Why CTE Makes Historians Nervous

It sounds like a good idea, especially when it is presented in a convincing manner. As Oren Cass recently argued in the conservative City Journal, Career & Technical Education deserves a better rap (and better funding) than it usually gets. Yet this morning I’m going to explain why historians like me get nervous whenever people bring it up.

Cass lays out the glaring disparities. At both the K-12 and university levels, American education is geared toward supporting college students. Educational opportunity for students who might want to pursue job-related training is criminally paltry. As Cass explains,

States spend $70 billion annually on their university systems and offer another $10 billion in grants to cover remaining tuition obligations that otherwise fall to students. The federal government chips in $28 billion in Pell grants, plus $26 billion in tax breaks and $19 billion in loan subsidies. None of those funds or programs is available to students if they choose a vocational track. Congress’s 2017 appropriation for CTE was $1.2 billion.

I’m on board with Cass up to this point. Non-college-track programs deserve just as much attention and financing as do college-track ones. Students and families who want to learn hands-on trades should be supported institutionally and financially. Definitely.

But here’s the rub. As even Cass acknowledges, non-academic school programs have historically turned into low-rigor dumping grounds for less-affluent, less-white students. And that’s why educational historians get our dander up when we hear wonks celebrating the glories of vocational training.

anderson 1

…not all that “technical” after all.

For example, all of us have read James Anderson’s Education of Blacks in the South. As Anderson makes clear, white philanthropists ruthlessly pushed vocational training on African-American students and their educational institutions. Time and time again, these were go-nowhere programs meant to teach students to be docile, low-level workers in low-paying, low-prestige manual jobs.

We’ve also all read Herbert Kliebard’s Schooled to Work. As Kliebard found in his study of (mostly) Milwaukee vocational programs, in spite of the best intentions, students were treated mainly as “raw materials” for industrial needs, not as people and citizens deserving maximum educational opportunity. It has always been a mixed bag, of course, but as Kliebard found, non-college-track programs too often veered from their goal of helping students achieve their maximum potentials.

Kliebard schooled to workAnd, as I’m finding in my current research, as long as there have been public schools there have been attempts to squeeze low-income students into “apprenticeships” that only serve the needs of the school administrators. As I argued yesterday in a piece at History News Network, the first administrators of New York’s fledgling public-school system considered a plan to force their young students to serve without pay as “apprentice” teachers.

As the voluminous records of the Free School Society make clear, in the late 1810s administrators pondered a plan to turn their youngest student/teachers into free labor. Yes, they called it an “apprenticeship” program, but they only wanted the students to work for free. They never thought of their program as a way to maximize the career chances of their students.

So for those families who are looking for high-quality career and technical education, I’m with you. I support your fight to secure better funding and better resources for programs that you freely choose after being offered all the choices the rich kids get. 100%.

But we can’t ignore the warning from the archives: Whenever schools have turned to vocational training, it has devolved (or begun) as a program to keep low-income students stuck in the lowest-income rungs of the economic ladder.


The Wrong Way to Attack Creationism

Okay, okay, I know it’s a joke. I know we’re not supposed to take it seriously. But if we want less creationism in our public schools—and we all should, even if we are creationists—this kind of snark only makes things worse.

Here’s what we’re talking about: On Bored Teachers, one episode depicts a parent-teacher meeting from creationist hell.

In this cartoonish portrayal of radical creationism, the dad leaps to the attack, warning the teacher about spreading “blasphemy in the classroom” such as the Big Bang theory. When the teacher asks if the parents know it’s not a religious school, the creationist dad smugly replies, “not yet.”

When the teacher notes what “scientists say” about mice, the dad gives her the Baptist stink-eye. The only reason the creationist dad can give for the teacher’s disagreement is that she is “obviously possessed.” And when she growls at him, he’s scared. Not only that, but the creationist wife secretly doesn’t like the creationist husband either. She’s trying to get a divorce.

So what? Why does this joke hurt our chances in real life of reducing creationism in public schools?

Here’s my two cents: I’m a secular teacher fighting for wholly inclusive public schools. There shouldn’t be a religiously inspired science curriculum. Moreover, religious activists should never be able to push their ideas of right and wrong into classrooms.

In spite of all that, I’m opposed to this sort of goof on creationism. Caricatures like this of ignorant, bitter, anti-science creationists are totally misleading. If this is what we tell ourselves about our creationist friends and colleagues, no wonder we can’t make much progress in our creation/evolution debates.

What should we do instead? Talk with real creationists instead of only mocking them. Talk about our shared interest in science instead of using “science” as a weapon with which to deride them. Read the work of the creationists—the vast majority of creationists—who don’t have any problem with evolutionary science or the idea of deep time.

I know that this skit is not supposed to be taken as a serious policy proposal. I get that. But the attitudes about American creationism embedded in this sort of skit are not just silly, they can have serious negative consequences.

How to Lose: Conservatives’ Campus Persecution Complex

What do people usually do when they win? They celebrate. Just ask Virginia. So why is this conservative campus group turning its victory into a loss? And why is this conservative strategy a long-term losing bet?

Here’s what we know: You might think Turning Point USA would be cutting down nets and passing out collectible hats to celebrate its victory. After all, when the student government at Texas State voted to ban TPUSA, the university instead declared its support for the organization. As the Dean of Students wrote in a press release,

While Student Government exercised its right to act on a resolution put forth on April 1 to bar a recognized student organization from Texas State campuses, established University policy states that student organizations can only be barred if they are under disciplinary sanctions. . . .  the organization will not be barred from Texas State campuses. Texas State supports the constitutional rights of all of our students, faculty, staff and visitors.

From the noise coming out of TPUSA, though, you wouldn’t think they had been vindicated. As TPUSA front man Charlie Kirk lamented,

Last night @txst officially voted to BAN our @TPUSA chapter which advocates for free markets and free speech. The intolerant left can‘t tolerate the idea there are other ideas.  This is exactly why @realDonaldTrump signed free speech executive order. Pull their funding!

What gives? Why would a conservative student group call a victory a loss?

To this reporter, it looks like another example of a self-defeating conservative campus strategy. By turning themselves into “punchbait,” campus conservatives can generate more attention than they could ever hope to get merely by discussing issues.

charlie kirk texas state

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory…

In the long run, though, these strategies will be counterproductive. If conservative activists hope to turn campuses into more welcoming environments for an ideologically diverse array of ideas—including conservative ideas—they will be wiser to follow a different path.

Instead of proclaiming themselves hapless victims, conservative intellectuals should double down on their intellectual and academic superiority. The Charlie Kirks of the world will come and go, but academic heavyweights such as Robert P. George of Princeton and Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame will prove to be far more influential in the long run.

So what should TPUSA do? Instead of lamenting its victimhood, it should celebrate its status as a legitimate academic enterprise. It should tell young conservatives that they should never feel victimized on campuses, but rather that they own it. They should make sure every conversation includes Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, instead of Donald Trump and Charlie Kirk.

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.