I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

January 25, 2016

What did you miss out there?


Words, words, words…

Will SCOTUS tear down the wall of separation between church and school?

A Wheaton professor explains why he has more academic freedom there than at a pluralist public university.

Why evangelical higher education is going down the tubes.

What would a(nother) Bush presidency mean for education? Charters and college loans.

How conservative reform of colleges would bring on “massive political repression.”

Do you remember the Mormon King of Lake Michigan?

Ouch: CNN reports 10% of college grads think Judge Judy is on the US Supreme Court.

Daniel K. Williams: Five things you think you know about Roe v. Wade but don’t.

Suggestions always welcome to our editorial desk: alaats AT Binghamton DOT com

Thanks to EH and CG for this week’s batch.

More Proof: Schools Can’t Save Society

What happens when a liberal do-gooder quits a high-paying job to teach in a low-income urban school? You know the answer as well as I do. Yet reading about Ed Boland’s ill-conceived year as a teacher in a New York high school still seems shocking and depressing.

Boland screenshot

We’ve all been there…

We shouldn’t be shocked, though we should be depressed. For the record, I sympathize with Boland and all teachers everywhere—including the younger me—who hope to contribute their mite toward social justice. It is still infinitely better to have teachers who care about their students than teachers who don’t. It is infinitely better for a school system to be full of energetic, selfless, dedicated teachers than for it to be staffed only by clock-punchers who checked their idealism at the door.

Even with the best of intentions and the highest of metabolisms, however, it is woefully naïve for any ed reformer to think that throwing dedicated teachers into a flawed system will somehow change the system itself.

As long as our society is cruelly segregated by race and class, schools for those at the bottom will not provide high-quality educations. There is no low-cost, simple solution to this structural problem. In order to fix schools for low-income Americans, we would first need to dismantle America’s built-in hierarchies.

Every experienced teacher knows this. One of my current colleagues wisely pooh-poohed my fascination with educational culture wars. The questions he was asking in his urban classroom, he recalled, were not about school prayer, evolution, or sex ed. Rather, he wondered if any of his students had a pencil.

Ed Boland’s story seems to offer more confirmation of this sad truth. Maureen Callahan offers a brief preview of his new teaching memoir in the New York Post.

Though it is tempting to do so, we shouldn’t dismiss Boland’s white-knight approach out of hand. Yes, he hoped to do some good. Yes, he only lasted a year. Yes, he ended up profiting with a book deal from his oh-so-brief exposure to America’s sad educational system. But his story is still something every non-teacher should read, if only to get some sense of the scope of our real educational and social problems.

The stories themselves offer a bleak picture of life in New York’s high schools. Students are violently abusive toward one another and toward Boland. They taunt him as a homosexual. They frame him as a child molester. They hurl physical and emotional abuse around the classroom with vicious abandon.

As must all white-knight stories, Boland shares his moments of despair. Schools don’t seem to offer a path of upward mobility for his students. Students don’t seem much to want one. Even the rare glimmers of hope are quickly snuffed out, as when one student’s father seemed at first to support Boland, only to reveal later his utter contempt for the lessons of high-minded educational salvationism.

There are no winners here. Conservative ed reformers might point to Boland’s failures as an indictment of progressive do-gooderism. They might use Boland’s story as proof of the failure of union-controlled public education, of big-system bureaucratism metastasized out of human scale.

It’s just not that simple. As I argued in my recent book, conservative school reformers have proved just as vulnerable to white-knight mentalities as have progressive reformers. The problem for both is that they have misunderstood the nature of the problem.

I’ll say it again, with apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Schools can’t fix society; schools reflect society.

Can we improve schools? Certainly. But we can’t do it without addressing the real problems. The solutions won’t come from a techie web-based innovation. They won’t come from a market-based choice solution. They won’t come from bureaucratic safety nets slung haphazardly under a shattered system. Whatever your politics, if you offer me a silver-bullet reform to fix American society by fixing America’s schools, I’ll stop listening.

Are the Culture Wars History?

So…does it matter what we call them?  Battles over textbooks, abortion, school prayer, and so on?  Do we understand them any better if we call them “culture wars?”  Or does that kind of language pander to the pundits who only want to stir things up?

hundred years war

Take that!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I recently traveled down to Atlanta to take part in an exciting panel discussion of these issues.  I joined Andrew Hartman, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Steven Prothero, and Leo Ribuffo at the American Historical Association convention to talk about our recent crop of books.

What did we talk about?  Well, there’s nothing like being there, but Andrew Hartman has now posted our talks on the US Intellectual History Society blog.  Check it out!

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

January 18, 2016

What did you miss out there?

Americans know science the way we know that “Jesus’ mother was a virgin or that we should never wear white before Memorial Day.”

reading cat

Words, words, meow…

Conservatives aren’t as simple-minded as you thought.

We kicked him out of New York. What can we expect from John King as Education Secretary?

When will ad-writers stop trying to be clever by abusing the great tradition of anthimeria?

No matter who wins, colleges lose with big-money football.

Powerball is a rip-off.

Why is this conservative professor so lonely?

Suggestions always welcome to our editorial desk: alaats AT Binghamton DOT edu

One Big Unhappy Family

Normal people might be forgiven for saying ‘Enough already.’ The Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College has been poked and prodded by commentators and armchair pundits from every conceivable angle, including my own humble contribution at History News Network about Wheaton’s relevant history. But just one more word from me before I let the subject drop: Does this purge help heal the rift between fundamentalist universities?

In case you’ve been living life and not keeping with the latest, here’s a quick refresher: Professor Hawkins was fired for her statements that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Commentators have offered a full spectrum of analysis. One Wheaton professor defended his school. Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher also spoke up for Wheaton’s right to police its theological borders. A former student said Wheaton’s decision was in line with evangelical tradition. And perhaps most intriguing, historian extraordinaire Michael S. Hamilton told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Wheaton doesn’t like it when people don’t fit into its white, Northern, fundamentalist tradition.

In all the hullaballoo, I missed an important piece in this evangelical jigsaw puzzle. Just as Wheaton decided to suspend Professor Hawkins, they got some support from an unlikely source. President Steve Pettit of Bob Jones University tweeted his support for the beleaguered administration.

pettit tweet BJU supports Wheaton firing dec 2015

Are they all on the same page again?

As I noted recently, my current research into the history of evangelical colleges has revealed continuing tensions between the two schools. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but in brief, a stormy rivalry in the 1930s developed into an outright breach in the 1970s. By that point, BJU had become the flagship university of steadfast separatist fundamentalism, while Wheaton represented the best of a broader conservative evangelicalism.

Maybe things have changed. President Steve Pettit of BJU recently visited Wheaton’s campus, a remarkable thaw in the deep freeze between the two schools. Now President Pettit is extending his support to Wheaton’s “embattled” leaders in this difficult time.

What does that mean?

Might it mean that President Pettit hopes Wheaton will move closer to its fundamentalist roots? At Bob Jones University, fundamentalism had often meant ruthless purges of dissenting faculty and administration. Since its founding in the 1920s, Bob Jones University has maintained a steady record of firing anyone who does not agree with the administration. As founder Bob Jones Sr. memorably expressed it in a chapel talk,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school. We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard. If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him! We throw him overboard. . . ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’ Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

I’ve got no inside scoop here, but I can’t help but wonder: Does Wheaton’s recent faculty purge put it back on the “fundamentalist” side of this long-lived divide?

Teacher Fired for Heroic Incompetence

I’m no cynic. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that schools serve a range of purposes. We see depressing evidence today that one of their primary functions is to contain and control young people. How do we know? Because a teacher in New York City was fired, according to her, for talking about structural racism in a way that would “rile up” her African American students. Yikes.

Lee Walker Fired

Fired for heroic incompetence…

The story is grim. Jeena Lee-Walker has sued New York schools for her termination. Beginning in 2012, school administrators asked her to tone down her teaching about the Central Park Five case. As all New Yorkers remember, a group of young men were falsely convicted of raping a woman. They were eventually freed, but only after spending long years in prison.

Lee-Walker taught her students about the case. Many of them, she thought, “should be riled up” about the deep injustice done, as well as about continuing injustices in American society.

Her administrators thought differently. They gave her several bad evaluations and eventually fired her for “insubordination.”

Let me be crystal clear here: I think all teachers should be like Ms. Lee-Walker. All teachers should “rile up” their students about injustices in our society.

But we need to recognize two complicating factors. Though I’m a big fan of his, I think Curmudgucrat Peter Greene misses the boat here when he says Lee-Walker was “fired for competence.”

She was fired for two other reasons, reasons central to the successful functioning of any school. Even as we praise Ms. Lee-Walker’s bravery and integrity, we need to be a little more clearheaded about what was really going on. In short, Ms. Lee-Walker’s unwillingness to go along with the school system really DID make her incompetent as a teacher. Heroic, yes, but not willing to do the job.

That might sound odd, so let me offer two long-winded explanations.

First, teachers are not simply private citizens. Ms. Lee-Walker will not have luck protesting that her First Amendment rights have been breached. And, by and large, none of us want to cede to teachers such rights. Consider, for example, what we might think if she had been accused of promoting political or religious agendas with which we don’t agree. What if she “riled up” students by denouncing abortion? Or by denouncing evolution?

In principle, then, we need to acknowledge that teachers are bound to stick within curricular guidelines established by the school and community. I’ll repeat: in this case I think those guidelines are utterly bogus. I think we should encourage all New York City high schools to emulate Ms. Lee-Walker’s decision to teach the Central Park Five case. It is the truth and young people deserve to learn about it.

But if and when a heroic teacher decides to go against her superiors, she should be prepared to be kicked out. That is equally true whether we agree or disagree with the teacher’s ideas. I’m going to say this again, just because I think it could be misinterpreted: In this case, I side wholly with Ms. Lee-Walker. Her protest, however, should not be taken as a simple case of good teaching vs. evil administrating. Rather, this is a heroic attempt to push the curriculum in New York City schools toward this sort of teaching. Ms. Lee-Walker should have expected to get fired—even WANTED to get fired—because that was her only chance to take her appeal to a wider stage.

We don’t have to like it, but I think we need to be clear about our terms. In this sort of case, the closest analogy is that of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses. To some, she was a hero, to others a poorly coiffed villain. In the end, however, she was a government bureaucrat who refused to do her job. Whatever we think of her politics or religion, no institution can function if it doesn’t purge such folks.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson Kentucky

Fired for heroic incompetence…

That brings us to our second point. This story drives home the depressing custodial role schools and teachers play in our society. We tend to think of schools as educational institutions—and they are—but they are also holding pens of varying levels of pleasantness.

As a result, a big part of the job of school administrators is to keep the students relatively calm. With a dizzyingly high student-to-teacher ratio, most schools rely on passive and compliant students. When and if students choose to throw off schools’ restraints, there is not much administrators can physically do to coerce them into submission.

In some schools, this results at worst in hijinx such as food fights. In other schools, we get a prison-like atmosphere in which students are continually monitored and physically controlled.

Is that a good thing? Not at all. But if we want to make sense of this case and the many other cases like this, we need to understand the many things that schools do in our society. Teachers are not merely Socratic wisdom-peddlers in the agora. They are street-level bureaucrats who help process large numbers of young people in educational containment systems.

The point of Ms. Lee-Walker’s actions—if she was acting intentionally—was not merely to teach children something true. The point was to make a public spectacle of the fact that New York City schools do not regularly include that sort of teaching. She was not “fired for competence,” but for her stubborn insistence on principled incompetence, her brave unwillingness to go along with a system that fails students so miserably.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

reading guy

Words, words, words….

January Tenth, 2016.

What did you miss out there? A few stories that caught our eye this past week:

The End Is Near: read a symposium about Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse at Syndicate Theology.

Why this college president doesn’t want big-time campus football.

America and race: Brookings scholars analyze the top ways the USA is (still) divided along racial lines.

Hell, damn, bi—: Bringing cursive back to Indiana’s schools.

Have suggestions? Send em in to our editorial desk: alaats AT binghamton DOT edu .

…so very angry…

I don’t get out much. I’ve been happily ensconced in my nerd cocoon for the past couple years, working on my new book about the history of conservative higher ed. So I know I’m out of touch with what normal people think and know about these things. But I’m still surprised by the venom of some recent comments about Wheaton College. Is the average person-in-the-street really so very angry about evangelical colleges?

raw story wheaton comments

…so very angry…

Here’s the background: I recently published in History News Network a few thoughts about the history behind Wheaton’s decision to terminate tenured Professor Larycia Hawkins. In short, Professor Hawkins is being fired for saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same god.” RawStory picked up the essay.

I am floored by the level of venom in the RawStory comments thread. Of course, I know that internet comments are the abode of trolls. Still, I’m surprised by the hostility people seem to have toward Wheaton College.

Here are a couple of examples of the comments people saw fit to make:

  • I have a very special file for job applicants who graduated from religious “schools.” It is round, and lined with a plastic bag.

  • So people willingly and enthusiastically jump into sewers and then act shocked when they’re shit upon? I just don’t get it.

  • How wonderful it is receiving a degree from a Troglodyte University!

  • Hopefully Prof. Hawkins can find another position at a real school and put the memory of Holy Roller Hogwarts’ behind her.

  • I don’t get how a strict, fundamentalist college can also be an elite learning institution. In what exactly? The made up field of theology? Perhaps (heavily censured) literature and definitely rewritten history to fit the Christian angst? Home economics? Does creationism even qualify as serious subject of study? Really, what?

And there’s more!

Again, I know I live and work in an intellectual bubble. But are people in general really so very angry towards evangelical colleges? I thought people in general respected Wheaton as a top-tier evangelical school. In fact, I KNOW people do. But are they the exceptions?

Why Did Wheaton Fire Larycia Hawkins?

Did you hear the news yet?  According to Christianity Today, Wheaton College in Illinois has begun termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins.

HNN article Larycia Hawkins

All the news that about the old…

Why?  For explanations from Professor Hawkins and Wheaton College, take a look at the Christianity Today piece.

But for historical context, check out my essay at History News Network.  In short, I argue that this kind of faculty uber-supervision is par for the course at evangelical colleges, even elite ones such as Wheaton.

An AHA Moment

Hello, Atlanta! Like thousands of other history nerds, I’m descending on Atlanta soon to attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I’m looking forward to our book panel tomorrow afternoon about history and America’s culture wars.

AHA 2016

A candid photo of our panel at rest…

For you non-academics out there, the AHA convention is the biggie for academic historians. Universities often hold their first round of job interviews there, and historians talk about their work with one another. I’m going to wear a tie.

I’ve been invited to take part in an exciting panel about history and culture wars. I’ll be sharing my thoughts from my recent book about educational conservatism. I’m joining “high-powered historians” Andrew Hartman, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Stephen Prothero. I’ve learned a lot from reading their recent books about the history of the culture wars (Hartman) and about sex-ed and bilingual-ed (Petrzela). I’m looking forward, too, to learning a lot from Dr. Prothero’s new book about the long march of liberalism.

Our work will be commented on by Leo Ribuffo. Professor Ribuffo’s book about conservative activism in the early twentieth century had a huge influence on me as I started my academic career, so I am happy to have a chance to meet him in person and hear what he has to say.

Want to know what we talk about? Keep your eyes peeled. Professor Hartman has promised to post our comments on the US Intellectual History blog. I’ll be sure to post a link.