Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

sex abuse at fund indept

The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

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School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

Notre Dame and the Fundamentalist Dream

Is it practical? I have no idea. But the proposal last week from students at the University of Notre Dame to block porn from campus pushes all the buttons that animated fundamentalist college reformers a century ago. It goes against the very openness—as Gene Zubovich wrote recently—that has led Catholic higher education to be so much more intellectually vibrant than the conservative evangelical versions.

notre dame

Can they keep the baby if they block the bathwater?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for student activism against pornography. I admire the zeal and vision of the Notre Dame students. I’m especially happy to see my fellow men stand up against the exploitation of women and children. As the Notre Dame signatories argued,

We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women. . . . Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years. . . . ​Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women — violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.

I don’t dispute any of that. Historically, however, the goal of blocking and shielding students as part of a righteous college education has had some unintended consequences. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, the heart and soul of the fundamentalist college dream was to block, ban, prohibit, limit, encircle, and deny. In short, what fundamentalist school founders wanted was to create an alternative system of higher education in which young people could learn without being exposed to the behaviors and attitudes that had taken over mainstream higher education.

As Gene Zubovich argued recently, Catholic higher education has had a different tradition. Of course the Catholic Church has its own long, lamentable tradition of prohibition. Nevertheless, Catholic intellectuals became the big brains of America’s conservative movement in the twentieth century, Zubovich wrote, because

Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism.

Now, I disagree with Zubovich’s across-the-board dismissal of academic and intellectual life at evangelical universities. It was not only Carl Henry (whom Zubovich mentions) who dreamed of creating an academic intellectual powerhouse. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, the roots of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in another ambitious and practical plan to improve the tenor of intellectual life in evangelical schools.

However, that quibble is beside the point this morning. Zubovich is absolutely correct in marking a big difference between the attitudes of leaders at Catholic universities, compared to evangelical ones. Faculty at Catholic universities do not have to sign detailed statements of faith. Hiring for academic positions is done by credentials, not by faith backgrounds. Most important, the expectations of students at Catholic universities has never matched the sometimes-extravagant lifestyle controls imposed by evangelical schools.

What does this all have to do with Notre Dame’s proposed porn filter? Just this: imposing a block or a filter might seem like a laudable purpose, but the long-term impact on any academic institution will be serious, even severe. Do Notre Dame’s signatories want to take their institution down the long path to wall-building?

I Am Out of Whack

I’m absolutely flummoxed. New poll numbers reported in The Economist make me wonder how I got so out of whack with what most people are thinking. Am I missing something?metoo backlash economist

Here’s what we know: According to The Economist,

this year-long storm of allegations, confessions and firings has actually made Americans more sceptical [sic–wacky Brits] about sexual harassment.

With only one categorical exception, it appears the respondents in the Economist poll tend to feel more suspicious today about women who complain about sexual harassment than they did last year. Only Clinton voters, that is, are more likely today to think that twenty-year-old harassment accusations are worth acting upon. And even those Clinton voters are more likely now to think that false accusations are a bigger problem than unreported assaults, and that women’s complaints cause more problems than they solve.

Can I really be this out of touch with majority opinion? In my imagination, at least, the last year has provided a public coming-to-terms with the dangers and demons of sexual harassment. It has forced all of us to reckon with old demons of frat-boy antics and glib sexual aggression.

But unless I’m reading this wrong, my sense of how my fellow Americans are feeling is not even close to reality. Can someone please explain this to me?

1.) How is it possible that more people are more suspicious of women’s accusations than of men’s aggressive actions? And

2.) What was it in the past year that made people feel this way?

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.

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.