I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week has come and gone. Here are some stories that flew by our editorial window:

More on Evergreen State: Michael Aaron argues that we should see it as a “mo/po-mo” battle, “a petri dish for applied postmodernism.” HT: MM

Why are American schools getting more segregated?

Does America need more “intellectual humility?” Philosopher Michael Lynch makes his case in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

READING

Words, words, words…

Southern Baptist Convention: Kicking out LGBTQ; wondering about the “alt-right.”

Nerd note: Drew Gilpin Faust stepping down as Harvard’s president.

Nerd follow-up: Who’s in the running to replace her? How about President Obama?

The libertarian case against public education.

DeVos continues to make long-held conservative educational dreams come true. The latest? Announcing a plan to scale-back civil-rights enforcement.

Michigan jumps in. The university at Ann Arbor announced a free-tuition program, joining similar plans in Boston and New York.

How can we improve lame and uninformative student evaluations of college classes? How about teaching partnerships?

Shakespeare takes center stage in culture-war showdown: A conservative activist disrupts a production of Julius Caesar.

Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.

canute

I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Squelching LGBTQ at Wheaton

It’s not in the rulebook. It doesn’t need to be. As at every evangelical college, there is one unwritten rule at Wheaton College that administrators must enforce with merciless rigor. We see it again recently with Wheaton’s ruthless crushing of student attempts to celebrate LGBTQ rights. This attitude is not an exception to Wheaton’s relatively liberal, tolerant, inclusive brand of evangelical Christianity. Rather, as I’m arguing in my new book, there is an unmentionable but inviolable third rail in evangelical higher education, one that no administrator dares to touch.

First, some background for SAGLRROILYBYGTH who aren’t familiar with the world of evangelical higher education: In the family of evangelical colleges and universities, Wheaton has long claimed special status as the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” The college—just outside of Chicago—committed to the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s. In the 1940s, Wheaton led the way in a fundamentalist reform movement, confusingly known as new-evangelicalism, or simply evangelicalism. These days, Wheaton prides itself as the academic jewel in the evangelical crown, alma mater of evangelical academics, intellectuals, and celebrities.

Given the relatively inclusive atmosphere at Wheaton and among Wheaton’s elite alumni, it may seem surprising that the school has cracked down recently. Most famously, it moved to fire a tenured professor who had seemed too friendly to Islam. Now, as alum William Stell reports in the pages of Religion Dispatches, the administration has crushed student expressions of LGBTQ pride.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The unwritten rules are as old as evangelical higher education itself. And they are implacable.

According to Stell, students surreptitiously inserted a rainbow flag into the school’s display of flags of the world. It was quickly removed. Then, students painted a campus bench in a rainbow display. It was painted over. A student who displayed a rainbow flag in a dorm window was forced to remove it.

The message is clear: Wheaton does not want the evangelical public to think that the school is too friendly to LGBTQ rights. But why not?

wheaton gay pride bench

Before & after, from Religion Dispatches…

The school’s history makes it clear. Wheaton, like every other evangelical college and university, has an absolute need to be seen as a safe environment for evangelical students. Anything that is seen as threatening has always been ruthlessly purged from the school’s public image.

There is a lot of wiggle room in the nebulous concept of “safety.” The boundaries of “safe” evangelical environments have changed over the decades. The process has been messy and confusing.

In the 1920s, for example, Wheaton posted student volunteers outside the downtown movie cinema to make sure no Wheaton students were watching movies. In the early 1960s, the administration rammed through an addendum to the school’s statement of faith, clarifying that all faculty believed in a real, historic Adam and Eve. In 1960, too, the administration tried to bury a faculty report calling for greater anti-racist activism among the white evangelical public.

Clearly, the generally accepted evangelical attitude about safe ideas and behaviors changes over time. In the 1960s, polite student rebels won a relaxation of the strict rulebook. They were allowed to decide for themselves if certain movies or TV shows met high evangelical standards for moral decency. And Wheaton’s official attitude toward creationism has changed. The administration no longer feels much need to pander to the notion that only young-earth creationism can save students from atheism. These days, too, the cautious racial conservatism of the administration in the 1960s is an embarrassment for Wheaton.

In short, Wheaton’s administration can go with the flow when enough evangelicals agree that an idea is not dangerously anti-Christian. But there is no clear or simple way to know when that threshold has been reached, and students and faculty have always been punished mercilessly if they cross the invisible line.

Consider the example of Critique. In the early 1960s, the administration clamped down on a student newspaper, Brave Son. In response, five Wheaton students published their own newspaper. They did it all themselves: Wrote it, paid for it to be published, distributed it. Their goal was to puncture some of the crusty fundamentalist attitudes that still dominated campus. As one of the student editors put it,

Christian education must exist in [a] free atmosphere . . . or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

The upstart publication was crushed. The student editors were suspended for a full year. As one sympathetic faculty member complained, the punishment seemed excessive. After all, the students had broken no rules. They had, in fact, engaged with important questions of faith and freedom. They had done so in a thoughtful Christian way.

It didn’t matter. They were kicked out for “insubordination.” As one student reported, then-President V. Raymond Edman put it in stark terms. “This college,” Edman reportedly told the student,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

The rule is clear, even if it is unwritten. Evangelical colleges like Wheaton can embrace student and faculty dissent. Their campuses benefit from a vigorous intellectual give-and-take that includes a wide and diverse set of voices. But nothing can ever suggest that a school is not a safe environment for evangelical youth. Any glimmer that the school promotes un-safe thinking or behavior must be crushed utterly.

critique student paper BGC

From the archives: student dissent at Wheaton, c. 1963

These crackdowns are not exceptions; they are the rule. Listen to just one more example from 1960. In that year, a faculty committee was empowered to investigate Wheaton’s racial history. The committee decried the way the school’s original anti-racist evangelicalism had been swamped by white supremacist attitudes. The faculty group called for aggressive anti-racist policies.

The administration was sympathetic. Top leaders also wanted to fight for greater racial egalitarianism. But as one administrator at the time put it,

Will some of the parents of our students regard a tacit approval of inter-racial marriage as a danger to their children?

Even asking the question in those terms made the administration’s response clear. Any whiff of danger was unacceptable. They buried the faculty report.

Today’s surprisingly harsh crackdown on student LGBTQ sympathies may seem out of line with Wheaton’s intellectual vigor. It may seem odd for an academically elite school—one that embraces students of all backgrounds, of all nationalities and all races—to crush these seemingly mild and harmless expressions of student LGBTQ sympathies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. They did it decades ago with student and faculty civil-rights activism. They did it decades ago with faculty ideas about progressive creationism. They did it this decade with faculty ideas about God and Islam. And they’re doing it now with student expressions of LGBTQ pride.

No matter what, Wheaton must retain its reputation as a safe campus. For now, the administration clearly believes that LGBTQ pride is outside the boundaries of safe ideas for evangelical youth. Until that changes—until the administration is convinced that a large segment of the evangelical public is cool with LGBTQ pride—the administration will continue its surprisingly harsh no-tolerance policy.