Teaching Kids about Rape

How can we lessen the horrible frequency of sexual assault in colleges? The New York Times wants us to start in middle school. Their proposal suffers from a terrible case of Manhattan-itis.

NYT editors pointed to studies from Illinois and New York that seem to bolster their case. When kids learn to communicate their feelings, when they learn explicitly about safe places and violence, the amount of “sexual harassment” and “inappropriate touching” drops.

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas

It makes sense to me personally. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen the positive results when young people learn to speak openly and frankly about all aspects of sex.

But as a historian, this proposal seems to willfully ignore reality. The NYT editors note that “some parents may object to their children learning about sexuality in middle school and even before.” Yet they seem not to worry about such predictable objections. If such programs succeed in the Netherlands, the editors assert, they can work here.

As I argued in my recent book, folks like these NYT editors (and me) have always woefully misunderstood the true political and cultural equations of schooling in the US of A. Things that may seem possible in a clinical trial are just not possible on a wider scale.

Consider just a few examples from recent history. In March, for instance, Kansas considered a law that would open teachers to prosecution for teaching children about sex—even from an approved sex-ed curriculum. That’s right: Teachers who taught explicit sexual terms could be prosecuted as sexual predators if they taught their classes as those classes were designed to be taught.

This is not just another case of something being the matter with Kansas. Last summer, parents in the San Francisco Bay Area protested about a sex-ed textbook that taught their middle-schoolers about sex. The problem was not that the textbook was not accurate. The problem was not that the material might not help students get a fuller and better understanding of sexuality.

The problem, rather, was more fundamental. Parents in these United States do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way. They do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.

And this is the problem with the New York Times editorial. The central question is not whether or not such programs are effective. The central question is not whether or not such programs work in the Netherlands. Rather, the most important question—and one that the New York Times sidesteps—is how to implement such programs in the face of the predictable and powerful opposition they are sure to elicit.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

We have a difficult time understanding a seeming paradox: Americans want their schools to do more than teach kids things that are true. In many subjects, Americans insist that their schools help keep children ignorant. Or perhaps a better term is innocent. Sex, evolution, lynching . . . there are a host of truths that public schools are meant to un-teach. Not only can schools not do a good job teaching these things frankly and fairly, but in practice—considering the political realities—many schools are expected to do a good job of keeping children ignorant of such things.

Rule of thumb: schools won’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a formal toast at a church wedding. Is it possible to use such a platform to speak frankly about sexual assault? Yes, and in some schools (and some weddings) it is done. But by and large such tactics are not considered acceptable by Americans. Teaching a child to say “vagina” and “penis” is difficult enough. Any hope to convince parents of the need to teach kids to say “rape” and “sexual assault” must be far more fraught with difficulty than the New York Times admits.

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Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.

Bryan College and the Grey Lady

Bryan College is in the news again. A recent New York Times article describes the hullabaloo over creationism and college creeds. But here’s the problem: journalist Alan Blinder seems all too willing to cast today’s struggles as only warmed-over reiterations of the 1925 Scopes trial. That doesn’t do justice to the history nor does it help today’s readers understand the kaleidoscopic world of evangelical higher education.

ILYBYGTH readers will remember that Bryan has been back-and-forth on the issue of Adam and Eve. The school has always been friendly to young-earth creationism. But President Stephen Livesay pushed through a clarification of the school’s traditional creed. From here on out, faculty members must affirm their belief in a literal, historic Adam and Eve. Most recently, the college has been sued by two faculty members who have refused to sign the clarified statement of faith.

I’m glad to see that journalist Alan Blinder has paid some attention to the controversy in the pages of the New York Times. But I can’t help but complain about Blinder’s framing of today’s story. For instance, Blinder calls today’s fight a “similar debate” to the 1925 Scopes trial. He says, “The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are…”

I’m not complaining because Blinder does not name the two professors who are actually suing Bryan—Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge. I’m not complaining because Blinder focuses instead on Brian Eisenback, who had become controversial due to his evolutionary creationism.

No, I’m complaining because this sort of coverage implies that the issue at hand is the teaching of evolution or the teaching of creationism. I’m complaining because so many writers—not just Blinder—feel a need to call every new example of evolution/creation controversy “Scopes II” or something similar.

It would be entirely plausible, I think, for a casual reader to walk away from Blinder’s article thinking that Bryan College is becoming a religious school that teaches creationism, when it used to be a more secular school that taught evolution. It would also be plausible for readers to think that the issue at Bryan College today is the same issue that motivated the Scopes trial so many years ago. Both of these are woefully misleading implications.

First of all, Bryan College is now and has always been a friendly environment for young-earth creationism. Until recently, Bryan hosted the Center for Origins Research and Education. This center was lead in turn by prominent YEC intellectuals such as Kurt Wise and Todd Wood. Today’s controversy at Bryan College is decidedly not between a “creationist” mindset and a “secular” one. Today’s controversy is between a pluralist sort of big-tent creationism and a stricter young-earth-only vision. The school may be tightening its definition of acceptable sorts of creationism, but that is a very different thing than imposing creationism on a pluralist school.

Also, the controversy in 1925 was about whether or not evolution could be banned from public schools. As I argued in my 1920s book and in my upcoming Other School Reformers, due to such controversies, many conservative Christians founded schools like Bryan College. But today’s debate is vastly different. The debate today is over what sort of creationism counts as creationism at a private evangelical college.

Just because it brings journalists from New York down to Dayton again, there is no need to imply that this is somehow a return engagement for Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken, William Jennings Bryan, and John Scopes. What we’re seeing today is worlds apart from what Dayton saw in 1925.

 

School Is Life

For one homeless girl in New York City, school is life.  In any case, that’s the story told recently in a New York Times feature article.  “For Dasani,” the story opens,

School is everything—the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting.

In the progressive tradition, as Bill Reese demonstrated so powerfully almost thirty years ago in Power and the Promise of School Reform, this vision of school as social-redistribution center fulfills a long-held and deeply cherished ideal.

But how do conservatives view this use of public schools?

To be sure, in various instances, as I noted in an article several years ago in Church History, conservatives have also taken advantage of the wide reach of public schools.  Conservative evangelicals, for example, have used schools as a convenient distribution network for Bibles and religious tracts.  But in general, conservatives in America have not yearned for redistribution the same ways progressives have.  Schools, many conservatives might agree, must be understood as educational institutions, not welfare agencies.  When public schools try to do too much, some conservatives might argue, they end up doing nothing at all.

When school reform has worked for conservatives, Ross Douthat argued recently, it has been when market-based reforms have made schooling more equitable for low-income and minority students as well as affluent whites.  That sort of concrete reform, Douthat wrote, has been the primary success conservatives have scored in overcoming their legacy as the party of white racism.

But that is not the sort of success trumpeted in the NYT feature.  Those market reforms, the article argues, merely move schooling and public services farther out of the reach of girls like Dasani.

No, the article concludes, for homeless youth like Dasani,

school and life are indistinguishable.  When school goes well, she is whole.  When it goes poorly, she can’t compartmentalize like some students, who simply ‘focus’ on their studies.

According to the New York Times feature, Dasani’s life as a homeless eleven-year-old in glitzy New York City is rough.  She shares a room in a shelter with her entire large family.  They endure infestations of mice, roaches, and sexual predators.  In contrast, Dasani’s classroom is a “cozy haven of book-lined shelves and inspirational words scrawled in chalk.”  At school, Dasani gets attention from a brilliant and caring classroom teacher, as well as a social worker and medical professionals.

For us at ILYBYGTH, this seems like a perfect example of a perennial question at the heart of educational culture wars.  What are schools for?  Ought they provide all the services needed by every child, no matter how extensive those needs might be?  Or should schools limit themselves to a narrower definition of “education,” focusing on academic work and leaving families to provide the rest?

In America’s twentieth century, one’s position on this question often served as a quick-and-easy definition of “progressives” vs. “conservatives.”  Progressives wanted schools to think of education as a whole-life question, meeting children where they were and providing every social service possible to ensure a high-quality education for everyone.  Conservatives, in contrast, have pushed for the elimination of “fads and frills” from public schools.  The government—in school or anywhere else—ought not take primary responsibility for children or anyone else.

In this story, we see one example of the way this long-running disagreement has been won, largely, by the progressive vision.  Dasani’s life is far from easy.  But her ability to secure a range of services through her public school demonstrates the long-run triumph of one central progressive idea.

An Age of Denial—of History

Attention, fellow followers of the evolution/creationism controversies!  Want to read

  • Hysterical exaggerations?
  • Misleading claims?
  • Willful ignorance?

Then look no further than the pages of the New York Times.

These aren’t the ravings of a fringe Bible-thumping creationist, nor are they the feverish exhalations of a Dawkins wannabe.
Rather, the New York Times recently ran a sadly mistaken opinion piece by physicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester.

Professor Frank and I are on the same side of these debates.  We both want better evolution education in America’s schools at every level.
But Professor Frank engaged in some terrible punditry that even his allies must protest.  Frank made the tortuous claim that

Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Creationism is not Professor Frank’s only concern.  He also blasted America’s growing—or at least durable—disdain for climate-change science and vaccination science.  For those notions, Frank may have a point.  But his claims about creationism don’t pass the smell test.

Even on his own terms, Professor Frank muddles things.  He opens by acknowledging the fairly flat lines of American creationism illustrated by Gallup polls.  Since the 1980s, about 42-44% of respondents have agreed that God created humanity in pretty much its present form at some point in the last 10,000 years.

How, then, does it make any sense for Frank to conclude that his “professors’ generation [in the 1980s] could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement”?  Creationism in the 1980s was a roaring lion, pushing “two-theory” laws onto the books in states such as Arkansas.  Indeed, President Reagan swept into the White House based, in part, on his ardent support for creationism.

Frank’s personal experience with self-satisfied academic scientists in the 1980s who looked at creationism with “head-scratching bemusement” demonstrates the surprising cultural isolation of academic scientists more than it does any weakness of creationism in the 1980s.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has argued, many scientists in elite academic settings these days show a surprising ignorance about conservative religion in America.  That may have been true of Frank’s teachers in the 1980s as well.  If they thought 1980s creationism posed no threat to mainstream science and science education, they certainly misunderstood the nature of American culture and politics.

More startling is Frank’s bizarre claim that creationism was a “minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century.”  Such a statement reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the career of American creationism, indeed about American culture in general.

I don’t suggest that physicists such as Professor Frank need to take the time to read the excellent academic literature out there, such as Ron Numbers The Creationists, Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, or Jeffrey Moran’s American Genesis.  Though it wouldn’t hurt, especially if one is planning to spout off about the history of creationism in the pages of the New York Times.

But even if Frank only scanned through the Wikipedia entry on the Creation-Evolution Controversy, he would see that creationism has never been a “minor current.”  Creationism has always been embraced by leading figures; creationism has always had powerful political support.

So what could the good professor have been thinking?  How could an intelligent, informed commentator really believe that creationism has grown from inconsequential to insuperable between 1982 and today?

Perhaps Professor Frank believes that his claims are true if we look only at creationism “narrowly defined.”  That is, one could make the case that today’s sort of creationism did not exist for most of the 20th century.  This could hold some water.  After all, the sort of creationism we’re used to today is very different from that of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The 1961 publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood heralded a new sort of creationist thought and belief.

If this is what Professor Frank meant, good for him.  But I don’t think it is.

After all, Frank does not claim that creationism has become powerful since the 1960s.  He seems to believe that creationism has escalated in political intensity since 1982.

Also, if he hopes to argue that creationism’s political power is stronger now than it has ever been, he can’t hide behind his faulty “narrow” definition of creationism.  In the first half of the 20th century, creationism—not the same creationism as today, but recognizably the same cultural and political impulse—ruled the ballot box in states across the country.  It did so far more powerfully than it has done since.

The claims of “early” creationism were far more strident than the claims of latter-day “creation scientists.”  Since the 1960s, most creationists have fought to include creationism alongside evolution in public-school science classes.  Earlier activists had much greater ambitions, hoping to ban evolution entirely.

So what can we make of Professor Frank’s anxious tut-tutting?

Frank’s misleading conclusions, I believe, result from a disturbing willingness to ignore the historical record and rely on flawed personal experience to make sweeping charges about the way America has changed over time.  The goal is to create a sense of hysteria, a sense that we are now approaching a crisis worse than any we have seen.

Such antics may make for good politics.  But they make for very bad policy-making.  Our thinking about creationism, education, and culture should be based on clear-heading thinking, not on false claims.

So, to set the record straight, let’s look at a few simple facts:

  • Is America in 2013 ferociously creationist?  Yes.
  • Do politicians truckle to creationists?  Yes.
  • Has America become more ferociously creationist since Professor Frank began his college career in 1982?  No.

It may be politically expedient to skew the history this way, but it doesn’t do justice to the facts.  In the end, this kind of misrepresentation hurts the cause of evolution education.  It depends on a false sense of crisis; it gives readers a misleading depiction of our current cultural situation.

America is not facing the strongest creationist surge in our history.  Education policy should not be based on hysterically misleading claims.  Rather, creationism today is powerful, just as it has been since before America landed on the moon, just as it has been since before America landed on Omaha Beach.

American creationism, in short, is not a sudden new challenge to mainstream science, but rather a durable tradition.  Science pundits such as Professor Frank must recognize this.

 

Call Me, New York Times

Did you see it yet?

All of us who follow creation/evolution debates have likely read by now the “Room for Debate” essays in the New York Times the other day.

The jumping-off point, it seems, was Virginia Heffernan’s recent claim that she is a creationist.  The editors asked contributors, “Is it really so controversial to believe in biblical creationism?”

Each essay is short and pithy.  Certainly worth your time.  They include fourteen cents altogether, two each from an evangelical physicist, a liberal theologian, an evangelical apologist, a Muslim pundit, a political scientist, a law professor, and a theologian/environmentalist.  All in all, an interesting and idiosyncratic collection of opinions on the subject.

But here’s my beef: Where is education in all these voices?

Other scribblers, I’m sure, will ask other questions.  For example, where is atheism?  Or any sort of strong argument that it is, indeed, a big problem to believe in biblical creationism?

The editors would not have had to work hard to find a good atheist to contribute.  Even outside the big names such as Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, plenty of articulate atheists could have offered a strong opinion about the dangers of believing in biblical creationism.

More directly relevant to readers of ILYBYGTH, where is the voice of education?

IMHO, the issue of “biblical creationism” would not be nearly as controversial if Americans did not have to decide what to teach in our public schools.

As Professor Giberson noted in his piece, “The brouhaha about ‘biblical creation’ is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world.”

Well put.  But that proxy war is fought primarily in boards of education, in classrooms and PTA meetings, in state textbook meetings, and in thousands of other school-related battlefields.  The evolution/creation controversy is not primarily an issue simply of scientific or theological disagreement about epistemology and ontology.  There are plenty of other issues on which people do not agree that have not had the tumultuous career of the creation/evolution debates.

In short, the brouhaha over reality of meaning is only a brouhaha because we need to decide on what sorts of meanings we will teach our children.

It would have helped this discussion enormously, I believe, if someone had pointed this out; if at least one contributor made education his or her primary intellectual interest.  I’m not only saying this because I wish the NYT had called me.  Though I do work for peanuts.

In the bigger picture, leaving an “education” voice out of a creation/evolution debate has long been a problem for those of us trying to understand the issue.  Too often, creation/evolution is framed as an issue of science and religion.  Science and religion only.  As if the truth of life’s origins remained the primary source of controversy.

That makes it difficult to understand the real issues.  As thoughtful scholars such as Randy Moore, Lee Meadows, Michael Berkman & Eric Plutzer, and David Long have pointed out, creation/evolution is not only about “the reality of meaning in the world.”  The rubber hits the road in this culture-war issue with individual students, in specific classrooms, day after day, decade after decade.

Unless we recognize the importance of the way creation/evolution plays out in such real-life environments, we will not move forward.

So, for the record, the next time any editor wants to corral a herd of scholars to comment on creation/evolution issues, please be sure to include someone with a primary interest in evolution.

It doesn’t have to be me.  But I’m always available.

I will also talk about creation/evolution at Labor Day cookouts, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, awkward crowded elevator rides, or any other event.  Just call me!

 

President Carson 2016: The Education President?

What would a President Carson mean for education?

Recent reporting in the New York Times asks if prominent neurosurgeon Ben Carson is a 2016 GOP contender.  Carson has become hugely popular among conservatives.  In a recent speech at Conservative Political Action Conference, Carson received rousing applause when he mentioned that he had some good ideas . . . “if you should magically put me into the White House.”

Conservatives at CPAC loved Dr. Carson.  They should.  Carson has a dramatic life story and is a compelling public speaker.  His values are profoundly conservative.  He wants more public religiosity.  He wants a flat tax and a smaller public debt.  He wants America to beef up its military strength and return to a vision of the past in which Americans shared common values.

New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel noted that a recent Carson speech at a National Prayer Breakfast “criticized the health care overhaul and higher taxes on the rich, while warning that ‘the PC police are out in force at all times.’” True enough.  But those were just the starting points and final words of Carson’s half-hour talk.  By far the bulk of Carson’s address concerned the vital importance of education.

I wonder if reporter Gabriel ignored the bulk of Carson’s speech because Gabriel considered education to somehow be of lesser political interest than health care and tax policy.  If that’s the case, Gabriel couldn’t be more wrong.

Check out the speech itself if you have thirty minutes to spare.  You’ll see that Dr. Carson focused almost entirely on traditional conservative themes in educational policy and reform.

First of all, Carson lamented the sad state of American public education.  Citing statistics about high high-school dropout rates and low college completion rates, Carson deplored the fact that too many Americans are not getting a good education.  This had echoes of the ugly history of slavery, when it was illegal to educate a slave.  The lesson, Carson insisted, is clear: “When you educate a man you liberate a man.”

Carson shared his own remarkable educational history.  As a child, he grew up in a very poor household.  His mother had been married at age thirteen, soon abandoned by her bigamist husband.  She herself had only attained a third-grade education.  But she insisted ferociously that her two sons would be different.

She required young Ben and his brother to write two book reports per week for her to review.  Eventually, of course, Dr. Carson went on to his spectacular career as a leading pediatric neurosurgeon.

In Carson’s prayer-breakfast speech, he argued that Americans had always loved formal education.  But recently, Carson complained, “We have dumbed things down.”

That is not okay, Carson insisted.  America’s form of government requires a well-informed citizenry.  That is why Dr. Carson offers two programs for low-income youth: a college scholarship fund and reading rooms in low-income public schools.

Education, Carson promised, will prevent criminality.

More important, education will prevent cultural decay and decadence.  Look at Ancient Rome, Carson said.  “They destroyed themselves from within.  Moral decay, fiscal irresponsibility.”  The same thing could happen to the United States, Carson worried, if we don’t beef up our education system.

So what would a President Carson do for education?  Could he combine traditionally leftist education policies—such as financial assistance for the lowest income schools and students—with traditionally rightist policies—such as teaching traditional values and public religiosity in schools?

Even the superhuman brain surgeon himself couldn’t answer that.  But it is worth more consideration than some journalists and commentators seem willing to give it.

Scooping the New York Times

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” . . . eventually.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times describes the controversy over a yoga program in Encinitas public schools.  The same controversy that guest blogger Natalia Mehlman Petrzela analyzed in these pages a week ago.

I imagine NYT writer Will Carless had a stricter word count, but whatever the excuse, yesterday’s article doesn’t come close to matching the depth or context provided in Professor Mehlman Petrzela’s account.

Sorry, Grey Lady, ILYBYGTH got there first…and better.

A Long Way from Texas…

Can cheerleaders at a public school sport Biblical phrases on banners?

The cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, think so.  So does the Texas Attorney General.  So do tens of thousands of Facebook supporters of the cheer team.

But an important part of this story is often being left out by coverage in some mainstream media outlets. Why?

We’ve reported on this story before.  In short, this group of cheerleaders sued when their school superintendent banned their religious banners from football games.  So far, the cheerleaders have been allowed to keep on cheering for Jesus at their games.

Recently, we’ve noticed a puzzling trend in the reporting about this story.  An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, bemoaned the situation in Kountze.  “In this country — including in Texas — the Constitution does not leave religious freedom up to majority rule,” the editors insisted.

I agree with the NYT‘s basic position: the SCOTUS precedent in 2000’s Sante Fe ISD v. Doe speaks directly to this case.  Even student-led prayer, if sanctioned by the school district, implies an endorsement of particular religious beliefs by the government.  Though the Kountze cheerleaders insist that their banners represent purely private speech, this seems a stretch.

However, I’m puzzled by the way NYT coverage has left out a vital part of this story.  For those of us who want to understand the ways conservatism works in American education, whether it be about evolution, school prayer, sex education, or other issues, the skewed coverage in the NYT makes the job much harder.

Here’s the problem:  In yesterday’s editorial and in earlier reporting on this Kountze story, the NYT left out an important key player in the drama.  The NYT neglected to mention the role of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  This Wisconsin-based group warned the school superintendent of its plans to sue over the banner issue.  Only then did the superintendent ban the cheerleaders’ religious practice.

The NYT misled readers with its description of the reasoning in Texas.  The editors described the case as follows:

“Those banners are not merely personal expressions of belief, but in that setting become religious messages endorsed by the school, the school district and the local government.       

“That’s why officials of the school district last month prohibited the banners at football games.”

But the way the story really played out, the school district only prohibited the banners under pressure.  In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the school superintendent himself supported the cheerleaders.

If we hope to understand the dynamic, in this case or in the many other school-prayer cases in history and in the news, we must not omit such an important element.

Please do not misunderstand: I am not denouncing the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  I do not think that sectarian prayers belong at public-school events.  But I do want to understand these cases, and ignoring important elements such as the role of outside organizations leaves us unable to understand the situation.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued in their books Ten Thousand Democracies and Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers and school districts respond to local culture.  When communities want prayer and creationism in public schools, schools include prayer and creationism.

As Berkman and Plutzer proved with their survey of high-school biology teachers, the beliefs of those teachers usually closely match those of their local communities.

In the Kountze case, the school district, including even the superintendent who banned the banners, supports the cheerleaders.  As superintendent Kevin Weldon told the LA Times, the judge in this case “was in a pretty tough predicament, like myself. . . . I personally applaud the kids for standing up for their beliefs in such a bold way.”

If we hope to understand the ways issues such as creationism and school prayer play out in America’s schools, we can’t let ourselves miss the way schools, teachers, and school districts actually function.  Teachers, as Berkman and Plutzer insist, are “street-level bureaucrats.”  They represent majority opinion in their communities.  The same is often true for superintendents such as Kevin Weldon in Kountze.

None of this is new.  In the Scopes Trial in 1925, the prohibition of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee only became controversial when the American Civil Liberties Union became involved.  More recently, as political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond demonstrated in the 1970s, US Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible reading often have no discernable effect on school practice.  After the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions against the reading of the Bible and reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, Dolbeare and Hammond found that all the schools in their survey continued to pray and read the Bible.  Most important, those practices caused absolutely no controversy in the communities they studied.

If we hope to understand school prayer controversies, we can’t allow ourselves to leave out the role of key players such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  Perhaps the NYT editors hoped to avoid the old chestnut that only “outside agitators” brought about this sort of school controversy.  Whatever their reasons, they misrepresent the story and make it more difficult for outsiders like me to understand the nature of these school battles.

The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part III: What Thunderbolt?

As we’ve discussed here lately, some fundamentalists harp on the Schempp and Engel Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 as the time God was kicked out of public schools.

Some of the reasons for this go beyond the obvious.  First of all, although the 1963 case took the name of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, it was actually a joinder decision with a case brought by the prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  The Schempp family were religious Unitarians.  Murray (later Murray O’Hair) was an outspoken and aggressive atheist.  Partly as a result, the Schempp case took on overtones of a fight of religion vs. atheism.  It took on overtones, in Fundamentalist America, of a last-ditch defense of God.

Such perceived high stakes led to a perception of a profound loss for Fundamentalist America.  As we’ve argued here recently, conservative evangelical Protestants reacted with profound dismay and disillusionment to the court’s 1963 decision.  A Moody Monthly poll in 1964 ranked the decision as the most important social or political event of the year, more important than the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.  Presbyterian fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire asked, after more than a decade of struggle to pass a Constitutional prayer amendment, “Why aren’t Christians standing where it counts and saying, ‘I’m for America and I’m for the Bible?’”

But what did the 1962 and 1963 decisions actually do?  What effects did they have in America’s public schools?

In the aftermath of the Schempp decision, a pair of political scientists—Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillipp Hammond—studied the effects.  They first consulted survey data.  Not surprisingly, they discovered that the Schempp and Engel decisions had led to a precipitous drop in the amount of school-sponsored religious activity that went on in public schools.  More precisely, they found that the decisions had led public school leaders to report a sharp drop.  About two-thirds of school districts reported that they stopped school-sponsored devotions.  Teachers reported a sharp decline.  Sixty percent reported that they had lead classroom prayers before the decisions, while only 28% admitted they still led such prayers.

Of course, even these large declines meant that many teachers and school districts continued to lead prayers and Bible readings.  But even that stubborn minority was isolated.  Most of such holdouts were in the South.  Reports from the West—where such in-school religious practice had often already been banned—and from the Plains and Northeast gave a much different picture.  In those regions, survey responses indicated nearly full compliance with the Supreme Court decisions.

We must remember that the South at this time was roiling with anti-Brown sentiment.  The white power structure had nearly unanimously agreed to resist school desegregation in spite of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.  Many agreed with Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had declared in 1963, “I don’t care what they say in Washington.  We are going to keep right on beating the Bible in the public schools of Alabama.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent troops into the classrooms and arrested little boys and girls who read the Bible and pray.”

In such a climate, school leaders in the former Confederacy had a much easier time publicly renouncing the Supreme Court’s ban on school-sponsored prayer.  Indeed, it may have been political suicide for many of them to publicly support the Court.

Outside the South, however, most survey respondents claimed they had stopped teacher-led prayers and Bible readings.  But when Hammond and Dolbeare examined those schools and classrooms more closely, they found that even outside the South, teacher-led prayer and Bible reading went on just as they had before the decisions.  In other words, teachers and school administrators outside the South told surveyors that they had stopped leading religious devotions in their public schools.  They knew that such practices had been prohibited.  But when the classroom doors were closed, they continued to pray and read from the Bible with their students.

Most remarkable, in Dolbeare and Hammond’s opinion, was the fact that throughout the communities they studied in the Midwest, everyone knew what was going on and no one complained.  As long as state-level school administrators could claim that they did not know of any teacher-led devotions, the devotions themselves went on undisturbed.  Teachers led prayers in their classrooms.  School building principals led prayers at school ceremonies.  Bible verses adorned graduation speeches and school hallways.  According to Hammond and Dolbeare, most of the people involved were aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Yet they continued to engage in exactly the sorts of practice the Court had ruled against.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and we see a much different picture.  Regional variations in racial desegregation in schools have often flip-flopped, with the most segregated school districts now in places such as New York City, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Similarly, in spite of a relatively recent New York Times article that assumed school-sponsored religious practices had been shunted to “some corners of the country, especially in the rural South,” even a casual observer of the news will see that battles over the proper role of religion in public schools continue all over the country.

For example, we noted recently a remarkable law passed recently in New Hampshire, hardly an outpost of the “rural South.”  This law mandated that parents could request alternate textbooks or curricular materials for any reason.  In theory, this could mean that strict vegetarian parents could object to books that portrayed meat-eating in a flattering light.  The intent of the law, however, was clearly to protect the faith of evangelical Protestant children.  The push for the law began when one family objected to the Jesus-bashing of author Barbara Ehrenreich.

Or the continuing case of Bradley Johnson.  Johnson insisted on putting religion-friendly placards on his classroom wall.  His stubborn activism can only be called “Southern” if we include “Southern” California.  And while San Diego is technically one corner of the country, it is hardly an isolated outpost of ‘hillbilly’ culture.

Just as it was for Dolbeare and Hammond in the 1960s, it is nearly impossible for us to know what really goes on in most public-school classrooms.  Cases like Johnson’s don’t tell us much about what most teachers are doing.  As Dolbeare and Hammond concluded, one of the main reasons for the continuing practices of teacher-led prayers and Bible readings was that everyone involved hoped to avoid any controversy.  Parents did not want to stand out as anti-prayer.  Teachers did not want to appear to denigrate religion.  School administrators did not want to crack down on what many perceived to be wholesome traditional American practices.

These days, it is difficult to predict just what practices might pass for non-controversial in America’s public schools.  Local traditions—even down to the level of individual schools and neighborhoods—trump Supreme Court decisions or New York Times reporters’ assumptions.

For conservatives, this means that traditional practices such as prayer or Bible reading might continue in public schools, as long as there has never been a local complaint against the practice.  It also means that conservative activists such as Bradley Johnson might mount a counter-revolution in any part of the country.

For many such activists, public schools have taken on an aura of secular fortresses.  In the rhetoric of many conservatives, public schools are the headquarters of Jesus-bashing, evolution-teaching, sex-teaching, drug-selling liberals.  A more careful look, like what Dolbeare and Hammond did forty years ago, would likely present a much more traditional, religion-friendly picture of life inside those public-school walls.