Fundamentalist Colleges Save Lives

Maybe they were right. One of the hallmarks of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a clampdown on student behavior. The goal was to protect student morals, but a side benefit seems to have been protecting student health. A new study finds…surprise, surprise…that smoking pot and binge drinking lead to more risky sex among undergrads.

A hundred years ago, conservative evangelical Protestants reeled from the horror stories oozing out of America’s elite colleges. Fundamentalist preachers warned their flocks that colleges in the 1910s no longer protected students’ faith or morals. As a result, fundamentalists founded their own network of rigidly conservative schools. In addition to fundamentalist theology, all of these colleges adopted draconian rules for students: No smoking, no dancing, no drinking…and certainly no unmarried sex.

The view from 1931, Bob  Jones-style.

The view from 1931, Bob Jones-style.

As I work on my new book about the history of these schools, I’m struggling to make sense of these ubiquitous student rules. It’s easy enough to find the paper trail in the archives. At Bob Jones College, for example, founder Bob Jones Sr. placed the burden of avoiding sex on women.

Jones explained his thinking in an open letter from the 1920s:

The Bob Jones College discourages extravagance in dress AND INSISTS UPON MODESTY.

We request our girls to wear simple dresses in classes. We have a laundry where these dresses can be laundered.

The girls in the Bob Jones College voted to wear their dresses two inches below the knee cap. This is short enough for style and long enough for decency.

The girls in the Bob Jones College last year had the reputation of being the most attractive group of girls in the country, and as a whole, they dressed very simply.

There is one regulation which we wish our girls to thoroughly understand. WE DO NOT ALLOW OUR GIRLS TO WEAR EACH OTHERS CLOTHES. The only exception is in the case of sisters.

Bob Jones College was not alone in the effort to control sex by controlling women. One student who attended Wheaton College in the 1920s remembered a similarly strict regime of sexual policing. “Well,” this former student remembered in a 1984 interview,

The control was rather tight. Of course, that was in those days when . . . when the separation of the sexes was very strict, and the . . . the regulations were . . . dress regulations and so forth were quite strict.

Did students find ways to get around these rules? Of course. It’s harder to find, but as I delve into the archives of these colleges I find examples of students being punished for drinking, smoking, attending movies, and, of course, hooking up. One student at Bob Jones College was caught climbing out of his girlfriend’s dorm window at midnight. He said they had been praying together. A student at Wheaton remembered his roommate speaking to his girlfriend through a system of prison wall-taps.

All in all, though, the draconian system of student rules meant a different campus experience than at non-fundamentalist colleges. Over the years, the rules have loosened up, but they remain more restrictive than at other schools.

What has been the result? On the one hand, the system of sexual policing seems to pushed sex on campus into dangerous and degrading directions. Bob Jones University, for example, admitted its terrible and terrifying record of ignoring and even tacitly encouraging sexual abuse and victimization.

But we can’t help but think that stricter rules against drugs and alcohol must do something to protect students, as well. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for evangelical universities. I’m not evangelical myself; I don’t work at an evangelical college; I don’t dream of a school in which students don’t use drugs or have sex.

However, there seems to be demonstrable evidence that drinking and using drugs leads to risky behaviors. The researchers at Oregon State found direct connections between smoking pot, binge drinking, and unhealthy sexual practices. Students who used more drugs on any given day were more likely to have sex without a condom, for example.

The stricter rules about drugs and sex at evangelical colleges were put in place to protect student morals, not their health. As I’ve argued before, if we want to understand conservative attitudes about sex, we need to shift out of the medical mindset. However, perhaps there has been a positive side-effect.

I would love to see a study like this in which researchers looked at student behavior at a variety of schools. Did school rules against booze and sex discourage risky behaviors? Or did the added illicitness simply push students to take more risks?

From the Archives: Ralph Spitzer, TD Lysenko, and the Left-Wing Attack on Science

In any culture-war debate these days, we can count on a few predictable ideological combinations.  The conservative/traditional/Right side will fight for freer markets, smaller government, more patriotism, more traditional social mores, and greater public Christianity.  The progressive/liberal/Left side will fight for greater egalitarianism, more robust government, and multiculturalism.

One of the other relatively consistent ideological markers these days seems to be an attitude toward science.  Conservatives, whether they like it or not, are now the side of anti-science.  Whether it is evolution or human-caused climate change, the Right is now the side that is skeptical of the claims of mainstream science.  Of course, as with any issue in this culture-war minefield, we need to be careful to note that this does not mean that these culture warriors are necessarily against science as such.  Rather, many conservatives will adopt an attitude of profound skepticism toward the directions in which mainstream research-university-based science research has gone.  REAL science, they might insist, will confirm their claims.  But ‘science falsely so called,’ in the minds of many cultural conservatives, has come to dominate the academy and academic press.  They are not anti-science, these conservatives might insist, only anti-false science. To the person on the street, though, it is easy to conclude that the Right is the side that always opposes science.

During a recent stint with some 1940s newspapers, I came across a story that complicates those comfortable assumptions.  Ralph Spitzer’s story is a good reminder of the reasons why we need to keep these storylines complicated.  It points out the danger of assuming any necessary relationship between science and politics.  Spitzer was fired from his teaching job at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) in 1949 for his political beliefs.  At the time, he joined a swelling number of higher-education faculty who had lost their jobs for affiliation with Communist- or purportedly “Communist-front” organizations.

But unlike Joseph Butterworth, Herbert J. Phillips, and Ralph H. Gundlach, all fired from the University of Washington for their Communist Party membership or sympathy, Spitzer was also fired for his opposition to mainstream science.

Oregon State President August Strand accused Spitzer of betraying not only America, but also science.  Strand alleged that Spitzer’s public comments in favor of the prominent Soviet scientist TD Lysenko pushed Spitzer outside the range of legitimate scientific discussion.  By endorsing Lysenko, Strand accused, Spitzer had denounced the mainstream science of genetics and natural selection.  Thus, Spitzer was fired not only for being a communist sympathizer, but for being a sympathizer of communist anti-science.

Historian David Joravsky has argued that the popular understanding of Lysenko’s argument has become something of a durable myth.  Most people remember Lysenko’s scientific regime, if they remember it at all, as an ideological attack on genetics.  According to Joravsky, some have remembered Lysenkoism as an attack on the capitalist assumptions of genetics.  This myth presents Lysenko as a totalitarian ideologue, refusing to acknowledge the truth of genetics, due to mental blocks derived from Stalinism.  Humans, according to the Lysenko myth, must remain malleable in nature.  They must be able to form themselves into new beings, pushing a neo-Lamarckian understanding of human heredity to the fore.  In other words, according this Lysenko myth, humans must not have heritable DNA, since we know from Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism that humans can be recreated by new conditions.  Changes made in one lifetime can be passed on to future generations.

According to Joravsky, the truth of the Lysenko affair was far less ideological.  In Joravsky’s reading, the real thing was not theoretical or even political, except in the grubbiest of senses.  “Not only genetics but all the sciences that impinge on agriculture were tyrannically abused by quacks and time-servers for about thirty-five years,” Joravsky argued.   This was not done out of an ideological demand that humans be understood to be perfectable, but only because of a “self-deceiving arrogance among political bosses.”  The whole thing was mainly “brutal irrationality in the campaign for improved farming.”

In 1948, the Soviet scientific establishment, after long years of back and forth debate between anti-Mendelian Lysenkoists and modern geneticists, finally prohibited the science of genetics altogether.  This was the decision that Spitzer lamely defended.

Before we look at Spitzer’s defense, however, we need to take a closer look at the Lysenkoist vision of science.  What did Lysenko himself say?

Lysenko in 1935 gained control over the new science of agrobiology.  He engaged in a series of big new programs.  Each suggested a quick agricultural fix, such as a way to plant wheat in cold and arid areas, or to grow potatoes in warmer climes.  Instead of becoming implicated in the inevitable failure of these panaceas, Lysenko moved on in each case to identify himself with a new type of problem and quick solution.  Those who demurred from his over-optimistic and unscientific solutions were in danger of being labeled “wreckers” for their anti-Soviet pessimism.

By 1945, Lysenko insisted that plants such as oaks would thin themselves.  Out of community feeling, Lysenko argued, the weakest would kill themselves.   Thus, no thinning by hand was required.  This notion effectively repudiated the modern notion of natural selection.  It embraced a thoroughly unmodern notion that organisms would pass along inherited attributes, a notion usually referred to as “Lamarckism.”  In this case, Lysenko and his disciples argued, in effect, that the inherited characteristics of plants and animals could be radically changed by changes in their environment.  Most famously, Lysenkoites insisted that rye could grow on wheat plants, given the right environment.  This could, Lysenko’s disciples insisted, instantly increase agricultural yields in cold, dry climates.  Furthermore, Lysenkoite science insisted that the fellow-feeling among oak trees allowed for a massive planting policy.  Peasants could scatter acorns and let the resulting clusters of oak trees thin themselves.  With very little cost, this policy would lead to a massive forestation of the Russian steppe, turning its dry cold climate into a moist, warm one.  Such grandiose promises made modern scientists nervous.  They did not see the evidence on which these claims were based, because in Lysenkoist science no such evidence was required.

Lysenko’s Soviet approach to science was not the idiosyncratic tyranny that some have taken it for.  It grew out of a long Russian tradition of skepticism toward European culture in general.  Like the nineteenth-century Panslavists, some Russian chauvinists, before and after the 1917 Revolution, insisted that Western culture, including Western science, did not fit the Russian or Soviet world.

For example, before the Revolution, soil scientist SK Bogushevski denounced western methods of science as inapplicable to Russia.  As with American creationists, this kind of Russian anti-science did not generally denounce the idea of science.  Rather, as with the “anti-scientists” in twentieth-century American conservative circles, Russian and Soviet anti-scientists denounced mainstream science as misguided.

For example, in the early Soviet era, President Kalinin of the Agricultural Institute told his faculty, “There must be barbarism so that, from this soil, democratic, simple science can emerge.”  Similarly, in an early telegram to Lenin, Stalin articulated a vision of an alternate, superior version of science.  Stalin had insisted the Navy attack a fortress.  Naval experts pooh-poohed the plan.  But it worked.  And after it worked, Stalin wrote, “The naval specialists declare that taking [the fortress] by sea subverts naval science.  All I can do is bemoan so-called science.”  This kind of attitude toward science—that the nominal scientific experts really did not know what they were doing—sounds very similar to the kind of science promoted by Biblical creationists in twentieth-century America.  Of course, the preferred model of science was different for American creationists than it was for Stalinist Lysenkoists.  For Biblical creationists, real science derives from Scripture.  For Soviet or Russian ideologues, real science derives from chauvinist Russian or Soviet ideology.  Having pure, correct science, in this view, did not mean deriving it from religious sources, but rather from indigenous Russian peasant wisdom.

Throughout his career, Lysenko called his version of science “Michurinism.”  Michurin had been an agricultural outsider, a fruit-tree breeder with distinctly original and anti-scientific ideas about science and agriculture.  His popularity resulted largely from his aggressive style.  In 1930 a Bolshevik literary magazine (October) promoted Michurin as a “people’s” scientist: the editors declared the needed goal to “Michurinize” the country:

to knock out sleepiness with punches, with demands, with insistence, with daring.  With daring to master and transform the earth, nature, fruit.  Is it not daring to drive the grape into the tundra!  Drive!  Drive!  Drive! Into the furrows, into the gardens, into the orchards, into the machines of jelly factories. . . .  Faster and faster, . . . faster comrade agronomists!

Clearly, this isn’t much of a scientific argument.  Nevertheless, it WAS a powerful cultural argument about science and the nature of science.  Outside of scientific circles, and outside of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, this departure from mainstream science did not win a lot of support.  But it did convince one cultural A-lister.  In 1951, Bertholt Brecht composed a long, remarkable poem in celebration of Lysenko’s anti-science.  (Thanks to Robert C. Conrad and Ralph Ley who translated it into English in Autumn, 1976 issue of New German Critique, pp. 142-152).          “The Rearing of Millet” lionized Lysenkoite science as the true Soviet science.  It made heroes of peasants in their pre-scientific “hut labs,” exploring ways to leapfrog over Western agricultural science with Soviet zeal and Stakhanovite exertion.  A few stanzas will suffice to convey the poem’s flavor:

It was ten times that of previous years.

All winter, huddled around the oven’s fire

They praised in the village Berziyev’s millet seed.

But the old man thought only of an even better kind.

Dream the golden if!                                        

See the beautiful sea of millet rise!

Sower, know

That they are already one: tomorrow’s deed and today’s surmise!

…. So let us always with newer skills

Change this earth’s effect and form

Happily measuring thousand-year-old wisdom

With the new wisdom one year old.

Dream the golden if!

See the beautiful sea of millet rise!

Sower, know

That they are one: tomorrow’s deed and today’s surmise!

Clearly, for Brecht as for much of the Soviet scientific establishment, something was going on beyond the boundaries of modern scientific endeavor.  A portion of Soviet scientists embraced “Michurinism” as science, not for scientific reasons, but for either pragmatic political considerations or excessive ideological zeal.  They dreamed that they could overthrow accepted scientific “wisdom/ With the new wisdom one year old.”

To be fair, these reasons did not get far outside of the zone of Soviet influence.  Not even Ralph Spitzer supported this kind of Soviet science.  Nor did Spitzer actually denounce modern genetics or the idea of natural selection.  Spitzer was not a geneticist or an agronomist.  Rather, he was a chemist, and his damning support for Lysenkoism came in a letter he wrote to Chemical and Engineering News.  In his letter, Spitzer took issue with an article that had dismissed Lysenko’s claims to superior science.  Spitzer contended that the Soviet Union’s Party control over science did not differ in essential ways from the financial control of basic research in the capitalist world.  In both systems, Spitzer argued, only that research could be conducted that won the support of influential higher-ups in the establishment.

In addition to Spitzer’s and Spitzer’s wife activism in favor of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, this moderate level of support for Lysenko was enough for President Strand.  “I do not deny the right under the law to work for the Communist Party,” Strand conceded in a public statement after the firing, “but I do claim that the administration of the college has the right to terminate an annual contract.  We do not care to have Dr. Spitzer as a permanent part of the staff!”

For Strand, the issue was not one of science vs. anti-science, but rather Americanism vs. Communism.  Spitzer’s sin was not that he clung to an alternative notion of science, but rather that he defended the legitimacy of the Soviet method of funding science.

Beyond the sad result for Spitzer’s career, this brush with Lysenkoism in the American academy should be of interest to everyone interested in America’s creation/evolution debate.  There are at least four notable parallels between Soviet and American anti-science.

First of all, the crux of the Lysenko Affair, according to David Joravsky, was that between roughly 1935 and 1965, Soviet scientists could not safely dispute the scientific truth of the official ideological line.  Thus, Stalin’s nod of support in favor of Michurinism meant that all Soviet scientists who wanted to continue working had to at least offer lip service to the scientific truths of Lysenko’s ideas.

The outrage to mainstream scientists, in the cases of both Lysenkoism and American Biblical creationism, is that a political or religious source is given primacy over scientific discoveries.  For American creationists, the Bible lays down the orthodox line.  Whatever does not agree with it must not be scientifically true.  For Soviet scientists, especially in the high period of Lysenkoite influence between 1948 and 1952, whatever disagreed with Lysenko could not be officially recognized as scientifically legitimate.

Another intriguing similarity is the use of scientific-sounding language to buttress claims of scientific legitimacy by both Lysenko and Biblical creationists.  Lysenko famously used language that Soviet scientists found maddeningly vague.  He refused to offer scientifically valid evidence for his claims.  In its place, he dished out rhetorical gems such as the following:

The work of the Institute of Plant Breeding and Genetics (Odessa) is based precisely on the established facts of such an absolutely definite sequentiality of the connection of the development of the hereditary base in stages, and of the latter in organs and characters. . . .

These solitary bottlenecks will be overcome in the process of segregation of the heterozygote by means of a mutual replacement of the bad index of one form by the analogous good index of the second, and conversely.

Non-scientists can be forgiven for finding these kinds of sentences meaningless.  However, trained scientists also found them to be nothing but fluff.  Critics of American Biblical creationism make the same charge against the science-like rhetoric of prominent creationists.  In a recent article defending the notion that complex organs imply intelligent design, Jerry Bergman employed some scientific-sounding rhetoric:

Likewise, the left RLN has a different anatomical trajectory than one would first expect, and for very good reasons.  In contrast to [paleontologist Donald] Prothero’s claim, the vagus nerve (the longest of the cranial nerves) travels from the neck down toward the heart, and then the recurrent laryngeal nerve branches off from the vagus just below the aorta (the largest artery in the body, originating from the left ventricle of the heart and extending down the abdomen). The RLN travels upward to serve several organs, some near where it branches off of the vagus nerve, and then travels back up to the larynx.

I’m not commenting here on the validity of Bergman’s claims.  But I do want to point out that modern American Biblical creationists value this kind of tone, a clinical authorial voice that implies a thorough mastery of the latest in mainstream science.  Whenever mainstream scientists examine the scientific validity of such claims, however, they invariably conclude that there is no real science behind them.

Third, both Lysenko and American creationists tend at times to belittle the academic nature of mainstream science.  Lysenko argued that mainstream science did not care enough about practical results.  Such scientists, Lysenko insisted, waited too long to produce their findings.  They waited for experimental results while Soviet peasants starved.  “It is better to know less,” Lysenko famously quipped, “but to know just what is necessary for practice.”  Similarly, American creationists have tended toward a deep skepticism toward mainstream science.  In spite of what some critics have assumed, creationists have usually not presented themselves as opponents of science as a whole.  Rather, American creationists have tended to argue that mainstream scientists been led down an unscientific path.  Like Lysenko, American creationists have offered their science as superior to the kinds of immoral and impractical science coming of major research universities.

Finally, one important parallel between Lysenkoism and American Biblical creationism has been the effect of each on teaching.  Those interested in American creationism will not be surprised to hear that high-school textbooks in America have tended to downplay the importance of evolution.  For example, Ella T. Smith’s 1938 edition of Exploring Biology (Harcourt, Brace) informed readers that “Evolution is a fact.  Plants and animals do change and have been changing.” In this edition, she told readers that for humans, too, “The fossil evidence is conclusive that man himself did not appear suddenly on the earth in his present form, but has gradually developed from a much more primitive species.”  The results of political pressure on publishers can be seen in the next editions of Smith’s book.  In the 1954 edition of this book, Smith backed away from her calm assertion about the facticity of evolution.  She told readers that evidence “leads scientists to the conclusion that the plants and animals of today are the changed descendants of the plants and animals of the past.”  There was another word to describe that change, Smith included, “That word is evolution.”  But Smith tended to use the word “change” instead.  When she described “the modern point of view,” for instance, Smith gave a bland description of evolution: “Biologists agree today that plants and animals have changed in the past, and continue to change.”  Even that vague reference to evolution did not satisfy the powerful critics.  By the 1959 edition, long references to “evolution” in the indexes of earlier editions had been cut down to one line.  Smith’s 1959 edition informed readers only that “The history of living things is a long one.  Much of it is still unknown.”  A ten-page section on the history of evolutionary theory was eliminated entirely, and in its place Smith offered a brief suggestion that students do a report on evolutionary theorists such as Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Lamarck, or Hugo De Vries.

A similar progression marked the development of high-school textbooks in the Soviet Union.  One prominent textbook, Osnovy Darvinizma, by MI Melnikov, removed all mention of chromosomes and genes from its 1941 edition, though Melnikov had been an ardent supporter of the science of genetics before then.  According to David Joravsky, secondary science education in the Lysenko era became “a mixture of natural history, old-fashioned Darwinism, and meaningless chatter about Michurinism.”  As the political strength of Lysenkoism increased, so did the proportion of textbook content devoted solely to Lysenkoist ideas.  It was only in 1966 after Lysenko had been deposed that secondary-school textbooks in the Soviet Union again included any measure of modern science.

Certainly, there remain enormous differences between the Lysenkoist critique of mainstream science and the creationist one.  For evolutionists and mainstream scientists, however, it is important to note that attacks on the legitimacy of their work can come from many different directions.  Ralph Spitzer’s academic leftism demonstrated just as much contempt for the impartiality of mainstream science as would the right-wing critique of science by any creationist.

For creationists, it must be of significant interest that the mainstream scientific establishment can be threatened so significantly by political regimes.  The ability of Lysenko to promote his vision of proper science for decades, despite the vociferous objection of the mainstream scientific establishment, must offer an intriguing glimpse into the possibilities of alternative science.

FURTHER READING: “Lysenko Theory Sets off West Coast Imbroglio,” Harvard Crimson, May 25, 1949; Tom Bennett, “The Spitzer Affair: President Strand and the Communist Threat,” The Oregon Stater (February, 1997): 21-25; “College Ousts Professor Over Theory,” Pasadena Star News, February 24, 1949, pg. 2; David Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (Harvard University Press, 1970); Valerii Soifer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science (Rutgers University Press, 1994); Loren Graham, Science and the Soviet Social Order (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); Jerry Bergman, “Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve Is Not Evidence of Poor Design,” Acts & Facts 39 (2010): 12-14.