Heresy and the Death of the Sniff Test

It can’t be real. That was my first impression when I saw pix of the blasphemous billboard circulating around the interwebs. It just looked too hokey and too perfectly outrageous. But, as Sam Wineburg is telling us, we need to be asking different questions these days. Our old-fashioned sniff tests are way out of date. What’s worse, even Wineburg’s hopeful prescription can’t help us with some problems. Namely, as with this billboard, political realities have gotten so bizarre I’m losing hope that any of us will have much luck discerning the true from the troll.

trump christ

This can’t possibly be real…can it?

It looks so perfectly anti-Christian that I was sure it had to be a spoof. And spoof it may be, but at the very least it seems to be a real billboard. According to Snopes,

The billboard is undoubtedly real, though it is not yet clear who paid for it and when it was erected. A spokesperson for DDI Media, the St. Louis company which owns the billboard itself, told us they could not share such information.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally don’t care about heresy, but I am absolutely flummoxed that any self-identified Christian would equate the Donald with The Christ. The entire episode seems like more proof of Sam Wineburg’s new argument. We can no longer trust our sense of what “looks” and “feels” real and legitimate. It’s just too easy to fake it.

Among other things, Professor Wineburg describes his study of internet readers. He asked ten academic historians to decide which group was more trustworthy based on their websites, the American College of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics. One (ACP) is a legitimate professional organization of doctors. The other (AAP) is an anti-gay splinter group.

Turns out, these historians—all of them hyper-trained to read and decode complicated texts—weren’t very good at figuring out how to evaluate on-line legitimacy. As Wineburg writes,

Typically, the historians would size up a site within seconds.  Snap judgments were often based on a site’s “look” or its official-sounding name. . . . [one] chose the established American Academy of Pediatrics, not because of differences in the organizations’ stature or pedigrees (he never ventured beyond the two sites to learn about these organizations respective backgrounds), but because of the fonts on their webpages.

As Wineburg points out, evaluating online information based on these sorts of impressions is woefully out of date. Back in the wild 1990s, we used to be able to evaluate information based on the look of the website. Shoddy graphics, sketchy organizational details, and over-long web addresses were all easy give-aways.

These days, those markers are simply too easy to fix. A fly-by-night extremist organization can have a website that looks and feels legit.wineburg why learn history

Wineburg has hope. Students and the rest of us can learn better tools to detect online fraud and fakery. We can learn to read the web laterally instead of trusting any one website.

As this billboard episode shows us, though, perhaps we need to be more concerned than that. For me, the billboard appeared fake not only because it looked poorly made, but because its message was so outrageous. So, yes, I thought it was fake because it looked kind of blurry and because it didn’t include any information about its source. But I also thought it was fake because no Christian could possibly have intended to advertise such a blatantly blasphemous message.

Yet someone did. Clearly, the old fashioned sniff tests can’t help us anymore. Fake information can look real. Even worse, though, ideas that would have been too hateful to see bruited about in public spaces now seem common.

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The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’

Sutton

…for Christ’s sake!

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

Falwell Wasn’t Trying to Be Funny…

To be fair, it wasn’t the worst mistake he ever made. But Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent goof has some complicating factors that make it hard to ignore.

lincoln

Erm…actually, Jer…

As we’ve seen, Falwell has a rough track record in quotable quotes. As the president of a huge evangelical Christian university, he has in the past misquoted the Bible. That has to hurt.

In his recent interview with The Guardian, President Falwell compounded his errors. If it were someone else speaking, I would be tempted to think Falwell was making a subtle and hilarious gibe. In reality, though, I think he just got mixed up.

Here’s what we know: In the recent Guardian interview, Falwell lauded President Trump to the skies. Not only did Falwell support Trump for strategic reasons, he actually believed Trump to be a morally good person. As Falwell put it,

Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a good, moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs.

That’s a difficult position for me to understand. I can understand backing a bad person who is fighting for your side. I can understand backing an immoral character who fulfills important promises. But I can’t understand how anyone would call Trump a “good, moral person.” Maybe some SAGLRROILYBYGTH can explain that one to me.

The point this morning, though, is different. In his encomiums to President Trump, President Falwell insisted that he and Trump were totally on the same page. As Falwell told the Brits,

I usually tweet something similar to what he tweets a day or two before him. We think alike.

And, apparently unintentionally, Falwell went on to prove his intellectual similarity to Trump by making a glaring historical error. I can’t tell for sure, but I think Falwell got confused about what century America’s Civil War was in. America had not been this polarized in a very long time, Falwell said.

not since the civil war. I don’t know where that takes you. I can’t imagine a war breaking out in a civilised society in the 21st century. But if this was the 18th century, I think it would end up in a war. It’s scary.

I hate to be this guy, but anyone could tell you that America’s Civil War happened in the 19th century, not the 18th.

I know, I know, it’s an understandable mistake, sort of. And I don’t think Falwell meant to be funny, but how hilarious would it be if he wanted to prove his similarity to the fact-averse Trump by insisting on making at least one glaring error per public appearance?

Penn Puzzles

Can anyone REALLY teach students how to know and understand something without believing it? That’s one of the questions that sharp students brought up yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania.penn gse logo better

Some context: I headed down to Philadelphia yesterday to talk about evolution, creationism, and the goals of public education. My friend and hero Jon Zimmerman had asked his class to read Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.

As usual, readers were generally more interested in the philosophical arguments of my co-author Harvey Siegel than with my historical chapters about evolution education. Is it really possible, students wondered, to teach students to know evolutionary theory in a deep way, to understand it, without insisting that they believe it?

Harvey and I make the case that it is, but as yesterday’s lively seminar proved, it is a difficult distinction to imagine in many cases.

For example, think about the reverse. What if a public-school history teacher wanted to teach students that American history should be understood as the triumph of “JudeoChristian” values? What if the teacher assured secular parents that he was not trying to force students to “believe” in any particular religious values, but only to “know” and “understand” the importance of Christianity in the forming of United States government and society?

Or consider the challenge for any person—especially a young person—of separating out her desire to please an authority figure from her personal religious beliefs. Is it really practical to tell teachers that they don’t want to influence students’ religious beliefs? That teachers should somehow be able to separate out such closely related concepts?

Most challenging, we considered yesterday other sorts of student belief that teachers DID want to challenge. What if a student in history class, for example, argued that her racist beliefs were acceptable, because they were her personal beliefs? Could a teacher really not challenge them?

I think a teacher not only can, but must. And I think a teacher can do that without therefore insisting that he must challenge every student belief with which he disagrees. As Harvey and I argued in TECN, and as I’m elaborating in my new book about creationism, even though such real-world challenges are intense, it is still vital to clarify our goals and our mission when it comes to creationism and evolution education.

History by Design

No more Helen Keller! Out goes Hillary Clinton! The Texas state school board conducted another purge of its history curriculum recently. It’s tempting to see this as another right-wing curricular coup, but the winners and losers are a little more complicated. I gotta ask: Is this really the way we want to choose our history lessons?

Here’s what we know: The Dallas Morning News reported on the recent conclusions of the Texas state board of education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember other famous flaps on the board as captured by the fascinating documentary The Revisionaries. Back in 2012, conservatives on the board cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music” on the list of essential school knowledge. They wanted more Reagan, more NRA, and more conservatism in general.

These battles aren’t limited to Texas. Back in the 1990s, when Gary Nash and his colleagues tried to introduce new national history standards, they were accused of left-wing indoctrination. As one US senator complained, their suggested standards had more Bart Simpson than George Washington.

Today’s board has cut the requirement that schools teach about Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton. But they have also cut conservative icon Barry Goldwater. Plus, they have inserted stronger language that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

How did these decisions get made? A work group was tasked with evaluating historical persons and terms according to a list of questions. As the Dallas Morning News reported,

The 15-member work group came up with a rubric for grading every historical figure to rank who is “essential” to learn and who isn’t. The formula asked questions like, “Did the person trigger a watershed change”; “Was the person from an underrepresented group”; and “Will their impact stand the test of time?”

Out of 20 points, Keller scored a 7 and Clinton scored a 5.

By way of comparison, “Texas Rangers” got 16 points and “local members of the Texas Legislature” got 20. The state board didn’t have to honor these recommendations. For example, the work group recommended the removal of Billy Graham (4 points) but the state board decided to keep him.

So here’s the real question: Why are history lists composed this way? Why do political boards compile list of essential terms and facts that teachers must teach, even if no student really learns them?

Who Owns 9/11 on Campus?

Memory is a slippery thing. On college campuses, left-wing protesters pull down memorial statues and right-wingers put up memorial shrines. Should a college allow conservative students to “remember” 9/11 the way they want to? Or do colleges have an obligation to a higher kind of memorial?

Here’s what we know: Ripon College in Wisconsin attracted a lot of negative attention from conservative commentators. The school’s administration was accused of banning its local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom from putting up memorial posters for 9/11. The school replied that it had not banned anything; in fact the school had celebrated earlier YAF 9/11 memorials.

In this case, the memorial at issue was not the standard display of 2,997 American flags to memorialize the people murdered on 9/11. Instead, YAF wanted to put up a graphic “Never Forget” poster. The school charged that the posters targeted Islam unfairly and would make Muslim students feel unwelcome and attacked.

Never-Forget-Poster-2016-10-inch-wide

Too much? Ripon thinks so…

The parent Young America’s Foundation complained that the posters “merely depict history.” The school’s attitude against the posters, YAF’s Spencer Brown wrote, clearly shows “anti-conservative bias” at the school.

One Ripon College professor objected that history is never merely depicted. As Professor Steven A. Miller put it,

Most campuses don’t hold special ceremonies for Pearl Harbor Day, Emmett Till’s lynching, the Oklahoma City bombing, or Benedict Arnold’s switching teams.

What do you think? Should a college ban violent posters as memorials? Or do students have every right to free speech as long as they are not making threats?

My heart’s with Prof. Miller. As he concludes,

When we say we want students to remember 9/11, or the Civil War, or any of the many other tragedies that dot American history, we must accept that worthwhile remembering takes work. Colleges are one place where that work takes place, in the form of historical research, critical writing, and, above all, teaching new generations to think carefully through history in its full context. Students engage with difficult questions that challenge conventional wisdom and undermine the kinds of easy answers that lead amateur critics of academia to tweet about rip-offs. It may sometimes be uncomfortable, but that’s a necessary element of confronting, considering, rethinking, and growing.

Every day in class, I see my students struggle with the past, with all its uncertainty and all its consequences. This does not happen only once a year, and it is not easy, but that’s what it means to never forget 9/11.

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?

In School We Trust

Why do conservatives want to put “In God We Trust” banners in public schools? So far, six states have okayed the plan and Kentucky has just entertained a bill to join the list. Why? After all, conservative religious people have the MOST to lose if public schools ditch their fifty-year-old goal of secularism.

in god we trust

Why do conservatives want to trust salvation to the government?

The laws mandating or allowing the display of “In God We Trust” banners are the fruit of a push by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. The CPCF has offered a list of model bills for state lawmakers to consider, with “In God We Trust” school banners at the top of the list.

Why does the CPCF want to put up this banner in public schools? The CPCF insists that the United States must “protect religious liberties” and remain a religious nation. As their promotional video proclaims,

We need this kind of revival of people turning back to God . . . . “In God We Trust.”. . .  it’s an American thing. . . . let’s again write “In God We Trust” on our buildings, in our classrooms, to combat the anti-God dismantling of our nation.

I understand why certain religious conservatives want to see more proclamations of religious faith in public spaces. But I don’t understand why more conservative intellectuals don’t step up to explain the anti-religious implications of these governmental efforts.

After all, back in 1962 when the US Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not impose a vague prayer on schoolchildren, conservative evangelical intellectuals celebrated the decision. I’ve written more about this history in an academic article, but in brief, conservatives were delighted that the government would not be allowed to force children to pray a bad prayer.

In that SCOTUS case, New York schools had been leading children in this blah prayer:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.

To conservative religious thinkers, the idea that a mere government entity could teach children that this was an acceptable prayer was horrific. William Culbertson of Chicago’s conservative Moody Bible Institute commented,

The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.

Where are today’s conservative Culbertsons? Where are the conservative leaders pleading with politicians to avoid stepping on their religious toes? To avoid replacing real, heartfelt, meaningful religious expression with state-friendly, patriotic, bland platitudes? After all, as Culbertson and his conservative colleagues recognized, it is people who care the most about religion who have the most to lose if public schools cram ANY religion down children’s throats.

The Historical Lesson Historians Need to Learn

Who owns your history? Who gets to decide, that is, what is “real” history and what is politically motivated claptrap? For too long, academic historians like me have had it easy. We have glibly assumed our ability to define the boundaries of authentic historical thinking. A smart recent essay made that case once again. But as all of us should, the author needs to study the lessons of a different sort of history. After all, we have been down this road before.

If you’re not familiar with the history wars, a quick look at the bumptious career of David Barton might help. Barton touts himself as a historian, tirelessly exposing the lies of left-wing academic historians. In short, he wants to prove that the United States was founded to be an evangelical nation.

jefferson lies

Calling it “pseudo” history isn’t enough…

A few years back, Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies suffered an ignominious release. After the book’s initial publication, activist academics demonstrated the book’s many falsities and basic errors. The publisher recalled the book. Instead of retreating in embarrassment, Barton supporters doubled down. Most notably, Glenn Beck promised to re-release the book.

What are we to think of this episode? Barton’s book was terrible history, by the standards of mainstream academic history. But it was enormously popular and no amount of expose could deflate its appeal among certain readers.

To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, this might sound hauntingly familiar. Since the 1960s, mainstream scientists—including conservative evangelical scientists—have pulled their hair and gnashed their teeth at the claims made by young-earth creationists. Time and time again, in the face of repeated scientific refutations and debunkings, young-earthers have staked their claim to represent the cause of true “science.”

For an earlier generation, gallopers like Duane Gish steadfastly refused to give up their claim to be the real scientists in the room. These days, Ken Ham does the same thing.

As my friend and co-author Harvey Siegel argued in our book about evolution education, it makes no sense—logically or strategically—to try to prove them wrong. That is, it will always be impossible to prove that Gish and Ham are “pseudo” scientists. There is a better way to talk about the differences between mainstream science and radical young-earth creationism.

It has been difficult enough for mainstream scientists and science pundits to accept this awkward and uncomfortable fact. It seems even more challenging for academic types in other fields. In the field of academic history, for example, mainstream professors have grown accustomed to being unchallenged in their ability to define real historical thinking from the fake kind. When challengers like David Barton raise their head, too many of us are only able to sputter. Too many of us are too confident that Barton’s blather will be rejected as low-quality scholarship.

Consider, for example, a terrific recent essay by mainstream historian Patrick Iber of my beloved alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. In the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Iber wonders if there is any way to preserve his preferred sort of historical thinking in the Age of Trump.

As Iber asks,

Is there anything that can be done to prevent basic historical facts from going the way of climate science, seen essentially as politically motivated rather than the result of serious professional study?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. Indeed, even asking the question shows how far behind the times we academic historians are. Mainstream scientists and science activists have been struggling with these sorts of challenges for a long time. Creationism and climate-change-denialism have long forced mainstream scientists to examine their claims and their public image. Academic historians have tended to be able to ignore such things.

No longer. As Iber puts it,

there is a market for pseudo-historical grift.

Definitely. And to be as clear as possible, I agree entirely with Professor Iber’s anti-crappy-history position. However, we historians need to learn the tough lessons that mainstream academic scientists learned long ago. Namely, we can’t de-fang bad history simply by calling it “pseudo” history. We can’t assume that our credentials and mainstream institutional affiliations will make America listen to our pleas to reject crappy history.

In short, we can’t rest easy that our definition of good historical thinking will win the day based solely on its persuasive power. It won’t. We don’t have the luxury to conclude, as Professor Iber does, that exposing people to historical thinking will tend to make people agree with our vision. As Iber optimistically insists,

Seeing oneself as a part of history tends to be equalizing: It exposes the radical contingency of your own existence, which usually results in taking the humanity of others as seriously as your own.

I wish that were true. But as the career of David Barton proves, seeing oneself as a part of history can result in very different conclusions. Historical thinking is not a wholly owned subsidiary of left-leaning academic types like Professor Iber or me.

If academic historians aren’t more savvy, we risk getting run over by the vastly more popular sorts of history that are out there.

What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

ace florida 2

Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.