A recent exposé in the New York Times attacked Wal-Mart’s funding of charter schools. Conservative pundits defended Wal-Mart. But neither side took notice of a more profound tradition of educational activism by the leaders of the mega-retailer.
Historian Bethany Moreton, in her not-so-recent-anymore book To Serve God and Wal-Mart, describes a different sort of educational work by the founders and leaders of Wal-Mart. In addition to funding charter schools, the Waltons and Wal-Mart developed a network of fundamentalist colleges and universities that may have had far more long-term impact on American society and culture than any charter school.
The 2009 book garnered plenty of rave reviews from academic historians. I won’t try to offer a full review here, but if you’re interested, you can check out this one in Church History, or this one in the American Historical Review. Instead, I’ll sketch a few of Moreton’s points about the links between the Wal-Mart fortune and a network of evangelical colleges in the Ozark region. As I move into the research for my next academic book, a twentieth-century history of conservative evangelical colleges and universities, it seems clearer and clearer to me that these colleges have played a huge role in determining some of the basic culture-war landscape of recent United States history.
As Moreton describes, Wal-Mart and Walton money helped support some schools that desperately needed financial help. Especially close to Wal-Mart were the University of the Ozarks, John Brown University, and Harding University. Each of these schools embraced a Wal-Mart friendly combination of evangelical Protestantism and free-marketeering. And each benefited from substantial financial support from the Wal-Mart empire. Indeed, as Moreton relates, University of the Ozarks students joked that they should just change the name of their school to “Wal-Mart U” (pg. 144).
In the mid-1980s, as Moreton tells the story, with help from the Waltons, the faculty of the University of Ozarks spelled out the connections between traditional evangelical higher education and an intellectual embrace of the values of capitalism. In 1983, Mrs. Walton launched a series of “Free Enterprise Symposia” to trumpet the achievements—both moral and economic—of capitalism (pg. 154). A few years later, the faculty agreed that a new student concentration in entrepreneurship would include traditional courses in Old and New Testament, government, and liberal-arts electives. But the focus would be on business and the moral triumph of capitalism over “socialism/marxism” (pg. 155).
Students at these capitalist/Christian colleges embodied a very different sort of student identity from those of the hippies and leftists dominating headlines at other schools. For instance, Moreton describes one example of student activism at the University of the Ozarks in the late 1970s. Students joined with downtown merchants to encourage Christmas shopping. Students combined patriotic displays of red, white, and blue with traditional Santas to connect Jesus, America, and consumerism (pg. 143).
Wal-Mart also supported student organizations such as Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE). These pro-Christian, pro-capitalism student groups claimed to enroll 40,000 college students at 150 campuses nationwide. Together, SIFE bragged that it reached 100,000,000 people with its message of Christian free enterprise. Moreton described one example of that sort of student outreach by the SIFE chapter at Harding. Harding students tromped about the region with a student in a giant pencil costume. They spoke at schools, club meetings, and any other venue that would have them. Their message? Following the work of pundit Leonard Read, the students explained that worldwide capitalism managed to produce goods and services for all without central guidance. The humble pencil, for example, took materials and know-how from all around the world, bringing profit and uplift to all involved. Yet the invisible hand of the market accomplished this incredibly complex task without oversight from bumbling and greedy governments (pp. 193-197).
As Moreton tells it, Wal-Mart’s college activism did not limit itself to the borders of the United States. In the late 1980s, the Waltons funded scholarships for students from Central America to study at colleges such as Harding, John Brown, and the University of the Ozarks. The goal was to train managers and workers in the pro-business, pro-Christian approach to big-block retailing and worldwide supply chains (pp. 222-247).
Moreton rightly emphasizes the centrality of higher-educational activism by conservatives such as the Waltons. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argue in both my 1920s book and my upcoming book on educational conservatism more broadly, the nature and purpose of higher education remained a central focus of American conservatism. As Moreton’s study reveals, the brains behind the Wal-Mart phenomenon took an active part in sponsoring the sorts of college and university “experience” that they thought would promote proper, traditional Americanism.
If I were to quibble with this book, I’d note that Moreton sometimes seems unaware of the longer, broader connections between pro-business groups and educational institutions. She describes what she calls the “national context of business colonization of education generally” (pg. 151) in the 1970s, but she doesn’t adequately note that the roots of that colonization go back into the 1930s, at least. Groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, for example, actively conducted the same sorts of pro-business educational outreach that Moreton describes. A quick consult with Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America? would have helped Moreton flesh out the longer history.
But this sort of historian’s quibble does not detract from the importance of Moreton’s book. As the recent New York Times attack makes clear, conservative activism in K-12 education will always get plenty of attention. But the more profound cultural work of changing higher education may have much bigger impact on the nature of America’s culture wars. Who teaches the many conservative teachers in K-12 schools, for instance? Where do Christian executives learn to combine Jesus with Milton Friedman? Moreton’s look at the connections between Wal-Mart and higher education help illuminate the core intellectual premises of Christian capitalism.