Why Do We Want our Schools to Fail?

The numbers are in, and they are good. So why aren’t we celebrating?

Here’s the story: For the past two years, graduation rates have continued to climb for Washington DC schools. And here’s the dilemma: Why don’t we hear more about our continuing love for and satisfaction with our public schools?

Most of us like our local public schools. As Gallup polls have showed over and over again, public perception of public schools is hugely skewed. Large majorities of respondents with kids in public schools are very happy with those schools. But majorities also say that public schools in general are in terrible shape.

gallup people like their local schools

We love our schools…except we don’t.

In our nation’s capital, the news has been good for the last couple of years. In 2016, new programs and policies led to increased graduation rates. That trend has continued this year.

So why don’t we see more headlines about the improving state of public education? Why don’t we hear more about the fact that most parents like their local public schools?

I have a hunch that won’t surprise SAGLRROILYBYGTH. When it comes to our bitter educational culture wars, both sides have an interest in promoting bad news.

Progressive types like me worry that schools for low-income and minority students have always suffered from a lack of funding and attention. When we look at the headlines from DC, it’s easy to a huge lurking BUT. Yes, graduation rates are improving and hitting all-time highs, but they still reflect the cruel inequities of our schools and society. As WaPo notes,

In D.C. Public Schools, black and Latino students also saw a boost in graduation rates — to 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively — but they still lag behind their white classmates by more than 10 points.

Plus, the improvements in graduation rates still vary tremendously by school. At selective high schools—schools that non-coincidentally educate a richer, whiter population—more students graduate on time. The numbers are much worse for neighborhood schools.

DC schools are good

Good news travels slow.

The takeaway? For progressive pundits, saying the news is good feels like a betrayal of all the students and families who still aren’t getting a fair shake.

Conservative education pundits don’t agree with that progressive argument, but they also tend to pooh-pooh any sorts of optimism. For many conservatives, the news from DC is still bleak. Public school systems, some conservatives think, are still throttled by sclerotic union-dominated bureaucracies. They don’t really teach kids. For proof, they can point to other parts of WaPo’s reporting:

At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.

Shuttling a bunch of under-educated students across the graduation stage, conservatives might argue, doesn’t mean the schools are really doing a decent job of training students for jobs and passing along the big ideas of our culture. All it means is that union-ruled pencil-pushers are inflating their numbers. What public schools really need, conservatives might say, is an authentic shake up, a thorough-going privatization with charters and vouchers.

In every case, pundits tend to prefer bad news. It’s hard to fundraise when you tell people things are fine and getting better.

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The REAL Fight about School Reform

It’s not about charters. It’s not about vouchers. It’s not about the power of unions or the role of standardized tests. The fundamental disagreement at the heart of our protracted inability to improve our public schools comes from something else entirely. As a recent commentary from the free-marketeers at Flypaper makes clear, this basic disagreement fuels big dilemmas about school funding and function.

Recently, Ian Rowe made some powerfully true points about this tricky truth at the core of school reform. But he also demonstrated how easy it is to draw some powerfully false conclusions. Rowe worked briefly at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he is reacting to the Gates’s recent self-examination of their twenty-first century school reform efforts.

As Rowe correctly points out, spending money—even Microsoft-style bajillions—on silver-bullet school reforms will never be enough to correct the glaring and lamentable differences between public schools for children from affluent families and public schools for low-income families. That is, simply by paying for new school formulas such as smaller schools, more invasive standardized testing, or new subject standards, school reform will never achieve its real goals. Even with new computers or standardized tests, schools for low-income students will never offer the same opportunities and life chances that richer students get.

Rowe is 100% correct that such silver-bullet attempts will always fail because they get the school-reform equation backwards. We shouldn’t think about using schools to equalize a ruthlessly hierarchical society—we first need to pay attention to the reasons that society itself is divided between haves and have-nots.

After that, however, Rowe goes off the rails. His intellectual crash-and-burn illustrates the real dilemma at the heart of school reform.

For Rowe, the real problem with educational inequality has its roots with the culture of low-income Americans. If schools are to offer real opportunities for people to climb up the economic ladder, we need to focus first and foremost on changing that culture. Too many families, Rowe notes, have only one parent. And too many families suffer from immature and even immoral parenting.

To heal America’s divisions, Rowe argues, we need to encourage “parent accountability.” Too many adults in low-income families, Rowe insists, mar their children’s chances at a good education because the adults themselves dawdle in a “state of perpetual adolescence.”

Rowe’s prescription is simple. Schools must change the culture of young people. As he puts it,

Educators can teach students the sequence of life choices—education, work, marriage, then children—that is highly correlated with economic and life success, and that would empower students to overcome substantial race- and class-based institutional barriers.

Rowe is entirely correct that school reform will always fail when it tries to use flashy new methods to offer students from low-income families the same life choices enjoyed by students from more affluent homes. But he is woefully, dangerously incorrect when he suggests that the answer is to use schools to teach children not to be like their parents.

Our latest research, after all, shows that schools are not the biggest factor in economic mobility. That is, success in getting through high school and maybe college to get a better job than your parent had is mostly not do to the schools themselves, but other factors. And Rowe is right that a big part of those outside factors is family structure.Rothstein

The real disagreement at the heart of our school-reform dilemma is about what comes next. By and large, Americans don’t like to talk about the real problem. We don’t like to talk about the fact that some Americans don’t have an equal shot at the American dream. We don’t like to acknowledge the obvious truism that band-aid reforms to some schools here and there are laughably inadequate solutions.

We can’t even agree on what poverty means. For many Americans, especially conservatives and religious Americans, the main cause of poverty is “individual failings.” If only people worked harder and delayed gratification, the thinking goes, they would move up to better jobs and nicer neighborhoods. As recent surveys show, the rest of us tend to blame social structure and “difficult circumstances.” The most important factor in persistent poverty—in this way of thinking—is the way society itself discriminates against poor people, squeezing them into worse houses, with worse schools and worse jobs.

Unless and until we can figure out this persistent disagreement about what it means to be poor in America, our sporadic attempts at school reform will continue to disappoint. Like Bill Gates, well-meaning but poorly informed reformers will wonder where all their money went with so little to show for it.

Can Anyone Really Teach For America?

It’s personal for me. I remember being shocked and perturbed when I started teaching and realized the kinds of lives some of our students lived. It’s one thing to see it on TV; it’s another to get to know a kid who only comes to school when he feels like it because he lives in a house without any responsible adults, where there is no food but there are plenty of drugs and prostitution. Every teacher wants to help. And every good teacher realizes he or she can never help enough–the problems are so big and so overwhelming for so many kids that one great history class seems awfully meaningless in comparison.

A new memoir brings this crusty old question up one more time: How much impact can a teacher really have on students’ lives? Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo tells the story yet again. Kuo goes from Harvard to Arkansas with Teach For America. She finds herself shocked and unprepared for the conditions in which her students live.

At The Atlantic, reviewers gush. They write that Kuo manages to avoid the “every kind of awful” clichés of the teacher-as-savior genre.

Veteran teachers aren’t so smitten. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene laments the stale story. As he puts it,

only in teaching do we get this. Students who drop out of their medical internship don’t get to write memoirs hailed for genius insights into health care. Guys who once wrote an article for the local paper don’t draw plaudits for their book of wisdom about journalism and the media.   But somehow education must be repeatedly Columbusized, as some new tourist is lionized for “discovering” a land where millions of folks all live rich and fully realized lives.

Coincidentally, this week I’m asking the grad students I work with to consider this very question. Given the many structural and social inequities that create “tough” schools, how much positive influence can one teacher have on students’ lives?

As Greene points out, in every generation affluent Americans like to “discover” the “shocking” conditions in some urban schools. It’s such a cliché that the Onion can parody the predictable storyline without even breaking a sweat. In my class, I’m asking students to consider both the question itself and the way American pop culture keeps finding itself surprised to hear the same story.

We start with the movie Blackboard Jungle. In 1955, this movie shocked audiences by its depictions of gang warfare, sexual assault, and unruly teenagers. Oh, and of course rock-and-roll music, which was apparently a big thing at the time.

Of no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, in Blackboard Jungle, an earnest new teacher has some trouble with these violent and turbulent teens. Of even less surprise, he manages to forge positive relationships and get most of them to reevaluate their ideas about school and literature.

Next up: Up the Down Staircase. This 1960s memoir told the same story. In the 1967 film version, we see the earnest and affluent teacher move in to an urban high school. The students are rowdy. They are not all white. They give the teacher trouble.

After some twists—including one frank African American drop-out who explains to the naïve teacher the uselessness of school credentials in his life—the teacher manages by dint of personal awesomeness to help her students get something out of school.

Last but not least, we hear the story again in 2007’s Freedom Writers. In this version, we have an earnest and affluent teacher—wait for it—teaching in a gritty and violent urban school.

I don’t know if you need to hear the rest. It’s the same story told in twenty-first century accents. After significant struggle, by dint of extraordinary effort and personal moxie the heroic teacher manages to connect with her students. The students recognize their own potential as writers, thinkers, and voices for social change.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying these stories aren’t heroic in some sense. Most Harvard grads don’t take Kuo’s detour through Arkansas before law school. And even fewer return when things get scary. And I’m certainly not saying I don’t share the moral dilemma of these teachers.

But I still struggle to make sense of a few key questions:

  • Why do Americans keep finding themselves surprised to hear this same story?
  • Are these really “inspiring” or “hopeful” stories, when nothing has actually changed for most students?
  • What long-term impact can isolated, self-sacrificing teachers have in a hierarchical society?

When Should We Punch Nazis?

If you only read the headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that large majorities of Americans oppose free speech. With Trump tweeting against NFL protests and college students blocking offensively conservative speakers, we might think most Americans agreed that free speech was a dangerous thing. According to new survey data, though, that’s not the case. In The Atlantic recently, Conor Friedersdorf reviewed the survey findings and found some surprising results. For one thing, most Americans want to let even the most offensive speakers have their say.

nazi-flag-charlottesville-protest-rd-mem-170814_12x5_992

Punch him? Or protect him?

Should an executive be fired for harboring racist ideas? A majority (53%) said no. Even a slim majority (51%) of African Americans said no.

Should Nazis be violently blocked from expressing their hateful views? Large majorities of minorities said no. Eighty percent of Latinos and almost three-quarters of African Americans wanted to let Nazis speak their piece.

What about on campus? It seems that large majorities of respondents agree that some forms of speech deserve to be blocked. If someone calls for violence, for example, 81% of respondents think their speech should not be protected. Saying the Holocaust never happened? 57% of people think such ideas should be blocked. “Outing” illegal immigrants on campus? 65% said no.

If someone pulls a James Damore, though, 60% of people think his speech should be protected. And small minorities even want to protect other sorts of offensive speech, including accusations that all Christians are “brainwashed” (51%) or even that some racial minorities have lower IQs (52%).

It seems as if there is a lot more agreement about free speech than one might think. Americans in general often don’t know the rules—for example, significant numbers of respondents thought it was already illegal to make racist comments. Overall, however, Americans seem to agree that most speech should be protected, even offensive and possible dangerous speech. If it becomes TOO dangerous, however, we agree it must be stopped. We just don’t agree on where or how to draw that line.

A Trump Victory We Didn’t Expect

Maybe not out of left field, specifically, but out of a field somewhere: Trump’s shocking electoral victory and surprising pockets of continuing popularity have left wonks of all sorts scratching their heads. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’re agog to see some odd recent poll results that show yet another surprising result of Trumpism.

trump supporters

Take my tuition dollars!

The poll we’re talking about would seem to be worlds removed from Trumpism and its unpredictable path. But the Inside Higher Education/Gallup survey of college admissions officials has come up with some intriguing political results.

Some are predictable. Many schools these days are struggling to attract students. Only 34% of the schools surveyed met their enrollment goals this year, down from the last two years. That hits schools hard, right in the pocketbook. Without tuition dollars, most schools would have to pull a Sweet Briar, and few institutions have the wealthy alumni base to hope for a last-minute SB rescue.

One of the most attractive type of student, from a financial perspective, has long been international students. They often pay full tuition. At public state schools, they often pay even more than out-of-state students.

Trump’s anti-immigrant bluster has made it harder for American schools to attract these types of students. Eighty-six percent of admissions officers thought “the statements and policies of President Trump make it more difficult to recruit international students.”

That’s not surprising.

What is a Trump shocker, to us at least, is a different consensus among the admissions bureaucrats. Trump’s victory, many agreed, served as proof that they have been looking in the wrong directions for students. As the IHE report put it,

In the months following the election and the inauguration of President Trump, many educators have been discussing whether the results suggest that higher education is out of touch with the public, and how the image of higher education (fair or not) impacts colleges and their admissions strategies. At a gathering of private college counselors in June, many said that they were seeing an increase in parents vetoing their children’s college choices over the perceived political orientation of institutions, with one counselor saying, “Brown is completely off the table.”

As a result, many schools have begun a new sort of recruitment. In addition to their traditions of recruiting athletes, high-flying nerds, and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, many schools want to start reaching out to rural, white, and—get this—conservative students.

Admissions Directors Agreeing With Statements on Higher Education, Postelection

Statement Public Private Nonprofit
Higher education needs to redouble its efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority groups. 86% 66%
The election outcome suggests Americans are less committed than they were in the past to increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority students who attend college. 44% 35%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more students from rural areas. 42% 32%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more low-income white students. 32% 24%
Colleges with overwhelmingly liberal student bodies should increase recruiting efforts, including affirmative action, for conservative students. 16% 12%

In other words, Trump’s victory has convinced some admissions officials—like some ILYBYGTH editors—that they just don’t “get” America. They want to include more students who might be likely to support Trump. They want to expand their notion of “diversity” to include conservative, rural, white students.

Colleges That Are Stepping Up Recruitment of Certain Groups in Wake of Election

  Public Private
Rural students 52% 28%
Low-income white students 41% 22%
Conservative students 9% 8%

 

We can’t say we haven’t wondered about this sort of thing. For a while now, we at ILYBYGTH have been worried about higher-education’s lack of knowledge and interest in conservative students. But we CAN say it is something we didn’t predict, one more example of the ways the Trump earthquake has changed the political landscape.

The Pornographer’s Preschool and the Perils of Public Funding

The feel-good story of the superstorm: Super-rich guy allows a bunch of adorable orphans to shelter in his swanky mansion after Irma knocked out power to their group home. From Lil Orphan Annie to The Simpsons to Fresh Prince of Bel Air, we Americans love it when a spunky kid is plucked from poverty and given a brief taste of the good life. And I hate to be “that guy,” but I can’t help but remind us about the underlying social malfunction that underlies this storyline: Instead of hoping for a well-intentioned generous savior, we should be making sure that all kids are getting the kinds of shelter and support they deserve.

lil orphan annie

I’ll help this one because it amuses me…

In case you missed the story, here it is in a nutshell: After Irma blew through Florida, about seventy kids of all ages at the SOS Children’s Village Florida were left homeless. Marc Bell, former owner of Penthouse magazine and board member of the group home, offered to let them stay at his mansion. They ended up staying for a couple of days. Bell hired clowns and bought pizza.

Cute story, right? If you watched only the Inside Edition version, you’d think so.

I know Inside Edition isn’t about hard-hitting journalism, but it’s hard not to cringe at the way the story is being told. Yes, it was kind of Bell to spend some of his hard-won pornography dollars on helping these children. And yes, it was an emergency situation that strained all public services far past the breaking point.

The real headline here isn’t a happy one, however. The real headline is that our institutional structure to provide basic services for the most vulnerable members of our society is fragile and battered in the best of circumstances. When emergency strikes—as we know it will even if we don’t know the details—people in these institutions are left hopeless and helpless.

Without the lucky and accidental intervention of the Bell family in this case, these seventy children would have been forced to endure more days without food, water, or shelter.

And that’s the real headline, the depressing headline, the headline no one wants to see and no one would click on: Children from Low-Income Homes Get Worse Treatment.

Decent funding for schools, housing, and other basic needs shouldn’t be a special plea that sometimes is met when generous individuals decide to step in. Schools should not need to plead for special treatment in order to have adequate supplies. Shelters shouldn’t need to beg for one-time favors in order to keep the lights on.

We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at Philly.com. If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

The OTHER Textbook Culture War

You know the script: Progressives face off against conservatives, fighting over history textbooks. Progressives want more focus on freedom struggles, conservatives on America’s exceptionalism. It’s the story we hear a lot, and one I focused on in my book about educational conservatism. My reading these days, though, points out the hidden importance of a very different sort of textbook battle.

As do a lot of academic types, I spend my summers catching up on reading. I often agree to write reviews of new books for a variety of academic journals. This summer, I’m reading historian Charles W. Eagles’ new book Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook.civil rights culture wars

It’s a terrific book. If you want to read my full review, you’ll have to wait til it comes out in the Journal of American History. In these pages, I’d like to talk about something else, something I don’t have room for in my official review, one of the most revealing and eye-opening parts of Eagles’ history.

Professor Eagles tells the story of a new state-history book for Mississippi, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. It was an effort by sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis in the early 1970s to bring a more balanced and more progressive history to Mississippi’s ninth graders.

Eagles tells the story of the controversial book in remarkable detail, and the usual players all show up. Progressives liked the book for finally including African Americans in the history, not only as loyal slaves or bumbling Reconstruction-era politicians, but as Mississippians. Conservatives blasted the book as unbalanced, obsessed with denigrating the history of the great state of Mississippi.

As I followed the predictable back-and-forth, I couldn’t help but hear an additional muted counter-melody running through all the deliberations. There was an additional voice struggling to be heard, a point of view beyond the usual culture-war progressivism and conservatism.mississippi conflict and change

Over and over again, the experienced teachers who reviewed and rejected Loewen’s and Sallis’s textbook made a similar complaint. The book was no good, they argued, not because of any overarching ideological slant, but for a much more pragmatic reason. Any boasts about the academic excellence of the history or about its progressive ideology were simply beside the point.

Using this textbook, the teachers wrote, would make it impossible for Mississippi teachers to do their jobs.

Why?

Because the content of the textbook would unsettle classrooms. It would make it impossible for teachers to do any teaching at all, since teachers would instead be breaking up fights among students.

Consider, for example, the remarkable testimony of textbook-review board member John Turnipseed. The book was “unsuitable for classroom use,” Turnipseed concluded, because “in a racially mixed classroom, the discussion of the material would be improper. . . . [it] would cause harsh feelings in the classroom.”

The judge in the federal case could hardly believe his ears. Judge Orma Smith asked Turnipseed if Turnipseed really thought images and discussions of lynching could be left out of a Mississippi history book.

                Judge Smith: “You don’t see any historical value in that kind of situation?”

Turnipseed: “No sir, I don’t. I feel the contributions made by blacks as well as whites are more important and should not be degraded.”

Smith: “The racial situation that existed wouldn’t have had any historical significance at all? Where are students to learn the fact if they don’t learn them in school?

Turnipseed: “Again, I think in integrated classrooms it would cause resentment.”

Just as historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his landmark book Whose America, school leaders always prefer to add in bland praise, rather than to suggest any criticism. Every social group demands that their history be praised, and school leaders like Turnipseed usually acquiesce. To do anything different would unsettle classrooms in a dangerous way.

It was not only white conservative board members like John Turnipseed who focused on the goal of quiet classrooms. African American board member John Earl Wash also voted against the Loewen and Sallis book. Images of lynching, Wash argued, hurt African American students. “The 9th grade black student,” Wash wrote, “would probably resent hearing about the lynching topic.”

Even though Loewen, Sallis, and their fans envisioned their new textbook as a corrected, pro-civil-rights history, experienced teachers like Wash had different worries. Topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, Wash testified, were things Mississippi African Americans “want to forget.” Worst of all, the progressive textbook put African-American students in physical danger. In Wash’s words,

Blacks just resent anything that I would say would carry them back to times of slavery, anything. Then anything to do with the Klan or terrorizing blacks or something of this nature, right, it would definitely bring conflict.

In racially mixed classrooms, talk of lynching and Klan violence threatened to do more than simply educate young students. As experienced teachers knew, talk of violence could quickly become real violence, putting minority students in the crosshairs.

In 1970s Mississippi, at least, there were other reasons for opposing progressive textbooks than mere knee-jerk traditionalism. Teachers knew that the topic was explosive among students. If they hoped to control their classrooms, they didn’t dare expose students to controversial ideas, even if they agreed that those ideas were true and important.

“Should We Be Freaking Out?”

All of a sudden, those videos from Charlottesville were everywhere: military-looking right-wing goons lunging at counterprotesters; hairspray flamethrowers squaring off against Confederate-flag spears. When we heard that a terrorist had plowed his car into a group of protesters, it seemed half shocking and half depressingly predictable. When I starting hearing the news this past weekend, I was relaxing in a late-summer reunion with some old friends, sitting around a fire, when one of them asked the question: “Should we be freaking out?”

Here’s the ILYBYGTH answer: Yes. But not because Americans will fight each other.

If you’ve been paying attention, it shouldn’t shock you that right-wing terrorists are willing to kill in the name of conservatism. It should astound all of us, though, that a leader of a mainstream political party is so blasé about it.

As I argued in my book about twentieth-century American conservatism, culture-war battles regularly and repeatedly heated up into physical conflict. In the 1930s, school board members in my new hometown promised to ignite bonfires of progressive textbooks and throttle any progressive protesters. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a 1970s textbook battle degenerated into a slurry of Klan marches, dynamite bombs, and shootings.

It’s sadly predictable; shocking only to people who are too comfortable in their self-delusion. What really is outrageous, though, is the notion that President Trump has ignored and pooh-poohed the display of white terrorism. In his diffidence, Trump has given succor and encouragement to the radical reactionaries of the white nationalist movement. And THAT should freak us all out.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying this merely because I find Trump’s policies and presidency terrifyingly out of control, even though I do. I’m saying this rather as an historian of American conservatism. As I also argued in my recent book, since the 1970s the mainstream American right has gone to great lengths to distance itself from its white-supremacist past. Just as Democratic leaders such as President Obama and Secretary Clinton made a public display of their religiosity, hoping to prove to conservative critics that they weren’t left-wing Godhaters, so too have mainstream Republicans used the strongest language possible to distance themselves from the racist right-wing of their own party.

Trump’s pandering goes against all that. So here’s what should freak us out: Trump is making a bald play against mainstream conservatism and in favor of right-wing reaction.

Why?

From the Archives III: Playing the Rice Card

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

Were white evangelicals racist? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but.

In Fundamentalist U, I’m working hard to tease out the ways evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, institutes, universities, and seminaries wrestled with questions of race and racism in the twentieth century. It wasn’t easy, but I had to cut one of the most intriguing sections of my chapter.

Here’s what happened: In 1970, fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice came out in favor of Bob Jones University’s racial-segregation policy. The leaders of Moody Bible Institute had just invited Rice to give one of the most prominent speeches in their annual Founder’s Week celebration.

What was MBI to do? Like most white evangelicals in the era, they had moved away from the unabashed racism that they had shown since the 1930s. But they hated to alienate Dr. Rice and the potent strain of unreconstructedly racist fundamentalism that he represented.anti john rice demonstration warning letter

As MBI’s leaders hemmed and hawed, they received a clumsy letter opposed to Rice’s appearance at MBI. The authors go to awkward lengths to insist they are not students at MBI—and honestly I have no evidence that they were—but the language and content of the letter seem to suggest that it was written by MBI students.

What does this tell us about white racism at evangelical institutions? Here are some of my thoughts and I’ll welcome yours:

1.) White evangelicals in 1970 often opposed their historic racism.

2.) They often did so as part and parcel of their evangelical belief.

3.) Institutions—even ones that wanted to move away from their segregated pasts—hesitated to alienate powerful fundamentalist factions.

4.) Students at evangelical schools closely watched the goings-on at secular colleges and often mimicked the activism of their secular peers.

5.) Student activists often misunderstood the attitudes of their school administrators.

In this case, at least, MBI President William Culbertson was as ardently anti-racist as any student, but he didn’t want to hurt his school by insulting John R. Rice too publicly. When the cards were down, however, Culbertson went ahead and cut off Rice, consequences be damned.

As Culbertson wrote to John R. Rice, they both agreed on theology, but they had split on questions of race and racism. If Rice were to come speak at MBI, Culbertson concluded, it would give

the impression that the Institute agrees with your views in this regard. This cannot be.