But What Do Conservative Students Think?

The headline caught my eye, but the actual survey sidestepped the main question. From what I can tell, we still don’t know the most important data of all.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students doing their thing…

At Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich followed up on the political poopstorm that enveloped the University of Nebraska recently. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might remember the story. A conservative student activist felt berated by a progressive grad student and faculty member. The story caught the imagination of both local conservative politicians and the national culture-war paparazzi. The university was called to political account. Did they mistreat and abuse conservative students?

Apparently, as part of the process, the university teamed up with Gallup to conduct a campus climate survey. They wanted to know if students, faculty, staff, and alumni valued free speech. They wanted to know if conservatives felt free to speak their minds on campus. From what I can tell, however, it seems like they avoided the main question.

gallup u nebraska

Conservative students SHOULD feel free to talk…but DO they?

Most respondents thought that liberals were definitely able to “freely and openly express their views.” A large majority—though not quite so large as for liberals—thought that conservatives were too.

Maybe I’m reading the results wrong, but from what I can tell the survey avoided the main point. It asked respondents to identify as students, staff, faculty, or alumni. It asked respondents to identify by race, gender, and sexuality. But it didn’t ask students to identify by ideology. In other words, we might know how 4,403 student respondents felt, but we have no idea how conservative students felt, compared to liberal students.

To my mind, the survey missed the main point. We don’t only want to know how ALL students thought conservative students should feel. We really want to know how the conservative students themselves felt, and, importantly, if there was a meaningful distinction between how conservative students felt and how other students thought conservative students felt.

In other words, I’m not interested in what the campus as a whole thinks about conservative students. I want to find out what conservative students themselves think.


Thanks, CHE!

No, no, no, not THAT Che. I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education. Peter Monaghan recently featured my new book in their pages.


urm…different CHE.

Monaghan put his finger squarely on several of the most important issues in the world of evangelical higher education.

For example, as Monaghan explains, the world of evangelical higher education is not somehow trapped in the past. As he puts it,

Many newcomers to the inner workings of fundamentalist Christian colleges are surprised to learn that the institutions consider themselves not just righteous but also thoroughly “modern.”

The differences between evangelical and non-evangelical higher education is therefore not as stark as some outsiders might think. As Monaghan concludes,

Like elite secular institutions . . . fundamentalist ones seek to thrive by “developing a niche that they can exploit,” selling themselves as “experiences” that transform young people. They describe themselves as hubs of academic endeavor, with prospectuses little different from those of their nonreligious peers. Leaders also promote their institutions’ distinguishing features, like size, location, and sports programs, aware that evangelical families want to provide their children with more than doctrinal guidance during their college years.

Almost makes you want to read the whole book, don’t it?

Close Down Religious Colleges!

Can someone learn to examine ideas critically at a religious college?  To reason and think deliberately and without coerced conclusions?  And if not, should those schools receive federal tax-funded support?  Peter Conn of the University of Pennsylvania says no.

In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Conn calls attention to the way religious schools receive accreditation.  The problem, Conn believes, is that accrediting bodies scrupulously avoid judging the religious content of some colleges.  As a result, religious schools such as Wheaton and Bryan receive regional accreditation.  Their students are then eligible for federal financial aid.

There lies the problem, according to Conn.  Schools such as Bryan and Wheaton require their faculties to sign statements of belief.  At such colleges, Conn argues, “the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”

The problem is not that “religious fundamentalists” convene colleges. The “scandal,” Conn writes, is that accrediting bodies legitimize such anti-intellectual organizations. Further, once such schools are accredited, tax dollars go to support their students.

I hate to speak so harshly, but Conn’s argument seems pigeon-headed to me. I’m not religious; I don’t work at a religious college. But my research has centered on the ways conservative Protestant schools have worked to construct a sub-cultural identity as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists.” And unless I’m missing some nuance of Conn’s essay, he seems to have very little idea what he’s talking about.

In my 1920s book, I looked at the ways the first generation of self-labeled fundamentalists founded and operated schools such as Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary. In my current research, I’m looking more broadly at the twentieth-century history of evangelical higher education.

To suggest that such schools ought not be accredited due to mandatory faculty creeds seems ridiculous.  After all, as a faculty member at a large public university, I have to sign a loyalty oath.  Does that make me unfit to teach young minds?  Does that make my research anti-intellectual, bound by previous ideological commitments?

More profoundly, the notion that people who agree to a religious creed cannot conduct rigorous research seems a woeful misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief.  In particular, it demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the history of religious colleges in the US.

I know some readers feel more strongly about the pernicious nature of fundamentalism.  Does anyone agree with Conn’s conclusion?  He writes,

The retrograde battle that religious fundamentalists are waging against science has become a melancholy fact of our contemporary cultural life. Legislators around the country conspire to find academic room for the oxymoronic charade called “creation science.” According to Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican who sits on the House science committee, evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell.” By effectively endorsing such blinkered sentiments through its accreditation process, American higher education is betraying itself, and providing aid and comfort to those who would replace reason with theology.


But What Does Jesus Think about a Young Earth?

It has been illuminating to read the comments on my recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Some of them have been simply mean-spirited or crank-ish.  I’ve been called an idiot.  I’ve even been told how I can work at home and make $45 to $85 per hour.  Not bad!

But many commenters raised a much more profound question.  In my article, I argued that calling people ignorant simply because they believe in a young earth is incorrect, both factually and strategically.  Those who want to promote better evolution education, I believe, must start by understanding the worldview of creationists with deep sympathy and even appreciation.  That, IMHO, is just good teaching, for any subject.

Many commenters asked the obvious next question: If this strategy is wrong, what strategy is right?  Fair enough.  If calling someone stupid, ignorant, or other names is not likely to convince them about the truth of evolutionary theory, what might?

Luckily, one of the anonymous commenters posted a link to a terrific article, Joshua Rosenau’s Science Denial: A Guide for Scientists” from a recent issue of Trends in Microbiology.  Rosenau, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, makes a couple of solid points in this direction.

First, Rosenau suggests, evolution educators should remember that creationists will not likely be won over by specific scientific arguments. He cites the work of anthropologist Chris Toumey. Though Rosenau does not quote this part of Toumey’s book, Toumey had argued in the mid-1990s that one of the defining elements of young-earth creationism is a “quasi-religious awe of science” (p. 257).

This deep love of science means that creationists have a scientific response for every mainstream/evolutionary scientific argument out there. Of course, mainstream scientists deny the validity of these counterarguments.  Each side has a prepared response to each scientific argument of the other.  Each side denies the scientific pretensions of the other.  Reciting canned arguments back and forth will not do much to bridge the seemingly intractable cultural divide in creation/evolution debates.

Most helpfully, Rosenau argues that the most effective evolution educators will not be the angry atheists out there.  Rather, as Rosenau puts it, “The messengers most likely to break through will be those who share a social identity with the science-denying audience.”  For example, Francis Collins–eminent mainstream scientist and devout evangelical Protestant–may do more to convince creationists that their religion need not deny the evidence for evolution.

Rosenau’s argument fits the evidence out there.  Even just dipping into the anecdote pool, we hear repeated stories like that of homeschool curriculum writer Abigal McFarthing.  McFarthing tells of her religious upbringing and her hostility to all evolution education.  It was only when she got to (Christian) college, and her instructor told her,

Jesus is not going to be standing at the gateway of heaven holding a clipboard in his hand and asking, ‘Did you believe in six-day creation? Did you believe in evolution?’ He’s going to be asking the one question that matters: ‘Did you believe in ME?’”

As Rosenau points out, the message that Christianity and evolution are compatible will likely be the most effective way to increase the amount of evolution belief in the United States.  This is not a message that many mainstream scientists care about.  To some, it seems like a sell-out to the entrenched prejudices of one specific belief system.

Yet I agree heartily with Rosenau that the way to improve evolution education is not simply to insult and attack young-earth creationists.  Rather, by framing a message in a way that understands, acknowledges, and respects creationists’ beliefs, we might at least be able to have a productive cultural conversation.  We will not be stuck simply calling one another idiots, or telling one another how to work from home and earn between $45 and $85 per hour.

ILYBYGTH in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Hot off the presses!  I’m happy to say that the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a commentary of mine in this morning’s edition.

Readers of ILYBYGTH might not find much new in this piece.  I argue that many evolution educators display a woeful and unproductive misunderstanding of creationism.  For instance, evolution supporters generally assume that creationists such as US Representative Paul Broun must be utterly ignorant of science.  In fact, Broun and many other creationists often have degrees in science.  Broun, for instance, has a BS in chemistry and an MD.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have demonstrated, creationists often know plenty about evolution.  Creationists just don’t believe it.

Another tricky point about Representative Broun’s particular style of creationism rests in the nature of representative democracy.  As I ask in the CHE piece, “Do we really want to demand than an elected official not fight for the ideas in which his constituents believe?”

I also appreciate the comments on the online CHE article.  There are some of the usual displays of huffy antagonism.  For instance, one reader suggested that the best lenses to understand creationism would be “abnormal psychology” and “cult theory.”  But other commenters raised more intriguing points.  One suggested that the real issue is that American education tends not to teach students anything they don’t know already.  Another pointed out that any teaching that seems to come between parents and children will be resisted.

I’ll look forward to reading more comments as they come in.  Especially since many of them make excellent counter-arguments.


Leftist Bias in the Academy?

Conservatives have long complained that American higher education faculty displayed an intellectually crippling ideological bias.  This has been called “anti-intellectualism,” but a more precise term would be something like “anti-professoriate.”  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the non-conservative sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Research argues that conservatives may be right.

The accusation of academic bias has been so durable in the intellectual world of Fundamentalist America that one is tempted to dismiss it as sour grapes.  For instance, in the 1920s, Presbyterian orthodox leader J. Gresham Machen finally left his beloved Princeton Seminary to start his own school, driven out, he claimed, by his colleagues’ growing intolerance of Machen’s Biblical orthodoxy.  Less intellectually gifted 1920s fundamentalists made similar charges, in more colorful language.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

Around the time of the Scopes Trial, a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal captured this anti-professoriate feeling among fundamentalists:


Education in the Higher Branches

More recently, in the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

In the twenty-first century, small-f fundamentalist blockbust author Tim LaHaye agreed.  University faculties, LaHaye argued, had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.” 

“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

Christian Smith’s recent article argues that this leftist orthodoxy is not merely a figment of conservatives’ imaginations.  His article bemoans the attacks on sociologist Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus published an academic article in which he concluded that children raised by same-sex parents have more emotional disorders as adults.  According to Smith, Regnerus followed the guidelines of academic research and publishing.  His conclusions may or may not be correct, but his work followed the traditions of peer review and editing.  Regnerus’ conclusions may be disagreeable to some, but his research methods stand above reproach.

Yet, according to Smith, the attacks on Regnerus demonstrate the problems with today’s left-leaning academy.  As Smith argues,

“The temptation to use academe to advance a political agenda is too often indulged in sociology, especially by activist faculty in certain fields, like marriage, family, sex, and gender. The crucial line between broadening education and indoctrinating propaganda can grow very thin, sometimes nonexistent. Research programs that advance narrow agendas compatible with particular ideologies are privileged. Survey textbooks in some fields routinely frame their arguments in a way that validates any form of intimate relationship as a family, when the larger social discussion of what a family is and should be is still continuing and worth having. Reviewers for peer-reviewed journals identify “problems” with papers whose findings do not comport with their own beliefs. Job candidates and faculty up for tenure whose political and social views are not ‘correct’ are sometimes weeded out through a subtle (or obvious), ideologically governed process of evaluation, which is publicly justified on more-legitimate grounds—’scholarly weaknesses’ or ‘not fitting in well’ with the department.” 

As we have argued elsewhere, this bias is often wrapped in a near-total ignorance about life in Fundamentalist America.  One of the main reasons for this blog has been to introduce the ideas and culture of Fundamentalist America to outsiders who don’t know much about it.  Like Smith, we do not have to actively defend conservative ideas in order to protest against this sort of myopic academic bias.  Rather, we can promote a true diversity of ideas in higher education.  We can push for a true university, one in which the universe of ideas can be discussed calmly, without fear of the vindictive witch-hunts Smith describes.

In order to do so, we need to actively separate the jumble of issues.  The question is not whether children of same-sex parents have a tougher time in life.  The question is whether we will allow that conclusion to be reached in academic journals.  The question is whether researchers will be free to follow their data wherever it may lead, or whether, as Smith concludes, academic life will be governed by a crippling and unnecessary Stalin-lite motto: “Play it politically safe, avoid controversial questions, publish the right conclusions.”