I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Up here in the wilds of upstate New York, Spring has finally Sprung. Your humble editor abandoned his computer screen to poke his nose outside of his cave this week. Nevertheless, stuff kept happenin. Here are some of the stories we might have missed this week…

Does American education willfully neglect the needs of smart kids? That’s the argument Pratik Chougule makes this week at The American Conservative.

reading cat

Words, words, words

When are public-school Bible classes problematic? When they ask kids to imagine Adam & Eve frolicking with dinosaurs. We see yet another case this week. This time, it’s from West Virginia, as reported in WaPo.

You’re sick of hearing about the “Benedict Option” for conservative religious folks. Well, how about the “faithful compromise” of a Daniel Option?

New York City just went all in. Conservatives typically denigrate the effectiveness of government preschool programs. Who’s right? A new nerd report from Brookings highlights our knowledge about pre-K effectiveness.

Forget Benedict, It’s the DeVos Option

You’ve heard it by now: Rod Dreher is pushing a “Benedict Option” for religious conservatives. He wants the good people of America to pull back from mainstream society into purer enclaves. When it comes to our long-simmering creation/evolution debates, that sort of BO has never really been necessary. And Trump’s latest executive order makes it even less so. Why would creationists retreat when they’ve already won?

berkman plutzer REAL chart

Traditional schools, traditional teachers, traditional “science”

In case you haven’t seen it yet, President Trump has continued his charm offensive with America’s conservatives. In his latest executive order, he has promised conservatives something they have long yearned for: greater local control of public education. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos will conduct a 300-day study into the issue. She is charged to find ways to limit the influence of the federal government in local schools.

As DeVos crowed, this order gives her

a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached. . . . And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.

Obviously, there are enough dog-whistles in there to win an Iditarod. Conservative activists have long yearned to shackle the federal education bureaucracy. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, since the 1930s conservatives have looked askance at federal control of local schools. Time and time again, distant experts have advocated more racial integration, more evolution, and more multiculturalism in K-12 schools. Time and time again, state and local officials have pushed back, fighting for more religion, more segregation, and more traditionalism.

In the specific case of evolution and creationism, creationists have always worried that outside control meant more evolution. Back in the 1920s, for example, anti-evolution leader William Jennings Bryan railed endlessly about the infamous influence of outside “oligarchs” on local schools. The local hand that wrote the paycheck, Bryan insisted, must rule the schools.

Bryan wasn’t alone. In North Carolina, anti-evolution activists blasted their university president for pushing evolution into their flagship public state university. President Harry Chase, they charged, was nothing but a “damn Yankee,” messing up local schools by importing “modernists, Darwinian apologists, and Northerners.”

In the case of evolution education, though, creationists have always had the last laugh. Yes, conservatives have worried about the influence of outside experts. But in most schools, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, local values dominate. Local attitudes were the most important factor, they found, in determining how much creationism was taught in public school science classes. As they put it,

Traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture (pp. 199-200).

In communities that favor creationism, teachers teach it. In communities that are on the fence, teachers mumble about it.

So why would creationists ever want to retreat to Benedictine purity? They have already won. And, as Secretary DeVos promises even greater local control, creationists have even more cause to celebrate. As young-earth activist Jay Hall put it recently, “we support the efforts of the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice.”

More choice plus more local control equals more creationism.

So, though there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to head for the hills, evolution education ain’t one of em. Local schools have always allowed local creationists to dictate the goings-on in most science classes.

And Secretary DeVos’ new local imperative seems destined to only make local creationist control stronger.

Christian Colleges Find LGBT Loophole

What are conservative Christians to do? Since the US Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage must be recognized nationwide, some conservatives have called for retreat, for the “Benedict Option.” Christian colleges, some fret, are in a particularly difficult position, since they could be forced to violate their own religious principles in order to include same-sex couples, transgender students and faculty, and unmarried homosexual students and faculty. Some schools, however, have taken advantage of a loophole in federal law that seems to alleviate some of these fears. This loophole, however, only sidesteps the real problem; it leaves the most important questions unaddressed.

First, a little background: As we noted in the run-up to the Obergefell decision, conservative religious colleges worried that the SCOTUS ruling could force them into an impossible position. It would not be theologically possible for many schools to introduce housing for same-sex couples, for instance. Yet if they did not, they would be in violation of non-discrimination rules.

As I predicted based on my current research into the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this kind of thing would likely lead to another fracture among the network of conservative colleges and universities.

Once the decision was passed, it did indeed prompt a split among conservative Christian schools. Some schools immediately changed their policies about homosexuality to accommodate the ruling. Others doubled down on their existing policies banning homosexuality.

We read with interest this week that some three dozen religious schools have applied for a waiver from Title IX. Via the New York Times, we see news from The Column that handfuls of Christian college have successfully applied for waivers.

Column list of schools

Waivers for all?

As The Column reports, the original language of Title IX banned sex- and gender-based discrimination at institutions of higher education. But it included a vital loophole. Such rules, the law stated, could be waived in some cases. As Andy Birkey of The Column puts it,

When Title IX was passed in 1972 to combat discrimination based on sex, Congress added a small but powerful provision that states that an educational institution that is “controlled by a religious organization” does not have to comply if Title IX “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

Apparently, thirty-six schools have applied for these waivers, and twenty-seven have been approved. For many of the schools, the Christian Legal Society has provided a how-to guide to apply for such waivers.

For conservative colleges, this waiver might seem to solve their legal and religious pickle. But it will not heal the rift between such schools. Schools such as Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, have already left the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They changed their policies to welcome homosexual faculty, and presumably transgender faculty as well.

This loophole might provide wiggle room for some conservative religious schools. It leaves the most important questions on the table, however. What is the proper religious attitude toward non-heterosexual sex? Toward non-traditional marriages? Toward gender identity and sexuality as a whole?

Does Your School Smell of BO?

Conservative intellectuals these days are talking a lot about the “Benedict Option.” The idea is to create intentional communities that preserve traditional values as mainstream culture hurtles ever-faster toward anti-Christian values. In the wake of Supreme Court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, will such ideas catch on?

Short answer: No. If history is any guide, conservative evangelicals, at least, will continue to feel quite at home in their local mainstream communities. A quick burst of community-founding might happen, but it will likely ebb once conservatives realize how un-alienated they are from the mainstream.

Blogger Rod Dreher seems to have sparked the recent discussion of a “Benedict Option.” Dreher profiled intentional lay communities in Clear Creek, Oklahoma and Eagle River, Alaska. He asked if more conservative Christians would follow suit:

Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

As Dreher has developed the idea, it has naturally come to focus on educational goals. Even in staunchly Christian communities, Dreher has argued, the public schools lack any sense of guiding values. Kids in fifth grade share porn; they have no beef with same-sex marriage. Even in such apparent Christian havens as small-town Louisiana, Dreher believes, kids and their parents have embraced a bland, therapeutic religiosity. The Benedict Option, Dreher thinks, offers conservatives their only hope. As he put it,

There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive.

Dreher has taken some heat from fellow conservatives for culture-war pessimism. Not every conservative wants to turn inward. But as Dreher recently noted, many prominent evangelical thinkers such as Russell Moore seem to be adopting a BO approach to mainstream culture.

Similarly, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University has recently endorsed a BO attitude. Earlier this week, Kidd wrote,

for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

As Dreher and other BO-friendly conservatives repeat, BO does not mean Amish. It does not mean turning away entirely from mainstream culture. In some BO communities, for instance, families make their money from internet telecommuting. They insist on remaining engaged in mainstream politics and local affairs, even as they insist on retaining more control over their children’s upbringing.

Will the Benedict Option attract more and more support from conservative Christians? If history is any guide, the likely answer is no. As Dreher, Kidd, and Moore all realize, the tension among conservative Christians between engagement and withdrawal is as old as Christianity itself. In recent American history, as I’ve argued in academic articles about Christian schools and school prayer, evangelical Protestants have tended to wax and wane in their enthusiasm for BO approaches to schooling.

In 1963, SCOTUS decided that the Lord’s Prayer could not be recited in public schools, nor could the Bible be read devotionally. This decision caused some conservative evangelicals to conclude that they had been kicked out of public school and American society.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.” No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried. Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America. In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed. The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These attitudes helped fuel a burst of new Christian schools in the 1970s. But as Christian-school leaders are painfully aware, many of those new schools couldn’t survive. Why? At least in part, because not enough conservatives feel alienated from their local mainstream communities. Why should they?

As I argue in my new book, public schools are far more conservative places than most pundits acknowledge. There is a lot of talk among both progressives and conservatives about the progressive takeover of public education, but for most Americans, their local schools remain fairly conservative places.

At the very top, leaders such as Arne Duncan embrace free-market approaches to education reform. In places such as Texas, creationist homeschoolers—folks who might fairly call themselves BO activists—have risen to the top of the state public educational hierarchy.

Why would conservatives think that they no longer had any pull in public schools? As Dreher is fully aware, many conservatives do not object to mainstream culture; they feel no yearning to give their children a radically different upbringing. If that’s the case, talk of BO in schools will not be a more than a minority sentiment.

Just as relatively few progressives abandon public schools for purer options, so too only a handful of conservatives will make the sacrifices necessary to give their children a BO education.