What Does a Friendly Atheist Want to Know about Fundamentalist U?

I had a chance to talk with Hemant Mehta, the famous Friendly Atheist. He had great questions to ask about Fundamentalist U.

friendly atheist

FA on FU

For example, Mehta wondered what today’s evangelicals didn’t like to hear about their own collegiate history.

He asked how schools that were dedicated to passing along eternal truths somehow rationalized changing their beliefs. In Mehta’s words, schools essentially had to tell students. “We’re correct NOW, but in the past when we said we were correct we were wrong.” Why would anyone believe such things?

Mehta also wondered how schools can change ONE rule, like racial segregation, without admitting that they might be wrong on everything?

That’s not all. Here are a few other topics Mehta pressed me about:

  • How did Bryan College get away with changing their faculty statement of faith in 2014?
  • Do schools like this “exist in a bubble?” Or do they want to be influential in mainstream culture and politics? How does the history of the CCCU help answer these questions?
  • How have evangelical colleges handled sexual assault and abuse?

It was a real pleasure for me to talk with him. I’ve long been a follower and fan of his blog. Click on over and listen to the whole interview if you’ve got some time to kill.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

While you’re not out there burning your retinas on today’s eclipse, take a moment to check out some of the stories that came across our desk this week:

Trump’s Charlottesville blather puts the GOP in crisis, from NYT.

What can we all agree on? Lefty Peter Greene agrees with Righty Checker Finn on the weakness of Queen Betsy’s school-reform plans.

Was James Damore right? Editors at Heterodox University review the research on gender difference and diversity.

What should colleges do about their Confederate statues?

…and it’s not just CEOs: One evangelical leader resigned from Trump’s advisory board after Charlottesville, though most are holding firm.

Hiring at the “Fundamentalist Harvard:” Wheaton is looking for a senior evangelical humanities schBart reading bibleolar. Who will it be?

Build up, instead of tearing down? The Equal Justice Initiative plans to build a memorial to the victims of lynching in Alabama.

Fundamentalist Pensacola Christian College kicks out a neo-Confederate student for participating in the Charlottesville protests.

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?

Can Christian Colleges Say the R-Word?

Do conservative Christians encourage rape?  It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but it is a question these days at the center of discussions about conservatism, Christianity and higher education.  Most recently, blogger Samantha Field related the stories of students at Pensacola Christian College who had been punished by the school after suffering sexual assaults.  The accusations have attracted enough attention that PCC has felt obliged to make a public denial.  The school said it has been “harassed and victimized” by these accusations.  PCC, the school insisted, has always acted in accordance with the law.

This is not only an issue at Pensacola Christian College.  As journalist Kiera Feldman argued in a recent New Republic article, a similar culture of institutional arrogance prevails at Patrick Henry College.  And Bob Jones University has gone back and forth with its efforts to examine its own culture.  More broadly, Billy Graham’s grandson attracted attention a few months back for asking if evangelical Protestants had a worse record of dealing with sex abuse than did the Catholic Church.

These are difficult questions to ask.  For an earlier post about this issue, I’ve been called insensitive (fair, and I apologize again), ignorant (sometimes fair, sometimes unfair) and guilty of condoning or excusing cover-ups (utterly unfair).  What I asked was whether or not these accusations of institutional misconduct rely on stereotyped assumptions about conservative evangelical Protestants.  In other words, is there something specifically about the religion of these schools that is somehow to blame?  Or is it an institutional culture at these conservative schools that blames victims and excuses criminals?  Is there something about the Christian nature of these schools that promotes and excuses rape?  Or is this a question of institutional mismanagement?  Finally, we have to ask, is this whole thing somehow more aggravated at these schools than it is at secular or pluralist schools?

After reading more about these cases, it seems the attitude toward rape of school leaders really is wrapped up intimately with their institutional tradition, and maybe even with their theological tradition.  It seems this is more than just another case of fundamentalist-bashing.  In the past, I have defended young-earth creationists against accusations that they are guilty of criminal abuse.  I’ve chided secular journalists—with whom I’m generally sympathetic—for misrepresenting the claims of young earth creationists.  These cases from conservative colleges seemed to me, at first, to represent similar sorts of knee-jerk anti-fundamentalist stereotyping.  I didn’t try to cast doubt on the sincerity of the victims, to be clear, but I did ask whether the accusations against the schools unfairly tied belief in an inerrant Bible to cases of institutional misconduct.

I do not come from a conservative evangelical or fundamentalist background.  But for a living, I study conservative educational activism, especially the educational thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  I’m aware of the history of American fundamentalism, including the ways theology has been profoundly combined with hierarchical gender notions.  As I wrote in my 1920s book and as Margaret Bendroth argued in hers, in its early decades American fundamentalism relied on notions of male dominance and female submissiveness.

We know that all colleges these days are struggling with proper ways to handle sexual assault cases.  The charges against schools such as Patrick Henry College, Pensacola Christian College, and Bob Jones University suggest that the campus culture at these conservative schools makes that difficult task much harder.  It seems the fundamentalist culture of these schools has intensified the already brutal culture on many secular college campuses.

This does not mean that every fundamentalist condones sexual assault, of course.  This does not even mean that every student, faculty member, or administrator of these schools agrees with the overall school culture.  Nor can we even say with confidence that this culture is somehow a necessary outgrowth of the theology of the schools, rather than primarily a question of hierarchical, closed-off, inflexible administrative structure.  But it does seem that the dominant atmosphere of these schools needs to share blame in this aggravated culture of condoning and excusing sexual assault.

The best comparison, it seems to me, is the atrocious record of the Catholic Church with its recent sex-abuse scandals.  No one says that every Catholic—let alone every Catholic priest—is part of this scandal.  Nor do we even say with confidence that this is something caused directly by the theology of the Catholic Church.  And we can of course point out that far more non-Catholics committed sex abuse than did Catholic priests.  But such objections miss the point.  There was something profoundly wrong with the way the power structure of the church handled those cases.  It seems there’s a similar connection here between institutional structure and moral accountability.

Those few who might use these cases to suggest that Christianity as a whole is a rape-centered religion are just as wrong as they have ever been.  And we must remember that there is a wide variety in conservative evangelical colleges.  A culture that dominates at BJU, PHC, or PCC will be very different from the culture at other evangelical schools such as Wheaton.  But even remembering those important caveats, there is something deeply troubling with the institutional power structure in these fundamentalist schools.

What will colleges do to respond?  As I’ve argued elsewhere, these schools rely on their reputation as havens of religious orthodoxy in a secularized society.  As the first Bob Jones insisted when he founded Bob Jones College in the 1920s,

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

Today’s school leaders, no less than the founders, must be able to say confidently that students will be theologically and physically safe.  How can they reassure parents and future students that they have responded to these accusations?

Fundamentalists Go to School

Homeschool, fundamentalist colleges, mainstream law school.

That’s the educational career described movingly this morning by “Georgia” at Defeating the Dragons.

Georgia describes her parents’ decision to pull her out of public schools.  Though her parents were indeed staunchly conservative religious folks, the decision, as she remembered, was more about academic rigor than about Jesus.

When it came time for college, she first attended Pensacola Christian College.  As I’ve written elsewhere, the founders of this school chastised the leaders of Bob Jones University for not being strict enough.

From there, she moved to the relatively liberal Liberty University, “relatively” being the key word here.  With that degree under her belt, she attended Vanderbilt University Law School.

For those of us outsiders who are trying to understand conservative thinking about education, her story can tell us a great deal about one family’s attitudes.  As she remembers it, there was (and is) a good deal of bitterness and disagreement within her own family about the contours of proper education for conservative Christians.

 

Creation Colleges

Where did you go to school?  Did you learn about evolution?  WHAT did you learn about it?

Non-creationists like me are often dumbfounded by the notion that so many educated Americans believe in a young human species.  But a quick look at the large number of young-earth-creationist colleges shows us how easy it is to earn a college degree without leaving the intellectual boundaries of young-earth creationism.

As recent Gallup polls consistently demonstrate, almost half of American adults agree that humanity was formed in “pretty much its present form” within the past 10,000 years or so.  And of those young-earth creationist adults, the same proportion went to college as non-creationist adults.  That is, believers in a newish human species are just as likely to have a college degree as believers in a long history for the species.

As always, it’s vitally important for outsiders like me to recognize the many different sorts of creationist belief.  Young-earth creationism, the notion that the earth has only been in existence for about as long as is described in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, is only one version.  Intelligent design theorists, like those of the Discovery Institute, or evolutionary creationists, like those of Biologos, also oppose mainstream evolutionary science, but without insisting on a young earth.

And, to be fair, this Gallup question only asks about the age of the human species, not the age of the earth.

Nevertheless, the notion that such large percentages of educated Americans agree that humanity is so new, and so un-evolved, always makes me wonder what kind of education Americans are receiving.

The leading young-earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis provides a handy guide.  To be fair, the map of creationist colleges provided by AiG makes no claims to be an exhaustive guide to all creationist institutions of higher education.  Rather, this map only includes those schools whose presidents have signed AiG’s statement of faith.

A quick glance at the map shows how easy it will be for most college-bound young people to find a college that affirms young-earth beliefs.  Even in my neighborhood of sunny Binghamton, NY, two schools made the AiG map, Davis College and Baptist Bible College.

The sponsoring schools include such fundamentalist heavy-weights as Bob Jones UniversityLiberty University, and Pensacola Christian Colleges.  Other sponsors include smaller schools such as Jackson Hole Bible College and Ohio Christian University.

For those of us trying to understand creationism from the outside, this thriving culture of creationist higher education provides a crucial clue.  We can’t know what all the students, or even all the professors at these schools believe, but the schools themselves devote themselves to promulgating the notion of a young human earth and divine creation by fiat, as described in Genesis.