Free to Discriminate?

Does a creationist have the right to free speech? That’s the question we’ve been wondering about here at ILYBYGTH lately, ever since arch-creationist Ken Ham got bumped from a talk at the University of Central Oklahoma. News from state legislatures brings up another campus challenge: Do student groups have the right to discriminate?campus-protest-getty-640x480

First, the update, thanks to Donna: According to Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis organization, he has been re-invited to UCO. Apparently, Ham will talk on campus, then move to a nearby church for a Q&A.

Today, we’ve got an even trickier free-speech/free-assembly question to examine. Should student groups be forced to abide by university anti-discrimination rules? Even for their own leaders? Americans United for Separation of Church and State lists a burgeoning new crop of state laws that would force campuses to make exceptions.

In Virginia, for example, a state senate subcommittee unanimously approved a new bill that would allow student groups to discriminate in their leadership choices. Emphasis added below:

Establishes several provisions for the protection of expressive activity on the campus of each public institution of higher education, including (i) permitting any individual who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity on campus to do so freely, as long as such expressive activity does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution of higher education and (ii) prohibiting any public institution of higher education from (a) denying a student organization any benefit or privilege available to any other student organization, or otherwise discriminating against a student organization, on the basis of the expressive activity of the members of such organization or (b) restricting a student organization’s ability to require any leader or other member of such organization to affirm and adhere to the organization’s sincerely held beliefs, comply with the organization’s standards of conduct, or further the organization’s self-defined mission or purpose.

Why do some conservatives see the need for such bills? As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, evangelical groups on campus have been under fire for the past few years. Intervarsity, for example, has been derecognized on many campuses. Why? Because the group requires its leaders—not members, but leaders—to agree to its statement of belief. And that statement of belief includes traditional definitions of sexual morality.campus-free-speech-720

Conservative religious folks have long fretted about these definitions of discrimination and inclusion. Why can’t conservative evangelical student groups insist that their leaders share their ideas?

The rub comes once again with the question of university support. Speakers on campus are generally free to do whatever they want, short of issuing threats or starting riots. People can talk their heads off in public areas. There have been important exceptions, as when one professor physically attacked an anti-abortion speaker on the campus of UC-Santa Barbara. campus free speech berkely republicansIn Ken Ham’s case, he wasn’t merely speaking on campus. He was sponsored and promoted by the student government. Some student groups objected to university sponsorship of a speaker that they saw as beyond the pale of legitimate public speech.

Liberal critics make the same case against these student-group laws. In AU’s opinion, such laws are a travesty. As they put it,

Religious freedom is the right to believe—or not—as we see fit. It doesn’t include a right to discriminate—and especially not while using taxpayer dollars or using the tuition fees of the very students who are being excluded. Religious student groups, of course, still have First Amendment rights on campus. They have been able to access school facilities for their meetings and use school bulletin boards to advertise their events like any other group. But they don’t have the right to force public universities to subsidize discrimination. If student groups want to discriminate, they shouldn’t receive public university recognition, tuition fees, or state taxpayer money to do so.

What do you think? Should student groups be free to discriminate? Should public money support student groups that discriminate?

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Who Still Loves Trump? Not Just the Usual Suspects

I thought I understood why so many white evangelicals supported Trump. New information about other conservative Trumpists has me wondering about it all over again.

First and foremost, we need to remember that political opinions are always a mish-mash. Some conservative white evangelicals might support Trump for hard-nosed political reasons, such as control of the Supreme Court. Others might simply revile Hillary Clinton so much that they’d support anyone else. Noting all those caveats, I thought the single biggest reason for white evangelical support for Trump was the hat.

Trump make america great again

Is it the hat? Or something more?

As I’m arguing in my new book, conservative white evangelicals have long felt a sense of usurpation. They have felt kicked out of the elite universities that they themselves founded. They have felt kicked out of mainstream science organizations. They have felt kicked out of mainstream cultural attitudes about sex and behavior.

When candidate Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” the promise carried a particularly heavy appeal for some conservative white evangelicals. They had long thought that America had gone to the dogs, that it had kicked God out of its classrooms and off its TV screens. The idea of restoring America to a mythic golden-age past has enormous appeal among some conservative white evangelicals.

This week, I’m catching up with old news about another conservative religious group that has similarly fond feelings for Trump, but none of the same unique history in this country. Orthodox Judaism has not had the same sense of proprietary ownership over public space in these United States, but apparently the Orthodox community is even fonder of Trumpism than white evangelicals are.pew chart trump support

At Forward, Elad Nehorai explores the curious fondness for white nationalism and Trumpism among the American Orthodox community. As he points out, Trump’s support seem to be falling among white evangelicals. At least as of December, Pew found white evangelical Trump fans had dropped to 61%. Among the Orthodox, though, support for Trump jumped to 71%, as of last September.

What gives?

Nehorai argues that some of his co-religionists have been so utterly disgusted by liberal politics they are willing to embrace any alternative. As one Orthodox writer offered, if he had to choose between Antifa and the Klan he’d take the latter. Nehorai concluded, for some Orthodox thinkers,

Ultimately, even the KKK may not be as bad as the liberal world.

Is Creationism Hate Speech?

It wasn’t about evolution or creationism. When a student group at the University of Central Oklahoma rescinded a speaking invitation for radical-creationist impresario Ken Ham, it wasn’t the biology or geology departments that had protested. Rather, it was women’s groups and LGBTQ+ organizations that objected to Ham. The controversy in Oklahoma points to a central problem for religious conservatives, one that all the bluster about “free speech” only obscures.

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Ken Ham’s organization makes no secret of its anti-homosexuality opinions.

I’m no conservative, but if I were I would not care as much about college speaking invitations as I would about the much-more-important real reason why Ham’s talk was canceled.

Before we get into that, though, let’s clear out a few of the distracting issues. Ham has protested that he had a contract in place and that the university “reneged.” The university says no contract was in place, only an invitation. We can remain agnostic on that question—the central issue here isn’t one of legal contracts, but of moral and social commitments.

Let’s also remember that this case doesn’t involve creationism as a whole, but only one form of creationism. Ham’s organization promotes a specific young-earth version that I’ve been calling “radical” creationism. As I argue in my current book, too often pundits equate radical creationism with creationism as a whole. It’s always important to remember what creationism really is and what it isn’t. As a whole, creationism certainly can’t be equated with Ken Ham’s ideas. For now, though, let’s move on to the central issues in this particular case.

Ham insists that his free speech rights were denied. But were they? Ham still plans to give a speech in the same town, at a nearby church. No one took away Ham’s right to speak, only an invitation to appear at a university-sponsored event. To use an intentionally inflammatory analogy, pornography is not allowed in public-school libraries, but that does not mean pornographers have lost their rights to free speech.

Today, though, such questions of contracts and free speech rights are not what we’re going to focus on. Instead, let’s look at a tougher question. Let’s examine the confusing language at the center of this case. Ham has protested with justification that his banishment violates the university’s stated goal of “inclusivity.”

The local creationist pastor who had invited Ham to Oklahoma quoted angrily from the university’s policies:

UCO claims that it “is committed to an inclusive educational” environment, and in its “Campus Expression Policy,” the university declares that it “is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged. The University is a diverse community based on free exchange of ideas.”

If the tax-funded university is committed to diversity and inclusion, the pastor asked, why did it exclude the different ideas of Ken Ham?

For its part, the university and affiliated student groups would likely explain (and for the record I’d agree) that “inclusivity” on a pluralist public campus must always exclude certain notions. Those who do not agree to the fundamental ideas of social equality can’t be included. If someone at an open public meeting refuses to let other people speak or to acknowledge other people’s rights as citizens, that person will be ejected. His or her rights to be included have always been premised on the condition that he/she recognize the same rights for all other members of the community. Whether you agree with it or not (I do), that exclusionary rule has always been central to the idea of “inclusivity.”

In the end, it was not creationist science that moved Ken Ham beyond the pale of civil speech, but rather his ideas about sexuality. As I was reminded recently on my trip to the Ark Encounter, a primary commitment of Ham’s creationist ministry is an insistence on the illegitimacy of homosexuality. In the eyes of Oklahoma protesters, Ham’s stance against same-sex marriage removes Ham from the circle of legitimate civic participants. By hoping to take away other people’s rights to participate equally in society, the argument goes, Ham has torn up the social contract and pushed himself out of the circle of civic rights, including the right to have his speech welcomed at a pluralist public institution.

If I were a radical creationist—and I’m not—I wouldn’t join Ken Ham and his allies in protesting about free speech rights. There is a larger issue that conservative Christians are losing—the right to have their ideas about sexual morality included in the list of legitimate opinions for public forums and institutions.

The free-speech issue, IMHO, is only a symptom of a much more profound loss by religious conservatives. In this case, Ken Ham didn’t have his rights to speak freely taken away. He still plans to speak in the same town. He is free to invite whomever he likes. He is free to say whatever he likes.

The big question, I think, is not whether or not radical creationists are allowed to speak freely. The big question, rather, is whether or not conservative Christian ideas about sexuality are still included in the list of legitimate political opinions. In this case, at least, they are not…not even in Oklahoma.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Monday! Another week come and gone and nothing to show for it except a handful of headlines:

Does college push students to the left? Not really, a new study finds. At IHE.

A Catholic view: Radical creationism suffers from “an impoverished theology,” at America.Bart reading bible

What does a conservative Koch-funded school look like? Now we know, at Wichita Eagle.

Schools don’t teach much about slavery, at WaPo.

What goes on in evangelical study centers on college campuses? At RNS.

Who’s afraid of institutional life? An interview with an evangelical college president at CT.

New bill would ban South Dakota schools from teaching about gender identity, at MN Star-Tribune.

Florida takes the lead on privatizing public education, at AP.

If You Don’t Teach about It, Will It Go Away?

Nothing is touchier than teaching young kids about sex. A new bill in South Dakota’s state senate illustrates the painfully deep culture-war divide we face on this topic. Progressives like me think teaching young kids about sexual identity and gender identity can save lives and create a more equitable society. Some conservatives think it warps minds and turns children into homosexuals or transgender people. But just like evolution and US history, the real divide isn’t over what to teach, it’s over how to teach it. The real issue, as always, is not sex or evolution or history, but TRUST.

Here’s what we know: A bill in the South Dakota senate would simply prohibit schools from teaching elementary students about transgender identity. It’s brief:

No instruction in gender identity or gender expression may be provided to any student in kindergarten through grade seven in any public school in the state.

This is the first bill of this sort, but it joins a group of similar bills about teaching sexual identity. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, those laws, sometimes called the “no-promo-homo” laws, are in effect in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. They prohibit teaching positive messages about homosexuality to young students.

And, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, it’s the “positive” part of the subject that is the trickiest. As we’ve seen in these pages time and again, conservatives mobilize to block certain books and ideas that hope to teach children that homosexuality is perfectly natural and wholesome.

PACE 1107

Image from PACE 1107.

But it’s not the case that conservatives don’t want their children to learn about homosexuality. In fact, even the most ardent fundamentalists teach their children about sexual identity and gender identity. The staunchly conservative Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, for example, includes a lot of information about homosexuality. For example, children will read the following:

Some people mistakenly believe that an individual is born a homosexual and his attraction to those of the same sex is normal. Because extensive tests have shown that there is no biological difference between homosexuals and others, these tests seem to prove that homosexuality is a learned behavior. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is sin. In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is as unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal as it is to say that murder or stealing is normal.

Now, this is a fairly extreme attitude toward homosexuality; most conservatives wouldn’t want their children learning this sort of idea either. Accelerated Christian Education is only popular among a certain subset of religious conservatives. However, when even those most anti-gay-rights conservatives teach their children explicitly about homosexuality, we see that the problem isn’t the topic, but the approach.

The problem, I think, for many conservative activists is a deep and abiding mistrust of how schools will teach young children about these issues. Conservatives (not all, but it gets repetitive to keep writing “some,” so I’ll shorten it from here on out to “conservatives”) worry that schools will indoctrinate young children with pro-gay, pro-trans messages.

To be fair, those fears are well-founded. Most educational programs that I’ve seen really do hope to foster a sense that homosexuality and transgender are healthy ways to be a person. To cite just one example from my adopted home state of Wisconsin, activists staged a reading of the controversial book I Am Jazz in order to help trans students feel “safe and accepted.”

Indeed, the intention of such books and curricula is precisely to help young people see sexual identity and gender identity in a non-traditional light; the goal is to help everyone accept non-traditional gender identities and sexual identities as healthy and normal. The kind of gender-identity education I support doesn’t just teach students neutral facts about gender. It really does hope to help young children see sexuality and gender identities as variable.

i am jazz

What should children learn about gender identity?

And, to be double fair, if the shoe were on the other foot, I would protest as well. That is, if children in public schools were learning ACE’s message about homosexuality, I would do everything I could to block it.

In South Dakota, and likely in other states soon as well, conservatives are hoping to ban a topic they can’t control. They worry that any instruction about transgender issues will turn into an attempt to indoctrinate young minds. They fret with good reason that progressives hope to get young children to accept non-traditional gender identities and sexual identities. In the end, conservatives don’t trust the public schools to teach their values, so they simply block certain topics altogether.

Mumbling Toward Gomorrah

Which side are you on? That’s the question college administrators hate to answer. A few recent headlines make it clear that conservative evangelical college leaders continue to prefer mumbling through some of the touchiest issues they face. As I found in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, it has always been thus.

baylor-header

What’s their position on homosexuality? …how much time do you have?

I was reminded of this dilemma when I came across a conservative lament about Baylor University in Texas. One outraged correspondent wrote to Benedictophile Rod Dreher to complain that Baylor had ditched its Baptist tradition. Officially, according to this American conservative, Baylor’s code of student conduct prohibits homosexual relationships. But as he or she described, it can be very difficult to actually find that rule spelled out. As s/he told Dreher, in order to find out that Baylor officially bans homosexuality,

You must start here Student Misconduct Defined https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32401 only to be redirected here for Sexual Conduct Policy https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32294 which says literally nothing, but directs you here: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php?id=39247. This tells you almost nothing but at least tells you sex is only allowed in marriage–but these days, who knows that means? The Baylor website basically says they understand marriage according to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message but tough shit, we aren’t going to give you a link; you’re are on your own. I found it: http://www.baptiststart.com/print/1963_baptist_faith_message.html And it turns out that according to the Baptist Faith and Message, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Whew! I’m tired already! Lots of link-chasing and more than a few logical inferences from different webpages are necessary to conclude that in fact, homosexual contact is prohibited by Baylor policy.

Baylor isn’t the only evangelical school to founder in the face of sex policy. SAGLRROILYGYTH may remember a recent case from Boston. Gordon College’s President D. Michael Lindsay set off a firestorm a couple of years ago when he reminded the Gordon community of Gordon’s long-standing policy against homosexual relationships among students. The Gordon community remains painfully divided over the question, with entire faculty committees resigning their leadership roles in protest over leadership decisions.

Now, I’m no evangelical. I’m not conservative. I wouldn’t send my child to a school that banned homosexual relationships, even if that school buried those rules deep in ivy. But as an outside observer, I can’t help but notice what so many school leaders have always known: Sometimes the best policy is mumbles. Anything else can blow up in your face.

After all, Lindsay at Gordon wasn’t changing any rules. He was not imposing a new, draconian policy. Rather, he was simply stating established Gordon rules. And that was enough to create an uproar. It would be difficult for other school leaders not to get the message. Time and time again, cautious school administrators and others can see the enormous benefits of mumbling. Of studied silences. Of intentional ambiguity.

Baylor considers itself a mainstream school, a powerhouse in both faculty lounges and football fields. The fact that its policy officially prohibits homosexual sex isn’t something it likes to promote.

Similarly, President Lindsay’s statement about student sex did nothing more than openly state the school’s longstanding policy, yet his statement has led to prolonged anguish for the Gordon community.

With stakes so high, it certainly seems to be in colleges’ best interest to maintain some flexibility in their official policies. This strategy is nothing new.

To describe just one example from my new book, in the 1960s Wheaton’s administrators faced a similar upsurge from the Wheaton community. Students wanted to revise the forty-year-old student pledge. The old rules against movies, alcohol, and card-playing—rebels insisted—reflected the college’s sad fundamentalist past. They insisted on more flexible rules in order to give them more moral responsibility.

In 1967, President Hudson Armerding agreed, sort of. He approved and announced a new set of guidelines for student behavior. From then on, instead of the old list of banned activities, students were expected to abide by the following rules:

                1.) Cooperate constructively in the achievement of the aims and objectives of Wheaton College and the responsibilities of citizenship in the community and nation.

2.) Exhibit Christian conduct, based on principles taught in the Scriptures, which will result in the glorification of God, the edification of the Church and his own growth in grace

3.) Observe, while under the jurisdiction of the college, Wheaton College’s ‘Standards of Conduct.’

4.) Take maximum advantage of the educational opportunities available to him by ordering his life so that he can live in harmony with both the academic and non-academic goals.

5.) Make full use of his God-given abilities so as to achieve maximum personal development.

6.) Continually evaluate his commitment to Christ and to the purposes of Wheaton College.

Armerding was a past master at mumbling through these questions. He could tell students with a straight face that he had heard their complaints. He really did approve a new approach.

Yet at the same time, President Armerding could tell conservative alumni and trustees that the new rules left the old ones in place. Students still had to abide by the old standards of conduct while on campus. He could look parents in the face, as he did in a 1971 chapel talk, and tell them that nothing had changed. As Armerding put it, Wheaton would never approve

a shallow permissiveness [that] conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children. . . . We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

The questions in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t about homosexuality. But the strategies were the same. As do administrators at all types of colleges, many evangelical school leaders cherish the value of fuzzy, possibly two-sided rules.

Required Reading: Public vs. Private

[Editor’s Note: We are happy to include an interview with Robert Gross about his new book Public vs. Private. In his book, Dr. Gross explores questions near and dear to the hearts of SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Private schools, public schools, religion, government, and the politics of education. His new book examines the early history of these questions and we’re delighted Dr. Gross has agreed to share some of his thoughts with us.]

1.) In the introduction to Public vs Private, you write,

American conceptions of public and private . . . are impossible to fully understand without placing education at the center of the regulatory state.

Could you please expand on that idea a little? Why is it so important to understand educational history in this area if we want to understand American concepts of “public” and “private?”

There are three main reasons that I think education needs to be placed at the center of our understanding of the history of the regulatory state. The first is simply that, by the early twentieth century, there was perhaps no other sphere of American life that was more heavily regulated. When focusing exclusively on private schools you see the scope of American market regulation in a way that is more hidden in other areas. States regulated almost the entirety of the private school sector: what classes they could teach, what credentials their teachers needed, what language they could speak in the classroom, and so forth. Private schools had to open their doors to inspectors and turn over their attendance rosters. And of course the state reached into the homes of private school parents—paying visits to them if their child was truant or not assigned to a schools.

public v private

Get your copy today.

The second way that education matters to understanding American government power is that court cases about public regulation of private schools have served as major precedents to define the broader scope of market regulation over business. I discuss a range of major supreme court cases in the book—from Dartmouth College v. Woodward to Berea College v. Kentucky to Pierce v. Society of Sisters—that centered on state regulation of private schools, but that also had a tremendous impact on how state governments could regulate to private enterprise more generally. Private schools have thus frequently been the sites over our most important legal contestations over the role of state power.

Finally, I was struck when researching and writing the book how much state officials relied on private schools to accomplish a crucial public goal: of providing mass education at no cost to taxpayers. I don’t think we can understand American government without seeing how it often uses private corporations to achieve public ends—we see that in health care, of course, but it was very much there in the 19th century with schooling.

2.) In the era you focus on in Public vs. Private, religion and religious arguments played a huge role in debates about funding for schools. How were those earlier debates different from today’s fights about religion in public schools? How were they similar?

Religious arguments were indeed used to prevent the vast majority of (religious) private schools from receiving direct state funding. But we have to remember that Catholic school systems, in particular, benefited immensely from a range of financial subsidies, especially property tax exemptions. While this is not something I explicitly write about in the book, my sense is that religious arguments historically have been less successful in obtaining funds than broader, more secular claims from religious schools about the “quasi-public” nature of their work. For example, in the 19th century legislatures and courts allowed Catholic parochial schools to have property-tax exemptions not solely (or even chiefly) because they were religious institutions, but rather because they served an important “public” purpose of educating masses of children. You see a somewhat similar dynamic in the middle of the 20th century over whether private schools that engage in various forms of discrimination can maintain their tax-exempt status. Courts ruled that private schools excluding African Americans, for example, were violating an important area of public policy, and so had no constitutional protections, nor claims to a tax deduction, in doing so. In the Hobby Lobby era we may see a shift in this general trend, of course.

3.) At the heart of the story you tell is an idea that seems foreign to a lot of people today. Can you explain the ways some leading 19th-century school reformers considered all private education to be a threat? Why did they think private schools were dangerous to American liberty?

Horace Mann and other public school reformers wrote extensively in the middle of the nineteenth century about how public school systems not only would eliminate private schooling but should do so. Public schools, they argued, were created precisely to destroy the balkanized provision of education that had existed beforehand—where Americans attended schools on the basis of their religious denomination, their class, or their ethnic heritage. Private schools thus represented an inherent challenge to the public school’s ability to be the assimilationist institution their founders envisioned. And because the vast majority of private schools by the late nineteenth century were run by Catholic organizations and, often, immigrant Catholics, they became enmeshed in deeper American traditions of anti-Catholicism and nativism.

There were a variety of other arguments for why private schools were seen as threatening that I think are worth mentioning as well. Many state public school leaders used economic arguments to suggest that private schools were inefficient, that schooling itself was a “natural monopoly” best operated by the government, without private competition—similar to how the government was increasingly providing other public utilities like water, gas, rail transportation, and so forth.

4.) What do you wish Betsy Devos knew about the history of the line between public and private schools?

I cannot speak to what Secretary Devos knows or does not know, but there is an important lesson in this book that I would want any public official to understand. The first is that we spend too much time in our debates about educational policy over whether one “supports” charter schools, voucher programs, school choice, or doesn’t support these initiatives. I think we would be better off if we talked about school choice in less Manichean terms, and instead posed the question that the communities in Public vs. Private had to contend with: “If we have school choice, how do we want to regulate it?” To what standards should we hold schools that receive public subsidies but are privately governed? How should we hold them accountable? Public regulation, as I argue in the book, is what allowed us to have robust school choice in the first place a century ago, and yet too often we ignore it in our contemporary debates.

Author bio: Robert N. Gross is a history teacher and assistant academic dean at Sidwell Friends School. He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and writes about the social and educational history of the United States.

Why Don’t We Tell Children the Truth about Slavery?

A sad new report offers proof of something history teachers have long lamented: Most students don’t learn much about slavery in their history classes. This terrible failure of our school network isn’t just about slavery; it’s a profound and depressing fact about our schools: We don’t dare to tell kids the truth.

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George Washington doing what George Washington did. Why is it considered unpatriotic to tell the children about it?

Why not?

The report on students’ knowledge about slavery comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The numbers are sadly predictable. Under a quarter of the students surveyed could identify the ways the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders. Most teachers (over 90%) claimed to want to teach more and better information about slavery, but they reported feeling unsupported by textbooks and state standards.

Our national reticence to teach children the undeniable and important historical truth about slavery has long roots. Time and time again, history classes focus on a feel-good national story. As Yale’s David Blight puts it in the report’s preface:

In America, our preferred, deep national narratives tend to teach our young that despite our problems in the past, we have been a nation of freedom-loving, inclusive people, accepting the immigrant into the country of multi-ethnic diversity. Our diversity has made us strong; that cannot be denied.

And, as the reports’ authors note,

We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s over-emphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.

This fear of telling students ugly truths has a long history. As I noted in my book about educational conservatism, many of our culture-war battles about teaching US History pitted the bashers against the boasters. Conservatives wanted kids only to hear about America’s glories. Progressives wanted to teach that the US has always had plenty of moral flaws.

In the 1930s, for example, journalist and patriot Bertie Forbes attacked the popular textbooks written by Harold Rugg. Rugg hoped to introduce students to the real complexity of international relations. In Forbes’s opinion, such efforts would rob students of their patriotic fervor. As Forbes wrote in 1940,

If I were a youth, I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

By and large, historically speaking, the Forbeses of the world have always won these fights. Schools primarily teach (and taught) students that America was a place they could love. Teaching too much or too frankly about slavery has always been seen as a dangerous and controversial effort.

It’s not only slavery that is ignored or misrepresented. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, schools shy away from all types of controversial topics, even when the controversy is contrived.

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From Berkman & Plutzer: Can we please not talk about it?

As Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, only a minority of high-school biology teachers teach mainstream evolutionary theory and only mainstream evolutionary theory in their classes. The rest tend to mash together a mix of mainstream science and dissenting creationist ideas. Why? Because most teachers share the ideas of their local communities. If people want their kids to learn a variety of ideas about science, that’s what most teachers will deliver.

This has always been the case. In the 1940s, an enterprising scholar set out to discern how many teachers taught evolution. One teacher from California explained why he avoided the topic of evolution in class. As he put it,

Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.

And there’s the rub. Teachers will tend to avoid controversy. There’s no controversy among historians about whether or not slavery was a vital and decisive element in US history. There’s no controversy among mainstream scientists about whether or not mainstream evolutionary theory is a vital and decisive element in biology.

But broad segments of the population disagree. They don’t want their children to learn that America has historical flaws. They don’t want their children to learn that our species developed by a long series of minor changes.

Unless and until those things change, classrooms won’t improve. I heartily concur with the four-point action plan put forth by the recent SPLC report. It recommends the four following steps:

  1. Improve Instruction About American Slavery and Fully Integrate It Into U.S. History.
  2. Use Original Historical Documents.
  3. Make Textbooks Better.
  4. Strengthen Curriculum.

All good ideas. But they won’t be enough. Just like evolutionary theory, the history of slavery won’t be included in our classrooms until it is included in our day-to-day conversations. Until the country as a whole recognizes the importance of America’s ugly past, classrooms will continue to ignore it.

As we’ve seen time and again, we can’t use curriculum to change society. We need to change society and watch curriculum follow along.

The Tortuous Triumph of Progressive Education

It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry. For people like me who want progressive schools and progressive politics, it hurts to see progressive classrooms converted into tools of the rich. But see it we do: More evidence today from Wichita that progressive education has triumphed over its conservative bête noirs, only to be turned into a tool of traditionalism.

wichita wonder koch school

The progressive vision for Wichita. Rich people only, please.

Here’s what we know: The conservative bajillionaire Koch brothers have long been interested in educational issues. Now they have funded a fancy-pants progressive school in Wichita. Second-generation Chase and Annie Koch are opening the Wonder school in Wichita. Their plans could have come straight out of a 1930s progressive-ed playbook.

Their vision? No age-graded classrooms, no report cards, no judgment. Focus on student-directed activity, guided by adult “coaches,” not teachers. As one planner put it,

We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now. . . . We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.

So far, so good. Such dreams have been around for a century now, pushed by progressive-ed leaders such as George Counts, William Heard Kilpatrick, and of course, John Dewey.

In the middle of the twentieth century, as I recount in my book about educational conservatism, traditionalists pushed back hard against such notions. These days, at least in Kansas, some of the hardest-core educational conservatives have embraced the obvious superiority of progressive classroom methods.

So we should celebrate, right? Not so fast. Those same progressive-ed-loving conservatives tend to take a very different approach when it comes to schools for the rest of us.

Yes, the Koch’s own kids get to go to schools with fabulously progressive pedagogy. But Koch money pushes a very different sort of classroom elsewhere. In Tennessee, for example, Koch funding promoted charter schools for low-income families. At some of those schools, most famously the KIPP network, students are rigidly controlled. KIPP’s “no excuses” model and “SLANT” rules (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod and Track the teacher) can feel oppressive.

At some charter schools—especially urban schools with high proportions of low-income non-white students—students are compelled to sit silently at lunch, march silently and exactly through hallways, respond rapidly and exactly to teacher prompts, and hold their heads rigidly at all times.

What a contrast to the free-wheeling, mind-expanding Koch-funded school soon to be offered to affluent kids in Wichita. Of course, for only $10,000 per year, anyone is welcome at the Wichita Wonder school. Unless, of course, a student has any sort of disability.

What are we supposed to think? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to see the obvious: Some conservatives have recognized the huge benefits of progressive classroom practices, but they only want them for their own children. Or, to be more charitable, conservatives are only willing to foot the bill for progressive classrooms for their own kids.

Where’s the Beef?

I didn’t think it was all that complicated, but at least two smart people have misunderstood my complaint, so I’ll try to clarify. If SAGLRROILYBYGTH think I’m splitting hairs or being overly persnickety, I’ll shut my yap. But I don’t think I am and I don’t think the point is all that abstruse.duty_calls

Here’s what we’re talking about this morning: Last week, I wondered if evolution maven Jerry Coyne had a glitch in his code. He didn’t think protesters against Steve Bannon had a legitimate right to block Bannon’s appearance at UChicago. Coyne pooh-poohed protesters’ claims that the issue wasn’t really about free speech.

But I assumed—correctly it appears—that Prof. Coyne does reject some claims to free-speech protections. Prof. Coyne and I agree: Just because someone claims free-speech protection doesn’t mean they should get it. Some claims are bogus. Some are even harmful, at least potentially. The most obvious case is the perennial free-speech claim of America’s creationists. In state legislatures, bill after bill purports to protect the free-speech rights of creationist students and teachers.

Especially since we agree on everything, Prof. Coyne wondered what my beef was. As he put it,

Laats’s beef seems to be this: if I, Professor Ceiling Cat Emeritus, favor free speech on college campuses, why don’t I favor free speech in the classroom?

Coyne goes on to explain—and I agree with him as far as he goes—that creationist teaching in classrooms is not the same as controversial invited speakers on university campuses. However, he didn’t identify my beef correctly. Here it is: If Prof. Coyne doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of creationists’ claims to free-speech protections, why doesn’t he grant other people similar rights to un-recognize free-speech claims?

After all, Professor Coyne makes it clear. He says,

I do not recognize creationists’ desire to teach goddy stuff in the classroom as a “free speech” claim. [His emphasis.]

Coyne means, I think, that creationists can’t claim protection for their speech if it establishes a government religion unfairly, contra the First Amendment. By doing so, creationists give up any right to free-speech protection for their creationist teaching. The important point, IMHO, is that Prof. Coyne recognizes that some free-speech claims are faulty. Those claims are not legitimate and they do not deserve the protection they demand. Creationists insist on their right to free speech; they insist that their rights to be heard are often dismissed unfairly. In general, I think Prof. Coyne and I agree—we don’t lose any sleep over such creationist complaints, because we do not recognize them as legitimate claims to the protection of free-speech rights.

Which leads us to the main question again: If Prof. Coyne is willing to dismiss some claims to free-speech protection as illegitimate, why doesn’t he at least respect the anti-Bannon argument, even if he disagrees with it?

In other words, though I agree with Professor Coyne both that Bannon should be allowed to speak and that creationists should not be allowed to teach creationism in public-school science classes, I disagree with his glib dismissal of the arguments of the anti-Bannon protesters.

I think we need to acknowledge that there are real and important reasons why some intelligent, informed, well-meaning people refuse to recognize Bannon’s claims to free-speech protections. Further, there are good arguments to be made that a private (or public) institution has a responsibility to consider the implications of its speaking invitations. By inviting Bannon to speak, an elite university like Chicago is conferring on Bannon and Bannon’s ideas more than a touch of mainstream legitimacy. Blocking someone from speaking at the University of Chicago is not the same as blocking his or her right to holler on a street corner. I don’t think the Chicago protesters are hoping to shut down Breitbart; they are merely hoping to deny Bannon the enormous prestige of a Chicago speaking appearance.

Now, in this particular case I think the decision should swing in Bannon’s favor. But that does not mean that the anti-Bannon protesters don’t have a decent case to make. It does not mean that the UChicago protesters are “discarding one of the fundamental principles of American democracy because they don’t like its results,” as Prof. Coyne accused.

Some free-speech claims are bogus and don’t deserve to be recognized. The Chicago protesters and I merely disagree about the proper decision in this one particular case. They are not necessarily against free speech; they are disputing Bannon’s claim to free-speech protections; they are against their university recognizing Bannon’s legitimate status.

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