How to Break College

Left or Right; SJW or TPUSA; the news from Washington shows that campus activism is hitting higher education where it hurts. Activists should forget about inviting Milo or occupying quads. Instead, they should recognize their true power and consider what target they want to point it at.

Here’s what we know: Due to student activism from both left and right, universities in Washington state are feeling a financial pinch. At Evergreen State, for example, widely publicized left-wing activism has led to a steep drop in applications and enrollments. At the University of Washington, campus Republicans received a six-figure settlement due to their complaints about unfair treatment.

That sort of dollars-and-cents bottom line is the kind of thing school administrators can’t ignore. By and large, they can endure endless accusations of racial insensitivity from the left. They can blithely listen to accusations of biased “totalitarian” campus climates from the right.

But if colleges lose enrollments, they wither and die. And if they lose lawsuits, they can’t function.

So here’s the question for this generation of student activists: What is your real target? Just as in the SDS years, students need to be strategic about their aims, because they have the ability to inflict serious damage if they choose.

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Sterling Hall, University of Wisconsin, 1970

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From the Archives: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m spending my summer nerdily buried in the archives researching my new book. Some of the language oozing out of 1804 sounds depressingly similar to twenty-first century school talk.

In these pages, we’ve talked at length about schools and social justice. Can we yell at students to make them be better citizens? Is it unhealthy if schools for low-income students have them sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula?

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out to be) with as little noise as possible.

Seems sad but true: When it comes to using schools to help children from low-income families, the answers have always involved creepy amounts of control and discipline. I can’t help but wonder: Do children from affluent families ever have to experience this sort of brow-beating and dictation?

What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

ace florida 2

Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

Dictating Democracy

As I was reminded last week in the Philadelphia archives, it’s the oldest educational idea in the United States. Larry Cuban points out this morning that our dream of educating a new generation of democratic citizens might take us in surprising directions.

First, my full confessions: I have progressive prejudices that are hard to shake. I want public schools to make society better. I believe that better educational opportunities for all people will help achieve that goal. And…and this is the one that matters this morning…I think what goes on in classrooms matters. As John Dewey argued a century ago, if we want a democratic society we need to start by creating democratic classrooms.

Democracy-prep-vote

I can’t vote, and I can’t speak when I want to, and I can’t put my pencil where I want to, and I can’t get out of my seat when I want to…

So I join Professor Cuban in wondering if a school can create democratic citizens by controlling students tightly. Cuban looked at a study of Democracy Prep, a new charter network. The schools make one of their goals the civic education of children, meaning mostly that students learn about government, about public decision-making processes, and about getting out the vote.

As one thoughtful former Democracy Prep teacher noted, it’s hard not to think that the way students are educated matters. As he puts it,

schools are invariably where students go to experience the civic engagement of others. No child thinks of it this way, but surely, he or she picks up clear signals about their place in the world, how they are regarded by authority figures who are not their parents, and how much — or how little — is expected of them. If the relationship a child has with a school is coercive, punctuated by frustration and failure, leading to no good end, then there is no reason to expect strong civic outcomes.

And yet, as Prof. Cuban points out, students at Democracy Prep feel the heavy hand of authority at all times. As one visit to a DP school revealed, students’ actions were constantly tracked and dictated. As the visitor found,

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Can it really be feasible, Cuban wonders, that this sort of top-down classroom will produce active citizens? That schools can coerce students into active democratic participation? The charter network has claimed some positive results. A recent alumni study by Mathematica Policy Research found that citizens who had attended Democracy Prep were more likely to register and to vote.

I’m skeptical. Surely a school culture that eliminates any possibility of student leadership will have a depressing effect on student political participation. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. Or is it really possible that schools can control their students all the way to active citizenship?

Before You Blame Fundamentalism, Read This

I can understand why some conservative evangelical intellectuals wouldn’t like my book. In chapter after chapter, I look at some of the most uncomfortable tensions in the world of evangelical higher education, the often-poisonous legacy of decades of fundamentalist anger and vitriol. But why should we single out religious schools for this sort of criticism? Public schools, after all, have their own legacies of racism and pandering, as the news from Colorado attests.

ColoradoState

It’s not only fundamentalist colleges that have to deal with their ugly racist legacies…

At Colorado State, as IHE reports, two high school students were singled out for their appearance, racial and fashion-wise. The students were of Native American background and had driven seven hours to take the campus tour. They joined the tour late, apparently, and didn’t answer the tour guide’s questions adequately.

So another tour member called 911. The two kids, she reported, “really stand out.” Their t-shirts, she complained, featured “weird symbolism.” (They look to this headbanger like pretty standard heavy-metal logos.)

Campus cops came and talked with the teenagers. The two were polite and the cops agreed the high-schoolers had done nothing wrong. The teens told the cops they were shy and didn’t know how to respond to the tour guide’s question. They were invited to rejoin the tour, but unsurprisingly they didn’t feel like it and drove home.

What does any of this have to do with fundamentalism and evangelical colleges? It proves that ALL colleges are in a similar bind. ALL colleges need to pander to the lowest common denominator in the families they are trying to attract. If an ignorant and apparently racist mom decides two other teenagers “really stand out,” the college administration needs to address those concerns, even if the mom in question goes far beyond daffy.

Is This the One Thing that Stops the Chatterers from Chattering?

I sat down curious. I got up stumped. Why didn’t the usual conservative and progressive websites and magazines have anything to say about this momentous event? I’m wondering if the topic is too touchy even for the most brazen of cultural commentators.

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Remembering…

Here’s what we know: A new lynching memorial opened this week in Montgomery, Alabama. The mainstream press covered it in detail: NPR, New York Times, The Conversation, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post…newspapers and news outlets rushed to describe the wrenching attempt to remember the brutal legacy of racial violence in America.

Most of the coverage mixed outraged descriptions of the ugly history with hopeful intimations that this memorial might help open ancient festering sores to the bracing effects of sunlight. For me, as both a history teacher and a human being, I’m optimistic that the memorial might fulfill its goal of helping Americans recognize and deal with the fundamental historical facts of slavery, lynching, and their legacy.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, we’ve spent our fair share of time wondering why lynching is such a third-rail topic in American culture and education. Teachers have gotten in trouble for introducing the topic in their classrooms. I’ve wondered if we are simply too hamstrung to teach our children the truth about American history.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Is it appropriate for children?

As a teacher, I have always had a difficult time helping students understand why people would send postcards to friends with cheerful mementoes of the lynchings they’d witnessed. It seemed like serial-killer behavior, yet it was fairly commonplace. (I won’t include the images here, because they are truly horrifying. With preparation, though, I’ve introduced students to the grim collection at Without Sanctuary. In particular, I challenged students to try to make sense of image #28.)

As I was flying home recently, I sat next to a very friendly woman. Once she found out I was a history nerd, she mentioned that she had recently seen news of the lynching memorial in Montgomery. And she was shocked. She was in her mid-fifties, she said, and she knew vaguely about racial violence and lynching, but the memorial opened her eyes to the numbers of victims and the peculiarly brutal nature of racial lynchings.

If more and more Americans can have similar experiences with the Montgomery memorial, I think we will have made significant but insufficient progress.

But here’s what I don’t understand: Why don’t the usual pundits have anything to say about it? This morning, I conducted a very unscientific survey of both left and right. I found almost no mention of the Montgomery memorial. Why not?

From the left, I looked at The Progressive, The Nation, and ThinkProgress. From the right, I searched American Conservative, Weekly Standard, National Review, and even Wallbuilders.

Of all those sources, only National Review had anything to say about the new memorial. In its pages, sociologist Gabriel Rossman offered an intelligent analysis of the way racial lynchings differed from other sorts of vigilante hangings.

Why don’t other progressive or conservative commentators have anything to say? Are they waiting for someone to say something provocative about the museum for them to react to? Did I just look in the wrong places?

I’d think this intensely provocative topic would attract a lot of culture-war commentary. Why hasn’t it?

We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

OTR COVER

You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

Censorship at Christian Colleges

Want to get fired? Try this: Run a controversial story in a newspaper at an evangelical college. This week, Liberty University’s Erin Covey complains that her reporting is being blocked. She’s not the first student reporter to have this experience. On the contrary, student editors have always worked under constant threat.

At issue today is an anti-Trump/anti-Falwell revival going on near Liberty University. Shane Claiborne and his progressive evangelical allies are hosting a Red Letter Revival service, challenging Liberty’s president to join them or change his “toxic” Trump-loving ways.

When student reporter Erin Covey shared her coverage of the revival with Liberty’s leaders, she was told to squelch the story. As she tells it, Liberty’s administration told her,

No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.

Covey plaintively wondered,

We often wonder: Do other private schools deal with this? What are the levels of freedom that other school papers have? Do we have the same freedoms — is this common?

When it comes to school newspapers—including student newspapers–censorship and content control have been universal practices in the history of evangelical higher education. As I describe in my recent book, this has been true at all evangelical schools, no matter how liberal or how conservative.

Earnestine Ritter

How to get fired at Biola, c. 1957.

Why? Let me share one example from Biola that exemplifies this tradition. In 1957, editor Lloyd Hamill took a strong anti-segregation position. He excoriated white evangelicals who opposed racial integration. As he put it,

No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Biola, Hamill wrote, didn’t only endorse integration. It practiced it, employing an African American journalist on staff. A deluge of letters flooded Biola. More than 90% of them attacked Hamill’s position, though a few supported him. What did Biola’s administration do? As Biola’s president explained privately to Billy Graham. Hamill was sacked immediately. Biola did not want to endorse

the very foolish letters he wrote and statements which he made.

Granted, the situation is somewhat different. Hamill worked at the college’s magazine, not a student publication. But I think the rule still holds.

Why do evangelical colleges censor their publications so rigorously? Why can’t Erin Covey cover an anti-Falwell revival?

It’s not an accident and it’s not only Liberty. All evangelical colleges live under constant scrutiny. The evangelical public is always wondering if school X or Y has gone soft. The publications coming out of schools—including student newspapers—have always received endless scrutiny from interested members of the evangelical public.

Whatever appears in a student newspaper is often taken to represent more than one student’s opinion. It is taken, at heart, to represent the current moral climate of the school. For students like Erin Covey and editors like Lloyd Hamill, the result is clear: Don’t rock the boat.

The School Headline We Won’t See

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the brave Parkland students who have done so much in the past few weeks to push for change. I’m as distressed as my friends when I hear conservative politicians belittling their activism. But whatever our political views on student activism, we’re likely to believe something about schools that just isn’t true. In spite of what all of us might think if we just read the papers, America’s schools are safe and getting safer. Why don’t we hear more about it?

school safety

Where are the cheers?

Here’s what we know: The National Center for Education released its new report today about school safety. By any measure, schools today are much safer places than they’ve been since 1992. Crime reports from schools are down, security measures are improved, staffs are better trained in safety measures, and students report less crime.

Why won’t we hear more culture-war blather about this news? Here’s my guess: Whether you’re a conservative, a progressive, or other, you want people to think that schools are dangerous places.

Let’s look at the conservative side first. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives told one another that schools—especially public schools—had gone to the dogs. For example, as Reagan’s second Ed Secretary memorably lamented, by any “index of cultural indicators,” schools had failed catastrophically.

It wasn’t only Bill Bennett who worried. Religious conservatives also warned that public schools had

grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . .

In most cases, if conservatives hate something, progressives will love it. But that hasn’t been the case with public schools. From the left, critics charge that public schools are abusive places, especially to students from minority backgrounds. In one recent case from Maryland, for example, activists note that African American students

are subject to daily abuse and humiliation. . . . [from] a decades-long pattern of resistance to change and the creation of a hostile environment for children of color.

Conservatives don’t agree with progressives about much. When it comes to school safety, however, both sides agree that public schools are dangerous and getting worse. Both sides, it seems, won’t allow themselves to be troubled by inconvenient truths.

Is “Gay” the New “Black” at Evangelical Colleges?

It’s not a simple question, but there is a simple answer. A recent story from NPR about LGBTQ+ issues at evangelical colleges has people asking: Are today’s official anti-gay policies at most evangelical colleges the 21st century equivalent of their 1950s racist policies? Short answer: No.

wheaton rainbow bench

It’s not easy. The rainbow bench at Wheaton was covered over…

As the article describes, many campuses such as Calvin and Multnomah send profoundly mixed messages about non-heterosexual identities among students. On one hand, students are carving out for themselves friendly spaces on evangelical campuses. They are finding emotional support among sympathetic faculty and fellow students.

This matches other reports, such as one from Liberty University a few years back. It is different at different schools, of course, but students have already introduced LGBTQ+ rights on most evangelical campuses.

On the other hand, most schools still have official rules banning non-married, non-heterosexual sexual expression. As the NPR article describes, people at evangelical colleges are often confused. The chaplain at Calvin, for example, put her position this way,

You’ve got those two values. . . . We love our LGBT people. We love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. So those of us who do this work are right in the middle of that space. We are living in the tension.

It’s hard not to ask: Is this just an updated version of the struggle over segregation and racism at evangelical colleges? As I argue in my recent book, evangelical and fundamentalist schools had a shameful racial legacy in the twentieth century. (For the record, so did non-evangelical schools.) Though many evangelical colleges had been founded as explicitly anti-racist or cross-racial missionary institutions, by the early twentieth century they had imposed rules and policies against interracial dating. They discouraged non-white applications.

Are today’s battles over sexual and gender identity just new versions of this old conflict? In at least one important way, the answer is a clear no. When evangelical activists fought against their schools’ racism in the twentieth century, they were able to pull from their own evangelical history to make their cases. At Wheaton College, for example, faculty activists such as James Murk and John Alexander were able to point to the incontrovertible fact that the school had been founded by Jonathan Blanchard, an ardent cross-racial Christian activist.

There is no similar history for LGBTQ+ activists to pull from. They can say—and they do—that loving all people is an essential part of their religion. But they are not able to pull from their own evangelical history to make their cases.

To be clear, I’m all for LGBTQ+ rights. I’m proud to work at a school where there can be no institutional discrimination based on sexual identity or gender identity. Speaking as an historian, though, I have to make the obvious point: It will be harder for LGBTQ+ Christians to stake their claims than it was for anti-racist white students.

HT: EC