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?

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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.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What did you miss last week?  Here are a few stories that might be of interest…

The tradition continues: The entire faculty senate at Gordon College resigned suddenly this week. HT: JF

All you college teachers out there: Dan Willingham reviews two new studies about students who use laptops during lectures.  Dell won’t be happy.

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Words, words, words…

Senator Bernie Sanders introduces his free college-tuition plan. He doesn’t think it will pass, but that’s not the point.

Will privatization school reformers repeat the mistakes of the GOP health-care flop? Andrew Rotherham makes the case.

Why are some free-marketeers nervous about Betsy DeVos? They want more charters and more choices, too, but they think her plans to get them might backfire.

Hersh? Ze? They! Grammar nerds decide we can use “they” and “them” instead of “he or she” and “him and her.” As in “everybody has their opinion,” instead of “everybody has his or her opinion.”

Evangelical Christians have always had a complicated relationship to nationalism and patriotism.  Is America a “Christian nation?” Has God been “kicked out?”  Is Trump’s appeal to Christian nationalism anything new?  For a great set of academic articles considering these tough questions, check out the new volume of Religions, edited by the inestimable Mark Edwards.

 

DeVos’ Trump Card

Why, oh why, would anyone think Secretary Betsy DeVos was qualified to serve as leader of the Department of Education?  We see a hint this week from pro-DeVos protesters in Maryland.  Secretary DeVos is tapping into the most powerful impulse in American schooling.  Schools have always promised first and foremost to do something more important than readin, writin, and rithmatic, and DeVos gets it.

First, the background: Secretary DeVos teamed up with friendly GOP Governor Larry Hogan to visit a Bethesda elementary school.  They planned to read some Dr. Seuss to compliant little kids.

Recent Trump politics, however, turned the visit into a forum about Trump’s immigration policies.  As Politico reports, Governor Hogan attracted anti-Trump ire by insisting he would veto a school sanctuary bill for undocumented students.  Protesters blasted DeVos and Hogan for targeting immigrants.

Trump’s team, though, shifted the discussion to America’s primal fear about schooling.  Why should undocumented immigrants be rooted out of American schools?  Spokesperson Sean Spicer focused on the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl at a Maryland high school.  Her alleged attackers were in the country illegally, Spicer explained.

Secretary DeVos didn’t miss a beat.  Before she ventured out to visit another school, DeVos offered a public statement.  She didn’t talk about Dr. Seuss or the Common Core.  She didn’t talk about school vouchers or charter schools.  Instead, she talked about rape:

As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of this terrible crime.  We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.

At least some of the Bethesda protesters thought DeVos hit the nail on the head.  While most of the signs protested against DeVos’s policies, at least two of the protesters agreed with her.  One sign read, “Protect Children in Our Schools.”  Another said, “Thanks Betsy.”

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Safety First. Photo by Sonya Burke

For those Bethesda supporters and for DeVos fans across the nation, the most important job of schools is not teaching kids to read or to share.  Rather, the most important thing a school needs to do is keep children safe.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, no matter what the issue, conservatives were able to win when they built their arguments about children’s safety.  Because no one, of course, wants to put kids in danger.  So when anti-evolution protesters wanted to ban evolution, they compared evolution to poison.  When sex-ed protesters wanted to ban sex-ed, they compared sex-ed to rape.

Over and over again, protesters focused on safety.  And conservatives aren’t the only ones who win with this strategy.  These days, leftist college students and their faculty allies have scored terrific success in a seemingly quixotic campaign to ban controversial speakers from their campuses.  Pundits and professors have often been flabbergasted at the ways college administrators cave to such censorship.

Why is it so easy for protesters to ban ideas?  Because they appeal to administrators’ prime directive: Keeping students safe.  Listen to the odd apology given by Yale’s administration in the wake of the Christakis costume controversy.  Instead of talking about the politics of Halloween costumes, Dean Jonathan Halloway told student protesters,

Remember that Yale belongs to all of you, and you all deserve the right to enjoy the good of this place, without worry, without threats, and without intimidation.

First and foremost, no matter what the issue, safety wins.  As always, The Simpsons said it best.  In any discussion about schools or public policy, Helen Lovejoy could be counted on to wail, “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?”  It didn’t have to be relevant.  It didn’t have to be helpful.  But Helen would always belt it out, because she knew she could never lose by harping on the safety of the children.

It’s funny because it’s true.  And Secretary DeVos knows it.  We can argue about vouchers and charters.  We can hem and haw about religion in public schools.  But no one—NO ONE—will ever win a political fight in these United States by saying that schools can be risky places for kids.

Does Wal-Mart Want More Jesus in Public Schools?

The Walton Family loves school vouchers.

For years, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have pumped money into plans to privatize schooling in the US of A.  Most recently, we read that the Walton Family Foundation has donated six million bucks to the Alliance for School Choice.  Why?

The ASC has a track record of supporting vouchers.  Its enemies accuse it of being nothing but a front organization for “fundamentalist” schemes to re-religiousize public education.

Do the mega-rich Waltons hope to get more Jesus into America’s schools?

Readers of Bethany Moreton’s relatively recent book To Serve God and WalMart won’t be surprised to hear of the connection between conservative evangelical Protestantism and big-box retailing.  But even the most scathing critics of the Waltons’ educational policies have sometimes left out the religious angle.  Diane Ravitch, for example, blasted the Waltons for copying in education what Wal-Mart had achieved in retailing.  As she put it,

The foundation supports charters and vouchers, though it prefers vouchers. It seeks to create schools that are non-union and that are able to skim off students from the local public schools. In time, the local public schools will die, just as the Main Street stores died.

Other critics of the Waltons’ beneficence have focused more closely on the religious angle.  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for example, has long targeted both the Waltons and the Alliance for School Choice as leaders in the drive to sneak religion back into public schools through the back door of vouchers.  Rob Boston of Americans United, for instance, called ASC leader Betsy DeVos the “Four-Star General” leading a “Deceptive Behind-the-Scenes War on Public Schools and Church-State Separation.”

According to Boston, Devos is a “fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist” with a sneaky goal: “nothing short of a radical re-creation of education in the United States, with tax-supported religious and other private schools replacing the traditional public school system.”

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask the tricky question: what’s the relationship between free-marketism and Jesus?  Groups such as the ASC and the Walton Family Foundation seem committed to both.  In the realm of schooling, that means vouchers.  For many conservatives, vouchers seem to contain a triple promise.  They can weaken the grip of teachers’ unions by diverting tax money away from union-dominated public school systems.  They can bring more ol’-time religion into schooling by funding religious schools.  And they can give parents and families the magic wand of consumer choice.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s a logical or theological connection between these policy ideas.  That is, from my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology.  Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.

And there’s one other puzzle we need to suss out.  If these privatization campaigns are about both Jesus and capitalism, why don’t promoters mention either?  When the Alliance for School Choice tells us about itself, it does not mention religion or the panacea of the marketplace.  Why not?

For critics, this is all part of the ASC’s “sneak attack” on secular public schools.  The ASC wants more Jesus and more Milton Friedman, this line of argument goes, but wraps those goals in anodyne calls for more school choice for low-income families.  But why would conservatives try to hide their love for public religion or for capitalism?  Most conservatives make no secret of their goals.  Why would they hide their love for public religiosity or market-ism in this case?