Could This Happen at an Evangelical College?

As John Leo reports at Minding the Campus, Professor Anthony Esolen is under pressure. He’s accused of being “racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinistic.” He says he’s just being truly Catholic and accuses his Catholic college of straying. As I finish up my book on the history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, the story brings a question to mind: Would this—could this—DOES this happen at evangelical colleges?

For those who are outside the orbit of Catholic higher education, let’s start with an inadequate primer: The Catholic Church and its schools include several different orders. Many Catholic colleges, including famous ones such as Georgetown, Boston College, and Marquette, are run by the Jesuits. Other big names, such as Catholic University and Notre Dame, are run directly by the Church. Esolen’s Providence College is Dominican. All of them are Catholic, but they have different bureaucracies and different ways of doing things.


Plus Catholique que L’Administration?

Why does it matter? Each order has its own history and its own theological, cultural, and educational traditions. Some tend to be more conservative; some more liberal. As a very loose and general rule, American Jesuits and Franciscans tend to be more liberal when it comes to some things. Dominicans, in my very limited experience, tend to be more conservative. But it varies enormously.

At his Dominican school, Anthony Esolen thinks that the Dominicans are not being nearly conservative enough. As he has complained,

The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program — the focus of curricular hostility — also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.

In a lot of ways, it sounds like the perennial tensions at evangelical colleges. Since the early 1960s, market pressure among evangelical and fundamentalist colleges has been so great that any rumor of faculty heterodoxy at evangelical schools has been ferociously squelched by school administrators. In other words, in their life-or-death struggle to attract as many students as possible, administrators at evangelical colleges have worked hard to shut down any whiff of liberalism among their faculty. They have been terrified of alienating conservative parents and losing their tuition dollars.

And school-watchers know it. Conservative and fundamentalist critics—including trustees and celebrities—have scrutinized the goings-on at evangelical schools with a gimlet eye. In many cases, they have threatened to publicize the liberalism of evangelical schools, hoping to cow administrators into cracking down. Time and time again, evangelical administrators have taken drastic action to head off any accusation that they are no longer trustworthy.

It sounds as if Professor Esolen is working from a similar playbook. As he said on Facebook recently, “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

In the world of fundamentalist and evangelical higher education, these sorts of enrollment threats carry a great deal of weight. Young-earth creationist Ken Ham, for example, has been able to push schools to shore up their creationist credentials by wondering, in effect, if some evangelical schools are still worth attending.

But here’s where I’m puzzled. Have evangelical schools had to wrestle with professors who are too conservative? Too creationist? Too fundamentalist?

I can think of a few cases, but nothing seems perfectly analogous.

For example, take the story of Gordon Clark at Wheaton. Back in the 1930s, Clark had a sterling resume, with an Ivy League PhD. Wheaton College was happy to have him, for a while. Clark’s ferocious Calvinism, however, sat roughly with Wheaton’s interdenominational, big-tent-evangelical tradition. Clark pooh-poohed the emotional revivalism so popular among Wheaton’s students. In 1943, for instance, he dismissed a campus revival as mere “mass psychology,” not true salvation. And he disdained a popular evangelical method of Bible reading, the dispensational approach. So Clark didn’t last at Wheaton.

It’s sort of similar to Esolen’s case, but not exactly. Professor Clark never accused Wheaton of abandoning its evangelical tradition. Rather, Clark wanted evangelical students to be more rigorously conservative, more systematically Calvinist. But Clark never thought Wheaton had abandoned its Calvinist roots, because it hadn’t. Professor Clark understood that Wheaton shared the perennial problem of interdenominational evangelical schools everywhere: They wanted an impossibly generic orthodoxy.

On the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities, we mostly hear about professors who get in hot water for being too liberal, not too conservative. Most recently, for example, the case of Larycia Hawkins comes to mind. She was booted (yes, she was booted, no matter that she officially agreed to depart on her own) for wearing a hijab, bragging about it, and proclaiming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God.

For all you SAGLRROILYBYGTH out there who know the world of evangelical higher education better than I do….am I missing something? Are there other conservative professors who get in trouble for being more fundamentalist than their evangelical schools? Could Professor Esolen’s dilemma be repeated on an evangelical campus? HAS it been?


Conservative Education for Dummies

How can a conservative person in America be sure her kids are getting a good education?  Relax, says Anthony Esolen in a recent article in the Imaginative Conservative.  It’s easy.  Just follow a few simple steps.

1.) Don’t give up on memorization.

2.) Read good books.

3.) Relax: your kids will get a good education.

Esolen advises conservative parents and school leaders to trust in the natural learning capacities of young people.  Children learn.  If we trust in our instincts, we will help.

One thing that works is to have children memorize things.  Too often, Esolen writes, educators look down their noses at “mere” memorization.  “For fifty years,” Esolen laments, “we have been cowed by the educational ‘experts’ into believing that it is contemptible, simplistic, backward, and ineffectual.”  But memorizing things—whether it’s the multiplication tables or Milton—lies at the heart of education.  Esolen relates the tale of a farmer who memorized Paradise Lost.  This was more than just rote memorization.  This was “getting it by heart,” a process of imbibing a priceless intellectual resource to spark real human-scale education.

What should be the content of this sort of real education?  Esolen wants conservative parents to relax.  There are good books everywhere that can form the base of an effective education.  Too often, Esolen says, educators focus on the crass, the cynical, or even the pornographic in a misguided attempt to expose children to the latest intellectual fads.  Why pervert your children’s minds by assigning Slaughterhouse Five, Esolen asks, when the list of good books is so long and so readily available?  Why not pick from any of the good books all around us:

Heidi, Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, The Yearling, David Copperfield, Silas Marner, Black Beauty, Kim, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinkerthe fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and of Hans Christian Andersen.

For older students, pick from

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Whittier, Dickinson, Frost, and many more. We have all of the wonderful novels of Jane Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Mark Twain and Walter Scott. There’s the great literature of the western world—Virgil and Dante and Cervantes and Tolstoy.

Relax.  Esolen insists, this process is “not like going to the moon. It is like looking up at the stars.”

If you educate your children this way, Esolen writes, no standardized test will have the power to frighten or dismay them.  They will know more than children educated by the most modern methods.  Indeed, they will know things, and other children will not.

What is a conservative parent to do?  According to Esolen, the answer is clear: Relax.  The tried-and-true methods and content of schooling are still the best.


Catholics against the Common Core

Don’t do it, a group of Catholic academics advised their bishops recently.  Don’t let Catholic schools follow the new Common Core Learning Standards.

As with everything Catholic, the signatories of this letter were a diverse bunch.

They were led by Notre Dame’s Gerard Bradley and included prominent conservatives such as Anthony Esolen, Robert George, and Patrick Deneen.  Also signing on was Lehigh University’s intelligent-design black sheep, Michael Behe.

Why did this group want to keep the new standards out of Catholic schools?

For one thing, they argued the new focus on nonfiction threatens to water down the rich cultural heritage of Catholic schooling.  “Common Core,” the letter charges,

shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government. . . . Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work.  But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it.

But there is more at stake than just a profound, moral education.  Bradley’s letter worries that future new standards will directly contradict the specifically religious values at the heart of the Catholic faith.  As the letter put it,

In science, the new standards are likely to take for granted, and inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics that is incompatible with the spiritual realities—soul, conceptual thought, values, free choice, God—which Catholic faith presupposes.  We fear, too, that the history standards will promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive anti-religious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.

As Richard Perez-Pena noted in the New York Times, the letter-writers do not represent the entirety of Catholic opinion.  Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director for Catholic education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she viewed the new standards as an opportunity, not a threat.  And Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Chicago’s Catholic schools, agreed that Catholic schools must maintain their high educational standards, but did not see the standards as a problem.



The Age of Pedophilia

Are we all Jerry Sanduskys?

That’s the accusation made recently by Anthony Esolen.

Pedophilia, Esolen charges, is not limited to the horrifying cases of the Sanduskys of the world.  Rather, we engage in pedophilia whenever we subordinate the welfare of children to the sexual gratification of adults.

In this logic, divorce is nothing but a socially acceptable form of pedophilia.  Having children outside of wedlock is pedophilia.  Worst of all are the “creeps” at Planned Parenthood (Esolen calls them “Planned Predators”) who teach young children a debased vision of sex.  These “pedophiles of the soul,” Esolen accuses, cruelly introduce

children to the delights of meaningless sex, with cartoons of talking penises and vaginas, of a girl bending over with a mirror to inspect her anus, or a boy in his bedroom abusing himself.

What is that, Esolen asks, if not pedophilia of the worst sort?  Indeed, such “credentialed spiritual pederasts” use the same strategy as old-fashioned child rapists.  They work to separate children from the influence of their parents.  In their sexually aggressive ideology, Esolen writes,

Parents are the enemy. The parents are kept in the dark. The parents are too benighted to know what is best. The parents—even such sporadically responsible parents as our generation has produced—wouldn’t know about how happy it is to be sexually free.

As Esolen must have intended, such accusations are profoundly disturbing.  There is nothing more heinous than real child molesters.  It seems to me to breach the bounds of public civility to accuse the sex-educators at Planned Parenthood of acting like nothing more than “the old man down the street, wheezing and giggling, who likes to show little kids pictures of people masturbating[.]”

But if Esolen’s extreme anger represents the feelings of a broad body of the American public, it certainly helps us understand why sex education has had such a troubled career in America’s public schools.  Indeed, as historians such as Jeffrey Moran have argued, sex ed has often been received with the violence and outrage that Esolen’s essay predicts.

Such outrage makes more sense if we understand the way Esolen hopes to redefine pedophilia.


“Worker Ants in an Insect Society:” The Case for Christian Education

Can government schools produce anything except totalitarian drones?

The folks at Patheos: The Anxious Bench recently re-ran a consideration of this question by the accomplished historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University.  But does this conservative criticism assume too much about America’s public school system?  Are bad schools more like bad haircuts than anything else?

Source: Sodahead

Source: Sodahead

More on haircuts later.  The question of public schools and Christian students has long exercised conservative intellectuals.  I’ve described the history of this perennial concern among American conservatives in general and among conservative evangelical Protestants in particular in a couple of academic articles and in my 1920s book.  As Professor Kidd notes, this question of separate “Christian” schools has long been a central concern among conservative religious thinkers.

Professor Kidd lays out the case: even in his hometown of Waco, “where parents can pretty reasonably assume that Christian students at public schools will not be harassed for their faith,” public-school values do not pretend to match the values of evangelical Protestantism.  The problem, as Kidd notes, has been trumpeted by conservative Christian intellectuals for generations.  Kidd cites J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen as varied exemplars of this intellectual tradition.

Kidd cites Christopher Dawson’s 1961 accusation that public schools were only fit to produce “worker ants in an insect society.”  The problem, Kidd argues, is not simply the familiar laundry list of evangelical complaints.  It is not simply that public schools teach evolution, or that they discourage prayer, or that they teach a skewed secularized history.  The deeper problem is an utter lack of purpose in public education.

As Kidd puts it,

Public education, and private secular education, is floundering to identify any purpose these days, other than perhaps “math and science” training, and the ever-popular “critical thinking skills.” (Excellent standardized test scores and successful football teams are also good.) The modern public school system was originally intended to form citizens for democratic citizenship; perhaps that purpose lingers in some public schools today. But Christians should be wary even of education for democratic citizenship, which can easily shade into nationalism and cloud a child’s understanding that her ultimate citizenship is in the city of God.

At a fundamental level, Kidd argues, parents must spend more time asking what purpose they hope their children’s education will serve.  For conservative evangelical Protestants, in general, even the most efficient public schools may seem only efficient paths to damnation.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we must ask: Are public schools really so profoundly anti-Christian?  And, perhaps more important, what does any of this have to do with poodle haircuts?

After all, the public schools also take their share of accusations from the left.  Liberal watchdogs such as the Texas Freedom Network blast politicians for using schools as catspaws in a rabid anti-leftist witch huntAmericans United for Separation of Church and State warns of the “Religious Right’s Plan to Force Fundamentalism on Our Public Schools.”  Academic leftists such as Michael Apple accuse twenty-first century public schools of being profoundly dominated by the conservative shibboleths of “Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality.”

Is this only a matter of perspective?  Are public schools centrist institutions, forced to muddle down the middle of cultural controversies?  From the left, schools appear dominated by conservatism.  From the right, they look like secularist left-wing indoctrination centers.

Or could this be the oldest public-school question in the book?  That is, could these critics be making the mistake of treating public schools as if they were a single ideological entity, when in fact they are a ten-thousand-member cluster with no discernible goals or guiding ideology?  In other words, if you want to attack the ideology of the public school system, you’ll be able to find convincing and terrifying examples of all sorts of ideas.  With such an incredible diversity of schools and school districts, it is all too easy for commentators to accuse “public schools” in general of problems that may not trouble the majority of real schools.

Now, at long last, let’s consider what schools have to do with haircuts:

Blasting “the ideology of the public schools” in general might be like attacking America’s hairstyles in general.  Of course, there are fashions and historic trends.  And of course, anyone can pull up terrifying examples of how they can go wrong.  But America’s hairstyles, like America’s public schools, have no controlling central intelligence.  Both are the result of thousands, millions, of decisions by individuals on a daily basis.

Of course, parents and pundits of any religious or political persuasion should make the decisions that fit them best.  But when those decisions are pushed as a simple rule about the ideological nature of the public schools in general, we may have veered off into poodle-haircut territory.


Bullies, Schools, Homosexuality, and the Confederate Flag

Who is a school bully?  Can it be a teacher who disciplines students for wearing Confederate flags or for denouncing homosexuality?

That is the question conservative commentator Anthony Esolen asks today on The Public Discourse.

Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College, considers a recent case from Michigan.

In this compellingly tangled case of homosexuality, history, religion, and education, a teacher hoped to fight anti-homosexual attitudes among his students.  This teacher participated in a school event in which teachers and students wore t-shirts opposing anti-gay bullying.  The teacher showed his class a video about anti-gay bullying, then engaged in a discussion about it.  During the discussion, the teacher noticed that one student wore a Confederate-flag belt buckle.  The teacher ordered the student to remove the buckle.  When another student asked about the obvious contradiction between the student’s right to wear the buckle and the teacher’s right to wear the t-shirt, the discussion exploded.  The teacher eventually disciplined both students, one for the buckle, and one for insisting that his Catholic faith forced him to disapprove of homosexuality.

Esolen brings up these snarled issues in all their complexity.  Does a Catholic student have a right to disapprove of homosexuality?  Does a teacher have a duty to discipline dissenting students?  Can a student wear offensive belt buckles or t-shirts?  What ideas are too offensive to be protected in schools?

Also, importantly, Esolen considers whether an economics teacher should be engaged in these sorts of pedagogical discussions.  If teachers are, as Esolen argues, “a group of tutors hired by a group of parents,” shouldn’t those teachers respect parents’ beliefs more rigorously?

Plumbers and Teachers

What is a teacher? A hired hand?  Or an independent scholar?  A functionary enrolled to help parents?  Or a professional charged to form young minds as she or he best sees fit?

Students of conservative educational activism like me often list the same litany of complaints made by conservatives about public schooling in the past century.  Schools, conservatives often complain, must not warp their students’ minds.  Schools should teach patriotism.  Schools should teach respect for religious values and traditional notions of right and wrong.  Some conservatives believe schools must not teach atheism and call it science.

But there remains one hugely important conservative issue that rarely gets the same amount of attention: conservative concern with the overweening authority of teachers and educational experts.

As part of his recent series on education at Front Porch Republic, Anthony Esolen articulates this traditional conservative frustration.

Esolen frames the question in a provocative fashion: What if teachers were plumbers?

Here is one of Esolen’s scenarios:

“Jones pokes his head into the basement. He hasn’t done that in two years. He’s told himself again and again that they must know what they are doing, they are the experts and he isn’t, they are from the government, and he must mind his own business. But the devil gets into him.

“‘What is that?’

“‘What is what?’

“‘That – that tangle of pipes! Why so many? It’s a maze! It takes up half the room. In some places you can’t stand up straight. It’s like what happens to a hundred foot extension cord. The whole contraption is in knots!’

“‘I fail to see what you are so concerned about. Presumably you wanted us to do your plumbing. Well, so we have. We’ve done a great deal more than you expected.’

“‘But it’s leaking all over the place! Why didn’t you just do the simple but necessary thing? Why didn’t you do what I hired you to do?’

“‘Hired, Mr. Jones?’”

In the research for my current book about twentieth-century conservative educational activism, I’ve seen this argument repeated with a variety of emphases.  For generations, conservative activists have argued that schools and teachers have taken too much authority over children.

For instance, during the 1920s school controversies, William Jennings Bryan famously argued, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

A generation later, in 1951, Ernest Brower, a conservative leader from Pasadena, California, complained to a state senate investigating committee that “progressive” education had seized too much control.  In their citizen investigation, Brower reported,

 “Well, you might liken public education, in Pasadena at least, and I think probably in other sections of the country as well, to a patient who is very sick, and so, naturally, the proper thing is to start looking for symptoms, and we found several symptoms of the disease. . . . we noticed there was a definite elimination of parental authority, undermining of parental influence.”

For Brower, as for Bryan and Esolen, this undermining of parental influence signaled the underlying “disease,” of which other educational problems were merely symptoms.

In 1968, conservative California school superintendent Max Rafferty agreed.  “Children,” Rafferty warned,

“do not belong to the state.  They do not belong to us educators, either.  They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.

“Because if you do forget it and let the kids become wards of an all-powerful government, you won’t have to look forward with fear and trembling any more to that dread year 1984.  It will be here, considerably ahead of schedule.”

In 1980, free-market economist Milton Friedman lent his considerable influence to this central conservative notion.  “Parents,” Friedman wrote,

“generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else.  Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them.  That is a gratuitous insult.”

We could multiply examples of this sentiment almost endlessly.  From the early years of the Heritage Foundation’s work, Connie Marshner insisted,

“A parent’s right to decide the direction of his child’s life is a sovereign right, as long as the child is subject to his parent.  Educators have no business creating dissatisfaction with and rebellion against parental wishes.”

Similarly, Texas school watchdog Norma Gabler echoed this sentiment in the 1980s,

“Number one, my sons belong to my husband and I.  They do not belong to you and the state—yet.”   

For all these leading conservative intellectuals and activists, one foundation of schooling is that it is a service provided for families by educators.  It has long been a source of intense frustration that progressive educators presume glibly to arrogate total control over children’s lives.

As Professor Esolen reflected in his recent essay series, this arrogance is all the more exasperating when it seems utterly unaware of its own ridiculousness.  We would not accept the fact that a plumber would ignore our wishes and have his way with our pipes.  Why, Esolen asks—echoing generations of conservative intellectuals—why do we accept this brazen arrogance from teachers?

Authority and Education

When is a school not a school?

According to Anthony Esolen, a school forfeits its rights to that name when it tries to abandon its authority over its students.

Esolen’s essay in Public Discourse is roughly a year old, but I came across it recently.  Esolen reviews Philippe Beneton’s Equality by Default and insists, among other things, that true education requires a submission of student to the authority of the teacher and the school.

For those of us struggling to understand the conservative tradition in American education, Esolen’s article is worth reading in its entirety.  Esolen articulates a position that has long been at the root of American protest against the excesses of progressive education.

True teachers must take on the burden of authority, Esolen believes.  This is not autocracy, but rather a humble assumption of responsibility for the formation of the young students in teachers’ care.  Such authentic, authoritarian teachers, Esolen argues,

“would no doubt have furrowed their brows to try to make the least sense of the educational patois of our day, which insists that school be ‘child-centered.’ It would be like asking a hymn to be ‘choir-centered,’ when the very purpose of a hymn is to bring the singers out of themselves, in devotion. So too the ‘child-centered’ classroom, if indeed it focuses on the tastes and habits of the children who happen to be there, mistakes both the nature of the child and the purpose of education. It ignores what the child, as a human person, most needs, and that is to give himself in love to what transcends his personality or his class or his age.”

Esolen articulates in this essay the philosophic core of traditionalist education.  Before we seek to reform our schools, Esolen argues, we need to clarify the true purpose of education.  “If the object is to produce an elite cadre of technicians,” Esolen argues, “. . . then I fail to see why people should support schools at all.”  True education, Esolen insists, consists of “the handing on of culture, against which the mass phenomena of our time, and the facile reductions of scientistic academe, array themselves in enmity.”

As I argue in the book I’m currently working on, tentatively titled The Other School Reformers, this notion has lodged squarely at the heart of conservative reform movements in American education throughout the twentieth century.  Though many activists and politicians could not express the idea as elegantly and coherently as Esolen does in this essay, conservative activists fighting against evolutionism, socialism, “sexualityism,” secular humanism, progressivism, and other perceived cultural problems in America’s schools usually based their protest on the notion that such doctrines fundamentally subvert the true purpose of education.

To cite just one example from the textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974, conservative businessman and activist Elmer Fike defined the two sides in any education controvery as follows:

“The traditionalists perceive education as a process of teaching the child the basic knowledge and skills.  Since some indoctrination is inevitable, it should promote the accepted social attitudes and morals of the society in which the child lives.  The job of the schools is considered to be the transmission of the tradition of the parents to the children in order to preserve society. . . .The progressives claim to object to any indoctrination because it gives too much power to the agency that determines the thrust of the indoctrination and because it does not teach the child how to examine ideas critically.  They would prefer that the child be allowed to examine all philosophies with a minimum of guidance.  Thus, the child develops the ability to choose what is best and will not, as a mature adult, be easily misled or indoctrinated by demagogues who offer simple solutions.  The philosophy is most easily summed up by the statement, ‘Teach the child how to think, not what to think.’  The progressives also prefer a minimum of discipline and greater freedom for the student to decide what or how he will study.”

For Fike, as for Esolen and generation of conservative educational activists, the first goal of school reform must be a thorough examination of the true purpose of education.  At their core, battles over sex ed, prayer in schools, and evolution education often boil down to competing visions.  Are schools first meant to pass along the cultural inheritance of our civilization?  Or are they mean to train children to challenge all inherited notions?