Fundamentalist U at HES

Maybe I should have taken a quantitative turn at Albuquerque! I was honored and delighted to have a group of top historians discuss Fundamentalist U at the recent History of Education Society meeting in sunny Albuquerque. They raised some tough questions and we had a great discussion about the need for a better historical understanding of evangelical higher education.

The panel was put together by Professor Andrea Turpin of Baylor University. She invited academic heavy-hitters AJ Angulo, Milton Gaither, and Katrina Sanders. The inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman served as our chair.

HES 2018

Professors Sanders, Gaither, Angulo, and Turpin. Yours truly in the back.

All of the panelists had nice things to say about the book, which was great to hear. But they also raised insightful questions. For example, why doesn’t the book include a clearer description of the numbers of institutions involved? It would have been fairly easy to do and it would have helped readers get a sense of the scope of the evangelical-college movement over time.

Also, the book claims to examine the history of evangelical higher education, but it leaves out large swathes of evangelical schools. Where are the Pentecostals? The Peace-Church schools? It’s a fair point and one I readily acknowledge. The focus of my book is on a subgroup of the evangelical tradition, schools that called themselves “fundamentalist” at some point in time.

We talked about the top-down focus of the book, too. Yes, I tried hard to include student experiences as much as possible, but the central theme of the book, as Professor Gaither pointed out, was

the narrow channel administrators had to navigate between the Scylla of angry fundamentalists watching their every move for signs of creeping secularization and the Charybdis of parents, students, and accreditation bodies who wanted to make sure that the education being provided was respectable.

Last but not least, we discussed the challenges of my sources. In some cases, I was only given access to small parts of archival collections. I wasn’t allowed at all into some archives, like at Bryan College. How did this curated set of papers influence my ability to draw fair conclusions?

All fair questions. And, as I particularly appreciate, questions that demonstrate a keen understanding of the book and my goals. Even given these limitations, I consider the book to be worthwhile. (To be clear, the panelists agreed on this point as well.)

First of all, for historians and others interested in American higher ed, we absolutely must include this family of institutions in our considerations. Too often, we hear pundits and policy-makers talk about the ideological draft of “American higher ed” in ways that seem willfully blind to the true diversity of the higher-ed landscape.

Second, though this wasn’t the focus of these educational historians, we will never understand religious bodies and religious identities if we don’t do a better job of studying affiliated educational institutions. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, too often observers and historians have assumed that we should understand fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism on theological grounds. That’s useful, but it’s not enough. If we really hope to get a handle on what it has meant to be an evangelical, we need to see what evangelicals have done with their schools. And we need to ask why.

[Oh, and I also saw a roadrunner. I guess they’re like pigeons down there…]

HES 2018 roadrunner

meep meep.

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Homeschooling and Intolerance

What is the deal with homeschooling? It is really a plan to produce a private army of patriarchs, as some have suggested? Due to the fractured nature of homeschooling, it is very difficult to say anything accurate about homeschoolers as a whole. Thanks to the indefatigable Milton Gaither, we see this week a study that attempts to figure out if homeschooling really does lead to greater intolerance.

For those who are not familiar with his work, Professor Milton Gaither is an historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. In addition to his historical work on homeschooling, he also reviews all the new research about homeschooling on his must-read blog.Gaither homeschool

This week, Gaither reviews a study by Albert Cheng. In short, Cheng compiled data gathered from students at Biola University who had been educated in part at home. Cheng wanted to know if these homeschooled students were more intolerant than their public- or private-school peers.

Read Gaither’s full review for the deets, but the short answer is no. All other things being equal, homeschooled students at Biola were a bit MORE tolerant than school-schooled students. As Gaither points out, though, all other things are not equal. The difference in tolerance between homeschooled and school-schooled students was less than the differences between students from different social backgrounds.

In other words, homeschooling tends to make students in this sample more tolerant of people from other backgrounds, but the difference is not as striking as the differences between students from rich and poor families, white and black ones, boys and girls, etc.

What’s the upshot? Gaither concludes with some intriguing implications that you need to read in full. Do public schools make evangelicals less tolerant? Do students choose relatively liberal evangelical colleges like Biola because they are already more tolerant of differences? Can we say with any confidence that homeschooling, as such, does not tend toward intolerance?

Homeschooling: A Scheme to Take Over America

What do Sarah Palin, Gordon College, and Christian homeschoolers have in common? According to evangelical-turned-atheist Frank Schaeffer, they are all “still fighting a religious war against their own country.” I’m no homeschooler or Palin fan, but Schaeffer’s accusations just don’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

Schaeffer’s most recent broadside appeared in Salon. In his article, Schaeffer blasted a wide range of “far-right” institutions. When parents choose to pull their kids out of public schools to indoctrinate them at home, Schaeffer charged, it amounts to nothing less than “virtual civil war carried on by other means.” As Schaeffer put it,

the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.

According to Schaeffer, this nefarious plot spreads beyond the anti-democratic practice of homeschooling. The “far-right,” Schaeffer insists, turns women into submissive breeding mares. The Right has opened its own colleges and universities as part of its plan to take over civil society. Jerry Falwell himself, Schaeffer relates, explained his reasons for opening Liberty Law School. “Frank,” Falwell confided, “we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!”

Is the sky really falling?

Is the sky really falling?

Inspired by the apocalyptic rhetoric of wild-eyed prophets such as Rousas Rushdoony, and marshalled by irresponsible self-aggrandizers such as Sarah Palin, the Christian Right will not stop until it has taken over. Conservative religious folks, Schaeffer insists, want nothing less than to impose a rigid theocracy on the United States. They will not be content until they have dictated the morals and mores of their neighbors as well as those of their children.

Are Schaeffer’s charges fair?

Certainly, he has the right to boast of his insider connections. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, really did inspire a fair bit of the social philosophy of today’s conservative evangelicals. Schaeffer Senior articulated in the 1970s and 1980s the notion that US culture had been infiltrated by a sneaky “secular humanist” worldview. In order to properly live as Christians, then, Schaeffer Senior advocated a wide-ranging rejection of modern social mores. Perhaps most important for day-to-day culture-war politics, Schaeffer Senior along with C. Everett Koop denounced abortion rights as equivalent to murder.

At times, Frank Schaeffer seems blinded by his own imagined influence. In this Salon article, for example, he shamelessly name-drops his connections to writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Mary Pride. He claims to have been “instrumental” in bringing together the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such unpleasantness aside, however, do Schaeffer’s charges stick? Are Christian homeschooling and evangelical higher education part of a long-ranging plot to undermine American traditions of pluralism and tolerance?

Short answer: No.

Before I offer a few examples of the ways Schaeffer’s breathless expose doesn’t match reality, let me explain my background for those who are new to ILYBYGTH. I am no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity. I’m no fundamentalist, not even a former fundamentalist. When it comes down to it, I will fight hard against fundamentalist-friendly school rules about prayer or sex ed. I don’t homeschool my kid. I don’t attend or teach at an evangelical college. I’m only a mild-mannered historian, with the sole goal of deflating hysterical culture-war accusations.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of Schaeffer’s claims.

First, is Christian homeschooling really as sinister as he claims? Schaeffer suggests that homeschoolers have been inspired by the work of leaders such as Mary Pride and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The point of homeschooling, Schaeffer charges, is to train girls and women to submit to fathers and husbands, to glory in their second-class role as child-bearers and house-keepers.

There are indeed homeschoolers who adopt these notions. But anyone who follows the work of historian Milton Gaither can tell you that the world of homeschooling—even the more limited world of conservative evangelical homeschooling—is a kaleidoscope of missions, strategies, and techniques. I don’t doubt that some Christian parents hope to impose a rigid patriarchal vision on their children. What falls apart, though, when looked at carefully, is the notion that these folks are somehow the “real” reason behind Christian homeschooling. What falls apart are accusations that Christian homeschoolers are some sort of monolithic force scheming to take over the rest of our society. In reality, Christian homeschoolers are a remarkably fractious bunch.

Second, what about Rousas Rushdoony? As Schaeffer correctly points out, Rushdoony was the intellectual force behind “Reconstructionist” theology. In short, Rushdoony believed that Christians should impose true Christian morality on all of society, including Old-Testament-inspired laws about sex and conduct. In reality, though, the direct influence of Rushdoony’s social ideas has been rather limited. As scholars such as Michael J. McVicar have argued, Rushdoony has had far more influence on liberal pundits than on the conservative rank-and-file.

Next, are evangelical colleges really training a generation of conservative culture warriors? As I conduct the research for my next book, I’m struck by the ways evangelical colleges have been battlegrounds more than training centers. In other words, evangelical colleges and universities have had a hard time figuring out what they are doing. They are hardly in the business of cranking out thousands of mindless drones to push right-wing culture-war agendas.

For one thing, evangelical colleges have usually insisted on maintaining intellectual respectability in the eyes of non-evangelical scholars. Even such anti-accreditation schools as Bob Jones University have used outside measures such as the Graduate Record Examination to prove their academic bona fides. As historian Michael S. Hamilton noted in his brilliant study of Wheaton College, this desire prompted Wheaton in the 1930s to invite outside evaluators such as John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago to suggest changes at the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” This need for intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream intellectuals has continually pulled fundamentalist schools closer to the mainstream. Such colleges—even staunchly “unusual” ones like Bob Jones—have been much more similar to mainstream colleges than folks like Schaeffer admit.

Schaeffer uses Gordon College in Massachusetts as an example of the ways Christian colleges train new generations of young people to see the US government as evil. But as I found in my recent trip to the Gordon College archives, the community at Gordon has always been divided about the purposes of higher education. Back in the 1960s, Gordon College students held protests, sit-ins, and “sleep-ins” to change Gordon’s policies and attitudes. As one student put it during a 1968 protest, “we want to be treated like real college students.” How did the evangelical administration respond? By commending the students’ commitment to “activism over apathy.” To my ears, that does not sound like a brutal and all-encompassing mind-control approach.

The world of conservative evangelicalism, of “fundamentalism,” is one of continuous divisive tension. There is no fundamentalist conspiracy of the sort Schaeffer describes. Or, to be more specific, there are such conspiracies, but there are so many of them, and they disagree with one another so ferociously, that the threat Schaeffer warns us about is more fiction than fact.

Does Christian homeschooling really serve as a first step in a long-ranging scheme to take over America? Only in the fevered imaginings of former fundamentalists such as Frank Schaeffer.

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?

BOOKS:

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…

ONLINE:

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.

DISSERTATION:

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?

Does Homeschooling Work?

Can conservative Christian parents protect their children from the corrupt values of public schooling?  That’s the question asked by homeschooling parent Braden Hoelzle.  As reviewed by the peerless homeschooling scholar Milton Gaither, Hoelzle’s published findings don’t really offer us the solid answer we want.

First of all, for all of us interested in questions about homeschooling, Gaither’s blog is a must-read.  Professor Gaither reviews academic research into central questions and offers a quick summary of its value and contribution.

In this case, Gaither examines a 2013 article by Hoelzle.  Hoelzle wondered if homeschoolers can really pass along their values to their children.  He did so by interviewing four adults who were homeschooled.  For those four, the results were mixed.

Please read Gaither’s full appraisal, but in short, Gaither notes that we don’t get the solid research-based answers we want in this article.  Does homeschooling work?  Can parents pass along their values?  Maybe.  Sorta.  But this research doesn’t give us more than what Gaither calls “just four anecdotes.”

Homeschooling and Fundamentalist America

As we’ve noted here before, there are many voices in Fundamentalist America who insist public schools are rotten.  One option for parents that has become increasingly popular since the 1980s has been homeschooling.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about homeschooling.  First of all, though it has become associated in many people’s minds with conservative religion, we don’t really know why parents choose to do it.  That is, we don’t know how many of the homeschoolers out there are motivated to do so by a fundamentalist religious or cultural distrust of the dominant ideology of public schooling.  After all, since the 1960s there has been a small but vocal minority of homeschoolers from the cultural left, too.

We also don’t know much about the success of homeschooling.  Do kids learn?  If so, would they learn just as well in traditional schools?  In other words, is it homeschooling that helps kids learn better?  Or is it the fact that they are talented students from homes with involved, active parents–just the type of student who would tend to do well in a public school, too?

Just as with any contested cultural issue, it’s hard to know where to turn for reliable research in these areas.  Many homeschoolers hope to prove that their method is equal to or superior to traditional schooling.  Many public-school advocates want to show that homeschooling is not an acceptable alternative.  We have to look at any “research” promoted by either side with a good deal of skepticism.

This is why we’ve noted with interest a couple of reviews that came across our screens lately.  The first is by Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute.  There’s no doubt that Ray is partisan.  His organization promotes the legal rights of homeschoolers.  And he doesn’t hide his delight at the implications of the study he’s reviewing.  The study, by Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette N. Gould, and Reanne E. Meuse, (Martin-Chang, Sandra; Gould, Odette N.; Meuse, Reanne E. (2011, May 30). The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, pp. 1–8) compared students from 37 homeschool families with 37 traditional ones.  The sample size was small, as Ray concedes.  The researchers found that students from “structured” homeschool environments did significantly better on academic achievement than their public-school counterparts.  Students from “unstructured” homeschools tended to do worse.  The most interesting part of this study results from the researchers’ attempt to control for other factors.  That is, they chose families that were similar in all variables except for type of schooling.  In other words, they tried to solve the question of whether homeschoolers performed better because they had other family advantages besides homeschooling.  Of course, as Ray and the study’s authors all acknowledge, this result does not prove much.  The kinds of testing done to ascertain academic performance tend to reward those students who experience “structured” teaching, whether at a homeschool or a public school.

The second review comes from the leading academic historian of homeschooling in America, Milton Gaither.  Gaither teaches at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and blogs about the latest finds in homeschooling at Homeschooling Research Notes.  He noted recently the publication of a rare longitudinal study of homeschoolers.  This study by Linda Hanna of West Chester University in Pennsylvania (Linda G. Hanna, “Homeschooling Education: Longitudinal Study of Methods, Materials, and Curricula” in Education and Urban Society 20, no. 10 (2012): 1-23) looked at hundreds of homeschooling families in 1998, then again in 2008.  Hanna’s results offer some interesting hints about the perennial homeschooling questions.  For example, Hanna finds that an overwhelmingly large percentage of families in her study seem to choose homeschooling due to conservative religion and culture.  Also, the number of families choosing to stick with homeschooling all the way through secondary school increased significantly over the course of one decade.  The most obvious explanation for this change seems to be the rise of computers and internet access during that time.  When more families had better online access to educational resources, more chose to keep their kids at home for middle- and high-school, too.

As always, these kinds of studies leave us wanting more.  We’d like to see larger sample sizes, longer studies, more exhaustive research methods.  But these studies and others like them help make the case that homeschooling is a legitimate alternative to public schools.  For those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America, this can tell us a couple of things.  First of all, we can acknowledge that those conservative religious folks who choose homeschooling might be making an educationally superior choice.  Second, we can see that some of the hostile stereotypes about Fundamentalist America just don’t hold water.  Just because parents are conservative and deeply religious doesn’t mean they are not willing to embrace alternative cultural institutions.  Many conservative folks jumped headlong into a very experimental form of alternative schooling when they thought public schools were not doing the job.