The DeVoses Have Always Been Wrong about College

You’ve probably seen the graph floating around the interwebs this week. The Economist reported that–despite jeremiads by Betsy DeVos–higher education in America does not seem to be turning students into left-wing drones. As SAGLRROILYLBYGTH know, conservatives have always fretted about it. And they’ve always been wrong. Their schemes to infiltrate left-wing colleges have never panned out and today’s college conservatives should pay attention.

economist college influence

Not a lot of change there…

In a speech a few years back, Queen Betsy warned students that college was trying to brainwash them. As she put it,

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

Were QB’s worries fair? The Economist dug through a study of political thinking among college graduates. Either college professors—who really do skew to the left—are not “ominously” trying to tell students “what to think,” or they’re bad at it. As The Economist summarized,

Between 2010 and 2014, survey respondents were asked every year which political party they identified with. The share identifying as Democrats did not shift significantly between freshman year and graduation. Similarly, when asked about their political viewpoints, the share of students identifying as conservative changed little during their time at university. The same pattern held for questions about climate change, health care and immigration.

Yet Queen Betsy’s vision of the college threat is anything but idiosyncratic. Throughout the twentieth century, the conservative educational activists I’ve studied uniformly agree that left-wing professors are a deadly threat to students’ faiths and America’s chances.

In 1909, for example, journalist Harold Bolce scored a major scoop when he interrogated college professors about their secularism and anti-Christian ideas. For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and reported to America that the professor no longer valued traditional religion. As Bolce wrote in Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmo),

‘Do you not believe, Professor,’ I asked, ‘that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?’

The professor smiled.  ‘I do not,’ said he.  ‘It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.’

bolce page image

Left-wing professors, c. 1909.

Earp was not alone, Bolce warned. At all leading colleges, issues such as “marriage, divorce, the home, religion, and democracy,” were studied and propounded “as if these things were fossils, gastropods, vertebrates, equations, chemical elements, or chimeras.”

Conservative anxiety about college professors never went away. In the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan often warned about the dangers of higher education. He liked to cite a study by psychologist James Leuba, which found that more than half of “prominent scientists” in the USA no longer believed in a “personal God and in personal immortality.” The upshot on college campuses where those scientists taught? Though only 15% of freshman had discarded Christianity, Leuba found, 30% of juniors had and 40-45% of graduates did.

It hasn’t only been religious conservatives like Bolce, Bryan, and DeVos that have worried. In 1939, the obstreperous leader of the American Legion’s Americanism Commission schemed with a business ally to disrupt the goings-on at Columbia University. Both men—Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion and Alfred Falk of the National Association of Manufacturers—assumed that colleges were ideologically dangerous places. Professors at Columbia had been spewing their left-wing propaganda into the ears of students for too long.

What could they do about it? Chaillaux told Falk that he had some spies “on the inside at Columbia University.” Chaillaux planned to have those “friends” conduct a campaign against leftist professors among students. As Chaillaux optimistically predicted,

possibly we can make the classes of such instructors as George S. Counts and Harold O. Rugg sufficiently unpopular to reduce their present drawing power.

It might sound nutsy to dream of sending secret right-wing agents onto college campuses to denounce and dethrone popular leftist professors, but Queen Betsy and the rest of the Trump regime are engaged in similar stuff these days.

Perhaps most famously, Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA have made a career out of provoking leftist backlash from college students and professors. And now, Kirk has teamed up with Trump’s favorite evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. to open a new kind of campus center, one devoted to promoting Trumpist ideas in higher ed.

Will it work? No. It wasn’t necessary or effective in 1939 and it won’t happen today. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Queen Betsy (though I’m iffy these days about Kirk or Falwell). For a century and more, conservatives have fretted that colleges in general were left-wing indoctrination factories. They’re not. At least, they’re not very good ones.

Trump-ing Academic Life

A Miss USA, a bachelor, a gun-toter, a filmmaker, and a MAGA youtuber, all clumped together on a college campus to promote “Judeo-Christian values.” What could go wrong? If it were a reality show, I’d watch it. But it’s not. Instead, this group of culture-war B-listers is the first cohort of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center Fellows. These Trumpish all-stars promise/threaten to upend a long tradition of alternative academic institution-building in conservative evangelical higher ed.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve been following developments at Liberty’s new Falkirk Center with a lot of interest. The founders—Jerry Falwell Jr. and Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk—warned us that they plan to put “Judeo-Christian values” back in the center of American political life via an “aggressive social media campaign.” Given the history of ambitious academic centers at conservative evangelical universities, there’s not much of a chance the Falkirkers will achieve their goals. Given the recently announced line-up of founding Falkirk Fellows, I’m starting to think that they might, in fact, have a totally different goal in mind. Namely, they might want to trash the entire evangelical academic tradition, or at least not mind if they do.

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, since the 1920s conservative evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities faced a formidable task. They had to create an entirely separate academic system of prestige, one that rewarded scholars outside of mainstream academic channels. As part of their effort to do so, many universities poured scarce resources into the painstaking effort to build their own independent network of academic prestige, one that did not rely on mainstream ideas. For example, institutions such as Wheaton College and Gordon College heaped honors on creationists such as Harry Rimmer. Authors such as Arthur Brown scrambled to compile impressive-sounding lists of academic “experts” who scorned mainstream science.

To be sure, these alternative academic “experts” often had extremely shallow credentials. When evangelical universities gave them honorary doctorates and other academic honors, however, they were signaling to the conservative evangelical community that their universities shared the religious and political values of their honored experts. The universities were creating, in essence, a world of academic prestige outside the entire system of mainstream academics.

The recent move by Liberty University seems as different from that kind of thinking as Trump is from Reagan. What does it take to earn a coveted spot as an inaugural fellow at the Falkirk Center? Let’s take a look:

Frantzve

Adding a little sparkle to academic life…

First, we have Erika Lane Frantzve, Miss USA 2012. Ms. Frantzve claims a “background” in political science and is dedicated to charity work. Next, there is Josh Allan Murray, best known from his appearance on The Bachelorette. These days, in spite of the quick break-ups of his TV nuptials, Mr. Murray is apparently “bouncing back better than ever.” Third comes Antonia Okafor Cover, who works to get more guns on college campuses. She claims to have been told she should not feel free to speak her mind, but as she puts it, “I didn’t listen.” Another fellow will be David J. Harris, Jr., a vlogger and Trump enthusiast who preaches the dangers of the “crazed left.” Last but not least is Jaco Booyens, filmmaker and opponent of sex trafficking.

I don’t mean to be a campus snob, but what kind of achievements can a group like this hope to achieve? To quote Charlie Kirk, how can this assemblage “‘play offense’ against efforts by liberals to water down Judeo-Christian values in the Bible and Constitution”?

The short and obvious answer is, they can’t. This is a group of second-rate conservative media presences, not a group of alternative academics. Unlike people like Harry Rimmer in an earlier generation, they have no coherent ideas to promote. They are not scientists frozen out of mainstream science, or theologians pushed out of mainstream institutions. Those kinds of non-mainstream intellectuals used to be the ones to win academic honors from the evangelical academy. This group looks decidedly different.

Even from within the alternative academic tradition of conservative evangelical schools, a tradition in which non-traditional intellectuals were often awarded traditional academic honors, this group of Falkirk Fellows looks remarkably intellectual weak. Instead of building an independent system of academic prestige as earlier evangelical colleges have done, the Falkirk Center seems to be merely leaping aboard the Trump Train to trash the entire idea of academic prestige.

Fizzle Alert: New Campus Center Will Try to Prove that Jesus Was Not a Socialist

The history is not particularly encouraging. Nevertheless, Liberty University plans to open a new academic center, one devoted to promoting Judeo-Christian values in American society. How do we know it won’t work? Three reasons, plus one counter-point.

Here’s what we know: Liberty University recently announced its new Falkirk Center. The name comes from a combo of Jerry Falwell Jr—Liberty’s president—and Charlie Kirk, leader of Turning Point USA. The goal of the center will be to blitz social media with traditional Christian messages. As Falwell and Kirk described,

Said Kirk, “We’re in a culture battle right now where you have to fight and play offense, and part of this effort is to try and play offense against the secular Left.”

Falwell added, “As attacks on traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs grow in frequency and intensity, the need has never been greater for a national revival of our foundational principles throughout our society and institutions in America.”

The center will use an aggressive social media campaign to push back against what Kirk described as the Left’s effort to “try to convert young Christians into socialism and to intentionally misrepresent the gospel and the teachings of the Bible to try to convert young people to be further on the left.”

Will it work? No.

First of all, there are a few big established conservative think-tanks that don’t leave much room for a new one. Why would anyone go to work at the Falkirk Center when they could go the Heritage Foundation instead?

Second, the name itself spells doom. Generally, any academic center or think-tank needs a clear and unified purpose. Often, that takes the form of a charismatic leader. In this case, trying to balance the big egos of both Falwell and Kirk will mean that neither of them gives the center his full attention and support.

Third, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when conservative evangelicals have tried to establish alternative academic centers in the past they haven’t had a lot of success. Consider the ill-starred National Freedom Education Center (NFEC). It was an organization based at The King’s College in New York (now in New York City).

national freedom education center letterhead

They had enough money for letterhead, but that’s about it…

One of the NFEC’s goals was to spread “American Studies” programs on evangelical campuses. As their promo materials put it,

What philosophy shall give direction to the material world we are developing?  Shall the long-felt influence of the Christian ethic be brought to bear on current history?  Dare we succumb to the seemingly plausible suggestions that in our time government-over-man is preferable to America’s long proven concept of man-over government?

Can we survive as a people, even with our unparalleled abundance of things, if our thinking excludes our traditionally motivating intangibles . . . . reverence for God, total human concern for the individual, an abiding dedication to preservation of our Constitution and a cherishing regard for personal Freedom? [sic]

Did it work? Nuh-uh. A few institutions, such as Azusa Pacific, signed up. They received a few hundred dollars and some books for their libraries. Other schools blanched. Gordon College in Massachusetts, for example, rejected the overtures of the NFEC. The faculty at Gordon did not want to turn their conservative religious school into merely a conservative political school.

There’s no doubt, however, that the NFEC would have had more luck if it had had deeper pockets. And that’s where the Falkirk Center might get its glimmer of hope. Liberty University has bajillions of dollars to spend from its online empire. Could that $$$ make a difference? Maybe.

After all, the Falkirk Center is NOT trying to build academic prestige. That takes time, vision, and patience. It is only trying to mount an “aggressive social media campaign,” which is quick, dirty, and easy. It seems at least possible that the Falkirk Center might splash out money on a blitz of popular media, and that the blitz might reinforce already-existing stereotypes. It COULD become, even, a new sort of academic center, one that doesn’t care much about traditional academics but has a big social-media footprint.

I don’t think it will happen, because President Falwell has always been more invested in football than academics, but it seems at least possible that the Falkirk Center might take advantage of a fat wallet to do more than talk about making a difference. I’m not going to worry too much about it, yet.

The New Conservative Campus Strategy: Punch-bait!

You’ve heard it before: Conservatives have long felt bitterly estranged from mainstream higher education. I’m wondering if we’re on the cusp of a weird new conservative strategy, one in which young conservatives try their hardest to get punched in the face.

Here’s what we know: Hayden Williams has attracted a lot of attention recently as the victim of a conservative-bashing at Berkeley. President Trump brought Williams up on stage during Trump’s CPAC speech to help introduce Trump’s new hard line against universities. As Trump crowed,

Ladies and gentlemen — [Williams] took a punch for all of us. … Here’s the good news: He’s going to be a very wealthy young man. Go get ’em, Hayden.

Williams was on campus as part of Turning Point USA’s recruitment drive. In the past, Turning Point USA has provoked attention on campuses for recruiting students to its brand of millennial conservative campus activism. In Nebraska, for example, a Turning Point USA member garnered significant political support in her fight to be heard on campus.

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk was quick to capitalize on the Berkeley bashing. As he told CNN,

Our amazing grassroots organizers courageously face threats of violence and discrimination as they fight for the right for conservative voices to be heard on college campuses.

So how about it? Maybe the most effective strategy for conservative pundits will be to get punched in the face. After all, nothing goes further to prove their claims of persecution and anti-conservative discrimination.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Frost on the pumpkins and the Brewers in the playoffs. What could be better? How bout another week full of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs?

More teens are abandoning traditional gender categories, at CNN.

genderunicorn1

What do some conservatives have against the unicorn?

Why are tests so hard to kill? New Jersey struggles to get rid of its common-core tests, at NJ.com.

What color is your Jesus? Three-quarters of white evangelicals still support Trump. Three-quarters of black evangelicals oppose him, at Vox.

Going up for tenure? Don’t bother with public scholarship, says a new survey at CHE.

Why so many Catholics and so few evangelicals on SCOTUS? Gene Zubovich says it’s a matter of school history.

By virtue of their 19th-century separationist anxieties and their investment in institutions of higher learning, Catholics have become the brains of the religious Right in the US.

Moody Bible Institute picks a new leader after a rough year, at CT.

Jerry Falwell Jr. explains why evangelicals love Trump, at The Guardian.

Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a good, moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs.

Kirk on campus. No, not that Kirk. A review of Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk’s new book about conservative campus dreams at CHE.

Dirty tricks, done dirt cheap: Arizona Republicans get busted trying to donate $39.68 to their Democratic rivals, posing as communists. At The Guardian.