Betsy Devos: Progressive Champion?

We could be forgiven for being confused. Ed Secretary Betsy Devos just delivered a rousing endorsement of progressive ideas about schooling and education. What gives?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be sick of all this—maybe it’s just too obvious even to mention. But since my years wrestling with the history of educational conservatism (you can read all about it here), I can’t help but obsess over the never-clear meanings of “progressivism” and “conservatism” when it comes to schools.

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I hart progressive ed…or do I?

And now arch-conservative Queen Betsy just threw a Grand-Rapids-size rhetorical wrench into the culture-war works. If she’s talking this way, is there any meaningful way to differentiate the two sides? I think there is.

Here’s what we know: Secretary Devos delivered a prepared talk at the free-markety American Enterprise Institute. In her speech, she harped on progressive themes. Consider the following examples:

  • Progressives say: High-stakes testing is bad.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.

  • Progressives say: Teachers have been disempowered.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

we must rethink school.

  • Progressives say: Factory schooling is needlessly rigid and dehumanizing, yet it persists.

QQB:

Think of your own experience: sit down; don’t talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

  • Progressives say: Schooling should focus on the needs and experiences of every individual child.

QQB:

That means learning can, should, and will look different for each unique child. And we should celebrate that, not fear it! . . .

Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey. Schools should be open to all students – no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make.

  • Progressives say: School must help make society more equitable. More resources must be dedicated to schooling for low-income Americans and students from minority groups.

QQB:

That means no more discrimination based upon zip code or socio-economic status. All means all….

We should hope – no, we should commit – that we as a country will not rest until every single child has equal access to the quality education they deserve.

What are we to make of all this intensely progressive-sounding rhetoric?

Some pundits pooh-pooh it. ILYBYGTH’s favorite progressive ed writer offers a perfect, pointed put-down: “poison mushrooms look edible.

It is not difficult, after all, to see how Secretary Devos’s endgame is different from that of most progressives. Unlike progressives, Queen Betsy’s final goal is an old conservative favorite, namely, the reduction of federal influence in public schooling. If Devos mouths progressive phrases, she also always returns to the same ultimate desire.

Consider these lines:

QQB:

  • federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped….

  • The lesson is in the false premise: that Washington knows what’s best for educators, parents and students….

  • The lessons of history should force us to admit that federal action has its limits.

In the end, then, what we’re seeing here is the same old, same old. All sides in our hundred-years culture war have shifted tactics from time to time, while generally keeping the same long-term strategies.  As I argue in my book (and if you’re really lazy you can read a brief version of this in my short essay at Time), for example, in the 1920s, it was conservatives who pushed hard for an increased federal presence in local schools. Why? Because they thought it would force greater Americanization of immigrants and pinkos.

Devos’s canny adoption of progressive rhetoric is another example of this culture-war scheme. All sides tend to use whatever language best helps them achieve their long-term goals. They We tend to fight for any short-term goal that promises to bring them us closer to their our ultimate aims.

For Devos and her allies, the big picture is more religion, more privatization, and more tradition in public schools. Right now, they apparently think local school districts are the most likely governments to help achieve those aims. If bashing “factory models” and “inequality” will help achieve the ultimate goals, so be it.

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What Goes on in Fundamentalist Schools?

When does bad school cross the line into child abuse? The depressing answer is that it depends on who’s asking. Jonathan Kozol famously decried the racist and abusive practices in America’s urban public schools. Now Rebecca Klein is warning that tax-funded evangelical schools are doing more than just bad teaching. Are these schools using your tax dollars to abuse children?

Klein’s article focuses on the stories of fundamentalist school survivors such as Ashley Bishop. Bishop tells a story that has become depressingly familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. Like some of the voices on this blog, Bishop’s experience in conservative evangelical schools was beyond terrible. Her schooling left her deeply conflicted and depressed. It took her years to become comfortable with herself and with her sexual identity.

My heart breaks for Ashley and all the other young people traumatized by hostile school environments. We tend to hear about brave survivors like Ashley, but we must remember that there must also be many more students who never escape, who make their lives entirely within a community in which they feel isolated and unworthy. The more attention such students can receive from journalists like Klein, the better.

Klein looks at the number of schools that use fundamentalist textbooks and concludes grimly,

there are thousands of kids receiving an extremist and ultraconservative education at the expense of taxpayers.

For full disclosure, I should point out that I spoke with Klein as she put this article together and she refers to my research. I must also point out that there are a few important points that she leaves out.

Ace hokey

This is terrible stuff. But is it abusive?

First of all, education scholars and historians know that we can’t simply equate textbooks with school curriculum. We certainly can’t look only at textbooks and think we know what kind of learning goes on.

Second, though Klein states that A Beka, Bob Jones, and ACE all share “largely similar educational philosophies,” that’s simply not the case. As I discovered a few years back, there are actually vast differences between the A Beka, ACE, and BJU approaches. A Beka insists on a rigid, traditionalist, teacher-driven classroom. BJU wants the opposite.

It’s also important to note that these textbooks are not static. In a recent book about education and ignorance, I argued that the treatment of history in A Beka and BJU textbooks has changed dramatically in the past thirty years. In some ways, the textbooks have become more like mainstream offerings. In others, they have become very different. In general, both BJU and A Beka have increased their emphases on the distinctive religious elements of their historical vision. A Beka history books, for example, explain in more recent editions that Native American populations originated from the downfall of the Tower of Babel.

a beka babel big

Textbook apocalypse.

Finally, and most important, we need to remember that abusive schools are not bad only if they use tax dollars. The state has a responsibility to protect all children in any school or homeschool. Even if a school is entirely privately funded, it has no right to enact policies that aren’t in children’s best interests.

In some cases—such as physical abuse or neglect, or sexual predation—that line is fairly easy to discern. When it comes to religious ideas, though, it becomes enormously difficult. Is it abusive to teach children that homosexuality is a sin? Is it abusive to teach children that mainstream science is a cauldron of lies?

If it is, then the state has the right and duty to intervene. It doesn’t matter whether or not the schools receive tax dollars in the form of vouchers. If it isn’t, though, then religious families and schools must be allowed freedom to have schools that we wouldn’t want our children to attend.

Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.

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Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here…

Even if you don’t share ILYBYGTH’s obsessive fascination with America’s culture wars, you probably noticed a few of its recent battles. Can a baker refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Can cheerleaders at a public school cheer for Jesus? As a recent article reminds us, if we really want to understand these fights, we need to look beyond Bibles and bakeshops. The behind-the-scenes power of legal activist groups has always fueled these culture-war battles.

kountze-cheerleaders

The culture-war trenches. But not the culture-war Pentagon.

It has been this way from the very beginning. Back in 1925, the furious creation/evolution fight in Tennessee would never have happened if it weren’t for the influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure, proto-creationists had passed a sweeping anti-evolution law. And, yes, plenty of people had noticed the goings-on in state legislatures. (I flesh out the full context in my book about educational conservatism.) But only when the ACLU offered to sponsor a legal challenge did the Scopes Trial actually gain momentum.

In our century it has been the same. SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember the case from Kountze, Texas. Starting in 2012, cheerleaders at the high school began displaying huge banners with Christian Biblical messages. It’s easy to see how such outright religious preaching at a public school might ruffle feathers. But it was only when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation intervened that the case became a national sensation.

This sort of legal activism has not been limited to the liberal side. As Daniel Bennett describes at Religion & Politics, the conservative religious Alliance Defending Freedom has scored impressive legal victories over the past decade. As Professor Bennett notes, ADF has repeatedly made its case at the US Supreme Court, in favor of the right of bakers to discriminate against homosexual weddings or in favor of the right of religious schools to receive tax money.

adf logo

A culture-war army of well-dressed lawyers…

These days, as Bennett describes, ADF employs forty full-time attorneys, sniffing out ways to project the power of conservative religious values in the public square. ADF takes in tens of millions of dollars per year to stake out the legal rights of conservative Christians in a secularizing society.

Headlines talk about creationism, public prayer, and transgender issues. Time and time again, it has been the Alliance Defending Freedom who has pushed these cases into the limelight, defending the rights of radical creationist scientists, anti-transgender pastors, or Christian prayer leaders at public town meetings.

Cheerleaders and bakers matter, of course. In order to understand how these cases move from local controversies to national symbols, though, we need to recognize the influence of legal activist groups.

Is “Kingdom of God” the New “Heritage”?

You’ve heard it before: Defenders of Confederate monuments insist their intentions are not to foster racism, but only to celebrate their heritage. The other side (including me) argues that the historical baggage of these statues is simply too heavy. Even if Confederate heritage-lovers don’t mean to be racist, that’s what the statues and flags have come to mean. Today, I wonder if we have a new, evangelical version of this dilemma. A key phrase in evangelical culture seems utterly benign to many smart, well-meaning evangelicals. But it terrifies the rest of us.

So here’s the tough question of the day: Is the “Kingdom of God” the evangelical version of “heritage?”

A couple of days ago, Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer defended the phrase at Christianity Today. When a federal judge appointee declared that she wanted to work for the “Kingdom of God,” a few senators blanched. Would she use her taxpayer-funded position of power to impose theocratic rule?

Stetzer protested. The senators, he claimed, were imposing an anti-Constitutional religious test for office. Plus, the senators seemed remarkably ignorant about evangelical culture. As Stetzer explained,

The “Kingdom of God” (something that I too am deeply committed to) does not conflict with our ability to work faithfully in the public square with integrity and honor. In fact, our “dogma” may actually benefit society, for it brings certain values which work towards the good of people and society. People do say that they are motivated for public service in part because of their faith. Religion is not a hindrance to a proper functioning marketplace and governmental system; rather, it brings with it inherent moral and ethical codes which seek a better tomorrow for all of us today.

We’ve seen this before. Many secular progressive types (like me) recoiled in horror when Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed her scheme to use her job to further the “Kingdom of God.” Her plan, some assumed, is to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale horror show of theocratic rule on school and society. Activist groups protested that Queen Betsy’s vision was to overturn constitutional separation of church and state and impose religious beliefs as public policy.

As evangelical intellectuals have pointed out, such assumptions are a misreading of evangelical culture. In the Reformed heartland of Michigan, working for the Kingdom of God can have a lot of different meanings. At Calvin College, for example, as Abram Van Engen explained, the phrase is not about imposing theocracy. As Van Engen put it,

Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy. What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation.

Sounds wonderful. But the dilemma remains. If a federal judge or an education secretary announce they are working to establish “God’s Kingdom,” it doesn’t sound as if they are dedicated to such things. It sounds—to the rest of us—like an explanation why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump. It sounds like a declaration of war on the secularization that has made such strides over the past fifty years. It sounds like an effort to wind the clock back to an imagined past in which evangelical values were imposed on everyone as simply “American” values.

I know this is hard for evangelical intellectuals to hear. They don’t like to think of their religious beliefs as dictatorial, chauvinistic, or theocratic. And, to be fair, I sincerely believe that for many evangelicals, their desire to further the Kingdom of God really is none of those things. Historically, however, as I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, evangelicalism in America has always been tangled inextricably with such unsavory themes, with a deep-seated assumption that the real America is Christian America.

As our ugly battles over “heritage” have made clear, the baggage of history isn’t something we can simply ignore. Just as evangelicals need to understand that telling someone you love them but they’re going to hell is not usually taken as anything but a hateful attack, so evangelicals need to realize that their traditional jargon sounds scary to the rest of us.

SCOTUS Decision: Who’s the Bigot Here?

The script isn’t new. In every culture-war battle these days, both sides like to call each other bigots. The recent landmark SCOTUS ruling is no different. When the Court ruled this week that a church school cannot be prevented from receiving public funds, both sides insisted they are on the side of the anti-bigotry angels. From this historian’s perspective, one side has the much better case. Am I off base?

If you’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case, you’ve heard all about “Blaine Amendments.” Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that Missouri could not exclude a religious school from receiving public funds for its playground. The school had applied for a grant to re-surface its playground. The state of Missouri, though, rejected the otherwise successful application because its state constitution prohibits funding religious schools, in a clause popularly known as a “Blaine Amendment.”

So far, so good.

The majority in this case fulfilled the dreams of conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Blaine Amendments, Thomas has long argued, have their roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. As a product of 1870s bigotry, they deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of historical justice. In his opinion in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), for example, Justice Thomas excoriated such doctrines as “born of bigotry.”

Is he right? The other side insists that the real bigots are the ones who want to erode the goal of a secular government. The true bigots, they’d say, are the folks like Clarence Thomas who hope to chip away at the post-World-War-II SCOTUS consensus that there should be a firm wall of separation between church and state. The ultimate goal of such SCOTUS scheming is to take away the hard-won rights of religious and non-religious minorities, to cram majority Christianity down the throats of Americans of all backgrounds.

Who has the better argument?

On one hand, Justice Thomas isn’t totally wrong. Although savvy historians such as Benjamin Justice of Rutgers have made a good case against him, the Blaine Amendments really do have roots as relics of anti-Catholic populist bigotry.

In his terrific book The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, Steven K. Green describes the context in which the Blaine Amendments took off. From Green’s perspective, Justice Thomas’s argument is far too simplistic. Senator Blaine himself wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot. His mother was Catholic and he sent his kids to Catholic schools. Moreover, as Green points out, there was not a single “Blaine Amendment” and the supporters of such amendments had a variety of motivations, not just anti-Catholic bigotry.green bible school constitution

However, just because Blaine wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot, his amendment certainly played to the popular anti-Catholic bigotry of his day, as Green also relates. In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party used popular anti-Catholic sentiment as a campaign tool. Leaders such as Blaine and Grant inflamed the anti-Catholic prejudices of voters in order to discredit their rivals in the Democratic Party, the traditional political home of Irish Catholics.

Blaine’s proposed Constitutional amendment was at least in part a House-of-Cards-style attempt to inflame anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Green, contemporary newspapers recognized Blaine’s proposal as fueling “the excitement of Protestant fanaticism.” Rallies in support of the Blaine Amendment made no secret of it. They insisted the anti-Catholic measure would guarantee the victory of “the promulgation of the doctrines of true religion” in America.

So, although Justice Thomas distorts the history of the Blaine Amendments by over-emphasizing this bigoted anti-Catholic support, he is not wrong to suggest that supporters often did react out of knee-jerk Protestant chauvinism. Though the Blaine Amendment failed, its language was incorporated in one way or another into several state constitutions, including Missouri’s.

In this historian’s opinion, however, there is a more important flaw lurking in Justice Thomas’s use of the history of Blaine Amendments, due either to surprising ignorance or profound cynicism. If bigotry lurked at the heart of the Blaine Amendment, precisely the same bigotry has fueled a generation of conservative attempts to wedge religion—a certain form of religion—back into America’s public schools. When Justice Thomas fights against Blaine-ist bigotry, he is promoting the very same.

The dangerous, bigoted implication—in Blaine’s day or in ours—is that there is one type of religion that is somehow more American than others. To my mind, this is the big danger in this debate, and it is a danger that has worried conservative religious people as much as secular progressives like myself.

As Robert Daniel Rubin argues in his terrific new book Judicial Review and American Conservatism, since the 1970s religious conservatives have fought against the separation of church and state in order to restore Christianity to its place as America’s de facto religion. As part of this campaign, since the days of Senator Jesse Helms and Justice William Rehnquist, conservatives have pushed to wedge more and more Christian prayer and Bible-reading back into schools.rubin book

Moral-Majority types have always valued the privileges of Christian majorities over the rights of religious (or non-religious) minorities. Justice Rehnquist, for example, thought the primary goal of courts should be to defend the rights of majorities to promulgate their doctrines in public institutions, including public schools. As Rubin puts it (pg. 214), Justice Rehnquist felt

solicitude toward the majority and its capacity to fashion policies embodying its moral and political preferences. To honor dissenters’ rights more jealously than states’ laws was to disgrace the democratic process.

Just like Senator Blaine and Justice Thomas, Justice Rehnquist wouldn’t have called this solicitude “bigotry.” In the end, though, if we have to play the bigotry card, I can’t help but think that Thomas has the weaker case.

Why? The most dangerous, bigoted notion in these cases, IMHO, is the implication that there is a real American religion, that Christianity (or Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism) have somehow a better claim to government support. In this idea lurks the true and dangerous bigotry in this perennial conflict. It is a bigotry, to be fair, that has been strenuously opposed by plenty of religious conservatives themselves. As we’ve noted in these pages, many conservative evangelicals are horrified by the notion that theirs is somehow a merely “American” religion.

Among conservative evangelicals, however, it has proven difficult to oppose moral-majoritarianism. And so we come to our culture-war battle over the proper role of Christian religion in public schools. One on side, we have conservatives who fight to include Christian sentiment and activity in government-funded activities, including schools. On the other, we have progressives who favor a strict secularity in government funding.

Ideally, we could have these discussions without calling each other bigots. When it comes right down to it, though, if we are going to start flinging mud, the balance seems clear to me: In this case the bigger bigots are those who hope to cram Christianity back into public schools. They ignore the rights of minorities; they insist that their ideas are right for everybody.

Many SAGLRROILYBYGTH will likely disagree. What do YOU think? Is it fair to call pro-Christian activism “bigotry?” Or do Christian groups have a right to legal protection from anti-religious “bigotry” such as the so-called Blaine Amendments?

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

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Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

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A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.

Round Peg, Square Hole

What is the proper role for religion in American public schools? That’s the question historian Ben Justice asked us yesterday at the American Educational Research Association meeting. I’m still stumped. I can’t see an easy way to reconcile the fundamental tension between two contrasting goals.

round peg square hole

It ain’t gonna fit.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the first episode. If you don’t, here’s the catch-up: Historian Ben Justice put together a panel to wrestle with the proper role of religion in public education. Religious studies scholars Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey joined in, as did philosophers Colin MacLeod and Harvey Siegel. And me.

Our panel agreed—public schools need to teach about religion without teaching religion. And public schools need to be inclusive religious spaces. That is, public schools need to welcome people of every faith and none, but they can’t themselves promote or denigrate any specific religion. Sounds simple enough.

But there have always been disagreements and likely always will be. How do we solve them? As Colin and Ben wrote in their recent book, when it comes to questions of majority rule and minority rights, we’re not all going to agree on every problem. Our goal, instead, should be “legitimacy in the face of religious pluralism.”

In other words, people don’t have to agree with various school policies. If they see them as fair, however, as legitimate, then they will go along with them. And that brings us to our dilemma.

For some religious people, the notion of “inclusive” public schools is not a way to talk about the proper role of religion in the public square. Rather, for many Americans, “inclusivity” is itself a religious idea. So instead of having conversations about how we can all be welcomed in our public schools, we end up with a fight between two religions, only one of which admits to being a religion.

Clear as mud.

But it seems a little clearer when we look at examples. We see it everywhere we look. Consider a class in the history of religion, for example. In an inclusive school, a teacher might teach kids about the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She might explain to kids—trying to be neutral, trying not to favor any religion or non-religion over another—about the ways different people at different times believed different things about God and humanity. She might describe the ways Christianity grew out of Judaism, the way different Christians came to disagree with one another. Her goal, she would probably tell you, is not religious. She doesn’t want to preach; she only wants to teach.

For some parents, students, and activists, though, such a curriculum is not neutral at all. They might reasonably want their children to share their belief that their religion is true. For many religious people, the universal claims of their religion are absolutely central. That is, many religious people need to understand their faith as True with a capital T, not only true for them at their specific historical moment.

For religious people like that, a school curriculum that thinks of itself as neutral is not neutral at all. It is teaching, instead, the intensely religious idea that religion is a human invention rather than a divine revelation.

This is more than just an abstract game of what ifs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, in the last hundred years American Protestants split on exactly this sort of disagreement. Liberal Protestants often embraced the notion that their religion was a human creation, or, to be more precise, that their own understanding of religion was a human thing. Conservative Protestants, including those that mobilized as “fundamentalists,” disagreed. Vehemently.

For evangelical Protestants, the notion of an inclusive public square has always been the enemy. It has always been the rallying cry of their religious enemies. As I’ve argued in my 1920s book and my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives—especially but not only conservative evangelicals—have learned for generations that the fight against “inclusion” was a religious fight against a religious enemy.

So how can we get people to think of “inclusion” as a legitimate goal? It will never be seen as legitimate if it is seen as a strategy by a competing religion. What then?

What Should Religion Do in Public Schools?

With apologies to Yogi Berra, I’ll steal his line in this case. I’m heading down to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio. It’s the big one for education wonks and nerds. And it’s a zoo. Like Yogi said, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

crowd

Pardon me, sir, you’re stepping on my PhD.

Why would anyone brave such crowds, heat, and academic foolery? In my case, I’m going because we’ll have a chance to wrestle with the most interesting question in the world: What is the proper relationship between religion and public education in the United States?

A panel of experts was put together by one of my all-time favorite ed historians, Ben Justice. He and his co-author Colin MacLeod just published a terrific book about religion and school. They invited me and my recent co-author Harvey Siegel. We rounded up a few more experts, including Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey.

have a little faith

And you got your church all over my school…or did you get your school all over my church?

I’m looking forward to the discussion. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, these are questions that keep me up at night:

  • Is it fair to creationists to force their children to learn an idea that they find religiously objectionable?
  • Do conservative evangelical Protestants have any special rights in public schools? If everyone in a town is the same (evangelical Protestant) religion, is it okay for the schools in town to lean that way, too?
  • Are public schools really hostile to religious belief? Conservatives often howl that schools are cesspools of “secular humanism,” but are they really?

And so on.

Each of us only gets a few minutes to say some things, then we’ll open up the room to a wider discussion. I’ll have a hard time keeping my opening presentation short, but I’ll try.

Watch this space—I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it all goes down.