Teaching Kids about Rape

How can we lessen the horrible frequency of sexual assault in colleges? The New York Times wants us to start in middle school. Their proposal suffers from a terrible case of Manhattan-itis.

NYT editors pointed to studies from Illinois and New York that seem to bolster their case. When kids learn to communicate their feelings, when they learn explicitly about safe places and violence, the amount of “sexual harassment” and “inappropriate touching” drops.

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas

It makes sense to me personally. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen the positive results when young people learn to speak openly and frankly about all aspects of sex.

But as a historian, this proposal seems to willfully ignore reality. The NYT editors note that “some parents may object to their children learning about sexuality in middle school and even before.” Yet they seem not to worry about such predictable objections. If such programs succeed in the Netherlands, the editors assert, they can work here.

As I argued in my recent book, folks like these NYT editors (and me) have always woefully misunderstood the true political and cultural equations of schooling in the US of A. Things that may seem possible in a clinical trial are just not possible on a wider scale.

Consider just a few examples from recent history. In March, for instance, Kansas considered a law that would open teachers to prosecution for teaching children about sex—even from an approved sex-ed curriculum. That’s right: Teachers who taught explicit sexual terms could be prosecuted as sexual predators if they taught their classes as those classes were designed to be taught.

This is not just another case of something being the matter with Kansas. Last summer, parents in the San Francisco Bay Area protested about a sex-ed textbook that taught their middle-schoolers about sex. The problem was not that the textbook was not accurate. The problem was not that the material might not help students get a fuller and better understanding of sexuality.

The problem, rather, was more fundamental. Parents in these United States do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way. They do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.

And this is the problem with the New York Times editorial. The central question is not whether or not such programs are effective. The central question is not whether or not such programs work in the Netherlands. Rather, the most important question—and one that the New York Times sidesteps—is how to implement such programs in the face of the predictable and powerful opposition they are sure to elicit.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

We have a difficult time understanding a seeming paradox: Americans want their schools to do more than teach kids things that are true. In many subjects, Americans insist that their schools help keep children ignorant. Or perhaps a better term is innocent. Sex, evolution, lynching . . . there are a host of truths that public schools are meant to un-teach. Not only can schools not do a good job teaching these things frankly and fairly, but in practice—considering the political realities—many schools are expected to do a good job of keeping children ignorant of such things.

Rule of thumb: schools won’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a formal toast at a church wedding. Is it possible to use such a platform to speak frankly about sexual assault? Yes, and in some schools (and some weddings) it is done. But by and large such tactics are not considered acceptable by Americans. Teaching a child to say “vagina” and “penis” is difficult enough. Any hope to convince parents of the need to teach kids to say “rape” and “sexual assault” must be far more fraught with difficulty than the New York Times admits.

Jesus vs. Koch Bros. in Kansas

So…what IS the matter with Kansas? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Smarsh offered a mistaken look at the way big money and big religion work together to erode public education in the Sunflower State.

The way Smarsh describes it, “extremist Christians” have been fooled into working with “fundamentalist capitalists.” They both want to privatize public schools, but for different reasons. Her article underestimates and misunderstands the long tradition of American conservatism. New histories, including my new book on educational conservatism in the twentieth century, have laid out the long roots of deep organic connections between religious conservatives and free-market conservatives.

Smarsh describes current education policy in Kansas as dictated from “that ancient place where the religious and the greedy mingle.” As she puts it,

Today, the religious right and wealthy free-marketeers both long to privatize a system that educates 50 million students, but for different reasons. One wants to make 50 million Christians; the other, 50 million paying customers.

As Smarsh explains, at its root this alliance of religion with capitalism results from a cynical conspiracy among the big-money folks. She quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

The unholy union, he told me by phone from his Washington office, begins with the money holders. “They look at the shock troops of the religious right, and they think, ‘How can we tap into that power? How can we get them to endorse our agenda of privatization?” Boston theorized. In matters of public education, which the religious right finds distasteful along moral lines, “they’re already more than halfway there.”

In reality, according to Boston, big-money folks like the Koch brothers don’t care about Jesus. They only want to get their paws on the public-school sector to weaken the influence of the government and strengthen private business.

I’m no Koch fan. Nor am I a conservative Christian. I do indeed find it believable that some big-money types have hoped to co-opt religious conservatives to get their votes. But to say that the alliance of conservative Christians with big-business is some sort of elaborate scam does not fit the facts.

Right fools left...

Right fools left…

Just as Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas did a decade ago, Smarsh’s argument resolves puzzling situations by resorting to conspiratorial explanations. Frank argued, roughly, that conservative schemers managed to convince working-class voters to vote Republican by waving the bloody shirt of abortion and gay rights. In essence, conservative strategists fooled people into voting against their own economic interests by emphasizing culture-war hot-button issues.

In Frank’s argument, conservative voters come off as dupes, conned into voting for Kansas Republicans because of an irrational attachment to pro-life ideas. Smarsh makes similar implications. Big business free-marketeers manipulate conservative Christians into fighting against public education, in this line of argument.

Let me be as clear as I can be: I don’t doubt that some libertarian business folks might HOPE to enact such a scheme, but the notion that conservative Christians are somehow rustic pawns of a corporate megalith are far too simplistic and Manichean.

Folks like Smarsh and Frank (and me, to be fair) have a hard time understanding how conservative Christians could support privatization, so they (we) jump to a false conclusion that big business has somehow fooled religious conservatives.

More careful historical treatments have noted the far more complicated connections between big business and evangelical Christianity. Kim Phillips-Fein, for example, looked at the roots of business conservatism in her 2009 book Invisible Hands. Phillips-Fein is certainly no fan of big business, but she describes the way industry leaders such as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil dedicated much of their fortune to promoting evangelical Protestantism. This was more than a scheme or a scam. It was a long-term effort to promote conservative Christianity and big-business. It was an effort to bring both together for the good of both.

...or does it?

…or does it?

As I’ve found, too, many religious conservatives have embraced big business for reasons that Smarsh and Frank don’t seem to understand. Many religious conservatives have not been fooled into supporting capitalism, but rather see capitalism as an inherent part of their American Christian tradition.

In educational conservatism, at least, the deep organic connections between Jesus and capitalism were not imposed by any move of the sinister Koch brothers. Rather, religious conservatives themselves have long insisted that schools must teach both capitalism and Protestantism. Even a cursory familiarity with the writings of leading conservative activists will make these connections clear.

For instance, in a description of the decades-long educational activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, biographer Jim Hefley connected the dots (emphasis added):

The Gablers also began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America. They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

For its part, big business also has a long tradition of pushing for more Jesus in public schools. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, an industry group, offered in 1939 a new curriculum for schools nationwide. It was vital, NAM leaders argued, for schools to combine “the historical and spiritual foundations of the American system of government, free enterprise and religious liberty.”

I’ll say it again: I don’t doubt that tycoons such as the Koch brothers might hope to manipulate religious conservatives. But it hardly counts as manipulation to encourage conservatives to support a cause they already support.

When journalists such as Thomas Frank or Sarah Smarsh paint a conspiratorial picture of hapless religious conservatives taken in by evil-genius financiers, they do a disservice to those of us hoping to get a better understanding of the ways cultural politics really work in this country.