When Jesus Is your Fairy Godmother

We’ll know more later today, but so far Liberty’s men’s basketball team has already paid off one of the most remarkable gambles in American higher education.liberty ncaa 2019

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the story: Back in the 1970s, as I detail in Fundamentalist U, Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell dreamed of elbowing his way into elite higher-ed circles. Back then, it didn’t seem at all likely.  In the 1970s, the school that became Liberty University had a squalid little campus, overcrowded classrooms, and no money to pay its faculty.

About twenty years ago, though, second-generation leader Jerry Falwell Jr. won the higher-ed lottery by continuing the long evangelical tradition of non-traditional distance education. Turns out online education was an incredibly lucrative business at the time, and Falwell Jr. plowed his billions into fulfilling his father’s dream.

Falwell invested in traditional markers of prestige in higher-education, including high-performing sports teams. As we’ve seen, they’ve scored big successes in football and now they are poised to be this year’s Cinderella story in the NCAA men’s basketball tourney. Later today, they’ll take on Virginia Tech, having clambered over #5 Mississippi State.

Whatever happens in today’s game, having Liberty teams considered part of the usual landscape of elite college sports already signals a huge win in the Falwells’ long-term strategy. As have other groups before them such as Catholics at Notre Dame and LDS at Brigham Young, Falwell Jr. hopes that Liberty can sport its way into the roster of high-end American universities.


How Do We Know It Won’t Work? Well, Madame Secretary…

Normal people might have trouble staying awake for it. But when politicians start talking about tax-credit scholarships the way Queen Betsy did recently, historians get antsy. I uncovered even more evidence on my recent NSB that today’s tax-credit schemes revive the worst parts of pre-public schooling.

misc files

How I spent my Spring Break…

A little background to start with: Queen Betsy recently proposed five billion dollars to support tax-credit scholarships. What does that mean? Wealthy people could give their money to non-profit organizations that support the private schools of their choice, then receive (sometimes) a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. In short, it would allow some people—people who have enough money to care about tax breaks—to direct their tax money toward private schools instead of the public-school tax fund. [For more on the financial ins and outs of the program, check out this Have You Heard episode.]

With help from the archivists at the New-York Historical Society, I was able to spend the last week digging through the records of New York’s Free School Society. This was a group of well-to-do New Yorkers dedicated, as they pledged in 1818, to providing schools for poor children in the city,

poor and suffering children, who must progress from the cradle to maturity with no Schools but those of profligacy and guilt, unless the hand of Charity be extended to reclaim their steps.

What do they have to do with QB’s tax-credit scheme? Everything. At first, the society thought it could cobble together a mix of funding, a mish mash of “the donations and Legacies of charitable Individuals, the bounty of the Corporation [i.e. city government] and the munificence of the Legislature.”

It didn’t work. At the beginning of 1819, the FSS found itself in a life-or-death financial crisis, running a deficit of $11,465, with only $2,235 in their treasury. What to do? They asked the state legislature in Albany for a grant of $10,165. In their application, the FSS warned the legislators that without this money, without the “hand of Charity,” their city would soon fall prey to “the vices and crimes of European Cities.” The money was meant for the public good, the FSS explained, to continue

early education and early habits, the fundamental springs of action and character in all communities, as the protecting resort if we would perpetuate our Civil Institutions and our Religious privileges.

The tight-fisted legislators weren’t convinced. They grudgingly offered only $5,000, so the FSS had to cut teacher salaries and student prizes. It had to—guess what—increase class sizes and abolish frills such as food and clothing for the destitute students.

Subscription book for school 3 1818

How it worked before public funding: A subscription book from 1818, in which well-heeled New Yorkers offered poor kids a little help…

In response, the FSS came up with a radical idea. In 1822, they floated a new kind of funding idea past the mayor. What if everyone in New York—130,000 people at the time, according to the FSS—chipped in a little bit through taxes to help pay for these schools? It wouldn’t cost much. The FSS needed its additional $5,000, and they calculated that each New Yorker could pay an additional four cents in annual taxes to cover the deficit.

Their plan didn’t go anywhere at the time, but it stands as a stark lesson for the likes of Queen Betsy and her privatizing brigade. The United States has already tried mixing public and private funding for our public schools and we learned our lessons the hard way: It doesn’t work.

…too soon?

In the I-showed-up-late-to-this-party department, I’m just now reading today’s depressing expose of rich families cheating and bribing their way into elite college admissions. As Inside Higher Ed reports, fancy schools such as Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown have been charged with an array of admissions improprieties.

I’m saddened and embarrassed to read these reports, but I gotta ask: Is anyone really surprised that rich people buy their way into elite colleges? Have those people really never seen Thornton Melon’s work?

I’m takin the rest of the night off…

Friends, I’m tickled pink to report that Fundamentalist U has received some great new reviews in top journals by some of my academic heroes. I leaned on both their books as I was working on mine, so it is a real honor to have them say some nice things.

The first is in American Historical Review, by Professor Matthew Avery Sutton. SAGLRROILYBGTH will know Prof. Sutton as the author of American Apocalypse, among other books. Sutton is one of today’s leading experts on the history of American evangelicalism, so it was with some trepidation that I opened his review.

What did he think? He called Fundamentalist U

an engaging, well-researched study of an important, understudied, and underappreciated aspect of American culture and life. The schools that he analyzes have produced generation after generation of students who have had a major impact on American society and politics. . . . Fundamentalist U is an excellent book.

The next review came in the other big journal for US historians, the Journal of American History. The reviewer was none other than Prof. Andrew Jewett, whose book Science, Democracy, and the American University has been a leading guide for my work lately. What did Prof. Jewett have to say about the book?

Fundamentalist U is a superb book and a significant contribution to the histories of U.S. religion and politics as well as higher education.

Woo. Hard to top that, so I think I’ll call it a night. Maybe look up some more gifs.

Fire Sale!

Hurry, hurry, hurry…these prices can’t last. Because I’m pathetic, I was looking at the Amazon page for Fundamentalist U just now, and I noticed for some inscrutable logarithmic reason the price is down to just over ten bucks.FU cheap

If you ever wanted a copy, now’s a great time to get your hands on one!

Florida Bans More than Just Science

The science parts are bad enough. Since 2017, Florida has passed and proposed laws to restrict and confuse the teaching of science. The latest attempt came this week. These laws, though, hit a bigger target. By banning “pornography” they mark a signal conservative victory in long-simmering educational culture wars.

Here’s what we know: According to the National Center for Science Education and EdWeek, this batch of bills and laws takes the sting out of evolution education for religious conservatives. As Glenn Branch of NCSE explained,

The bill would revise a statute that presently requires instructional materials to be “accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, [and] free of pornography” to require such materials to be “accurate and factual; provide objective, balanced, and noninflammatory viewpoints on controversial issues; [and] free of pornography.”

The target of these changes seems to be the teaching of evolution and global warming. As one affidavit submitted in 2017 complained,

I have witnessed students being taught evolution as fact … rather than theory … I have witnessed children being taught that Global Warming is a reality.

These laws and bills intend to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Or at least to make sure that conservatives and science skeptics could clamp down on it whenever they wanted. Moreover, the bills and laws would open up the curriculum to any interested parties, not just parents of school-age children. As one critic noted,

It essentially gives special interest groups . . .  immense power to bully school boards into submission.

To this reporter, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt of the tendency of these bills in the science classroom. But evolution and climate change are not the only targets. I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH noticed the odd language quoted above. Not only would these bills promote “balanced” teaching of mainstream science and dissenting religious/conservative “science,” they would also ban “pornography.”

Sound non-controversial? Sound like plain ol-fashioned common sense? Not so fast.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in The Other School Reformers, conservatives accused progressives of cramming “pornography” down their kids’ throats. Some of it was in sex-ed classes, but even more of it came with the teaching of literature and history.

Consider, for example, the 1960s controversy over a California history textbook. Conservative critics blasted The Land of the Free for a host of reasons, as Prof. Elaine Lewinnek noted. The new textbook was supposed to tell a more inclusive history, one that included more than just the story of White Christian America.

land of the free

Full of porn…?

Not surprisingly, many conservatives objected. They thought the book denigrated American traditions, insulted American heroes, and that the book, in Prof. Lewinnek’s words,

included pornography that had somehow influenced the Free Speech demonstrations at Berkeley in 1964.

The California critics weren’t alone. In Kanahwa County, West Virginia, the 1974-75 textbook controversy was riddled with charges of pornography. Conservatives blasted a new series of literature textbooks as playgrounds for promoting drug abuse, reverse racism, and, you guessed it, pornography. As one leading conservative activist wrote at the time,

there is very little in the books that is inspiring or uplifting; they attack the social values that make up civilization.  Repeatedly they pit black against white accentuating their differences and, thereby, stirring up racial animosity.  They dwell at length on the sexual aspects of human relationships in such an explicit way as to encourage promiscuity.

The conservative charges of “pornography” were so ubiquitous, in fact, that one progressive parent group tried to rebut them with a starkly printed flyer. On one side, the flyer read,

These textbooks are NOT anti-religious !!! NOT unpatriotic !!! NOT pornographic !!!

In the 1980s, too, conservative parents accused schoolbooks in Hawkins County, Tennessee of choosing pornographic books for their children. One of their complaints was about Up in Seth’s Room, a novel that dealt frankly with issues of teen sex and dating.

up in seths room

Do YOU know it when you see it?

Was it “pornographic?” Was it good literature? These are famously difficult questions to unravel, but the current batch of Florida bills and laws wants to tip the scales heavily in favor of deeply conservative interpretations. They hope to discourage any school-district personnel from selecting literature that any parent might consider risqué. As a bill filed last month specifies,

any person who purchases a textbook, novel, or material that is pornographic or prohibited under s. 847.012 with the intent to expose students to such material commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. Every textbook, novel, or material purchased shall constitute a separate offense and is punishable as such.

What does that mean? First of all, the language makes clear that this bill is targeting more than just science education. It is meant to strike terror into any superintendent’s heart. If a superintendent buys a district any novel or literature textbook that conservatives consider pornographic—and remember, conservatives consider a lot of mainstream selections pornographic—he or she can be charged with a felony FOR EVERY SEPARATE COPY PURCHASED.

A classroom set of twenty-five copies of Up in Seth’s Room? Twenty-five counts of a third-degree felony.

Make no mistake: This certainly is a fight about science education. But it is also about much more than that. Florida’s bills and laws hope to give conservative activist groups the right to dictate the books and textbooks in ALL of Florida’s classes, weeding out anything that conservatives consider questionable.

Methodists, LGBTQ, and the Triumph of Fundamentalist U

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware by now, conservatives in the United Methodist Church recently scored a big victory. Did this victory count as a hundred-year-long triumph for conservative evangelical higher ed?

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

Let’s start with a few ifs, ands, or buts. I haven’t been following the story too closely so I invite people more in the know to correct any of these basic facts. But

IF: The special conference on Methodist policy toward recognizing LGBTQ status as ministers, bishops and officiants at same-sex weddings voted to choose a more conservative policy, and

IF: That conservative victory was fueled by support from non-USA bishops, especially from Africa, and

IF: Non-US Methodists have roots in US-based missionary efforts, including the establishment of conservative Methodist schools and colleges….

THEN: Conservative evangelicals have scored an enormous victory with a century-long strategy.

Here’s what we mean: As I argued in Fundamentalist U, one of the biggest things that differentiated conservative evangelical higher ed from other types has always been its emphasis on training missionaries. This hasn’t only been true at Bible institutes and Bible colleges, but also at traditional four-year colleges and universities.

missions flier

From Liberty U., c. 1982

Across the board, from staunch fundamentalist to (more) liberal new-evangelical, evangelical colleges always made missionary training a central element of their vision of proper higher education. Consider just a few examples to show the trend:

  1. One student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s remembered that he hadn’t originally planned a career as a missionary. It didn’t take him long to feel the call. As he remembered later, “You can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.”
  2. At Biola, of the forty-five graduates in 1938, forty-three went directly into full-time missionary work.
  3. Wheaton College sent approximately a quarter of its 1950 graduating class into full- time missionary work.
  4. Bob Jones University opened in 1957 a new “Institute of Christian Service,” basically adopting the traditional Bible-institute goals of training missionaries without bothering about academic degrees or credentials.
  5. Even late-comer Liberty University pushed hard for missionary careers among its students, employing a full-time missions director even back in the early 1980s when they had trouble paying faculty salaries.

The trend was clear. Unlike many liberal or secularized schools, conservative evangelical universities and colleges ALWAYS put a primary emphasis on training and sending missionaries.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, c. 1939

I’m not the only nerd who noticed. As the late Virginia Brereton pointed out, by 1962 a full half of all American Protestant missionaries were graduates of conservative-evangelical Bible schools.

And, as William Ringenberg noted in his study of evangelical colleges, “It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the early Bible schools emphasized foreign missionary activity.”

So what? What does all this have to do with the recent vote at the UMC? Well—and again I’m not paying super-close attention to all the details, so please correct me if I’m missing some huge facts in the case—if the recent conservative victory came with African support, I have to imagine that a lot of those African bishops, deans, and Methodist eminences had at some point taken part in the programs and institutions originally started by American missionaries, among others. The recent vote capitalized on this century-long strategy of focusing on foreign missions and building educational institutions around the world.

By sending out its students to preach the Gospel to all the world, in other words, American conservatives were planting conservative seeds. Today, those hundred-year-old seeds have borne fruit.

“Do You Trust White People?”

It’s not just what you say. It’s who says it. When it comes to accepting or rejecting evolutionary theory, we at ILYBYGTH have always argued that science wonks should abandon our long-held missionary suppositions and adopt a principled indifference about evolution’s religious significance. This week we see another argument that the message of evolution can sometimes get mixed up with the wrong messenger.


Not just the message, but the messenger

First, the background: Historically, as Prof. Jeffrey Moran has argued so convincingly, African Americans have had just as complicated a relationship to evolutionary theory as have the rest of Americans.

A century ago, as Prof. Moran detailed in American Genesis, African-American pundits were split on the implications of evolutionary theory. Some wanted to join white fundamentalists in rejecting evolution out of hand. Others wanted to accept it as cutting-edge modern science. Still others wanted specifically to reject the racialized hierarchies endorsed by some evolutionary scientists.

These days, racial disparities still muddy the evolutionary waters. Consider the wisdom of Dr. Joseph L. Graves. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, Graves was in 1988 the first African American to earn a PhD in evolutionary biology. And, as Graves explained to IR, America’s bitter history of racial injustice taints today’s climate:

One of the most common rebuttals to someone who rejects evolution is that most scientists — 98 percent is a common number on polls — accept evolution. But considering only 28 percent of Black Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in scientific leaders, according to a 2018 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it may be that scientific consensus doesn’t matter.

“That’s the same thing as asking them, ‘Do you trust white people?’” Graves said. “… If I show up as a scientist, I guarantee the trust factor would change. For the vast majority of these communities, they’ve never seen a person of African descent in a leading role in science.”


Well, I think that’s done it. We wondered a little while ago if Trump was making a good bet by bashing socialism. When it came to school history, I thought he was. Much as I dislike Trump and love teachers, Americans have long fretted that their kids might be indoctrinated by sneaky subversive socialist teachers.

At today’s rally in El Paso, though, I think Donald Jr. went off script. “I love seeing some young conservatives,” DJT2 said,

because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it.

Warn of socialist teachers? That has always been a winning stump speech. Call teachers losers? Not so much.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Even with all the Superbowl hype, other stuff still had the nerve to happen last week. Here are a few of the stories that caught our eye:

Rep. Pelosi addresses Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, at CSpan.

Too harsh to hear? MN professor suspended over discussion of n-word, at IHE.

You never know what you’ll find in the archives, at LC:

Dinks on dogs


What is the right path for improving schools? Focus on classroom practice instead of “accountability” says Robert Pondiscio at FP.

To an accountability hammer, everything is a nail. Shifting ed reform’s focus to improving practice is an acknowledgment that underperformance is not a failure of will, but a lack of capacity. . . . Forcing changes in behavior, whether through lawmaking or lawsuit, may win compliance, but it doesn’t advance understanding and sophistication.

Cursive makes a comeback in Maine, at PPH.

Update: Liberty U stands by its CIO in kooky Trump poll-fixing scam, at IHE.

Trump on Bibles in schools:

Trump’s tweet . . . reflect[s] a deep misunderstanding about the way the Bible, in the present and the past, has been handled in public school. In fact, the measures to which he seems to be referring, state-level bills promoting study of the Bible in public schools, aren’t new and aren’t necessary. It’s already legal to teach about the Bible in U.S. public schools, but the topic has been swallowed in recent decades by politics and culture war that blur that fact.

The news from Davos: Artificial Intelligence and the classroom, at Curmudgucation.

We were going to “teacher proof” classrooms with instruction in a box, complete with scripts, so that anybody could do it. We were going to staff schools with Teach for America temps who would never stay long enough to make more than starting salary or earn a pension. We were going to identify the super-teachers and give them classes of hundreds of students (after we fired everyone else). We were going to implement merit pay, meaning we’d lower the base pay into the base ment and give “bonuses” whenever we felt like it. We were going to get rid of tenure and FILO so that we could fire people who were too expensive. We were going to redefine success as high test scores keyed to a list of simplified standards so that no special expertise was needed to achieve success. We would break the teacher unions and strip them of negotiating power.

The new Colorado anti-gay baker: Alliance Defending Freedom sues Vermont for religious discrimination against religious schools, at BFP.