Pandering? Or Progress?

What do you think? Is Senator Harris’s new plan to raise teacher pay a real winner? Will it improve public schooling? Or is it just an election-season stunt, a way to gain attention without really solving any problems?

Kamala Harris

A winner?

Here’s what we know: In a speech at Texas Southern University, the Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful outlined a plan to increase pay for public-school teachers. In brief, Senator Harris is pledging $315 billion to raise teacher pay an average of ten percent. Here’s how NBC described the plan:

According to the Harris campaign, the goal is to eventually increase teacher pay by an average of $13,500 per person, putting it in line with typical salaries for other employees with college degrees. Campaign materials pointed to research by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found teachers make 11 percent less than college-educated workers on average in combined salary and benefits.

Under the California senator’s plan, the federal government would finance 10 percent of the total pay increase for the first year and then pay out 3 dollars to states for every 1 dollar they put into additional salaries.

It would commit additional funds to further increase salaries for teachers in highest-need schools along with a “multi-billion dollar investment” in career development for educators. Half of it would go toward teachers studying at historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with predominantly minority students.

In a sense, Harris’s plan is merely a continuation of a Democratic Party tradition. In the 2016 campaign, Comrade Sanders liked to call vaguely for better pay for public-school teachers. As Sanders liked to say back then,

the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.

But Sanders didn’t offer the kind of detail that Harris has laid out this year. Clearly, the echoes of teacher strikes over the past two years have changed the political landscape of progressive politics.

Conservatives are likely to see this proposal as dangerous and extreme. As ed commentator Rick Hess told Politico, it sounds like more of a fantasy for the primary season than a real plan for the Oval Office. As Hess put it,

I don’t know that it’s being proposed as actionable legislation so much as a marker. . . . Republicans, in particular, are nervous about once you open that barn door, just how involved Washington winds up getting in local education decisions and deciding who gets hired, how they get compensated.

And progressives are not falling over themselves to celebrate, either. As my favorite progressive-ed observer noted, Harris’s plan has some glaring problems. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene tweeted,

If a Dem wants to score points with teachers, pledge to kill test-driven faux accountability. Pledge to champion public ed over privatization. Pledge to put actual educators in charge of Ed Department. Get the federal government out of teachers’ way. And don’t make teachers have to negotiate with DC for their next raise.

All good points, but I can’t help but feel optimistic when I see that teacher-pay is at least being discussed in more depth and detail this campaign season. Like they say, “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”

The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

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It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another whirlwind. Here’s the latest batch of ILYBYGTH-themed stories. Thanks to all who sent in stories and tips.

Conservatives welcome at Brown University, sort of. At IHE.

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Who’s got the biggest…?

Is Liberty University still America’s largest Christian university? At RNS.

Is media coverage of school choice biased? Nope. Well, sorta, according to Rick Hess at RCE.

“Marxist Thugs” by the bay: Milo Yiannopoulos criticizes a free-speech report from Berkeley, at Politico.

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Thugs not welcome.

Teacher strike updates:

Blue campus, red state: CHE looks at campus politics in one Nebraska battle.

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What Junior wants, Junior gets…

“Explosive” accusations against family leaders of Ohio Christian University, at IHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From fajita robbery to lynching memorials to teacher strikes, this past week had a little bitta everything.  Here are some stories that came across our desk…

Too risky: Penn State cancels student outing club, citing fears that students might get hurt. At MC.

Hard time: Man gets 50 years for stealing $1.2 million in …. fajitas. At USAT.

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Left? Right? Dollars? Sense?

Teachers take to the streets:

Pietist Schoolman Chris Gehrz wonders: Did evangelicals kidnap the name “evangelical?” At AB.

White evangelicals are playing with fire, at The Atlantic.

  • “But by tying themselves to the Trump brand, white evangelicals risk their movement’s ability to grow.”

Forget stem-cell research and creationism. The real war on science comes from the left, says John Tierney of City Journal. HT: MM.

Ugly truths: Lynching memorial opens in Montgomery, at NPR.

  • Why didn’t this news generate more culture-war commentary? Here at ILYBYGTH.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Well, it’s Christmas, but the ILYBYGTH elves never take a day off. Here are some stories you might have missed as you stuffed your face with candy canes and eggnog:

Why don’t evangelicals care about the latest scientific discoveries? A review of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s new research, at CT.

Why is it so hard to root out sexual abuse at schools? At NYT, a story of an investigation gone nowhere.Bart reading bible

Pinterest preaching: At R&P, Katelyn Beaty asks why white evangelical women leaders don’t talk about politics more.

How can we stop school segregation? The answer has been just a bus-ride away since the 1970s.

How can we solve our history culture wars? Rick Hess and Brendan Bell say stop fighting over which heroes to teach and teach about heroism itself.

When principals cheat: At EdWeek, an update from Atlanta’s cheating scandals.

What should learning mean? Conservative college leader calls for a return to the great values of the Western tradition.

What is Chicago doing right? Measuring urban schools—an interview with Stanford’s Sean Reardon.

Mississippi history classes still avoid civil rights, at The Atlantic.

Healing Our History Culture Wars

It has become a life-and-death question: Who are the heroes of American history? In Charlottesville, we’ve seen that terrorists are willing to kill to defend the primacy of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee. This morning Rick Hess and Brendan Bell offer a better way to teach about the heroes of history. But it won’t be as easy as we might think. As historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued a while back, heroism in history is a kind of one-way valve. It is easy to add new heroes, but it is extremely difficult to question the essential notion of heroism itself.

Depending on how old you are and where you live, you likely heard one or another of the standard hero explanations of American history. If you’re old enough, you might have learned that the young George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. If you’re Southern enough, you might have learned that honorable Jacksons and Lees valiantly defended the Southland from rabid northern aggression. If you’re young enough, you might have learned that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. bravely defeated racism. If you’re hippie enough, you might have learned that heroic natives fearlessly resisted European imperialism.charlttesville confederate t shirt

In every case, though, the focus of most public-school history classes has been on the heroic accomplishments of great Americans of the past. The type of heroism varies over time and place, but the notion that the real story of the USA is a heroic one rarely does.

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It’s not hard to see the problems with this process. Whether we wear Che t-shirts or Confederate flag ones, we’re forcing real history into a cartoonish good-vs-evil pattern. And that’s bad for two reasons.

As Hess and Bell point out, black-and-white history is boring. As they put it,

We take influential yet complicated figures like MLK and Lincoln and turn them into plaster saints. When history is taught this way, debates about who gets to be a hero will inevitably feel winner-take-all, since it becomes an exercise in deciding who gets to serve as shorthand for all that’s right and just.

However, that’s not how Homer, Ovid or Shakespeare thought about “heroism,” and it’s not how we should either. We should learn just as much from heroes about what not to do as about what to do. If being an icon means careful attention to Jefferson’s slave-owning as well as his magisterial writing, if it means considering MLK’s philandering and plagiarism as well as his towering moral courage, then being on that pedestal is more of a mixed bag. And this is just good teaching, anyway. After all, the most gripping and instructive accounts of iconic figures are those that depict their humanity, their indecision and the price they paid along the way.

The best recent example of teaching heroes well may be the wildly popular musical “Hamilton.” One of the things that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully did was marshal a warts-and-all portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in a way that imbued these often starchy figures with immediacy and humanity. Hamilton is at once brilliant and licentious; Jefferson, elitist yet principled; Burr, murderous but complex. Though their flaws are apparent, so too is their greatness – indeed, their greatness is entwined with their flaws.

There’s an even more important reason to avoid good-vs-evil history. Good-vs-evil history teaches us to hate the people we disagree with. Why else would someone drive a car into a crowd to defend the honor of a long-dead Confederate general?

It would be terrific if we could teach history better. It won’t be easy, though. Professor Zimmerman argued that history culture wars are usually resolved by an intellectually vapid but politically expedient process. Every politically powerful group is allowed to add its heroes to the story. That’s easy. Taking away a hero, though, as we’ve seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere, is extremely difficult.

Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?