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?


Which of These People Will Save the Humanities?

At many colleges, humanities enrollments are down. So far down that schools such as one University of Wisconsin campus are scrapping entire humanities departments. What can academics do? Two pundits this week have suggested different solutions. We have a different proposal to make.

savior 1

…is it students reading Beowulf?

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein makes a counterintuitive proposal. If humanities programs want to survive and thrive, Professor Bauerlein argues, they need to woo freshmen and wow their parents. As he puts it, “right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.”

You might think the way to do that would be to lighten up on grades and assignments. Offer an easy A and students will line up…right? Professor Bauerlein describes a program that does the opposite. Teachers at the University of Oklahoma have revived W.H. Auden’s 1940s-era syllabus. It forces students to do a ton of reading and reflection. And the students seem to like it.

Bauerlein’s conclusion? Make humanities courses unapologetically difficult. Stop apologizing for Western Civilization:

Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

Could it work? Maybe. I’ve stopped being surprised by the numbers of students who want to be challenged. Yes, many—maybe most—students approach their classes as mere hurdles to be overcome to get to the next goal. But a reliable stream of students want something else.

savior 2

…is it budget-controlling conservative hawks?

From across the pond, we get a very different prescription for saving the humanities. At Times Higher Education, Musa al-Gharbi gives us another idea. If we want to save classes in philosophy, sociology, history, literature, etc., al-Gharbi says, academics should court conservative politicians. After all, when conservatives think humanities departments have been taken over by leftists, they will not hesitate to close them down. And then progressives themselves suffer. As al-Gharbi puts it,

It is generally women and people of colour – usually progressives – who pay the cost when administrators are encouraged to weigh into political disputes. These same groups will also bear the brunt of continued erosion of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

The value of scientific fields is widely appreciated, but social research is a different matter entirely. Given that women, people of colour, LGBTQ scholars and leftists are better represented in the humanities and social sciences than in most other disciplines, they will disproportionately suffer when social research is devalued and defunded.

In other words, if we want to save the humanities, we need to help influential conservative politicians see that courses in history, literature, and so on are not merely training grounds for leftist radicals.

Could that work? In Wisconsin, at least, the shutdown of Stevens Point humanities courses was a direct result of long-simmering conservative outrage. Cultivating conservative political support for humanities classes might help maintain budgets.

I’ve got a different suggestion, though. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher education, there is one constant truth about higher education in these United States. Whether students choose a fundamentalist college, an Ivy League redoubt, or a community-college approach, a driving factor in student decisions has always been professional credentials.

Heather Gerken

…or is it someone different?

That is, whatever college students choose, most of them (or at least, their parents) insist that their work must lead to a better career. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges fail when they can’t deliver on that promise. The same is true for humanities programs. Some humanities courses are thriving. At Yale, for example, history is back as the most popular major.

Why are students flocking to history courses at Yale? As Professor Bauerlein argues, many of them are likely attracted by the intellectual rigor and challenge of the major. And, as Prof. al-Gharbi explains, some of them are probably intrigued by the ideological diversity of academic history. The bulk, though, are hoping that the history major will situate them well to apply to law school. That’s been the tradition for long years.

So who should academics be trying to convince of the value of humanities courses? Is it freshmen looking for old-fashioned intellectual challenge? Or is it conservative politicians looking askance at faculty politics? I think both ideas have merit.

But if humanities programs really want to survive, they need to convince students, parents, and law-school deans that their programs are the best way to fulfill the most important purpose of American higher education: preparation to move up the career ladder.

Only Religious Colleges Can Still Do It

Higher-ed types have a deskful of crises to pick from.  There’s the sexual-assault crisis, the student-debt crisis, the MOOC crisis.  One of the biggest of these crises doesn’t seem to attract its share of attention, though it threatens a bigger transformation of higher education than any of the rest.  And when it comes to this crisis, Christopher Noble of Asuza Pacific University suggests that only religious college might have the solution.

The crisis we’re talking about is the crisis in the humanities.  As Noble notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer and fewer students are signing up as English majors, or philosophy majors, or history majors.  The reasons aren’t too hard to find.  These days, a college degree is an increasingly expensive document.  And young people want to make sure that their work will turn into a well-paid job.  That’s not a guarantee with an English degree, the way it might be with a chemistry degree or engineering degree.

But Noble offers a ray of hope.  Many secular students these days are fully literate in a verbal culture, not a print culture.  For such students, Noble reflects, the humanities might rightly seem “obsolete.”  But this is not true of conservative religious students.  Those students, Noble argues, are hard-wired to embrace the humanities.  As Noble puts it,

Suppose . . . that there existed a large group of middle-class and upper-middle-class prospective customers in the educational marketplace who shared an intense prior commitment, consciously or not, to the obsolete textual worldview. That group of customers already believes, before ever setting foot in a classroom, that a ragamuffin set of ancient texts, a collection of dissonant poetic voices in unfamiliar languages, holds the key to human meaning.

Suppose further that those customers come to learn how much humanistic study will improve their facility with ancient texts. Envision consumers for whom hermeneutical skill and ancient wisdom, rather than technical expertise, constitute the nonnegotiables of a college education. Imagine a “people of the book” in the era of the book’s demise. Such is the condition of observant Muslims, Jews, and Christians in developed countries today.

Could it be true?  Could conservative religious colleges provide not only a religious haven, but a haven for the humanities?  If so, as Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has pointed out, we’ll have to recognize the painful historical irony.  Bauerlein concludes with some satisfaction that many secular humanities professors are in fact

aggressively secular,  hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home. . . . If the humanities spring from a religious impulse, or at least need it to thrive, then the irreligious, irreverent postures of humanities professors are suicidal.

Certainly, following this logic, it seems that secularizing scholars might have eaten their own tails.  But is that really the case?  Aren’t there plenty of wholly secular reasons why some students will continue to embrace the humanities?

In my case, my interest in vigorously secular thinkers led me backwards.  Because I wanted to understand Sartre, I had to read Heidegger.  And because I wanted to understand Heidegger, I went back to Hegel.  And Hegel didn’t make much sense until I had spent time with Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza.

In my case, at least, none of my appetite for studying the humanities came from a religious impulse.  Not consciously, at least.  Am I the odd duck?  Or are Bauerlein and Noble simply hoping against hope for some ratification of their love for conservative religious colleges?

To Win Elections, Conservatives Need to Win in Schools

What happened?

Why do conservative candidates lose elections?

That is the question Mark Bauerlein of Emory University asked in Friday’s Public Discourse.

Bauerlein finds the answer not in demographics or policy prescriptions, but in college and high-school curricula.  The revolution in teaching of the past forty years, he says, means that conservative candidates lack the intellectual heft and agility necessary to win.  Bauerlein modifies a Thatcher motto: “First you win the schools, then you win the government.”

Governor Romney, Bauerlein argues, exemplified the problem.  Romney’s famous blunder about “47%” of the electorate was a lost opportunity, Bauerlein thinks, to introduce a new generation of voters to true conservative principles.  Romney did not explain the central conservative principles of thrift, independence, and liberty that could have made his point.

The real remedy, Bauerlein insists, is not in new polls or smoother candidates.  The long-term conservative remedy will be to take advantage of the profound conservatism at the heart of American culture.  If young people receive a better education in the American tradition, they will be both more receptive to and more articulate about those conservative American principles.

“The lesson is this:” Bauerlein tells us,

Conservative candidates must possess, among other attributes, a conservative tradition in their heads, not just political principles, but great thinkers and artists of them, too. . . .

The best way, perhaps the only consistent one, to plant conservative writings and art in the formation of politicians is through the high school and college curriculum. There, individuals have the space to absorb them as common intellectual equipment, as regular facets of the world, not as political positions. . . .

What they encounter and how it is presented determine what they think is important. If English and history courses don’t include Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 (an anti-political correctness novel) alongside multiculturalist fiction of the 2000s, if they don’t add David Horowitz’s Radical Son to celebrations of the 1960s counterculture, if James Madison doesn’t precede Malcolm X, then the conservative tradition has no place in the accepted body of cultural literacy. If The Scarlet Letter is taught as an indictment of sexual oppression in a Puritan community, not as a complicated tale in which the community has a valid claim upon Hester’s desires, then social conservatism is reinforced as an uptight, obsolete imposition.

This is to recognize the curriculum as an authorizing process. What makes it onto the syllabus has legitimacy, and the angle the teacher takes upon the materials tends to stick. If conservative donors wish to back winning candidates, to cultivate politicians who can deflect sallies of biased reporters and liberal counterparts with intelligent and informed convictions, they must reach conservative politicians not only in election years, but at impressionable ages, too.

The good news for conservatives, Bauerlein writes, is that many schools have already begun to implement this kind of strategy.  They teach conservative ideas not only in short-term intellectual boot camps, but as part of a thoughtful tradition that includes all the best thinkers from across the intellectual spectrum.

What could this look like?  According to Bauerlein, it could mimic the success of liberal efforts such as the Ford Foundation’s funding of centers for Women’s Studies.  That field went from zero to influential in a decade, thanks in part to such funding. Bauerlein thinks it’s time for conservatives to do the same.