Three Reasons to Read Fundamentalist U

Thanks to Justin Taylor for finding three reasons to recommend Fundamentalist U.

Cover art final

Three reasons to put this on your summer reading list…

Taylor is senior vice president at Crossway books and a scholar of evangelical history. I appreciate his description of the book as a “unique and important project.”

What are Taylor’s three reasons for reading? You’ll have to click over to find out.

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Why Didn’t Christianity Today Mention The Most Important Part?

Remember Dorothy Sayers? A lot of us don’t, but the twentieth-century writer has had enormous influence on twenty-first century evangelicalism. A recent article in Christianity Today about Sayers’ influence, though, mysteriously left out the most important part of Sayers’ legacy for American evangelicalism. Why?sayers

In the Christianity Today article, author Crystal Downing focuses on Sayers’ famous series of BBC plays about Christ. As Downing tells the story,

In 1940, the BBC asked Sayers to write a series of 12 radio plays about Jesus. Taking the commission very seriously, Sayers spent a year rereading the Gospels, studying the original Greek as well as Bible commentaries. . . . Reporters, surprised that Sayers used colloquial rather than King James English, played up the fact that some of Christ’s disciples spoke working-class slang. . . . Due to the nationwide scandal, hundreds of people tuned in to the broadcasts for titillation more than for edification. What they got was the gospel delivered in language that made sense to them. They discovered that their perceptions of Jesus had become as static as stained-glass depictions in their churches. . . . As Sayers recounted to [C.S.] Lewis in 1946, “Thousands of people write to say that they have been ‘brought back to God,’ or had their faith renewed, or returned with eagerness to reading the Bible” due to the broadcasts. Lewis himself was so impressed by the profundity of Sayers’s plays that he read the print version for his Lenten devotions every year.

It’s a well-known story and one that should be remembered. But when it comes to real influence in the world of American evangelical culture, there is a much more important side of Sayers’ that this article simply didn’t mention.

sayers lost tools of learning

Sayers’ REAL lost legacy…

Why not?

It might be simply due to ignorance. As Patrick Halbrook has explained in these pages, not many people know the story of Sayers’ indirect influence on conservative evangelical schooling in the twenty-first century. As Halbrook explained,

if you were to visit a conference on Christian education and pull aside a parent or teacher to inquire about the distinguished Ms. Sayers, more often than not she would simply be lauded as the author of a brief 1947 essay on education entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Throughout the past few decades, this essay has spread throughout the evangelical Christian community through a peculiar turn of events.  In the mid twentieth century it came to the attention of William F. Buckley, who reprinted it at various times in National Review.  In the pages of Buckley’s magazine, it was read by a pastor of a small church in Moscow, Idaho named Douglas Wilson (Wilson is now known, among other things, for debating Christopher Hitchens and writing an award-winning novel).  In the early 1980s, Wilson began a private Christian school in Moscow in which he implemented Sayers’ ideas; he later popularized them in his 1991 book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Over the following years, hundreds of schools across the country began to form using Wilson’s school as a model.  Sayers’ ideas also appear in the pages of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, an enormously popular book on homeschooling which is now in its third edition.

Perhaps the general reader might not know about this vital legacy of Dorothy Sayers, but it seems odd that it wouldn’t be mentioned in an article specifically dedicated to revealing Sayers’ oft-forgotten legacy.

The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

Tweeter Tester

Well, for good or ill, I’m in. I’ve signed up on Twitter, so (I think) you can click to the right to get all the ILYBYGTH latest.

I remember when I started teaching high school in the 1990s. I really did used to be “with it.” But then they changed what “it” was and now, etc. etc. HT: EM

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#not sure if I’m twittering correctly…

What Does a Friendly Atheist Want to Know about Fundamentalist U?

I had a chance to talk with Hemant Mehta, the famous Friendly Atheist. He had great questions to ask about Fundamentalist U.

friendly atheist

FA on FU

For example, Mehta wondered what today’s evangelicals didn’t like to hear about their own collegiate history.

He asked how schools that were dedicated to passing along eternal truths somehow rationalized changing their beliefs. In Mehta’s words, schools essentially had to tell students. “We’re correct NOW, but in the past when we said we were correct we were wrong.” Why would anyone believe such things?

Mehta also wondered how schools can change ONE rule, like racial segregation, without admitting that they might be wrong on everything?

That’s not all. Here are a few other topics Mehta pressed me about:

  • How did Bryan College get away with changing their faculty statement of faith in 2014?
  • Do schools like this “exist in a bubble?” Or do they want to be influential in mainstream culture and politics? How does the history of the CCCU help answer these questions?
  • How have evangelical colleges handled sexual assault and abuse?

It was a real pleasure for me to talk with him. I’ve long been a follower and fan of his blog. Click on over and listen to the whole interview if you’ve got some time to kill.

Professor Hankins on Fundamentalist U

I’m tickled pink this morning to read a new review of Fundamentalist U from a scholar I have long admired. Barry Hankins of Baylor offered an insightful review today in the pages of Christianity Today.family feud

What did he think? As he explains,

Laats attempts to identify the distinct nature of non-denominational, fundamentalist-evangelical higher education in the 20th century. And he succeeds admirably. . . .

In explaining how this struggle [between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism] played out, Laats helps us better understand both Christian higher education and the historic relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

My favorite bit of all?

With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.

Professor Hankins explores the book’s treatment of issues such as creationism and racism in evangelical higher education and sends us off with a heartening conclusion:

Overall, Fundamentalist U is an exhaustively researched and well-written book, even when it dwells on episodes we might prefer to forget.

Copy-editing Out Evolution

In our continuing creation/evolution culture wars, copy-editing out evolution is the oldest trick not in the book. Historian Adam Shapiro has showed us how textbook publishers have always done it. Today we see a spanking new example of this old trick from Arizona.

Trying Biology

Leave evolution in, take “evolution” out…

As Professor Shapiro noted, back in the 1920s publishers made big promises about cutting evolution out of their textbooks. In many cases, though, they left the content the same and merely took the word “evolution” out of their indexes. Sometimes they changed the word “evolution” to “development” in the text itself.

Usually, this wasn’t due to any ardent love or hate for science or creationism. Rather, publishers just wanted to sell books. If buyers wanted evolution out, so be it. But changing text was expensive, so publishers tended to make the smallest changes they could get away with.

We see today similar edits in Arizona. This time around, though, it looks as if standard-makers really do want to water down the teaching of evolution.

AZ evol edits 2018

Change over time…

Here’s what we know: The latest science standards up for adoption in Arizona have made a bunch of changes. Time after time, the Department of Education has revised out evolution. Here are a few examples (you can see the whole thing here with changes marked in green):

4 The theory of evolution seeks to make clear the unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution organisms.

43           Life Sciences: Students develop an understanding of patterns and how genetic information is passed from generation to generation. They also develop the understanding of adaptations contribute to the process of biological evolution how traits within populations change over time. [sic]

69           Gather, evaluate, and communicate multiple lines of empirical evidence to explain the mechanisms of biological evolution change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations.

Will this sort of editing make any difference? Will science teachers in Arizona change what they are doing based on these cosmetic changes? Does it matter if creationists believe in “change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations,” but refuse to accept the evidence for “biological evolution”?

College Professors: The Enemy Within

Want to understand the campus free-speech wars? Chronicle of Higher Education has published a fantastic description of the way one scuffle in Nebraska escalated into a national cause. As with other reporting, however, this article misrepresents the history of conservative ire over liberal colleges.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students under attack in Nebraska…

It’s really a spellbinding story for nerds interested in these sorts of things. Journalist Steve Kolowich tells the tale of one conservative Nebraska student confronted by a progressive student and a faculty member. Kolowich explains how Nebraska politicians and national activists seized upon the conflict as a symbol of their dislike for academic trends.

When it comes to historical context, though, Kolowich misses some important elements. As he writes, after the “culture-war” battles of the 1980s and 1990s, “Conservatives began seeing themselves as minorities in need of protection.” For conservatives, Kolowich explains, in recent years “the public university was transforming into an enemy within[.]”

True enough, as far as it goes. But as I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservative anger and dismay at the goings-on in higher education have a much longer history.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

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 witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When it comes to conservative skepticism about the goings-on in higher education, we need to remember the longer context. Recent polls have led some pundits to make a variety of short-term claims about why conservatives don’t like higher education.

If we really want to understand the relationship between conservatism and higher education in America, IMHO, we need to take a different approach. First of all, as I’ve argued before, conservative activists and intellectuals don’t really dislike higher education as an institution. They love it. What they dislike, in general, is the perceived takeover of higher education by progressives.

Second, we need to keep the long view. If we want to understand the Nebraska stand off that Kolowich describes so movingly, we need to keep in mind the full historical context. Conservatives have been griping about the progressive takeover of higher education for a long time. When Nebraska’s pundits and state senators get on board, they are able to dip into a much longer, much more robust political tradition.

Why Care about Evangelical Colleges?

Why should historians of religion care about schools? How can our study of history help us heal our culture-war ulcers? This week, I had the chance to talk with Professor Andrea Turpin of Baylor University about these questions and more.

RiAH FU interview

Every mystery explained…

Professor Turpin is one of the few humans who is as fascinated by evangelical educational history as I am. Her first award-winning book examined questions of gender, religion, morality and higher education in the nineteenth century. new moral vision

In our interview, she asked terrific questions that got right to the heart of the matter. What does the history of evangelical higher education tell us about the relationship between “fundamentalists” and “evangelicals?” How does political conservatism line up with theological conservatism? …and more!

For my awkward attempts at answers, click on over to Religion in American History and read the whole thing. Many thanks to Prof. Turpin!

Why Jimmy Carter?

If you didn’t know much about Liberty University or conservative evangelical higher education, you might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter will be giving the commencement address at Liberty this year.

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Glories of past Liberty commencements…

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, it makes perfect sense. I lay out my case this morning at The Conversation why Jerry Falwell Jr. would want President Carter to come to Lynchburg.

Why would he? Click on over and check it out. Let me know if you think I’m off base.