe.  Listen to the odd apology given by Yale’s administration in the wake of the Christakis costume controversy.  Instead of talking about the politics of Halloween costumes, Dean Jonathan Halloway told student protesters,

Remember that Yale belongs to all of you, and you all deserve the right to enjoy the good of this place, without worry, without threats, and without intimidation.

First and foremost, no matter what the issue, safety wins.  As always, The Simpsons said it best.  In any discussion about schools or public policy, Helen Lovejoy could be counted on to wail, “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?”  It didn’t have to be relevant.  It didn’t have to be helpful.  But Helen would always belt it out, because she knew she could never lose by harping on the safety of the children.

It’s funny because it’s true.  And Secretary DeVos knows it.  We can argue about vouchers and charters.  We can hem and haw about religion in public schools.  But no one—NO ONE—will ever win a political fight in these United States by saying that schools can be risky places for kids.

Protecting Kids from Knowledge: Transvestite Edition

P-ding!  There it is again—our ILYBYGTH alert when schools insist on blocking knowledge.

If you’re just joining us, you might be under the impression that the point of school is to teach kids stuff.   That’s partly true, but it’s not the only thing schools do.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, schools have also always worked just as hard to keep kids from knowing stuff.

Don’t believe me?  Check out the news from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.  According to a report in the New York Times, conservatives grumbled about a new book offered for first graders, Jacob’s New Dress.  Their beef: No youngster should know that some boys like to wear dresses.  Before you assume, though, that those pesky conservatives are the only ones who want to stop kids from acquiring knowledge, read on.  In these sorts of culture-war confrontations, everyone agrees that kids should remain ignorant.  They only disagree on the details.

jacobs new dress

Knowledge-spreader? Or knowledge-blocker?

In this incarnation, the story follows the same culture-war script I described in my recent book about educational conservatism.  A teacher called a conservative group to warn them about the book selection.  The conservative activists issued press releases.  The district instantly caved at the merest whiff of controversy.

If we were feeling persnickety, we could point out a few details that individualize this case.  The conservative group in this case, the North Carolina Values Coalition, doesn’t really seem to have a clear understanding of the issues involved.  According to the NYT report, at least, the group’s spokesperson doesn’t recognize the differences between cross-dressing and transgender.  “The book,” she warned, “is meant as a tool of indoctrination to normalize transgender behavior. I think a lot of parents would object to that.”

Even if we don’t agree with her, we should note—except for the goof about equating cross-dressing with transgender—the conservative activist was correct.  The school and the book really DID want to normalize the idea that a boy might like to dress up in traditionally feminine clothing.  According to the NYT, the authors hoped to help people see that there’s nothing weird about a boy choosing to wear a dress.

For new readers, let me be clear: If anyone were to ask me my personal opinion, I wouldn’t hesitate.  I strongly agree with the goals and approach of the progressive authors.  I think kids should read their book.  But that’s not the main point here.  Instead, we want to look at the ways the progressive activists agreed with their conservative foes without even realizing it.

Just as the conservative activists read from their traditional script, so too did the progressive authors.  In the future, the authors assumed, no one would find their book objectionable or even remarkable.  As one author put it, “Our hope, when we wrote this book, was that some day it would be considered quaint. We imagined future generations saying, ‘What was the fuss about?’ Clearly, there’s more work to do.”  Just as conservatives have always hoped to lock out any hint of progressive ideas, so too have progressive activists always assumed without much evidence that their ideas would win in the end.

It might seem as if the two sides are miles apart.  When it comes to blocking knowledge, though, both sides agree.  The book’s authors share the conservative activists’ desire to block kids from certain forms of knowledge.  They disagree, of course, about what to block.  Conservatives in this case—and in (almost) every case—hope that kids won’t find out yet that some people like to dress up in non-traditional clothes.  And progressives don’t want their young people to know that some people find non-traditional gender dressing weird or objectionable.

Both sides want to keep kids safe from certain forms of knowledge.  Both sides assume that they have common sense on their side.  But neither side would admit to blocking knowledge.

Yet that sort of knowledge-blocking has always been at the heart of our educational system.  It has also always been at the heart of our educational culture wars.  People disagree about what ideas should be kept from kids.  They also disagree about how old kids should be before they are introduced to certain forms of knowledge.

But everyone agrees—without even talking about it—that schools MUST block some information from kids.  At least as important as delivering knowledge to children, our schools exist to keep knowledge away from them.

The Future of Liberty’s Love Affair with Trump

With university commencement season approaching, it’s time for a new round of culture-war outrage.  Schools scramble to secure the most famous names as markers of their higher-ed cachet.  And, predictably, some invited speakers will be shouted down, provoking a new round of hand-wringing over the parlous state of campus free speech.

The news from the world of evangelical colleges tells us that the traditions of Fundamentalist U are alive and well.  Here’s the nail-biter: Can we assume that the twentieth century will repeat itself?  Read on.  Your humble editor will make some predictions that he can be held to.

Trump at liberty

I Love You, Man

But first, the news.  It won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH.  According to the Washington Post, Trump is heading back to Lynchburg, Virginia to speak at Liberty University.

As your humble editor has argued elsewhere, Liberty has come up the big winner in this presidential election.  Its second-generation Falwell, Jerry Jr., has bragged about his appointment to a top-level super-secret Presidential commission on higher ed.  And at least one Liberty student is starry-eyed with the news of Trump’s upcoming visit.  What does Trump’s speech mean?  To one gun-toting Flame, at least, it means “That’s how you know my school is better than yours.”

But Trump’s appearance at Liberty’s commencement is more than just payback to one of his loyal evangelical supporters.  By acting chummy with Liberty, Trump scores big.  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher ed, in the 1970s Liberty and other fundamentalist schools came to represent one-stop shops for politicians seeking evangelical approval.

If nothing else has been clear or predictable about Trump’s presidency, his courtship of the conservative evangelical vote has been steady and unimaginative.  It’s not just Jerry Falwell Jr.  By surrounding himself with folks such as Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, Trump has sent unmistakable signals about his support for America’s fundamentalist traditions.

How will it end for him?  If history is any guide—and we all know it usually isn’t—President Trump is in for a rough ride.  Back in 1980, President Ronald Reagan pioneered a cynical courtship of conservative evangelicals.  He palled around with Jerry Falwell Sr. and other fundamentalist school leaders such as Bob Jones III.

Once in office, though, Reagan disappointed them and their wrath was Biblical in its proportions.  The most pressing issues back then were racism and tax policy.  Reagan and the GOP had promised to throw out Jimmy Carter’s persecution of racist fundamentalist schools.  Once in office, however, Reagan realized that the segregatory policy of schools such as Bob Jones University was politically impossible.  So Reagan punted.  He reversed himself.  The reaction of Bob Jones III was immediate and ferocious.

Reagan, Jones III ranted, had proved himself a “traitor to God’s people.”  It was time, Jones threatened, for fundamentalists to “stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.”

The full story of Jones III’s relationship with the Reagan White House had some complications, and you can read the full story in my upcoming book.  However, the general drift was clear: Politicians could court the fundamentalist vote by appearing at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, but the demands of those fundamentalists might not be politically palatable.

And no one is quicker to resent political compromise than fundamentalists.

So what do I predict for the Trump/Falwell love affair?  First, let me offer a few nerdy qualifications.  YES, I understand that Liberty today has worked hard to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings.  And YES, I understand that Falwell Jr. is not Falwell Sr., and neither of them shared the shoot-first-ask-questions-later fundamentalist style of the Bob Joneses.

However, with all that said, I will go on record as predicting a blow-up between the Trumpists and the Flames.  The existing anti-Trump vibe on Liberty’s campus will grow into an irresistible force.  Falwell will eventually come out against his current BFF, when the conservatives and (relative) liberals in the extended Liberty community unite against Trumpism.

Hold me to it!

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Editor’s Note: With ILYBYGTH back on the air, we’re pleased to re-introduce a regular feature: I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading, a list of ILYBYGTH-friendly readings from around the interwebs.  Have a suggestion for the list?  Send em in to our editorial desk: alaats AT binghamton DOT edu

What’s it like to be a conservative student at a liberal university?  In the New York Times this week, Marin Cogan argues that the experience can make conservatives tougher but weirder.

reading cat

Words, words, meow…

We’re all familiar with conservative schooling in the USA.  What does it look like elsewhere?  According to The Guardian, one right-wing kindergarten in Japan abused students, spewed racial hatred, and had links to the top.

In the Washington Post, Emma Brown and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel take a look at Trumpism in public schools.  What does it mean?  No surprise: Big budget cuts, more privatization.

President Trump, the Great Uniter??!??  When it comes to his budget, it looks as if POTUS has brought together conservative and liberal religious groups.

The news from home: A campus in the University of Wisconsin system fired, then re-hired an employee.  The charge?  The employee allegedly supported President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims.

Is Zinn the Darwin of the History World?

There are few things more troubling than a book ban.  Yet conservative activists keep trying to ban Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.  The latest effort takes place in Arkansas.  To us, this raises a tricky question: Is Zinn the Darwin of the history world?

Of course, that’s not the only question that might keep us up at night.  We might ask why this particular book is so offensive to conservatives.  We might even ask how banning books and ideas unites the left and the right these days.

Maybe we’ll get to those questions some fine day.  Today, though, we want to ask about the Zinn/evolution connection.

Who’s afraid of the big bad Zinn?

First, some catch up: If you don’t know Howard Zinn, you might get a tax break for your energy-saving under-a-rock lifestyle.  His People’s History has long been touted as a welcome correction to the flag-waving, Bible-thumping, chest-beating stories that so often get taught in US History classes.  In Zinn’s history, European explorers aren’t heroes, but exploiters and rapists.  In Zinn’s telling, “Manifest Destiny” was nothing but a shill for robbery and genocide.  In a word, Zinn offered a leftist counter-history to the standard textbook tale.

And opposition to Zinn has been ferocious.  A few years back, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels tried to ban the book from Indiana.  And now, Representative Kim Hendren has introduced a bill in Arkansas to ban everything written by Zinn since 1959.

As I argued in my book The Other School Reformers, conservative educational activists have always been a fractious bunch.  On one thing, though, they agreed without even having to talk about it: Schools must be “safe spaces” for students.  They must not introduce ideas that shake students’ religious faith, patriotic pride, or traditional notions of family.

The most obvious intellectual threat to the conservative vision of proper education has been evolution.  Since the 1920s, conservatives worked hard—often with great success—to have evolutionary theory banned or watered down in American public schools.

But history books have often come under fire, too.  Long before Zinn freaked out the squares with his People’s History, Harold Rugg’s textbooks were purged from millions of American schools.  Rugg’s books were yanked from shelves, and one hapless school board member in my sunny hometown of Binghamton, New York suggested they should be piled up and burned.

The parallels seem striking.  Like evolution, leftist history is seen as a deadly threat, a spiritual and intellectual contaminant.  Many conservative activists think they must eliminate it entirely in order to protect students.  Consider former Governor Mitch Daniels’ comments from Indiana.  “How do we get rid of [A People’s History],” Daniels asked, “before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or its neo-Darwinian progeny, many conservatives see Zinn’s historical ideas as a terrible threat to their children’s well-being.  They might well want their children to consider a broad range of diverse ideas, but Zinn’s telling of US history, like Darwin’s telling of the origins of humanity, seems to veer far out of bounds of acceptable thinking.  Like evolutionary theory, Zinn’s history sparks an immediate fear among conservatives.  Some activists worry that mere exposure to such ideas will harm their children.

Look out, children!

For reasons like these, it seems fair to conclude that Zinn does indeed serve as a sort of Darwin of the historical world.  Zinn’s vision of US history seems to match Darwin’s vision of speciation, in the perceived intellectual threat it poses to the helpless children of conservative America.

But we can’t stop there.  There are also important differences between Zinn and Darwin.  When it comes to evolutionary theory, academic biologists agree: the modern evolutionary synthesis is our best current understanding of speciation.  Banning evolution, or even watering it down by suggesting that it is only one idea out of many equals, means giving schoolkids worse science.

Fans of Zinn’s People’s History can’t say the same thing.  True, the American Historical Association condemned Governor Daniels’ ban.  But historians as a whole don’t love Zinn’s book.  Sam Wineburg, for example, has famously pointed out the problems with Zinn’s work.  Michael Kazin, too, agreed that Zinn’s book was “stronger on polemical passion than historical insight.”  Neither Kazin nor Wineburg liked Indiana’s attempted ban, but neither of them loved Zinn’s book, either.

So as Arkansas gears up to debate (again) the notion of banning leftist history, we can agree that banning Zinn is a bad idea.  Straight-up dumb.  But we don’t want to fall into the obvious trap.  Zinn is no Darwin.  Banning evolution means banning science.  Banning Zinn doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating good history.

Let’s say it again: Banning Zinn is a terrible idea.  It is good for students to consider different ideas about history.  His book, though, should be understood for what it is: a political book about history, not a history book about politics.

Are You a Big Fat Idiot?

Are you like me?  That is, do you believe in evolution?

Or, to be precise, do you think evolutionary theory is our best current explanation of the way species came to be different from one another?

If you do, you might just be a big fat idiot just like me!

peter griffin evolve fish man

He’s big, he’s fat, and he’s an idiot.

It’ll come as no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH* that questions of knowledge and belief are inextricably tangled up when it comes to evolution and creation.  There are plenty of creationists who know what the theory of evolution says, but wouldn’t say they “know” it.  And there are plenty of evolution supporters who think evolutionary theory is the best way to understand things, but they wouldn’t want to say they “believe” it.

That’s why in our recent book, Harvey Siegel and I advocated cutting the connection in our public-school science classes.  Yes, let’s help students understand what evolutionary theory says, but let’s remain carefully neutral about what students might believe.

After all, we know there must be creationist kids out there who don’t want to “believe” in evolution since they think it’s against their religion.  But here’s the kicker: Plenty of us who say we “accept,” “know,” or “believe” in evolution don’t really know much about it.

Exhibit A: Family Guy.  In Peter Griffin’s telling, evolution happened over millions of years.  In this clip, we see ambitious fish turning into to lizards, who stretch their way into dinosaurs.

We also see Family Guy’s vision of creationism (“obligated by the state of Kansas…” ha), in which Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie blinks everything into existence, including a rabbit, a car, and Jesus with a “USA#1” foam finger.

Family Guy i dream of jeannie creationism

Not exactly what Kansas creationists teach, either.

For now, though, let’s focus on the evolution part of Family Guy’s history of the world.  Granted, Peter Griffin really is a big fat idiot.  Nevertheless, his description of evolution is pretty close to what most of us think of as the story of life, evolution-style.

We talk about animals crawling up out of the slime to walk on land.  We talk about animals that are “perfectly evolved” for their habitats.  We imagine a process by which animals and plants get better and better—higher and higher up an evolutionary ladder—and we think we are talking about evolutionary theory.

The problem is, we’re not.  The idea of animals working hard to improve themselves and work their way up the evolutionary ladder doesn’t match what scientists think happens.  We see our comfortable myth of evolution everywhere, though.  In my “Evolving Darwin Play Set,” for example, we see animals working their way up from “fish-man” to “genius.”

evolving darwin play set

From “Fish-Man” to “Genius” in only 380 million years!

If you’re like me, you have a vague sense that that’s the way evolution worked.  The problem is, we’re wrong.

If you ask a friendly science geek, evolution didn’t doesn’t have any sort of goal in mind.  Evolution is not about getting higher up a great chain of being.  Evolution is not about getting better and better until slime becomes scientist.  Rather, we’re supposed to think of evolution as a bushy process, a continual series of slow-motion experiments that don’t move toward anything.  We’re not supposed to imagine animals improving toward a goal, but rather just doing what they can to survive and reproduce, holding on to traits that seem to help.

Is that what you think of when you think of evolution?  If so, congratulations, you’re not a big fat idiot.  But if you really know what evolutionary theory says, you are an unusual person.

Most of us, whatever we say we believe about evolution, don’t know much about modern evolutionary theory.  As Dan Kahan reminds us, people who say they accept, know, or believe evolution can’t do a better job of explaining it than people who say they don’t.

What about you?  If you’re like me, you accept evolutionary theory.  But you don’t really know much about it.  Like Peter Griffin, we have a sense that evolution took a long time and that animals changed from one thing into another.  But the images we carry around in our heads aren’t really evolutionary theory, but rather myths about the origins of life featuring the vague and faceless deity “Evolution.”

Does it matter?  If we want to understand the creation/evolution battles, it matters a lot.  Most important, IMHO, it helps us understand that we’re all a lot more similar than we might think.  The folks who troop into Ken Ham’s Creation Museum might be a bunch of big fat idiots, but so are the rest of us.  When it comes to questions of evolutionary theory, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about.  We trust in the authority of our experts, but in a pinch, we can’t really explain what our experts believe.

*Sophisticated and Good-Lookin Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, natch.

 

…..and We’re Back!

Life just hasn’t been the same without our daily dose of SAGLRROILYBYGTH.  So I’m happy to say we’re back: after a year-long break, I Love You but You’re Going to Hell is back on the air.

Ba-ba-ba…Ba-babarino.

What can you do to help celebrate?  Get the word out–like us on Facebook, tell your friends about us, etc. etc.

What can you expect?  More of the same, really.  I’ll be posted updates from the books I’m working on.  Right now, that means the latest from the progress of Fundamentalist U.  Plus, I’m up to my eyeballs writing Why Is Jesus on a Dinosaur.  I’ll be posting all the challenges I’m having decoding the weird world of American creationism.

And we’ll be posting from the news, too.  With creationists and conservatives in the White House, I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about.

So stay tuned and set your browser on “fun.”  I’m happy to be back.

Special thanks for all the comments and notes over the past year.  It’s nice to be missed!

The Best(?) of ILYBYGTH

Thank you! I am saddened and tickled pink by all the notes and letters of condolence for the temporary closing of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell. It’s a bittersweet affair, since I’m excited about my new writing project, but sorry to miss the always-stimulating back-and-forth with the ILYBYGTH community.scopes

Thanks to all SAGLRROILYBYGTH for all the ideas and connections over the years.

While we’re on hiatus, here are links to some of our most popular posts and discussions over the years:

Not Goodbye, But…

The time has come for your humble editor to take a break from ILYBYGTH, at least temporarily.

With many thanks for all the conversations and connections over the years, I’ve decided I need to call a hiatus. I am planning to spend more time on long-form writing, including trying my hand at a book for a wider readership. In spite of my best efforts over the past few months, it doesn’t seem like I can do that and keep up my editorial duties in these pages.

What will I be working on? In addition to completing my current book, Fundamentalist U, I want to try to write a book for non-specialists There’s a question familiar to ILYBYGTH readers that deserves a wider audience.  In But Why Is Jesus on a Dinosaur?, I’ll try to help outsiders like me make sense of American creationism.

Keep your eyes peeled, SAGLRROILYBYGTH. And feel free to check out my new website for updates and continuing commentary.

********************Thank you!**************************

The Art Has Arrived!

Okay…we know American schools feel weird about teaching evolution.  What do we DO about it?

teaching evolution in a creation nation

Raise your hand if you love this book…

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I’ve got a new book coming out in the next coupla weeks about creationism and evolution education.  I’ve teamed up with philosopher extraordinaire Harvey Siegel on Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.

In the first several chapters, I offer a brief review and argument about the history of evolution education in these United States.  Then Professor Siegel walks us through some of the key philosophical questions involved.  Finally, we offer some common-sense but uncommonly difficult prescriptions for moving forward.

The University of Chicago Press has just released the cover art.  What do you think?  (It’s too late now to change it, so please just tell me it looks great and that you’ll take a dozen copies.)