Are Teachers the “Bottom?”

I can’t say he’s got my vote, but I like Bernie. This morning, though, he has me stumped and he’s given me a question for all you SAGLRROILYBYGTH: when did teachers become “the bottom?”

As of right now, neither of the two big teachers’ unions have endorsed Bernie. However, according to his campaign office, teaching is the single biggest occupation among Bernie’s financial supporters, with more than 80,000 teacher donations to his campaign.

And now his campaign has released this video about West Virginia’s striking teachers. As one striker put it (:50),

Real change comes from the bottom up.

Another teacher agreed (1:51),

What Bernie Sanders represented to me and to many teachers is hope that working people can collectively come together and fight back.

To be clear, I fully support the striking teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere. I’m a union member and generally a teachers-union supporter and fan. That’s not the issue this morning.

Instead, I’m curious why Bernie and his fans seem to agree that teachers represent something besides white-collar professionals. After all, teachers usually have college degrees, sometimes even advanced degrees. Historically, too, teaching has been a traditional path into the middle class from people of working-class backgrounds.

So why do we hear this talk about bottoms and working classes?

  • Is it maybe because teachers feel like they are speaking for their working-class students?
  • Or maybe that teachers feel de-professionalized, smushed down into the working class?
  • Or are there other reasons for calling teachers “the bottom?”
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Scotsmen, Falwell, and Why Historians Can’t Define ‘Evangelicalism’

How is this possible? Have you seen the poll numbers? As I write this, when Katelyn Beaty asked on Twitter if the abominable evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. was “an evangelical leader,” about three-quarters of respondents said no.KB twitter falwell

What? How could so many people think that the leader of a ‘UGE evangelical university doesn’t count as an evangelical leader? The obvious conclusion is that people are disgusted by Falwell’s alleged behavior as a shady alcohol-fueled real-estate scammer and Lynchburg bully. Anyone who behaves like that, people might be thinking, doesn’t count as a real evangelical.

As usual, historian Tim Gloege has offered a clear-sighted explanation of this evangelical conundrum. There has always been an evangelical tendency, Gloege explained, to explain away the parts of the evangelical tradition that people don’t like. “It’s not us,” evangelicals have always said about members of the evangelical family that they would rather not acknowledge. As Dr. Gloege put it,

Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry.

Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”

In the case of Falwell, it seems like this tradition is alive and well. By behaving badly, many people seem to think, Falwell Jr. has defined himself out of the evangelical family. If being an evangelical means having a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the reasoning goes, then Falwell can’t be an evangelical. No one with a real evangelical religious commitment could behave the way Falwell does.

This disagreement about the definition of “real” evangelicalism has always been tricky for historians of evangelicalism. A while back, historian John Fea and I had a polite disagreement about the nature of “real” evangelicalism in colleges and universities. In the wake of Trump’s election, I argued that evangelical higher education had ALWAYS supported Trumpish values. As I wrote back then at History News Network:

White evangelicals are a religious group, true, but they have also always been energized by a vague yet powerful patriotic traditionalism.  Like other enthusiastic Trump supporters, white evangelicals have been fueled by a combative culture-war patriotism.  They have always defined themselves by their proprietary attitude about “our” America, the one they hope President Trump will make great again.

Historian John Fea took issue with my argument. As he responded,

For every Liberty University or Mid-America Nazarene there are dozens and dozens of evangelical colleges who reject this kind of Christian nationalism and Trumpism.

I would venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of the faculty and administrators at evangelical colleges and universities in the United States DID NOT vote for Donald Trump.

If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty.  In fact, I know several faculty and graduates from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University who strongly opposed the Trump presidency.

Just as with current disagreements about whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” Professor Fea and I were both right, in our ways. After all, the evangelical family is so broad and diverse that any statement anyone makes about “real” evangelicalism is subject to a million counter-examples.

When it comes to whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” I bet both the “yeses” and the “nos” can agree: There have always been prominent evangelical leaders, in charge of prominent institutions, who have embraced political positions that are immoral and untenable, racial segregation being the most prominent example. There have always been prominent evangelicals who have behaved in personally immoral ways; leaders who have engaged in sexual and financial crimes while publicly mouthing evangelical platitudes.

Where do we disagree? The “yeses” might think something like the following: But those have all been mistakes, wanderings from the evangelical path. No true evangelical—meaning someone who shares the profound personal love of Jesus Christ—should have embraced those values.

The “nos” might think: When there is a pattern of this kind of thing, that pattern must be considered part of the definition, not whisked away by the No True Scotsman fallacy. Consider the Catholic abuse story. Would a true follower of Christ abuse children? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that the second a Catholic priest does so, he is therefore no longer representative of the structural flaws within the Catholic hierarchy itself, a hierarchy that is both committed to preaching the saving love of Jesus Christ AND guilty of covering up abuse to protect its own interests.

So is Jerry Falwell Jr. an “evangelical leader?” Beaty’s question exposes a long tension at the heart of the evangelical experience in the USA. As a prominent leader of a prominent evangelical institution, of course he is. But as a scumbag, of course he isn’t.

The answer you choose depends on how you think about evangelicalism. If you think of it primarily as a way of being a true Christian, then you can define away anyone you don’t like. But if you think of “evangelical” as a box to check on a census, a way to explain your social background, then of course we have to include all the members of the group, even the ones we don’t like.

We All Love College

Remember those freaked-out nerds? The ones who told us that conservatives had turned against higher education? It didn’t feel true at the time and new survey results seem to prove it really isn’t. So the next time someone tells you that conservatives don’t like college, you tell em to read these poll results.

pew college gone to the dogs

Have conservatives turned against higher ed?

A couple years ago, SAGLRROILYBYGTH probably remember, the folks at Pew came out with a survey that made people nervous. Since 2015, the Pewsters found, more and more Republicans thought that colleges and universities had a “negative effect on the way things are going in this country.”

At the time, I was skeptical. After all, in my research about conservatism and conservative evangelicals in the twentieth century, I didn’t hear many voices raised against higher ed as a whole. Sure, conservatives have long been anxious about the types of people who control higher ed, especially at the elite schools. But that’s not the same thing. Back then, I proposed a simple follow-up question:

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend.

Lucky for us, the pollsters at New America had the same idea. In their new survey of just over 2000 American adults, they asked people if they would recommend college for their “child or close family member.” Guess what? Not much of a surprise to find that most Americans would. Overall, 93% of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed. And Republicans were in full agreement: 92% of them said the same thing.

new america higher ed survey

We ALL love college.

So next time you hear that old chestnut that conservatives don’t like higher ed, show em this graph. Nobody doesn’t like higher ed. Conservatives just don’t trust the “effete corps of impudent snobs” that they think are running elite schools these days.

Great Enrollment Crash—Evangelical Edition

There are a lot of jobs I’m glad I don’t have. Being admissions director at a small or medium-sized evangelical liberal-arts college is just one of them. As a recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only, sorry) makes crystal clear, these are dark times for some mainstream colleges. I can’t help but think they’ll be even darker for evangelical ones.

wheaton-website-proofs-102817-1

How much will families pay for fancy buildings and philosophy degrees? …for Christian ones?

Bill Conley, enrollment guru at Bucknell University in Ohio, describes a “perfect storm” of declining enrollments at private liberal-arts colleges like his. Yes, there have been panics before, but this time it is serious. Especially in “soft” non-professional majors, enrollment since the financial crash of 2008 has plummeted. As Conley grimly describes,

with each demographic blip, and with every crossing of a new are-you-kidding-me? threshold for cost of attendance, colleges still reported record selectivity, robust enrollments, and financial-aid programs that, for some, effectively reduced sticker shock. Indeed, reports of a higher-education bubble about to burst appeared to be greatly exaggerated. American higher education seemingly had an elasticity that could withstand periodic, short-term fluctuations in demand and cost.

Then came 2008. The Great Recession devastated university endowments, shattered the majority of family wealth and income, and confounded the predictive modeling of enrollment managers. The near-term chaos was very real. Somehow, at varying rates, most colleges managed to survive, but in order to do so they established a “new normal” that would allow them to claim renewed stability for the long haul. That brings us to the summer of 2019, when the cracks in this new normal really started to show.

What does the future hold for private colleges like Bucknell? Conley is not optimistic. As he concludes,

Higher education has fully entered a new structural reality. You’d be naïve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave as we have previous swells.

Not all universities are in the same boat. Public universities with lower tuition sticker prices are booming. Technical and professional programs are doing fine. But parents and students are increasingly unlikely to shell out big bucks for liberal-arts degrees. What will this mean for the world of evangelical higher ed?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when it came to admissions numbers, evangelical colleges and universities shared the historical patterns of mainstream institutions.

Before World War II, the few fundamentalist colleges that offered more than Bible-institute training had more students than they could manage. One survey in the late 1940s found that enrollment at a group of seventy evangelical colleges doubled between 1929 and 1940. In 1936 alone, the enrollment at Wheaton College in Illinois jumped by seventeen percent.

By the 1960s, however, due largely to an infusion of federal money from the GI Bill, the number of evangelical colleges had grown so rapidly that they struggled to fill their classrooms. Suddenly, liberal-arts colleges like Wheaton faced a new dilemma. Students just weren’t coming. In 1964, 8,528 high-school students requested information about Wheaton. By 1967 that number dropped to only 6,403, with only 1,101 actual applicants.

Clearly, Wheaton College survived that 1960s slump and one might be tempted to think Conley’s worries today are similarly exaggerated. I’m not so sure. What would convince parents and students to spend tens of thousands of extra tuition dollars to attend an evangelical college instead of an academically comparable (or superior) state college?

In the past, the answer has always been the uniquely evangelical environment of evangelical colleges. Where else can a family be sure that all the professors share their faith? That most of the students do? That the entire mission of the college is to teach students in a specifically evangelical manner?

The hard truth is that families will have to figure out how much those things are worth, in dollars and cents. Will they pay $100,000 extra? $50,000? $200,000? It doesn’t take much of a historical perspective to see that the magic number will likely shrink past the point colleges can stand. If they pay more to maintain their high-quality evangelical environment, can they compete with cheaper state schools?

These days, as schools like Bucknell see their traditional family loyalties dry up in the face of unmatchable price competition from state schools, evangelical colleges will face similar storms. For more and more families, college will be a chance to learn professional skills, not form Christian faith. If the price difference is steep enough, families will let their churches do the Christian part, and state schools do the higher-ed part.

Have Conservatives Already Won the Culture War?

No. No, no, and no. The argument in today’s Washington Post that American conservatives have a “huge, long-term advantage” in our long-simmering culture wars can only work if we water down our definition of “conservatism” to be entirely meaningless. I’m no conservative, but if I were, I would horrified not encouraged by the implications.

is segregation scriptural

Are conservatives winning? No. They often don’t even want to remember what they used to fight for.

David Byler doesn’t want conservatives to panic. He admits conservatives have lost the long-term battles over the definition of marriage, gender, and proper sexuality. But he thinks that conservatives have a huge—ahem—trump card up their sleeves, one that too many of them don’t recognize. As Byler puts it,

Despite the perception that institutions that conservatives hold in high regard — the military, police, the two-parent nuclear family and religion — have taken hits, the public has a high level of trust and attachment to them. And that faith gives conservatives a huge, long-term advantage.

It doesn’t take much of an expert in the history of American conservatism to see the big problem in this argument. Namely, if conservatism today means only a defense of the military, the police, the family in general and religion in general, then it has become a wispy half-memory of what conservatism meant in the recent past.

After all, not very long ago, American conservatives fought for things (and lost) that might seem to today’s conservatives either a fanciful dream or an embarrassing reminder of their real past.

To pull just a few examples from my research into twentieth-century conservatism, twentieth-century conservatives fought for nothing less than evangelical dominance of the public square, forcible racial hierarchy, and total male dominance of political life.

Example #1: In 1922, Kentucky’s legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill. The bill would have done far more than ban the teaching of evolution from the state’s public schools and universities. A Senate amendment would have forbidden any public library in the state from owning any book that would

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

Example #2: In 1928, the conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution explained her vision of the proper role of women in public life. As she put it without apparent irony,

We need some cheer leaders for America; we need some fearless citizens to sit on the side lines and do a little talking in the interest of this country.

Example #3: Jumping to 1960, fundamentalist stalwart Bob Jones Sr. published his thoughts on race and religion. His sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” offered his thoughts on the dilemma of racism among white conservative evangelicals. Did Jones think segregation was a Christian necessity? Short answer, yes. Why? It was not because non-white people were inferior. It was not because they were any less Christian. Nevertheless, Jones insisted,

Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble. . . . God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations.

What’s the point? The point is NOT that today’s conservatives secretly want to bring back racial segregation, male-only politics, or evangelical control of public institutions. Some of them might think that such things would Make America Great Again, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that many conservatives really want to return America to those old inequities.

The point, rather, is that conservatives have always fought a rear-guard action against cultural change in the United States. In 1960, some religious conservatives wanted to maintain racial segregation as a God-given right. In 1928, some patriotic conservatives wanted to keep women on the side lines, limited to cheering for good political ideas. In 1922, some conservatives hoped to impose a frank theocratic law on their state, banning any books that might challenge evangelical Protestant ideas.

Today’s conservatives are generally fighting for other things, such as reducing abortion rights, restricting LGBTQ rights, and saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Even on those limited aims, conservatives are losing, just as their predecessors in the twentieth century lost their fights to keep public institutions Christian, to keep politics male, and to keep the races separate.

In order to make a claim that conservatives are winning, David Byler needs to water down conservatism so much that it becomes an awkward stand-in for society as a whole. Yes, conservatives tend to be fonder of the traditional family and of religion in general, but those things are not the province of conservatives alone. Plenty of people who consider themselves progressive also hold family and religion dear. And to say that conservatives are dominant because lots of Americans respect the army and police is almost beyond the need for refutation. Yes, lots of Americans—of all political opinions—respect the army and police. That is not a strength of conservatism but a strength of our society as a whole.

Byler concludes by insisting that “Conservatives have the winning hand. They just don’t know it—and that’s why they might lose.” It’s just not true. Conservatives have always had a losing hand, but they have managed to eke out temporary victories when they have played it well. Long-term conservative victories have come from conservatives’ impressive ability to reshape and reform what it means to be “conservative.”

Why Don’t Christian Colleges Brag about This?

If you’re interested in evangelical higher education, you’ve probably read Daniel Silliman’s piece in Christianity Today by now. And you may have asked why more Christian colleges don’t advertise their sensible approach to deepening students’ faiths. Today the other shoe drops over at the fundamentalist creationist ministry Answers In Genesis.ham on evang colleges

Silliman was following up on new survey data that show students in evangelical colleges are

more likely to feel unsettled about spiritual matters, unsure of their beliefs, disillusioned with their religious upbringing, distant from God, or angry with God than their peers at secular schools as well as those at mainline Protestant and Catholic institutions.

As Silliman found, in many cases, evangelical colleges actively promote religious crises in their students. Why? Because true faith requires it. As one college president told Silliman,

It’s part of the design of college and part of the design of being a young adult. Struggle is built in. What we try to provide are professional staff and faculty who are rooted in their own faith and able to journey alongside, in ways that honor the journey of the student.

Sounds smart, right? Especially for secular people like me, this kind of approach to Christian education makes admirable sense. So why don’t more evangelical institutions brag about it?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical higher ed has always been ferociously divided about this approach to faith formation. Lots of administrators, families, and faculty members have always shared this vision. They have agreed that young Christians need to be open about their doubt, just as they are about their faith. The goal of evangelical higher education—in this vision—has been to be there for students when they doubt, guiding them lovingly and Christian-ly through this predictable crisis.

But not everyone has agreed. As fundamentalist creationist Ken Ham recently charged, Christian colleges who don’t protect their students from doubt don’t deserve to call themselves Christian at all. As Ham accused, colleges that help their students struggle with doubt

compromise God’s Word beginning in Genesis & aren’t teaching creation apologetics & a truly Christian worldview.

The right way to protect faith, Ham argues, is not by challenging it. Instead, evangelical students should be taught how to “stand against the secular attacks of the day,” not how to doubt and question. For parents who agree, Ham offers his list of “Creation Colleges,” staunch conservative schools that promise not to challenge faith.

So why don’t more evangelical colleges brag about their approach to faith formation? Because the world of conservative evangelical higher education has always been divided about it. Not just between more conservative schools and less, but even within many schools themselves.

At less-conservative schools like the ones Silliman talked about, I’ll bet dollars to donuts some faculty members and some trustees hope for a less-wishy-washy approach to student doubt. And at more-conservative schools like the ones Ken Ham praises, I bet there are faculty members and students who yearn to be in an environment in which they can talk more openly about their doubt and struggle.

Is THIS Why White Evangelicals Love Trump?

Why? Why? Why? That’s what nerds have been asking for the past few years. Why, that is, do so many white evangelical voters seem to (still) love Trump? Sometimes even more now than in 2016? Reporter Julie Zauzmer recently examined some interviews to offer a new explanation. To me, it seems like there is still something missing. It’s big and it’s obvious, but it’s not the first thing white evangelicals like to talk about.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

When asked, a group of white evangelicals explained that they like Trump because they think he is fighting for them. Finally. As Zauzmer explained,

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot.

“You’ve just got to accept the bad with the good,” Halbert [a white evangelical from Florida] said.

Makes sense. But there’s an important element missing from this explanation. Yes, many white evangelicals feel that America is a “menacing place,” but more important, with a bitter nostalgia they see mainstream America as a menacing place that used to be better. They see a mainstream America that has been warped and perverted, not just an America that isn’t the way they like it. Most important, many white evangelicals see America as a place that has been stolen from them. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, white evangelicals have long felt that America has not only declined passively; they feel America has been usurped.

bolce page image

Watch out, white evangelicals–mainstream institutions have been usurped!

It is a hugely important distinction and it’s one that Trump stumbled across with his MAGA approach to the 2016 elections. Consider just a few 20th-century examples of the kind of nostalgism that has driven white evangelical politics for so long. Way back in 1909, for example, journalist Harold Bolce reported in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine that mainstream colleges had gone to the dogs. Instead of inculcating youth with revered values of God, home, and family, elite colleges taught students a devilish stew of skepticism and “science.”

By way of example, Bolce interviewed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp. As Bolce told anxious readers,

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

For white evangelicals at the time, the message was clear. Something terrible had happened. They could no longer trust mainstream institutions. The feeling lasted throughout the twentieth century and got stronger with time. By 1979, fundamentalist school founder A.A. “Buzz” Baker could warn readers,

It may come as a surprise to some that the very first public and private schools in our country had a traditional approach or philosophy of education.  Harvard, Yale, Andover Newton [sic]—to name but a few—used to be ‘our’ schools.

For white evangelicals in the 1970s, the notion that Harvard used to be a conservative-evangelical stronghold often came as a shock and a revelation. It fit with the sense of angry nostalgia that has driven white evangelical politics for so long. Not only did America use to be great, many white evangelicals feel, but America used to be OURS.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote Trump in 2016? And why do so many like him even better now, in spite of everything? Yes, they see Trump as a fighter in their corner on issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. But even more important, they hear Trump repeating their mantra: America used to be great. America used to be OURS. It has taken some hits, but together we can Make America Great Again.

For Christians, A Stark Choice: Falwell or Moore?

Just as hundreds of evangelical pastors converge on Liberty University for a mega-political rally, the SBC’s Russell Moore is asking them to renounce racism and Christian nationalism. What will white evangelicals choose?

thank god we are deplorable trump pence

What will 2020 bring?

There hasn’t been much mystery about the recent politics of Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. His in-your-face Trumpism has been pretty extreme even for white evangelicals. In the long tradition of his father’s Liberty University, this week’s workshops will help evangelical pastors connect their cultural conservatism to their political activism. As CBN described,

Most Conservative Evangelicals see a culture spiraling out of control and drifting further away from Judeo-Christian principles. They are well aware of America’s spiritual roots and it was pastors, especially back in the Revolutionary War period, that led the way speaking out boldly from the pulpit on the moral and cultural issues of the day. This effort is clearly an attempt to see a new generation of pastors step up.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore was telling Newsweek that evangelical Christianity has to fight against racism and nationalism. Yes, Moore noted, evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians have had to defend themselves against unfair charges of bigotry and prejudice.

But Trump’s aggressive racist appeals are dangerous. As Moore noted,

racism is not a social or political issue. Racism is Satanism in my view, because it’s the idolatry of the flesh—and a sense of superiority and dominion over other people. That can manifest itself in neo-Nazi movements in Germany, in racist memes on Facebook or in left wing anti-Semitic posts and movements around the world as well.

Plus, Moore pointed out that religious people have a complicated relationship to political action. As he put it,

The church is not a political action committee and should never be a means to any earthly end. Church has a much bigger mission than that. Christians should be engaged in the world around them, including in their callings as citizens. The fortunes of the church don’t rise and fall with whoever’s winning and losing in the political arena. But then I will find myself sometimes even on the same day preaching to, say, a group of younger church planters. And making the point you can’t withdraw from the public arena and still love thy neighbor. You have responsibilities as citizens.

Will anyone listen? I guess the more precise question is this: How many white evangelicals will listen? How many will ask themselves if Trumpism really represents their vision of a just society, or if “making America great again” is code for a cynical, secular nostalgia that doesn’t really reflect evangelical values?

My hunch is that most white evangelical voters will continue to make decisions on a long list of factors. Some will be attracted to the Falwell-ish machismo of Trump’s angry white rhetoric. Others will be put off, but still choose Trump as the lesser of two evils. A few might decide that Trump’s racist appeals put him over the edge of moral acceptability, even if they don’t like the Democratic alternative.

God and Guns: Conservative Christians and the Latest Round of Mass Murder

What have conservatives had to say about the latest mass murders? Whatever your personal religion or politics, it’s fair to say that you don’t really understand America if you don’t understand the immense appeal of the statements below. Of course, conservatives have lots of different opinions, but here is a collection:

“There is a spiritual war over this country,” he said. “When you see things that take place like you saw last night in El Paso and Dayton, it’s nothing but the devil. The guns didn’t do this; people did this full of the devil and they were demon-possessed and these people are being used as pawns in this elite, deep state game to control this country, to take the guns away, to take any freedom away that we’ve got.”

“Listen to me,” McDonald added. “It’s not just about the guns, it’s about your ability to worship. It’s all tied together, because if they can take your guns away, they can take your ability to worship God away and they are trying to do everything in one swoop.”

Candice Keller mass shootingsIt has long been one of the toughest dividing lines in America’s culture wars. After storms and diseases, prominent right-wing preachers have long blamed left-wing cultural trends. For those of us on the left, these fulminations have seemed bizarre, hateful, and incredibly out-of-touch politically.

It might just be the best measure of where people stand in culture-war politics. When you read explanations of tragedies, when do you nod? When Beto O’Rourke blames them on guns and Trump? Or when Eric Metaxas blames the AntiChrist?

Why Do White Reformers Keep Making This Obvious Mistake?

It seems like it should be obvious. Yet news from KIPP—the nation’s largest non-profit charter-school network—shows that this simple idea is still very difficult for well-meaning school reformers to understand. Why has it taken decades for today’s “visionaries” to learn this centuries-old lesson?

Here’s the latest: According to Chalkbeat, the KIPP network shared some powerful mea culpas at its recent 25-year anniversary meeting. Historically, the schools have tended to attract middle-class white teachers to work with lower-income non-white students. And the KIPP tradition included a “no-excuses” type of classroom management. Students—at times—were required to maintain a rigid silence, marching single-file through hallways, enduring silent lunches, and generally submitting to a harsh-seeming disciplinary scheme.

In many cases, KIPP discipline insisted that non-conforming students be publicly humiliated. After twenty-five years, some of KIPP’s leaders are admitting that such systems don’t work. As Chalkbeat explained,

KIPP was among several charter networks to pioneer a “no excuses” approach to student discipline. That philosophy emphasizes classroom order and obedience in a bid to minimize distraction and raise students’ academic achievement — and has been heavily criticized for largely being meted out to students of color by white educators. Over the last decade, KIPP has walked back some of its earlier practices, notably a punishment known as “the bench,” where students were made to sit apart from their peers, sometimes wear a different colored T-shirt, and remain silent outside official class time.

Turns out, such practices can be effective in the short term. But they build up hostility and anger. They turn school into yet another place for low-income kids to resent and resist. And KIPP is hoping to end its use of public humiliation as a standard practice. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth told Chalkbeat,

“There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out-and-out abhor.” . . . “There were mistakes.” The charter network is still focused on providing “safe and structured environments,” he added, but “that’s very different than processes that shame kids.”

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research about America’s first broad attempt at urban school reform. Two hundred years ago, well-meaning white “visionaries” pioneered KIPP’s journey away from humiliation-as-a-tool.

In the early 1800s, London reformer Joseph Lancaster promised he had figured out a way to solve the problems of poverty. By reforming urban schools, he promised he could educate the hordes of children who thronged the streets of London. Instead of beating students into submission, Lancaster enthused, middle-class white teachers could simply humiliate them. Lancaster’s favorite tool was the “birdcage,” “cradle,” or “basket.”

1810 punishment the basketIn the 1810 edition of his school-reform manual, Lancaster described this technique:

Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.

Even Lancaster acknowledged that this extreme form of public humiliation was “terrible,” but it worked. As one enthusiastic teacher wrote to Lancaster in 1812, suspending kids from the ceiling could work wonders with classroom management. As this teacher put it,

When they first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

Just like KIPP’s leaders, however, Lancaster’s followers found out that public humiliation was not a good long-term strategy. By 1817, manuals of the Lancasterian system no longer advocated “the basket” or other tools of public humiliation. Instead, they moved to a simpler system of merits and demerits.

Why? Because when Lancasterian schools resorted to public humiliation, students stopped coming. Turns out people don’t like being publicly humiliated. Back in the early 1800s, especially, African-American students and families refused to have their children subjected to the same sorts of punishments that slave-owners had used on southern plantations.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult notion to grasp, yet for two hundred years school leaders have had to “discover” this truth anew. Which leads us to our question for today: Why is it so difficult for reformers to understand that public humiliation is not a good strategy?