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.

Should College Classes Make Students Uncomfortable?

Whitney Cox is right on. In her classes at the University of Houston, she insists that conservative religious students be open to the idea of discomfort as they study the Bible. Can we translate her advice to college students in general?

whitney cox

Preach!

Cox tells the story of a “star pupil” who worries that her Bible class might shake up his preconceptions. It should, she replies. She doesn’t want to tell the student what to believe. In fact, she insists that she is not willing or able to do so. But she does want her class to challenge him to think about the Bible in new ways.

Hear, hear. That is the purpose of education, especially higher education. IMHO.

So here’s our question: What if we change things around a little bit? What if we replace a conservative religious student with a left-leaning social-action student?

I’ve argued lately that the recent tumults on college campuses result from an “impulse to orthodoxy” among such leftist students. Students demand an end to ideas that make them feel “unsafe.” They demand the ouster of faculty and administrators with whom they disagree.

Could such students and such campuses benefit from Cox’s advice? Here’s what she told her conservative student:

I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from Christians that equates interrogating and examining the texts with destroying faith. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US Christianity that is vile, unbiblical, and deadlier to faith than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.

I am forever angry at the orthodoxies that demand literal belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, not only because that kind of approach makes you immune to reason, but because it means that more likely than not, that one bit of counter-information that makes it through takes down the rest like a Jenga tower. I’ve seen this a lot with people raised as strict creationists but who later realize that the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming — and because they’ve been taught they can’t doubt one part without doubting it all, they end up tossing it all out the window. Because they’ve learned that any questioning is evil, they decide they have to take all their questions elsewhere.

Fantastic, and right on.  SO right on, in fact, that we should broaden it to include other sorts of student worry as well.

What if we tweaked the wording here and there? What if we gave this advice to students?

I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from left-leaning students that equates interrogating and examining the texts with racism. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US society that is vile, anti-social, and deadlier to social justice than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.

Please don’t misunderstand me. As I’ve said repeatedly, I support the moral impulse behind the student activism at many schools today. Like many commentators, though, I worry that the necessary tension has been leached out of campus life.

Schools must be aggressive and decisive in their efforts to make sure every student feels welcome. Incidents such as the repeated racial hazing at Mizzou, for example, are not merely over-wrought snowflake problems.

The flip side of that campus necessity, however, is that students must be intellectually challenged. They must be physically safe. More than that, they have a right to demand institutional action to help them feel confident that they are safe from demeaning microaggressions.

Too often, however, this vital goal of safe spaces has turned into an overzealous drive for intellectual safety. Nothing will kill higher education faster than that.

I’ll say it again.  We need to remember both halves of the higher-education mandate:

  • Students must be physically and even emotionally safe.
  • Students should never feel intellectually safe.

If we’re doing our jobs, as Whitney Cox is, this should apply in equal measure to conservative creationists and progressive anti-racists.

Power on Campus: Fundamentalists Have the Last Laugh

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. At places such as Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Missouri, presidents are resigning and faculty are trembling. Ham-fisted protesters are demanding an end to free speech. Halloween costumes have become a disguise for racial oppression. To regular joes and pundits alike, this burst of campus outrage can seem puzzling. But there is one group to whom this phenomenon would make perfect sense.

A brief review of the cases:

The episodes can tell us a good deal about the real levers of power on campus. Who doesn’t have power? Administrators charged with insensitivity toward systematic racism and oppression. They get the boot, and fast, if they seem to oppose racial inclusivism.

Who else doesn’t have power? Students who want bread-and-butter economic reforms of higher ed. Even when a million students protested for lower tuition and lower student debt, it didn’t generate the same feverish buzz as these recent racial protests. To my knowledge, no university president has resigned because his or her school is expensive.

Who else is out? Even protesters against racial insensitivity, if they try to use physical coercion. When that happened recently at Missouri, for instance, the offending bully resigned and even sympathetic leftist pundits agreed that the protesters weren’t “always-wise.”

Just as informative, these protests tell us who really has power on campus. Who has it? Football teams. Duh. But even those athletes are energized by a surprising fact.

The real power on campus these days comes from an ancient but complicated moral idea. We might call it “the impulse to orthodoxy.” It can be tricky to understand, especially since no one is talking about it in those terms. The impulse to orthodoxy includes a moral two-step: Not only must people behave in a moral way, but they must actively seek out and root out those who fail to understand the proper reasons for moral action.

How does this ancient idea work in today’s campus protests? The successful campus protests these days insist not only that school leaders fight racism. More telling, protesters are fired up by the idea that they are under a moral imperative to expose and exclude all those who do not adequately understand the nuances of systematic racism.

At Missouri, for example, system president Tim Wolfe eventually resigned due to a perceived lack of administrative action against repeated racial incidents. The protesters wanted more than new policies. They wanted Wolfe out. Why? Because Wolfe personally seemed to misunderstand or even belittle complaints about systematic racism. One student leader went on a much-publicized hunger strike until Wolfe was kicked out. The student, Jonathan Butler, explained that only the ouster of Wolfe would make the school “a better place.”

At Yale, too, the impulse to orthodoxy has caused some observers to scratch their heads. On one level, it seems like a slightly hysterical protest about a fairly reasonable request. Faculty masters Nicholas and Erika Christakis suggested that students might relax about Halloween costumes. So what’s the problem? Morally orthodox students could not stand Christakis’s suggestion that they simply “look away” from offensive outfits. For the orthodox, looking away from immorality is as bad or worse than the immorality itself.

A similarly insufficient zeal damned an administrator of the elite Claremont McKenna College in California. Dean of Students Mary Spellman wrote a sympathetic email to a student who complained about racial insensitivity. So what’s the problem? Spellman included a line about non-white students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” To protesters, such language smacked of a hidden, intolerable insensitivity.

In all these cases, school leaders and faculty are under attack for two reasons. First, they are accused of displaying an inadequate understanding of and zealousness about racial inclusivity. The oft-confusing part, though, comes from the second reason. The impulse to orthodoxy demands that such inadequate agreement be tirelessly sought out and ruthlessly purged. It is not enough to apologize. Campus protesters feel free to use any coercion, stamp out any speech, if those things seem to promote immorality.

Today’s racial protesters will be surprised at the people who might understand them best: Protestant fundamentalists. As I’m finding out as I research my new book, the history of fundamentalist higher education is mostly the story of a similar impulse to orthodoxy. Beginning in the 1920s, it was not enough for fundamentalists simply to protest against secularization of the academy. It was not enough simply to disagree with the theological implications of evolution. Rather, for fundamentalists since the 1920s, it was necessary to demand that schools purge all such things. When that didn’t work, fundamentalists opened their own schools, places such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, and Bryan College.

Throughout their histories, fundamentalist colleges have taken drastic action to purge any hint of compromise. In 1961, for example, Wheaton scientist Russell Mixter had to offer elaborate apologies to those who thought he might have accepted mainstream evolutionary theory.

These days, similar drastic action is wracking the campus of Bryan College. Faculty who seem not to be sufficiently zealous in their embrace of a young earth are being shown the door.

Of course, the specific moral ideas are extremely different. At fundamentalist colleges, the dangerous trends were toward theological modernism and evolutionary science. At today’s elite mainstream colleges, the moral imperative demands the removal—root and branch—of those who don’t sufficiently act against systematic racism.

Yet the impulse remains the same. The moral imperative of orthodoxy requires more than just a certain set of ideas. It implies a tireless and ruthless dedication to root out all those who do not adequately understand or embody those ideas.