Why Won’t This Myth about Teachers Go Away?

It won’t be easy, but I’m going to avoid defending graduate programs for teachers. Instead, I want to take issue with a persistent myth about teacher pay that showed up once again in this article about teacher education. I can’t help but think that popular understandings of the history of teacher pay have had a bad influence on the way we think about teaching today.

If you’re involved in teaching you’ve probably seen the article. Too often, Grace Gedye alleges, hard-working teachers are forced to pay for useless graduate degrees. As Gedye charges,

the teachers I interviewed told me that they had spent too much time on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills; professors were too far removed from the classroom and using out-of-date pedagogy; and many programs simply weren’t rigorous.

I’m super biased so I won’t push the point too hard, but I have to briefly disagree with this premise. Feel free to discount my point, because I spend my days working with graduate students in a teaching program. The classes I teach focus on diving deeply into US history. Do my classes help my students on Sunday night with their plans for Monday morning? No. But knowing more about history and historical thinking can’t help but make them better history teachers. Right?

We can argue about graduate programs if we want, but instead I’d like to focus on a lil nugget buried deep in the heart of the article. Gedye mentions that teacher pay has long been tied to graduate education. As she recounts,

American teachers weren’t paid salaries at all well into the 19th century. Schools were largely community organized, and teachers’ compensation mostly consisted of free room and board.

Now, I’m not taking the author to task for this inaccurate summary of the history of teacher pay. She isn’t claiming to have done research about this history; she isn’t basing her argument on it. No, the problem is much bigger than that. The author is merely rehashing what she thinks is a commonly accepted truth. And she’s right: Generally, people tend to assume that this history of teacher pay is correct. It’s not. These assumptions about teacher pay are wildly false and hugely hurtful.

The assumption that teachers were historically unpaid or underpaid shows up all the time. For example, SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall a recent flap about it from the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek. Hanushek argued a few months back that teachers were generally underpaid because they went into the field “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

Certainly, plenty of teachers choose the field for those reasons. I did. But historically, teaching did not begin as a “service” profession, driven by low pay but high emotions. It’s no secret: In the USA, at least, teaching in the 1800s began as a highly paid, highly respected, highly unequal/hierarchical profession.

As I’m finding in the research for my upcoming book about the first big urban school reform, teachers originally had status as entrepreneurial businessmen and women. (Mostly men.) In the first decades of the 1800s, teachers ran schools as independent enterprises, making handsome incomes—not salaries—by attracting large numbers of tuition-paying students.

To be sure, there were also teachers who did not make big money, working at schools for lower-income students. Teachers at these “church schools” or “charity schools” were certainly the model for Dr. Hanushek’s vision of teacher motivation. But they were the exception.

What happened? When did teachers stop making big bucks? Here’s the important historical truth, the reason why this myth about teacher pay is so destructive: Teachers stopped making big paychecks when the government started paying for schools for all students. Once the taxpayers began footing the bill for low-income students, the race was on to find teachers who would work for peanuts.

Where could such teachers be found? It’s not a pretty story. First, cities like New York tried to get defenseless children to do it. In New York in 1818, the school board even flirted with the idea of making their youthful teachers indentured servants, to force them to work for free until they turned twenty-one.

When children proved unable to handle the task of teaching, reformers turned to another disempowered group, women. By the mid-1800s, child teachers were out of favor and women-teachers were in. Hiring women had the huge advantage of lower salaries, salaries that taxpayers would agree to pay.

Sorry to belabor this point, but I think this history of teacher pay matters. Why?

Well, first, I think it’s generally better to know the truth than to believe a convenient myth. But even aside from that lofty goal, we’ve got teacher pay back in the headlines, thanks to the presidential race. If we’re going to talk about teacher pay, we need to stop pretending that teachers have always been given skimpy salaries.

Imagining a past in which teachers worked for free is common, but leads to terrible assumptions. Namely, if teachers always worked for diddly, then we’ve made big progress. But it’s just not historically true. In fact, teachers went from highly paid experts to low-paid drones, exploited by their status as lower-powered members of society. First children, then women.

Knowing the real history clarifies what happened. There was a specific time when teacher pay dipped and respect for teachers dwindled—when the government took over paying for low-income students’ tuition. And knowing that history gives us a clear path to follow. Better teacher pay will happen only when the government stops trying to get something for next to nothing. Better teacher pay will come about through a saner government commitment to fully funding schools for all students.

Blind Football Faith in Comparative Testing

To all the parents and policymakers out there who are anxious about the USA’s performance on recent PISA tests, I’ll quote Wisconsin’s St. Aaron Rogers: R-E-L-A-X. As progressive-ed guru Alfie Kohn, Curmudgucrat Peter Greene and  Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas all pointed out recently, there are plenty of reasons for calm. History tells us, though, that Americans won’t listen. Why not? The answer comes back to St. Aaron and Americans’ shared vision of what proper schooling should look like.

You probably heard the kerfuffle about the most recent international PISA scores. American kids as a whole did only okay. Most worrisome, rich kids improved while poor kids did worse. About 20% of American high-schoolers can read only at a fourth-grade level.

Time to panic? Not really.

As Alfie Kohn put it,

for whatever these comparisons (and the exams that drive them) are worth, U.S. students actually do reasonably well, contrary to popular belief. But it makes no more sense to talk about the “quality of American schools” than it does to talk about the quality of American air. An aggregate statistic is meaningless because test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than other industrialized nations do.

Peter Greene agreed. As he asked in Forbes Magazine,

PISA coverage tends to overlook one major question—why should anyone care about these scores? Where is the research showing a connection between PISA scores and a nation’s economic, political, or global success?

In the Washington Post, Yong Zhao offered three big reasons why these PISA scores should not be used as evidence of anything other than PISA performance itself:

First, there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies. Second, the claim is an imposition of a monolithic and West-centric view of societies on the rest of the world. Third, the claim distorts the purpose of education.

All solid reasons for calm. Yet it doesn’t take much savoir-faire to know that pundits won’t be calm. Anyone with a complaint about our current system of schooling will use these scores to warn that the sky is indeed falling and we need to invest in ______ [insert flavor-of-the-day reform/tech here].

We have to ask: Why won’t Americans heed the advice of these ed experts? Why won’t we simply ignore the results of a fairly meaningless test?

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, there is plenty of culture-war disagreement about what and how schools should be teaching. But there is widespread agreement about one thing. Throughout the twentieth century and into our twenty-first, everyone has largely agreed that one of the primary purposes of schooling is to fill kids with facts.

Although I agree with Yong Zhao that this is a “distorted and narrow definition of the purpose of schooling,” it is one that has persisted largely unquestioned throughout the history of education. Consider just a few pieces of historical evidence from our leading ed historians. (And one from me.)

testing wars in the public schoolsExhibit A: As William J. Reese demonstrated in his 2013 book The Testing Wars, back in the mid-1800s Boston reformers effected a sweeping revolution in schooling. How did they do it? By appealing to the public’s intuition that a standardized test would be a useful way—maybe the ONLY useful way—to evaluate teaching and learning.

Exhibit B: Twenty-plus years ago, Stanford’s David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued that high-stakes standardized tests often formed an unshakeable pillar of the “grammar of schooling.” As they put it, there is a tension between “Americans’ intense faith in education—almost a secular religion—and the gradualness of changes in educational practices.” One reason for that tension is that reformers have never been able to convince Americans that tests don’t matter, that learning could go on without ever-increasing SAT scores.

tyack cuban tinkering

Exhibit C: As I argued in The Other School Reformers, conservatives have had a lot of success in their arguments for more traditional classrooms. They have relied, historically, on both explicitly conservative arguments and on assumptions shared by people who are not particularly conservative. For example, they have often won political contests by insisting that only their preferred reforms could keep kids safe in school. That’s not a particularly conservative idea, but rather an assumption shared by most people. Similarly, conservatives have won by painting progressive reforms as an abandonment of traditional ideas of testing. Real schools, conservatives have insisted, are places that young people go to acquire knowledge they did not have before. And tests are the proper way to measure that process. This vision of the proper purpose of schooling may be “narrow and distorted,” but it is also extremely common, so common that most Americans don’t question it.

And that brings us back to St. Aaron. One way to understand Americans’ reluctance to relax about PISA scores might be familiar to lots of parents. We might want our kids to play sports just to have fun, get some exercise, and make friends. In most cases, however, those youth sports are also fiercely competitive.

If you wonder why it is so difficult for Americans to relax about PISA scores, just go to any youth soccer, football, or basketball tournament. Ask any parent in attendance if they know what the score is. Of any game. I’ll bet dollars to donuts no one will give you the answer that Alfie Kohn, or Peter Greene, or Yong Zhao, or I prefer. They won’t say, “Who knows? It’s only a game.” They won’t say, “We’re only here to promote social bonding among youth.” They won’t say, “We don’t keep score, because that would be a meaningless way to put unnecessary competitive pressure on our kids.”

No. Go to any game anywhere. Try to explain to the person sitting next to you why you don’t care about the score. Even if you’re Aaron Rodgers, you will get nothing but mean looks and sullen silence. And that’s why PISA scores will continue to matter. Despite experts’ best efforts, most Americans still view test scores as a fair measure of educational quality. And most Americans will want to win.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

Preachers or Principals?

It’s not really good news, I guess. Recent poll results from the Pew folks suggest that Americans don’t trust many kinds of authority figures. pew principals or preachers

There is a glimmer of hope, though. When it comes to our school culture wars, it looks like people tend to trust school leaders a little more than the trust religious or “tech” leaders.

When asked if they think tech leaders or religious leaders act unethically all or some of the time, 77% of respondents said yes for tech leaders, 69% for religious leaders. It’s not a great result, but only 52% of people thought “K-12 public-school principals” did. And only 6% thought school leaders acted unethically “all or most of the time,” compared to 12% for tech leaders and 10% for religious leaders.

So if there is any hope for bridging our divides about teaching evolution, sex ed, and real US history, it’s not likely to come from religious leaders or tech whiz-kids, in spite of the fact that they get a lion’s share of headlines.

Pew principals or preachers II

And the school principals fare even better when the questions are phrased in positive terms. A whopping 84% of respondents said they thought school principals care about others or “people like me” all, most, or some of the time.

Of all the categories (principals, police officers, military leaders, religious leaders, local officials, journalists, members of Congress, and tech leaders), school principals scored highest on this measure.

Not really a lot to celebrate, but at least people still seem to have a high regard for the people who work in public schools. We can’t help but wish that the Pewsters had asked the same questions about public-school teachers. My hunch is that they would have a much better reputation than school principals, even.

Time for Conservatives to Panic?

Beware! The nation’s schools have become cesspools of [select one] batty progressivism/subversive socialism/right-wing indoctrination/etc. etc. etc. For a hundred years now, activists have seized on stories from unusual schools and pretended that they represent the “new trend in education.” In the latest go-round of this culture-war tradition, conservatives have gleefully assumed that one odd Brooklyn school has proved them right.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

Here’s the latest: You probably saw George Packer’s piece in the Atlantic about the dizzying dance of progressivism gone wild at his kid’s school. Packer is a well-to-do New Yorker describing his adventures in securing the best education for his kids. He frets about the loss of a meritocratic idea in schools—to Packer, rich people like himself seem too safe behind the expensive walls of their educational castles.

Worse than that, Packer concludes, a venomous “new progressivism” has warped America’s public schools. At his kid’s school, for example, rigid left-wing identity politics has perverted the entire purpose of education. State tests were to be skipped. Bathrooms were to be gender-neutral. Students were to learn the glories of every other civilization besides American. Child-centered classroom methods had become totalitarian fear-mongering. In the end, Packer concludes,

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

Almost before the ink was dry—and it was a lot of ink—conservative pundits seized on Packer’s piece as proof of the deadly realities of modern public education. Peggy Noonan called it an “important piece.” Niall Ferguson called it a “brilliant essay” that “gets right to the heart of the degeneration of American education.” Rod Dreher told his readers that they “have to read this” description of the “progressive dystopia of NYC schools.”

noonan on packer tweet

I’m sure there are conservative intellectuals out there who didn’t fall for this obvious fallacy, but plenty of them did. What’s the problem? As Chalkbeat noted, Packer’s conclusions based on one school might or might not be fair, but they don’t represent anything beyond one person’s unique experience. As CB put it,

close observers of the city’s schools have struggled to recognize the school system Packer is describing. . . . the school is by no means typical in New York City.

It has ever been thus. Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in my book about the history of educational conservatism, activists have seized on unusual, possibly fake examples and assumed that they represent a horrifying new reality of American public education. Over and over again, conservative activists took apocryphal stories from alleged schools and used them to warn one another of the terrible trends that had taken over American education.

In the 1930s, for example, Forbes Magazine founder Bertie Forbes heard from local middle-schoolers that their teacher had denied that America was the most awesome nation on earth. Forbes’s response? He launched a national crusade to purge schools of this terrible subversive rot.

In the 1960s, Texas activists Mel and Norma Gabler were shocked by the contents of their son’s textbook. Their conclusion? According to a sympathetic biographer,

The Gablers . . . began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.  They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise.  Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

That’s a lot to learn from one student’s homework assignment one night in 1961!

Or, to consider one last example, what about the experience of Alice Moore in Kanawha County, West Virginia? Ms. Moore ran for school board in the 1970s, and her first move was to visit a local progressive middle school. The school had been conceived as a different sort of school, with one big open learning space, student freedom to pursue independent projects, and teachers who consulted with students instead of dictating to them.

SH Gablers

They’re teaching our children what we ask them to teach…

As Ms. Moore told me many years later, the school became a nightmare. Students weren’t learning. Well, they weren’t learning in class. They were learning how to be rude to adults, how to smoke, and how have sex in nearby barns. What was Ms. Moore’s conclusion? That the school was typical of the problems of American education at the time. It was representative of progressive schools all over the country.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Yes, there have long been experiments with progressive pedagogy and progressive politics in American public education. But they have never really represented the “new” force that conservatives in every generation keep warning about.

In fact, once we venture outside the world of clickbait, we see a much different picture of American public education. Public schools—taken as a group—are remarkably diverse institutions. It’s difficult to say much about public education in general, but there is one thing we know to be true. By and large, public schools in America reflect the communities in which they are located.

Unlike what activists have warned about for generations, there is no scheming outside force taking over public schools. Distant experts are only heard distantly. Instead, public schools tend to reflect the values and the desires of their local communities. And that’s why parents tend to be happy with the schools their kids go to, even if they have learned to be nervous about American public education as a whole.

The poll numbers are clear. In 2010, for example, 77% of parents gave their children’s schools an “A” or a “B,” but only 18% of parents said that about the nation’s schools as a whole. Why? Because unlike George Packer, most parents are in general agreement with the goings-on at their kids’ schools. And unlike the chicken-little hysteria of some conservative commentators, most Americans know that real schools are different from the ones that commentators imagine.

Revolution Is (Not) Coming to a Classroom Near You!

Time for conservatives to freak out? No, not really, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the Chicken Little-ism of Gilbert T. Sewall in the American Conservative. As have conservatives for a full century now, Sewall makes a fundamental mistake when it comes to American education.

Why is Sewall freaking out? It seems California has introduced a new curricular requirement to its public schools. Soon, to graduate from high schools Californians will have to complete an Ethnic Studies class. What will it mean? According to Sewall, it will be nothing less than

a revolutionary storm sweeping through educational leadership in the nation’s legislatures and metro school districts.

Except…it won’t. Of course it won’t. For good or ill, no single curricular requirement can have that much impact on the goings-on in America’s classroom.

What is Sewall worried about? As he describes,

Ethnic Studies is the “disciplinary, loving, and critical praxis of holistic humanity.” It is the study of “intersectional and ancestral roots, coloniality, hegemony and a dignified world where many worlds fit.” It “critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.” . . .

“The foundational values of Ethnic Studies are housed in the conceptual model of the ‘double helix,’” the text professes, “which interweaves holistic humanization and critical consciousness.” The proposed course of study, while promising to help with the “eradication of bigotry, hate, and racism” and the promotion of “socio-emotional development and wellness,” seems intended mainly to stir ill will and delegitimize the nation’s white majority. The conviction that malign U.S. wealth and power exist at the expense of certified underdogs undergirds the entire document.

So, should conservatives panic? For that matter, should progressives celebrate? No and no. Why not? A little background: As I argued in my history of American educational conservatism, conservatives have long assumed that progressive school rhetoric reflected a revolutionary new reality in America’s classrooms. It doesn’t and it never has.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

How to panic, c. 1949.

Consider, for example, the alarmist language of 1940s pundit Allen Zoll. Zoll was a hard-right hack who managed to build a mailing list of many respectable thinkers and activists. In his pamphlets, he snipped a few bits of progressive-ed language and baked them into an apocalyptic meringue for his readers. Consider this snippet from Progressive Education Increases Delinquency:

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this [progressive education] is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.

We don’t even need to argue that progressive classroom methods will do no such thing. All we have to do this morning is point out that such progressive methods never had anything near the influence Zoll assumed they did. Like many of his conservative allies, Allen Zoll read a few progressive pamphlets then told his many readers that those ideas reflected a terrifying new revolutionary reality in America’s classrooms.

They didn’t then and they don’t now. Think about it: If changing a curriculum could have sweeping revolutionary changes in the ways people think, we would have long ago have abolished both racism and radical young-earth creationism.

Exhibit A: When it comes to creationism, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Erik Plutzer noted, state standards for teaching evolutionary theory are generally pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that people are really learning evolutionary theory in schools. Obvs.

Exhibit B: As for racism, historian Zoe Burkholder argued that anti-racist academic activists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead had some real success introducing anti-racist materials in the New York City curriculum, way back in the 1940s. Did that mean that racism was eliminated? Sadly, no.

The point here is not that anti-racist or pro-evolution curriculum is a bad idea. Personally, I agree that every student should be exposed to such ideas. But just adding an idea to a mandated curriculum does not now and has not ever resulted in sweeping changes in the things people actually learn in school.

For me and my progressive friends, that can come as a sad and sobering wake-up call. For some conservatives, like Gilbert Sewall, it should come as a heavy dose of reassurance.

Because unlike what Sewall predicts, this change in California curriculum does not herald the destruction of traditional values or hierarchies. California, regardless of what Sewall says, has not really “abandon[ed] teaching and learning in favor of political indoctrination.”

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with Sewall. No one would read his article if he said, “I don’t like this change but it’s not really that big of a deal.” As have conservative pundits for a century now, Sewall chose to inflate the real danger in order to attract anxious readers.

However, this kind of educational alarmism is a problem. It leads readers to conclude that something profound has gone horribly wrong with America’s schools. Even when they see counter-evidence with their own eyes, Americans tend to listen to the unfounded panic-mongering of writers like Sewall instead of calmer, boringer voices.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

What should we do instead? It’s not easy, but it is obvious. Instead of browsing through state mandates, we should get to know real schools. We should visit local schools, attend school-board meetings, and talk with teachers and neighbors about what happens on a day-to-day basis. If more people did that, there would less panic and more pragmatism in every discussion of public education.

Kids: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

If you have kids in public schools these days, you are likely hearing about lockdown drills and run-hide-fight training. What are we supposed to think about them? On one hand, we all want our kids to be safe. On the other, watching six-year-olds cower and tremble about a threat that they will (statistically) likely never encounter seems kooky. In the Atlantic last week, Joe Pinsker asked historian Paula Fass for some context of scaring kids straight. Prof. Fass offered two good examples, but we can come up with a lot more. And that fact points us to a central, odd truth about the nature of American schooling.

Pinsker ran through some of the central dilemmas of lockdown training. In actual fact, students are extremely unlikely to experience a school shooting. Yet the training for them can be deeply upsetting. As Pinsker wrote,

These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves. Others have written letters bidding their family goodbye or drafted wills that specify what to do with their belongings. . . . children are being trained to anticipate an outcome that is both terrifying and extremely unlikely to happen to them.

Pinsker wondered if there had been similar scare tactics employed in schools in the twentieth century. Paula Fass pointed out two big ones: duck-and-cover drills and kidnapping scares. Like school shootings, both threats were terrifying, but statistically speaking, both were also extremely unlikely.

Like me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably now thinking the obvious: We could extend this list of unlikely-but-scary scenarios forever. Schools have always sought to terrify students into feeling an exaggerated anxiety.

Consider just a few examples:

1.) Sex. If you’ve experienced any sex-education curriculum lately, you know that they rely on a fear of STIs and unplanned pregnancies to get their points across.

2.) Drugs. It wasn’t only in the 1930s that school leaders warned students of “Reefer Madness.”

3.) Health. You might not be old enough to remember polio, but for those who lived through it, children were told not to go swimming for fear of contracting the disease. In the 1980s, too, children were warned that they could catch HIV merely from being near a positive person.

It seems to me we need to reverse Pinsker’s question. He asked,

In postwar America, have kids ever been so afraid and so regularly prompted to imagine their own suffering?

But we need to ask instead: Has there ever been a time when students were NOT regularly shocked and scared? When students were NOT shown clips of dope-smoking creeps or atomic devastation in an attempt to scare them into proper behavior?

And the big question: Why have schools always felt a need for such scare tactics?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. First, I think school leaders and parents tend to see scare tactics as developmentally appropriate. Like drivers-ed crash videos, scare tactics are thought to be necessary to pierce the adolescent fog surrounding students’ brains, to make them understand the real dangers of certain things. Also, I think school administrators and politicians understand that exaggerated fears are politically required, even if they are not practically relevant. No school leader could survive an election if she told parents she was doing nothing to prevent a threat because the actual threat was so miniscule.

Is there more? Are there other reasons you can think of why schools have always hoped to terrify children about highly unlikely dangers?

Long Island School of Doom

HT: SB

More proof: The suburbs are eating our children. It’s another terrible school-shooting story, this time from Long Island, New York. And this one has a twist that has me feeling distressed and mystified. What does this story tell us about the nature of American school and American childhood?

connetquot cache

What the cops found. Might they have found this is a thousand teenage bedrooms?

Here’s what we know. According to the local newspaper, three students at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, New York had plans to blow up their school. The kids were overheard making plans on the bus. When police searched their homes and lockers, they found a bunch of stuff, including

two laptops, three BB guns, a homemade ax and books about serial killers and forensics, along with “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which includes bomb-making instructions.

Now, I have to admit I am deeply biased. When I was a sulky suburban teen, I also owned a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. I probably owned books about serial killers. If I could have I would have loved to own a BB gun. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I saw it as a kind of joke, nothing more.

The authorities in Bohemia weren’t predisposed to laugh it off. The kids were charged with felony conspiracy charges.

An alarming story, no? But here’s the kicker. This same high school has been the target of two more student attacks over the years. Back in 2010, two students attempted to buy guns and make bombs, presumably with a plan to destroy the school. One of the students, Christopher Franko, received a three-to-nine-year sentence.

Back in 2007, two students were arrested for planning a Columbine-style shooting spree at the very same school.

We’ve got to ask: What the hell is going on at Connetquot High School? These are students who have it all, relatively speaking. They are attending a nice school in a nice neighborhood with plenty of green grass and fresh air.

Yet instead of growing up healthy and happy, these Long Island teens keep wanting only to blow the whole thing sky high. What gives? Why do even privileged children of America—some of them, at least—feel such a deep and abiding violent resentment of the friendly school that Bohemia ‘shaped, made aware,/ Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam’?

I don’t think we can take bitter comfort that this teen violence is somehow restricted to Bohemia, New York. After all, the Connetquot shooters were merely copying generations of bomb-throwing schemes among privileged American youth.

So we have to ask the tougher version of the question: Is this town somehow merely the epitome of suburban teenage angst? Is there something rancid buried in the heart of the American suburban dream that is festering in the souls of its comfortable youth?

Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

They don’t agree on much. But on this they do agree: MMR vaccines are not good for their kids. In my great home state of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups and rich hippies are uniting on this one issue (sort of). Why? As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, it’s not really about God or ethics or any of that stuff. It all comes down to Billy Joel.

Here’s what we know: In Rockland County, New York—just northwest of New York City—the government has taken drastic steps to ban unvaccinated children from all public places. A measles outbreak has led to this unusual measure. Traditionally, most states allowed parents pretty wide leeway in religious and moral exemptions to mandatory-vaccination laws. Today’s outbreak is forcing a re-think of those exemptions.

What does it have to do with Orthodox Judaism and hippie culture? In this case, a lot. The unvaccinated children are clustered in private schools, some of them Orthodox Jewish schools and others from a fancy-pants Waldorf school. In general, the cultural worlds of these two schools could not be further apart. In one thing, though, the parents agree, and this one thing is at the root of the measles problem.

From the Orthodox perspective, MMR vaccines have a complicated backstory. Some Orthodox leaders have counseled against vaccinations, but now leaders agree that vaccines are kosher. Parents, though, are still divided. As Forward described, many in the Orthodox community share

a feeling that their worldview is not in keeping with modern secular society, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor who has authored several books about Orthodox Jews.

“It’s about a view that we have our ways and they have their ways,” he said.

When it comes to measles vaccines, many parents in the Orthodox community simply do not trust the experts, and it is that distrust that brings Orthodox and hippies together.

Just down the street from Rockland’s Orthodox schools, but culturally a million miles away, parents at Green Meadow Waldorf School have also attempted to keep their kids from receiving the MMR vaccine. The lesson about distrusting vaccines is the same, but practically every other aspect of these schools is different. Green Meadow, for example, promises that their school will

create a social, cultural, and learning environment that recognizes the child’s spiritual freedom and growth. . . . Rather than teaching to the test or adhering to Common Core standards, the Waldorf curriculum fosters independent, critical thinking and problem solving, develops ethics and morality, and promotes true joy in learning.

The progressive, child-centered world of Green Meadow may be totally different from that of Orthodox schools, but the parents share one fundamental beef. Just like skeptical Orthodox parents, anxious Waldorf parents share a virulent distrust of the medical establishment. They feel it so strongly they are willing to put their children’s health on the line. They probably wouldn’t agree on much else, but they might agree with Billy Joel that it’s always been a matter of trust.

Fundamentalist U As Walmart U

Like it or not, online education is a booming business. As Lee Gardner describes in the Chronicle of Higher Ed this week, a few savvy colleges have transformed themselves into lucrative “mega-universities.” We have to ask: why are two of the four Gardner describes evangelical universities? I think it’s more than mere coincidence.

college enrollment trends

Leaders of the pack…

Here’s what we know: in the past ten years, a few universities have managed to capture huge student markets by offering non-traditional online degree programs. Gardner describes the success of Liberty University, Grand Canyon University, Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire. All of them have managed to enroll tens of thousands of students, while sagging enrollments at other schools have deans and provosts salivating at the prospect of an online bonanza.

I don’t think it’s an accident that two of the most successful online schools come out of the evangelical tradition. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, Liberty and Grand Canyon have had a somewhat testy relationship with one another, and Grand Canyon has experienced a dizzying see-saw between a variety of desperate survival strategies. Nevertheless, both schools are undeniably part of the small circle of winners in the scramble for online tuition dollars.

Why? I have a few ideas and I invite other suggestions.

First, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many of the more conservative evangelical institutions have always been friendly to capitalism, intellectually. Unlike some non-evangelical schools—and some evangelical ones, too—schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon never had to overcome any squeamishness or scruples about employing aggressive marketing and business campaigns in their schools.

As Gardner writes, this is common among the successful online mega-schools. As he put it,

They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies.

Second, evangelical universities have always targeted non-traditional students aggressively. This has been especially true of schools that grew out of the Bible-institute tradition. This tradition of non-tradition has proven especially useful in today’s online world. As Gardner writes, universities that have succeeded have

pursued the more than 30 million Americans who have some college credit but who never graduated — a cohort half again as large as the more than 20 million Americans now enrolled.

Fuller letterhead

They were online before online was online…

Last but certainly not least, evangelical colleges have often been forced to accept their role as outsiders in the world of American higher ed. For institutions like Liberty, their non-admittance to the country-club world of elite higher ed has given them some unintended flexibility when it comes to chasing tuition dollars. As one school leader told Gardner,

Most of nonprofit higher ed really looked down their nose at online education, and it left a vacuum into which rushed the for-profits.

At Liberty, leaders have always yearned fruitlessly to be considered part of the higher-education elite club. In spite of their risky investments in things like their football program, though, they’ve never been considered part of the inner circle. In the end, however, their experiences on the outside may have given them the moxie it took to dive into a field that other institutions pooh-poohed.

Perhaps most striking of all, for the first time ever, schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon are being talked about solely in terms of their structural successes in higher ed. They are not being described as the best or biggest “Christian” colleges, but rather as the biggest online universities, period. Yet it was their evangelical roots, in some ways, that fueled their online triumphs.