The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

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It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.

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How NOT to Get a Conservative in the White House

Do conservative politicians need to have more heart? Do they just need to find snappy, appealing slogans to describe their existing economic policies? That’s the argument, apparently, in Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, The Conservative Heart. I’m no conservative myself, so I hope conservatives listen to Brooks. Because his argument just doesn’t match reality.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will not be surprised to hear that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I haven’t read Brooks’ new book. Based on the recent review by N. Gregory Mankiw in the New York Times, though, I feel justified in saying nertz to Brooks’ diagnosis.

Heart attack...

Heart attack…

Both Brooks and Mankiw hail from the free-market-conservative American Enterprise Institute. According to Mankiw, Brooks thinks that conservatives do not have a problem with policy. Rather, they have a problem with publicity.

As Mankiew recounts, President Obama is able to rally support for a minimum-wage hike by saying simply, “It’s time to give America a raise.”

Free-market conservatives, on the other hand, mumble through a complicated but correct four-point rebuttal. By the end, Brooks thinks, Americans just aren’t listening.

This Casssandresque portrait of market conservatives might be flattering to conservatives, but it just doesn’t match political reality. It’s not that overly nerdy conservatives lose their audiences mid-way. Rather, the public never even starts listening.

The problem for conservatives is not that they have too much Spock and not enough Kirk. Conservatives’ main problem has not been their overly logical public image. Rather, conservatives have struggled and failed to portray themselves as something different from their elitist, racist twentieth-century roots.

They need to do more to overcome their twentieth-century history. There are plenty of non-white conservatives out there, but they tend to think that voting for the GOP will be a betrayal. With good reason: This year, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump insults Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Last year, ham-handed GOP leaders denounced a voter-registration drive in Ferguson, Missouri.

It is not only these recent events that work against conservatism. Conservatism in the United States has always been perceived (with plenty of justification) as a movement of elite white racists. As I argued in my recent book about twentieth-century conservatism, by the end of the century conservative activists tried to refute their reputation for racism. It didn’t work.

When conservative leaders denied their racism, non-white voters did not believe them. In 1974-75, for example, most of the leaders of the conservative school boycott movement in Kanawha County, West Virginia adamantly denied that they were racist. Folks such as Avis Hill pointed out that he went to church with lots of African Americans. Conservative teachers such as Karl Priest pointed out that he coached a mixed-race basketball team.

Nevertheless, local African American leaders were not impressed. The Reverend Ronald English, for example, conceded that most of his African American friends and congregants were just as conservative as the book protesters. But because of the legacy of conservative activism; because of the presence of a weak and wilted Ku Klux Klan in support of the boycott; because many of the authors of the “offensive” books were African Americans, very few African Americans supported the conservative boycotters.

This legacy continues. In spite of Mr. Brooks’ recommendations, non-white voters—even staunchly conservative ones—will hate to vote for the party of white racism, even if those GOP leaders speak from the heart.

What should conservatives do?

They need to do more than simply insist that they are no longer racist. This will involve promoting non-white leaders such as Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Ben Carson. This will involve policing their own ranks to prevent any winking at old-fashioned white racism. This will involve highlighting cross-racial areas of conservative agreement on cultural issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and creationism.

Can it work? It can and has. When President Reagan appealed to working-class ethnic whites, he swept into the White House with the support of such “Reagan Democrats.” The next big conservative winner will do something similar. He (or she) will undercut the traditional lock between non-white voters and the Democratic Party. He or she will speak from the heart, for sure, but that heart will have to prove somehow that it has had an authentic conversion. Otherwise, voters just won’t listen.

Can Conservatives Care about Black People?

Would you take twenty-five million dollars from a conservative donor?

That’s the question posed recently to the United Negro College Fund.  The love-em-or-hate-em Koch brothers gave a $25 million donation, and some voices in the academic community want the UNCF to give the money back.  We have a different question to ask.

The prominent historian Marybeth Gasman argued that the UNCF should give the money back.  [Full disclosure: Professor Gasman and I will both be contributing chapters to an upcoming volume about agnotology and education.]  For anyone who knows the history of African-American higher education, Gasman wrote, this sort of conservative funding raises ominous red flags.

As Gasman has demonstrated, philanthropists have too often exerted control over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the UNCF.  James Anderson, too, has argued that philanthropists have pushed HBCUs away from liberal-arts education and towards manual training courses.

With that history in mind, Professor Gasman insisted that the Koch money is tainted.  “The Koch brothers,” she wrote,

have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.

Balderdash, say leading conservative intellectuals.  In the pages of Forbes  Magazine, George Leef argued that the UNCF should be celebrating.  First of all, Leef insisted, the Koch brothers’ anti-big-government activism will help African Americans, not harm them.  And in addition, the money is just money.  Take it, spend it, help people, Leef concluded.

In an interview with Michael Lomax of the UNCF, American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess suggested a similar happy ending.  Lomax told Hess that he hoped to take money from whomever he could.  Too much ideological thinking, Lomax said,

has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.  Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship.

Professor Gasman worried that the Koch brothers will use their gift to have a nefarious influence on the UNCF. Lomax insists it won’t. But in the world of conservative education policy, we’ve seen a different struggle.

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservative intellectuals and activists have argued since the end of World War II that their school policies did not make them racist. As we’ve seen in these pages, conservatives have worked long and hard to overcome the accusation that conservatism is inherently anti-black.

In 1950 Pasadena, for example, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin pushed a new zoning plan that would have desegregated Pasadena’s schools by race. Conservatives reacted furiously and eventually booted Goslin. But their opposition to desegregation, conservatives insisted, did not make them racist. To prove it, many conservatives cited the support of prominent African American leaders. As one conservative activist told a packed school-board meeting, her anti-deseg petition could not possibly be racist, since it was signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors.”  Plus, this woman told the meeting, she could not be racist, because she had become friends with a “Negro physician” in her neighborhood.

Similarly, in the fight over textbooks in 1974 Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservatives insisted that their position did not make them racist. In that case, new textbooks included provocative passages from writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. White conservatives hated the books, but not because they were racists, they insisted. In their support, conservatives cited prominent African American voices such as George Schuyler.

In all these cases, conservative educational activists trumpeted the support of African American voices to prove that their conservative ideas did not make them racist. In a way, foes of the Koch brothers could argue that this UNCF gift will serve a similar purpose. If folks like Professor Gasman accuse the Koch brothers of racism, the Koch brothers can now call on Michael Lomax and the UNCF to burnish their anti-racist credentials.

Professor Gasman argued that the Koch gift will come with unacceptable strings. But we could also ask this question: Is the UNCF now vouching for the Koch brothers? Is the UNCF willing to back the Koch brothers when they insist that their conservative activism does not make them racist?

 

Conservatives Blast the “Myth” of Rape Culture

Why do some conservative thinkers insist that anti-rape-culture activism is a fraud? That “rape culture” itself is a myth?

As we’ve seen in these pages, talk about rape culture is often tied to the atmosphere of colleges and universities. And it is understandably an incredibly sensitive subject. Even asking about the nature of rape culture can be seen as truckling to rapists and those who hope to explain rape away.

Full disclosure: I am one of those who thinks that denying this problem is part of the problem. I agree that colleges and universities need actively to confront cultures that encourage sexual assault. For too long, college administrators have winked at the “boys will be boys” attitudes that lie at the heart of rape culture. In these pages, I have asked whether this is worse at conservative Christian colleges. I have wondered if non-denominational Christian schools, “fundamentalist” schools such as Bob Jones University, Patrick Henry College, and Pensacola Christian College have a harder or easier time dealing with these issues. In those cases, I was accused of apologizing for sexual assault myself.

And watch: I won’t be surprised if I am accused of supporting rape culture for writing these words as well.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because there’s a new question that stumps me. Why do some conservative intellectuals attack the very notion of rape culture? What is “conservative” about dismissing the existence of rape culture on college campuses?

Minding the Campus Blasts Rape-Culture Activism

Minding the Campus Blasts Rape-Culture Activism

This past week, we’ve seen Caroline Kitchens of the American Enterprise Institute denouncing the “hysteria” over rape culture in the pages of Time Magazine. Kitchens asserted that there is no rape culture. There is no culture, that is, in which rape is apologized for and excused. America as a whole loathes rape and despises rapists, Kitchens points out. “Rape culture” only exists in the imaginations of over privileged college students and their tame faculty. Colleges such as Boston University and Wellesley ban pop songs and harmless statues as an overblown response to such rape-culture myths, Kitchens writes.

Kitchens claims the support of the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN). She cites a recent RAINN letter to a White House Task Force. In order to help victims of sexual assault on college campuses, this RAINN letter asserts, administrators should understand that these are the acts of criminal individuals, not the result of a nebulous cultural trend.

It is rape-culture stereotypes themselves that absolve abusers of responsibility, Kitchens argues. “By blaming so-called rape culture,” she concludes, “we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence.”

Kitchens is not alone. In the pages of the conservative higher-ed watchdog Minding the Campus, KC Johnson has agreed recently that “rape culture” is a “delusion,” the product of overheated leftist imaginations. Johnson, a high-profile historian from Brooklyn College, worries that campuses from Dartmouth to Occidental to Duke suffer from an overabundance of intellectual cowardice and groupthink. “Fawning” media coverage has allowed for “transparently absurd allegations,” Johnson writes. Plus, harping on “rape culture,” Johnson argues, allows “activists to shift the narrative away from uncomfortable questions about due process and false accusations against innocent male students, and toward a cultural critique in which the facts of specific cases can be deemed irrelevant.” Finally, the blunt instrument of “rape-culture” accusations provides activists with “a weapon to advance a particular type of gender-based agenda.”

Such claims are intensely controversial. But before we examine the legitimacy of these arguments, we need to ask a more basic question: Why do conservative intellectuals make them? Now, I understand Johnson is no conservative himself. But it is telling that conservative organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute and Minding the Campus are the ones hosting these anti-rape-culture accusations.

Is there something “conservative” about disputing the existence of rape culture? Is “rape culture” a leftist ploy to assert (more) control over college campuses? To tighten the screws of the academic thought police? Or is something more profound at work? Do these conservative voices dispute the existence of rape culture in order to perpetuate traditional gender roles?

 

School Choice: Failing

We don’t normally hear criticism of school privatization from free-market conservative types.  But a recent essay by Michael Q. McShane in National Review included some harsh talk about vouchers and charters.

McShane, Education Fellow at the staunchly free-market American Enterprise Institute, complained that free-market solutions were not working.

Seems like a shocking admission for a conservative intellectual, until we get into McShane’s argument.

Vouchers aren’t working, McShane argues, because they are not being pushed hard enough.

McShane looks at the example of Milwaukee.  For twenty-five years, as McShane points out and as academic historians have agreed, Milwaukee has been one of the most “choice-rich” big cities in the nation.

The result?  As McShane notes, Milwaukee’s student test scores lag far behind Chicago and other big cities.

Some critics might conclude that “choice”—vouchers for parents to send children to private schools, charter schools that use public funding but avoid public-school bureaucracy, and rules that encourage parents to move their children between schools—has been proven a loser.

McShane says no.  What school systems really need, he argues, is a more thorough-going application of the principles of “choice.”  Ultimately, cities such as Milwaukee have only tinkered around the edges of the destructive public-school mentality.  Free-market solutions won’t really work, McShane believes, until cities allow the “creative destruction” that the market demands.

Private schools must be encouraged, he writes, to create new schools and new capacity, not merely fill existing seats.  In conclusion, McShane writes,

Private-school choice will drive positive change only when it creates high-quality private schools within urban communities. New schools and school models need to be incubated, funding needs to follow students in a way that allows for non-traditional providers to play a role, new pathways into classrooms for private-school teachers and leaders need to be created, and high-quality school models need to be encouraged and supported while they scale up. In short, policymakers, private philanthropy, and school leaders need to get serious about what’s necessary to make the market work.

Those of us hoping to make sense of conservative attitudes toward American education must grapple with this free-market thinking.  To scholars such as McShane, data that seem to prove the failure of free-market reform really only means such reforms have not been implemented thoroughly enough.