The Most Important School Reform Issue

It’s bigger than charters. Bigger than vouchers. Bigger than flipping, or common-core testing, or APPR, or any other school reform idea out there. Those things are important, but only if we talk about them AND the biggest real issue. If we talk about other reform ideas INSTEAD of the biggest real issue, we’ll always miss the point.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

Reform schemes might be great, but they can’t do it all on their own. This pic shows one Lancasterian’s plan to revolutionize mathematics ed, c. 1830.

And the point is grim. According to my local paper, child-poverty rates in my neighborhood are shockingly high. In Rochester, New York, 56.4% of children live below the poverty line. In Syracuse, that number is 47.4%. Buffalo stands at 43.6%.

Depressing, you might say, but what does it have to do with school reform?
Everything. For centuries, well-intentioned reformers have tried to “solve” the problem of poverty by fixing American schools. It doesn’t work that way.

Yes, school reforms can help. Public schools can work well as convenient distribution points for poverty-alleviation reforms. Free breakfasts and lunches, for example, can help. So can school-based health care schemes.

Too often, though, reformers don’t talk about alleviating the effects of poverty AND improving education. Smart, well-intentioned people often simply assume that improving education can eradicate poverty on its own.

It was ever thus. As I’m finding in the research for my new book about Lancasterian reform plans, early 19th-century reformers often glibly assumed that tweaking schools would have an immediate and total effect on the rest of society. By giving low-income students a basic education, they thought, poverty would dissipate overnight like an unpleasant dream.

Just over two centuries ago, for instance, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton called the Lancasterian reform

as creating a new aera [sic] in education, as a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distressed of this world from the power and dominion of ignorance.

Or, as the New York Free School Society wrote in 1814, thanks to the “Lancasterian system of education,”

the darkness, which has overshadowed the minds of the poor, will gradually disappear.

In Philadelphia in 1819, thanks to the Lancasterian reform plan, reformers promised a speedy end to urban poverty. As they put it, since they adopted Lancasterian schools,

we may confidently look for that ameliorated state of society, which attempts at reformation, not in themselves radical, have hitherto failed to produce.

Perhaps most colorfully, one rapt devotee of the Lancasterian system told Lancaster in 1819,

Universal education must be the means of introducing and ushering in this Sun of Glory whose beams shall melt the chain of adamant and drive the infernal practice [of slave-holding] into outer darkness.

Two hundred years later, of course, we can see with depressing clarity: Simply changing classroom methods and schoolhouse design will not, can not, solve the problems of an unequal society.

In fact, for schools to work, we have to alleviate poverty first. Trying to fix social problems by fixing schools misunderstands the relationship between formal educational institutions and society. There is no way schools can fix society on their own. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Schools don’t fix society; schools ARE society.



A New Creationist Tourist Trap?

Charles Pierce called it “batshit crazy.” Other commentators might use more sedate language, but the basic message is the same: For most of us, the fixation on dinosaurs among the young-earth creationists at Answers In Genesis (AIG) is intensely puzzling. And now we have a new wrinkle: A hotel in Japan is bringing Ken Ham’s dinosaur dreams ever closer to fruition. Will YECs notice? Will they care?


Just like old (pre-flood) times…?

To people like me, AIG’s insistence that dinosaurs and humans lived side-by-side is the most egregious and shocking example of their YEC anti-science obliviousness. Of course, if the earth is only about 6,000 years old, humans and dinosaurs would have had to have lived at the same time. But it is such an intensely counter-mainstream notion that you’d think AIG would be a little quiet about it.

dino at ark encounter

No need to go all the way to Japan. They’re all over Kentucky…

They’re not.

Visitors (like me) to the Ark Encounter are impressed right away by the many exhibits featuring domesticated dinosaurs. If I understand AIG’s thinking correctly, they make such a big deal about dinosaurs because they hope dinos can serve as “missionary lizards.” As AIGster Buddy Davis explained,

Dinosaurs and the truths that they share about God’s creation, man’s sin, death, the Flood, and the Ice Age can be used by Christian young people and adults to share the gospel with unbelievers. These missionary lizards uphold the authority of Scripture, and they can be powerful tools in sharing the salvation message, which should be the ultimate goal of every Christian.

As non-Christians hear the biblical explanation of dinosaurs, many have been, and will be, challenged to listen to the rest of what the Bible states. We rejoice that many have been won to the Lord using the true history of these missionary lizards.

I can’t imagine that any secular folks or non-Christian religious people really have been converted to YEC by these missionary lizards. I can’t help but wonder, though, what Ken Ham and his AIG colleagues will make of this dino hotel:

The front desk staff are a pair of that look like cast members of the Jurassic Park movies, except for the tiny bellboy hats perched on their heads.

The robo-dinos process check-ins through a tablet system that also allows customers to choose which language—Japanese, English, Chinese or Korean—they want to use to communicate with the multilingual robots.

The effect is bizarre, with the large dinosaurs gesticulating with their long arms and issuing tinny set phrases. Yukio Nagai, manager at the Henn na Hotel Maihama Tokyo Bay, admits some customers find it slightly unnerving.

This might be a stretch, but is it possible that the hotel might become a YEC tourist attraction? That YECs might flock to the hotel to see what it must have been like to cavort with dinosaurs before the flood?

On Vacation…

Sorry, Joe

What do you do when you don’t like the person you’re spending your life with? As a historian, I’ve studied lots of people with whom I didn’t agree. Alice Moore, Bob Jones, Max Rafferty, and Don McLeroy come to mind. In each of those cases, though, I never doubted the sincerity of my subjects. I didn’t agree with their goals or moral visions, but it was always clear to me that they were trying to make the world a better place, as they saw it. With this new book, though, I’m finding Joseph Lancaster to be a truly despicable person: Pathetic at best, scheming and self-obsessed at worst.

I haven’t been in this situation before. What are we supposed to do when we can’t sympathize with our subjects? In the past, I’ve always admired the people I’ve studied. Even when we were from different ends of the culture-war spectrum.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

Take Alice Moore, for example. I wrote a lot about Moore’s work in Kanawha County, West Virginia in my book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century. On nearly every issue, Moore and I are diametrically opposed. Yet she agreed to talk with me about her memories and commitments and she was delightfully kind, humble, and self-effacing. The better I came to know her, the better I understood that she was brave, intelligent, and public-spirited. We’ll never agree, but she’s a good person.

As I delve into the Lancasterian school craze of the early 1800s, though, I’m finding that Joseph Lancaster himself was not a good person. I’m finishing a productive month of research into his archived papers at the American Antiquarian Society. With this rich collection of letters and personal papers, I’ve been able to dig deep into Lancaster’s head.

It’s not a pretty sight.

As I read through his personal notebooks, for example, I’m struck by the fact that he was always more interested in fame and fortune than educational reform. From his earliest days, he was making notes to himself about how much money one could earn as a grasping school-master.

Folio page sample

Notebook of a horrible man…

In his interactions with his friends, family, and colleagues, too, Lancaster was relentlessly self-centered, vindictive, and paranoid. His first backers, the Royal Lancasterian Society, got tired of bankrolling his extravagant spending habits. They cut him off, financially, and offered him a good job as a school superintendent with a good salary.

How did he respond? Viciously and aggressively. When a long-time friend advised Lancaster to take the offered job, Lancaster exploded. As Lancaster put it, he refused to be the “hireling or parlour dog” of his former associates.

It got worse. Lancaster’s first wife was subject to some sort of unspecified mental illness. She seemed delusional, hiding things all around the house and unable to maintain a polite façade. How did Lancaster respond to her malady? Here’s what he told his fourteen-year-old daughter in a letter from 1819:

As to poor Mother—this one thing I am determined on, I will never allow her to be an annoyance, and interrupt our comfort or our business—if she does, she must go—if not, it will be all well but I will not ruin thy temper, and my own—destroy our peace and impede her interests as well as our business—because of her wild nonsense which she can restrain.

The more I find out, the deeper I dislike. For me, this is new. How do historians handle it when they don’t like their subjects?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week in the archives–1818 feels closer than 2018 these days. But 2018 went on without me. Here are some of the stories that came across our desk this week:

Fear and the evangelical Trumpists: John Fea in The Atlantic.

No AP for these fancy prep schools, at WaPo.

Would the real campus conservative please stand up? Turning Point USA rebuts criticism from Young America’s Foundation, at CHE.

turning point USA

Turning Point USA appeals to campus conservatives…

The high cost of campus free-speech protests:

Christian in America: Eric Miller interviews Matthew Bowman at R&P.

Pokin’ the academic bear: National Association of Scholars republishes pro-colonialism article, at IHE.christian politics of a word

Trump’s latest: Merging the Ed and Labor departments into DEW.

George Will: Vote Democratic to end GOP “misrule,” at WaPo.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What a week–everything from spy toilets to “coming out” to your parents that you love Trump. Here are a few stories that caught our ILYBYGTH eye this week:

Conservative women “come out” as Trumpists, at NYT.

Trump women NYT

Young, female, and Trumpist.

Cakeshops and civil rights. CT talks to African American evangelicals about same-sex marriage and refusing service.

What killed Alexander the Great? At AO.

The death of college: At The Atlantic, Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of American higher ed.

Dora the Cop: Adjusting Miranda warnings for kids in Baltimore, at BSun.

Why does Kim Jong Un travel with a personal toilet? At LiveScience.

AD Sessions weighs in on microaggressions. HT: MM.

Teachers get mad about the new, shorter AP World History curriculum. At Politico.


Spy-proof port-a-john in the background…

Conservatives loving Hollywood: A gushy review of First Reformed at American Conservative.

Remember Dorothy Sayers? A new look at her legacy at CT.

Australian students dress in Klan robes and blackface for “politically incorrect”-themed party. At The Guardian.

The case against Harvard: Students accuse it of racist admissions policies, at BBC.

Penn Puzzles: Why No BGU?

I’m back in Philadelphia to get back into the archives for my new book. And the trip has reminded me of a great question that never got an answer: Why isn’t there a Billy Graham University?Billy graham university meme

Last time I was down here, I got to sit in on Jon Zimmerman’s history of higher-ed seminar. They had read Fundamentalist U and I was happy to talk with the students about it. One of the students raised the question and it has bothered me ever since.

After all, it did seem to be a pretty standard part of the revivalists’ resume. Moody had Moody Bible Institute. Billy Sunday had Winona Lake. William Bell Riley started Northwestern. Bob Jones had, well, Bob Jones. The list goes on and on. Falwell-Liberty; Oral Roberts-Oral Roberts; Robertson-Regent.

So why is there no Billy Graham University?

Billy Graham Center 1

Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center

One possibility is that Wheaton has functioned as the de facto BGU. The Billy Graham Center is there, and the connection is pretty tight.

Maybe we’ll see a repeat of the Bryan University story. Back in 1925, after the sudden death of William Jennings Bryan in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, fundamentalists rallied to open a college in Bryan’s memory. Some wanted it in Chicago; some wanted it to be a junior college. In the end, Bryan’s widow won the day with her plea to open the new school in Dayton, Tennessee. The junior-college idea was rejected in favor of a traditional liberal-arts university.

Is it possible that we’ll see a similar push for a memorial BGU?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Racist Simpsons and other stories that came across our desks this week…

The White House Bible study group, at BBC. HT: MC

  • A “high-protein diet” of conservative evangelical Christianity for the Cabinet.

Much Apu about Something: The Simpsons punts on its racial stereotypes, at EW. HT: MM

How much public school can you buy for $25 million? Not as much as this billionaire wanted, at PI. HT: MM.

The “free-speech crisis” is worst at evangelical colleges, says Sarah Jones at NR.

Peter Greene asks: Why are we still giving Big Standardized Tests?

“Teaching for homecoming:” Why Wendell Berry thinks education is dangerous, at Forma.

  • “I know you all are learning a lot of methods about how to teach, and I’ll tell you something: None of them will work.”

Pro-choice “callous and violent,” says Ross Douthat at NYT.

The progressive perfidy of “dialogue:” Rod Dreher at AC.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

ok teacher march

Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The holiday week didn’t seem to slow down the culture-war rhetoric. Here are a couple of ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk this week. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Historian Sean Wilentz on the difference between “liberals” and “progressives.”

  • “there is a rumor abroad in the land that only progressives care about the powerless and the poor, whereas liberals are just vaguely left-of-center fig leaves for plutocrats and globalizers. . . . This was edifying and improbable pandering.”

    wheaton rainbow bench

    ARE the times a-changin?

LGBTQ issues at evangelical colleges, at NPR. HT: EC.

Yes: Why do white evangelicals love Trump?

Double standards, elite liberal hypocrisy, and Trump-shaming, at FPR.

It’s tough to be a teacher, by Andrew Heller.

What do Hungarian school children read in their textbooks? “It can be problematic. . . . for different cultures to coexist.” At NYT. HT: HD.

The David defense: Trump’s relationship with Stormy Daniels in biblical language, at Vox.

Life after polygamy in Short Creek, at R&P.

Schools are getting safer these days, in spite of how it feels. From NCES.

The coming collapse of Christian colleges, by Rod Dreher at AC.

More teachers’ strikes: Kentucky teachers stay home, at CNN.

Should history be patriotic? At The Atlantic.

Want to save the humanities?