The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

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It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.

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The Year in ILYBYGTH

I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to try awkwardly to maintain my dignity and refrain from any sort of year-end top-ten list. But then a couple of enforcers from the WordPress goon squad showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So here it is: The eleven most popular posts of 2018:

  1. What is Life Like at Evangelical Colleges? Reflections from alumni of “Fundamentalist U.” What was it like to attend different schools in different decades? How did evangelical higher ed shape these students’ lives?
  2. Billy Graham and Bob Jones From the archives, a look at the tempestuous and angry relationship between teacher and former student.

    Billy Graham

    RIP Billy Graham, here preaching to the multitudes in London, 1954.

  3. Crisis at Moody Bible Institute From way back in January 2018, a look at the ways the history of fundamentalist higher ed in the early 1900s set the pattern for the recent leadership shake-up at Chicago’s storied Bible school.
  4. The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual An ugly story of resume inflation is par for the course in the world of fundamentalist academic life. Why?
  5. The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die: It doesn’t seem to matter that historians have punctured this story completely. Journalists still love it, probably because a lot of evangelicals love it.
  6. Christians Don’t Know Christianity: Are Christians supposed to actually believe Christian doctrine? Or only hold it as a personal preference? religion as personal belief
  7. Where Were You Radicalized? A simple question on Tweeter gets people thinking, but there’s one place no one seemed to be talking about.
  8. Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity A professor complains that her students don’t know Christian orthodoxy. I lay out the historical case that this is nothing new in evangelical higher education.
  9. Bad News for Creationists Science just makes young-earth creationism harder and harder to believe. What will YECs do? I have a guess…

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    Because…Darwin?

  10. How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist? I made the case for an under-suspected culprit behind the racism of white evangelicals: mainstream higher education.
  11. Is Creationism Hate Speech? Can–SHOULD–mainstream universities ban radical young-earth creationism because it is hateful to non-heterosexuals?

Why Do We Keep Falling for School Scams?

It was a very depressing story. When the New York Times broke the ugly truth about Louisiana’s T.M. Landry school, the real question was why so many people believed the lies of the school’s leaders. Today, Will Stancil connects the dots. And as I’m arguing in my new book, this scam is no exception; it is the oldest story in the checkered history of American school reform.

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Magic-bean level school reform, c. 1834.

You’ve heard the story by now. T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in small-town Louisiana seemed to have found the magic recipe. Its viral videos told the heart-warming stories of low-income African American students who beat the odds and went to elite universities such as Harvard and Princeton.

It didn’t take long for the sad other shoe to drop. As the New York Times reported,

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

We make a mistake if we just shake our heads and lament the gruesome conditions of this single scam school. The real problem is much deeper.  Given the remarkable claims of the school’s leaders, Will Stancil asked recently, why did so many of us believe them for so long? As he puts it, all of us need to take a hard look at ourselves. Americans treasured the unbelievable success stories coming out of T.M. Landry, Stancil writes,

because it offered something that a lot of people wanted to believe. Their viral videos told a story of black children magically beating the odds. . . . people took solace in the idea that such a transformation was possible, and moved on.

Other commentators have made similar points. As Casey Gerald noted recently,

When we highlight those few against-all-odds stories, we send the message that all it takes to succeed is grit and resilience and willpower.

For those who hope that the right school reform can offer a quick and easy fix to social inequality, the reality gets even worse. As I’m finding in the research for my current book, America’s head-in-the-sand addiction to Horatio Alger stories has always been a problem.

Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster promised America’s elites a T.M. Landry-style solution to their burgeoning urban anxieties. As one industrial leader fretted in 1817, new cities and factories threatened to become

disgusting exhibitions of human depravity and wretchedness.

If they had the right schools, however, all could be well. As this industrialist explained, with only a small financial investment, American cities could install Lancasterian schools,

where good instruction will secure the morals of the young, and good regulations will promote, in all, order, cleanliness, and the exercise of the civil duties.

Just like T.M. Landry in 2018, back in 1817 these promises were obviously too good to be true. Yet, as one commentator described at the time,

The extent of the delusion . . . was so widely and so energetically advocated that thousands of intelligent men believed that a final and immediate remedy had been found for the evils of popular ignorance and that the era of universal intelligence had begun.

Things didn’t end any better for the students in Lancaster’s schools than they did for T.M. Landry’s. In a few years, parents, children, teachers, and eventually elite reformers realized that the promises of these school reforms couldn’t match the challenges of social inequality. Lancaster was exposed as a fraud. School leaders noted with chagrin that their miracle schools were not miracles at all. At the end of his rope, in 1838 Joseph Lancaster stepped out in front of a rushing horse carriage in New York and ended his life.

These scams and cons work because we want them to be true. We want to believe that society is fundamentally fair. We want to think that with a little gumption, a little “grit,” everyone can make it. What we don’t want to admit is the ugly truth: America has always been unequal. Some people are freer than others. Some live in a land of opportunity, but many don’t.

If only, we fantasize, if only there were a reading method or an ipad app that would make this problem go away. That’s why the Education Department pours billions of dollars into “innovation” grants.

As Will Stancil makes so painfully clear, our addiction to these sorts of fairy tales allow scammers to get us to believe the unbelievable. Americans like to hear about low-income African-American students “beating the odds,” because we can’t figure out how to make those brutal odds more equitable.

And as I’m finding out in my current research, it is America’s oldest educational fantasy. We need to reckon instead with the sobering truth: Schools can’t save society; schools ARE society. Unless and until society itself gives everyone a fair chance at success, schools won’t be able to.

Evolution Proves Creationism

It’s difficult for people like me to understand. How is it possible in this day and age that so many of my fellow Americans deny a basic fact of modern science? How is it possible that a significant proportion of American adults—even college-educated adults—think that our species was created de novo about 6,000 years ago in an Iraqi garden? A recent review of the psychology of denialism offers one challenging suggestion: Human brains evolved to remain creationist.

Denialism better

I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death my ability not to hear it…

As I’m arguing in my new book, the usual explanations just don’t hold water. The Richard Dawkinses of the world tend to think of creationism—at least the radical young-earth kind—as a kind of simple deficit. As Dawkins famously opined in 1989, creationists would have to be

ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

For those of us who understand the history and nature of America’s radical young-earth creationists, Dawkins’ dismissal doesn’t fit the evidence. Even if we are staunchly anti-creationist, if we’re paying attention we can’t help but notice that plenty of creationists know a lot about evolutionary theory. They are clearly intelligent and in possession of their mental faculties. And they might be wicked, that doesn’t seem to be a primary factor in their creationism.

A recent review article in The Economist points in a more promising direction. Studies show that people will usually accept a financial penalty rather than listening to arguments from the other side. They often compare the experience of listening to opposing viewpoints to “having a tooth pulled.”

enigma of reason

The evolution of creationism…

Why? Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that human reason is not the engine of pure enlightenment it is often considered. Instead, reasoning evolved as a way to encourage group cooperation. In their words,

What reason does . . . is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others . . . and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

What does this have to do with the durability of radical young-earth creationism? In spite of the accusations of angry Oxonians like Richard Dawkins, creationists have not abandoned their ability to reason and weigh evidence. Rather, if these cognitive psychologists are correct, human reasoning ability will tend to lead to greater in-group cohesion.

The brains of radical creationists tend to favor evidence that supports the dominant views of their group. They tend to dismiss evidence and arguments that go against them. This isn’t something unique to creationists. All our brains work in similar fashion. We don’t weigh facts evenly or dispassionately. We don’t even hear them that way. Rather, our brains seem hard-wired to accept facts that help us fit in with our groups.

In short, why are so many Americans creationists? Because they evolved that way.

Pearl Harbor

Teaching Pearl Harbor today? Or just interested in finding out more about the attack?pearl harbor ng attack map

If you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend checking out National Geographic’s “Remembering Pearl Harbor.” It has a lot of great features for students of any age, including videos from Japanese attack planes and searchable maps of the islands.

Sorry, I Didn’t Catch Your Name

What do we call them? When we want to talk about white, American, conservative evangelicals, is there a better, shorter, catchier term? Otherwise we either have to keep saying “evangelicals” when we don’t really mean ALL evangelicals, or keep repeating the whole too-long description.

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CAWEP? WACE? ???

I’ll plead guilty. In Fundamentalist U I often talked about “evangelicals,” when I really usually meant white, American, conservative evangelicals from the 20th-century interdenominational fundamentalist tradition. In a book, I feel like I can get away with using “evangelicals” as a short version of that long mouthful, because in context (I hope) it was clear what kind of evangelical I was talking about.

In other formats, though, I would like a better term. For example, in talking with journalist Trey Kay today of Us & Them fame, I kept wanting a better, clearer term. We kept talking about what “evangelicals” thought about the supposed War on Christmas. And I kept having to pause and specify that it wasn’t really evangelicals as a whole we were talking about. We were only talking about that specific subgroup: white American conservative evangelicals.

It is not a nitpick or a quibble. It is a vital and important distinction.

us and them war on christmas

Why are the evangelicals so mad? …they aren’t.

But to my knowledge, there is not a convenient, catchy, everyday term out there to capture what we mean. Is there one out there already? Or can we invent one?

Some of the options out there are no good. I’m not okay with “Christian Right” as a label. It can be useful in some cases, but if we’re talking specifically about conservative evangelicals, then it doesn’t fit. Sure, many evangelicals WANT to claim the right to speak for all Christians, but it doesn’t really do justice to the diversity of conservative Christianity.

Or, how about John Fea’s term “court evangelical?” Since 2016, it has been a great term to understand the kind of evangelical who has jumped on the Trump train. For these purposes, however, “court evangelical” is too specific to our current time and place.

We need a term that captures what we really want to talk about, without having to say “white American conservative evangelical” every time. And without having awkwardly to correct everyone who says “evangelical” when they really mean “white American conservative evangelical.”

It has to be pronounceable. And short enough to use regularly.

How about CAWE? Or WACE? CWAEP? (pronounced see-wape, with the “P” from Protestant) CAWEP? I don’t like any of those, but I prefer them to our current muddled practice. Any better ideas out there?

Thanksgiving, ILYBYGTH Style

Ah…Thanksgiving. The holiday that brings us together to yell at each other and watch football. How can one Thursday fire up so much culture-war angst? How can it help explain both Rush Limbaugh and creationism?

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This year, as your humble editor prepares to head to an undisclosed location somewhere in Ohio to avoid any hint of culture-war histrionics, we stumbled across the ILYBYGTH Thanksgiving archives. Check out some of the ghosts of ILYBYGTH Thanksgivings past:

First, how does Thanksgiving help us understand the way schools really work? For everything from sex ed to evolution, Thanksgiving dinners can serve as metaphors for the real reasons why it is so hard to get schools to dive into controversial issues.

Second, were the Pilgrims really communists? And why do conservative pundits say they were? It seems to me conservatives would want to defend the tradition of friendly buckle-wearing Pilgrims.

Next, how does Thanksgiving play a role in climate-change culture wars? Some advice from the folks at National Center for Science Education.

Finally, some bad Thanksgiving advice on how to outsmart your crazy right-wing (or left-wing) uncles.

Fundamentalist U at HES

Maybe I should have taken a quantitative turn at Albuquerque! I was honored and delighted to have a group of top historians discuss Fundamentalist U at the recent History of Education Society meeting in sunny Albuquerque. They raised some tough questions and we had a great discussion about the need for a better historical understanding of evangelical higher education.

The panel was put together by Professor Andrea Turpin of Baylor University. She invited academic heavy-hitters AJ Angulo, Milton Gaither, and Katrina Sanders. The inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman served as our chair.

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Professors Sanders, Gaither, Angulo, and Turpin. Yours truly in the back.

All of the panelists had nice things to say about the book, which was great to hear. But they also raised insightful questions. For example, why doesn’t the book include a clearer description of the numbers of institutions involved? It would have been fairly easy to do and it would have helped readers get a sense of the scope of the evangelical-college movement over time.

Also, the book claims to examine the history of evangelical higher education, but it leaves out large swathes of evangelical schools. Where are the Pentecostals? The Peace-Church schools? It’s a fair point and one I readily acknowledge. The focus of my book is on a subgroup of the evangelical tradition, schools that called themselves “fundamentalist” at some point in time.

We talked about the top-down focus of the book, too. Yes, I tried hard to include student experiences as much as possible, but the central theme of the book, as Professor Gaither pointed out, was

the narrow channel administrators had to navigate between the Scylla of angry fundamentalists watching their every move for signs of creeping secularization and the Charybdis of parents, students, and accreditation bodies who wanted to make sure that the education being provided was respectable.

Last but not least, we discussed the challenges of my sources. In some cases, I was only given access to small parts of archival collections. I wasn’t allowed at all into some archives, like at Bryan College. How did this curated set of papers influence my ability to draw fair conclusions?

All fair questions. And, as I particularly appreciate, questions that demonstrate a keen understanding of the book and my goals. Even given these limitations, I consider the book to be worthwhile. (To be clear, the panelists agreed on this point as well.)

First of all, for historians and others interested in American higher ed, we absolutely must include this family of institutions in our considerations. Too often, we hear pundits and policy-makers talk about the ideological draft of “American higher ed” in ways that seem willfully blind to the true diversity of the higher-ed landscape.

Second, though this wasn’t the focus of these educational historians, we will never understand religious bodies and religious identities if we don’t do a better job of studying affiliated educational institutions. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, too often observers and historians have assumed that we should understand fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism on theological grounds. That’s useful, but it’s not enough. If we really hope to get a handle on what it has meant to be an evangelical, we need to see what evangelicals have done with their schools. And we need to ask why.

[Oh, and I also saw a roadrunner. I guess they’re like pigeons down there…]

HES 2018 roadrunner

meep meep.

The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’

Sutton

…for Christ’s sake!

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

Love Letters from Unexpected Quarters

There aren’t a lot of heroes in Julie Schumacher’s new novel. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered Schumacher’s surprising exception. It wasn’t really the main character, a crusty and cynical novelist and chair of the English Department. It wasn’t even the out-of-touch Shakespeare scholar who insisted on keeping the liberal arts in a liberal arts college. No, the only character that came out as truly sympathetic didn’t come out of the world of elite higher ed but rather from the closed-off world of evangelical home schooling. And it leads us to a bigger question: Do the conservative skeptics have more allies in mainstream higher-ed than they realize?

shakespeare requirement

We’re (almost) all adrift…

I don’t want to give away too much of Schumacher’s plot, so I’ll tell my own story instead. When I first took my current job, a friend in the English Department of the high school at which I worked gave me a copy of Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

“Read it,” my friend said. “You’ll need it.”

Straight Man was my introduction to the field of higher-ed satire. In the novel, a bumbling hero fights to keep college less insane. As the imagined traditions of liberal-arts education crumple in the face of careerism, credentialism, and ruthless bottom lines, Russo’s straight man can only offer ridiculousness in protest.

More recently, one of my current colleagues recommended Schumacher’s fantastic higher-ed satire, Dear Committee Members. Schumacher offered a witheringly on-point send-up of today’s higher-ed scene, with embittered English professor Jay Fitger revealing through a series of recommendation letters his dwindling influence at Payne University. Hilarious and bitterly accurate.

So it was with a lot of eagerness that I finally got my hands on The Shakespeare Requirement. In this novel, Jay Fitger is back, and Payne University is still wallowing in the unenviable position of a small liberal-arts college. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around an attempt to bring the school—and its wacky English Department—into the contemporary world of mainstream higher education.

External funding rules the campus, and notions such as knowledge for knowledge’s sake are out the window. Under pressure, the English Department eliminates its requirement of a Shakespeare class for all English majors. Antics ensue.

All told, I’m pretty disappointed by the novel. It does not capture the wit and weariness that made Dear Committee Members so good. But it does include a curious celebration. Few of the characters or types come off well in the novel. Students are lazy and selfish. Professors are either grasping or clueless. The administration is, at best, pathetic.

Given the bleak landscape, I was surprised to find Schumacher’s ray of hope. One character shines. Angela Vackrey is a freshman, from a family that didn’t want her to come to Payne. She had been homeschooled in a rigorously conservative evangelical household. Angela wanted to find out more about the world than

The pile of paperbound workbooks (Broad Horizon: A Christian’s Historical Perspective) next to the chicken-and-egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the maple table where she had completed her schoolwork at home.

Angela is not at all typical of Payne students. For one thing, Schumacher tells us, she still dresses as if she were at church:

Unlike most of the young women in the room, who dressed as if stopping by class on their way to a nightclub, she wore a homely denim skirt and white buttoned blouse.

Also unlike most Payne students, Angela takes her school work seriously. As Professor Fitger discovered, Angela’s writing

Evinced a startling ability to think clearly, express original ideas, and write.

At Payne University, in any case, such abilities make Angela stand out. Her modesty, temperance, and hard work are a stark and startling contrast to the rest of the student body, and even to the debauched faculty.

Indeed, if this novel were to some from some of the usual conservative suspects—higher-ed critics such as Rod Dreher or Peter Wood—it wouldn’t be very interesting at all. But as far as I can tell, Professor Schumacher is no conservative. The yearnings of her characters are not for a purer, Christian society. Rather, Jay Fitger is utterly adrift, and at times, sympathetically so.

In the end, The Shakespeare Requirement is, like Professor Fitger, rudderless. Yet even from that position of cynical drift, Schumacher seems to yearn for a better world, one that can only be maintained by fundamentalist strictures that no one can abide.