Forget Benedict, It’s the DeVos Option

You’ve heard it by now: Rod Dreher is pushing a “Benedict Option” for religious conservatives. He wants the good people of America to pull back from mainstream society into purer enclaves. When it comes to our long-simmering creation/evolution debates, that sort of BO has never really been necessary. And Trump’s latest executive order makes it even less so. Why would creationists retreat when they’ve already won?

berkman plutzer REAL chart

Traditional schools, traditional teachers, traditional “science”

In case you haven’t seen it yet, President Trump has continued his charm offensive with America’s conservatives. In his latest executive order, he has promised conservatives something they have long yearned for: greater local control of public education. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos will conduct a 300-day study into the issue. She is charged to find ways to limit the influence of the federal government in local schools.

As DeVos crowed, this order gives her

a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached. . . . And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.

Obviously, there are enough dog-whistles in there to win an Iditarod. Conservative activists have long yearned to shackle the federal education bureaucracy. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, since the 1930s conservatives have looked askance at federal control of local schools. Time and time again, distant experts have advocated more racial integration, more evolution, and more multiculturalism in K-12 schools. Time and time again, state and local officials have pushed back, fighting for more religion, more segregation, and more traditionalism.

In the specific case of evolution and creationism, creationists have always worried that outside control meant more evolution. Back in the 1920s, for example, anti-evolution leader William Jennings Bryan railed endlessly about the infamous influence of outside “oligarchs” on local schools. The local hand that wrote the paycheck, Bryan insisted, must rule the schools.

Bryan wasn’t alone. In North Carolina, anti-evolution activists blasted their university president for pushing evolution into their flagship public state university. President Harry Chase, they charged, was nothing but a “damn Yankee,” messing up local schools by importing “modernists, Darwinian apologists, and Northerners.”

In the case of evolution education, though, creationists have always had the last laugh. Yes, conservatives have worried about the influence of outside experts. But in most schools, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, local values dominate. Local attitudes were the most important factor, they found, in determining how much creationism was taught in public school science classes. As they put it,

Traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture (pp. 199-200).

In communities that favor creationism, teachers teach it. In communities that are on the fence, teachers mumble about it.

So why would creationists ever want to retreat to Benedictine purity? They have already won. And, as Secretary DeVos promises even greater local control, creationists have even more cause to celebrate. As young-earth activist Jay Hall put it recently, “we support the efforts of the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice.”

More choice plus more local control equals more creationism.

So, though there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to head for the hills, evolution education ain’t one of em. Local schools have always allowed local creationists to dictate the goings-on in most science classes.

And Secretary DeVos’ new local imperative seems destined to only make local creationist control stronger.

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  1. Maybe it is time to drop the idea that education for all is one of the things that has made this country successful. Maybe we should hop on the school choice bandwagon and simply state “You choose – fairy tails or reality.” Conservative evangelicals can have their young earth creation curriculum, climate change denial, and the whole nine yards while rational folks can pursue facts, observation, theories, history and the truth in all areas of study, wherever that pursuit may lead.

  2. Agellius

     /  April 27, 2017


    Amen!! It should never have been the government’s job to educate the citizenry. Provide for education, sure, but not to educate directly. After all the government is supposed to follow the lead of the people, not vice versa.

    • The government doesn’t educate directly. The government does and can only follow the lead of the people. The problem is the people are divided between fundamentalist protestants and everyone else. Other religious fundamentalists and anti-government, anti-tax interests encourage this division, but I very much doubt it will go well for them or anyone if education is completely privatized. In the scenario Douglas describes, the country would divide into modernity embracing urban and coastal wealth versus rural flyover anti-modernity and poverty. As minorities in the latter areas, Jewish, Muslim and Catholic groups as well as libertarian atheists would probably find themselves subjected to the same violence and disenfranchisement they did for most of American history and increasingly face in these regions now.

  3. Regarding the content of Adam’s original post, maybe he was just being brief or facetious, but he totally misconstrues the perspectives of the people he mentions.

    If “creationists” means most young earth fake science believers or all who reject evolutionary theory (as opposed to “theistic evolution”) those people have been doing the BenOp for decades, and they’re not really in Dreher’s audience. Nor is Dreher focused on a separatistic educational program. I’ve never seen him comment on science or evolution; I would assume his path from mainline protestant to eastern orthodoxy through catholicism means he has a no-conflict theism+science type of perspective.

    DeVos too is misrepresented as trying to force the public schools to accept creationism or religious content; in the view of the tradition she is coming from, state (public) schools are primarily defined by public funding, and their secularity can or ought to be more of a european variety where religious content and symbolism that’s part of the dominant culture isn’t eliminated to create “neutrality.” I don’t think they’re terribly interested in getting an alternative creation science taught, just some representation of theistic positions as valid possibilities.

    What DeVos represents as a threat to the status quo is her interest in public funding for private, religious schools. Bringing a wide variety of ideologically distinct, religious and non-religious schools into the public system might seem like a good way to hold together a pluralistic system with substantial autonomy for each school or sub-system, but there are some big problems with it. Some unifying standards would be required. There would be a big fight over whether some schools can operate according to totally different civil rights and labor rights. The radical separatists and independents will never accept any kind of state school system but may appreciate further development of ways for them to use state school resources and funding.


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