I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Are colleges addicted to the internet? Are charter schools “public?” Do Satanists pick up litter? We read with interest the answers to all these questions and more, in our weekly round-up of news ‘n’ views:

Fancy college finds out it can’t live without technology, at IHE.

Walmartification of college, at CHE.

  • Why are evangelical universities over-represented in the mega-online world? Here at ILYBYGTH.

    college enrollment trends

    The sawdust trail moves online…

NJ passes mandatory LGBTQ curriculum, at WNYC.

Why white evangelical women still love Trump, at TC.

White evangelical women . . . rally behind Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump and equate their conservative version of traditional femininity with grace and elegance. . . . The seeming paradox of white evangelical women backing Trump really isn’t a paradox at all. In fact, their support says more about the state of white evangelical Christianity in the US than it does about anything else.

Not just polarized, but…Emma Green on “the bubble:”

a significant minority of Americans seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference. . . . When asked how they would feel about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party, 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy, compared with 35 percent of Republicans.

More strikes and rumors of strikes: Oakland ‘n’ West Virginia, at NPR.

Fundamentalist U leading from behind: More universities assert in loco parentis authority, at CHE.

Are charter schools “public?” Peter Greene says no, at Curmudgucation.

More evidence: 1970s’ hijinx have become 2019 felonies.

On the highway to hell: Satanists adopt a mile in Arkansas, at FA.

Highway to hell




Fundamentalist U As Walmart U

Like it or not, online education is a booming business. As Lee Gardner describes in the Chronicle of Higher Ed this week, a few savvy colleges have transformed themselves into lucrative “mega-universities.” We have to ask: why are two of the four Gardner describes evangelical universities? I think it’s more than mere coincidence.

college enrollment trends

Leaders of the pack…

Here’s what we know: in the past ten years, a few universities have managed to capture huge student markets by offering non-traditional online degree programs. Gardner describes the success of Liberty University, Grand Canyon University, Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire. All of them have managed to enroll tens of thousands of students, while sagging enrollments at other schools have deans and provosts salivating at the prospect of an online bonanza.

I don’t think it’s an accident that two of the most successful online schools come out of the evangelical tradition. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, Liberty and Grand Canyon have had a somewhat testy relationship with one another, and Grand Canyon has experienced a dizzying see-saw between a variety of desperate survival strategies. Nevertheless, both schools are undeniably part of the small circle of winners in the scramble for online tuition dollars.

Why? I have a few ideas and I invite other suggestions.

First, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many of the more conservative evangelical institutions have always been friendly to capitalism, intellectually. Unlike some non-evangelical schools—and some evangelical ones, too—schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon never had to overcome any squeamishness or scruples about employing aggressive marketing and business campaigns in their schools.

As Gardner writes, this is common among the successful online mega-schools. As he put it,

They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies.

Second, evangelical universities have always targeted non-traditional students aggressively. This has been especially true of schools that grew out of the Bible-institute tradition. This tradition of non-tradition has proven especially useful in today’s online world. As Gardner writes, universities that have succeeded have

pursued the more than 30 million Americans who have some college credit but who never graduated — a cohort half again as large as the more than 20 million Americans now enrolled.

Fuller letterhead

They were online before online was online…

Last but certainly not least, evangelical colleges have often been forced to accept their role as outsiders in the world of American higher ed. For institutions like Liberty, their non-admittance to the country-club world of elite higher ed has given them some unintended flexibility when it comes to chasing tuition dollars. As one school leader told Gardner,

Most of nonprofit higher ed really looked down their nose at online education, and it left a vacuum into which rushed the for-profits.

At Liberty, leaders have always yearned fruitlessly to be considered part of the higher-education elite club. In spite of their risky investments in things like their football program, though, they’ve never been considered part of the inner circle. In the end, however, their experiences on the outside may have given them the moxie it took to dive into a field that other institutions pooh-poohed.

Perhaps most striking of all, for the first time ever, schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon are being talked about solely in terms of their structural successes in higher ed. They are not being described as the best or biggest “Christian” colleges, but rather as the biggest online universities, period. Yet it was their evangelical roots, in some ways, that fueled their online triumphs.

What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

A Fundamentalist Flop?

Bad news: You just failed English. What can you do? In several school districts, you can take an approved online class to make up the credit. Recently, Slate reporters examined these online classes to see if they were any good. Mostly, they weren’t. Lurking at the very bottom of the barrel were sad-sack online tutorials provided for homeschoolers by the fundamentalists at Pensacola Christian College. Has PCC’s rigid traditional philosophy has caught up to it? Or are they providing precisely what fundamentalists want?

Thanks to the ever-watchful curmudgucrat Peter Greene, we stumbled across an intriguing update to our study of fundamentalist curriculum. Slate worked with the Columbia School of Journalism’s Teacher Project to produce an eight-part expose of “online credit-recovery” programs. At most schools, students who fail a class can take one of these online modules in order to graduate. Like old-fashioned correspondence courses, these new programs hover in the depressing gray area between unfortunate necessity and outright scam. In some cases, students taking these courses don’t learn a thing, but their “success” can be used by school districts to inflate their graduation statistics.

The online catch-up courses sometimes fill a real need and serve students who don’t have a better option. In some cases, though, they are pure educational garbage. Francesca Berardi and Zoë Kirsch picked three programs that they called the “bottom of the class.” Your humble editor noticed an old fundamentalist friend on the shortlist: A Beka Academy.

Baker successful christian school

Taking the “fun” out of fundamentalism

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall our earlier work with A Beka. The publishing company has its roots at Pensacola Christian College. Back in the 1970s, Arlin and Beka Horton (A + Beka…get it?) complained that their alma mater Bob Jones University had gone soft. They warned Bob Jones III that leaders of BJU’s ed school such as Walter Fremont and Phil Smith had imported dangerous secular ideas into their teacher-training program.

What fundamentalist schools really needed, the Hortons insisted, was fundamentalist religion delivered in a traditional top-down way by authoritarian teachers. As one A Beka proponent explained back in the 1970s,

Above all, Christian schools must be steered completely clear of the philosophy that has progressively wrecked the public schools. Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child.  Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting).  They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

What should a good classroom look like? As A.A. “Buzz” Baker described, the classroom should be catechetical. Teachers give information. If students are to respond, they do so in an orderly and scripted way. Consider, for example, this A Beka-recommended “doctrinal drill” for classrooms:

Teacher’s Statement:

“Heaven is a real place, just as real as this room.  It is a wonderful, safe, happy home where God lives.  God wants everyone to come there and live with Him.  Anyone who has taken Jesus as his Savior will be able to go to heaven and live forever with God; but anyone who has not taken Jesus as his Savior cannot go to heaven, but must go to a terrible place of eternal punishment.”

Drill Questions:

  1. Will everybody get to go to heaven? No.

  2. Who gets to go to heaven? The people who trust in Jesus and who take Him as their Savior while they live here on earth.

  3. Does God want everybody to go to heaven? Yes.

  4. Why won’t everybody get to go to heaven? Because some people won’t take Jesus as their own Savior.

In the A Beka world—a world that is populated by plenty of homeschoolers and evangelical-school students—the perfect learning environment consists of a loving authoritarian teacher delivering theologically pure information efficiently to obedient students.

Success in A Beka’s goals doesn’t look so successful to outsiders, though. Berardi and Kirsch blast A Beka’s “trite” online credit-recovery courses as the very bottom of the very bottom of the barrel, “in a league of their own” for inadequacy. Here’s a sample of what they found:

One rambling four-minute excerpt from an 11th-grade English course, for instance, consists mostly of corny lectures from a teacher on the work of 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet. “[She] calls her poetry a child,” the teacher says. “And just as a child can be unruly, just as a child may not quite always look just right … this morning as we’re eating breakfast, I look at the girls, and they’ve got Nutella all over their face,” she continues. Poetry, like children, can be “a little messy.” The instructor wraps up by questioning the students about the religious message of Bradstreet’s poetry. The students then take turns rising, accepting a microphone, and slowly reading their handwritten responses in flat tones—not exactly engaging pedagogy that’s likely to hold the interest of struggling learners.

In another sample, a 12th-grade class called “Document Processing,” students can learn typing while watching four videotaped teenagers, well, type. The teacher circulates between the teens on the video, reminding them to “add that space there” and providing other tips. By the time she asks the students to check their posture, the viewer himself may be so bored he’s slouching out of his chair.

Sounds pretty grim. To be fair, A Beka’s lame online courses are not the only terrible ones on the market. The Slate series poked several other holes in the shadowy world of online credit-recovery coursework.

But here are our questions for this morning: Is the pedagogical lameness part of the appeal? That is, do fundamentalist schools and homeschools think that such tame fare is part of A Beka’s continuing effort to instill Biblical discipline in classes? To root out secular giggles, “a la Sesame Street”? Or has A Beka just gotten lazy? Do the Pensacola publishers simply recognize that they have a captured market of fundamentalists, people who wouldn’t trust secular courses? Have the A Beka folks just relaxed too much, knowing that fundamentalist teachers and parents have no other options?

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot?

Is Jerry Falwell Jr. an idiot or a genius? Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has hit the jackpot with Liberty’s incredibly popular—and incredibly lucrative—online programs. Falwell has plowed that money into Liberty’s brick-and-mortar campus. Is Falwell a higher-ed visionary? Or does he simply not recognize the way things are really going in higher education?

The money is hard to ignore. Between 2006 and 2012, Liberty’s net assets increased from $150 million to $860 million, thanks mainly to its booming online business. Instead of using those funds only to increase online education, Liberty has bankrolled an ambitious sports program and a recession-busting campus building program.

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

Most campuses are going the other direction. At traditional schools, including my beloved State University of New York, presidents and chancellors are scrambling to find ways to profit from online education.

Perhaps Liberty’s got something to prove. Founded only in 1971, it originally met in the basement of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. As I explore Liberty’s archives this week as part of the research for my next book, I’m finding reminiscences of those early years. One early ministry student remembered that he used to have revival meetings on the “old trash dump road” above the current campus. There was no campus back then, so these earnest “preacher boys,” this alum remembered, used to

Even the archives are nice.

Even the archives are nice.

pray, sing, and practice preaching for about an hour to an hour and a half. We would pray and preach in the Spirit! Walking, shouting, and praying up and down that road, calling out your name to the Father, tears streaming down our cheeks!

As do most fundamentalist schools, Liberty feels a constant need to prove that it is just as good, intellectually, as mainstream universities. As first president Pierre Guillermin put it in an early fundraising letter, any Christian college must maintain “performance standards of unquestionable academic excellence and admirable professional credibility.”

No more Trash Dump Road...

No more Trash Dump Road…

The campus building program may result from a deep need to prove that Liberty is a real university, not just a fundamentalist camp meeting. Or it may be something more strategic. College administrators these days are wracked with anxiety about the future of higher education. Will students in the future simply take classes from a menu of online providers? Will giants such as MIT and Harvard provide the world’s best content online? Can smaller schools continue to exist?

It seems President Falwell is betting big that people will continue to want a traditional campus, with traditional amenities such as sports programs and libraries.

I think he’s right. So far, the leaders in Massive Open Online Courses are not start-up companies in their garages, but established schools such as MIT and Harvard. People still have high expectations that their education—even their online classes—will come from a “real” university.

MOOCing Jesus

Does online education work? A new survey of college faculty by Gallup for Inside Higher Education offers an unstartling new answer: It depends. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different question: Does online education work for conservative religious colleges?

After all, as I’m exploring in my new book, conservative religious colleges have always had a different goal from secular schools. Instead of just hoping to prepare students for careers and intelligent life, conservative schools have also intended to bolster the faith of their students. They have worried that any change might lead them into a slow slide into secularism. As a corollary, most conservative schools have maintained stricter lifestyle rules over students than secular colleges have. Conservative schools have insisted that classes be led faithfully, not just competently. But can they do this in online classes?

The survey of faculty for Inside Higher Ed includes some interesting points. [You can click to get the entire report, but you have to register.] In brief, faculty remain unconvinced that online education can deliver equal results to old-fashioned in-person classes. Online classes might do a good job—in some cases—at delivering content. But most faculty agree: there is something important lost when face-to-face interaction isn’t a leading part of university classes.


Source: Carl Straumsheim, “Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology,” Inside Higher Education, October 29, 2014.

The survey specifically excluded some of the schools we’re interested in, what it calls “Bible colleges and seminaries.” And none of the questions included anything about student faith.

But no one interested in online higher education these days can ignore the fundamentalist elephant in the room. Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, now claims almost 100,000 online students. In addition to standard online coursework, Liberty offers online spiritual help, too. Students can join online prayer groups and Bible blogs.

But this menu of religious fare does not seem to match the traditional goals of conservative religious colleges. At most schools, the faith of students has been the primary concern, not merely an additional click on a webpage. And most college administrators have been keenly worried about sliding into heterodoxy and secularism. In his brilliant 1994 dissertation about Wheaton College, historian Michael Hamilton explained this sentiment like this:

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the [twentieth] century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

This mindset, I believe, is common among conservative evangelical schools. From Wheaton, to Biola, to Gordon, to more conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty…all have worried that change will equal declension. All have been concerned, first and foremost, that novelty will lead faculty and students to abandon their faiths.

So here’s the question we wished Inside Higher Ed had asked professors at conservative schools: How can online education remain orthodox? How can the faith of students be preserved if student/teacher interaction is weakened?

And perhaps this is the toughest question for the folks at Liberty University: Has their wildly successful pursuit of online education changed their goal? Has Liberty abandoned its religious mission? Or, rather, could this massive online presence be compared to the televangelism of an earlier generation? Could the thousands of online students be seen as an enormous “mission field” for Liberty’s evangelical message?

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.