Fundamentalist Colleges Have the Last Laugh

In this cartoon from the 1920s, cartoonist E.J. Pace shows the ways the "modernists" took over every institution, including colleges.

In this cartoon from the 1920s, cartoonist E.J. Pace shows the ways the “modernists” took over every institution, including colleges.

What are the best colleges in America?  A trenchant new argument by Ivy-League insider William Deresiewicz suggests that conservative religious folks may yet have their revenge when it comes to higher education.

Since the 1920s, conservative Christians have complained that “their” colleges had been taken over by a secularizing elite.  As I argued in my 1920s book, there was a great deal of truth to these claims.  Elite schools such as Harvard and the University of Chicago really had been founded by conservative Protestants.  Their original missions were explicitly religious.  And, by the 1920s, those schools really had been transformed.  Instead of their traditional goal to train each new generation of “Christian gentlemen,” elite colleges became places where students learned to question religious verities.

As a result, conservative evangelicals faced a difficult situation.  Some schools, such as Wheaton College, allied themselves with the “fundamentalist” side of the growing divide among Protestants.  Most other elite schools, though, moved toward the new vision of higher education.  Some 1920s fundamentalists responded by opening schools of their own, such as Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary.  In my current research, I’m looking at the twentieth-century history of this alternative network of colleges and universities.

Deresiewicz argues that this alternative network of schools does a better job of educating young people than do the mainstream elite schools.  Religious colleges have often avoided the elite trap of ever-increasing expectations and the soul-crushing spiral of success.  At elite mainstream colleges, Deresiewicz writes, students become “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Without the same relentless pressure, religious colleges have remained true to their purpose of encouraging true thoughtfulness and intellectual risk-taking. As he puts it, “Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect.”

Is Deresiewicz right? Do elite colleges turn smart kids into zombies? In some ways, his is not a new argument. Sociologist James Coleman argued in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society that schools did not work the way we thought they did. It was not the most talented students, the brainiest students, who did the best on school tasks. Rather, the nature of the tasks demanded in most high schools led the smartest students to opt out. They focused on success elsewhere, such as sports or social activities. As a result, the best academic records were compiled by a “sub-group” of students who agreed to buy into the school’s irrational demands.

In other words, for generations now, our educational system has encouraged a weird sub-class of hyper-successful students. These students are not turned into zombies in college. Rather, they have been zombies all along. To excel in school—not just college but the whole way through—students have to be bright enough to do well at school tasks but not quite bright enough to realize that school is just a shell game.

If Deresiewicz is correct, religious colleges may have the last laugh. Conservative Christians complained that elite schools had been stolen from them. As a result, they opened their own schools, built their own network of colleges and universities. Getting pushed out of the academic rat race may have been the best thing that ever happened to conservative evangelicals.



Progressive Education I: Why Come to School?

Why should students go to school?  At the most basic level, the traditional answer is that students go to school to learn. That learning—in the traditional understanding—consists of the transmission of information from adults (teachers) into children (students).  The more intelligent and hard-working a
student is, the more he or she will retain of that transmitted information.  To complete the process, the adult will measure how much the student has learned by asking him or her to repeat back certain parts.

This testing, in the traditional way of thinking abouteducation and schooling, is like the old game of telephone, except not fun.  There is an assumed degradation of the information transmitted.  The student
is more or less successful—achieves a higher or lower grade—based on how much he or she can repeat back accurately.  On how well she can battle that inevitable degradation.

It may sound a little silly when it’s spelled out like that, but that understanding of the basic principle of schooling still has overwhelming cultural support.  It is one of the most basic foundations of our institutional education system.  For instance, when I pick up my fourth-grade daughter from school, I still ask the same dumb questions:

–“How was school today?”

–“Good.”  Or –“Okay.”

A pause.  Then,
–“What’d you learn about?”

–Shrug and non-committal noise.

It’s not just me.  I overhear every other parent and child having similar conversations at the end of the school day.  Maybe it is just a way for us to look like caring parents in front of the other parents.  Or to look like we are invested in our kids’ education.  Or to demonstrate to the teachers who are also standing around that we support their attempts to transmit information into our kids.  But at the back of that question are some big assumptions about what is supposed to go on in schools: “What did you learn about today?”  Assuming that each school day should include some measure of information transmitted from adult—or video, or book made and selected by adults—to kid.  And that the school should be prompting each student to build up a storehouse of information on a variety of subjects.

It is not only awkward after-school conversations that show this.  As we have all seen for the last ten years, the political power of the cultural idea of testing is hard to match.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 did not create the idea of testing.  It introduced a regime of high-stakes tests that would evaluate all
students’ abilities to read and perform mathematical processes.  Those tests were not just of interest to the individual students and their families.  They did not merely collate into a report card of progress for each
student.  In the new universe of NCLB, the test scores of individual students had practical implications for the funding of entire school districts.  If enough students failed to improve their test scores for three years in a row, school districts risked being forced to close schools and fire staff unless they came up with big ways to improve student scores fast.

The hinge of this regime remained the notion of testing as a way to evaluate the success of education.  The makers of NCLB did not invent this.  They merely tapped into dominant notions about the nature of
education.  Proponents of the NCLB regime did not need to explain that these tests would give good information about the process of learning at each school.  Everyone already agreed that testing could do that.  All NCLB did was build on this notion of testing to enforce a new scheme of funding and bureaucracy.

Americans already agreed that testing is the primary measure of school performance.  And behind the
notion of testing is the assumption that students go to school to receive transmitted information.  A formal testis a way to test how successful that transmission was.  This would only seem so important if that
transmission were assumed to be the main reason for going to school.  Not that NCLB or the regime of high-stakes testing hasn’t been controversial.  It has.  But the controversies have largely focused on the nature of the testing regime, or on the consequences of poor performance on tests.  The notion that students go to school primarily to receive transmitted information is not generally questioned.  That is the general understanding of what a student should be doing within those walls.

It does not take a very sophisticated understanding of sociological theory to see some holes in those assumptions.  Every teacher, every parent, every adult who works in a school sees it right away.  It is inescapable: This shared consensus about the reasons for going to school is only shared among adults.

For their part, students come to school for all sorts of reasons.  Some of them may come to school primarily to receive transmitted information.  But the leading reason why students come to school—from the  students’ perspective—is because they have to.  In different schools, that requirement is more or less coerced.  Many students don’t mind the coercion.  Yes, they have to go.  But the school also represents to them their entire social universe.  And many of them even share the general adult expectations about the reasons for school.  They agree without thinking about it too much that school is the proper place for them.

Perhaps a comparison to other kinds of learning institutions might help.  Think about piano lessons
from when you were ten.  At that age, at that stage, parents make their children go to lessons.  And children go because they have to.  Some of them might enjoy it.  Some of them might complain about it.  But very few kids at that age go to piano lessons because they are seeking to receive transmitted information and skills about music and piano-playing.  Plus, the upcoming “test” is generally not of very much interest to piano students.  In these kinds of private lessons, the “test” will traditionally be a painful recital, in which parents and siblings and grandparents gather to hear the terrible piano playing that their ten-year-olds
can produce.

These assumptions are similar to those of most school experiences.  Students go because they are told to.  They are judged on the level at which they are able to reproduce the musical lessons their teacher has
transmitted to them.  For our purposes,the important point is that the student did not go to the lesson to learn piano.  He went because his mom dropped him off there at four.

Compare that learning experience to a different kind.  Consider a sixteen-year-old kid who is taking guitar lessons.  In my town growing up, there was a guy who taught guitar in a little basement down under where the supermarket used to be, just next to the railroad tracks.  Students went to him because they wanted to
learn to play awesome guitar.  His selling point was that he was awesome.  He played guitar really well, hung out with his friends in the smelly basement “studio,” and smoked a lot of pot.

If a sixteen-year-old boy—and it was almost always boys that seemed drawn to this guy—went to take guitar lessons, it was because the student really wanted to learn what the teacher could teach.  The student saved some money or asked his parents for money to pay this teacher to share his accumulated knowledge of how to play that guitar.  In this case, the student went to school to learn.  The student hoped that the teacher would successfully transmit a certain type of information to the student.

Just having a desire to receive transmitted skills or information is not a magic bullet.  Not every teenage guitar student ends up learning guitar.  But I think this example illuminates what is NOT the norm in regular schools.  Students went to take those guitar lessons because they wanted to learn guitar.  They wanted the teacher to transmit information to them.  That is a different attitude than most students take to their regular school.   In contrast to the most basic assumption of traditional schooling, most students do not go to school to learn.  They go because they have to.    These conditions have been in place for at least the last fifty years.  Sociologist James Coleman noted in 1961 that students do not go to high schools in order to learn.  In fact, he found that the most intelligent students were not the ones that received the best grades.  Rather, Coleman found in 1961 that the best students, gradewise, were those who accepted the game of transmission-and-testing the most unquestioningly, the ones who were “willing to work hard at a relatively unrewarded activity.”  The most intelligent young people, in contrast, took the transmission of information as something to be tolerated.  They went to school for social reasons.  They hoped school would provide them with an exciting and stimulating social environment.  But they did not go to school in order to receive information.  They put up with that as the cost of admission.



James Coleman with John WC Johnstone and Kurt Jonassohn, The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).