Religious Extremists Capture Major Political Party

Old news, right? SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear that the Republican Party is addicted to the political support of conservative evangelicals. These days, though, we have a sad reminder of the fact that both major parties can fall victim to special-interest lobbies, lobbies that put children in a terrible educational position.

yeshiva

Who is watching out for the kids?

For Republicans, this is nothing new. For a long time now, Republicans have been trembling at the thought of angering evangelical creationists. The most egregious example, IMHO, was the waffling of former Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, you may recall, was the popular governor of Louisiana who briefly made a bid for the GOP nomination in 2016. No matter what you might think of his politics, Governor Jindal is no dummy. He graduated from Brown with a degree in biology. He went on to Oxford, turning down acceptances at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School. He may not have made much of a splash in the 2016 presidential race, but we can safely assume that Jindal knows plenty about evolution and many other things.

Yet in spite of all his knowledge, when asked what he thought about evolution in 2014, Jindal hedged. Yes, he wanted his own kids to learn about evolution. When it came to public schools, though, Jindal defended the rights of creationists. If a local school district wanted to teach creationism as science, Jindal argued, that should be up to them.

Bad thinking, but good politics, I suppose.

We see a similar tragedy unfolding these days in Arizona. To win election in the Republican Party, it seems, candidates felt pressed to endorse a bigger role for creationism in public schools.

It’s been true for a long time and it doesn’t seem like it is going to change any time soon. The Republican Party forces candidates to ignore their own ideas and truckle to the desires of radical young-earth creationist supporters.

Recent news from my adopted home state shows that this is not only a problem for the GOP. The Democratic Party, too, seems to have entered into a deal with religious extremists. Just as Republican pandering hurts schoolchildren in Louisiana and Arizona, so too does Democratic deal-making hurt kids in New York.

Here’s what we know: Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of a sordid educational quid pro quo. He allegedly promised prominent Hasidic leaders that he would not interfere with their religious schools in exchange for a vital political endorsement.

If it’s true, it’s more than a shame. Politicians of every party have a duty to safeguard the educational chances of students. The schools in this case don’t seem to do that at all. As a lawsuit this summer charged, significant numbers of yeshiva students in New York aren’t adequately taught secular subjects such as English, history, and science. Their curricula for boys focus almost exclusively on studying ancient religious texts.

As the New York Times reported, the state has promised to investigate these schools.  As they wrote last summer,

In 2015, the city Department of Education said it was opening an investigation into about 36 private yeshivas to see if they were providing adequate secular education according to state law. But in the three years since that announcement, the city has not released any results. Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the investigation is still active and the department would deliver the report “soon.” The city has visited 15 schools so far, according to Ms. Rothenberg.

A year ago, when asked when the education department planned to release a report on its investigation, a spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the investigation is continuing. “We are treating this matter with utmost seriousness,” she said.

This month, Governor Cuomo was accused of promising the Hasidic community that the investigation would continue to languish in exchange for the political endorsement of an influential leader in the Hasidic community.

If true, the charges show how difficult it is to protect the educational rights of children. Children don’t vote.  Children don’t meet with governors to insist the law be obeyed. Children can’t promise a solid block of political support in exchange for special favors.

To be fair, I think the GOP problem is worse. But this story demonstrates that the problem is not only a “conservative” one. Rather, any political party risks being held in thrall to special-interest groups, groups that might not have the best interests of children at heart.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

This week’s review of the latest news ‘n’ views from around the interwebs:

Atheists for Jesus: Pulling evangelical voters to the left at FA.

Peter Greene on why teachers join unions.

rockwell teacher union thugTexas school board gives history another once-over, and Hillary Clinton is out. At DMN.

Surviving purity culture at NPR.

In this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak and women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make, and it’s women and girls’ responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people — and if they don’t, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot.

Parents in Leiyang riot over school quality, at The Economist.

A liberal ex-evangelical finds a church home, at NR.

Still no-go for yoga in many public schools, at The Atlantic.

What is behind the coddling of the American mind? It’s not just “safetyism,” says reviewer at IHE.

Students have not been coddled, they’ve been defeated.

Concerned scientists weigh in on removal of climate change and weakening of evolutionary theory in Arizona standards, at NCSE.

Queen Betsy misquotes Professor Haidt, at CHE.

Let’s call it ‘Haidt’s choice’: Pursue truth or pursue harmony.

Should the Scientists Say It?

Okay, so you know about the ongoing frouforole in Arizona over its new science standards. Recent developments in the case leave us wondering: How should scientists make their case? Why wouldn’t they make it in the strongest way possible?

dobzhansky quotation

…here’s the most famous Dobzhansky line:

In case you’ve been napping, here’s a quick update: The political landscape in Arizona has led to some woeful watering down of the state’s science standards. Concerned scientists have weighed in, pleading with the state board of education to reject the shoddy new standards.

In their letter, the American Institute of Biological Sciences warns,

The proposed standards fail to properly address important aspects of evolution science and remove climate change science from the high school curricula.

Right on. Thanks to AIBS for weighing in. There’s no doubt that Arizona should maintain high-quality science standards.

This morning, though, we have to ask a question. To back up their point, AIBS offers two compelling reasons, but they leave out an obvious third one. Why?

I don’t think it’s because AIBS chose to stick only with science, their area of expertise. After all, one of their main points is economic. If Arizona wrecks its science standards, it will be shooting its economy in the foot. As AIBS puts is,

Arizona has made important investments in its universities. This has enabled companies throughout the state to hire skilled graduates who can leverage the knowledge generated by scientific research to create new products and expand existing markets. Importantly, in coming years, a growing number of jobs will require scientific expertise, even when those jobs do not require a college degree. Thus, it is important that science be properly taught to all students and at all grade levels.

According to the Arizona Commerce Authority, “Bioscience and health care in Arizona are thriving industries, treating patients and conducting groundbreaking research that will change the world. Arizona research institutions, industries and clinical care facilities collaborate in unique ways to create new products and improve care and outcomes.” The Authority reports on its website that bioscience and health care industries generate $21.4 billion in annual earnings for the state, and in 2015 were responsible for about 320,000 jobs in Arizona. Arizona will jeopardize its prior investments and future economic opportunities if it waters down science standards by eliminating essential scientific concepts and fields of study to placate political interests.

Exactly true. The economic knock-on effects of clamping down on mainstream science and science education will be huge. But that’s not the only reason AIBS gives for keeping good science standards.

As they argue, good education itself demands it. All of us should insist on the best for our kids, including the absolute best science education.

They cite the famous words of leading scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky,

“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky offered these words decades ago, but they still ring true. Evolution is required to understand biology . . .

So far, so good. AIBS is 100% correct. Good science education is good in itself, and to be good it must include real evolutionary science. It’s also good for practical reasons, such as booming economic benefits.

But why, oh why, did AIBS leave out the other, screamingly obvious, part of their argument?

Dobzhansky meme creationisst

…Why not use the second-most famous Dobhansky quotation, too?

They could easily have added that evolutionary science does not deserve its reputation as an attack on religion. They could have simply added that Dr. Dobzhansky himself identified as “a creationist and an evolutionist.”

Why would AIBS do so? Consider their audience. If they want to stick to the science, fine. But clearly they don’t. They use economic arguments to speak to all Arizonans. Why not use the obvious religious argument as well? Why not point out that lots and lots (and lots) of creationists have absolutely no religious problem with real evolutionary theory?

A Doomed Experiment in Christian Higher Ed

I’ll say it: It’s not gonna last. Everyone knows historians make terrible prognosticators, but in this case I’m feeling pretty confident. A two-year old experiment in a new kind of evangelical college experience has only one slim chance of survival.

created institute

Sounds great. Won’t last.

The experiment at issue is CreatEd Institute in North Carolina. The new school hopes to offer conservative evangelical Protestants a new way to experience higher education. Instead of traditional classes and majors, CI has an 18-month cohort approach. All students progress together through core ideas, relying on something like a Great Books approach. After that time, students can move into a professional apprenticeship program in a field of their choosing.

Will it work? Its boosters promise the world. As the website explains,

What is Truth? What is beauty? What is society? Who is God? What does it mean to be fully human? Who am I? These are the questions students wrestle with, and find answers to, in the CreatEd Core.

Our 16-month, discussion-based program inspires students through an engaging study of the Great Books built upon the biblical narrative. We pair history’s most creative, insightful thinkers with the Truth of God’s Story. Rather than offering dozens of unrelated courses, the intentional sequenced curriculum of the CreatEd Core brings meaning to learning, igniting a passion in our students as they make connections between themselves, God’s Word, and His world.

By including a “Guild” program, CI hopes to be more than just a dream factory. CI insists it will prepare students better than traditional colleges for an authentic, successful Christian life and career.

CI faces big hurdles. It has not earned any accreditation and says it won’t try to. Its model only allows it to welcome small batches of students. The cost per student is accordingly high: $39,820 for the first two years, and more if students want to proceed into the apprenticeship program.

There is only one way a school like this will survive and thrive and the founders of CI don’t show any signs of recognizing it.

Think about it: How many tuition-paying students can an experimental school like this attract? It apparently hopes to appeal to the homeschool and “classical” evangelical school crowd. For families with the wherewithal to afford the CI program, though, there is way too much competition.

Consider, for a moment, what a CI student would be giving up. Without accreditation, none of the credits from a CI transcript will transfer. And without offering a bachelor’s degree program, graduates will invest time and money without any recognized professional credential.

Why would students choose such a thing?

In the variegated world of American higher ed, there is a long-standing precedent and model. Deep Springs College in California has a long history of offering a very similar program from a non-evangelical perspective. Students at Deep Springs go on a two-year intellectual journey. At the end, however, they often transfer to elite universities to complete their degrees.

How has Deep Springs thrived for a century? For one thing, it is free. Second, it is able to brag that its students are being prepared to trounce all competition in professional success. As they state prominently,

Alumni have gone on to become leaders in a number of fields, some receiving MacArthur Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, and Truman and Rhodes Scholarships. Today, Deep Springs is often cited as an example of the transformative experience that higher education can offer.

Unless CreatEd can pull off an evangelical version of Deep Springs, it is doomed. Unless, that is, the school can promise that its students will not suffer professionally for their experience, CI will go the route of so many other experiments in higher education: Big dreams and a quick expiration.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Alexis Waggoner and Biola

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Rev. Alexis James Waggoner. The Rev. Waggoner is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and received her M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She works in the field of religious scholarship — as a Minister of Christian Education, and as the Education Director for a non-profit dedicated to religious literacy. She also serves as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. She graduated from Biola University in 2003.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on Biola? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

“Pressure” is the wrong word – my parents presented it to me like a (conservative, Evangelical) Christian college was my only option. The other “options” were all similar (Westmont, Asuza, etc).

image1

Alexis Waggoner today

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

While I have SO many problems now with schools like Biola, I think it was actually a good fit for me at the time. I grew up insulated and very conservative so Biola was actually a rather “diverse” place for me to be, in that it wasn’t as monolithic as my upbringing had been. It did deepen my faith at the time. And in no small way, it set me on a path that led me where I am today. My family would probably say this is for the worse; I would say it’s for the better. So something about being exposed, in a small way, to differing ideas about Christianity made me want to keep digging and questioning, and find out what else was out there that I hadn’t been exposed to.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Absolutely, 100% not. For reasons that will likely become obvious below! I am completely removed from the evangelical environment of my upbringing and find the movement to be harmful at best, abusive at worst.

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Teach . . . the children well . . .

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

No. I did for a while but as my theology and ideology diverged more and more, I realized I no longer could, in good conscience, support a place that contributed to social conservatism, Christian supremacy, othering of the LGTQI community, less-than-full inclusion of women, etc.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to Biola, and – ten years later – to Union Theological Seminary; two schools that are almost as opposite on the “Christian” school spectrum as you can get. I could write a dissertation on the differences; some are probably pretty obvious. The biggest similarity, though, is that both engage in religious fundamentalism. They both have lines you can’t cross, things you can’t admit to, stuff you can’t question – they just lie on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. As someone who now identifies as an extremely liberal, non-orthodox Christian, who is part of a progressive denomination, serving in a liberal church in NYC … I wish this was something we in the progressive movement did better. We fall into the same traps as our Evangelical counterparts, the same things that we critique them for. I am fascinated by the work that needs to be done that could lead to an actual conversation instead of both extremes yelling past each other.

image2

Fighting fundamentalism…

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I was a liberal arts major so I took the basic science classes, I don’t remember much but I do remember – and here’s where the relative “diversity” of thought I mentioned above comes into play – being taught evolution. At least as a theory. I can’t remember exactly how it was presented; but it was done so in enough of a way that it was one of the threads of my fundamentalist upbringing that began to unravel. I’d been taught that creationism IS fact, and there are a few fringe people out there who believe this crazy thing called evolution but it’s not really that big a deal. I came to see that it was actually the opposite, and the fact that that piece of my education had been so off made me wonder what else could be wrong with my beliefs and assumptions. You can begin to see why I have mixed feelings about Biola. 🙂

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

It definitely was not the stereotypical experience, and I’m sure it would’ve been different had I been at a secular college. I had friends and roommates for whom partying and hook-up culture was more of the norm (well, a sub-culture norm). But there was also the pressure to keep purity pledges and that sort of thing. I think my experience was somewhere in between.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Oh absolutely yes. We had mandatory chapels, and we had to take a mandatory 30 units of Bible classes so that everyone ended up with a minor in Biblical Studies.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

Here again was where I learned about relative diversity of thought within Christianity. The school absolutely skewed conservative, politically, but there were some student groups who pushed those boundaries. And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian! Here again, the small level of exposure I had at Biola to other ways of thinking, began to erode my fundamentalist foundations. Which is pretty ironic. My parents sent me to an Evangelical school to (I assume) further educate me in their belief system and cement my faith. At the time I suppose it did that, somewhat, but in the long run it was the questions I began asking at Biola that led to the whole thing (over many, many subsequent years) eventually all falling apart for me.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

As much as it pains me to say it, the advantage they have is, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, they have dug in their heels and continue to offer an option to people who buy into the narrative that Christians are being assaulted and persecuted. Many people have this worldview and so for them, the “safety” that these schools offer is appealing. However, on the other side of the coin, I believe that the future of evangelical education is similar to the future of the evangelical church. While there is drastic entrenchment, and thus there will likely always be a market for fundamentalism, younger generations continue to be more diverse, more liberally minded, less willing to deal with the exclusivism preached by these churches and universities. So I guess as long as they can survive on the backs of those they’ve convinced to become more entrenched, they will. But I’m hoping the evangelical church as a whole (as we know it) soon will either reinvent itself or become relatively obsolete.

Thanks, Alexis!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

History by Design

No more Helen Keller! Out goes Hillary Clinton! The Texas state school board conducted another purge of its history curriculum recently. It’s tempting to see this as another right-wing curricular coup, but the winners and losers are a little more complicated. I gotta ask: Is this really the way we want to choose our history lessons?

Here’s what we know: The Dallas Morning News reported on the recent conclusions of the Texas state board of education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember other famous flaps on the board as captured by the fascinating documentary The Revisionaries. Back in 2012, conservatives on the board cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music” on the list of essential school knowledge. They wanted more Reagan, more NRA, and more conservatism in general.

These battles aren’t limited to Texas. Back in the 1990s, when Gary Nash and his colleagues tried to introduce new national history standards, they were accused of left-wing indoctrination. As one US senator complained, their suggested standards had more Bart Simpson than George Washington.

Today’s board has cut the requirement that schools teach about Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton. But they have also cut conservative icon Barry Goldwater. Plus, they have inserted stronger language that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

How did these decisions get made? A work group was tasked with evaluating historical persons and terms according to a list of questions. As the Dallas Morning News reported,

The 15-member work group came up with a rubric for grading every historical figure to rank who is “essential” to learn and who isn’t. The formula asked questions like, “Did the person trigger a watershed change”; “Was the person from an underrepresented group”; and “Will their impact stand the test of time?”

Out of 20 points, Keller scored a 7 and Clinton scored a 5.

By way of comparison, “Texas Rangers” got 16 points and “local members of the Texas Legislature” got 20. The state board didn’t have to honor these recommendations. For example, the work group recommended the removal of Billy Graham (4 points) but the state board decided to keep him.

So here’s the real question: Why are history lists composed this way? Why do political boards compile list of essential terms and facts that teachers must teach, even if no student really learns them?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Our weekly news ‘n’ views roundup:

Remembering 9/11:

Peter Greene: What Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are doing in schools is something, but it’s not “philanthropy.”

Modern fauxlanthropy is not about helping people; it’s about buying control, about hiring people to promote your own program and ideas. It’s about doing an end run around the entire democratic process, even creating positions that never existed, like Curriculum Director of the United States, and then using sheer force of money to appoint yourself to that position. It’s about buying compliance.

Is American higher education addicted to opportunism? DG Hart reviews a new book about Wendell Berry and the university, at FPR.

How do they do it over there? A new UK report recommends adding atheism to the list of religions studied in publicly funded schools, at the Guardian.

conservative

Does anyone understand American conservatism?

Does anyone understand the history of American conservatism?

At Harvard and Yale, more freshman identify as LGBTQ+ than as conservative, at NBC.

Creationist victories in public schools, at AU.

Can an evangelical candidate get Florida to vote Democrat? At NR.

CHris king

Can King pull evangelicals to the Blue side?

Gay’s not OK in PA: conservative evangelical college turns away a homosexual student, at IHE.

University of Nebraska surveys itself: Do conservatives feel welcome? At CHE.

How Creationists Win

For those of us who want secular public schools and mainstream evolutionary science only in public-school science classes, the news from Arizona could be either a glass half-full or half-empty. Either way, though, it serves as a clear reminder of how creationism wins.

Here’s what we know: In Arizona, the superintendent of public instruction picked Joseph Kezele to serve on an eight-person board reviewing state science standards. Kezele is the president of the Arizona Origin Science Association. He is an ardent young-earth creationist. In his work on the board, he has nudged the standards toward more skepticism about mainstream evolutionary theory.

To this reporter, the story reveals the most important reason creationists win. As I’m arguing in my new book, it’s not really about evolutionary science itself. Before we get to that main reason, though, let’s look at some of the contributing factors:

1.) Creationists win by being polite.

Kezele’s fellow board members don’t like his radical creationism, but they do like him. As the University of Arizona’s William Roth told the Phoenix New Times, in all their interactions Kezele was “polite and thoughtful.”

2.) Creationists win by taking advantage of their grandparents’ work.

In this case, Kezele has credentials as a faculty member at Arizona Christian University. A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education specifically identified Kezele’s faculty status as the main reason for Kezele’s inclusion on the board.

Though Arizona Christian University itself was founded only in 1960, it is part of the evangelical higher education network I described in Fundamentalist U. Since the 1920s, creationists founded their own network of universities specifically, in part, to provide a home for creationist scientists like Kezele.

These days, creationists like Kezele can only have higher-ed credentials because of the work of their parents, their grandparents, and in some cases, their great-grandparents. The fundamentalists who stormed out of mainstream colleges and started their own schools built a network that is still providing credentials and paychecks to radical creationists today.

3.) Creationists win by not asking for much.

In Arizona, according to Professor Roth, Kezele never tried to “foist any kind of creationism” on the committee. As Roth put it,

I never got the impression that he was really arguing for the inclusion of creationism in the standard. . . . I think he was pretty aware of the court rulings that religion is not going to be taught in science class.

Kezele did nudge the committee, though. For example, Kezele put his feet down to insist that the language be changed. Instead of explaining evolution as “THE” explanation for speciation, the new standards call evolution “AN” explanation. It’s a huge difference, to be sure, but worlds removed from actually adding any specific creationist content to the standards.

Historically, compared to the anti-evolution campaigners of the 1920s who sought to impose theocracy on America’s public schools, today’s creationist activists are fighting for curricular scraps and crumbs.

4.) Most important, creationists win these days for reasons that have nothing really to do with evangelical theology or evolutionary science.

It’s just politics. The superintendent who appointed Kezele wants creationism and evolution both to be included in public school science classrooms. But if she had not been elected, someone else who also favors creationism probably would have. As Arizona Central reported, Superintendent Diane Douglas was re-elected sought re-election from among a field crowded with creationism-friendly candidates. [Thanks to GB for the correction!]

Of the five Republican candidates for the job, four ardently supported teaching some sort of creationism in public schools. They may have had their personal reasons for wanting it, but they also made an obvious political calculation. If anyone is going to be elected in Arizona, that is, she must promise to make public schools creationism-friendly.

The reasons the candidates gave for supporting creationism in public schools were all about culture-war politics, not theology or science.

Candidate Frank Riggs, for example, argued that students needed creationism to be good Americans. As he put it, high-school students

should know what our founding fathers believed and put in our founding documents . . . “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” . . . We can’t skip over that, or we do a huge disservice to our students.

Another candidate, Tracy Livingston, poured some unadulterated MAGA rhetoric into the mix. Why should public schools include creationism? In her answer, Livingston bemoaned the “fact” that

Schools don’t even allow Merry Christmas anymore.

Why support creationism in public schools? For candidate Livingston, at least, it was part of a culture-war playbook. To Make America Great Again, schools needed to give Christianity a special spot. Children needed to be taught in a vaguely Christian atmosphere, one that included creationism.

It’s not science. It’s not even really religion. Instead, the main reason for creationist victories is simple, ugly, culture-war politics.

How do creationists win? Lots of reasons. They win if they are polite. They win if they take advantage of the long work of previous generations, establishing creationist institutions that can provide credentials. They win if they don’t ask for much, but insist on a little.

Most importantly, though, they win because they own the Republican Party in some locations. To win election as state superintendent of public education, candidates raced to out-creationist one another. Creationism has become yet another culture-war red flag. It’s not really about theology or science, but about what side you want to be on.

But What Do Conservative Students Think?

The headline caught my eye, but the actual survey sidestepped the main question. From what I can tell, we still don’t know the most important data of all.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students doing their thing…

At Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich followed up on the political poopstorm that enveloped the University of Nebraska recently. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might remember the story. A conservative student activist felt berated by a progressive grad student and faculty member. The story caught the imagination of both local conservative politicians and the national culture-war paparazzi. The university was called to political account. Did they mistreat and abuse conservative students?

Apparently, as part of the process, the university teamed up with Gallup to conduct a campus climate survey. They wanted to know if students, faculty, staff, and alumni valued free speech. They wanted to know if conservatives felt free to speak their minds on campus. From what I can tell, however, it seems like they avoided the main question.

gallup u nebraska

Conservative students SHOULD feel free to talk…but DO they?

Most respondents thought that liberals were definitely able to “freely and openly express their views.” A large majority—though not quite so large as for liberals—thought that conservatives were too.

Maybe I’m reading the results wrong, but from what I can tell the survey avoided the main point. It asked respondents to identify as students, staff, faculty, or alumni. It asked respondents to identify by race, gender, and sexuality. But it didn’t ask students to identify by ideology. In other words, we might know how 4,403 student respondents felt, but we have no idea how conservative students felt, compared to liberal students.

To my mind, the survey missed the main point. We don’t only want to know how ALL students thought conservative students should feel. We really want to know how the conservative students themselves felt, and, importantly, if there was a meaningful distinction between how conservative students felt and how other students thought conservative students felt.

In other words, I’m not interested in what the campus as a whole thinks about conservative students. I want to find out what conservative students themselves think.

The Most Important School Reform Issue

It’s bigger than charters. Bigger than vouchers. Bigger than flipping, or common-core testing, or APPR, or any other school reform idea out there. Those things are important, but only if we talk about them AND the biggest real issue. If we talk about other reform ideas INSTEAD of the biggest real issue, we’ll always miss the point.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

Reform schemes might be great, but they can’t do it all on their own. This pic shows one Lancasterian’s plan to revolutionize mathematics ed, c. 1830.

And the point is grim. According to my local paper, child-poverty rates in my neighborhood are shockingly high. In Rochester, New York, 56.4% of children live below the poverty line. In Syracuse, that number is 47.4%. Buffalo stands at 43.6%.

Depressing, you might say, but what does it have to do with school reform?
Everything. For centuries, well-intentioned reformers have tried to “solve” the problem of poverty by fixing American schools. It doesn’t work that way.

Yes, school reforms can help. Public schools can work well as convenient distribution points for poverty-alleviation reforms. Free breakfasts and lunches, for example, can help. So can school-based health care schemes.

Too often, though, reformers don’t talk about alleviating the effects of poverty AND improving education. Smart, well-intentioned people often simply assume that improving education can eradicate poverty on its own.

It was ever thus. As I’m finding in the research for my new book about Lancasterian reform plans, early 19th-century reformers often glibly assumed that tweaking schools would have an immediate and total effect on the rest of society. By giving low-income students a basic education, they thought, poverty would dissipate overnight like an unpleasant dream.

Just over two centuries ago, for instance, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton called the Lancasterian reform

as creating a new aera [sic] in education, as a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distressed of this world from the power and dominion of ignorance.

Or, as the New York Free School Society wrote in 1814, thanks to the “Lancasterian system of education,”

the darkness, which has overshadowed the minds of the poor, will gradually disappear.

In Philadelphia in 1819, thanks to the Lancasterian reform plan, reformers promised a speedy end to urban poverty. As they put it, since they adopted Lancasterian schools,

we may confidently look for that ameliorated state of society, which attempts at reformation, not in themselves radical, have hitherto failed to produce.

Perhaps most colorfully, one rapt devotee of the Lancasterian system told Lancaster in 1819,

Universal education must be the means of introducing and ushering in this Sun of Glory whose beams shall melt the chain of adamant and drive the infernal practice [of slave-holding] into outer darkness.

Two hundred years later, of course, we can see with depressing clarity: Simply changing classroom methods and schoolhouse design will not, can not, solve the problems of an unequal society.

In fact, for schools to work, we have to alleviate poverty first. Trying to fix social problems by fixing schools misunderstands the relationship between formal educational institutions and society. There is no way schools can fix society on their own. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Schools don’t fix society; schools ARE society.