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.

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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.

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R-E-L-A-X…

Is the sky falling for evangelical colleges? Rod Dreher says yes. I say no.

Dreher is responding to a recent NPR piece describing the tensions at evangelical colleges over student sexuality and gender identity.

As the article describes, colleges aren’t sure what to do. For many conservative evangelicals, homosexual practice is unacceptable. But so is rejecting and harassing Christians. To Dreher, the conundrum is proof that evangelical colleges—like all evangelical institutions—need to take drastic Benedictine steps. As Dreher puts it,

the environment in which traditional Christian colleges and educational institutions work is rapidly changing: politically, legally, and culturally. We cannot count on anything anymore. . . . Somehow, faithful small-o orthodox Christians have to figure out how to educate within this hostile new heterodoxy. We will have to form new institutions, ones built to be resilient in the face of anti-Christian modernity.

Sounds scary. But as I argue in my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, this predicament is nothing new. To the contrary, this dilemma has been the driving force behind evangelical higher education for a hundred years now. Consider this plea from Dean Lowell Coate of Marion College, c. August, 1923. Mainstream higher ed, Dean Coate fretted, had been taken over by “evolution, destructive criticism, and liberalism.” What evangelicals needed, Coate insisted, was to

ignore the whole worldly system, and organize courses independent of the world’s stereotyped curricula, engage the strongest conservative scholarship in America, raise the educational standard above the present unchristian philosophy, stablish [sic] it upon ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints,’ and then challenge the world to meet the new scholarship.

Guess what? It worked. The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s set up a startlingly successful network of colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes. Evangelical colleges have faced the challenge of rapid change for almost a century and they have always found a way to remain true to both their religious mission and their academic aspirations.

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Is the sky falling? Yes, but it has been falling for over a century now…

Now, as SAGLRROILYBGTH are tired of hearing, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not evangelical, nor am I personally invested in evangelical higher ed. If I were, though, I would listen to Aaron Rodgers and not Rod Dreher. The challenges faced by schools today are serious and dire—but they are not more serious and dire than the challenges that have always confronted evangelical academics.

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.

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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

No Joke: Catholic College Cuts off Comic’s Crudeness

There’s campus free speech and then there’s campus free speech. Does a comedian have any sort of “free-speech” right to intentionally and directly violate a contract? Even if he’s trying to make a point?

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From a student tweet…

Here’s what we know: The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting on a free-speech stunt by comedian Hamilton Buress. The well-known comic (so I’m told. I’d never heard of him, but that doesn’t mean much) had signed a contract for his bit at Loyola University in Chicago. He had agreed not to discuss certain subjects, including sexual abuse, rape, race, or sexual and gender orientation.

Buress didn’t only ignore the contract. He projected an image of the list of forbidden topics, then proceeded to make a joke about each one in turn. When he got to a joke about child sexual abuse by the Catholic church, the (Catholic) university cut off his mic.

What do you think?

Me, I’m torn. On the one hand, the guy signed a contract. He agreed not to make certain jokes.

On the other hand, Buress’s deliberate and provocative method of spurning the contract, IMHO, is more than just comedy. It makes a powerful point about the need to speak freely about sensitive topics.

Would I want him to perform at my kid’s fifth birthday party?  Probably not. But do I think his stunt was a healthy shake-up of campus stultification? I think so.

My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

Now I just don’t know what to think. I have long admired heroic teachers like Susan Epperson and all the less-famous Susan Eppersons out there. Our ILYBYGTH conversations lately, though, have me wondering. Are teachers heroic if they buck the rules to teach the way they should? …what if they think they should teach Christianity or white supremacy? Or if they’re gun-toting rage-aholics?

Maybe people don’t remember Susan Epperson anymore. She was a science teacher in Arkansas in the 1960s. Due to a law passed during the 1920s evolution/creation battles, she was legally barred from teaching her students about evolution. She did it anyway.

Instead of just keeping her science subversion quiet, Epperson took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the anti-evolution law was tossed out.

Epperson has always been a hero of mine. Not only her, but all the teachers out there who go against idiotic system rules to teach children the way they deserve to be taught. It can be as simple as ignoring an order to focus only on test-related content and instead help a student discover what she thinks about a poem or painting. It can be as fundamental as introducing students to the real, ugly history of race relations in the USA, even though a school principal advises against doing anything “controversial.”

But with recent stories about white-supremacist teachers and the history of left-wing teacher purges I’m not sure what to think anymore. If teachers are heroic for teaching “what’s right” instead of what’s in the state-approved curriculum, how can we police creationist and other teachers for breaking the rules to teach their own peculiar moral visions?

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Can my heroes out-sneak your heroes?

After all, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, the most important influence on most high-school biology teachers is not the state curriculum. It is the values of the local community. If teachers think creationism is the right thing for their students, they’ll teach it, no matter what the curriculum says.

And activists on both the right and the left encourage teachers to ignore the rules and teach “what’s right.” Brad and Susanne Dacus, for example, have published a handy-dandy guide for teachers who want to inject more Christianity into their teaching. As they put it,

Worrying about your public schools changes nothing. . . Knowing how YOU can make an impact in your school can change everything!  Public schools have dramatically changed over the last several years.  Now is not the time to give up on your school.  Now is the time to stand up and be heard!

For those of us who want secular public schools, these promises sound worrisome. Yet we can’t help but recognize that the same heroic impulse to fight the system underlies both Epperson’s pro-science activism and the Dacus’s pro-Jesus work.

Is there any way we can encourage heroic teachers, but only the kinds we agree with? Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. As Professor Clarence Taylor argued recently in these pages, do we need to defend ALL teachers’ rights to political activism, even if we hate it? Or is there some way to support teacher activism for “our” side while fighting teacher activism for “theirs?”

Genesis, Free Speech, and Hate Speech

What would arch-creationist Ken Ham say if someone accused him of hate speech? We don’t have to guess. At his recent talk at the University of Central Oklahoma, Ham defended his vision of proper Christian morality. Did he capture ancient Christian wisdom? Or spout off twenty-first century bigotry?

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Part of the 500-person audience at UCO.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, we’ve tussled over this issue recently. When UCO rescinded Ham’s original invitation, we wondered if free speech was still alive. I argued at the time that free speech was something of a red herring in this case–and many similar college cases. The real issue is sponsorship. The student organization at UCO did not want to pay Ham to speak, due to Ham’s views on sexuality and marriage.

In the end, UCO President Don Betz squared the circle by using money from a separate slush fund to pay for Ham’s visit. And the talk went off without a hitch. During the Q&A, one audience member asked Ham directly about gay rights. Here’s how the interchange went, according to Religion News Service:

One questioner — a self-described “spirit-filled Christian” and member of the LGBTQ community — said: “I sought the Lord and churches for why I feel attracted to the same sex. I found the church nor churches’ traditional view on (LGBTQ) fit my experience of hearing the Lord speak directly to me. Science, not the church, gave me peace. How can you say my experience of still being a child of God isn’t valid?”

Ham said he would start by asking how the person heard from God: “My way of dealing with that would be to say, ‘Let’s judge what the actual written word of God says. Let’s judge what you’re saying against what it says.’

“Because I have a different worldview in relation to marriage and gender doesn’t mean I hate that person,” Ham added. “Sometimes, people accuse us of hate speech because we disagree with them. It’s a clash of worldviews. That doesn’t mean we hate someone. In fact, the Bible commands us to love everyone, and that’s what we do.”

What do you think?

From my perspective, Ham’s answer sidesteps the central point. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but my hunch is that anti-Ham protesters at UCO didn’t care if Ham personally hated or loved them. The real question is whether or not he wanted to take away their civic rights to marriage equality.

Can Science Oppose Heresy?

In a sense, it’s as old as Galileo. In another, though, our question today shows the uniquely modern state of our current culture-war climate. Can someone stand up for science by opposing heresy? If we really want to understand culture-war thinking, we need to make sense of the ways they can, even if we don’t agree with them.

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MUST science denial be heresy?

A conservative lament about gender-bending school policy brings this question to our attention. Ideas about gender fluidity, Margot Cleveland argues, turn otherwise intelligent people into thugs and morons. In her view, insisting that young people can and should be able to identify their own genders is both “science denial and heresy.”

I don’t agree, but that’s not the main point here. More important, I want to know how any idea can do those do things at once. How can an idea—any idea—claim to be both religiously and scientifically orthodox?

For secular people like me, it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. Yet for conservative religious intellectuals, this notion has long been both obvious and vitally true.

After all, in the street-level, Bill-Nye sense of the word, “Science” can’t really care about heresy or orthodoxy. As Neil deGrasse Tyson defines it, “Science” means the opposite of such things. In his words,

Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper. . . . Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. . . . in science, conformity is anathema to success.

Before we talk about Cleveland’s claims about heresy and science, let’s acknowledge a few things to start.

  • First, for the past fifty years or so, philosophers and historians have challenged Tyson’s simplistic definition of science. One person’s voodoo might be another’s science, and so on. Fair enough.
  • And some pundits might say that Cleveland was talking about a merely coincidental agreement between her idea of religious orthodoxy and science. That is, she might be saying that religious orthodoxies about eternal, unchanging, God-assigned gender identities happen to be biologically true as well. She might only be saying people are born with a certain set of sex characteristics and it is not scientifically nor religiously true that they can change their gender identity at will.

Those things make sense to me, but they don’t get to the heart of our dilemma. The interesting question, the difficult question is whether or not heresy and science denial can really go together as a general rule.

When it comes to the questions of evolution, climate change, sexuality, and now gender identity, conservative religious thinkers have long argued that they can. Indeed, that they must. To my mind, it is this point that is most important. If secular people like me want to really understand conservative religious thinking, we need to try harder to understand this logic. To me, it seems obviously false. To many people, though, it is compelling.

It is not only fundamentalist young-earthers who have made this case. Consider the most famous creationist dissenter from young-earth thinking, Bernard Ramm. In the 1950s, Ramm shattered the complacency of fundamentalist science with his blockbuster book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture.

In some ways, Ramm’s anti-young-earth work can be said to have sparked the modern young-earth renaissance. After all, it was in furious response to Ramm that John Whitcomb Jr. penned the young-earth counter-blockbuster The Genesis Flood in 1961.

Ramm denounced young-earth fundamentalist thinking in no uncertain terms. Young-earthers, whom Ramm called the “hyperorthodox,” missed the point of both science and scripture. Ramm explained,

If the theologian teaches that the earth is the center of the solar system, or that man first appeared on the earth at 4004 BC, or that all the world was submerged under water at 4004 BC and had been for unknown millennia, he is misinterpreting Scripture and bringing Scripture into needless conflict with science.

Instead, Ramm argued religious thinkers needed to reclaim their roles as scientific leaders. Real science, decent science, productive science, Ramm insisted, needed to be guided by the “light of revelation.” Without it, science could only be either “cheap or ironical.”

What does any of this have to do with gender-identity curriculum in California or Indiana? The way I see it, we have two ways to interpret arguments like the one made by Margot Cleveland. Either she is saying that religious truth and scientific inquiry happen to agree about gender identity, or she is making the much stronger case that religious truth and scientific truth must always agree about everything.

For those of us outside the world of conservative religious thinking, this second argument is very difficult to comprehend or even to recognize. Many of us default to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s heresy-promoting vision of true science. If we want to understand our religious friends and neighbors, though, we need to understand a world in which heresy is the very heart of science denialism.

Free to Discriminate?

Does a creationist have the right to free speech? That’s the question we’ve been wondering about here at ILYBYGTH lately, ever since arch-creationist Ken Ham got bumped from a talk at the University of Central Oklahoma. News from state legislatures brings up another campus challenge: Do student groups have the right to discriminate?campus-protest-getty-640x480

First, the update, thanks to Donna: According to Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis organization, he has been re-invited to UCO. Apparently, Ham will talk on campus, then move to a nearby church for a Q&A.

Today, we’ve got an even trickier free-speech/free-assembly question to examine. Should student groups be forced to abide by university anti-discrimination rules? Even for their own leaders? Americans United for Separation of Church and State lists a burgeoning new crop of state laws that would force campuses to make exceptions.

In Virginia, for example, a state senate subcommittee unanimously approved a new bill that would allow student groups to discriminate in their leadership choices. Emphasis added below:

Establishes several provisions for the protection of expressive activity on the campus of each public institution of higher education, including (i) permitting any individual who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity on campus to do so freely, as long as such expressive activity does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution of higher education and (ii) prohibiting any public institution of higher education from (a) denying a student organization any benefit or privilege available to any other student organization, or otherwise discriminating against a student organization, on the basis of the expressive activity of the members of such organization or (b) restricting a student organization’s ability to require any leader or other member of such organization to affirm and adhere to the organization’s sincerely held beliefs, comply with the organization’s standards of conduct, or further the organization’s self-defined mission or purpose.

Why do some conservatives see the need for such bills? As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, evangelical groups on campus have been under fire for the past few years. Intervarsity, for example, has been derecognized on many campuses. Why? Because the group requires its leaders—not members, but leaders—to agree to its statement of belief. And that statement of belief includes traditional definitions of sexual morality.campus-free-speech-720

Conservative religious folks have long fretted about these definitions of discrimination and inclusion. Why can’t conservative evangelical student groups insist that their leaders share their ideas?

The rub comes once again with the question of university support. Speakers on campus are generally free to do whatever they want, short of issuing threats or starting riots. People can talk their heads off in public areas. There have been important exceptions, as when one professor physically attacked an anti-abortion speaker on the campus of UC-Santa Barbara. campus free speech berkely republicansIn Ken Ham’s case, he wasn’t merely speaking on campus. He was sponsored and promoted by the student government. Some student groups objected to university sponsorship of a speaker that they saw as beyond the pale of legitimate public speech.

Liberal critics make the same case against these student-group laws. In AU’s opinion, such laws are a travesty. As they put it,

Religious freedom is the right to believe—or not—as we see fit. It doesn’t include a right to discriminate—and especially not while using taxpayer dollars or using the tuition fees of the very students who are being excluded. Religious student groups, of course, still have First Amendment rights on campus. They have been able to access school facilities for their meetings and use school bulletin boards to advertise their events like any other group. But they don’t have the right to force public universities to subsidize discrimination. If student groups want to discriminate, they shouldn’t receive public university recognition, tuition fees, or state taxpayer money to do so.

What do you think? Should student groups be free to discriminate? Should public money support student groups that discriminate?

Is Creationism Hate Speech?

It wasn’t about evolution or creationism. When a student group at the University of Central Oklahoma rescinded a speaking invitation for radical-creationist impresario Ken Ham, it wasn’t the biology or geology departments that had protested. Rather, it was women’s groups and LGBTQ+ organizations that objected to Ham. The controversy in Oklahoma points to a central problem for religious conservatives, one that all the bluster about “free speech” only obscures.

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Ken Ham’s organization makes no secret of its anti-homosexuality opinions.

I’m no conservative, but if I were I would not care as much about college speaking invitations as I would about the much-more-important real reason why Ham’s talk was canceled.

Before we get into that, though, let’s clear out a few of the distracting issues. Ham has protested that he had a contract in place and that the university “reneged.” The university says no contract was in place, only an invitation. We can remain agnostic on that question—the central issue here isn’t one of legal contracts, but of moral and social commitments.

Let’s also remember that this case doesn’t involve creationism as a whole, but only one form of creationism. Ham’s organization promotes a specific young-earth version that I’ve been calling “radical” creationism. As I argue in my current book, too often pundits equate radical creationism with creationism as a whole. It’s always important to remember what creationism really is and what it isn’t. As a whole, creationism certainly can’t be equated with Ken Ham’s ideas. For now, though, let’s move on to the central issues in this particular case.

Ham insists that his free speech rights were denied. But were they? Ham still plans to give a speech in the same town, at a nearby church. No one took away Ham’s right to speak, only an invitation to appear at a university-sponsored event. To use an intentionally inflammatory analogy, pornography is not allowed in public-school libraries, but that does not mean pornographers have lost their rights to free speech.

Today, though, such questions of contracts and free speech rights are not what we’re going to focus on. Instead, let’s look at a tougher question. Let’s examine the confusing language at the center of this case. Ham has protested with justification that his banishment violates the university’s stated goal of “inclusivity.”

The local creationist pastor who had invited Ham to Oklahoma quoted angrily from the university’s policies:

UCO claims that it “is committed to an inclusive educational” environment, and in its “Campus Expression Policy,” the university declares that it “is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged. The University is a diverse community based on free exchange of ideas.”

If the tax-funded university is committed to diversity and inclusion, the pastor asked, why did it exclude the different ideas of Ken Ham?

For its part, the university and affiliated student groups would likely explain (and for the record I’d agree) that “inclusivity” on a pluralist public campus must always exclude certain notions. Those who do not agree to the fundamental ideas of social equality can’t be included. If someone at an open public meeting refuses to let other people speak or to acknowledge other people’s rights as citizens, that person will be ejected. His or her rights to be included have always been premised on the condition that he/she recognize the same rights for all other members of the community. Whether you agree with it or not (I do), that exclusionary rule has always been central to the idea of “inclusivity.”

In the end, it was not creationist science that moved Ken Ham beyond the pale of civil speech, but rather his ideas about sexuality. As I was reminded recently on my trip to the Ark Encounter, a primary commitment of Ham’s creationist ministry is an insistence on the illegitimacy of homosexuality. In the eyes of Oklahoma protesters, Ham’s stance against same-sex marriage removes Ham from the circle of legitimate civic participants. By hoping to take away other people’s rights to participate equally in society, the argument goes, Ham has torn up the social contract and pushed himself out of the circle of civic rights, including the right to have his speech welcomed at a pluralist public institution.

If I were a radical creationist—and I’m not—I wouldn’t join Ken Ham and his allies in protesting about free speech rights. There is a larger issue that conservative Christians are losing—the right to have their ideas about sexual morality included in the list of legitimate opinions for public forums and institutions.

The free-speech issue, IMHO, is only a symptom of a much more profound loss by religious conservatives. In this case, Ken Ham didn’t have his rights to speak freely taken away. He still plans to speak in the same town. He is free to invite whomever he likes. He is free to say whatever he likes.

The big question, I think, is not whether or not radical creationists are allowed to speak freely. The big question, rather, is whether or not conservative Christian ideas about sexuality are still included in the list of legitimate political opinions. In this case, at least, they are not…not even in Oklahoma.

If You Don’t Teach about It, Will It Go Away?

Nothing is touchier than teaching young kids about sex. A new bill in South Dakota’s state senate illustrates the painfully deep culture-war divide we face on this topic. Progressives like me think teaching young kids about sexual identity and gender identity can save lives and create a more equitable society. Some conservatives think it warps minds and turns children into homosexuals or transgender people. But just like evolution and US history, the real divide isn’t over what to teach, it’s over how to teach it. The real issue, as always, is not sex or evolution or history, but TRUST.

Here’s what we know: A bill in the South Dakota senate would simply prohibit schools from teaching elementary students about transgender identity. It’s brief:

No instruction in gender identity or gender expression may be provided to any student in kindergarten through grade seven in any public school in the state.

This is the first bill of this sort, but it joins a group of similar bills about teaching sexual identity. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, those laws, sometimes called the “no-promo-homo” laws, are in effect in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. They prohibit teaching positive messages about homosexuality to young students.

And, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, it’s the “positive” part of the subject that is the trickiest. As we’ve seen in these pages time and again, conservatives mobilize to block certain books and ideas that hope to teach children that homosexuality is perfectly natural and wholesome.

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Image from PACE 1107.

But it’s not the case that conservatives don’t want their children to learn about homosexuality. In fact, even the most ardent fundamentalists teach their children about sexual identity and gender identity. The staunchly conservative Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, for example, includes a lot of information about homosexuality. For example, children will read the following:

Some people mistakenly believe that an individual is born a homosexual and his attraction to those of the same sex is normal. Because extensive tests have shown that there is no biological difference between homosexuals and others, these tests seem to prove that homosexuality is a learned behavior. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is sin. In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is as unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal as it is to say that murder or stealing is normal.

Now, this is a fairly extreme attitude toward homosexuality; most conservatives wouldn’t want their children learning this sort of idea either. Accelerated Christian Education is only popular among a certain subset of religious conservatives. However, when even those most anti-gay-rights conservatives teach their children explicitly about homosexuality, we see that the problem isn’t the topic, but the approach.

The problem, I think, for many conservative activists is a deep and abiding mistrust of how schools will teach young children about these issues. Conservatives (not all, but it gets repetitive to keep writing “some,” so I’ll shorten it from here on out to “conservatives”) worry that schools will indoctrinate young children with pro-gay, pro-trans messages.

To be fair, those fears are well-founded. Most educational programs that I’ve seen really do hope to foster a sense that homosexuality and transgender are healthy ways to be a person. To cite just one example from my adopted home state of Wisconsin, activists staged a reading of the controversial book I Am Jazz in order to help trans students feel “safe and accepted.”

Indeed, the intention of such books and curricula is precisely to help young people see sexual identity and gender identity in a non-traditional light; the goal is to help everyone accept non-traditional gender identities and sexual identities as healthy and normal. The kind of gender-identity education I support doesn’t just teach students neutral facts about gender. It really does hope to help young children see sexuality and gender identities as variable.

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What should children learn about gender identity?

And, to be double fair, if the shoe were on the other foot, I would protest as well. That is, if children in public schools were learning ACE’s message about homosexuality, I would do everything I could to block it.

In South Dakota, and likely in other states soon as well, conservatives are hoping to ban a topic they can’t control. They worry that any instruction about transgender issues will turn into an attempt to indoctrinate young minds. They fret with good reason that progressives hope to get young children to accept non-traditional gender identities and sexual identities. In the end, conservatives don’t trust the public schools to teach their values, so they simply block certain topics altogether.