The Prodigal College Returns

The trend seems clear: Michigan, Florida State, Texas State, Ohio State, and other big schools have banned fraternities. School administrators are scrambling to control dangerous drinking, deadly hazing, and horrifying sexual assault. I can’t help but ask: Have the fundamentalists been proven right?

blanchard hall

Do all paths lead back to Blanchard Hall?

A hundred years ago, after all, as I explore in my new book, fundamentalists founded their new network of evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities for two main reasons. First, they wanted an intellectual refuge. Mainstream colleges, fundamentalists universally agreed, had drunk the Kool-aid of evolutionism and materialism. At least as dangerous, however, were the behavioral norms that had come to prevail at mainstream schools.

In the 1920s, fundamentalist school leaders such as Charles Blanchard at Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones at Bob Jones College in Florida promised their schools would protect students from both loose ideas and loose behavior.

At Wheaton, for example, fraternities were banned, along with smoking, drinking, cinema, dancing, and card-playing. The school posted spies outside the downtown movie theater to make sure Wheaton students weren’t sneaking in. At Bob Jones, students were prohibited from “loitering,” talking freely with members of the opposite sex, and absolutely anything that hinted of “jazz.”

For a century now, evangelical schools have been mocked as small-minded anti-intellectual “church colleges,” hopelessly out of touch with modern higher ed. They have also been attacked—often by their own students—as ridiculously controlling.

Back when he was a Wheaton student in 1966, for example, historian Mark Noll led the drive to reexamine the “Pledge.” It was simply not possible, students felt, for them to receive a decent college education if they weren’t allowed to make their own decisions. They were embarrassed to tell their friends at other schools that they weren’t allowed to go to the movies.

But who is embarrassed now? As leaders of secular colleges struggle to find ways to impose restrictions on student behavior, are they reverting to fundamentalist arguments of the 1920s? As Frank Bruni argued recently in the New York Times,

On a range of fronts, fraternities — and sororities — contradict our stated values and undercut our supposed goals for higher education, putting our inconsistencies and hypocrisies under a magnifying glass.

To ban them, though, or even to take real moves to enforce rules against certain types of student behavior, wouldn’t be as simple as it seems. As the first generation of fundamentalist college leaders lamented, a central principle of mainstream higher education has been the notion that students themselves must be in charge of their decisions.

To make any real change in the deadly culture at many frats, mainstream college leaders would need to make big changes in the way they see their role. Like fundamentalist colleges and their evangelical heirs, mainstream schools would need to insist on their roles as moral guardians.

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Are Evangelical Colleges Obsolete?

What is the point of sending your kid to a conservative religious college? For almost a century now, many conservative evangelical families have worried that if they didn’t, liberal or secular colleges would steal the faith of their Christian children. New research data suggest that those fears might no longer be realistic. But the new study won’t reassure evangelical parents or college administrators.

As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of evangelical higher education [shameless plug: Pre-orders available now!], a leading reason evangelicals established their own network of dissenting colleges and universities in the 1920s was the fear that mainstream college robbed children of their faith.

As he appealed to fundamentalist parents to send their kids to his new Bob Jones College, for example, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell a scary story: A good Christian family scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to a fancy mainstream college. “At the end of nine months,” Jones reported,

she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Never fear, Jones said. Though mainstream colleges had gone to the dogs, new fundamentalist schools like his could be trusted to protect children’s faith in the crucial college years.

Those fundamentalist fears were not left back in the early twentieth century. Today’s conservative leaders, too, warn of the deadly spiritual threat of liberal colleges. A few years back, young-earth creationist pundit Ken Ham defended his insistence on pure creationist colleges. As he put it, too many schools—even nominally evangelical Christian ones—end up putting intellectual

stumbling blocks in . . . children’s way that could lead them to doubt and ultimately disbelieve the Scriptures.

In every century the evangelical assumption has been the same: The college years are a uniquely important and a uniquely dangerous time for young people. If children are raised in conservative evangelical homes, skeptical college professors might turn them away from their family faith.

Religious-Switching-Unaffiliated-Table-1-1024x491

Could be worse; could be Notre Dame…

New data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggest that colleges aren’t really to blame when young people ditch their religion. At least, not anymore. PRRI’s Daniel Cox explains that more young people these days are leaving their religions before they enter college. As he writes at FiveThirtyEight,

Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years. But this was not always the case. Those age 65 or older who left their childhood religion reported doing so much later: Only 38 percent who reported leaving their religion did so during their childhood years. The majority (63 percent) of unaffiliated senior citizens left during their college and post-college years.

In other words, the college years USED TO be a vital time, a time of choosing to leave or stay with one’s childhood religion. It seems like that’s not really true today.

Does this mean that conservative evangelical colleges have become obsolete? If one main purpose of those schools is to nurture and protect evangelical faith, it seems as if they are not useful. Rather, if we accept this data, it would seem that evangelicals should focus on K-12 schools instead.

And we should note that evangelical college leaders might look at this data in a more optimistic way. According to the PRRI study, evangelical Protestants are losing adherents at a much lower rate than other American Christian groups. Evangelicalism is still losing young people, that is, but much slower than Catholicism or “mainline” Protestantism. It could be argued that evangelical colleges have helped stem the anti-religious tide among evangelical young people.

Still and all, I’m glad I’m not president of an evangelical college. If I were, I would wonder what to tell parents of potential students. If I couldn’t promise to help protect students’ faith, I wouldn’t have much else to talk about.

How Do You Know?

It might seem sloppy or even a little slapdash. Historians claim to know things about the past, but most of us don’t have hard-and-fast proof for the arguments we make. This morning I’d like to share one small example of the way the process works, at least in the case of my upcoming book.

I just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s Landscape of History with my graduate class. Gaddis is a leading historian of the Cold War. In Landscape of History, he argues that academic historians don’t try to make the same claims as social scientists. And that’s okay.Gaddis landscape

Gaddis uses a painting of a wanderer looking down on a fog-cloaked valley to illustrate his point. Historians can never be absolutely sure of their data; they are like the wanderer—looking into a distance that is cloaked and ultimately mysterious. Some social-scientists might object that the process makes claims it can’t back up with real data. Gaddis describes one such encounter:

Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain his method of writing history to a group of social, physical, and biological scientists attending a conference I’d organized. He at first resisted this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he described it as follows:

“I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the direction of what I’m reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem, which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”

McNeill’s presentation elicited expressions of disappointment, even derision, from the economists, sociologists, and political scientists present. “That’s not a method,” several of them exclaimed. “It’s not parsimonious, it doesn’t distinguish between independent and dependent variables, it hopelessly confuses induction and deduction.”

Gaddis liked the method anyway, and so do I. As I’m reviewing my research files for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education (available for preorder now!) I came across a few items that didn’t make the final cut, but they do help illustrate the way I came to make the arguments I’m making.

One of the central arguments of the book is that evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have always been subjected to furious scrutiny from the national network of fundamentalists. There has always been a strong sense among the evangelical public that evangelical colleges must be held to a high standard of religious purity. Naturally, parents and alumni of every sort of college watch their schools closely. After all, they might be spending big bucks to send their kids there. In the case of evangelical higher education, even unaffiliated busybodies feel entirely justified—even compelled—to intrude.stenholm notes in controversial Kodon

Another key argument of the book concerns the feud between the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the conservative-evangelical family. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the fundamentalist network split into fundamentalist and new-evangelical camps. Some historians have called this a “decisive break” or an “irreparable breach,” but at institutions of higher education, it always felt more like a continuing family feud. At least, that’s the argument I make in the book.

How do I know?

As Professors McNeill and Gaddis insist, it is mostly a question of time. I spent long hours and days in the archives of various schools. I read everything. As I did so, ideas about these themes developed. As they did, I went back and reread everything. Did the idea seem to match the historic record? Over and over again, I noticed that school administrators fretted about the eternal and invasive fundamentalist scrutiny to which they were subjected. Over and over again, I noticed the tones of betrayal, hurt, and intimate outrage that characterized the disagreements between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” schools.

Not all the evidence made it into the book. One episode I do discuss is a controversial student publication from Wheaton College in Illinois. Back when he was an earnest evangelical student in the early 1960s, Wes Craven—yes, the Nightmare on Elm Street guy—was the student editor of Wheaton’s literary magazine. As part of his intellectual revolt against fundamentalism, Craven published two stories that he knew would ruffle fundamentalist feathers. In one, an unmarried woman wonders what to do about her pregnancy. In another, a white woman is sexually attracted to an African American man.

A quirk of the archives helped me see the ways the controversy unfolded. At the time Craven’s magazine came out, Gilbert Stenholm had been working at fundamentalist Bob Jones University for quite some time. He kept everything. His archive files are full of unique documents that helped me see how fundamentalist higher education worked in practice.

For example, he saved his copy of Craven’s controversial student magazine. His notes in the margins helped me understand the ways fundamentalists were outraged by their new-evangelical cousins. Along the edges of one story, an outraged Stenholm penned in one shocked word: “Profanity!” Elsewhere, Stenholm filled the margins with exclamation points.

What did this one-of-a-kind archival find tell me? It helped me see that fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University had never really washed their hands of evangelical schools like Wheaton. For Stenholm, at least, the goings-on at Wheaton were always of intense interest. And it helped clarify to me the ways members of the far-flung fundamentalist community watched one another. They were always nervous about slippage—always anxious that trustworthy schools could slide into the liberal camp.

Stenholm’s outrage in the case of Craven’s student magazine didn’t make the book’s final cut, but this copy of Wheaton’s student magazine in Stenholm’s collection told me a lot. It doesn’t serve as the kind of “parsimonious,” independent-variable method that Gaddis’s social scientists would prefer. But taken all together, bits and pieces of archival gold like this one guided me to the argument I finally “ship[ped] . . . off to the publisher.”

Felony Football Assault at Fundamentalist U

The world of evangelical higher education is reeling at the revelations from Wheaton College in Illinois. Five football players have been charged with felony assault in a brutal hazing incident. The incident reminds us of the long tensions between aggressive, win-at-any-cost college athletics and the behavioral rules of evangelical colleges.

1940s MBI banner and patch
Rah rah.

 

It’s easy enough to forget nowadays, when big evangelical schools like Liberty are making their mark in the competitive world of college athletics. Since the beginning, however, as I detail in my new book, thoughtful evangelicals wondered if the pressures that inevitably accompanied sports success threatened the mission of their religious institutions.

The story from Wheaton is gruesome. A freshman football player was attacked in his dorm room by senior teammates. His wrists were duct-taped together and he was thrown into the back of a car. His teammates piled in on top of him, threatening him with sexual assault. As Chris Gehrz has pointed out, the language they used—crudely blaring that Muslims commonly engaged in bestiality and sexual aggression—points out the deep structural flaws that can cocoon students at evangelical schools. Even worse, Wheaton seemed to be willing to sweep this assault under the rug, letting the players keep playing after they performed some community service and wrote apologetic essays.

The victim ended up abandoned half-naked in a field with torn muscles in both shoulders. He immediately left the school.

Sadly, there’s nothing unique about this sort of brutal collegiate assault, done under the banner of team-building “hazing.”

Schools like Wheaton, however, have built their reputation as different sorts of schools, schools that hold their students to a higher standard of conduct. As long as there have been evangelical colleges and universities of this sort, however, there have been deep tensions about athletic programs. For many schools, hosting winning sports programs are an intrinsic part of being a “real” college.

Back in 1944, for example, one Wheaton student wrote home in excitement that the new sports program (it only started in 1939 at Wheaton) gave her school a tradition to embrace. As she prepared to head to the weekly football game, she told her mother that the game against rival North Central College was a big deal on campus. “You see,” she explained to her mother,

Wheaton is to N.C. what Army is to Navy, or Harvard is to Yale.

Even in the sequestered world of the Moody Bible Institute, students glowered at their relative lack of athletic success. In 1945, one student complained that MBI teams should earn more wins. In spite of their large student body and their good athletic facilities, this student wrote in the student paper, the MBI “A” team still lost at basketball to the Wheaton “Bs.”

There had always been anxiety about the behavioral implications of athletics. In its first years, for example, Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University only in 1946) fielded teams under the name the “Swamp Angels.” The school’s leaders soon canceled the athletic program, however. As Bob Jones Jr. later remembered,

We found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles.

Even in that first generation of evangelical higher education back in the 1920s, critics charged that school leaders cared more about sports success than soul-saving. The short-lived and ill-fated fundamentalist experiment at Des Moines University demonstrated this conundrum better than any other school. When Toronto’s fundamentalist firebrand T. T. Shields stormed into town and took over the school, he fired all the faculty and forced them to reapply. Every potential faculty member went through an intrusive personal interview regime to get their jobs back. The entire faculties of the science and math departments quit in disgust. But not the football coach. Observers quickly noted that the coach was welcomed back in spite of his open cynicism about evangelical religion. When asked if he had been converted, for example–“born again”—the coach reputedly sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.”bju banner

Even elite Wheaton can’t claim innocence about questions of athletic influence. As soon as it started its athletics programs in the 1930s, critics on and off campus charged that football coach Fred Walker was not an appropriate evangelical role model. Walker was accused of a non-Christian tough-guy approach to coaching, cussing at players and using foul language to belittle them. In spite of all the charges, Wheaton kept Walker on.

Even back then, the college wanted to be seen as a real college. It wanted students to think of Wheaton as more than just a dumpy second-rate church school. Part of the package, since the very beginning, was a game-winning athletics program.

The behavior of students and administrators in this recent assault are nothing new. They only remind us of the ever-present tension at evangelical colleges like Wheaton. Like every school, Wheaton gives its athletes too much leeway. The results are often criminal and catastrophic.

Whew…

It wasn’t pretty, but it got done. I just sent in my proofs and index for Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. It’s a huge relief—that’s the last step for me before the book comes out.

index mash up FUndy U

How the sausage gets made…

Making an index is a weird job. There are professional indexers you can hire, but to me it seems like an intrinsic part of an author’s job. Nobody knows the book as well as the author; no one can tell what sections need to be emphasized in the index and which ones can be cut out.

Making this index wasn’t particularly fun, but it was a good chance for me to pore over the proofs one last time. It allowed me to think about the book’s argument from a new perspective and get a new take on writing I did quite a while ago.

So what’s next? I just sent it all in to the Oxford folks and they will put it all together. We’re hoping the book will come out in early 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

What Is the REAL Deal with Fundamentalists and the Big Eclipse?

As Bart Simpson put it best, “The ironing is delicious.” Secular folks like me blast kooky fundamentalists for their wacky ignorance of science, while we ourselves show a curiously stubborn ignorance about what fundamentalists really believe. Tomorrow’s big eclipse gives us another example of the way most outsiders don’t understand conservative evangelical culture.

What are fundamentalists thinking about tomorrow’s eclipse? It might be tempting to agree with the right-wing watchers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The AU folks stumbled across a blog post from Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz. Lotz worried that the eclipse is meant as a warning of God’s impending judgment on the USA. Foolish Americans, Lotz warned, are blithely

preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites. The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  While Belshazzar and his friends partied, they were oblivious to the impending danger.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed.

At Americans United, Rob Boston warned that this sort of blather proved the sad truth about “fundamentalist Christians these days.” Folks like Lotz, Boston wrote, wallow in their

utter repudiation of science. It’s not that they can’t understand it – they choose not to try. Furthermore, they often heap disdain upon it.

Now, I’m no fundamentalist and I’m not worried that the eclipse is a fulfillment of Joel 2:31 or Ezekiel 33:1-6. In fact, I don’t really care what the Bible says about eclipses or anything else. But as I work on my new book about American creationism and my soon-to-be-released book about the history of evangelical higher ed, I can’t help but protest that Boston’s viewpoint is astoundingly ironic. Secular anti-fundamentalists like Boston (and me) need to do more to understand the real relationship between conservative evangelical religion and mainstream science. Too often, it’s not that we can’t understand it, it’s that we choose not to try. And then we often heap disdain upon it.

…oh, the ironing!

In fact, even the most conservative radical creationist institutions in these United States are acting remarkably similar to mainstream institutions in their embrace of tomorrow’s eclipse as a way to bring science to the masses. To be sure, it’s a very different sort of science, what ILYBYGTH calls “zombie science,” but it is nearly the opposite of an “utter repudiation” of science. Radical creationists LOVE science; they engage in endless missionary outreach to bring their vision of real Biblical science to the benighted secular and moderate-evangelical multitudes.

At Answers In Genesis, for example, radical creationist missionaries are falling all over themselves to help curious people view the eclipse and draw the correct scientific lessons from it.

At fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, administrators are pulling out all the stops to use the eclipse to spread the word. Located right in the path of totality, BJU is hosting a huge party, with speakers explaining the proper way to understand the relationship between the Bible and science.

bju eclipse

Belshazzar at BJU?

Bryan College, too, another creationist stalwart, is throwing a viewing party on campus, with faculty experts offering lectures on the proper fundamentalist way to understand eclipses.

Are these radical-creationist institutions saying the same thing as secular institutions about the eclipse? Of course not. No secular scientific experts care much about the Bible’s explanation of eclipses. But just as secular scientific organizations are using eclipse mania to attract attention to their programs, so too are these creationist groups crowing about their scientific expertise and their many scientific resources.

So, even though some conservative evangelicals are warning people away from viewing parties and eclipse-related hubbubbery, many more are using the eclipse as a way to explain their vision of the proper relationship between God and science.

What Kind of School Abuses Its Students?

Depressing news: No matter how hard you try to insulate and protect your kids, you can’t rely on schools to help. From the fanciest prep schools to the firmest fundamentalist redoubts, no school is safe.

You may have seen the news. Recent self-investigations at elite prep schools have turned up sordid but depressingly unsurprising news. Institutions such as Andover and Choate looked the other way at sexual abuse of students by faculty members, even writing strong letters of recommendation so that abusers could move on to fertile new fields.

frederic lyman

Preying on the elite…

The New York Times reported recently, for example, that Frederic Lyman serially abused students at a string of fancy prep schools. When he was found out, he was asked to leave and given a glowing letter of recommendation.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sadly aware, evangelical schools have similar ugly histories. Institutions such as Bob Jones University have engaged in their own processes of self-examination and come up with some alarming results. Time after time, victims were blamed, abusers were enabled.

It forces us to ask the tough question: Why can’t schools protect students? After all, institutions such as Bob Jones University and Choate rely on their reputations as peculiarly protective places. BJU promises to keep students safe from any hint of liberalism. Choate promises to insulate students from any hint of the hoi polloi. Yet neither of them protect their students in this most basic way.

I’ve argued earlier in these pages that this is more than just a weird irony. Rather, it is precisely because of their peculiar status that these sorts of unusual schools cover up sexual abuse. After all, the pattern holds for other types of schools as well. It was not in spite of, but because of, their unique status as football powerhouses such as Penn State and Florida State covered up shocking sex-abuse revelations.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that niche schools have the most to lose—in terms of their all-important reputations—that they have such terrible records when it comes to sexual abuse.

From the Archives III: Playing the Rice Card

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

Were white evangelicals racist? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but.

In Fundamentalist U, I’m working hard to tease out the ways evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, institutes, universities, and seminaries wrestled with questions of race and racism in the twentieth century. It wasn’t easy, but I had to cut one of the most intriguing sections of my chapter.

Here’s what happened: In 1970, fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice came out in favor of Bob Jones University’s racial-segregation policy. The leaders of Moody Bible Institute had just invited Rice to give one of the most prominent speeches in their annual Founder’s Week celebration.

What was MBI to do? Like most white evangelicals in the era, they had moved away from the unabashed racism that they had shown since the 1930s. But they hated to alienate Dr. Rice and the potent strain of unreconstructedly racist fundamentalism that he represented.anti john rice demonstration warning letter

As MBI’s leaders hemmed and hawed, they received a clumsy letter opposed to Rice’s appearance at MBI. The authors go to awkward lengths to insist they are not students at MBI—and honestly I have no evidence that they were—but the language and content of the letter seem to suggest that it was written by MBI students.

What does this tell us about white racism at evangelical institutions? Here are some of my thoughts and I’ll welcome yours:

1.) White evangelicals in 1970 often opposed their historic racism.

2.) They often did so as part and parcel of their evangelical belief.

3.) Institutions—even ones that wanted to move away from their segregated pasts—hesitated to alienate powerful fundamentalist factions.

4.) Students at evangelical schools closely watched the goings-on at secular colleges and often mimicked the activism of their secular peers.

5.) Student activists often misunderstood the attitudes of their school administrators.

In this case, at least, MBI President William Culbertson was as ardently anti-racist as any student, but he didn’t want to hurt his school by insulting John R. Rice too publicly. When the cards were down, however, Culbertson went ahead and cut off Rice, consequences be damned.

As Culbertson wrote to John R. Rice, they both agreed on theology, but they had split on questions of race and racism. If Rice were to come speak at MBI, Culbertson concluded, it would give

the impression that the Institute agrees with your views in this regard. This cannot be.

College Has Gone to the Dogs

Who hates college? Nobody, really. But if you squinted your eyes a little when you read the recent Pew poll results, you might be fooled into thinking conservatives had suddenly turned against higher education.PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_party

Here’s what we know: Since 2010, Pew has surveyed American adults about their feelings toward major institutions. In just the last few years, more and more respondents who identify as Republican or Republican-ish say that higher education is having a negative overall effect on American society. In 2010, only a third of Republicans thought so. Today, it is up to 58%.

What’s going on? As always, Pew wisely doesn’t jump to hasty conclusions. My guess is that many of us chatterers will rush to say that conservatives in general are anti-intellectual, or that conservatives think college is a waste of time. Or, given the sudden shift in numbers, maybe that conservatives are dismayed by the snowflake protests that seem to be sweeping American campuses.

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it.

First of all, obviously, we can’t equate “conservative” with “Republican.” True enough, these days most conservatives’ votes have been captured by the GOP. Not all, though. And certainly not all Republicans are conservatives.pp second graph

I think there’s also something more important going on. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’ve been up to my eyeballs for the past few years in research about American higher education. The group of conservative dissenting college founders I’m studying was often accused of being anti-intellectual and anti-college. They were neither.

As I’m arguing in my upcoming book, Protestant fundamentalists cared a lot about ideas and about college. They loved college. But if you only listened to their rhetoric, it would be easy to assume too quickly that they were somehow opposed to higher education.

Consider, for example, one apocryphal story that made the rounds among 1920s fundamentalist pundits. It was supposed to be a letter home from an evangelical college grad. As he supposedly told his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.  I hope you will warn the young men of the impending danger just ahead of them.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, college was a terrible spiritual danger. But that didn’t mean they were against college. Rather, they were fervently against college done wrong. They were against the trends that they correctly perceived to be driving mainstream trends in higher ed.

What did they do? They didn’t stop sending their kids to college. Rather, they founded their own institutions, reliably fundamentalist colleges such as Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) and Bryan University (now Bryan College). They also flocked to existing reliably fundamentalist institutions such as Wheaton College and the Moody Bible Institute.

My hunch is that today’s Pew respondents are similar. When they tell pollsters they don’t trust college or “the media,” it doesn’t mean they don’t like higher education or newspapers. Rather, it means they don’t trust the smarmy elites that they think run such institutions.

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend. But they would prefer to find a school that reflected their own values, instead of the radical leftism that many people think dominates colleges today.

A Fundamentalist Flop?

Bad news: You just failed English. What can you do? In several school districts, you can take an approved online class to make up the credit. Recently, Slate reporters examined these online classes to see if they were any good. Mostly, they weren’t. Lurking at the very bottom of the barrel were sad-sack online tutorials provided for homeschoolers by the fundamentalists at Pensacola Christian College. Has PCC’s rigid traditional philosophy has caught up to it? Or are they providing precisely what fundamentalists want?

Thanks to the ever-watchful curmudgucrat Peter Greene, we stumbled across an intriguing update to our study of fundamentalist curriculum. Slate worked with the Columbia School of Journalism’s Teacher Project to produce an eight-part expose of “online credit-recovery” programs. At most schools, students who fail a class can take one of these online modules in order to graduate. Like old-fashioned correspondence courses, these new programs hover in the depressing gray area between unfortunate necessity and outright scam. In some cases, students taking these courses don’t learn a thing, but their “success” can be used by school districts to inflate their graduation statistics.

The online catch-up courses sometimes fill a real need and serve students who don’t have a better option. In some cases, though, they are pure educational garbage. Francesca Berardi and Zoë Kirsch picked three programs that they called the “bottom of the class.” Your humble editor noticed an old fundamentalist friend on the shortlist: A Beka Academy.

Baker successful christian school

Taking the “fun” out of fundamentalism

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall our earlier work with A Beka. The publishing company has its roots at Pensacola Christian College. Back in the 1970s, Arlin and Beka Horton (A + Beka…get it?) complained that their alma mater Bob Jones University had gone soft. They warned Bob Jones III that leaders of BJU’s ed school such as Walter Fremont and Phil Smith had imported dangerous secular ideas into their teacher-training program.

What fundamentalist schools really needed, the Hortons insisted, was fundamentalist religion delivered in a traditional top-down way by authoritarian teachers. As one A Beka proponent explained back in the 1970s,

Above all, Christian schools must be steered completely clear of the philosophy that has progressively wrecked the public schools. Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child.  Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting).  They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

What should a good classroom look like? As A.A. “Buzz” Baker described, the classroom should be catechetical. Teachers give information. If students are to respond, they do so in an orderly and scripted way. Consider, for example, this A Beka-recommended “doctrinal drill” for classrooms:

Teacher’s Statement:

“Heaven is a real place, just as real as this room.  It is a wonderful, safe, happy home where God lives.  God wants everyone to come there and live with Him.  Anyone who has taken Jesus as his Savior will be able to go to heaven and live forever with God; but anyone who has not taken Jesus as his Savior cannot go to heaven, but must go to a terrible place of eternal punishment.”

Drill Questions:

  1. Will everybody get to go to heaven? No.

  2. Who gets to go to heaven? The people who trust in Jesus and who take Him as their Savior while they live here on earth.

  3. Does God want everybody to go to heaven? Yes.

  4. Why won’t everybody get to go to heaven? Because some people won’t take Jesus as their own Savior.

In the A Beka world—a world that is populated by plenty of homeschoolers and evangelical-school students—the perfect learning environment consists of a loving authoritarian teacher delivering theologically pure information efficiently to obedient students.

Success in A Beka’s goals doesn’t look so successful to outsiders, though. Berardi and Kirsch blast A Beka’s “trite” online credit-recovery courses as the very bottom of the very bottom of the barrel, “in a league of their own” for inadequacy. Here’s a sample of what they found:

One rambling four-minute excerpt from an 11th-grade English course, for instance, consists mostly of corny lectures from a teacher on the work of 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet. “[She] calls her poetry a child,” the teacher says. “And just as a child can be unruly, just as a child may not quite always look just right … this morning as we’re eating breakfast, I look at the girls, and they’ve got Nutella all over their face,” she continues. Poetry, like children, can be “a little messy.” The instructor wraps up by questioning the students about the religious message of Bradstreet’s poetry. The students then take turns rising, accepting a microphone, and slowly reading their handwritten responses in flat tones—not exactly engaging pedagogy that’s likely to hold the interest of struggling learners.

In another sample, a 12th-grade class called “Document Processing,” students can learn typing while watching four videotaped teenagers, well, type. The teacher circulates between the teens on the video, reminding them to “add that space there” and providing other tips. By the time she asks the students to check their posture, the viewer himself may be so bored he’s slouching out of his chair.

Sounds pretty grim. To be fair, A Beka’s lame online courses are not the only terrible ones on the market. The Slate series poked several other holes in the shadowy world of online credit-recovery coursework.

But here are our questions for this morning: Is the pedagogical lameness part of the appeal? That is, do fundamentalist schools and homeschools think that such tame fare is part of A Beka’s continuing effort to instill Biblical discipline in classes? To root out secular giggles, “a la Sesame Street”? Or has A Beka just gotten lazy? Do the Pensacola publishers simply recognize that they have a captured market of fundamentalists, people who wouldn’t trust secular courses? Have the A Beka folks just relaxed too much, knowing that fundamentalist teachers and parents have no other options?