Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

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More Proof: America Has No Public School System

We could be mad that it took them this long to notice. Or we could celebrate the fact that we’re finally getting some attention to the issue. In addition, though, we have to recognize another big implication of this story.

First, the bummer. How can it be “news” that American public school teachers are working too hard? A recent series in USA Today profiled fifteen teachers across the United States. As they reported,

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected.

That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

We’re glad to get some front-page attention to the difficulties of teaching, of course, but it’s difficult not to say…well, duh. Of course teachers have a tough row to hoe. After we digest that non-bombshell, though, there’s more in this story that we should notice.

As historian Jack Schneider wrote recently for WaPo, Americans tend to have a unique love/hate relationship with public schooling. We hear over and over again that public schools are failing, yet most of us cherish our local public schools. And statistics tell us that—as a whole—America’s public schools are doing as well academically as they ever have.

Behind the fake-exposé headlines of the USA Today series, we can see a glimmer of truth that helps explain the weird relationship of Americans to their public schools. Reporters fanned out across the country to tag along with teachers.

manseau usa today

Oh give me a home…

In one case, that meant braving the wilds of Montana, where Traci Manseau teaches seventeen kids of all ages, all with the same last name, all in the same one-room schoolhouse. The students are all Hutterites, and they leave school at age sixteen to work on the communal farm.

At another school, 1,584 miles away (I looked it up) in Detroit, students wear a different sort of uniform. Instead of bonnets and cowboy shirts, the mostly African-American students wear uniform polo shirts and khakis. Their teacher, Felecia Branch, loves to hear them relate to fiction. And she hates it when they fight.

Down in Phoenix, meanwhile, teacher Rebecca Garelli welcomes 21 students in her English-Language-Learners class (ELL). Two of them come from Rwanda. Many of them speak only Spanish. Her job is to teach them—according to Arizona law—in English. And get them all to learn science.

branch usa today

…where the Chevrolets roam…

Are there similarities? Sure. All teachers feel stressed. And all good teachers care a lot about all their students. Whatever their backgrounds and locations, teachers want the best for their students and they can get frustrated when bad rules or bad situations make that unlikely.

But the vast differences between just these three examples show how inappropriate it is to talk about an American public school “system.” What it means to go to school in the United States can mean vastly different things.

Of course, SAGLRROILYBYGTH did not need to open the pages of USA Today to find that out. All of us can see the huge disparities in public education if we just take a tour around our local area. Even in the same city, the populations and possibilities of public schools can be worlds apart.

As Professor Schneider concluded,

Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

If we waste our time asking about the American public-school system, we’ll always end up at an impasse. America’s schools are so diverse that there’s really no system to it all. When it comes to our sad history of educational culture wars, pundits on all sides have been able to say whatever they wanted about America’s schools and find real evidence to back it up. They could always find proof of almost any trend they wanted to celebrate or despise.

Are America’s schools mere “sorting machines?” Yep. Do they harbor left-wing teachers who sneakily try to subvert patriotic traditions? Uh-huh. Do America’s schools remain trapped in ancient ruts? Of course. Do they engage in innovative, world-class education? That, too.

Like the blind scholars and the elephant, pundits and politicians will always be able to prove anything they want to about America’s schools, because they can all be right.

Making Ararat Great Again

What does Noah have to do with homosexuality? For that matter, what does creationism have to do with Donald Trump? The connections might seem jagged, but those of us who hope to understand the real contours of radical American creationism need to understand the connections between the Rainbow Covenant and Trump’s hat. My recent visit to the Ark Encounter gave me a sharp reminder of the cultural politics of creationism.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

 

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I can’t help repeating myself: Lots of white evangelicals have always harbored a Trump-ish white nationalist attitude. Not all of them, of course. White evangelicals have also been the most ferocious critics of their coreligionists on this score.

Moreover, the relationship between evangelical religion and chest-thumping American nationalism has always been complicated. White evangelical Americans have tended to think of the USA as both a uniquely Christian country and a dangerously sinful one. As I argued in an academic article a while back, the “establishment-or-outsider paradox” that George Marsden described so long ago has always been a constant source of tension when it comes to evangelical thinking about schools and culture.

For many conservative evangelicals—especially those on the harder-right end of the broad evangelical spectrum—public schools in particular have been the leading symbol of this tension. In the white evangelical imagination, public schools used to be great. They used to lead children in prayer and Bible reading. In the past fifty years, one popular conservative-evangelical story goes, public schools went terribly awry. In practice, evangelical pundits warn one another, America kicked God out of the public schools.

For a large and influential segment of the white evangelical public, this scary story has a silver lining. In spite of the frightening changes in American public education, there is hope. Conservative evangelicals have told one another, for example, that they can “reclaim” their local schools.

reclaim your school

Good news/Bad news…

The notion of reclaiming, of taking back, resonates with radical creationists, too. As I browsed the gift shop at the Ark Encounter, I found a fat stack of postcards. Many of them harped on the theme of “taking back” the symbol of the rainbow. Instead of representing gay pride, the Kentucky creationists hope, the rainbow can once again symbolize conservative evangelical faithfulness.

20171228_090906.jpg

Reclaim your rainbow…

It is a central theme for American young-earth creationism, and one that has very little to do with theology or science. The language of many radical creationists is peppered with talk about the good old days, when evangelical Christianity WAS mainstream American religion, when “Merry Christmas” WAS the thing to say to each other in December, when public schools DID reinforce evangelical faith.

Once we grasp this enduring theme among radical creationists, it’s not so difficult to see the appeal of Trump. Any candidate who promises to make America great again will get the white-evangelical vote, or at least the vast majority of it.

The Headline No One Clicks On

I’ll admit it: I’m a monster. I recently asked my students to take on an impossible task. One of the big questions of our graduate seminar this semester was this: Is American public education “good?” Students came up with several ingenious, nuanced, and insightful answers. But they could be excused for struggling with the question. As recent headlines show, the question is impossible. How can we tell if public schools are doing well?graph from edweek 1

On one hand, we see news every day that should convince us. A report in EdWeek, for instance, reveals the amazing news that high-school graduation rates are up for the fifth year in a row. For all types of students.

Most other headlines about education, though, are pretty rough. We hear that the achievement gap among demographic groups is widening in New York City. We read that American students are losing their number-one spot in reading scores. Queen Betsy tells us that the terrible state of our public schools is “unacceptable. . . . inexcusable. . . . [and] truly un-American.”graph from edweek 2

What we’re looking at here is the old blind-scholars-and-elephant problem. If we look at graduation rates alone, we’d say public schools are doing great and getting better. But if we look at the disparities between different groups of students, we’d agree that the system is woefully unfair and racially biased.

By and large, though, it seems hard to find good news, unless we avoid headlines and look at real schools and real teachers. The Gallup numbers show this consistently. When people describe the schools they know best, they’re very bullish. But asked about public schools in general, people are gloomy.

gallup people like their local schools

I can’t help but think headlines contribute to this situation. Talking about desperate crises appeals to our yen to confirm our fears. Talking about terrible schools allows us to blame the people we dislike for the current crisis. And much of the problem is due to deliberate culture-war obfuscation. In a recent speech, for example, Queen Betsy said,

A recent Gallup poll showed the majority of all Americans are dissatisfied with the overall education system in our country.

That’s true. But it hides the fact that bigger majorities of Americans are happy with the schools they actually have first-hand knowledge about.

We might say the same thing about our teachers. It’s easy to find headlines about bad teachers. Don’t believe me? Try googling “unprepared teachers.” If you have kids in school, you’ll be frightened by the results. But if people could spend a semester with the students in my department preparing to be teachers, they’d share some of my optimism and confidence.

Are there big problems with America’s public schools? Definitely. But we need to be careful with our questions if we want to get good answers.

Are there bad teachers out there? Sure. But the talent and energy going into the profession are overwhelming. It’s just not something we can cram into a clickbait-y headline.

Why Do We Want our Schools to Fail?

The numbers are in, and they are good. So why aren’t we celebrating?

Here’s the story: For the past two years, graduation rates have continued to climb for Washington DC schools. And here’s the dilemma: Why don’t we hear more about our continuing love for and satisfaction with our public schools?

Most of us like our local public schools. As Gallup polls have showed over and over again, public perception of public schools is hugely skewed. Large majorities of respondents with kids in public schools are very happy with those schools. But majorities also say that public schools in general are in terrible shape.

gallup people like their local schools

We love our schools…except we don’t.

In our nation’s capital, the news has been good for the last couple of years. In 2016, new programs and policies led to increased graduation rates. That trend has continued this year.

So why don’t we see more headlines about the improving state of public education? Why don’t we hear more about the fact that most parents like their local public schools?

I have a hunch that won’t surprise SAGLRROILYBYGTH. When it comes to our bitter educational culture wars, both sides have an interest in promoting bad news.

Progressive types like me worry that schools for low-income and minority students have always suffered from a lack of funding and attention. When we look at the headlines from DC, it’s easy to a huge lurking BUT. Yes, graduation rates are improving and hitting all-time highs, but they still reflect the cruel inequities of our schools and society. As WaPo notes,

In D.C. Public Schools, black and Latino students also saw a boost in graduation rates — to 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively — but they still lag behind their white classmates by more than 10 points.

Plus, the improvements in graduation rates still vary tremendously by school. At selective high schools—schools that non-coincidentally educate a richer, whiter population—more students graduate on time. The numbers are much worse for neighborhood schools.

DC schools are good

Good news travels slow.

The takeaway? For progressive pundits, saying the news is good feels like a betrayal of all the students and families who still aren’t getting a fair shake.

Conservative education pundits don’t agree with that progressive argument, but they also tend to pooh-pooh any sorts of optimism. For many conservatives, the news from DC is still bleak. Public school systems, some conservatives think, are still throttled by sclerotic union-dominated bureaucracies. They don’t really teach kids. For proof, they can point to other parts of WaPo’s reporting:

At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.

Shuttling a bunch of under-educated students across the graduation stage, conservatives might argue, doesn’t mean the schools are really doing a decent job of training students for jobs and passing along the big ideas of our culture. All it means is that union-ruled pencil-pushers are inflating their numbers. What public schools really need, conservatives might say, is an authentic shake up, a thorough-going privatization with charters and vouchers.

In every case, pundits tend to prefer bad news. It’s hard to fundraise when you tell people things are fine and getting better.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

School reform and the kingdom of God…it’s been a lively week here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few of the stories that might have slipped by us:

Don’t forget the public schools—Erika Christakis looks at the weird history of school-hating in The Atlantic.

Will it work? A student is suing Michigan State for refusing to let white-nationalist pundit Richard Spencer speak on campus, from The Hill.

Trump and his court evangelicals. Is he really the most faith-friendly president we’ve had?Bart reading bible

Teachers think it’s true, but it isn’t. Dan Willingham explores the durable mythology of learning styles.

American Apocalypse and 1920s creationism: Glenn Branch finds some goofs in Matthew Sutton’s history of American evangelicalism.

How resegregation works. A look at Jefferson County, Alabama, from the New York Times.

Why don’t state governments want teachers to get more money for books and supplies? Peter Greene offers an answer.

Why do people hate evolutionary theory? A new survey suggests it’s not necessarily because they hate evolutionary theory.

Think Confederate monuments should come down? I do. Turns out I’m an odd duck. You might be as surprised by the poll numbers as I was.

Time for another name change? Thomas Kidd asks if “evangelical” is still a meaningful label.

A defense of the offended: Penn’s Jonathan Klick explains why he signed the anti-Wax letter. He’s says it wasn’t about political correctness, but to a different sort of correctness.

Theocracy or social uplift? Ed Stetzer makes his case for dogma in the public square at Christianity Today.

The Missionary Imposition in Our Public Schools

They’re out there. In spite of decades of talk about “Godless” public schools, there are plenty of Christian teachers who see their work as a missionary endeavor. That ain’t right, but conservative Christians aren’t the only ones to use public schools to spread religious ideas.

As a new cartoon from young-earth creationism ministry Answers In Genesis makes clear, lots of conservative Christians like the idea that public-school teachers will do their best to preach the Gospel as part of their jobs.

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

The creationists at AIG are certainly not alone in their celebration of public-school missionary work. At the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute, for example, Brad and Susanne Dacus encourage teachers to evangelize on the job. As Marc Fey of Focus on the Family writes about their work, it will help teachers spread the Gospel in “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today, our public schools.”

This sort of missionary vision for America’s public schools has a long history. Going back to the 1940s, groups such as Youth For Christ worked to get old-time religion into modern public schools. Beginning in 1945, as the idea of the “teenager” took on new cultural clout, YFC founder Torrey Johnson hoped to make YFC a group that would speak in the language of the new teen culture. As he explained to YFC missionaries, young people in the 1940s were

sick and tired of all this ‘boogie-woogie’ that has been going on, and all this ‘jitterbugging’—they want something that is REAL!

As early as 1949, YFC leaders such as Bob Cook argued that “high school Bible club work [was] the next great gospel frontier.” As he put it, YFC must aggressively evangelize among secular public high school students, since “atomic warfare will most certainly finish off millions of these youngsters before routine evangelism gets around to them.” By 1960, YFC claimed to have formed 3,600 school-based Bible clubs in the United States and Canada.

By 1962, these ad-hoc Bible clubs had been organized into a YFC program known as “Campus Life.” Campus Life included two main components, outreach to non-evangelical students and ministry to evangelical students.

In order to engage in this public school evangelism, national YFC leaders told local activists they must “invade the world where non-Christian kids are.” As an operations manual for Campus Life leaders warned its readers, their first entry into that hostile territory could be frightening. It described common feelings among YFC evangelists on their first approach to a public high school:

There it looms—a huge, humming, hostile high school. Hundreds, thousands of students, a professional corps of teachers and administrators, all busily turning the wheels of secular education.

To you, it’s a mission field. It has masses of kids who need spiritual help, even though most of them don’t know it. You and the Lord have decided to invade that field through the strategy called Campus Life.

This missionary attitude about public schools has also had a long and checkered history among creationists. Writing in 1991, for example, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research called public schools “the most strategically important mission field in the world.”

As have other conservative Christians and creationists, the ICR repeatedly described public schools as unfairly biased against Christianity. As Henry Morris’s son and intellectual heir John D. Morris put it, “today’s public high schools and state universities are confrontational to the creationist student.” Aggressively secular teachers, John Morris warned, “take it upon themselves to ridicule Christianity and belittle and intimidate creationist students.”

Throughout the 1980s, ICR writers described the double impact of their missionary work in public schools. First, it would protect creationist kids from secularist hostility. Second, it could bring the Gospel message of creationism to students who would not hear it elsewhere. Missionary teachers had a unique opportunity. In 1989, one ICR writer explained it this way: “As a teacher,” he wrote, “you are a unique minister of ‘light.’ Your work will ‘salt’ the education process.” Similarly, in 1990 John Morris argued that the greatest hope for a decrepit and dangerous public school system lay with “Christian teachers who consider their jobs a mission field and a Christian calling.”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear young-earth creationist activists insist that they do not want to push creationism into public schools. But they certainly do want to make room for creationism. They hope to use public schools as a “mission field” to spread their Gospel.

They shouldn’t. But before we get too angry about it, we need to reflect on what this really means for our creation/evolution debates.

To folks like me, the most important value of public education is that it is welcoming to all students and families. It should not push religious values upon its students. It should not even imply that one sort of belief is proper and others are not.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book (available in February!), the goal of science education must not be to indoctrinate children into any sort of belief about human origins.

Modern evolutionary science is currently our best scientific explanation of the history of human life. Therefore, we need to teach it in science class, unadulterated with creationist notions of design or supernatural intervention.

But too often, the implied goal is to free students from the shackles of their outdated religious ideas. Too often, the goal of evolution education is to change student belief about natural and supernatural phenomena. Progressive teachers like me sometimes slide into an aggressive ambition to help students see the world as it really is.

We shouldn’t. Not if students have religious reasons for believing otherwise. As I’ve argued at more length in the pages of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, too often evolution educators make the same mistaken “Missionary Supposition” that has tarnished conservative Christianity.

Are creationists in the wrong when they use public schools as a “mission field?” Definitely.

But they are not wrong because their religion is wrong.

They are wrong because public schools by definition must remain aggressively pluralist. They must welcome people of all religious faiths, and of none. In order for evolution education to move forward, we must all remember that public schools can’t promote any particular idea about religion, even the religious idea that young-earth creationism is silly.

Here’s Why Public Schools Will Never Eliminate Creationism

If the spotlight-loving science pundit Lawrence Krauss really thinks public schools can eliminate creationism in one generation, he’s off his rocker. But he’s in good company. Through the years, all sorts of writers and activists have made grandiose plans to use public schools for one sweeping reform or another. Unfortunately for them, that’s just not how America’s schools work.

The original bus from hell...

The original bus from hell…

To be fair, in the Krauss quotation pirated here by the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, Krauss does not say that this will be a school thing. He only says that we can teach our kids—in general—to be skeptical. Clearly, in the conservative creationist imagination of the folks at AIG, this teaching will take place in the public schools.

This AIG cartoon illustrates the many ideological trends that they think are taught in the public schools. Evolution, homosexuality, abortion, . . . all these ideas are poured down the throats of innocent young Christians in public schools. Furthermore, AIG thinks, Christian belief and practice are banned and ridiculed.*

In culture-war battles like this, both sides made sweeping and incorrect assumptions about public schooling. If the schools teach good science, Krauss and his allies assume, then creationism can soon be eliminated. If the schools teach good religion, AIG thinks, then children will go to heaven, protected from evolution and other skepticism-promoting notions.

As I argue in my recent book, these assumptions are hard-wired into our culture-war thinking. Both progressives and conservatives tend to assume that the proper school reform will create the proper society.

In the 1930s, for instance, at the progressive citadel of Teachers College, Columbia University, Professor George Counts electified his progressive audiences with his challenge. Public schools teachers had only to “dare,” Counts charged, and the schools could “build a new social order.”

Decades later, conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler repeated these same assumptions. Conservative parents, the Gablers warned, must watch carefully the goings-on in their local public schools. “The basic issue is simple,” they wrote.

Which principles will shape the minds of our children? Those which uphold family, morality, freedom, individuality, and free enterprise; or whose which advocate atheism, evolution, secularism, and a collectivism in which an elite governs and regulates religion, parenthood, education, property, and the lifestyle of all members of society?

Professor Counts would not likely have agreed with the Gablers on much. But he would have agreed that the ideas dominating public schools matter. If the wrong ideas leach into the schools, then society will lurch in dangerous directions.

These days, both Professor Krauss and the creationists at AIG seem to have inherited these same assumptions. However, as this screenshot from AIG’s facebook feed demonstrates, public school classrooms are far more complicated places than any of our school activists have allowed. No matter what standards we write about science or religion, public schools will continue to function in ways that represent the wishes of their local community. No matter how daring they are, a few progressive teachers do not have the power to build a new social order.

Similarly, we cannot use schools to eliminate creationism. If we want people to think scientifically, then we need to wage a much broader campaign. We need to convince parents and children that modern evolutionary science is the only game in town.

Because even if we wanted to, we could never ram through any sort of school rule that would be followed universally. Even if public schools officially adhere to state standards that embrace modern evolutionary science, schools themselves will vary from town to town, even from classroom to classroom. The only way to change schools in toto is to change society in toto.

Chicken and egg.

As we see in this facebook interchange, one evangelical teacher claims she teaches with the “overwhelming support of parents and administration.” Another says she teaches her children in public schools to recognize the logical necessity of a creator.

These facebook comments are not anomalies. According to political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, about 13% of public high-school biology teachers explicitly teach creationism. Another 60% teach some form of evolution mixed with intelligent design and creationism.

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Not teaching the controversy, avoiding the controversy

Why do so many teachers teach creationism? Because they believe it and their communities believe it. As Berkman and Plutzer argue, teachers tend to embrace the ideas of their local communities. In spite of the alarmism of the folks at AIG, public schools just aren’t well enough organized to push any sort of agenda. Public schools will never eliminate creationism. They just can’t.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again: Schools don’t change society; schools reflect society.

*(Bonus points if you can explain why AIG is against saving the whales!)

Climate-Change Party Crashers

I love the analogy, but I don’t know if the story sounds realistic.

Over at the National Center for Science Education blog, Executive Director Ann Reid tells a story about converting skeptics into climate-change believers. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale of her encounter at a dinner party with someone who does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. She explains how she made her case.

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the NCSE. Unlike some of my fellow evolution mavens, I appreciate the NCSE’s accommodating attitude toward life in a pluralistic society. I’ve personally seen the ways leaders at the NCSE speak respectfully and productively with creationists. Instead of labeling conservatives “the enemy,” the thoughtful activists at the NCSE try to understand creationist thinking, try to see things from a creationist perspective.

Will she be invited back?

Will she be invited back?

But Director Reid’s story still sounds a little outlandish to me, on two counts.

Before I describe my objections, let’s hear the story. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale (one and two) in which she chats amiably at a dinner party with a scientist who believes that today’s climate changes are just part of naturally occurring cycles. What to do?

Dr. Reid listens to the skeptic’s reasons, then lays out her best case. One doesn’t need to know everything about everything, Dr. Reid says, to see the overwhelming evidence. Consider just a couple of studies that show the drastic warming of the North American landmass. Species are moving north. And planting zones are shifting, too.

What did her interlocutor say?

Well, I’d never heard that before. That’s very interesting.

The savvy Dr. Reid knows that she won’t convince every skeptic this way. She’s not even sure she convinced this one guy.   But, she concludes,

I certainly made him think a little bit. I didn’t get into a debate, and I gave the rest of the table some conversational fuel for the next time they are seated next to a skeptic. Not bad for one dinner party. Give it a try! And let us know how it turns out.

Can it work? Like Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion, I’m skeptical. Here’s why:

First, I agree that a Thanksgiving dinner is an excellent analogy for our continuing culture wars over climate change and other educational issues. But the analogy really points in a different direction.

As I argue in my new book, conservative activists have usually been able to exercise a veto over new ideas in America’s public schools. And they do so in a dinner-party way. That is, in America’s public schools—like at America’s dinner-party tables—controversial issues are anathema. It is not acceptable at dinner parties (except, of course, at really good dinner parties) to lambaste one’s fellows with offensive phrases or ideas.

Across the twentieth century, conservative activists have used this sort of dinner-party mentality to restrict significantly the advance of progressive ideas in America’s schools. Should we teach evolution? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids how to have safer sex? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids that boys can like pink toys? …that good books sometimes include bad words? …that every idea should be questioned, even religious ideas? …that every country has its flaws, even the USA? …and so on?

When an idea can be labeled “controversial,” public schools will flee from it in terror, as timid as a dinner-party host who has invited the boss over.

In generation after generation, conservatives have been able to maintain fairly traditional classrooms—though the vision of “tradition” has changed over time—by exercising this sort of dinner-party veto. Conservatives do not need to prove their case against progressive textbooks, or science, or literature. All they need to do is prove that those things are considered offensive by some, and the dinner-party rule kicks in.

Of course, that’s not the only reason to be skeptical about Dr. Reid’s optimistic story. In real life, most encounters like hers will go very differently, for a fundamental culture-war reason.

The way she tells the tale, her two mind-blowing pieces of evidence got everyone thinking. They exposed the skeptic to a new way of thinking about climate change. And her story ended there.

In real life, educated and informed culture-war partisans are not simply ignorant of the other side. Creationists know a lot about evolution. Wallbuilders know a lot about academic history. Abstinence-only educators know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion would likely know a lot about climate change. At the very least, he would have some of his own party-pleasing evidence ready to share. Instead of receiving Dr. Reid’s examples in humble silence, he would likely have countered with his own show-stopping studies. The rest of the dinner table would be left in the same position as it was when the party started: Confronted with two competing and seemingly convincing arguments, from two authoritative-seeming sources.

How should they pick?

Like most of our educational culture-war issues, this climate-change dinner party would likely come to a more obvious conclusion. Instead of fighting vehemently for one side or the other, instead of splitting the dinner table into hostile camps, most dinner parties come to a different conclusion. Like public schools, dinner parties choose to avoid any controversial subject, rather than get into a down-and-dirty debate.

Of course, I don’t get invited to many dinner parties, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Does my dinner-party analogy seem too cynical? Too negative?

School Punishes Girl for Modesty

It sounds like a dystopian fundamentalist fantasy: secular school wardens careening out of control, punishing religious students for having decent morals. But in France this week, a girl was really sent home because her skirt was too long.

Of course, things are different in France than they are in the United States. In France, public schools and institutions are governed by the rule of laïcité. No one may wear religious symbols to school, not headscarves, skullcaps, or big crosses.

In this case, “Sarah K.” was sent home when administrators decided her skirt represented religious garb. Like her friends and co-religionists at the school, Sarah had removed her headscarf as she went in. But her skirt still represented religious attire, school leaders believed. The principal wrote a note to her parents, according to the New York Times, warning them to “rectify her clothes if you want her to continue her schooling.”

"Ta jupe est trop longue..."

“Ta jupe est trop longue…”

In this country, we’ve seen our share of outraged religious conservatives kicked out of public schools for culture-war clothing issues. Remember the flap over the Romney shirt in Philadelphia? Or, up north, remember the kid who got kicked out for his “Life Is Wasted without Jesus” shirt?”

To this uninformed observer, Sarah K.’s case seems like an overreach by overzealous school officials. How can they decide if a skirt is part of a religious outfit, or if it is just a skirt? How can they conclude that Sarah K. intended for her maxi-skirt to be a statement of her religious faith?