Nailing Jello to the Wall…Again

Whatever you do, don’t invite an historian to lunch. They’ll ruin your meal with their endless disputes about stuff no one else cares about. In this case, it’s the definition of American fundamentalism that has us in a tizzy. Why is it so problematic?

These days, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book manuscript about conservative evangelical higher education. In the book, I’m arguing that colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes did more than most institutions to define evangelicalism. And I’m offering a new definition that will probably get me disinvited to more lunches.

It’s not as straightforward a question as you might think.

Back in the 1930s, the first academic history of Protestant fundamentalists—Stewart G. Cole’s History of Fundamentalism—defined fundamentalism as a “cult;” a blight on American society led by “disturbed men” who suffered from a “psychotic condition.” Ouch.

Soon, leading religious historian H. Richard Niebuhr (the famous theologian’s brother) gave academics a definition that was less vicious, but offered the same basic outlines. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr wrote, was a hillbilly affair, surely destined to wither in the sunshine of modernity.


What is fundamentalism? “Radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.”

In 1954, another academic history of fundamentalism suggested a similar explanation. Norman Furniss’ book The Fundamentalist Controversy assumed that fundamentalism meant a lack of knowledge about modern life, a head-in-the-sand stupidity.

These early definitions of fundamentalism were so far removed from reality that it was only a matter of time before a new generation of historians threw them out. Just as a 1960s class of historians from non-elite backgrounds offered new and better histories of minority ethnic groups and working classes, so too did historians from evangelical backgrounds redefine their own tradition.

Most influential, Ernest Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was best understood as the modern rebirth of an old evangelical theological tradition, premillennialism.

George Marsden counter-argued. Yes, premillennialism was vital to fundamentalism, but it was not enough. In his 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden lay out the definition of fundamentalism that most nerds still use today. What is fundamentalism? Marsden noted that we need to include revivalism, premillennial theology, common-sense philosophy, and a vague but vital political and cultural conservatism.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

In the past few years, ambitious historians have re-opened the case. Matthew Sutton, for example, fresh off his blockbuster academic hit Aimee Semple McPherson, took on the challenge of defining American fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism is a blend of influences, Sutton argued in American Apocalypse, but it’s not just a jumble. If we want to understand fundamentalism, Sutton insisted, we need to understand that the defining feature of the radical evangelical experience has been its fixation with the end times.

Sutton isn’t alone in wondering what it has meant to be fundamentalist. Kathryn Lofton has pointed out (sorry, subscription required) that fundamentalists and their arch theological enemies were both “commonly modern.” Brendan Pietsch has demonstrated that one of the signature methods of fundamentalist Bible-reading—the dispensational lens—is a profoundly modern approach.

Most compelling, from my point of view, has been Timothy E.W. Gloege’s definition. Like me, Gloege focused on evangelical higher education, in his case, the earlier history of the Moody Bible Institute. From that lens, it seems clear that it will always be self-defeating to offer any simple theological definition to fundamentalism. Why? In short, fundamentalism worked as a set of goals, not a system of doctrine. Fundamentalism was a kind of least-common-denominator coalition, not a list of beliefs or a systematized theological vision.

Fundamentalists, Gloege argues, were united by their dream of creating a new, modern sort of orthodoxy, laid out on the model of the modern corporate business organization. But that approach left fundamentalists dangling when it came to traditional orthodoxy. They did not and would not mimic traditional denominational orthodoxies by agreeing on a systematic theology, because they were never willing to compete with denominations. At the same time, however, most fundamentalists valued and venerated the idea of a traditional Christian orthodoxy.

pietsch disp moder

Nothing old…

At the Moody Bible Institute, at least.

I’m still tweaking my argument, so you’ll have to wait until Fundamentalist U comes out to see the deets. (It will be soon, I promise.) It seems clear to me, though, that if we really want to understand the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism we will have to ditch our impulse to copy the theological creeds offered time and again by fundamentalists themselves.

If we don’t, we keep bumping up against unsolvable dilemmas:

  • What do we do with people like J. Gresham Machen, the breakaway Princeton Calvinist who said he was and wasn’t a fundamentalist?
  • What sense can we make of a fundamentalism that never agreed with itself on what fundamentalism required? For example, Bob Jones College forced its students to participate in dramatic plays, while Wheaton College banned such things. How can we step in and say one was right?
  • What IS the theology of fundamentalism? Calvinism? Yes. Arminian revivalism? Yes. Dispensational premillennialism? Yes. Amillennialism or postmillennialism? Yes.

It’s tempting to wade into these disputes with a hindsight definition. We might want to say Professor Machen was not a fundamentalist, but rather a Calvinist, or a creedal conservative, or a denominational conservative. All those are also true, but they sidestep the central difficulty that Machen was considered a fundamentalist during the peak of the 1920s controversies, including by himself.

We might want to say that fundamentalism was one core belief, fringed by an accumulation of disputed ideas. If we do that, we can say that both Bob Jones College and Wheaton were fundamentalist, but they disagreed on some non-essential details. That’s a smart approach, but it avoids the main problem—both sides insisted that their positions on student drama were CENTRAL to their fundamentalist identity.

We might try to say that one theology represented real fundamentalism, while others only thought they were fundamentalist.  Those others weren’t real fundamentalist theologies; they were confused. But this mistakes the central fact that both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists worked together and considered themselves fundamentalists. Except when they didn’t. It ignores the fact that Calvinists, revivalists, and lots of others all taught at fundamentalist schools. Maybe not happily, but loosely united in their self-image as fundamentalists. Usually.

In short, there’s no way to untie this knot, definitionally. Instead, we need to cut it; we need to take a different approach to understanding fundamentalism. At least, that’s what I’m arguing in the book. And it’s not easy. It takes me about 128,000 words to make my case.

See? This is why I don’t get to leave the house much. Not many people find this kind of thing as interesting as full-time historians.

The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.

My Experts Can Beat Up Your Experts

None of us knows what we’re talking about. That is the problem driving much of our culture-war animus. We can’t possibly understand all the nuances of every field of study, so we rely on networks of competing experts and authority figures to tell us what to believe. I do it, you do it . . . we all do it.

This week, we’ve seen it again with the topic of teaching American history. A coalition of conservative scholars and activists has signed an open letter attacking the new framework of Advanced Placement US History guidelines. They hope to use their collective clout to prove that the “experts” are not all on one side of this debate.

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, these new history guidelines have proven intensely controversial. Conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma have proposed nixing the new standards for Sooner schoolchildren. Conservative pundits have blasted the framework as biased and warped. Professional organizations such as the National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have fought back, insisting that the new framework is exactly the sort of thing we need in America’s history classrooms.

And, as I argue in my new book, these battles over the nature of American history have a long history themselves. In the 1930s, conservatives successfully blocked a popular series of textbooks that they felt told a slanted, anti-American vision of the nation’s past. More recently, the attempt in the 1990s to write a set of national history standards was sunk when conservatives made similar complaints.

In those battles as in this one, culture-war combatants have hoped to win their case by compiling intimidating lists of experts who back their respective positions. This week’s letter includes a mix of signatories. Some of them really are leading academic historians, such as George Marsden and Joseph Kett. And they take their inspiration from a recent diatribe by renowned historian Gordon Wood. Other signers are not historians, but conservative scholars who disagree with the general drift of mainstream academic life, folks such as Robert George and Patrick Deneen. Yet another category of signer is that of activist conservative historians, a rare breed including folks such as Ronald Radosh and Victor Davis Hanson. Plus, there are political signatories such as Lynne Cheney.

The letter complains that the new APUSH framework pushes an “arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history.” The new framework, the letter argues,

Is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

As a professional academic historian, I’m certainly not neutral in this fight. My sympathies lie with the new framework. Don’t get me wrong: I admit that these conservative charges are not without merit. Academic historians really have isolated themselves over the past forty years. Americans love history, but they find academic history simply beside the point. Academic historians have tended to obsess over issues that only other academics care about, leaving high-schoolers and regular folks to learn their history from journalists and from Hollywood. But that has always been the case with scholarly work and it does not mean that the big lessons of the past forty years should not be taught to high-schoolers.

More important here, though, is the way culture-war issues are often addressed by letters like this one. Because none of us can understand the nuances of every issue, because none of us really understands what all the fuss is about, we rely on networks of competing authorities to give us our culture-war positions.

In the creation/evolution battles, for instance, we’ve seen this time and time again. Nearly every pro-evolution argument these days starts with some statement that mainstream scientists all agree on the fact of evolution. Activist organizations such as the National Center for Science Education compile bulletproof lists of all the scientists who agree that evolution occurs via natural selection. It has always been this way. In the 1968 US Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the National Science Teachers Association submitted a statement signed by 179 leading scientists. Evolution, the signatories told the court, had become a “fundamental scientific principle” supported by all “scientists and other reasonable persons.”

Creationists, of course, have always compiled similar lists of experts. As I noted in my first book, sometimes such lists took over the whole argument. For instance, T.T. Martin’s 1923 book, Hell and the High Schools, was a slim 175 pages. Of those pages, a full 67 were nothing but lists of anti-evolution scientists and experts.

For those few true experts such as Ronald Numbers or Glenn Branch, it is possible to wade through these lists of names to tease out the scientific street cred of each person. For most readers, though, the lists of experts serve only to prove the reliability of writers’ claims.

In every culture-war field, we rely on experts we trust to tell us what to believe. And then we believe it, whether or not we really know what we’re talking about. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It doesn’t mean we’re ignorant. As Dan Kahan argues so convincingly, our beliefs about evolution tells us about who we are, not about what we know.

What are we to believe about the new Advanced Placement US History standards? Are they the best wisdom of historians, vetted by true experts in the field and reflecting the latest developments of academic knowledge? Or are they the puerile croaking of a self-satisfied and out-of-touch ivory-tower elite, bent on promoting ideology over true knowledge?

The answer, of course, depends on which group of experts you prefer.

Take a Trip to a Science Museum with a Creationist

“See, fossils!  That’s science.”  So says Megan Fox, self-identified creationist homeschool mom, Tea Partyer, blogger, and Latest YouTube Sensation.

We’ve taken plenty of museum trips here at ILBYGTH: to the Institute for Creation Research’s museum in San Diego, to the big Creation Museum in Kentucky, and even to a medley of creation and mainstream science museums.  Now there is a new option: Take a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum with Megan Fox.  In this half-hour video, Fox explains all the problems with mainstream science.

Plenty of commentators have blitzed Mrs. Fox with insults.  More interesting will be an attempt for those of us outside the creationist community to find out what this creationist thinks about mainstream science.

I’m no creationist-basher, but Mrs. Fox does seem to have an unpleasantly loud and in-my-face personality.  Predictably, bloggers have teed off on her “expose” of mainstream science at the Field Museum. Atheist PZ Myers called Fox “Smug and Stupid.” At Dangerous Minds, she was called a “blithering idiot,” and worse.

I would imagine that many of the intelligent creationists out there wouldn’t have chosen Fox as their ideal spokesperson. But what if we watch her museum tour as a chance to learn more about her creationist vision of science? Historians have worked hard—maybe too hard—to explain the philosophical underpinnings of creationist and Protestant fundamentalist science.

Many agree with George Marsden, who has argued that at heart, fundamentalist science hearkens back to the scientific principles laid down in the 1600s by Francis Bacon. As Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006 edition, pg. 59):

the role of the interpreter, according to the same Baconian assumptions, was not to impose hypotheses or theories, but to reach conclusions on the basis of careful classification and generalization alone.

Other historians have agreed. Mark Noll, for example, argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (pg. 197),

Creationists regularly reaffirm the principles of Baconian science: no speculation without direct empirical proof, no deductions from speculative principles, no science without extensive empirical evidence.

Perhaps the most careful student of conservative Protestant encounters with mainstream science, Jon Roberts, argued similarly in his 1988 book Darwinism and the Divine in America (pp. 41-42 of that first edition from the University of Wisconsin Press),

Nonscientists were also enamored of the Baconian method, for they believed that it was the surest route to the certainty they associated with science. Asa Mahan, a prominent philosopher who served as the first president of Oberlin College, presented in 1872 a typical statement of the prevailing view within the American Protestant intellectual community: ‘Science is knowledge systematized. Into a scientific process, nothing but what is absolutely known can enter.’

Is this what Megan Fox is doing? More interestingly, which term fits Fox better: “blithering idiot” or “Baconian loudmouth”?

I think a better term for Fox’s scientific vision is one used by historian Ted Davis. Though the roots of Fox’s attitude toward proper science may have originated in Baconian principles, it seems misleading to suggest that Fox selected a Baconian framework out of thin air. Like most of us, Fox’s ideas of proper science seem to come from a mix of sources, some of them only dimly understood.

So, instead of calling Fox “Baconian,” I think we should use Davis’s label of “folk science.” As Davis explains, the term came from Jerome Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (1971).

Of course, it is not only creationists who practice “folk science.” As Dan Kahan argues, there is not much daylight between creationists and non-creationists when it comes to actual knowledge about evolution. Most of us have only the vaguest grasp on the real meanings and implications of mainstream science. Unlike Mrs. Fox, however, most of us are willing to learn mainstream science when we go to the Field Museum, not try to pit our folk-ish understandings against the efforts of mainstream science educators.


Zombie Science on Noah’s Ark

Smart people don’t say it’s not science.  Some call creation science “dead science.”  But anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can see the bustling activity in the world of creation science.  A recent blog post from Answers In Genesis offered an introduction to what creation science can look like.  If it’s not dead, but not quite alive in the normal sense, maybe the best term for this sort of research is “undead science” or “zombie science.”

Alternative Science in Action

Alternative Science in Action

As those of us who follow the creation/evolution debates are well aware, Answers In Genesis is planning a big new museum project.  They want to build a replica of Noah’s Ark to prove its practicality.  Indeed, this ark project has attracted a sub-controversy of its own, with secularists complaining about public tax benefits going toward this explicitly sectarian religious project.

In a recent blog post, AIG explained some of the scientific challenges of their Ark project.  AIG demonstrated some of the unique features of the sort of creation science practiced by AIG scientists. As the post explained, one of the challenges of designing a replica Ark is figuring out how many animals would be on board.  Most believers in a literal world-wide flood do not insist that Noah’s Ark contained two of every species we have today.  Rather, they say that the Ark contained two of every “created kind,” as described in Genesis.  That is, the Ark did not have two wolves, two dingoes, two foxes, two dogs, etc.  Instead, the Ark had two of the “kind” of canine.

The term AIG scientists use to describe these “created kinds” is “baramin.”  In the recent blog post, AIG uses the example of the mule deer to show how scientists can figure out what kind of created kinds were on the Ark.  Creation scientists hypothesize that fossils from the baramin must be in a certain fossil layer, since those fossils were predictably laid down at a certain point in the Genesis flood.  In this case, the most likely fossil deposits, according to AIG, were from “moschids buried in rock layers deposited by localized catastrophes just after Flood.”  Those samples allow creation scientists to figure out what the baramin on the ark would likely have looked like.

Is this science?  It’s tempting for those of us outside the circle of creationism to pooh-pooh this sort of thing as outlandish non-science.

But more thoughtful non-creationists have offered more subtle explanations.  Philosopher Philip Kitcher, for example, argued that we should understand this not as non-science, but as “dead science.”  This sort of thinking, Kitcher said, had a long and influential career as mainstream science.  However, it has been replaced by better science.

Historian George Marsden also offered an explanation of this sort of scientific thinking.  Marsden argued that early creationists worked in a Baconian framework.  Science, according to this way of thinking, must begin with an authority.  From that firm starting point, scientists can collect and classify information.  This is not non-science, but rather a certain form of dissenting science.

Throughout the twentieth-century history of creationism, creationists themselves have insisted on the scientific legitimacy of their projects.  The leading creation scientist of the 1920s, George McCready Price, repeatedly argued that non-creationists were behind the times.  As Price told an audience in London just a few months after the 1925 Scopes trial,

I am perfectly confident that any competent person who will take the time to traverse the evidence now available on this side will reach the same conclusion that I have reached—namely. That the theory of Organic Evolution was a very plausible theory for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century; but that this theory is now entirely out of date, and hopelessly inadequate for us, in view of the facts of geology and of experimental breeding as we know them.  We are making scientific history very fast these days; and the specialist in some corner of science who keeps on humming a little tune to himself, quietly ignoring all this modern evidence against Evolution, is simply living in a fools’ paradise.  He will soon be so far behind that he will wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.

Mainstream scientists in the 1920s and ever since would dispute Price’s prediction.  But in every generation since the 1920s, creationists have developed and honed their distinct version of science and of scientific research.  As this Ark Encounter article makes clear, over the past century creationists have identified research problems and research methodologies that are utterly foreign to mainstream science.  They have built schools, museums, and academic publications.  They have changed and honed their thinking.

“Dead” science does not grow and change in this way.

So if this sort of creation science is thriving and changing, it seems misleading to adopt Kitcher’s label of “dead science.”  I know creationists won’t like the idea of calling it “zombie science” or “undead science.”  But is there a better term to describe this unique sort of active-but-dead kind of research?



Shelfies II: Electric Boogaloo

Keep those shelfies pouring in!  Send ILYBYGTH a snapshot of your bookshelf.  What is on there?  Why?

Today we’re sharing our second shelfie.  Last time we posted our front-and-center pile of books.  This time, we’re going just to the left.

What's on YOUR shelf?

What’s on YOUR shelf?

Starting at the top, we have George Nash’s crucial 1976 Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.  Everyone who hopes to understand American conservatism should read this volume.  Nash famously argued that the postwar conservative intellectual movement brought together disparate strains of conservative thinking into a consciously fusionist effort.  Burkean traditionalists allied with libertarians and anti-communists to make a newly powerful movement.  The book itself is terrific, though some later readers have assumed that Nash was speaking more broadly than he was.  See below.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind has been just as potent a book as Nash’s among conservative nerds.  Writing in the 1950s, Kirk attempted to establish a long and unbroken chain of conservative intellectualism from Edmund Burke through the mid-twentieth century.  Along the way, Kirk emphasizes an idiosyncratic group of writers and politicians as leaders of conservatism, and repositions conservatism as a central tradition of American life and letters, rather than as a collection of fringe loudmouths.

I also like David Farber’s The Rise and Fall of American Conservatism.   Last spring, I taught a senior seminar for history majors in the history of American conservatism.  I waffled on whether to make Farber’s book the central narrative.  In the end, I chose to have students read Kirk instead.  Why?  Unlike Kirk, Farber writes from outside the movement.  He defines conservatism more narrowly, and in a way that would not challenge the thinking of the undergrads, I decided.  For Farber, conservatism consists mainly of a political fight against “liberalism.”  Conservatism got its start, Farber argued, with Robert Taft’s fight against the New Deal’s big-government approach to social welfare.  To many of the students I worked with, Reagan-esque anti-government conservatism is the only kind they know.  Farber’s book is a great history of that sort of conservatism.  But I wanted to get smart sophisticated students to make the definition of conservatism their central intellectual challenge.  Farber’s book made it too easy for students to think that Reagan’s style of conservatism was the ONLY definition of conservatism.

Jerome Himmelstein’s To the Right is a sociological look at the boundaries of American conservatism.  It is worth reading.  IMHO, though, it takes Nash’s definition too glibly as its starting point.  Himmelstein assumes too comfortably that “conservatism” is nothing more nor less than the definition William F. Buckley and his comrades gave it in the 1940s and 1950s.  Too simple.

Starting with the blue-bound dissertations on the left, I recommend two: Kenneth K. Bailey’s Anti-Evolution Crusade of the Nineteen-Twenties (PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1954); and Ferenc M. Szasz, “Three Fundamentalist Leaders: The Roles of William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and William Jennings Bryan in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy ,” (PhD dissertation, University of Rochester, 1969).  Historians of religion will likely know Szasz’s name; he went on to a glorious academic career.  His dissertation study of these three leaders is still worth reading.  Bailey’s dissertation suffers from a simplistic understanding of the nature of fundamentalism, but his collection of newspaper accounts is still unbeaten.  I relied on both of these dissertation while writing my dissertation book.  For everyone interested in 1920s fundamentalism and anti-evolution, they are worth hunting down.

Laurence Moore’s Religious Outsiders is also required reading.  Though these days no historian of religion would say that Moore’s “outsiders” don’t get academic attention, at the time Moore’s book came out it pushed the field in healthy new directions.

I don’t know why James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage doesn’t get more attention.  It is one of my favorite academic histories.  Gilbert takes a look in this book at a central question for all of us interested in education and culture.  Why was there such an explosion of anxiety in the mid-twentieth century about crime and criminality among young people?

Of course, I have the old dog-eared copy of Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture relegated to a side position now that I’ve finally purchased the 2006 revised edition.

Educational historians out there will recognize Jackie Blount’s Destined to Rule the Schools.  Among educational historians, one of the most studied and fruitful lines of questioning has been the complicated relationship between femininity and schooling.  On the one hand, the systematization of public schooling often put men principals and superintendents in charge of female classroom teachers.  Women were seen as “naturally” more fit for caring for young people; men were seen as more fit for running the show.  But as Blount explores, many women were able to use stereotypes of femininity to build a professional network as school administrators as well.

Next up, two of Barry Hankins’ titles, American Evangelicals and Francis Schaeffer.  For people with an interest in the history of American evangelicalism, I can’t recommend the first title strongly enough.  Hankins is a terrific writer and a keen historian.  In this book he combines readability with academic thoroughness, which is hard to do.  And, as readers are aware, there are few intellectual figures as central as Schaeffer to the mind of evangelical America.  As you can see, I ended up with an extra copy somehow.  If anyone would like it, just let me know; I’ll be happy to put it in the mail for you if you send your land address.

It’s almost impossible to see hidden in there, but I also like Stephen Pyne’s Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.  There are a lot of “so-you-want-to-write-a-dissertation” books out there, and I’m sure every nerd has his or her favorite.  I like Pyne’s book for its combination of nitty-gritty advice and head-in-the-clouds ambition.  It’s not easy to remember how difficult it can be for beginners to write academic history.  I always recommend Pyne’s book for graduate students with whom I work.  They never have any free time for extra reading, but I think Pyne’s guide is worth their time.

Last but not least, I’ve got Barry Franklin’s From ‘Backwardness’ to ‘At-Risk.’ I got this book to use with my doctoral history-of-ed class.  In the end, it got bumped from the syllabus.  But the book is still very much worth reading for those interested in educational history.  As the title suggests, it looks at the history of what we now call “special education.”  In addition to telling this story, though, Franklin offers insights into the way educational policy has been framed and the ways students have been defined.

OK, nuf sed!  Send in your shelfies so we can all get a sense of what you’ve got on your shelf and why.



Introducing: Shelfies!

What’s on your shelf?  What do you read to help you figure out questions about conservatism and American education?

I Love You But You’re Going to Hell is happy to introduce a new feature: Shelfies.  Readers are invited to send pictures of their bookshelves with annotations.  You can send them to the editor:  Make sure the titles are legible.

Here’s a shelfie from our editor’s office:

What's on your shelf?

What’s on your shelf?

This is one of my go-to piles in my current work.  Here’s the breakdown:

1.) George Marsden’s Fundamentalism & American Culture.  It was this book (in an earlier edition) that first got me interested in the culture and activism of conservative evangelical Protestants.

2.) Arthur Zilversmit’s Changing Schools.  I refer to this book regularly.  It looks at the slippery nature of “progressivism” in American schools in the crucial period of 1930-1960.

3, 4, & 5.) The Ron Numbers Collection: Ron was my mentor in grad school at Wisconsin.  His work on creationism has been the bedrock reference for my historical research.

6.) James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  I use this book regularly with my students who are going into history education.  Loewen’s tone is always a little too strident for my tastes, but this book is always good for those who are thinking about teaching history for a living.

7.) Clarence Karier, The Individual, Society, and Education.  This is a good book.  Not enough people seem to read it these days.  Karier looks somewhat idiosyncratically at the long history of education in the United States.

8.) Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1935.  In this volume, historian Richard Niebuhr (brother of theologian Reinhold) offers an early and skewed definition of “fundamentalism.”  Niebuhr concluded, without much evidence, that fundamentalism was a rural phenomenon, an outgrowth of ignorance and isolation.  Though this definition doesn’t match the historical record, it proved enormously influential.  For decades, non-evangelical scholars accepted Niebuhr’s slanted definition without demur.

9.) Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. This well-known civil-rights history is there because I needed something to cover the gap in my bookshelves.  I can’t say I’ve ever read it, though I’ve always meant to.

So how bout it?  Send in some shelfies, tell us about what you’re reading.

Liberty and Intellectual Diversity

Can the faculty at a fundamentalist university embody a true intellectual diversity?  In some senses, of course they can.  Depending on the school, faculty at conservative Protestant schools may disagree vehemently on important issues such as the age of the earth, the best tax system, or the proper way to structure an election.  But fundamentalist schools still face a narrower list of potential faculty members than do less strictly defined colleges.  At many conservative schools, prospective faculty members must agree to an institutional creed.  This has the desired effect of cutting out a wide range of dissenting intellectual perspectives.

Journalist Michael McDonald brought up these issues of perennial interest this morning in a article about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

McDonald’s main interest was in the financial aspect and prospect of Liberty’s enormous and lucrative on-line branch.  As McDonald notes, the deeply conservative evangelical Protestant school is now the largest private non-profit university in the country.  For a school dedicated to a sternly fundamentalist theology, that is a remarkable achievement.

In his research for the article, Mr. McDonald asked me if I thought Liberty’s success could mean that it will become a model for mainstream universities.  As McDonald quoted in his piece,

“This dream of turning it into Notre Dame won’t work for Liberty,” said Adam Laats, an assistant professor in education and history at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. “Liberty University faculty will always be more constrained in the breadth of intellectual diversity they can welcome.”

It’s true: most colleges and universities do not require faculty to sign a strict creed.  If Notre Dame could only hire Catholics, or if my alma mater Northwestern University could only hire Methodists, they might be in a similar situation.

But Liberty’s potential faculty will have to agree with the school’s strict evangelical Protestantism, and this will always set it apart from more pluralistic colleges.

Of course, I’m not the first person to note this, by any means.  Leading evangelical historians such as Mark Noll and George Marsden have long argued that evangelical institutions differ in important ways from pluralist ones, due largely to this tradition of faculty and institutional creeds.

But already I have heard some intelligent objections.  Dan Richardson contacted me to object to my premise in the Bloomberg article.  As Mr. Richardson wrote,

“I read your comments with interest on Bloomberg concerning Liberty University. As a graduate myself of the Virginia Public University system, I found essentially zero tolerance or professors willing to even consider or give any credence/discussion to any philosophy other than relativistic, humanistic,  at best agnostic culture on campus today. There are countless examples of ‘conservative’ speakers, hassled, disinvited, shouted down at many public universities. If you truly care about the breadth of intellectual diversity, start with thyself.”

Richardson makes an important point.  Simply because the faculty of fundamentalist colleges lack some of the inherent intellectual diversity of pluralist schools, this does not mean that pluralist schools do a perfect job of encouraging true diversity themselves.

As historian Jonathan Zimmerman has asked, what would it take to get real intellectual diversity on pluralist campuses?  Do we need an affirmative action program for conservative intellectual faculty?

Sometimes the creeds in place at pluralist universities are implicit.  Sometimes they are more aggressively spelled out.  The recent flap over the funding of a Christian student group at Tufts University, for example, demonstrates the way pluralist universities’ dedication to pluralism often has confounding and unpredictable results.

Nevertheless, I stand by my statement in Mr. McDonald’s article.  Mainstream universities will have different challenges from Liberty University when it comes to welcoming a variety of intellectual perspectives.  Liberty’s dramatic financial success with on-line education does not change that.

Marsden & Gould on Creationist Science

What is science?

Andrew Hartman offers a review of some of the keenest analyses of fundamentalist/creationist science at US Intellectual History.

Hartman looks at a few essays from the mid-1980s about the nature of science in the intellectual world of conservative evangelical Protestants.  Hartman reviews an essay by leading religious historian George Marsden  in which Marsden sums up the fundamentalist difference.  The key to understanding creationist science, Marsden argued, is to understand the Baconian/Common Sense roots of fundamentalists’ self understanding.

Marsden’s analysis certainly fit the intellectual world of the 1920s.  In that era, leading fundamentalists articulated a different vision of science, one that did not match the world of leading mainstream scientists.

Since the 1960s, however, the scientific visions of creationism have transformed themselves.  Though 1920s creationists might insist with some justification that the jury was still out on natural selection, later generations of creationists have had to come to terms with the fact that mainstream science had embraced evolution.  More recent arguments that evolution is “just a theory” often do not match the intellectual sophistication that 1920s fundamentalists demonstrated about the nature of science.  Instead, later generations of creationist intellectuals have moved away from the Baconian/Common Sense vision.  Most often, creationists have derided evolutionary science as mistaken, fallible, closedminded, and even duplicitous.  But they have not as often criticized the framework of mainstream science as having slipped away from a proper Baconian framework, at least not nearly as often as did 1920s fundamentalists.

Look, Kids, a Real Live Conservative…

The ad hit the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is looking for a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy.  Chancellor Philip DiStefano disputed criticism that this move was either a sop to politically powerful conservatives or a strategy to hire one “token” conservative on a liberal campus.

The original plan to fund a full Chair has been scaled back to a three-year pilot program to bring in prominent visiting scholars, according to a school news release.  The program hopes to bring in a prominent intellectual, not necessarily an academic, to provoke intellectual ferment on the beautiful mountain campus.  Will it work?

As we’ve discussed here recently, the notion that many public universities have been captured by the cultural, intellectual, and political left resonates strongly with many conservatives.  But we’ve also noticed that such “secular” universities are also often home to many conservative students and faculty.

Whatever the true purpose for this new program, I can’t wait to see who takes the job.  Would a young-earth creationist–no matter how distinguished–be considered intellectually respectable enough?  Or, if a young-earth thinker lays beyond the pale, could someone such as Alvin Plantinga or Darrel Falk fit the bill?  Or would the campus powers-that-be prefer a more secular thinker?  How about Paul Gottfried?

Though the university insists it would be open to a scholar as well as an activist, it seems they would prefer someone who speaks as a conservative, not just about conservatism.  That’s too bad.  Some of the most interesting university interactions might come from hiring a scholar of whatever personal beliefs, someone whose work illuminates conservatism in America.  Maybe someone like George Marsden?  Or Ron Numbers?

We’ll be watching to see what shakes out with this position.  Who do you think it should go to?  For those conservatives and scholars of conservatism out there, would you want the job?