Why Can’t Facebook Fix Schools?

[Warning: Explicit goose-related content.]

It’s not news. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other tech-illionaires keep trying and failing to fix schools. The latest story from Connecticut gives us a few more clues about why these smartest-people-in-the-room can’t get it right. In the shocker of the year, it turns out parents don’t like having their kids read about people having sex with geese.

sex with a goose

Will this be on the test?

It’s not the first time Zuckerberg has goofed when it comes to school reform. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, he has dropped the ball in Newark and with SAT prep classes. He has mistaken the right way to think about schools, repeating centuries-old errors.

What’s the latest? Parents in an affluent section of Connecticut have rebelled against a facebook-sponsored introduction of Summit’s “personalized” learning system. These sorts of systems promise that students will be able to work productively instead of marching at lockstep with the rest of the class. They hope to use technology to allow students and teachers to learn, instead of just sitting idly in classrooms.

In towns like Cheshire, Connecticut, the Summit system was run on free student computers, sponsored by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, facebook’s philanthropic arm. Students in middle school and elementary school would be able to work at their own pace toward clearly delineated learning goals.

It was gonna be great.

As New York Magazine reported, it didn’t work out that way:

the implementation over the next few months collapsed into a suburban disaster, playing out in school-board meetings and, of course, on facebook. The kids who hated the new program hated it, to the point of having breakdowns, while their parents became convinced Silicon Valley was trying to take over their classrooms.

What went wrong? As anyone who knows schools could tell you, the Summit/facebook folks made a fundamental error about the nature of schools. They forgot or never knew a couple of basic, non-negotiable requirements of real schools.

First, they fell into the start-up trap. Priscilla Chan of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative described her awe when she first saw a Summit-style school. As she gushed,

I walked into the school and I didn’t recognize where I was. . . . My question was like, ‘What is this? Where am I? Because this is what I see folks actually doing in the workplace: problem-solving on their own, applying what they’re learning in a way that’s meaningful in the real world.’

Like other techies, the facebook folks thought that schools could should look like tech companies, with maximum productivity and maximum independence. What they don’t seem to notice is that schools are not only open to those few nerds who like to work that way.

In Cheshire, teachers found that about a third of the students flourished in their new classrooms. But that left a vast majority of students floundering. As teachers do, they filled in the gaps. As New York  Magazine describes,

The teachers started holding “Thursday Night Lights” sessions, where they’d stay until about 8 p.m., helping students rush through the playlists and take assessments while the information was fresh in their memories. To make up for the rest, he said, teachers found “workarounds,” like rounding up half-points in students’ grades, or coming up with reasons to excuse students from certain segments. (The other educators confirmed this.) “Looking back,” he said, “it was grade inflation, and it was cheating the system that we had spent the whole year trying to figure out and couldn’t make work.”

Maybe even more crucially, the facebook approached crashed in Cheshire because it failed to satisfy another absolute requirement of all schools. Viz., it failed to convince parents that it was keeping children safe.

First off, parents fretted about the ways facebook was selling data about their kids. Even if the company bent over backwards to be accommodating to parents’ concerns, no parents liked the idea of putting their children’s data on the market.

More dramatically in this case, the Summit approach doesn’t try to protect kids from the informational anarchy that the interwebs can provide. Instead of textbooks and other vetted classroom content, Summit mostly provides a set of links that students can follow to read content. In this case, that lead to some dramatic difficulties. In fact, the whole controversy in Connecticut might have blown over if one concerned parent hadn’t discovered what Summit students might be reading in class.

When the parent—Mike Ulicki—followed up on some social-studies links, he came across this page from factsanddetails.com. Yes, the page explained, ancient Romans had some pretty wild sexual habits, including sex with geese.

As anyone who knows anything about real schools could have told you, that was all it took.

As NYMag reported,

Ulicki posted the image on Facebook. As outraged comments multiplied on the thread, a school-board member announced he would call for a vote at the next meeting on whether to keep the program in place. But before the meeting could happen, they all received a letter from the superintendent’s office, announcing that Summit was being removed by executive order.

Now, honestly, any parent knows that their middle-schoolers could have found those kinds of images on their own. But for a school to be sending students to a picture of man-on-goose kink blew open one of the most foundational rules of schools. [There are other not-PG-13 images available at that site that I am too prudish to share. Interested readers can follow up here, though you might not want to do it at school.]

Schools are not only about giving students information. They are not only about preparing students to be life-long learners. They are not only about math, history, English, or science. Above all, schools must promise to keep students safe. Safe from physical threats, of course, but also safe from intellectual dangers such as the wild sexual practices of ancient Rome.

Until facebook’s founders and other would-be tech saviors recognize the way schools really work, they’ll never be able to deliver on their reform promises.

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Hate Speech: The Blog Defense

I know, I know, it is not the main point of the story. I can’t help but be amazed, though, at one of the defenses this embattled professor gave. So, yes, he compared sexual-assault accusations to “spin the bottle.” And he called the Democrats the “sissy party” and suggested that all judicial appointees be required to commit sexual assault. He defended his comments as satirical, but he also gave, to my mind, a much more poignant defense.

langbert

Sure, I said it, but I didn’t think anyone was listening…

Here’s what we know: according to Inside Higher Ed, Brooklyn College Professor Mitchell Langbert made some pretty outrageous public comments after the Kavanaugh hearings. For example, Prof. Mitchell opined,

If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex.  The Democrats have discovered that 15-year- olds play spin-the-bottle, and they have jumped on a series of supposed spin-the-bottle crimes during Kavanaugh’s minority, which they characterize as rape, although no one complained or reported any crime for 40 years.

The Democrats have become a party of tutu-wearing pansies, totalitarian sissies who lack virility, a sense of decency, or the masculine judgment that has characterized the greatest civilizations: classical Athens, republican Rome, 18th century Britain, and the 19th century United States. They use anonymity and defamation in their tireless search for coercive power.

The Kavanaugh hearing is a travesty, and if the Republicans are going to allow the sissy party to use this travesty to stop conservatism, then it is time found [sic] a new political party.  In the future, having committed sexual assault in high school ought to be a prerequisite for all appointments, judicial and political.  Those who did not play spin-the-bottle when they were 15 should not be in public life.

Predictably, students at Brooklyn College protested. Such hateful speech, they insist, should be grounds for Langbert’s termination.

In his defense, Prof. Langbert revised his blog post, adding an introductory disclaimer describing his post as satirical, that his point was precisely to underscore the ridiculousness of the current political climate. As he put it,

It is intended to be taken in the same light as Swift’s claim that Irish children should be eaten. I was surprised to learn that some readers took me literally, claiming that I advocate rape.

To this reporter, the satire in Prof. Langbert’s original post is pretty easy to miss. I might call it an example of hyperbolic rhetoric, but as a high-school English teacher, I would never use this example to illustrate the complicated genre of satirical writing.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might disagree about whether or not this counts as satire, but this morning I’d like to focus on a different aspect of this case. When asked about his controversial blog post, Prof. Langbert offered a much sadder defense as well. Not only was it meant to be satirical, Langbert said, but usually only about twenty people per week visited his blog.

Does that make it okay? We all know some forms of speech are not protected. For example, shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater is not acceptable. However, what if you shouted “Fire” to an empty room?

Why Can’t Evangelical Colleges Change?

Who decides the rules at evangelical colleges? In Fundamentalist U, I argued that school leaders were tightly constricted by a lowest common denominator of populist evangelicalism. Yes, deep theological ideas mattered, but more important was the absolutely non-negotiable need for colleges to be perceived by the broader evangelical public as absolutely “safe.” The events at Asuza Pacific University this week seem to confirm my thesis.

asuza pacific

[No] Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Here’s what we know: A few days ago, Asuza Pacific announced a new policy for LGBTQ+ students. Like all students, they could now freely engage in romantic relationships, but sex was out of bounds. It was a bit of an odd decision to outsiders, since APU maintained its insistence that the only proper sexual relationship was a heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, it represented a pretty big change for a conservative evangelical college.

As we’ve reported in these pages, the question of homosexuality on evangelical campuses has driven a wedge between conservative evangelical schools. I’ve argued recently that the issue of homosexuality, along with other culture-war bloody shirts such as young-earth creationism, is leading to the creation of a “new fundamentalism” in some colleges.

And so, predictably, APU’s announcement led to conservative pushback. Pundits such as Rod Dreher called the policy switch

a feeble attempt by one of the country’s largest conservative Evangelical colleges to satisfy the Zeitgeist while maintaining the fiction that the school is still conservative and Evangelical on human sexuality. . . . some APU students leave college with their faith in tatters, having been transformed into Social Justice Warriors by a college that sells itself as conservative and Evangelical[Emphasis in original.]

As I pointed out in Fundamentalist U, no evangelical college is immune to this kind of pressure. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative gadflies have been able to influence the goings-on at evangelical schools by warning that students might not be “safe” on their campuses.

No matter what administrators might like to do, maintaining their public image as impeccably safe spaces for conservative evangelical youth is absolutely essential. This is not a quirk of Asuza Pacific or a relic of the twentieth century. Just ask Larycia Hawkins. Or Randy Beckum. Or Stephen Livesay.

We should not be surprised, then, to find out this morning that APU reversed its decision. The board announced that the policy change had never been approved. APU, the board declared, was still an unquestionably safe place for conservative evangelical students. As the board put it,

We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission. We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.

In the language of evangelical higher education, yesterday and today, “change” might be good. But “wavering” has always been beyond the possible. If a university hopes to survive, it must pander to popular conservative ideas about sexuality, politics, race, and any other difficult topic. It absolutely must continue to attract student tuition dollars and alumni donations. Any threat to that bottom line, no matter how theologically sound or spiritually attractive, will always be crushed.

Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

Is THIS What Keeps Conservatives Out of Academia?

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not even a hiring bias. According to experts like Neil Gross, the reason we don’t have more conservative professors in the liberal arts is mainly self-selection. And in the goofy higher-ed headlines this week we see gossipy confirmation.

gross

Could conservatives make it in this environment?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, there really is a tilt to most liberal-arts college faculties, at least at the more selective schools. Neil Gross argued, however, that conservative conspiracy theories don’t hold water. It’s not that universities consciously—or even unconsciously—discriminate against conservative intellectuals. Rather, people who think of themselves as conservatives tend not to go into certain academic fields.

One of the most striking parts of a depressingly ugly higher-ed news item this week is the way it seems to offer anecdotal confirmation of this trend.

Here’s what happened: A former graduate student is suing New York University for harassment and abuse during his time there. He had studied with the prominent scholar Avital Ronell. He complains that she wrote him endless creepy emails, kept him from leaving town, and generally over-controlled his life.

In her own defense, Prof. Ronell described their communications this way:

Our communications — which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment — were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.

For example, at one point she sent her student this email:

I am a bit weepy and confused, a normal aftermath I suppose, and also a response to the separation from you … But I will try to gain some ground with a visit to shrinky-winky and see if I can’t develop another kind of report for you! … So many kisses for my guardian angel.

And at one point he responded like this:

Mon Avital, beloved and special one, I only now relieved [sic] your beautiful and exquisite message … I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure, all of which I reciprocate with tenderness and love. I thank you so much for walking me through this catabasis. I don’t know how I would have survived without you. You are the best !!! I love you so much. You are the best, my joy, my miracle. Kisses and devotion always. Yours – n

Regardless of the legal outcome of this harassment suit, this sort of “florid and campy” style of endless email back-and-forth would be very difficult for most people to keep up with. Why did the student endure these sort of over-the-top emotional expectations? According to all concerned, Professor Ronell was a superstar in her field. She had—and repeatedly reminded her student she had—the power to make or break his career.

And to my eye, that’s where we find the culture-war rub. Very few people of any sort of ideological background would be willing or able to maintain this sort of intense, intimate relationship with a professor. If I were a conservative intellectual with academic ambitions, though (and I’m not), I think I would be discouraged from even applying to the NYU program, especially if I thought Prof. Ronell would not see me as sharing her “florid and campy” cultural style. In this one elite grad program, then, we can see how fewer conservatives might end up applying to a top program and fewer therefore might end up in top tenure-track academic jobs.

Is this case the norm? Not at all. Indeed, it has only attracted so much morbid curiosity because it is an outlier. But it IS the norm for elite graduate programs in the humanities to serve as the only gatekeepers to top academic careers. And if this sad story can tell us anything, it is that only a very specific sort of person could possibly survive, much less flourish, in some of the those graduate programs.

Are Christian Colleges No Longer Possible?

The dream has been the same for a hundred years. Is a recent move by Trinity Western University a sign of changing times? Must more-conservative evangelical colleges and universities choose between their two most cherished purposes?

twu_primary-logo_cmyk_0

Christian sexuality? Or Christian lawyers?

Here’s what we know: According to Christianity Today and Inside Higher Education, TWU has elected to drop its mandatory “community covenant” for students. The Canadian Supreme Court had blocked TWU’s efforts to establish a law school, based on the discriminatory anti-LGBTQ covenant. In short, in order to open an evangelical law school, TWU has eliminated its core lifestyle rules for students.

What’s the big deal?

As I argue in my book about the history of evangelical higher ed, schools like TWU have always promised to do two things at once. As a special sort of religious school, they promised to shepherd and guide the faith of their students in specific directions. At the same time, though, they have insisted that their graduates would be perfectly prepared to enter the professions. Going to a “Christian” school, in other words, wasn’t supposed to be a retreat from the world, just a better, particularly evangelical preparation to thrive in that world.

As Bob Jones—one of the most famous evangelical college leaders of the twentieth century—put it in 1929,

It is our plan to train and educate strong, outstanding Christian leaders.  This is what America needs—lawyers, doctors, business man, teachers, preachers, all strong leaders.

Evangelical colleges have always promised both halves of this equation. Students would receive top-notch professional training as well as relentless Christian guidance.

In its recent decision, TWU seems to have had to choose between preparing evangelical lawyers and insisting on its conservative definition of evangelical lifestyles. TWU will no longer force students to agree to its many rules, including the legally problematic ban on sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.

Previously TWU students had to “affirm” the following statement:

sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and within that marriage bond it is God’s intention that it be enjoyed as a means for marital intimacy and procreation.

From now on, students will apparently no longer be bound by the rules of TWU’s covenant. But they will be free to become lawyers. [Insert gratuitous Jonah Hill gag here, at :52 in the clip below.]

For the most conservative sorts of evangelical colleges, does this mean the end? Must they choose between their two goals?

That’s Not How Religious Schools Work

You’ve probably seen it by now: The case of Shelly Fitzgerald has attracted a ton of attention. She is a counselor at a Catholic school in Indiana, under pressure to resign due to her same-sex marriage. Some critics have suggested that the case demonstrates the essential bigotry of religious schools. But that’s not how religious schools have ever worked. Instead, this case shows the eternally contested nature of religious schools.

Here’s what we know: Ms. Fitzgerald has worked at her Catholic high school for fifteen years. She has been in a same-sex marriage for twenty-two years. An anonymous activist outed her to the school administration and archdiocese. As a result, Fitzgerald has been asked to resign or separate from her partner. Alumni, meanwhile, are protesting in her favor.

What can this episode tell us about the nature of religious schools? It’s not what my friend the Friendly Atheist thinks. As Hemant Mehta noted, this sort of anti-gay policy should not come as any surprise. It is literally written in the contract signed by employees. As Mehta argued recently,

don’t get mad at the school for being run by bigots. Blame the Church for its rules and blame the parents for sending their kids here. Hell, blame Fitzgerald for taking a job with them when she should’ve known this day would come.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might agree that such blanket denunciations are simplistic, perhaps willfully so. As I argued in my recent book about evangelical higher education, religious schools have NEVER operated as simple outlets for orthodoxy. Instead, they have served as forums where adherents of a religion hash out what they really care about in terms of God, politics, and culture.

Consider a few recent examples.

At Gordon College near Boston, the president ignited a local firestorm. How? By reminding Gordonians and the public about Gordon’s long-established rules and policies concerning same-sex relationships. President Lindsay did not make up any new rules. He didn’t fire anyone or punish anyone. But even by simply publicly noting the institution’s rules, Lindsay caused a furor among students, neighbors, and alumni.

Or consider the case of Wheaton College’s conspicuous not-firing of Larycia Hawkins. Professor Hawkins came under fire for publicly sporting hijab and writing that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worshipped the same God. She didn’t break any rules, but she was still forced out.

What’s our takeaway? In religious schools the rules are not the rules. They are one weapon that partisans of different visions can use to change practice at their institutions.

The rules at any religious school are not etched in stone. Rather, in every case, the rules are a negotiation, a guess, a political statement, an aspiration. If you want to understand a religion, don’t look only at statements of faith or official policies. Instead, put in the time to understand how students, teachers, administrators, and church leaders view their schools.

Sex Abuse at School: The Bad News from Chicago

It’s ugly enough as is. When we reflect on the lessons we should take from Chicago’s record of abusing students, though, it should leave us even more depressed.

Chicago abuse stats

The news from Chicago.

It has been too tempting for too many of us to explain away the sexual abuse of students in schools. Oh, we might say, that’s a problem for those fundamentalists at Pensacola and Bob Jones. Or, oh, we might think, that’s the danger of big-time sports. Or Catholic church hierarchies. Or homeschooling. Or fraternities. Or fancypants private schools.

Or any of a host of other explanations, all of which try to impose some vaguely reassuring line around the edges of sexual abuse at school. We shouldn’t. Sex abuse is part of the structure of schooling itself, difficult as that is to say out loud. When adults are put in power over vulnerable students—as is the case in almost every school on the planet—sex abuse will be a tragic but tragically predictable result.

In Chicago, investigative reporters uncovered a pattern of abuse and denial in Chicago Public Schools. Students who reported abuse were ignored. Teachers and coaches who were credibly accused of abuse were recommended or rehired. Over and over again, students were not protected.

As the Chicago Tribune report insists, better protections must be implemented. At the heart of the matter, though, is our shared unwillingness to confront the bitter roots of the problem.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing me say it, because I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Here it is: Any school, anywhere, with any system of reporting and control, is still a potentially dangerous place for children. If we don’t understand school as a fundamentally coercive institution, we’ll never be able to recognize its real dangers.

Christian Cakes and Creationism

You’ve probably seen it by now: SCOTUS issued a weirdly narrow ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. In short, conservative religious people can’t be forced to cooperate with same-sex weddings, IF people are mean to them. It might seem strained, but it is a similar sort of argument to the one I’m making in my new book about creationism. And we don’t have to agree with Phillips (I don’t) to agree with this SCOTUS decision.

masterpiece cakeshop protest

…but it IS about an important principle that can apply all over the culture-war landscape.

Here’s what we know: Colorado Christian baker Jack Phillips refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The couple sued and won. Phillips appealed. Yesterday, SCOTUS sided with Phillips, but only because Phillips had been treated with hostility by the lower court. As Amy Howe explained on the SCOTUS blog,

[Justice Anthony] Kennedy observed, the “neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised” by comments by members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. At one hearing, Kennedy stressed, commissioners repeatedly “endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community.” And at a later meeting, Kennedy pointed out, one commissioner “even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.” “This sentiment,” Kennedy admonished, “is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”

In other words, Phillips won because his sincerely held beliefs were not respected, not because Phillips has a right to refuse service to people.

It’s a ruling that has already led both sides to claim victory. It will also surely bring on more contempt and ridicule like this. But IMHO, this decision sets the right tone—a rare one these days.

I don’t say that because I agree with Phillips. I don’t. I don’t even agree that he has a right to refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation. He doesn’t. But he DOES have the right to have his beliefs respected, understood, and considered deeply.

What does it have to do with creationism? For generations now, we’ve heard complaints from creationist parents and activists that their views are not respected or included in public-school science classes. [Check out Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation for my full treatment of these complaints.]

As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, creationists DO have a legitimate reason to complain. They have every right to be respected and included in public schools. They DON’T have a right to teach religiously inspired science in secular public schools, though. And they DON’T have any right to opt out of learning basic building blocks of knowledge.

It might seem as if there’s no way to square this circle. As Justice Kennedy ruled yesterday, however, it is possible to insist on respect without simultaneously endorsing an exclusionary practice.