Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

October already…feeling spooooky. Here are some articles that caught our attention this past week:

Our lead story this week: Asuza Pacific University on a LGBTQ+ roller coaster:

Creepy prep schools and the future of the Supreme Court, at The Atlantic.

kavanaugh yearbook photo

Does going to an elite prep school have ANYTHING to do with all this mess?

Will this school-integration plan work? At T74.

Researcher claims Protestantism still promotes schooling, at Phys.org.

Improving schools by improving lives, or vice versa? At Chalkbeat.

many policies with a shot at changing the experience of low-income students in school don’t have anything to do with the schools themselves.

Principal out after planning to “embarrass” a student who reported sexual assault, at WaPo.

Keeping a “Nazi” student after Charlottesville, at IHE.

He has a right to pursue his education at a state institution. . . . He’s a Nazi — it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to have an education.

cvjetanovic

Should the school have kicked him out?

Why Can’t Evangelical Colleges Change?

Who decides the rules at evangelical colleges? In Fundamentalist U, I argued that school leaders were tightly constricted by a lowest common denominator of populist evangelicalism. Yes, deep theological ideas mattered, but more important was the absolutely non-negotiable need for colleges to be perceived by the broader evangelical public as absolutely “safe.” The events at Asuza Pacific University this week seem to confirm my thesis.

asuza pacific

[No] Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Here’s what we know: A few days ago, Asuza Pacific announced a new policy for LGBTQ+ students. Like all students, they could now freely engage in romantic relationships, but sex was out of bounds. It was a bit of an odd decision to outsiders, since APU maintained its insistence that the only proper sexual relationship was a heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, it represented a pretty big change for a conservative evangelical college.

As we’ve reported in these pages, the question of homosexuality on evangelical campuses has driven a wedge between conservative evangelical schools. I’ve argued recently that the issue of homosexuality, along with other culture-war bloody shirts such as young-earth creationism, is leading to the creation of a “new fundamentalism” in some colleges.

And so, predictably, APU’s announcement led to conservative pushback. Pundits such as Rod Dreher called the policy switch

a feeble attempt by one of the country’s largest conservative Evangelical colleges to satisfy the Zeitgeist while maintaining the fiction that the school is still conservative and Evangelical on human sexuality. . . . some APU students leave college with their faith in tatters, having been transformed into Social Justice Warriors by a college that sells itself as conservative and Evangelical[Emphasis in original.]

As I pointed out in Fundamentalist U, no evangelical college is immune to this kind of pressure. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative gadflies have been able to influence the goings-on at evangelical schools by warning that students might not be “safe” on their campuses.

No matter what administrators might like to do, maintaining their public image as impeccably safe spaces for conservative evangelical youth is absolutely essential. This is not a quirk of Asuza Pacific or a relic of the twentieth century. Just ask Larycia Hawkins. Or Randy Beckum. Or Stephen Livesay.

We should not be surprised, then, to find out this morning that APU reversed its decision. The board announced that the policy change had never been approved. APU, the board declared, was still an unquestionably safe place for conservative evangelical students. As the board put it,

We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission. We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.

In the language of evangelical higher education, yesterday and today, “change” might be good. But “wavering” has always been beyond the possible. If a university hopes to survive, it must pander to popular conservative ideas about sexuality, politics, race, and any other difficult topic. It absolutely must continue to attract student tuition dollars and alumni donations. Any threat to that bottom line, no matter how theologically sound or spiritually attractive, will always be crushed.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I’m not reading much that isn’t from the 1820s these days, but there were some stories this week that just couldn’t be ignored:

What vouchers will do: Orlando Sentinel explores fundamentalist textbooks paid for with tax dollars.

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

John McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates: “more . . . performance art than thought.” At AI.

Mormon and gay—inside the process at BYU. At CHE.

Dollars for scholars: Koch spending on campus, at CHE.

Franklin Graham tries to win California voters for conservative evangelicalism, at NYT.

Title IX at Moody Bible Institute, “The West Point of Fundamentalism:” Molly Worthen at NYT.

Can Big-Time Sports Do It Again?

I never thought I’d see it, but here it is. Following Brigham Young University’s tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students and issues, could the same spark change things in evangelical higher ed? After all, schools like Liberty have long yearned to follow the BYU path in one crucial area.

BYU LGBTQ

Fighting for LGBTQ+ recognition at BYU…

Here’s what we know: Liberty University in particular has always jonesed for recognition as a leading university, and sports has always been one of its preferred qualifications. As President Pierre Guillermin put it awkwardly in 1982, Liberty wanted to be “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”

Of course, the Catholic leaders of Notre Dame might say that they already ARE the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically, but let’s move on. The central point is that leaders of evangelical higher education have always wanted recognition as more than just niche colleges; they have always wanted to reclaim their role as the leaders of American higher education overall.

When Liberty brilliantly and ruthlessly capitalized on the possibilities of online education, current president Jerry Falwell Jr. did not invest the money back into Liberty’s online program. No, Falwell tried to make the old Liberty dream come true. He poured money into traditional campus amenities, especially including Liberty’s athletic program.

This year, the investment paid off. Liberty beat top-ranked Baylor in football, triggering a joyous campus-wide freak-out. Which leads us to our question: Will the dream of big-time sports force Liberty to open itself to friendlier LGBTQ+ policies?

After all, that’s what seems to be happening at Brigham Young. As Chronicle of Higher Ed reports this morning, BYU’s recent tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students was sparked by BYU’s lust for athletic recognition.

As CHE recounts,

In 2016, the Big 12 Conference announced it was officially considering expansion. BYU’s administrators and athletic director jumped at the chance to join. But publicly vying to join the conference brought on national criticism of the university, which observers said did not uphold the NCAA’s stated support of inclusivity because of its treatment of LGBTQ students.

After the university’s effort to join the Big 12 failed, Tom Holmoe, the athletic director, suggested that pushback from LGBTQ advocate groups stood in its way. In response, BYU requested an invitation to the NCAA’s annual Common Ground conference, an effort begun in 2014 to provide a place where leaders and students at religious institutions can talk about LGBTQ issues and “begin exploring how to bridge these gaps and find common ground.”

Might Liberty follow a similar path?

Generations of Christian pleading for equality and recognition have scored only minor victories. As I noted in my recent book and in these pages, administrators at evangelical colleges—even the more liberal schools—are under intense pressure not to change their rules about same-sex issues.

Perhaps it will take a different sort of pressure from a different direction to really change things in evangelical higher education.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

ok teacher march

Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The holiday week didn’t seem to slow down the culture-war rhetoric. Here are a couple of ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk this week. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Historian Sean Wilentz on the difference between “liberals” and “progressives.”

  • “there is a rumor abroad in the land that only progressives care about the powerless and the poor, whereas liberals are just vaguely left-of-center fig leaves for plutocrats and globalizers. . . . This was edifying and improbable pandering.”

    wheaton rainbow bench

    ARE the times a-changin?

LGBTQ issues at evangelical colleges, at NPR. HT: EC.

Yes: Why do white evangelicals love Trump?

Double standards, elite liberal hypocrisy, and Trump-shaming, at FPR.

It’s tough to be a teacher, by Andrew Heller.

What do Hungarian school children read in their textbooks? “It can be problematic. . . . for different cultures to coexist.” At NYT. HT: HD.

The David defense: Trump’s relationship with Stormy Daniels in biblical language, at Vox.

Life after polygamy in Short Creek, at R&P.

Schools are getting safer these days, in spite of how it feels. From NCES.

The coming collapse of Christian colleges, by Rod Dreher at AC.

More teachers’ strikes: Kentucky teachers stay home, at CNN.

Should history be patriotic? At The Atlantic.

Want to save the humanities?

R-E-L-A-X…

Is the sky falling for evangelical colleges? Rod Dreher says yes. I say no.

Dreher is responding to a recent NPR piece describing the tensions at evangelical colleges over student sexuality and gender identity.

As the article describes, colleges aren’t sure what to do. For many conservative evangelicals, homosexual practice is unacceptable. But so is rejecting and harassing Christians. To Dreher, the conundrum is proof that evangelical colleges—like all evangelical institutions—need to take drastic Benedictine steps. As Dreher puts it,

the environment in which traditional Christian colleges and educational institutions work is rapidly changing: politically, legally, and culturally. We cannot count on anything anymore. . . . Somehow, faithful small-o orthodox Christians have to figure out how to educate within this hostile new heterodoxy. We will have to form new institutions, ones built to be resilient in the face of anti-Christian modernity.

Sounds scary. But as I argue in my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, this predicament is nothing new. To the contrary, this dilemma has been the driving force behind evangelical higher education for a hundred years now. Consider this plea from Dean Lowell Coate of Marion College, c. August, 1923. Mainstream higher ed, Dean Coate fretted, had been taken over by “evolution, destructive criticism, and liberalism.” What evangelicals needed, Coate insisted, was to

ignore the whole worldly system, and organize courses independent of the world’s stereotyped curricula, engage the strongest conservative scholarship in America, raise the educational standard above the present unchristian philosophy, stablish [sic] it upon ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints,’ and then challenge the world to meet the new scholarship.

Guess what? It worked. The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s set up a startlingly successful network of colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes. Evangelical colleges have faced the challenge of rapid change for almost a century and they have always found a way to remain true to both their religious mission and their academic aspirations.

Cover art final

Is the sky falling? Yes, but it has been falling for over a century now…

Now, as SAGLRROILYBGTH are tired of hearing, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not evangelical, nor am I personally invested in evangelical higher ed. If I were, though, I would listen to Aaron Rodgers and not Rod Dreher. The challenges faced by schools today are serious and dire—but they are not more serious and dire than the challenges that have always confronted evangelical academics.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Time to give thanks for another batch of hot-mess headlines. This week saw some doozies:

The Roy Moore mess in Alabama; Or, Does anyone really support sexual predators?

Larry Cuban asks what happened to MOOCs.

Bart reading bibleCalifornia approves new guidelines for teaching LGBTQ history in elementary schools.

Williams College president: What if we thought of white-supremacist campus speakers differently?

  • “If the World Wrestling Federation demanded to hold a cage match on the Berkeley campus, would the university be obligated to host it at public expense?”

Is this the end of college? SIU moves to abolish academic departments, from IHE.

Why did white evangelicals vote for a moral monster? Eric C. Miller interviews Stephen Mansfield about his new book, Choosing Donald Trump.

Genocide and Gravy: What should we think about Thanksgiving?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Blink and you’ll miss it. Another week has come and gone. Here are some ILYBYGTH stories that might have flown under your radar:

What do college students really think? Two different surveys give us different numbers. HT: DW

“Is history objective?” Academic historians get a weird email. Is it a right-wing set up?

What’s going on on campus? Michigan and other schools flooded with violent and racist propaganda.Bart reading bible

Harvard likely under investigation for racist admissions policies.

Have evangelicals evolved from “public moralists to leaders of tribal identity”? That’s Jennifer Rubin’s charge this week at WaPo.

Free speech for some! That seems to be the majority opinion, according to a new survey reviewed by Conor Friedensdorf in The Atlantic.

California looks at new LGBTQ-friendly textbooks.

When do religious kids abandon their faith? It’s not during college, according to new research from PRRI.

Are conservatives deserting the charter-school movement?

Life at the “Christian Hogwarts:” Healing and prophecy at Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, Redding, CA.

Thanks to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in tips and stories.