I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A chock-full week in evangelical higher ed with a heavy dose of teachers’ strikes. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips:

Our lead story: The Master’s University struggles with the worst legacy of Fundamentalist U: The personality cult. At CHE.

a group of reviewers acknowledged that Master’s is doing some important things right. Under MacArthur, they said, the institution has engendered deep loyalty from faculty, students, and donors. At the same time, the report depicted Master’s as an accreditor’s nightmare: an insular and oppressive institution where loyalty to the president and his church has sometimes trumped both academic and financial concerns.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

How does a “Bible Belt Ivy” thrive? College of the Ozarks wows the number-crunchers at Forbes.

In remembrance of Pearl Harbor:

pearl harbor ng attack mapAre college faculty really as radical as conservatives think? Ed Burmila says not even close, at UW. HT: MM.

The American right is so heavily invested in the fantasy of radical leftist professors that no evidence can convince them otherwise. . . . If you have considerable time on your hands and wish to see just what kind of leftists run universities, go to the graduate school and propose unionizing Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and other itinerant quasi-employees. You’ll discover quickly that senior faculty — the same ones who can’t wait to show you their picture with Tom Hayden or some other talisman of progressive cred — turn into staunch capitalists in a hurry.

Not funny. Columbia students shut down comedian, at IHE.

Bolsonaro’s educational culture war in Brazil, at the Economist.

Tech and reform: Why does every generation think its old ideas are new? By Larry Cuban.

The first teacher strike at a charter school. What will it portend? At NYT.

chicago charter strike

…the wheel of “reform” spins back around…

Liberty U loves Trump, and hires a football coach with a record of hiring prostitutes, at ESPN.

The key to de-segregation? Minnesota’s new reform at Slate. HT: CC.

single-family zoning proved as effective at segregating northern neighborhoods (and their schools) as Jim Crow laws had in the South.

The author of one of the best books about the 1920s KKK explains the complicated history at NPR.

1920s klanHow can we teach about painful historical topics? How about one person’s story at a time, at The Atlantic.

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Serving More than One Master

It’s more than a quirk. And it’s more than a coincidence. The savage accreditor’s report about The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) reveals yet again one of the basic structural challenges written into the bones of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

If you haven’t seen the story yet, it is a sad reminder of the dangerous possibilities of evangelical higher ed. As Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently (now available to non-subscribers) the school’s charismatic leader John F. MacArthur has recreated all of the elements of authoritarian evangelical institutions.

  • One-man show

For example, the accreditors warned that TMUS had

a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.

In a speech to the student body about the accreditation report, MacArthur identified such nay-saying as part of the list of things that “God hates.”  His advice to students in this troubling time? “Keep your mouth shut.”

  • Gated community

The accreditors found, too, that TMUS had become an all-or-nothing proposition for its faculty. All institutional power rested firmly in MacArthur’s hands. If they didn’t like it, their only option was to leave, leaving their entire lives behind. As the accreditors put it,

Should they be dismissed or leave TMU over a substantial difference of opinion, they lose their entire support community.

  • Loyalty over experience

As has been the pattern for fundamentalist colleges since the early 20th century, MacArthur’s regime consistently promoted loyalty over every other concern, especially including experience or competence. The accreditors cited the worrisome case of MacArthur’s son-in-law Kory Welch, who was put in charge of many elements of TMUS operations despite having no professional experience or discernible credentials.

  • Internal hiring

As did some fundamentalist schools in the twentieth century, TMUS’s insularity came in part from a habit of hiring its own graduates. As CHE reported,

Of the 20 full-time faculty listed on the seminary’s website, not including MacArthur, 13 have received one or more of their degrees from Master’s; 11 have received two or more degrees from that institution; and eight have held positions within Grace Church. The dean of the seminary faculty, Nathan Busenitz, earned all of his degrees from Master’s, and has served in the past as MacArthur’s personal assistant.

  • My way or the highway—to hell

Predictably, MacArthur offered the TMUS community a stark decision: Either accept his one-person leadership model or succumb to the wiles of Satan. In his August speech, for example, MacArthur decried the report as an attack

orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.

  • All about the benjamins

Finally, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, MacArthur has been able to retain his stranglehold on institutional power in part due to his prodigious fund-raising abilities. Without MacArthur at the helm, TMUS would not be likely to pull in donations by the millions.

For the accreditors, as for many in the higher-ed field, these astonishing institutional traits may seem a singular development at TMUS. In fact, as I argued in Fundamentalist U, they are part of the legacy of the inherent institutional set-up of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

In the 1920s and 1930s, evangelical institutions that had embraced the fundamentalist movement faced a difficult challenge. As interdenominational institutions, they had no presbyteries, synods, episcopates, or conventions to help guide their activities. Moreover, inherent in the fundamentalist movement was a wariness toward such authorities. After all, fundamentalist intellectuals had been burned when denominational controls had been seized by theological modernists and liberals.

What to do? Different institutions responded differently.

At many schools, leadership was split into a messy and imprecise network of presidents, alumni, trustees, and faculty. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, tough decisions were often made even tougher by the array of influential voices that weighed in.

In an institution like this, final authority is difficult to determine and decisions can often be messy. The legacy of this sort of solution to the authority dilemma can still be seen today. Just ask Larycia Hawkins or LGBTQ+ students at Asuza Pacific.

But Wheaton’s diffuse and confusing solution to the authority dilemma was not the only solution. TMUS follows in the mold of authoritarian schools like Bob Jones College.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University in 1947), the answer to the dilemma of authority was solved early and ugly. Bob Jones Sr. established a firm grip on power at the institutions, followed by his son and grandson.

Reaching its fully developed form in the 1930s, Bob Jones Sr. crushed and expelled all dissent. As he put it,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us.  We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school.  We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard.  If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him!  We throw him overboard. . .  ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’  Gripers are not welcome here.  If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

And over the years, the Bob Joneses did just that. As with TMUS, the Bob Joneses quickly learned to rely only on their own graduates. In the 1933-34 school year, for example, three of the twenty-six faculty members were BJC alumni. By 1946-47, thirty-two of sixty-six were.

There was not likely to be much confusion about the way the Bob Joneses treated “Jonahs,” either. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the case of Ted Mercer. Mercer had been a loyal student, teacher, and administrator for years at Bob Jones College and University. By the early 1950s, however, he grew concerned about the dictatorial nature of the school. As with TMUS, the tipping point came from the question of accreditation.

Mercer wanted the school to pursue accreditation, which the Bob Joneses fiercely resisted. As with TMUS, there was no middle way. When Mercer fell afoul of the Bob Joneses, he was out. And the Bob Joneses spared no effort to vilify and smear Mercer. As the TMUS accreditors warn, when a school becomes too insular, dissidents risk losing their entire social networks if they question the will of the leader.

What is in store for TMUS? MacArthur fits the pattern of fundamentalist authoritarians so precisely it is difficult not to hazard a few predictions. If he is able to maintain fiscal solvency—as Bob Jones could but other would-be authoritarians such as Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute could not—TMUS is likely to maintain its authoritarian structure into the future.

Despite its moral, theological, and institutional drawbacks, the authoritarian model has proven a durable solution to the dilemma of authority at interdenominational evangelical universities.

I Don’t Need to Beat the Bear…

Did you see the recent article in Forbes? The one in which the number-crunchers drool over the financial successes of hard-right evangelical College of the Ozarks? I can’t help but wonder: In these days of college closings and higher-ed austerity, how is such an extreme school thriving? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, it’s not new. As far back as the 1920s, evangelical institutions have succeeded by planting a flag for fundamentalism.

bear chasing man

“I swear none of our professors teach evolution!”

It’s like the old joke about the two hunters and the bear. They’re getting chased by a bear, and one hunter pauses to tie his running shoes. The other guy says, Why bother with those shoes? You can’t outrun the bear. And the first hunter says, I don’t need to beat the bear. I only need to beat you.

The folks at Forbes aren’t wrong. The rude financial health of the College of the Ozarks really is surprising. As they recount, the endowment-per-student ratio puts CofO at 59 of the 650 schools it surveys, higher than many fancy-pants universities. Its acceptance rate is a mere 11%. Its admission yield—meaning the number of admitted students who end up enrolling—is higher than Harvard’s.

College of Ozark Endowment

Lovin ‘Merica all the way to the bank…

Why? As our friends at Righting America point out, it is not because CofO is winning the higher-ed race. Where many schools are improving student amenities and hiring diversity officers, CofO brags about its un-diversity. For example, it claims pride of place as the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus in America. It mandates patriotic education for its students. It grabs headlines for refusing to compete against teams that kneel for the anthem.

As the head fund-raiser Jerry C. Davis told Forbes,

People don’t give us money because we’re like everybody else. . . . They give it to us because we’re different.

In other words, CofO isn’t trying to outrun the bear. It is not trying to be the best university in the United States. It is only trying to be more radically conservative than the other conservative schools with which it is competing.

Such “don’t-have-to-beat-the-bear” success has always been the case for conservative evangelical institutions. When dispensational scholars in the 1920s wanted to found a more consistently premillennial seminary in Dallas, for example—the school that eventually became Dallas Theological Seminary—their single-minded focus on dispensational premillennial theology caused their enrollments to triple in their first six years.

Between 1926 and 1947, the fundamentalist Bob Jones College grew from 88 students to over a thousand.

And when Wheaton College in Illinois joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s its enrollment leaped by over four hundred percent. In 1917, when it was just another small Christian college, sixty percent of its students came from Illinois. By 1938, it welcomed 75% of its students from other states and outside the USA. By declaring itself on the side of the Fundamentals, Wheaton appealed to a much larger national and international constituency. It no longer had to compete against all the other small colleges in Illinois.

None of these institutions promised to be the best colleges in the land. They didn’t need to. All they needed to do to bring in tuition and donation dollars was to satisfy a niche desire for safely conservative evangelical schools.

Fundamentalist U at HES

Maybe I should have taken a quantitative turn at Albuquerque! I was honored and delighted to have a group of top historians discuss Fundamentalist U at the recent History of Education Society meeting in sunny Albuquerque. They raised some tough questions and we had a great discussion about the need for a better historical understanding of evangelical higher education.

The panel was put together by Professor Andrea Turpin of Baylor University. She invited academic heavy-hitters AJ Angulo, Milton Gaither, and Katrina Sanders. The inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman served as our chair.

HES 2018

Professors Sanders, Gaither, Angulo, and Turpin. Yours truly in the back.

All of the panelists had nice things to say about the book, which was great to hear. But they also raised insightful questions. For example, why doesn’t the book include a clearer description of the numbers of institutions involved? It would have been fairly easy to do and it would have helped readers get a sense of the scope of the evangelical-college movement over time.

Also, the book claims to examine the history of evangelical higher education, but it leaves out large swathes of evangelical schools. Where are the Pentecostals? The Peace-Church schools? It’s a fair point and one I readily acknowledge. The focus of my book is on a subgroup of the evangelical tradition, schools that called themselves “fundamentalist” at some point in time.

We talked about the top-down focus of the book, too. Yes, I tried hard to include student experiences as much as possible, but the central theme of the book, as Professor Gaither pointed out, was

the narrow channel administrators had to navigate between the Scylla of angry fundamentalists watching their every move for signs of creeping secularization and the Charybdis of parents, students, and accreditation bodies who wanted to make sure that the education being provided was respectable.

Last but not least, we discussed the challenges of my sources. In some cases, I was only given access to small parts of archival collections. I wasn’t allowed at all into some archives, like at Bryan College. How did this curated set of papers influence my ability to draw fair conclusions?

All fair questions. And, as I particularly appreciate, questions that demonstrate a keen understanding of the book and my goals. Even given these limitations, I consider the book to be worthwhile. (To be clear, the panelists agreed on this point as well.)

First of all, for historians and others interested in American higher ed, we absolutely must include this family of institutions in our considerations. Too often, we hear pundits and policy-makers talk about the ideological draft of “American higher ed” in ways that seem willfully blind to the true diversity of the higher-ed landscape.

Second, though this wasn’t the focus of these educational historians, we will never understand religious bodies and religious identities if we don’t do a better job of studying affiliated educational institutions. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, too often observers and historians have assumed that we should understand fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism on theological grounds. That’s useful, but it’s not enough. If we really hope to get a handle on what it has meant to be an evangelical, we need to see what evangelicals have done with their schools. And we need to ask why.

[Oh, and I also saw a roadrunner. I guess they’re like pigeons down there…]

HES 2018 roadrunner

meep meep.

Notre Dame and the Fundamentalist Dream

Is it practical? I have no idea. But the proposal last week from students at the University of Notre Dame to block porn from campus pushes all the buttons that animated fundamentalist college reformers a century ago. It goes against the very openness—as Gene Zubovich wrote recently—that has led Catholic higher education to be so much more intellectually vibrant than the conservative evangelical versions.

notre dame

Can they keep the baby if they block the bathwater?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for student activism against pornography. I admire the zeal and vision of the Notre Dame students. I’m especially happy to see my fellow men stand up against the exploitation of women and children. As the Notre Dame signatories argued,

We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women. . . . Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years. . . . ​Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women — violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.

I don’t dispute any of that. Historically, however, the goal of blocking and shielding students as part of a righteous college education has had some unintended consequences. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, the heart and soul of the fundamentalist college dream was to block, ban, prohibit, limit, encircle, and deny. In short, what fundamentalist school founders wanted was to create an alternative system of higher education in which young people could learn without being exposed to the behaviors and attitudes that had taken over mainstream higher education.

As Gene Zubovich argued recently, Catholic higher education has had a different tradition. Of course the Catholic Church has its own long, lamentable tradition of prohibition. Nevertheless, Catholic intellectuals became the big brains of America’s conservative movement in the twentieth century, Zubovich wrote, because

Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism.

Now, I disagree with Zubovich’s across-the-board dismissal of academic and intellectual life at evangelical universities. It was not only Carl Henry (whom Zubovich mentions) who dreamed of creating an academic intellectual powerhouse. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, the roots of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in another ambitious and practical plan to improve the tenor of intellectual life in evangelical schools.

However, that quibble is beside the point this morning. Zubovich is absolutely correct in marking a big difference between the attitudes of leaders at Catholic universities, compared to evangelical ones. Faculty at Catholic universities do not have to sign detailed statements of faith. Hiring for academic positions is done by credentials, not by faith backgrounds. Most important, the expectations of students at Catholic universities has never matched the sometimes-extravagant lifestyle controls imposed by evangelical schools.

What does this all have to do with Notre Dame’s proposed porn filter? Just this: imposing a block or a filter might seem like a laudable purpose, but the long-term impact on any academic institution will be serious, even severe. Do Notre Dame’s signatories want to take their institution down the long path to wall-building?

Falwell Wasn’t Trying to Be Funny…

To be fair, it wasn’t the worst mistake he ever made. But Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent goof has some complicating factors that make it hard to ignore.

lincoln

Erm…actually, Jer…

As we’ve seen, Falwell has a rough track record in quotable quotes. As the president of a huge evangelical Christian university, he has in the past misquoted the Bible. That has to hurt.

In his recent interview with The Guardian, President Falwell compounded his errors. If it were someone else speaking, I would be tempted to think Falwell was making a subtle and hilarious gibe. In reality, though, I think he just got mixed up.

Here’s what we know: In the recent Guardian interview, Falwell lauded President Trump to the skies. Not only did Falwell support Trump for strategic reasons, he actually believed Trump to be a morally good person. As Falwell put it,

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.

That’s a difficult position for me to understand. I can understand backing a bad person who is fighting for your side. I can understand backing an immoral character who fulfills important promises. But I can’t understand how anyone would call Trump a “good, moral person.” Maybe some SAGLRROILYBYGTH can explain that one to me.

The point this morning, though, is different. In his encomiums to President Trump, President Falwell insisted that he and Trump were totally on the same page. As Falwell told the Brits,

I usually tweet something similar to what he tweets a day or two before him. We think alike.

And, apparently unintentionally, Falwell went on to prove his intellectual similarity to Trump by making a glaring historical error. I can’t tell for sure, but I think Falwell got confused about what century America’s Civil War was in. America had not been this polarized in a very long time, Falwell said.

not since the civil war. I don’t know where that takes you. I can’t imagine a war breaking out in a civilised society in the 21st century. But if this was the 18th century, I think it would end up in a war. It’s scary.

I hate to be this guy, but anyone could tell you that America’s Civil War happened in the 19th century, not the 18th.

I know, I know, it’s an understandable mistake, sort of. And I don’t think Falwell meant to be funny, but how hilarious would it be if he wanted to prove his similarity to the fact-averse Trump by insisting on making at least one glaring error per public appearance?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

October already…feeling spooooky. Here are some articles that caught our attention this past week:

Our lead story this week: Asuza Pacific University on a LGBTQ+ roller coaster:

Creepy prep schools and the future of the Supreme Court, at The Atlantic.

kavanaugh yearbook photo

Does going to an elite prep school have ANYTHING to do with all this mess?

Will this school-integration plan work? At T74.

Researcher claims Protestantism still promotes schooling, at Phys.org.

Improving schools by improving lives, or vice versa? At Chalkbeat.

many policies with a shot at changing the experience of low-income students in school don’t have anything to do with the schools themselves.

Principal out after planning to “embarrass” a student who reported sexual assault, at WaPo.

Keeping a “Nazi” student after Charlottesville, at IHE.

He has a right to pursue his education at a state institution. . . . He’s a Nazi — it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to have an education.

cvjetanovic

Should the school have kicked him out?

Why Can’t Evangelical Colleges Change?

Who decides the rules at evangelical colleges? In Fundamentalist U, I argued that school leaders were tightly constricted by a lowest common denominator of populist evangelicalism. Yes, deep theological ideas mattered, but more important was the absolutely non-negotiable need for colleges to be perceived by the broader evangelical public as absolutely “safe.” The events at Asuza Pacific University this week seem to confirm my thesis.

asuza pacific

[No] Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Here’s what we know: A few days ago, Asuza Pacific announced a new policy for LGBTQ+ students. Like all students, they could now freely engage in romantic relationships, but sex was out of bounds. It was a bit of an odd decision to outsiders, since APU maintained its insistence that the only proper sexual relationship was a heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, it represented a pretty big change for a conservative evangelical college.

As we’ve reported in these pages, the question of homosexuality on evangelical campuses has driven a wedge between conservative evangelical schools. I’ve argued recently that the issue of homosexuality, along with other culture-war bloody shirts such as young-earth creationism, is leading to the creation of a “new fundamentalism” in some colleges.

And so, predictably, APU’s announcement led to conservative pushback. Pundits such as Rod Dreher called the policy switch

a feeble attempt by one of the country’s largest conservative Evangelical colleges to satisfy the Zeitgeist while maintaining the fiction that the school is still conservative and Evangelical on human sexuality. . . . some APU students leave college with their faith in tatters, having been transformed into Social Justice Warriors by a college that sells itself as conservative and Evangelical[Emphasis in original.]

As I pointed out in Fundamentalist U, no evangelical college is immune to this kind of pressure. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative gadflies have been able to influence the goings-on at evangelical schools by warning that students might not be “safe” on their campuses.

No matter what administrators might like to do, maintaining their public image as impeccably safe spaces for conservative evangelical youth is absolutely essential. This is not a quirk of Asuza Pacific or a relic of the twentieth century. Just ask Larycia Hawkins. Or Randy Beckum. Or Stephen Livesay.

We should not be surprised, then, to find out this morning that APU reversed its decision. The board announced that the policy change had never been approved. APU, the board declared, was still an unquestionably safe place for conservative evangelical students. As the board put it,

We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission. We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.

In the language of evangelical higher education, yesterday and today, “change” might be good. But “wavering” has always been beyond the possible. If a university hopes to survive, it must pander to popular conservative ideas about sexuality, politics, race, and any other difficult topic. It absolutely must continue to attract student tuition dollars and alumni donations. Any threat to that bottom line, no matter how theologically sound or spiritually attractive, will always be crushed.

A Doomed Experiment in Christian Higher Ed

I’ll say it: It’s not gonna last. Everyone knows historians make terrible prognosticators, but in this case I’m feeling pretty confident. A two-year old experiment in a new kind of evangelical college experience has only one slim chance of survival.

created institute

Sounds great. Won’t last.

The experiment at issue is CreatEd Institute in North Carolina. The new school hopes to offer conservative evangelical Protestants a new way to experience higher education. Instead of traditional classes and majors, CI has an 18-month cohort approach. All students progress together through core ideas, relying on something like a Great Books approach. After that time, students can move into a professional apprenticeship program in a field of their choosing.

Will it work? Its boosters promise the world. As the website explains,

What is Truth? What is beauty? What is society? Who is God? What does it mean to be fully human? Who am I? These are the questions students wrestle with, and find answers to, in the CreatEd Core.

Our 16-month, discussion-based program inspires students through an engaging study of the Great Books built upon the biblical narrative. We pair history’s most creative, insightful thinkers with the Truth of God’s Story. Rather than offering dozens of unrelated courses, the intentional sequenced curriculum of the CreatEd Core brings meaning to learning, igniting a passion in our students as they make connections between themselves, God’s Word, and His world.

By including a “Guild” program, CI hopes to be more than just a dream factory. CI insists it will prepare students better than traditional colleges for an authentic, successful Christian life and career.

CI faces big hurdles. It has not earned any accreditation and says it won’t try to. Its model only allows it to welcome small batches of students. The cost per student is accordingly high: $39,820 for the first two years, and more if students want to proceed into the apprenticeship program.

There is only one way a school like this will survive and thrive and the founders of CI don’t show any signs of recognizing it.

Think about it: How many tuition-paying students can an experimental school like this attract? It apparently hopes to appeal to the homeschool and “classical” evangelical school crowd. For families with the wherewithal to afford the CI program, though, there is way too much competition.

Consider, for a moment, what a CI student would be giving up. Without accreditation, none of the credits from a CI transcript will transfer. And without offering a bachelor’s degree program, graduates will invest time and money without any recognized professional credential.

Why would students choose such a thing?

In the variegated world of American higher ed, there is a long-standing precedent and model. Deep Springs College in California has a long history of offering a very similar program from a non-evangelical perspective. Students at Deep Springs go on a two-year intellectual journey. At the end, however, they often transfer to elite universities to complete their degrees.

How has Deep Springs thrived for a century? For one thing, it is free. Second, it is able to brag that its students are being prepared to trounce all competition in professional success. As they state prominently,

Alumni have gone on to become leaders in a number of fields, some receiving MacArthur Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, and Truman and Rhodes Scholarships. Today, Deep Springs is often cited as an example of the transformative experience that higher education can offer.

Unless CreatEd can pull off an evangelical version of Deep Springs, it is doomed. Unless, that is, the school can promise that its students will not suffer professionally for their experience, CI will go the route of so many other experiments in higher education: Big dreams and a quick expiration.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Alexis Waggoner and Biola

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Rev. Alexis James Waggoner. The Rev. Waggoner is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and received her M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She works in the field of religious scholarship — as a Minister of Christian Education, and as the Education Director for a non-profit dedicated to religious literacy. She also serves as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. She graduated from Biola University in 2003.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on Biola? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

“Pressure” is the wrong word – my parents presented it to me like a (conservative, Evangelical) Christian college was my only option. The other “options” were all similar (Westmont, Asuza, etc).

image1

Alexis Waggoner today

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

While I have SO many problems now with schools like Biola, I think it was actually a good fit for me at the time. I grew up insulated and very conservative so Biola was actually a rather “diverse” place for me to be, in that it wasn’t as monolithic as my upbringing had been. It did deepen my faith at the time. And in no small way, it set me on a path that led me where I am today. My family would probably say this is for the worse; I would say it’s for the better. So something about being exposed, in a small way, to differing ideas about Christianity made me want to keep digging and questioning, and find out what else was out there that I hadn’t been exposed to.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Absolutely, 100% not. For reasons that will likely become obvious below! I am completely removed from the evangelical environment of my upbringing and find the movement to be harmful at best, abusive at worst.

image3

Teach . . . the children well . . .

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

No. I did for a while but as my theology and ideology diverged more and more, I realized I no longer could, in good conscience, support a place that contributed to social conservatism, Christian supremacy, othering of the LGTQI community, less-than-full inclusion of women, etc.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to Biola, and – ten years later – to Union Theological Seminary; two schools that are almost as opposite on the “Christian” school spectrum as you can get. I could write a dissertation on the differences; some are probably pretty obvious. The biggest similarity, though, is that both engage in religious fundamentalism. They both have lines you can’t cross, things you can’t admit to, stuff you can’t question – they just lie on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. As someone who now identifies as an extremely liberal, non-orthodox Christian, who is part of a progressive denomination, serving in a liberal church in NYC … I wish this was something we in the progressive movement did better. We fall into the same traps as our Evangelical counterparts, the same things that we critique them for. I am fascinated by the work that needs to be done that could lead to an actual conversation instead of both extremes yelling past each other.

image2

Fighting fundamentalism…

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I was a liberal arts major so I took the basic science classes, I don’t remember much but I do remember – and here’s where the relative “diversity” of thought I mentioned above comes into play – being taught evolution. At least as a theory. I can’t remember exactly how it was presented; but it was done so in enough of a way that it was one of the threads of my fundamentalist upbringing that began to unravel. I’d been taught that creationism IS fact, and there are a few fringe people out there who believe this crazy thing called evolution but it’s not really that big a deal. I came to see that it was actually the opposite, and the fact that that piece of my education had been so off made me wonder what else could be wrong with my beliefs and assumptions. You can begin to see why I have mixed feelings about Biola. 🙂

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

It definitely was not the stereotypical experience, and I’m sure it would’ve been different had I been at a secular college. I had friends and roommates for whom partying and hook-up culture was more of the norm (well, a sub-culture norm). But there was also the pressure to keep purity pledges and that sort of thing. I think my experience was somewhere in between.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Oh absolutely yes. We had mandatory chapels, and we had to take a mandatory 30 units of Bible classes so that everyone ended up with a minor in Biblical Studies.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

Here again was where I learned about relative diversity of thought within Christianity. The school absolutely skewed conservative, politically, but there were some student groups who pushed those boundaries. And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian! Here again, the small level of exposure I had at Biola to other ways of thinking, began to erode my fundamentalist foundations. Which is pretty ironic. My parents sent me to an Evangelical school to (I assume) further educate me in their belief system and cement my faith. At the time I suppose it did that, somewhat, but in the long run it was the questions I began asking at Biola that led to the whole thing (over many, many subsequent years) eventually all falling apart for me.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

As much as it pains me to say it, the advantage they have is, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, they have dug in their heels and continue to offer an option to people who buy into the narrative that Christians are being assaulted and persecuted. Many people have this worldview and so for them, the “safety” that these schools offer is appealing. However, on the other side of the coin, I believe that the future of evangelical education is similar to the future of the evangelical church. While there is drastic entrenchment, and thus there will likely always be a market for fundamentalism, younger generations continue to be more diverse, more liberally minded, less willing to deal with the exclusivism preached by these churches and universities. So I guess as long as they can survive on the backs of those they’ve convinced to become more entrenched, they will. But I’m hoping the evangelical church as a whole (as we know it) soon will either reinvent itself or become relatively obsolete.

Thanks, Alexis!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu