We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at Philly.com. If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Believe it or not, Labor Day is already here. Time to put away those white shoes, fellows. It has been a hectic last week of summer here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few stories of interest that you may have missed:

Are some cultures better than others?

Love means never having to say you’re sorry: Trump pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

At The Gospel Coalition, an open letter from Christian scholars denouncing racism.

Are white evangelicals more racist than Christian?

The problem with “privilege.” Jeffrey K. Mann wants us to look beyond race and gender.

What happened to all the Christian bookstores?

Yes, you read it correctly: Reese Witherspoon will be playing the role of a defector from the “God-Hates-Fags” Westboro Baptist Church.

Where are all the sinister atheists who are trying to undermine Christian America? The Trollingers couldn’t find them at the American Atheists Convention, from Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Family sues NYC schools over their son’s “gender expansive” preference for dresses. The school accused the parents of sexual abuse.

Vouchers and stealth vouchers: The Progressive offers a guide to the wild and woolly world of public-school funding options.

What should conservative evangelicals think about gender and sexuality?

Only in New York: A Brooklyn school principal accused of recruiting her students into the communist movement.

The Real Reason We Can’t Fix Our Schools

We all know public schools are not all equal. Rich kids get meticulous college-prep educations. Poor kids are often stuck in crumbling schools with shoddy expectations. Why haven’t we been able to fix this problem? We get a clue this week from an unlikely source. It underlines an unpopular argument I’ve been making for a while now: in spite of decades of “progressive” reform, our public education system is dominated by deeply conservative assumptions.

public school crappy

Do your local public schools look like this…

This week, our already-fractured academic world was thrown another culture-war bone to chew on by law professors Amy Wax (Penn) and Larry Alexander (UCLA). Writing at Philly.com, the two scholars articulated the unpopular idea that some cultures were better suited for modern American life than others. To help people in poverty, society should encourage them to live more stable personal lives, more in line with “bourgeois” culture.

Penn students and alumni condemned the essay as part of the culture of white supremacism. Some of Wax’s colleagues “categorically reject[ed] her claims.”

What does any of this have to do with school reform? A lot.

We don’t need to support or condemn Wax and Alexander in order to understand this. (Although, full disclosure, I personally put their argument in the same unfortunate category as James Damore’s Google goof. They twist social-science research to suit their own already-convinced positions. They play the provocateur merely to gain attention and they don’t mind articulating atrocious ideas in order to do so.)

public school fancy

….or more like this?

The point here is not whether or not Wax and Alexander are bold speakers of truth—as Jonathan Haidt has argued—or self-inflated stalking-horses for white supremacy.

The point, rather, is that this dust-up among elite academics shows the real reason why school reform is so difficult. It is not because we Americans are unwilling to invest in public education. As recent headlines from New York City have shown, we often have put bajillions of dollars into efforts to improve schools for students from low-income families.

As the case of the Wax/Alexander letter shows, the real reason we can’t fix public education is because we find it impossible to talk reasonably about poverty. Americans in general can’t even agree on the meaning of poverty. Some people think poverty is mainly due to personal failings. Others see the reason as structural inequality.

As a result, we talk instead about fixing schools so that poverty will be magically eliminated. Instead of talking about reforming society so that fewer students in public schools come from low-income families, we reverse the discussion. We talk about fixing schools so that more students from low-income families will get ahead in life.

In effect, our centuries-long strategy to avoid discussions of social reform by investing instead in school reform shows how deeply conservative our fundamental assumptions about schooling have always been. Instead of fixing society to eliminate poverty, we try to fix schools so that individual people might get a chance to escape poverty. Instead of directly addressing the third-rail topic of poverty in America, we sidestep the issue by making a few schools a little better.

The assumption is so deeply embedded in American culture that it is rarely noticed, let alone addressed. As long as kids from low-income families have access to a decent public school—the assumption goes—it is their own darn fault if they don’t improve their economic future. So money goes into shiny programs to make schools for low-income students a little better here and there, instead of going into programs that would change the fundamentally inequal structure of society itself.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I have to say it again. At the root of our endless failure to reform public schools is our endless failure to address the real problem. Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society.

Does “Blasphemy” Help?

How are we to understand them? Some of the recent college blow-ups seem to defy traditional common sense. Most recently, for example, students at Evergreen State College have taken to attacking biology professor Bret Weinstein. As in earlier cases, the violence of the reaction doesn’t seem to match the alleged offense.

Over at Heterodox Academy, Jonathan Haidt calls this a kind of “witch hunt,” a modern efflorescence of blasphemy trials, a type of “fundamentalist religion.” Does that kind of parallel help us make sense of these campus controversies?

Here’s what we know: In cases from Yale to Claremont McKenna to Middlebury to Berkeley, protesters have exploded—sometimes violently—in order to demonstrate their disagreement with certain forms of speech.

In some cases, the protesters have insisted that harboring hurtful language does harm to the campus community. At Middlebury, for example, students protested the presence of Charles Murray. Murray was accused of perpetuating racist ideas.

And, in some cases, the ferocity of the student reaction seems out of proportion to the alleged crimes. At Claremont McKenna College, for example, an administrator inadvertently implied that there existed a racial norm at the school. At Yale, an instructor downplayed the seriousness of offensive Halloween costumes. In each case, the student response was enormous and militant.

How are we to understand the violence of these student reactions?

I’ve tried a few explanations myself. Recently, I suggested that we look not at the “college” part of these protests, but at the “elite” part of them. A while back, I suggested that we should celebrate this kind of student activism. I even suggested a better way for protesters to accomplish their stated goals.

Jonathan Haidt writes that we need to take a different perspective. The vitriol and intensity of recent campus flare-ups, Haidt argues, is best understood as a kind of religious impulse, a witch-hunt, an anti-blasphemy campaign.

There are some parallels. First, many of today’s campus protesters feel that merely allowing certain forms of speech constitutes grave harm. Like many sorts of religious speech, merely encountering certain words is perceived as harmful. Second, there is a definite in-group feel to recent campus demonstrations. Many participants seem to want primarily to demonstrate their position on certain issues. The main goal does not seem to be humdrum policy change, but rather a literal demonstration of morality. Plus, the language of recent protests is often starkly black and white. Anything besides total agreement is seen as an utter betrayal.

What do you think? Does it help you understand the Evergreen State protests if you think of them as a kind of blasphemy trial? If you take it out of the realm of secular policy deliberation and into the realm of good vs. evil?

Or is that just a way for us to downplay the seriousness of the protests? Calling something a “witch-hunt,” after all, is yet another way to cut off dialogue.

Affirmative Action for College Professors? No, But…

Thank you.  After discussions here and in real life, I’ve changed my mind.  I thought we needed affirmative action for conservative college professors, but now I agree on a different solution.

The other day, I wrote that our campuses needed more ideological diversity. Not, as some commentators have argued, mainly to provide a richer intellectual climate. Nor to be fair to conservative intellectuals. Rather, for me the compelling issue was that many students—conservative students—felt like fair game for both fellow students and professors.

Too many students, I thought (and think!) feel as if their conservative beliefs—especially religious beliefs—are the butt of jokes. They do not feel included; they do not feel like valued members of the campus community. That is not acceptable.

But following Jonathan Haidt’s advice for colleges to “actively seek out non-leftist faculty” won’t help.

Rather, we need to use existing mechanisms on campus to ease the problem.

Let me start by laying out some of the things I am not talking about:

I am not saying that students from some conservative religious backgrounds shouldn’t have their worlds shaken up by what they learn in college. For example, if students come from a young-earth creationist background, as David Long has argued, learning mainstream science will come as a profoundly disorienting experience. Colleges don’t need to protect them from that experience.

I am not saying that students should be allowed to perpetuate anti-minority attacks under the name of fairness. As some schools have experienced, “white student union” groups have argued that they, too, should have the right to be exclusive campus communities. Colleges don’t need to protect this sort of faux equality.

But colleges should protect students—even conservative students—from the sorts of ignorant, ridiculous, hateful talk that they are commonly exposed to. Let me give some examples of the kinds of thing I am talking about.

Example #1: Here in the Great State of New York, we’re divided over a recent gun-control law, the SAFE Act. It limited gun ownership in significant ways. One student told me that the subject came up in one of his classes. It wasn’t the main subject of a lecture or anything, just some side-talk that went on as part of a class discussion, the kind of talk that is a common part of every class. The instructor, according to my student, said something along the lines of, “Only total hillbilly idiots oppose the SAFE Act.” My student was a gun owner, from a family of gun owners and opponents of the SAFE Act. He didn’t say so, but I can’t help but think that the instructor’s comments made the student feel shut out.

Example #2: I was giving a talk a while back about Protestant fundamentalists and their educational campaigns. I’ll leave the host university anonymous. After my talk, one audience member shouted out a question, “What’s WRONG with these people!!??!” Many heads nodded and people giggled a little. I was flummoxed.   I couldn’t believe that such an intelligent person could simply lump together all conservative religious people as “these people.” I couldn’t believe that other audience members found such a question unremarkable. I wondered what someone in the audience would feel like if he or she was a fundamentalist. I don’t think he or she would feel welcomed. I don’t think he or she would feel like part of the campus community.

In situations like that, I think the main culprit is faculty ignorance. Too many of us have no idea about the numbers of conservative students we teach. Too many of us assume that the intelligent people in our classes agree with us on questions of religion and politics. Too many of us assume that any anti-conservatism or anti-religious jokes will be enjoyed by all our students.

I plead guilty myself. As I learn more and more about conservatism and religion, I realize how woefully ignorant I have always been. I worry that some of my off-hand comments in the past made some students feel unwelcome or insulted.

That’s why I think we need to do a better job of spreading the word.   Many of our campuses already have sensitivity-training classes. Why don’t we include conservative ideas? Why don’t we help faculty members recognize that they will be teaching students of all sorts of political and religious backgrounds? Why don’t we educate them about the beliefs of people who are very different from them, people who will likely be in their classes?

Of course, it won’t change the minds of people who really don’t want to change. I know there are some professors out there who consider it their job to belittle conservative ideas. Some academics take a positive glee in subjecting religious conservatives to hostile intellectual attack, hoping to educate them out of their unfortunate backwardness.

To some, that might be enlightenment. If it means subjecting vulnerable students to browbeating at the hands of their fellow students or even of their professors, it’s not the right sort of enlightenment.

Affirmative action for conservative professors isn’t the answer. It won’t work and it doesn’t even address the central problem. Colorado has struggled to fit in its token conservative intellectual. More important, as Neil Gross has argued, hiring on campuses is not really squeezed in a leftist death-grip. Rather, left-leaning types tend to be overrepresented among those who go into academic work in the first place.

We should prepare ourselves to welcome religious and ideological diversity just as we do other forms of diversity. We should ask instructors to attend sensitivity workshops that include a variety of ideas. Why do some creationist students believe in a young earth? Why do some religious traditions emphasize a continuing difference between proper roles for men and women?

The goal is not to avoid teaching ideas that might be startling or uncomfortable for students. In a geology class, young-earth creationists will hear that the earth is very old. A class on feminist theory will certainly shake up some students steeped in patriarchal thinking. But we can convey that information in a way that insults and belittles our students, or in a way that does not.

To me, the choice seems obvious.

Why Campuses Have Become Timid

You’ve heard the lament: College campuses these days have become intellectual hothouses; students force teachers and administrators to crush any hint of controversial thinking; students insist on atmospheres purged of ideas that might upset them. In the new issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt offer an analysis of the phenomenon. But why didn’t they invite a historian to their party? For two smart guys, their answers are sadly shorn of any of the historical context that best explains our current “snowflake” syndrome.

The authors review the recent happenings on college campuses. Professors complain that they are muzzled and beleaguered. Students who offend are crushed under the bootheels of climate enforcers. Comedians no longer perform on college campuses.

Macro-aggressions . . .

Macro-aggressions . . .

Instead of feisty arenas in which a universe of ideas battle ferociously, some college campuses have become daycare centers at naptime, the authors charge. Why?

The recent trend toward what Haidt and Lukianoff call “vindictive protectiveness,” they argue, results from generational trends. Today’s college students grew up wearing helmets everywhere. They grew up on Facebook; they grew up in an era of vicious partisan polarization. The results, they conclude, are more than sad. They are scary portents of the ways campuses have pushed students to think in negative ways.

All these things make sense, but they ignore the obvious explanation from the history of higher education itself. Instead of as a psychological “vindictive protectiveness,” an historian of higher ed might explain today’s student activism as an exhibition of “insurgent inclusionism.”

Today’s sometimes-excessive zeal for inclusionism might be traced most immediately to campus tumults of the 1960s. To take examples only from my home state of New York, battles at Columbia, Cornell, and City College of New York all laid the historic seeds for today’s campus activism.

At Columbia, student leftists took over the administration building and helped set a precedent that evil lurked incarnate behind the carved doors of deans’ offices. At Cornell, students demonstrated that no excess of violence would be too much in order to promote their agenda. At CCNY, the very structure of the school itself was turned on its head.

These were all very different episodes, but all of them set the precedent for student moral activism. The good guys in every case were those who were willing to go to any extreme—even shotgun-wielding threats—to create “inclusive” atmospheres.

The moral definitions were established. Those who resorted to extreme measures to promote more egalitarian campuses, places more welcoming to non-white, female, and underrepresented students were the good guys. Those who resisted were the bad guys.

These days, talk of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” seems an obvious historical development of that moral logic. Insurgent inclusionism dictates extreme tactics to be sure that no historically underrepresented group is left out. Why do student activists take such extreme measures against “microaggressions?” Because such things are seen as the latest flowering of white, male campus elitism.

Haidt and Lukianoff are likely aware of this obvious historical trajectory. I understand that they are mainly interested in other questions. Furthermore, I’m a fan of Haidt’s work. I considered it a big compliment when a recent reviewer planned to teach a culture-war class using my recent book along with Haidt’s Righteous Mind. As a psychologist, however, Haidt seems to ignore the obvious historical logic for our current campus climate, and that historical logic is important.

Without it, it’s easy to get caught up in the alarmist tone of the article. As I’ve argued before, today’s campuses are not as monotonous and timid as these sorts of articles imply. We should not tremble at the thought that student activists are up in arms for moral causes—even if we disagree with the tenor of their protests.

Campus activists these days consciously model themselves on the strident moralism of their 1960s ancestors. Do some of their protests verge into the merely silly? Yes. But overall, the logic of their protests has developed from the best traditions of student activism.

We don’t need to define away student protests as psychologically suspect.

The Social Sciences Need More Conservatives!

Let’s start with some ifs. IF diversity is really a minimum requirement for vibrant intellectual life, and IF college professors really tip toward liberalism and leftism, and IF academic groupthink has had a damaging effect on social sciences . . . IF those things are true, then don’t we need to improve political diversity in order to encourage real intellectual progress? A new study by a group of social psychologists argues that we do.  Only by encouraging researchers who embrace conservative worldviews, they write, can social scientists make real progress.

This academic team is not a collection of conservative pundits. As have other self-identified liberal academics such as Jonathan Zimmerman, these psychologists argue that in order to preserve even the liberal goals of the liberal arts, some sort of academic affirmative action is required.social-scientist

First, some background: this new study will be published soon in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. It has been made available in an unedited, uncorrected pre-publication form to invite peer comment. The authors include José L. Duarte of Arizona State University, Jarret T. Crawford of The College of New Jersey, Charlotta Stern of Stockholm University, Jonathan Haidt of New York University—Stern School of Business, Lee Jussim of Rutgers University, and Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. These academic psychologists are careful to note that none of them identify as political or cultural conservatives. Their argument is not a bitter lament from an excluded right wing, but rather a call to action by concerned academic insiders.

ILYBYGTH readers may remember Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. In a nutshell, Haidt argued that Americans of all political stripes make up their moral minds first, then adduce reasons to explain their positions.

This new argument is different. The authors limit their claims to the field of social psychology. Their field, they contend, is

At risk of becoming a cohesive moral community. Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogenous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?

For example, studies of public attitudes toward climate change have described disagreement with mainstream science as “denial.” By calling one side “science” and the other side “denial,” doesn’t the very structure of the study adversely affect its outcome?

As the authors warn, “Embedding any type of ideological values into measures is dangerous to science.”

Not only does political homogeneity threaten to derail the answers found by social scientists, it tends to skew the questions they ask. As an example, the authors describe the career of the idea of “stereotype accuracy.” Due largely to ideological commitments, social psychologists had assumed that stereotyping was a false and negative tendency. In the 1970s, however, a rare conservative psychologist examined the question in a new way, and “found results that continue to make many social psychologists uncomfortable.” In this case, conservative psychologist Clark McCauley found that many stereotypes are actually based on rational assumptions and fact.

Why are there so few political and cultural conservatives in this academic field? The authors suggest a range of possibilities. They reject the notion that academic careers attract liberals because liberals are somehow smarter than conservatives. But they do find that the field may suffer from a self-propagating tendency. Since it is perceived as hostile to conservative thinkers, young conservative academics steer clear. Professor Haidt includes a sample of comments by conservative graduate students from his earlier work. One conservative academic told Haidt that he or she remained in the academic “closet.” Due to anti-conservative prejudice, this person wrote, “I find myself hiding my intellectual views and values every day.” Another conservative graduate student wrote that “the political ecology became too uncomfortable for me.”

This sort of weeding-out, the authors warn, threatens the field. By encouraging a culture of similar-minded researchers, the field of social psychology undermines its own scientific validity.

What is to be done? The authors offer a laundry list of suggestions, including more funding for conservative graduate students and an active recruitment process for tenure-track university positions. Universities are already good at searching for diverse faculties and student bodies. They only need to expand their notion of “diversity” to include a true intellectual, cultural, and political diversity. More broadly, the authors encourage all social psychologists to examine their own prejudices. “Instead of assuming,” they suggest,

That stereotypes are inaccurate without citing evidence, ask, ‘How (in)accurate are stereotypes? What has empirical research found?’ Instead of asking, ‘Why are conservatives so prejudiced and politically intolerant?’ . . . ask, ‘Which groups are targets of prejudice and intolerance across the political spectrum and why?’”

These are issues near and dear to ILYBYGTH hearts. Time and again, conservative intellectuals and pundits have complained that higher education has been lost to a morass of identity politics and destructive Red-Guardism. Perhaps most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. quipped that he would rather trust the government to the first four hundred people listed in the Boston phone book than to the faculty of Harvard University. More concretely, as I’m uncovering in my current historical research, conservative evangelicals have devoted considerable amounts of time and treasure to the establishment of dissenting conservative colleges, where students and faculty will be free to pursue truth undeterred by self-defeating and short-sighted secular humanism.

Certainly, this study will likely be embraced by conservatives as more proof that their complaints are justified. I wonder how many conservative intellectuals, though, will embrace the liberal premises of this study as well as its conservative-friendly conclusions. That is, will conservative thinkers agree that diversity is a requirement for true intellectual growth? Many conservatives, after all, have rejected racial affirmative-action programs that promise greater intellectual diversity. Can conservatives accept this study on conservative grounds?

It is worth repeating that this article limits its claims to the field of social psychology. But clearly its implications are worth considering for academia as a whole. Do mainstream colleges need a dose of true political diversity?

Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?

 

Is the War between Science and Religion Over?

Here’s one we missed: among the year-end top-ten lists was Paul Wallace’s list of “Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars” at Religion Dispatches.

Looking back at 2011, Wallace offered this cheering prediction:

“This year has marked, I believe, the beginning of the end of the war between science and religion. Creationism cannot last. The New Atheists are now getting old. And between these camps the middle ground continues to expand.”

Wallace’s article lists ten leading voices from the broad middle ground.  Included are evangelical scientist Karl Giberson and irenic atheist Chris Stedman.

We missed Wallace’s list at the time.  Looking back at the progress of 2012 so far, it doesn’t seem as if the culture wars have abated noticeably.  But perhaps we need to look more at trends than headlines.  As one of Wallace’s top-ten peacemakers, Rachel Held Evans, put it,

“My generation of evangelicals is ready to call a truce on the culture wars. It seems like our parents, our pastors, and the media won’t let us do that. We are ready to be done with the whole evolution-creation debate. We are ready to move on.”

The goal at ILYBYGTH has always been to promote a true and lasting peace in these culture wars, not merely an angry and demilitarized standoff.  A more profound and sympathetic understanding of Fundamentalist America among us outsiders could lead to a greater willingness to work together.  Or at least to an ability to understand what the other side is saying.

Was Wallace right?  Has 2012 produced a new crop of peace-makers?  It is not too difficult, after all, to stretch beyond Wallace’s list to point out other hopeful signs of a new generation of writers and activists willing to reach across the cultural trenches to work with the other side.  Just a few that have attracted wide notice lately:

Starting long before Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 invocation of the “culture-wars,” it has seemed that the boldest headlines have been made by those who attack their opponents relentlessly.  Perhaps we can see here a broadening of interest in the peaceable middle, those who want to speak civilly and productively with those on the opposite sides of these culture-war trenches.  One can always hope.

Let’s Be Civil: Scott F. Aikin & Robert B. Talisse

We must be civil.  If we here at ILYBYGTH hope to understand Fundamentalist America from the outside, it is not optional.  The purpose of ILYBYGTH is to imagine the best reasons for conservative ideas on evolution, religion, education, etc.  Without civility, this turns into another useless and bitter witchhunt.

But what does it mean to be civil?  Philosophers Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse of Vanderbilt offer a compelling short definition of true civility.  In a piece on 3 Quarks Daily, the two philosophers argue for a more precise and healthy definition of civil argument.  “We now are able,” Aikin and Talisse say in part,

“[to] identify civility in argument with tendencies that enable the exchange of reasons among disputants. Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons.  This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views.  For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism.  In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of.  We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception,and Reciprocity.”

And they conclude:

“Thus we see that civility in argument is not a matter of being nice, calm, or even polite.  It instead has to do with being a sincere arguer.  Civility is consistent with sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality that would in other contexts be inappropriate.  But our model of civility also holds that name-calling, impoliteness, and hostility are to be avoided when they would obstruct or undermine properly run argument.”

For those of us who try to engage with those with whom we don’t agree or don’t even understand, this definition will help define the parameters of civil discourse.  It is a reminder that we must not abandon our own positions in order to respect the other.  Such wallpapering is not true civility, but rather only a stalling maneuver.  This definition also frees us to be angry, so long as we understand that anger is a feeling, not an argument or strategy.  True civility, in my opinion, is like parents arguing in that quiet time when a baby has just fallen asleep after a long stretch of midnight crying.  Both parents can be angry.  Both can point fingers and accuse the other of sloth.  But both parents also implicitly–automatically–keep their voices down to a hushed whisper.  Though they may have a ferocious argument, they both agree not to wake the baby.

Can people really do this?  There often does not seem to be any agreement to keep argument civil.  Culture warriors break this implicit code all the time, engaging in violence or accusing one another of inciting violence.

But there is hope.  Political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that the “culture-wars” are not truly as vicious as they are made out to be.  Scholars such as Jonathan Haidt insist that there are moral positions on both sides of many hot-button issues.  And activists such as John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher have committed to talking civilly with one another, sometmes with “sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality.”

So let’s be civil.  When we disagree, let’s remember to try to understand the other side.  Let’s listen to one another.  Let’s give reasons that might make sense to the other side.  And let’s agree to be open to changing our ideas.  A tall order, but a necessary one.