I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As the weather heats up, so do the interwebs. Here are a few stories we might have missed over the past week:

Stanford students call for greater ideological diversity on their elite campus.

Will individualized classroom material always help students? Not always. Dan Willingham explores a new study of adaptive vs. static practice.

Poaching teachers to North Carolina from low-pay Oklahoma.Bart reading bible

Conservative evangelicals pooh-pooh climate change on religious grounds. Jakob Erickson accuses at Religion Dispatches.

University of Chicago researcher finds—surprise!—left-wingers and right-wingers read very different science books. HT: V(F)W

How to get fired: One Texas middle-school teacher gave out “Most Likely to Be a Terrorist” and “Most Likely to Blend in with White People” awards.

Republicans pressure Secretary DeVos to sweeten the education budget.

Buzzfeed claims Trump is inspiring school bullies nationwide.

How did she learn to be Betsy? The New York Times looks at Secretary Devos’s evangelical schools and those of her children.

Whoops! It looks as if Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. spoke too soon. He won’t be leading a higher-ed task force after all.

Say whatever you want, as long as it makes us look good: The University of North Carolina shuts down a history class that publicized its recent athletics scandal.

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot? Part Deux

If you bet for VHS against Betamax and won a billion dollars, what would you do with your loot? If you’re Jerry Falwell Jr., second-generation president of Liberty University in Virginia, you would invest the money in Betamax. Is he an idiot? Or is he a savvy reader of higher-ed tea leaves?

Here’s why we ask: John Fea directs our attention this morning to another mind-boggling story from Lynchburg. Falwell’s Liberty has guaranteed a whopping $1.32 million to Old Dominion for an early-season football game, according to local news reports.

liberty football

Flame out?

Liberty University has that kind of money to throw around. Over the past fifteen years, the school has reaped obscene profits from its online platform. In addition to splashing out for its sports programs, Liberty has poured money into brick-and-mortar campus amenities.

As I noted after the first research trip to Liberty for my new book, that sort of investment seems either stupid or prophetic. If the old-fashioned model of higher education is dead, then why put so much money into it? Why invest in sports and campus gyms if modern higher ed means online ed?

Maybe Falwell is right. Maybe people still want a campus. Maybe they still want eccentric professors. Maybe they want huge sports stadiums. When people think “college,” maybe they want all those things.

If so, Falwell is investing wisely; building his school into a new higher-ed powerhouse.

Or maybe he’s just stuck in a twentieth-century rut. Maybe he’s still insecure about the reputation of fundamentalist colleges and he’s willing to spend whatever it takes to rub his success in the face of Notre Dame and Harvard.

The Future of Liberty’s Love Affair with Trump

With university commencement season approaching, it’s time for a new round of culture-war outrage.  Schools scramble to secure the most famous names as markers of their higher-ed cachet.  And, predictably, some invited speakers will be shouted down, provoking a new round of hand-wringing over the parlous state of campus free speech.

The news from the world of evangelical colleges tells us that the traditions of Fundamentalist U are alive and well.  Here’s the nail-biter: Can we assume that the twentieth century will repeat itself?  Read on.  Your humble editor will make some predictions that he can be held to.

Trump at liberty

I Love You, Man

But first, the news.  It won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH.  According to the Washington Post, Trump is heading back to Lynchburg, Virginia to speak at Liberty University.

As your humble editor has argued elsewhere, Liberty has come up the big winner in this presidential election.  Its second-generation Falwell, Jerry Jr., has bragged about his appointment to a top-level super-secret Presidential commission on higher ed.  And at least one Liberty student is starry-eyed with the news of Trump’s upcoming visit.  What does Trump’s speech mean?  To one gun-toting Flame, at least, it means “That’s how you know my school is better than yours.”

But Trump’s appearance at Liberty’s commencement is more than just payback to one of his loyal evangelical supporters.  By acting chummy with Liberty, Trump scores big.  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher ed, in the 1970s Liberty and other fundamentalist schools came to represent one-stop shops for politicians seeking evangelical approval.

If nothing else has been clear or predictable about Trump’s presidency, his courtship of the conservative evangelical vote has been steady and unimaginative.  It’s not just Jerry Falwell Jr.  By surrounding himself with folks such as Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, Trump has sent unmistakable signals about his support for America’s fundamentalist traditions.

How will it end for him?  If history is any guide—and we all know it usually isn’t—President Trump is in for a rough ride.  Back in 1980, President Ronald Reagan pioneered a cynical courtship of conservative evangelicals.  He palled around with Jerry Falwell Sr. and other fundamentalist school leaders such as Bob Jones III.

Once in office, though, Reagan disappointed them and their wrath was Biblical in its proportions.  The most pressing issues back then were racism and tax policy.  Reagan and the GOP had promised to throw out Jimmy Carter’s persecution of racist fundamentalist schools.  Once in office, however, Reagan realized that the segregatory policy of schools such as Bob Jones University was politically impossible.  So Reagan punted.  He reversed himself.  The reaction of Bob Jones III was immediate and ferocious.

Reagan, Jones III ranted, had proved himself a “traitor to God’s people.”  It was time, Jones threatened, for fundamentalists to “stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.”

The full story of Jones III’s relationship with the Reagan White House had some complications, and you can read the full story in my upcoming book.  However, the general drift was clear: Politicians could court the fundamentalist vote by appearing at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, but the demands of those fundamentalists might not be politically palatable.

And no one is quicker to resent political compromise than fundamentalists.

So what do I predict for the Trump/Falwell love affair?  First, let me offer a few nerdy qualifications.  YES, I understand that Liberty today has worked hard to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings.  And YES, I understand that Falwell Jr. is not Falwell Sr., and neither of them shared the shoot-first-ask-questions-later fundamentalist style of the Bob Joneses.

However, with all that said, I will go on record as predicting a blow-up between the Trumpists and the Flames.  The existing anti-Trump vibe on Liberty’s campus will grow into an irresistible force.  Falwell will eventually come out against his current BFF, when the conservatives and (relative) liberals in the extended Liberty community unite against Trumpism.

Hold me to it!

Shoot ‘em Up at Fundamentalist U

Christians, get yr guns. That’s the message this week from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The message for us fundamentalism-watchers is that we’ll never get the whole picture about conservative evangelical religion if we limit ourselves to theology alone.

In response to shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere, Falwell told students at his booming megaversity that they could “end those Muslims.” He told students about the concealed .25 in his own back pocket, joking that he didn’t know if it was illegal or not.

Cole-Withrow-Jerry-Falwell-Commencement-Liberty-University-20130517

Jerry, Get Your Gun

For Liberty watchers like me, this is not the first time the school has taken an aggressive pro-gun position. And for fundamentalism watchers like me, it is more proof that a fundamentalist is never only a fundamentalist.

To put it in nerdy terms, some historians have suggested a theological definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Protestantism has been explained as the tradition of millennialism. It is best understood, others say, as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” These definitions are helpful for distinguishing fundamentalism from close cousins such as Pentecostalism, Holiness Wesleyanism, and conservative Anabaptism.

Such definitions fail to explain, however, outbursts like the one from President Falwell. There’s nothing about the apocalypse in his yen for guns. Rather, it is a product of the simple fact that fundamentalists—like all people—are amalgams of multiple identities. Falwell is a fundamentalist, true, but he’s also an American. He’s also a Southerner. He’s also a conservative. And, of course, he’s also a gun-lover.

It is not only Liberty U that has struggled with this conundrum of fundamentalist identity. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, a popular administrator at Mid-America Nazarene University took considerable heat for reminding students that Christian religion did not always come wrapped in the American flag. From a theological position, what Dean Beckum said was utterly unremarkable. But conservative evangelical religion in America is more than just religion. It is also conservative. It is also American.

President Falwell and Liberty University, as I’m arguing in my current book, are emblematic of the complicated nature of conservative evangelical higher education. As institutions, they are driven by humdrum factors such as tuition, enrollment, athletics, and accreditation. As evangelical institutions, they’re driven by a desire to maintain a religiously pure, “safe space” for their students. As conservative institutions, they’re driven by a wide variety of political impulses, including the overpowering urge to shoot em up.

A Socialist in the Liberty Lion’s Den

Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. ….Bernie Sanders?

For decades, Liberty University has played host to leading conservative politicians. From Reagan to Romney, (Jeb) Bush to Cruz, presidential hopefuls have visited the campus to make speeches about Jesus and American greatness. So it’s no surprise that a leading presidential candidate will make a speech at next month’s convocation. But hold on to your fair-trade coffee: This year the presidential hopeful on the Liberty docket will be none other than Bernie Sanders. Why would this self-proclaimed non-religious socialist rabble-rouser from the hippie hills of Vermont want to journey to the unofficial headquarters of fundamentalist politics? Why would Liberty want to include him?

Could he grab some votes?

Could he grab some votes?

First of all, let me admit that this is old news. I’ve been on vacation recently and I’m just now catching up on all the latest culture-war headlines. A few weeks ago, Liberty published its schedule for its fall convocation. Along with predictable right-wing notables such as Texas’s Louis Gohmert and presidential hopeful Ben Carson, Liberty will welcome Senator Sanders.

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my new book about the history of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education. Liberty was a latecomer to that story, but it soon became a 500-pound gorilla in the world of Christian higher education. Thanks to its huge and lucrative online program, Liberty can claim enormous cash reserves. It has used that money to build big sports programs, big libraries, and big convocation rosters.

Yet in spite of all its parvenu riches, Liberty has struggled to overcome its image as a fundamentalist madrassah. When Ted Cruz made a speech on campus a few months back, outsiders like me gasped that Liberty’s students were forced to attend. The school, journalists exclaimed, still imposed rigid lifestyle requirements on its students. The school, some writers implied, was trapped in the past.

Perhaps the invite to Bernie Sanders resulted from an ambition to overcome this provincial reputation. As current president Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Washington Post, his school is only doing what great universities do. Liberty, Falwell said, is taking up the mantle of true higher education. As he put it,

A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed. . . . That’s what we’re doing.

But what’s in it for Senator Sanders? In a statement, he explained that he hoped to pull a Pope Francis at the conservative campus.

It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.

Before we pooh-pooh Sanders’s dreams, let’s remember that today’s Liberty University is much different from the rigidly political campus of the 1980s. Back in Jerry Falwell (Sr.)’s heyday, the school was a proud incubator of right-wing politics. These days, as faculty member Karen Swallow Prior has argued, there is much more cultural wiggle room for students.

The dress code has been lifted. There has even (briefly) been a College Democrats club.

This leaves us with a few tough questions to consider:

  • Is it possible? Can Liberty University transform itself from a southern fundamentalist college to a Great American University?
  • And, could Senator Sanders convince any Liberty students that they are part of a progressive alliance, part of a left-leaning movement that has excited the base of the Democratic Party?

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot?

Is Jerry Falwell Jr. an idiot or a genius? Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has hit the jackpot with Liberty’s incredibly popular—and incredibly lucrative—online programs. Falwell has plowed that money into Liberty’s brick-and-mortar campus. Is Falwell a higher-ed visionary? Or does he simply not recognize the way things are really going in higher education?

The money is hard to ignore. Between 2006 and 2012, Liberty’s net assets increased from $150 million to $860 million, thanks mainly to its booming online business. Instead of using those funds only to increase online education, Liberty has bankrolled an ambitious sports program and a recession-busting campus building program.

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

Most campuses are going the other direction. At traditional schools, including my beloved State University of New York, presidents and chancellors are scrambling to find ways to profit from online education.

Perhaps Liberty’s got something to prove. Founded only in 1971, it originally met in the basement of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. As I explore Liberty’s archives this week as part of the research for my next book, I’m finding reminiscences of those early years. One early ministry student remembered that he used to have revival meetings on the “old trash dump road” above the current campus. There was no campus back then, so these earnest “preacher boys,” this alum remembered, used to

Even the archives are nice.

Even the archives are nice.

pray, sing, and practice preaching for about an hour to an hour and a half. We would pray and preach in the Spirit! Walking, shouting, and praying up and down that road, calling out your name to the Father, tears streaming down our cheeks!

As do most fundamentalist schools, Liberty feels a constant need to prove that it is just as good, intellectually, as mainstream universities. As first president Pierre Guillermin put it in an early fundraising letter, any Christian college must maintain “performance standards of unquestionable academic excellence and admirable professional credibility.”

No more Trash Dump Road...

No more Trash Dump Road…

The campus building program may result from a deep need to prove that Liberty is a real university, not just a fundamentalist camp meeting. Or it may be something more strategic. College administrators these days are wracked with anxiety about the future of higher education. Will students in the future simply take classes from a menu of online providers? Will giants such as MIT and Harvard provide the world’s best content online? Can smaller schools continue to exist?

It seems President Falwell is betting big that people will continue to want a traditional campus, with traditional amenities such as sports programs and libraries.

I think he’s right. So far, the leaders in Massive Open Online Courses are not start-up companies in their garages, but established schools such as MIT and Harvard. People still have high expectations that their education—even their online classes—will come from a “real” university.

Violence at Liberty University

It has become an all-too-familiar report from college campuses.  Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, Santa Monica College…the list gets depressingly long.

Most recently, the conservative evangelical world has been shocked by news of a student shot dead near the campus of Liberty University.  One Liberty junior told the Christian Post, “This is the last place I would ever imagine something like this would happen.”

The incident seems to have resulted from a physical confrontation between a sledgehammer-wielding student and a gun-wielding police officer, according to a report in the Washington Post.  This does not seem to fit the profile of a gun-wielding young person taking out as many fellow students as possible before turning the gun on himself.

Nevertheless, the fact that it happened at conservative bastion Liberty University has raised some eyebrows.  Some critics assumed at first that this violence must have resulted from Liberty’s ballyhooed decision to allow students to carry concealed firearms.  As President Jerry Falwell Jr. said at the time that policy was implemented, “I think it’ll continue to create a higher level of security on campus than what was found at Virginia Tech.”  Liberty also recently famously courted a student who had gotten into trouble in high school for packing heat.

It seemed at first that Liberty’s gun chickens had come home to roost.  But to be fair, the recent student death at Liberty did not result from gun-packing students.  Nevertheless, many in the conservative evangelical community hold Liberty to a higher standard.  Not only should students eschew mass murder as has happened on less religious campuses, but the campus of Liberty should be safer in every way.

Liberty, after all, was founded to be different than the sorts of secular, pluralistic colleges that have seen the worst campus shootings.

Perhaps as Liberty moves closer to mainstream pluralist colleges in terms of sporting victories (see here, too) and student rules, it will move closer to mainstream colleges in the depressing statistic of student shootings, too.

 

Does Jesus Love Shotguns? Liberty University and the Many Faces of American Conservatism

What do gun rights have to do with Jesus?

Nothing, right?

Then why did Liberty University offer a sweet scholarship to David Cole Withrow?

Here’s the latest, according to the Christian outlet World Magazine: Withrow had been punished for bringing two guns to his high-school campus in Princeton, North Carolina.  At first, it appeared he had accidentally left them in his truck.  As soon as he remembered his mistake, the story was first reported, Withrow informed school authorities of the guns.  In spite of the innocence of his mistake and his Eagle-Scout honesty in reporting the problem, school officials reported Withrow, who was charged with a felony and kicked out of school.  The story became a tempest in America’s culture-wars teapot.  Withrow became a symbol of an overreaching anti-gun governmental tyranny.  Since Withrow was wearing a Liberty University t-shirt in some public appearances, the University contacted him and offered him a full scholarship.

Falwell and Withrow

Falwell and Withrow; Image source, Liberty University

Turns out Withrow had known about the guns all along. According to World Magazine, Withrow admitted in court he had lied.  Nevertheless, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University stand by their offer.  Withrow’s admission of dishonesty, Falwell announced, smacks of more heavy-handed state tactics.

So in the end, nothing really happened.  A conservative Christian youth will go to a conservative Christian college.

Why should those of us trying to understand the world of conservative educational thinking in America care about this story?

Because this story demonstrates the sticky web of connections between seemingly unrelated issues.  Liberty University was founded in the early 1970s by barnstorming evangelist Jerry Falwell.  The goal of the university was to produce new platoons of educated conservative Christians, ready to swing the United States back into the arms of its rightful Moral Majority.

This story demonstrates that the conservatism of Christian institutions such as Liberty University reaches beyond theology.  Liberty University may exist to teach students in a Christian environment.  But that environment also supports theologically unrelated notions, such as the rights of people to have and use guns, and the rights of people to be defended from an overreaching Obama regime.

As faculty star Karen Swallow Prior reported a while back, the broad cultural conservatism on Liberty’s campus may be relaxing a little. Students these days tend to wear less formal clothes, and some even started a Campus Democrat club.  Nevertheless, as Chancellor Falwell’s actions show in this case, Liberty still represents a bastion of an American conservatism that reaches far beyond Biblical interpretation.

What does Jesus think about shotguns?  I don’t know.  But the multifaceted ideology/theology/admissions policy on display in this story demonstrates the complexity of American educational conservatism.