I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another humdinger of a week. We saw Harry Potter kicked out of school (again), teachers ready to  strike (again), Trump poking the wrong bear (again)…and much more. Here are a few of the headlines that caught our ILYBYGTH attention:

Ahem. Harry Potter books expelliarmused from a TN Catholic school. At WaPo. [Read all the way to the end for the Lady Gaga connection.]

“These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception,” [the Rev. Dan Reehil] explained. “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

reehil emailI don’t buy it. Do you? Have conservatives already won the culture wars? At WaPo.

The biggest danger for cultural conservatives, then, might not be demographic change, religious disaffiliation or increasingly progressive opponents. It might be misunderstanding their own hand. Conservatives could make real gains on their priorities by focusing on pro-family economic policies, finding candidates who appeal to nonwhite Christians and casting themselves as allies of — but not knee-jerk partisans for — the armed forces and law enforcement. They could win cultural victories while remaining fundamentally conservative.

But conservatives misunderstand their situation. . . . they overreach. They’re courting backlash by passing extremely restrictive abortion bans in states such as Alabama. They’ve defended the rights of Christians not to participate in gay couples’ weddings, and while doing so, they’ve allowed Democrats to become the trusted party on the increasingly popular issue of LGBTQ rights. They’re backing Trump — a man who is guaranteed to alienate some potentially sympathetic nonwhite voters with his often racist rhetoric. And rather than try to create a more family-centric economic platform, they passed a tax bill slanted toward the wealthiest Americans.

What would honest academic job postings look like? At McSweeney’s.

The Philosophy department is now hiring an assistant professor who can tolerate the toxic environment of our department. Special consideration given to candidates who will take Dr. Warren’s side in her 30-year-old dispute with Dr. Wyatt, that Foucauldian asshole. . . .

The Department of History invites applications for an assistant professor who will make enough leftist remarks to annoy conservative talk radio hosts but whose politics will ultimately support the neoliberal mission of the university.

Trump’s wall has finally reached school funding. Fort Campbell cancels a new middle school and sends the money to the border, at NYT.

The Pentagon’s decision to divert $62.6 million from the construction of Fort Campbell’s middle school means that 552 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades will continue to cram themselves in, 30 to a classroom in some cases, at the base’s aging Mahaffey Middle School. Teachers at Mahaffey will continue to use mobile carts to store their books, lesson plans and homework assignments because there is not enough classroom space. Students stuffed into makeshift classrooms-within-classrooms will continue to strain to figure out which lesson to listen to and which one to filter out.

And since the cafeteria at Mahaffey is not big enough to seat everyone at lunchtime, some students will continue to eat in the school library.

A new portrait of Success Academy. The author brags that everyone will hate it. At T74.

If you are fan of Success Academy and its lightning-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, you will likely appreciate the mostly warm portrait of teachers and administrators who are fiercely dedicated to their students. The facile caricature of joyless and militaristic classrooms, “rip and redo” teaching tactics and high-pressure test prep was simply not in evidence. . . . If you are among Moskowitz’s many critics, you will likely feel vindicated to see your suspicions about some of the network’s policies validated and laid bare, particularly its admissions practices. To be blunt, Success Academy functions as a self-selection engine.

What do teachers think about race and discipline? At RCE.

Fordham finds that 81% of teachers view restorative justice practices as somewhat effective alternatives, and PDK finds that two-thirds of all adults see mediation as more effective than detention or suspension. One of the drivers of this appeal for alternatives is pronounced distrust of disciplinary practices. PDK finds that only 59% of all parents trust their child’s school to administer discipline fairly—a number that falls to a mere 40% among black parents.

No, young white evangelicals will not ditch Trump. At WaPo.

white evangelicals who hold warmer feelings toward racial and ethnic minorities do not oppose Trump any more than white evangelicals with comparatively colder feelings. Support for Trump appears to have a life of its own. . . . it’s unlikely that young white evangelicals are about to turn blue. As long as Trump continues to advocate conservative positions on cultural issues, most evangelicals are likely to prefer him to the Democratic alternatives.

Conservative higher-ed website gives up on professor watchlist. Why? They couldn’t find enough professors pushing leftist ideas. At The Week.

CampusReform.org shuttered the rating system in 2012 after it failed to hit any critical mass of reviews. And the reason, I think, is pretty simple: Most professors are not trying to indoctrinate their students in a sort of vast left-wing conspiracy. . . . the egregious cases of professorial misconduct that make the news are unusual.

Yes: St. Paul (MN) high schools start later in the day. At MST.

What happens when a FL district goes all-charter? At WLRN.

This “experiment” in rural Jefferson County has been transformational for many students but disastrous for a few.

Prospects for teacher strikes this year: NV, Chicago, WV, KY. At the Guardian.

“Our governor constantly insults us, calls us names, says we’re selfish and short-sighted, ignorant, compared us to drowning victims who need to be knocked out to be saved, says we’re responsible for children being molested and using drugs and says he regrets none of what he has said about teachers. He’s a real gem,” said Jeni Bolander, a teacher in Fayette County, Kentucky and a member of the grassroots educator group Kentucky 120 United.

NV teacher protestOut of the frying pan: Detroit students who switch schools end up in bad schools, at Chalkbeat.

Researchers at Wayne State University who have been studying student mobility in Detroit say the suburban schools the students leave for are more likely to have higher discipline rates, more new teachers, and higher teacher turnover.

Teachers? Or “Learning Engineers?” At Curmudgucation.

“engineer” comes with its own freight, like the idea that it’s all about focusing on systems and processes, often involving inanimate materials and rarely focused on the needs of live humans. When it does focus on humans, it tends to treat them like meat widgets to be managed and shaped according to the desires of the system managers (see “social engineering”). Engineering is an action that you do to something, not with it.

Larry Cuban on why changing schools is so difficult.

conservatism is built into the purpose of schools and both teachers and students share that innate conservatism–at first.

school rules

Follow the rules, learn to obey…

Why are secular college students so nervous about faith? At the Atlantic.

If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith.

How one group of conservative evangelical schools teaches non-Christian classics, at CT.

If the country is preparing to enter a type of second Dark Ages devoid of classical thought, another unlikely group of people is arising to preserve the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition: conservative evangelical Christians.


The Bible in America: Harry Potter and the Demons of Gergesenes

Adult nerds have a new reason to dress up in funny costumes and line up outside of bookstores for days on end.  Seems J.K. Rowling has announced plans to publish a new novel for adult audiences.  She has apparently not released the details of this plan.  As of this writing, we don’t know if it will be about grown-up wizards looking for magical answers to middle-age troubles like underwater mortgages and sagging physiques, or if it might be an “adult”-adult novel in which bodices will rip.

Whatever it is about, Rowling will be hard pressed to improve upon her record of publishing success.  Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels charted a meteoric path through the worlds of publishing and culture.  All told, by early 2012 her seven young-wizard books sold some 400 million copies.  That’s a lot.  Predictably, academic types rushed to analyze the cultural impact of the phenomenon.  Some argued that the Potter novels succeeded on such a grand scale because they captured the deep mythic memory of our cultural heritage.  Harry represented the powerful trope of the fairy-tale prince and the archetypal Hero.  Others wondered whether the novels could shed light on contemporary Britain’s struggles with “the legacy of a racial and class caste system.”

In any case, it seems hard to argue with the notion that these enormous sales figures tell us something about the nature of American culture.  Though it’s true enough that some measure of the runaway success of these books is due simply to the faddishness of Americans, it also seems reasonable to think that something in the books resonated with something deep in American culture.  The books fascinated so many people because something in the books made sense to Americans.  We identify, perhaps, with the young Harry, when he was surrounded by hostile blowhards who neither understood him nor appreciated him.  Or maybe we feel like the older Harry, when he was struggling to understand himself as an adult with new powers and daunting responsibilities.

In any case, something about Harry Potter means something in American culture.  The sheer numbers of its publication can tell us that.

If that is true—and by now you may have guessed where I’m going with this—then we must also recognize fundamentalists’ claims that the Bible is not just another book.  If Harry Potter’s enormous publication numbers mean that the books struck a chord with American culture, then the staggering publication numbers of the Bible must mean it says even more about that culture.  Consider a few numbers.  The American Bible Society, muggles all, was founded in the early nineteenth century to distribute Bibles and tracts to the population.  Between its founding in 1826 and 1979, the ABS distributed three BILLION Bibles and tracts.  THREE BILLION.  Those are Sagan-esque numbers, and they put Rowling’s sales figures to shame.  In just one year, 1979, the ABS distributed 110 million bibles and tracts in the USA alone.

If literature scholar Rebecca Sutherland Borah is at all correct in her surmise that the fan communities of the Harry Potter novels can tell us a good deal about the ways communities can form around a shared devotion to Rowling’s texts, how much more of a cultural indicator is the Bible?  Fan communities of Harry Potter may camp out overnight to receive each new installment of the series, but fan communities of the Bible have worked for centuries to help all people of all nations hear the Word.

Consider the work of the Gideons, for instance.  If you’ve spent any time in America, you’re familiar with the ubiquitous Gideon Bibles placed in nearly every hotel room in the country.  The organization began in the late nineteenth century, founded by a small group of Wisconsin businessmen.  They decided they could best spread Christianity by using their travels to spread the Bible.  Starting in 1908, they began distributing Bibles and New Testaments to hotels around the world.  By 2012, they claimed to have given out over 1.6 billion Bibles and testaments.

Granted, they’ve had a century to do so.  Nevertheless, the devotion of such Bible distributors as the Gideons and the ABS demonstrates the reverence with which many fundamentalists hold the Bible.  Mere distribution of the text itself is seen as the most effective type of missionary work they can achieve.

And the success of their efforts has been impressive.  Taken by numbers alone, the Bible really is America’s book.  No other book can come close to rivaling the Bible’s physical presence in the United States.
Nor is this due to devoted missionary distribution networks alone.  The Bible also sells well.  I spent some time recently with a guy who had an easy first job: selling Bibles door-to-door in Texas.  It was easy work, he described, since everyone he met could be convinced that they needed a Bible.  Even though they already had one.  Or several.  ‘Like selling beer at a baseball game,’ he told me.  ‘Heavy to carry around, but not hard to convince people they could use another.’

A glimpse at some sales numbers for the Bible seems to bear this out.  Not only in Texas, but around the country.  For example, there have been 2500 different English-language editions published between 1777 and 1957.  When a new version, the Revised Standard Version, came out in 1952, it sold an average 1,000,000 copies annually for at least a generation.  Similarly, the Kenneth Taylor Living Bible paraphrase sold 25,000,000 copies in its first eleven years of publication.

People buy the Bible.  People distribute the Bible.  We don’t know for sure from these facts what the Bible actually means to people, but we would be a little kooky to assume it doesn’t tell us anything.  If the monstrous sales of the Harry Potter books means something about American culture, then surely the even more startling sales and publication history of the Bible means even more.  It is hard not to agree with leading historians Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch when they insist, “the cultural history of America is unthinkable without the Bible.”


FURTHER READING: The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, edited by Lana Whited (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).