Holiday Reading List

Ho ho ho and all that. Like it or not, the holidays are upon us. For you nerds out there who, like me, view such breaks as a chance to catch up on our nerdy reading, I’ll share my plans for the next ten days.

Who's got time for presents?

Who’s got time for presents?

What are you reading these (holi)days?


I’ve got three books on my desk. One new, one old, and one in the middle. First, I’m excited to read Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial: Evangelical Scientists and a New Creationism (2014). Rios looks at the emergence of a network of creationist scientists after the 1920s. Next, I’ll be taking another whack at Virginia Brereton’s Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880-1940 (1990). Over the years, I’ve read this book several times. As Brereton puts it in her introduction,

The fundamentalist movement was decidedly an educational movement and most fundamentalists were educators; education was implicit in their overriding objective, which was the evangelization of America and the world. To understand fundamentalists, then, it is absolutely necessary to examine their educational efforts.

Hear, hear! This time around, I’m reading it with an eye to my new book about evangelical higher education between 1920-1980. Last but not least, I want to spend some time with John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). This is one that I read many years ago as an undergraduate. For so long now I’ve been reading conservative writers and pundits, I feel a need to re-connect with this fundamental statement of liberal ethics.

Top of my stack...

Top of my stack…


I’ve been putting off Ted Davis’s series at the BioLogos Forum for too long. Davis is the one of the best historians out there for those of us interested in creationism and evolution. His series, “Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Evolution” ran through the summer into this past fall. I meant to read them as they came out, but as usual I fell behind. Thanks to these holidays, I’ll finally take time to read them more carefully.

There have been a couple of longish articles recently about evangelical religion and higher education that I didn’t have time to read yet. In The Atlantic, Laura Turner noted the activism at evangelical colleges about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have high hopes that Turner does not assume that evangelical college students have never engaged in this sort of social activism before. As I’m discovering in my current research, there is a strong tradition at Christian colleges of left-leaning student activism.

Next up, an article that is doubly interesting for anyone who wants to understand evangelical higher education. Esmerelda Sanchez writes in Christianity Today about the experiences of Latina Pentecostals in higher ed. I’ve only read the teaser so far, but it looks as if Sanchez argues that as women, as Latinas, and as Pentecostals, those like her have faced special hurdles in the world of American higher education.


At the far edge of nerdy, I’m looking forward to reading a newly completed dissertation. Just completed at the University of Delaware is Kevin Currie-Knight’s From Laissez-Faire to Vouchers: An Intellectual History of Market Libertarian Thought on Education in Twentieth-Century America. Aside from the peerless Milton Gaither, historians have not taken a close enough look at the libertarian tradition in educational thought in US history. I’m hoping Currie-Knight’s work addresses some key issues of the meanings of markets in the imaginations of ed reformers. For those who don’t have access to a university library, you can always get easy access to dissertations like this at your local public library. Most public libraries have access to interlibrary-loan services, and they can often get you a pdf of any dissertation lickety-split.

That’s my plan. As usual, I won’t be likely to get to all of this in the next week. I’ll try to read all I can as I breeze through the holidays, packed full of candy canes and booze.

What are YOU reading as we say goodbye to 2014?

Eat a Meanwich, Michelle Obama

Kids don’t eat their vegetables.  No news there.  But new rules about school lunches have got some students and their parents up in arms against an overreaching federal government.

As described by the LA Times, the new rules mandate more fruits and vegetables for school lunches.  This seems like a good thing.  But as the LA Times editors argued recently,

the program is afflicted by rigid, overreaching regulations that defy common sense. Schools must provide items from five food groups, including a fruit and a vegetable, every day. Students must choose three items, even if they’re not hungry enough for all of them, and at least one must be produce. But fruits and vegetables rank as the least popular items, so requiring schools to offer one of each for each student practically guarantees that an enormous amount of fruits and vegetables will go to waste.

More colorfully, the editors at Twitchy compiled a series of student tweets about the new lunch rules. Be warned: these tweets include some harsh language, most of it directed at First Lady Michelle Obama. Obama, of course, has made healthy food one of her signature programs. One student memorably complained, “Sorry michelle obama but i dont wanna eat crusty ass broccoli for lunch at school.”

One mom complained, "This is sad!"

One mom complained, “This is sad!”

As historian Susan Levine demonstrated, the history of school lunch is fraught with the politics of poverty, influence, and agriculture. In their early days, powerful US Senators such as Richard Russell of Georgia promoted school lunches as a guaranteed market for struggling farmers. In the 1960s, federal policy-makers began to see school food as a way to address economic inequality in society. By guaranteeing meals for low-income students, it was hoped, school food could even the playing field somewhat.

So there’s nothing new about school lunch as a tool of social engineering. And there’s also nothing new about conservative outraged reactions. As Baylen Linnekin insisted in the pages of Reason recently,

The government’s efforts to pad school lunch enrollment numbers by expanding the program should be seen as what it is: a cynical attempt to avoid admitting failure. There’s nothing palatable about that.

Even here, though, it seems libertarian and/or conservative pundits will be on tricky terrain. Perhaps the new lunch program is unpopular. And perhaps the government has assumed an enormous role in the feeding of America’s children.  But who wants to be on the side of nixing fruits and vegetables?

Libertarian Editor: No More Classrooms, No More Books, No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks

Do we need teachers anymore?  Can’t computers do the job?

Speaking at Las Vegas Reason Weekend 2013, Reason Magazine editor Katherine Mangu-Ward peeked into the bold libertarian school future.

The question is not whether or not computers can replace people, Mangu-Ward pointed out.  They already do so in innumerable ways, such as ATMs.

For schools, however, the promise of computer-guided education has not been fully realized.  Mangu-Ward did not suggest we replace all teachers with computers, but rather that we employ a cheaper, better, blended model.

Too often, Mangu-Ward argues, the notion that schools are only “warehousing” young people gets a bad rap.  Schools SHOULD warehouse the young, but not necessarily in stark, depressing, dystopic ways.  Kids should stay in school for longer days, and for longer school years.

Computers can help make that feasible.  Mangu-Ward praised some KIPP schools that use computers to change the classroom dynamic.  Instead of twenty students with two teachers, some schools have thirty students with two teachers and fifteen computers.  Large numbers of students can be working on computers at any given time.

The students on the computers will likely be learning more, not less, than their human-led colleagues.  For-profit companies, after all, are producing effective online curricula on a competitive basis.  According to Mangu-Ward, the market will ensure that these curricula will be the best, cheapest options available.

Computers, after all, make great teachers, Mangu-Ward argued. Computers are infinitely patient.  Computers have impeccable memories. Truly great teachers might be able to keep track of all students this way, Mangu-Ward said, but unfortunately, “A lot of teachers really really suck.”

Mangu-Ward ended on an optimistic note.  “There are a lot of ways,” she said, “to choose not to be part of the dysfunctional school system that we have right now, and they are increasingly online.”

Mangu-Ward didn’t mention it, but this sort of tech-topia sounds eerily familiar to educational historians.  As Larry Cuban has demonstrated most convincingly, the history of American schooling has been peppered with plans to replace teachers with one machine or another.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, educational television promised to broadcast the best teaching to students nationwide.  A plane even circled several states in the Midwest, broadcasting programs meant to MOOC their ways into students’ brains.

By the 1970s, those ambitious programs had largely come to naught.  As one disappointed technophile complained, “If something happened tomorrow to wipe out all instructional television, America’s schools and colleges would hardly know it was gone” [quoted in Larry Cuban, Teachers and Machines, pg. 50].

But could our situation now be fundamentally different?

First of all, the internet is different from TV.  Right now, schools and colleges would probably grind to an awkward halt if the internet fizzled suddenly.

Second, educational TV was largely a top-down government enterprise.  The US Congress shelled out $32 million in 1962 to pay for educational TV, for example.

Here, the programs will be both better and cheaper.  The market, Mangu-Ward predicts, will force for-profit companies to produce the best materials for the lowest price.

We’re left with two big questions:  CAN computers replace teachers? . . . and SHOULD they?

For the libertarian Katherine Mangu-Ward, the obvious answer to both questions is an emphatic YES.