Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.

canute

I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.

They Love You but They’re Going to Brexit

I admit it: I don’t get out much. I live in the USA. I study the history of the USA. I spend my time trying to understand parts of the USA that just don’t make any immediate obvious sense to me—things like creationism and fundamentalism. So my ears perked up when I heard that the new “kingmakers” in the UK were guided by “a mixture of old-time religion and secular nativism.” Based on the flurry of news about them, they certainly sound like US-style religious culture-warriors.

DUP

Look familiar?

But I don’t know much about it. Here’s what I’m reading: After Theresa May’s drubbing in the recent election, her Conservative Party has had to partner up with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. The DUP is an odd duck in Europolitics. As one European journalist described them, they don’t fit in in Europe, but “to an American, especially from the deep South, the party would seem much more familiar.”

After a quick look, it does sound eerily similar, but not exactly the same. The DUP are against LGBTQ rights; they are anti-abortion; they are climate-change deniers. Many of its leaders are regular church-goers; many leaders are creationists. Due to the turbulent and violent recent history of Northern Ireland, they also have ties to right-wing paramilitary groups.

Like many American fundamentalist groups, the DUP was founded by a Presbyterian hard-liner. The Reverend Ian Paisley—in yet another connection to historical American fundamentalism—was motivated by a political and theological anti-Catholicism.

Carl McIntire 1970

Carl McIntire, American Fundamentalist, 1970

Of course, there are big differences. Being anti-Catholic in Ireland is a world away from being anti-Catholic in Texas. Being a “militant” Presbyterian in a warzone is different from being a “militant” Presbyterian in New Jersey.

Yet the connections still seem palpable. According to The Economist, at least, the DUP is motivated by the same sense of usurped proprietary nationalism that fuels American fundamentalist outrage. As that paper put it,

What unites many voters of Protestant heritage, whether religious or not, is a feeling that the tide of history has, in some mysterious and unfair way, turned against them. . . . The DUP speaks to the fears and aspirations of those voters—sometimes in subliminally religious language and sometimes in more secular tones.

Educate me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Am I missing something? We hear time and time again that no other post-industrial society fuses together God and society the way American conservatives like to do. From what I can tell, the theocratic dreams and creationist textbooks of the DUP sound awfully similar.

Squelching LGBTQ at Wheaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

wheaton gay pride bench

Before & after, from Religion Dispatches…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

critique student paper BGC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

sexual assault at school

A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.

Round Peg, Square Hole

What is the proper role for religion in American public schools? That’s the question historian Ben Justice asked us yesterday at the American Educational Research Association meeting. I’m still stumped. I can’t see an easy way to reconcile the fundamental tension between two contrasting goals.

round peg square hole

It ain’t gonna fit.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the first episode. If you don’t, here’s the catch-up: Historian Ben Justice put together a panel to wrestle with the proper role of religion in public education. Religious studies scholars Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey joined in, as did philosophers Colin MacLeod and Harvey Siegel. And me.

Our panel agreed—public schools need to teach about religion without teaching religion. And public schools need to be inclusive religious spaces. That is, public schools need to welcome people of every faith and none, but they can’t themselves promote or denigrate any specific religion. Sounds simple enough.

But there have always been disagreements and likely always will be. How do we solve them? As Colin and Ben wrote in their recent book, when it comes to questions of majority rule and minority rights, we’re not all going to agree on every problem. Our goal, instead, should be “legitimacy in the face of religious pluralism.”

In other words, people don’t have to agree with various school policies. If they see them as fair, however, as legitimate, then they will go along with them. And that brings us to our dilemma.

For some religious people, the notion of “inclusive” public schools is not a way to talk about the proper role of religion in the public square. Rather, for many Americans, “inclusivity” is itself a religious idea. So instead of having conversations about how we can all be welcomed in our public schools, we end up with a fight between two religions, only one of which admits to being a religion.

Clear as mud.

But it seems a little clearer when we look at examples. We see it everywhere we look. Consider a class in the history of religion, for example. In an inclusive school, a teacher might teach kids about the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She might explain to kids—trying to be neutral, trying not to favor any religion or non-religion over another—about the ways different people at different times believed different things about God and humanity. She might describe the ways Christianity grew out of Judaism, the way different Christians came to disagree with one another. Her goal, she would probably tell you, is not religious. She doesn’t want to preach; she only wants to teach.

For some parents, students, and activists, though, such a curriculum is not neutral at all. They might reasonably want their children to share their belief that their religion is true. For many religious people, the universal claims of their religion are absolutely central. That is, many religious people need to understand their faith as True with a capital T, not only true for them at their specific historical moment.

For religious people like that, a school curriculum that thinks of itself as neutral is not neutral at all. It is teaching, instead, the intensely religious idea that religion is a human invention rather than a divine revelation.

This is more than just an abstract game of what ifs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, in the last hundred years American Protestants split on exactly this sort of disagreement. Liberal Protestants often embraced the notion that their religion was a human creation, or, to be more precise, that their own understanding of religion was a human thing. Conservative Protestants, including those that mobilized as “fundamentalists,” disagreed. Vehemently.

For evangelical Protestants, the notion of an inclusive public square has always been the enemy. It has always been the rallying cry of their religious enemies. As I’ve argued in my 1920s book and my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives—especially but not only conservative evangelicals—have learned for generations that the fight against “inclusion” was a religious fight against a religious enemy.

So how can we get people to think of “inclusion” as a legitimate goal? It will never be seen as legitimate if it is seen as a strategy by a competing religion. What then?

What Should Religion Do in Public Schools?

With apologies to Yogi Berra, I’ll steal his line in this case. I’m heading down to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio. It’s the big one for education wonks and nerds. And it’s a zoo. Like Yogi said, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

crowd

Pardon me, sir, you’re stepping on my PhD.

Why would anyone brave such crowds, heat, and academic foolery? In my case, I’m going because we’ll have a chance to wrestle with the most interesting question in the world: What is the proper relationship between religion and public education in the United States?

A panel of experts was put together by one of my all-time favorite ed historians, Ben Justice. He and his co-author Colin MacLeod just published a terrific book about religion and school. They invited me and my recent co-author Harvey Siegel. We rounded up a few more experts, including Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey.

have a little faith

And you got your church all over my school…or did you get your school all over my church?

I’m looking forward to the discussion. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, these are questions that keep me up at night:

  • Is it fair to creationists to force their children to learn an idea that they find religiously objectionable?
  • Do conservative evangelical Protestants have any special rights in public schools? If everyone in a town is the same (evangelical Protestant) religion, is it okay for the schools in town to lean that way, too?
  • Are public schools really hostile to religious belief? Conservatives often howl that schools are cesspools of “secular humanism,” but are they really?

And so on.

Each of us only gets a few minutes to say some things, then we’ll open up the room to a wider discussion. I’ll have a hard time keeping my opening presentation short, but I’ll try.

Watch this space—I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it all goes down.

Why Do Schools Cover Up Rape?

Is it the “private” part? Or is it the “fundamentalist” part?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve gone back and forth in these pages about the troubled history of evangelical colleges and sexual assault. Leading fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University have finally admitted to their own shocking denialism. At BJU and other fundamentalist schools, a cocktail of “purity-culture”-fueled attitudes and diehard loyalism fostered a legacy of abusive cover-ups.

As we see again today, though, fundamentalist schools are depressingly similar to non-fundamentalist schools when it comes to institutional cover-ups. Plenty of closed-mouth schools relegate the suffering of sexually abused students to secondary status.

In the New York Times, Alan Feuer relates the charges against Choate. Choate Rosemary Hall is an uber-elite boarding school in Connecticut. As Feuer reports, decades of student complaints about abusive teachers were hushed up. Predatory teachers were transferred or disciplined, but never reported or arrested.

choate

Idyllic? …or menacing?

It’s not that students didn’t complain. One student contracted herpes from her teacher. The school allowed the teacher to finish out the school year, then the teacher transferred to a different private school in Colorado. Another student was coerced into having sex with a teacher by threats of bad grades and bad college recommendation letters.

In one case, according to the outside report released last week, a student who accused his former faculty advisor was told that the situation was complicated. After all, grateful alumni had just donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to honor the teacher. Had the teacher been sexually aggressive with students? Maybe, the school’s alumni director wrote, but “his teaching did reach a lot of kids since 1944, and I’d rather let it go at that.”

The problem, it seems, ranges far beyond the insular world of fundamentalist schools. As Yvonne Abraham noted in the Boston Globe, “you have to wonder how parents could ever again entrust their children to this school — or any boarding school.” She repeats the central question from attorney Roderick MacLeish: “Do these schools have the moral authority to continue to exist?”

Of course, the details of every nauseating case are different. Catholic schools suffer from their antiquated celibacy rules for clergy and their ingrained institutional denialism. Football schools suffer from their anything-for-the-win tradition of hero worship. Private academies like Choate suffer from their addiction to alumni loyalty. And fundamentalist schools suffer from their slanted gender assumptions and us-against-them mindset.

The depressing truth, though, is that when it comes to sexual abuse, fundamentalist schools are more similar to than different from the rest of the school universe. Institutional loyalty trumps care of students. Complainers are hushed up. Abusers are talked to, not punished.

The problem is more deeply ingrained than any of us want to acknowledge. It lies at the heart of the way schools work. In addition to teaching and caring for students, schools have to control them in a variety of ways. Once students are in that kind of situation, the possibilities for abuse will always surface. From fundamentalism to football to financial contributions, schools have always had plenty of reasons to hush up allegations of sexual abuse.

Why do schools cover up rape? Two reasons. First, schools rely on taking power and authority away from students. If every student were allowed to accuse every teacher, the authority structure of schools would collapse. And second, schools are at heart self-perpetuating institutions. Like most institutions, they will tend to protect themselves first and their students later.

Wait…WHY Was this Teacher Fired?

HT: MM

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

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

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

how comfortable am i

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tough Questions

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

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

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

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

University of Florida

The UF crew…

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

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

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

How did I handle them?

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

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

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

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

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

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

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

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

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

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

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974