Shut Up. No YOU Shut Up.

Is it really that simple? Do our current campus “free-speech” debates boil down to a simple shouting match? As we’ve seen, conservatives and progressives have both fought to defend speech they agree with. And both sides have a history of threats and intimidation against speech they don’t. In spite of these similarities, I can’t help but think the two sides are very different. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservative activists have lately pushed a spate of campus free-speech laws. They hope to force colleges to allow controversial conservative speakers and ideas.

middlebury protesters

Shutting down Charles Murray at Middlebury

Some conservatives think that progressive activists have clamped down on free speech. They cite cases such as the recent hounding of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or the smack-down of Charles Murray on Middlebury’s campus.

We can’t forget, though, that conservative activists have also clamped down on progressive campus speech. Most recently, we see threats and attacks on John Eric Williams at Trinity (Connecticut) and Dana Cloud at Syracuse. Professor Williams had shared a provocative article about the recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. Cloud had called for more counter-protests against anti-Sharia protesters.

Sarah Bond twitter

…a different sort of thing.

They aren’t alone. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa was harassed after she pointed out that most classical statues weren’t originally white. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M was attacked for talking about the history of anti-white violence.

We could go on:

In each case, conservatives attacked progressives for using racist, threatening, or violent speech. In each case, activists conducted campaigns to publicize, demonize, and criminalize professors’ speech.

So, in some ways, we’ve come to the old school-yard standoff. Both sides insist on free speech for their own views and both sides use violence and intimidation to shut off speech by their opponents.

We can take it even further. Both sides seem untroubled by the actual content of their opponents’ speech. At Middlebury, for example, progressive protesters seemed unaware of Charles Murray’s actual topic. And in Iowa, conservative protesters did not bother to read Professor Bond’s argument about historical whiteness.

Does that mean that the two sides are roughly equal? I don’t think so.

I might be confused by my own sympathies, but to my mind the two sides are very different. On one hand, we have student protesters on campuses shouting down speakers they find dangerous. At Middlebury, it descended into thuggery and violence. On the other hand, we have conservative legislators and online commentators hoping to earn points by publicizing the things progressive professors say.

Time after time, we see the same political blocs lining up: Progressive protesters pull from student ranks and shout down conservative speakers. They make their campuses unwelcome zones for conservative pundits. Conservative protesters line up lawmakers and online networks to fire professors, charge them with crimes, and threaten their physical safety, wherever they might be.

Those aren’t the same.

The political power—yes, including the potential of vigilante violence—of conservatives seems far higher. In short, I would rather be Professor Weinstein facing an angry crowd of unreasonable students than Professor Williams walking alone at night. Anonymous threats online against progressive professors scare me. Student protesters at an announced speech don’t.

I understand I’m biased. I sympathize with my fellow progressive professors and our activist students. Not that I think we are always right or free of dangerous tendencies, but the worst-case scenario of left-wing student violence seems far less dangerous than its opposite number.

From the other side, I’m swayed and intimidated by the enormous political power of conservative educational activists, both legally and outside the law. As I wrote in my recent book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, the vigilante violence in school controversies has always been dominated by conservative activists. From the Ku Klux Klan to the American Legion to Kanawha County’s extremists, the use of political violence has been most often the tool of the right.

From that perspective, it seems to me to be unfair to lump all anti-free-speech protests together. Yes, both sides are prone to frightening excesses. And yes, both sides seem willing to defend free speech only when they agree with it. But that doesn’t make them the same.

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

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

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Squelching LGBTQ at Wheaton

It’s not in the rulebook. It doesn’t need to be. As at every evangelical college, there is one unwritten rule at Wheaton College that administrators must enforce with merciless rigor. We see it again recently with Wheaton’s ruthless crushing of student attempts to celebrate LGBTQ rights. This attitude is not an exception to Wheaton’s relatively liberal, tolerant, inclusive brand of evangelical Christianity. Rather, as I’m arguing in my new book, there is an unmentionable but inviolable third rail in evangelical higher education, one that no administrator dares to touch.

First, some background for SAGLRROILYBYGTH who aren’t familiar with the world of evangelical higher education: In the family of evangelical colleges and universities, Wheaton has long claimed special status as the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” The college—just outside of Chicago—committed to the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s. In the 1940s, Wheaton led the way in a fundamentalist reform movement, confusingly known as new-evangelicalism, or simply evangelicalism. These days, Wheaton prides itself as the academic jewel in the evangelical crown, alma mater of evangelical academics, intellectuals, and celebrities.

Given the relatively inclusive atmosphere at Wheaton and among Wheaton’s elite alumni, it may seem surprising that the school has cracked down recently. Most famously, it moved to fire a tenured professor who had seemed too friendly to Islam. Now, as alum William Stell reports in the pages of Religion Dispatches, the administration has crushed student expressions of LGBTQ pride.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The unwritten rules are as old as evangelical higher education itself. And they are implacable.

According to Stell, students surreptitiously inserted a rainbow flag into the school’s display of flags of the world. It was quickly removed. Then, students painted a campus bench in a rainbow display. It was painted over. A student who displayed a rainbow flag in a dorm window was forced to remove it.

The message is clear: Wheaton does not want the evangelical public to think that the school is too friendly to LGBTQ rights. But why not?

wheaton gay pride bench

Before & after, from Religion Dispatches…

The school’s history makes it clear. Wheaton, like every other evangelical college and university, has an absolute need to be seen as a safe environment for evangelical students. Anything that is seen as threatening has always been ruthlessly purged from the school’s public image.

There is a lot of wiggle room in the nebulous concept of “safety.” The boundaries of “safe” evangelical environments have changed over the decades. The process has been messy and confusing.

In the 1920s, for example, Wheaton posted student volunteers outside the downtown movie cinema to make sure no Wheaton students were watching movies. In the early 1960s, the administration rammed through an addendum to the school’s statement of faith, clarifying that all faculty believed in a real, historic Adam and Eve. In 1960, too, the administration tried to bury a faculty report calling for greater anti-racist activism among the white evangelical public.

Clearly, the generally accepted evangelical attitude about safe ideas and behaviors changes over time. In the 1960s, polite student rebels won a relaxation of the strict rulebook. They were allowed to decide for themselves if certain movies or TV shows met high evangelical standards for moral decency. And Wheaton’s official attitude toward creationism has changed. The administration no longer feels much need to pander to the notion that only young-earth creationism can save students from atheism. These days, too, the cautious racial conservatism of the administration in the 1960s is an embarrassment for Wheaton.

In short, Wheaton’s administration can go with the flow when enough evangelicals agree that an idea is not dangerously anti-Christian. But there is no clear or simple way to know when that threshold has been reached, and students and faculty have always been punished mercilessly if they cross the invisible line.

Consider the example of Critique. In the early 1960s, the administration clamped down on a student newspaper, Brave Son. In response, five Wheaton students published their own newspaper. They did it all themselves: Wrote it, paid for it to be published, distributed it. Their goal was to puncture some of the crusty fundamentalist attitudes that still dominated campus. As one of the student editors put it,

Christian education must exist in [a] free atmosphere . . . or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

The upstart publication was crushed. The student editors were suspended for a full year. As one sympathetic faculty member complained, the punishment seemed excessive. After all, the students had broken no rules. They had, in fact, engaged with important questions of faith and freedom. They had done so in a thoughtful Christian way.

It didn’t matter. They were kicked out for “insubordination.” As one student reported, then-President V. Raymond Edman put it in stark terms. “This college,” Edman reportedly told the student,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

The rule is clear, even if it is unwritten. Evangelical colleges like Wheaton can embrace student and faculty dissent. Their campuses benefit from a vigorous intellectual give-and-take that includes a wide and diverse set of voices. But nothing can ever suggest that a school is not a safe environment for evangelical youth. Any glimmer that the school promotes un-safe thinking or behavior must be crushed utterly.

critique student paper BGC

From the archives: student dissent at Wheaton, c. 1963

These crackdowns are not exceptions; they are the rule. Listen to just one more example from 1960. In that year, a faculty committee was empowered to investigate Wheaton’s racial history. The committee decried the way the school’s original anti-racist evangelicalism had been swamped by white supremacist attitudes. The faculty group called for aggressive anti-racist policies.

The administration was sympathetic. Top leaders also wanted to fight for greater racial egalitarianism. But as one administrator at the time put it,

Will some of the parents of our students regard a tacit approval of inter-racial marriage as a danger to their children?

Even asking the question in those terms made the administration’s response clear. Any whiff of danger was unacceptable. They buried the faculty report.

Today’s surprisingly harsh crackdown on student LGBTQ sympathies may seem out of line with Wheaton’s intellectual vigor. It may seem odd for an academically elite school—one that embraces students of all backgrounds, of all nationalities and all races—to crush these seemingly mild and harmless expressions of student LGBTQ sympathies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. They did it decades ago with student and faculty civil-rights activism. They did it decades ago with faculty ideas about progressive creationism. They did it this decade with faculty ideas about God and Islam. And they’re doing it now with student expressions of LGBTQ pride.

No matter what, Wheaton must retain its reputation as a safe campus. For now, the administration clearly believes that LGBTQ pride is outside the boundaries of safe ideas for evangelical youth. Until that changes—until the administration is convinced that a large segment of the evangelical public is cool with LGBTQ pride—the administration will continue its surprisingly harsh no-tolerance policy.

Wait…WHY Was this Teacher Fired?

HT: MM

I know I’m not quick on the uptake, but usually I can follow the standard culture-war scripts. This story, though, has me confused. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what people didn’t like about this teacher’s activity. Or, to be more precise, I think I might get it, but I’m puzzled by the weird vagueness of this case.

Most intriguing, this seems to be more proof that our schools work with a hair-trigger sensitivity to lowest-common-denominator protests. Protestors don’t even need to explain their reasons, they only need to announce their stance as protestors.

Here’s what we know: According to Kristine Phillips in WaPo, a middle-school teacher in Hernando County, Florida, was fired after asking her students to complete a survey assignment. The questions asked students to rate their comfort level when encountering different types of people. How would you feel if a group of African American men walked toward you on the street? How about if a “Fundamentalist Christian” was your lab partner? What would you think if someone of your same sex asked you to dance?

how comfortable am i

Racist, sexist, anti-religious…is that it?

Now, I can think of a couple of reasons why different sorts of people would object to these sorts of questions for middle-school students. But no one involved seems willing to go beyond a vague and vacuous condemnation. It leads us to three tough questions:

  1. Why don’t they like this assignment?
  2. Why are they being so vague about it? And
  3. Do schools always ban first and ask questions later?

For example, one school district spokesperson explained, “In no way does this assignment meet the standards of appropriate instructional material.”

Why not? Does the school district object to the use of racial and ethnic and cultural stereotypes? Or does the district think students should not be asked to think about their reactions to homosexuality? Christianity? …what?

We can get a little better idea of the objections from one parent’s complaint:

How comfy are you if you see a group of black men walking to you on the street? That’s completely inappropriate. In no world, whatsoever, is that okay to question a child on.

She seemed most ticked about the use of racial stereotypes. And I get that. But I would also think that some conservative religious groups would be offended by the idea that their twelve-year-old sons and daughters would be asked to think about their own potential homosexuality.

So is it the generally “adult” material of the survey, including ideas about racism, gender, sexuality, and religion, that have parents and administrators spooked? Or is it more specifically the use of racial stereotypes?

We can’t help but notice, either, that both complainers used the word “appropriate” in their comments. Materials in middle-school, we might conclude, must remain appropriate. But to whom?

Here’s the thing that really has me intrigued. Time and again, in all sorts of schools from kindergarten through graduate school, teachers and administrators race to box out anything that anyone might accuse of “inappropriateness.” In this case, we hear from a few of the people involved who don’t feel any need to explain why they thought something was inappropriate. The accusation is enough.

The Tough Questions

How do we start?  What about students? …and isn’t it cheating to sneak in a definition after I say I’m not going to impose a definition?

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

Those were some of the smart and tough questions leveled at your humble editor last night after my talk at the University of Florida’s College of Education research symposium.  The edu-Gators (ha) were a wonderful group of scholars to talk with.  I got a chance to hear about their work in schools and archives, then I got to run my mouth a little bit about the culture-war questions that keep me up at night.

The theme of the symposium was “Strengthening Dialogue through Diverse Perspectives.”  Accordingly, I targeted my talk at the difficult challenge of talking to people with whom we really disagree.  I shared my story about dealing with a conservative mom who didn’t like the way I was teaching.  Then I told some of the stories from the history of educational conservative activism from my recent research.

University of Florida

The UF crew…

What has defined “conservative” activism in school and education?  Even though there isn’t a single, all-inclusive simple definition of conservatism—any more than there is one for “progressivism” or “democracy”—we can identify themes that have animated conservative activists.  Conservatives have fought for ideas such as order, tradition, capitalism, and morality.  They have insisted that schools must be first and foremost places in which students learn useful information and have their religion and patriotic ideals reinforced.

Underlying those explicit goals, however, conservatives have also shared some unspoken assumptions about school and culture.  Time and time again, we hear conservatives lamenting the fact that they have been locked out of the real decisions about schooling.  Distant experts—often from elite colleges and New York City—have dictated the content of schools, conservatives have believed.  And those experts have been not just mistaken, but dangerously mistaken.  The types of schooling associated with progressive education have been both disastrously ineffective and duplicitously subversive, conservatives have believed.

That was my pitch, anyway.  And the audience was wonderful.  They poked the argument (politely!) to see if it would really hold.  One student asked a tough question: Given all this history, all this poisoning of our dialogue between conservatives, progressives, and other, how do we start?  A second student followed up with another humdinger: I talked about conservative parents and school board members and leaders, but what about students?  What should a teacher do if she finds herself confronted with a student who has a totally different vision of what good education should look like?  Last but not least, a sharp-eyed ed professor wondered if I wasn’t doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do: Impose a definition on “conservatism” by offering a list of defining ideas and attitudes.

How did I handle them?

Well, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, your humble editor did his best, but those are really tough ones.  In general, I think the way to begin conversations with people with whom we have very strong disagreements is to start by looking at ourselves.  Are we making assumptions about that person based on things he or she isn’t actually saying?  Are we seeing them through our own distorted culture-war lenses?

And if students in class disagree with us about these sorts of culture-war principles, we need to remember first and foremost that they are our students.  If a student in my class, for example, is super pro-Trump, I want her to know first and foremost that I welcome her in my class and she is a member of our learning community.  It gets tricky, though, if a student wants to exclude other students based on these sorts of religious and ideological beliefs.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t think it’s unfair to offer themes and ideas that have defined conservatism over the years.  I’d never want to impose those definitions on historical actors, Procrustes-style.  But once we take the time to listen and learn to our subjects, we can and should suggest some things that they have had in common.

On to breakfast with graduate students and a chance to participate in Dr. Terzian’s schools, society and culture colloquium.  Bring on the coffee!

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

Wish me luck–I’m on my way to the Sunshine State.  Thanks to my colleague Sevan Terzian, I’ll be giving a keynote talk at the University of Florida’s research symposium this evening.  I can’t wait.

What will I be talking about?  Well, you’ll have to wait until after the talk for a synopsis, but I can tell you that I’ll be using these images from my research into twentieth-century educational conservatism.

Allen Zoll’s attack on progressive education, from Pasadena, 1950

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

Watch out for communism in your local school, c. 1951

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974

Teacher Fired for Heroic Incompetence

I’m no cynic. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that schools serve a range of purposes. We see depressing evidence today that one of their primary functions is to contain and control young people. How do we know? Because a teacher in New York City was fired, according to her, for talking about structural racism in a way that would “rile up” her African American students. Yikes.

Lee Walker Fired

Fired for heroic incompetence…

The story is grim. Jeena Lee-Walker has sued New York schools for her termination. Beginning in 2012, school administrators asked her to tone down her teaching about the Central Park Five case. As all New Yorkers remember, a group of young men were falsely convicted of raping a woman. They were eventually freed, but only after spending long years in prison.

Lee-Walker taught her students about the case. Many of them, she thought, “should be riled up” about the deep injustice done, as well as about continuing injustices in American society.

Her administrators thought differently. They gave her several bad evaluations and eventually fired her for “insubordination.”

Let me be crystal clear here: I think all teachers should be like Ms. Lee-Walker. All teachers should “rile up” their students about injustices in our society.

But we need to recognize two complicating factors. Though I’m a big fan of his, I think Curmudgucrat Peter Greene misses the boat here when he says Lee-Walker was “fired for competence.”

She was fired for two other reasons, reasons central to the successful functioning of any school. Even as we praise Ms. Lee-Walker’s bravery and integrity, we need to be a little more clearheaded about what was really going on. In short, Ms. Lee-Walker’s unwillingness to go along with the school system really DID make her incompetent as a teacher. Heroic, yes, but not willing to do the job.

That might sound odd, so let me offer two long-winded explanations.

First, teachers are not simply private citizens. Ms. Lee-Walker will not have luck protesting that her First Amendment rights have been breached. And, by and large, none of us want to cede to teachers such rights. Consider, for example, what we might think if she had been accused of promoting political or religious agendas with which we don’t agree. What if she “riled up” students by denouncing abortion? Or by denouncing evolution?

In principle, then, we need to acknowledge that teachers are bound to stick within curricular guidelines established by the school and community. I’ll repeat: in this case I think those guidelines are utterly bogus. I think we should encourage all New York City high schools to emulate Ms. Lee-Walker’s decision to teach the Central Park Five case. It is the truth and young people deserve to learn about it.

But if and when a heroic teacher decides to go against her superiors, she should be prepared to be kicked out. That is equally true whether we agree or disagree with the teacher’s ideas. I’m going to say this again, just because I think it could be misinterpreted: In this case, I side wholly with Ms. Lee-Walker. Her protest, however, should not be taken as a simple case of good teaching vs. evil administrating. Rather, this is a heroic attempt to push the curriculum in New York City schools toward this sort of teaching. Ms. Lee-Walker should have expected to get fired—even WANTED to get fired—because that was her only chance to take her appeal to a wider stage.

We don’t have to like it, but I think we need to be clear about our terms. In this sort of case, the closest analogy is that of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses. To some, she was a hero, to others a poorly coiffed villain. In the end, however, she was a government bureaucrat who refused to do her job. Whatever we think of her politics or religion, no institution can function if it doesn’t purge such folks.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson Kentucky

Fired for heroic incompetence…

That brings us to our second point. This story drives home the depressing custodial role schools and teachers play in our society. We tend to think of schools as educational institutions—and they are—but they are also holding pens of varying levels of pleasantness.

As a result, a big part of the job of school administrators is to keep the students relatively calm. With a dizzyingly high student-to-teacher ratio, most schools rely on passive and compliant students. When and if students choose to throw off schools’ restraints, there is not much administrators can physically do to coerce them into submission.

In some schools, this results at worst in hijinx such as food fights. In other schools, we get a prison-like atmosphere in which students are continually monitored and physically controlled.

Is that a good thing? Not at all. But if we want to make sense of this case and the many other cases like this, we need to understand the many things that schools do in our society. Teachers are not merely Socratic wisdom-peddlers in the agora. They are street-level bureaucrats who help process large numbers of young people in educational containment systems.

The point of Ms. Lee-Walker’s actions—if she was acting intentionally—was not merely to teach children something true. The point was to make a public spectacle of the fact that New York City schools do not regularly include that sort of teaching. She was not “fired for competence,” but for her stubborn insistence on principled incompetence, her brave unwillingness to go along with a system that fails students so miserably.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Be a Creationist on Campus…

Who’s the racist? In creation/evolution debates these days, you’re likely to hear creationists tar evolution as a racist idea. Recently, however, young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham complains that creationist anti-racism has now been labeled a racial “microaggression.”

It has long been a favorite claim of creationist activists. At the end of the twentieth century, for example, veteran creationist campaigner Jerry Bergman argued that Darwin’s evolutionary ideas led in a direct line to the Nazi Holocaust. From the Institute for Creation Research, too, Henry Morris insisted that creationists were the true anti-racists, since they believed all humans came from the same original two ancestors.

Small wonder, then, that creationists today are flummoxed by their renewed role as racists. Ken Ham took umbrage at a new list of microaggressions published by the University of California. As have many campus commentators, the UC list warns that some statements intended to be innocent or race-neutral may actually carry undertones of white privilege. For instance, to say that race doesn’t matter, or that one does not believe in race, can be seen by some as a fair-minded anti-racist statement. For others, however, such “color-blind” statements de-legitimize the unique difficulties experienced by racial minorities.

Ken Ham does not seem interested in those sorts of distinctions. Rather, he tackles the UC accusation head-on, insisting that his creationist anti-racism is the only truly scientific position. As he puts it,

Really, “races” is just an “evolutionized” term we shouldn’t use anymore because the idea is simply not true. So for the University of California to say that we shouldn’t say there’s only one race flies in the face of what observational science has clearly shown to be true! And of course, the Bible makes it obvious there is only one race because all humans are descended from Adam! The University of California (and many other campuses) is trying to suppress certain ideas and promote only one worldview—even contrary to observational science. Our starting point really does matter!

To this reporter, Ham’s umbrage seems to miss the point. By the time California students had time to be offended by his creationist anti-racist microaggression, wouldn’t they already be even more put out by his macro-aggressive creationist evangelism?

I’m Convinced: We Need More Conservatives on Campus

[Update: For new readers, this conversation has evolved since the post below.  In short, I’m not convinced anymore.  I now think there are better, more practical solutions to this dilemma.  Check out the developments here.]

My eyes were opened a few years back. I was offering a senior seminar in the history of American conservatism. Several students—some of whom eventually took the class and some of whom did not—came to my office and said something along the lines of “Thank God we finally have a conservative professor!” When I explained to them—sympathetically but clearly, I hope—that I was not actually conservative myself, students had a variety of reactions. Some were deflated. But another common response convinced me that Jon Shields and Jon Zimmerman are right.

Shields Passing on the Right

Time for more affirmative action?

Shields has made the case again recently that college campuses need to recruit more professors who come from conservative backgrounds. He reviews the available research and concludes that conservatives are victims of explicit, intentional bias. As a result, there are far fewer conservative professors than we need if we want to have truly diverse campuses.

Years ago, Zimmerman made a similar argument. Like me, he’s no conservative himself. But he thinks universities need to be more inclusive places, more representative of our society’s true diversity. The best way to do that, he argued, was to reverse the trend toward intellectual homogeneity among college faculty. As he wrote back in 2012,

Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before. Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.

I’m convinced, and not just because Jon Zimmerman is the smartest guy I know. The things I heard from my wonderful students told me that something was indeed wrong with our current set up.

When I told students that I wasn’t conservative myself, many of them told me something along these lines: You may not be conservative personally, but at least you don’t make fun of me or belittle me for being a conservative.   At least I can be “out” with my conservative ideas in your class. In most of my classes, I feel like I have to keep my ideas to myself or I will be attacked by students and teachers alike.

Yikes!

Please correct me if I’m off base, but isn’t that EXACTLY the problem that our campaigns for campus inclusivity have been meant to address? I know some folks think this notion of affirmative action for conservatives is a travesty, an insult to underrepresented groups that have faced historic persecution and discrimination. I understand that position and I agree that conservatives as a group cannot claim the same history as other groups.

But is there anyone out there who would want a campus climate in which students were belittled and attacked for their ideas?

Even if we want to do something about it, however, it is not at all clear how. As Neil Gross has argued, there is not really a liberal conspiracy when it comes to hiring professors. Rather, there has been a more prosaic tendency for people to go into fields in which they think they will be comfortable.

Maybe we could look to Colorado as a guide. They have had a conservative affirmative-action plan going for a while now at their flagship Boulder campus. How has it worked?

In any case, I’m looking forward to Professor Shields’s new book, scheduled for release next year. It promises to share the data gathered from 153 interviews and other sources. Maybe it will help us break out of this logjam.