Conservative College Cheapskates

Cheap college for all!  That’s the call of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  ALEC members will consider a proposal to mandate public university education for under $10,000.  So why is this a “conservative” idea?

The conservative group’s annual meeting agenda just came out.  Members will be asked to consider several model bills about education, including two that support expansion of charter schools.  No surprise there.  Many free-market conservatives, way back to the 1950s work of free-market guru Milton Friedman, have wanted to reform education by introducing market principles.

ALEC's Get-Together

ALEC’s Get-Together

But I’m puzzled by the higher-ed model bill.  ALEC proposes the “Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act,” a model bill that will require public universities to offer cheaper college educations.  In the words of the proposed bill,

The Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act would require all public four-year universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000, total, for four years of tuition, fees, and books.  The Act would require that ten percent of all public, four-year university degrees awarded reach this price-point within four years of passage of this act.

To achieve this price-point, universities would be instructed to capitalize on the opportunities and efficiencies provided by (1) web-based technology and (2) competency-based programs.

Simple enough.  There has been oodles of talk lately about the problem of burgeoning student debt.  This proposal would at least introduce a new way to talk about the price and value of college education.

I don’t know the history of ALEC’s model bill, but it looks to be modeled on a similar bill in Texas.  Two years ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry—a decidedly and self-consciously “conservative” politician—introduced a similar affordable-college law.

But here’s my question: What is “conservative” about this proposal?  I know there are conservatives and then there are conservatives, but ALEC has traditionally been a champion, in its words, of “Limited Government, Free Markets, [and] Federalism.”

On first glance, it isn’t clear how this college model bill would limit government or help free markets.  Isn’t the price of college education part of a free market?  Wouldn’t a government imposition of a price cap increase the role of government and decrease the fluidity of the free market?

Here’s my hunch: The key to understanding the “conservative” elements of these bills lies in two important words, “efficiencies” and “competency.”  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of conservative activism in education, conservatives have long looked skeptically at the way higher education has been run.  Just as conservatives have often insisted that teachers’ unions exert an unhealthy stranglehold on K-12 schooling, they have also often insisted that higher education has been taken over by sclerotic bureaucracies and leftist ideologues.

By forcing colleges and universities to offer credit for “competencies,” free-market conservatives might hope to shatter the grip of college bureaucracies.  Too often, conservatives might argue, college rules have insisted that students spend a certain amount of time in seats, parroting back academic drivel instead of learning real skills.  If students can demonstrate competency in life skills—running a business, maybe, or opening a charter school—those “competencies” should get college credit.

Similarly, by promoting “efficiencies” in higher education, free-market conservatives might hope to force lazy and pampered college faculty to use new technology to deliver information and skills more quickly and cheaply.  Since public universities are funded at least in part by government money, forcing them to run more quickly and cheaply could be seen as crucial part of conservatives’ desire to slim down big government.

That’s my guess, in any case.  To those who know their higher-education history, though, it is surprising to hear cheap public education promoted as a “conservative” cause.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, after all, accessibility and affordability were hallmarks of leftist activism in higher education.

Perhaps the best example of this is the history of City University of New York.  During the 1920s and 1930s, CUNY, especially City College of New York, was known as the “Ivy League of the Proletariat.”  Top students crowded into CCNY, especially Jewish students excluded from Ivy League colleges.  It was an elite institution, admitting only the most qualified students.  Back then, it was also free.  If you could get in, you could go.

Do these CUNY tuition protesters look "conservative" to you?

Do these CUNY tuition protesters look “conservative” to you?

In the late 1960s, student activism forced a change in admissions policy.  To fight elitism and cultural prejudice, leftist activists pushed through an open admission policy.  Back then, it was leftist student radicals who called for cheap college for all.

Does ALEC’s model bill signal a shift?  Is it now a “conservative” cause to limit the cost of public higher education?

 

 

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Required Reading: Christian Jihadis and Presbyterian Ayatollahs

The Christian terrorists are coming for you.

That has long been the hysterical message about “dominionism” present in American media and even academic writing.  But is it true?

In an illuminating recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Michael J. McVicar analyzes the ways “dominionism” has been used as a rhetorical cudgel over the past thirty years.

Though McVicar specifies he’s not trying to offer an authoritative biography of dominionism, nor a prescription for handling dominionism, his article still offers a helpful guide to the ways this bogey has developed, among evangelical Protestants and among the broader culture.

As McVicar recounts, in the 2012 presidential primaries accusations of “dominionism’s” influence flew fast and furious.  Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in particular stood accused of close ties to dominionism.  For many in the media, that implied a vague sort of theological imperialism, a desire to impose religious strictures on American public life.

McVicar traces the talk about “dominionism” back to criticism by evangelical writers in the 1980s of two Christian movements, Rousas J. Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstruction movement and Earl Paulk Jr.’s Kingdom Now movement.  Leading evangelical authors insisted that such movements did not and could not represent mainstream evangelical theology.

Most important, McVicar argues, these evangelical criticisms served to propagate the labels “dominionism” and “dominion theology.”

Soon, writers outside of evangelical circles appropriated evangelical critiques.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, McVicar writes, secular critics “appropriated much of the evangelical press’s criticism of dominion theology while simultaneously reframing it within the discourses of political progressivism and cultural pluralism.”

Soon, McVicar argues, scholar/activists such as Sara Diamond popularized a caricature of dominionism as the “central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.”

Much of the treatment of “dominionism” in these journalistic and academic treatments has contributed to a frenzy over the connections between conservative Christianity in America and violent, militant religion in other parts of the globe.  For some, “dominionism” serves as proof that all conservative Christians secretly want to take over secular institutions.  For others, “dominionism” is nothing but a bogey of progressive nightmares.

McVicar pushes a more subtle line.  There is such a thing as dominionism, he avers.  However, talk about dominionism usually tells us more about the speaker than about the subject.  Evangelical critics have defined dominionism out of bounds for evangelical belief.  Secular and progressive critics have defined dominionism out of bounds for civil American culture and politics.

Of course, as regular readers of ILYBYGTH are keenly aware, these issues of definition and boundary construction are central to school politics.  I’ve argued in these pages that anti-dominionist rhetoric is more often a blunt instrument than a real effort to shape policy.  If conservatives want to establish schools that include prayer or Bible reading, for example, critics can accuse them of anti-American “dominionism.”  If conservatives want to restrict the teaching of evolution or of sexual information, critics can accuse them of creeping “dominionism.”

Such talk doesn’t help make better schools.  But understanding this kind of talk and the way it has developed historically does promise to help us understand how American education really works.

McVicar’s website tells us that he is working on developing these arguments in a book under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

We’ll look forward to it.

Further reading: Michael J. McVicar, “‘Let Them Have Dominion:’ ‘Dominion Theology’ and the Construction of Religious Extremism in the US Media,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25.1 (Spring 2013): pp. 120-145.

 

 

Reds Under the Bed? Christians Under the Couch!

Conspiracy sells.  Just ask Dan Brown.  But unwarranted anxiety about conspiracy also poisons our shared public life.

Source: The Guardian

Conspiracy hunting used to be a sport dominated by conservatives.  Think Joe McCarthy waving his sweaty lists of communist infiltrators.  In recent years, though, politicians and commentators have found a new subversive threat: the Religious Right.  A new book by former GOP functionary Mike Lofgren, for instance, warns of the ways his Republican Party was infiltrated and taken over by “stealthily fundamentalist” religious conservatives.

This kind of “paranoid style” has a long history in American public life.  Witches were fiendishly difficult to detect in seventeenth-century New England.  Scheming Catholics worried nineteenth-century WASPs.  Communists emerged as the primary subversive threat in America’s twentieth century.

Leaders of the Religious Right have often worked up convincing conspiracies of their own.  As historian William Trollinger has described, this tradition started with the first generation of American fundamentalists in the 1920s.  One of the most prominent leaders of that Scopes generation, William Bell Riley, finally blamed evolutionary theory on a far-reaching plot of “Jewish Communists.”

In 1926, as I describe in my 1920s book (now in paperback!), one of the new grassroots fundamentalist organizations, the Bible Crusaders, announced the root of the evolution problem.  “Thirty years ago,” the Bible Crusaders revealed,

“five men met in Boston and formed a conspiracy which we believe to be of German origin, to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”

A generation later, writing in the magazine of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, one evangelical writer shared his experience with the famous progressive educator John Dewey.  This writer told a cautionary tale of secularist conspiracy, with a story of Dewey’s eighty-fifth birthday party in 1944.  Our evangelical witness had been invited to the celebration, the other guests unaware of his theological commitment.  Celebrating the life of the prominent progressive educator, the guests proudly recalled their efforts to transform America’s schools from Christian institutions to secular training centers.  “A generation has passed since that birthday gathering,” reported the evangelical spy to the MBI readership,

“and the plan has been immeasurably advanced by a series of court decisions that have de-theized the public schools.  As a result, American state-supported schools are as officially secular and materialistic as are their counterparts in Communist countries.  Are we awakening?”

Such warnings shouted by Christian conservatives have occasionally attracted enormous audiences outside of religious circles.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway bestseller.  With his co-author Carole Carlson, Lindsey spun a premillennial dispensationalist reading of the Bible into a riveting tale of international conspiracy.  In the premillennial dispensational interpretation, popular among some conservative evangelical Protestants, the Antichrist will return in the guise of a savior, combining governments into a massive superstate.  What seems like secular salvation is quickly revealed as the ultimate cosmic conspiracy, dedicated to binding all of humanity to a Satanic anti-religion.

Image source: Wikipedia

These themes saw another burst of popularity in the late 1990s, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated Lindsey’s feat.  LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series fictionalized Lindsey’s tale, again turning a conspiratorial interpretation of the apocalypse into beach reading for millions of Americans.

These Christian conspiracies have not been without cultural cost.  Though LaHaye and Jenkins carefully included a righteous Roman Catholic Pope among their fictionalized true Christians, other Christian conspiracy theorists, like William Bell Riley, have been too quick to implicate anyone outside of their circle of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

The dangers from conspiracy theorizing are not limited to the conspiracies imagined by conservative Christians.  Overheated accusations about the threat from subversive groups have long posed a profound danger to our public life, as any blacklisted Hollywood writer or interned Japanese-American could attest.  The threat is not limited to false conspiracies.  Satan may not have inspired Salem’s witch troubles, but historian Ellen Schrecker has argued that the communist-hunters of the 1950s often targeted real communist conspirators, if in a clumsy and overly aggressive way.

Similarly, Lofgren’s ominous warnings are not spun of whole cloth.  Lofgren warns vaguely of the “ties” of many leading Republican politicians to extreme positions such as Christian Dominionism.  This theology, associated most closely with the late Rousas John Rushdoony, wants to establish Christian fundamentalist control over American political life.  As Lofgren emphasizes, such thinkers approve the need to act “stealthily.”

Lofgren did not make this up.  Dominionism exists.  Prominent Republican politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann really do work with groups who support such notions.  But the way Lofgren and other commentators discuss such threats from the Christian Right distort the public discussion over the role of religion in the public sphere.  As with warnings about President Obama’s connections to the “terrorist professor” Bill Ayers, this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric encourages a no-holds-barred approach to politics.

After all, as Lofgren intones, the “‘lying for Jesus’ strategy that fundamentalists often adopt” gives anti-fundamentalists a reason to punch below the belt in their culture-war battles.  If they did not, the warning goes, they would be helpless before the wiles of the Christian Right.  This is the primary danger of such breathless exposes as Lofgren’s.  They build a shaky and fantastic argument upon a foundation of authentic examples in order to convince the convinced.  Activists swallow the outlandish examples without demur.  Such true believers do not consider the real complexities of their opponents, but rather paint a simplistic and terrifying image to shock and motivate their own side.

As with the real communist movement, the real world of American conservative Christianity is not such a simple place.  Nor is it so headline-grabbingly power hungry.  Consider a recent leadership poll by the National Association of Evangelicals.  This organization, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical Protestants, asked just over one hundred of its leaders if the United States constituted a “Christian Nation.”  Sixty-eight percent said no.  One respondent told the NAE, “I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”

This kind of statement from a conservative Christian does not sell books.  What does sell is a cherry-picked catalog of statements by Christian leaders revealing their plans to take over American politics and public life.  It was easy enough in Cold War America to discover evidence of a world-wide subversive communist movement.  But as America learned from Senator McCarthy’s outlandish claims, there is a danger in stripping down the image of subversives to cartoonish bogeymen.

I am not a conservative Christian myself.  I do not hope to apologize for the excesses of some conservative Christians.  Indeed, I believe denunciations of the schemes of conservative Christians have some basis in fact.  But when they serve only to encourage anti-fundamentalists to fight dirty, they do more harm than good.  When such conspiracy-hunters ignore the complexities and ambiguities of their targets, they attack more than their real enemies.  They smear innocent bystanders and poison the political life of the nation.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fundamentalists and Federal Aid to Schools

If only Rick Perry could have remembered what he planned to abolish, he might have won the 2012 Republican Presidential primary.  If he had won, he might really have carried out his threat to get rid of the federal Department of Education, along with Energy and Commerce.  Or maybe not.  After all, Ronald Reagan had also promised to eliminate the Department of Education.  In the end, Reagan merely treated the department shabbily.  These days, it seems every self-respecting conservative insists that the Federal Department of Education is an outrage.  Devvy Kidd of WorldNetDaily, for example, insists the department “must be abolished” due to its “chilling” trend toward “communism.”

This hostility toward federal money for local schools has not always been a bedrock belief of American conservatives.  In the 1920s, as Douglas Slawson’s terrific 2005 book The Department of Education Battle describes, the fiercest opponent of a cabinet-level federal department of education was the Catholic Church.  It follows, then, that one of the fiercest PROponents of such a department was the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.  The 1920s Klan, after all, focused much more intensely than did later Klans on fighting the power of the Catholic Church.  It also focused much of its public activism on defending its vision of the “Little Red Schoolhouse.”  For God and Country, the 1920s Klan argued, the USA needed a cabinet-level Department of Education.

By the late 1940s, however, opposing federal aid to local schools had become an article of faith among American conservatives.                        

Perhaps because the National Education Association fought so fervently for more federal funding for local schools, as we can see with this 1948 NEA brochure, conservatives insisted that such aid would be merely the camel’s nose under the tent.  Such aid would inevitably include more federal control over local schools.

As one earnest Daughter of the American Revolution warned her conservative sisters in 1943,

“The citizens of the United States do not want the Federal Government to supervise education from the cradle to the grave, from nursery school to adult education. . . .  It is not difficult to see another huge arm of the Federal Government in the making, and more chains being forged to shackle the unthinking. . . . socialist-minded educators would use the funds to build ‘a new social order’ and . . . training in fundamentals [will be] neglected.”

Other conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s agreed.  Allen Zoll, a professional right-wing activist and founder of the National Council for American Education, published a couple of hugely influential pamphlets in the 1940s. 

In one of them, “Progressive Education Increases Delinquency,” Zoll warned readers that contemporary education no longer taught students the traditional, fundamental values of American society.  He insisted,

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.”

In another pamphlet from the late 1940s, “They Want YOUR Child,” Zoll warned that the NEA’s drive to secure federal funding for local schools was a conspiracy of the darkest order, a “conspiracy against the American way of life, against everything that we hold dear, . . . probably the most completely organized, ruthless design against other people ever set in motion in all human history.”

Inevitably, Zoll insisted, federal aid to local schools would lead to federal control over local schools.  Once schools fell for that trap, they would be controlled by an aggressive mind-controlling educationist bureaucracy.  The scheming of “progressive” educators such as Theodore Brameld, William Heard Kilpatrick, and George Counts would soon lead to a softening of the youth of America, a start of the slide to socialism, secularism, and destruction.

Some conservatives in the 1950s took this fight against federal funding one step further.  Although they never represented a majority conservative viewpoint, some insisted that all public monies for schools represented government tyranny.  One eccentric proponent of this maximalist position in the 1950s was R.C. Hoiles.  Hoiles had earned a pile of money—one journalist in 1952 estimated $20,000,000—with his Western media empire.  In his editorials for his newspapers, Hoiles argued that all public schools implied government tyranny.  In one from The Marysville-Yuba City (CA) Appeal Democrat, February 28, 1951, for example, Hoiles argued,

“Very few people realize to what degree the government has grabbed the authority to indoctrinate the youth of the land.  We cannot reverse our trend toward socialism as long as the youth of the land comes in contact and is trained by teachers who believe that they have a right to do collectively what they know would be immoral if done by an individual.  In short, the youth of the land is coming in contact with men who are communistic in their thinking, if we properly define communism.  Here is a good definition of communism written by David Baxter.  ‘Communism is the conclusion that more than one person, or a majority of persons, have a right to do things collectively that it would be wrong and immoral for one person to do.’  Can anyone improve upon this definition of communism?

            “According to this definition, is not every believer in tax-supported schools a believer in communism, whether he knows it or not?”

Hoiles also issued a standing challenge to debate this issue.  On February 2, 1952, a radio personality took him up on his offer.  Thousands of people crammed into the football stadium to hear the debate between Hoiles and Roy Hofheinz.  Among the rhetorical gems Hoiles unloaded at that debate included the following:

“Every board of education is government; therefore, it is force.  It is not reason or eloquence—IT IS FORCE!  It is a fearful master—it certainly does not seem rational that understanding and education can be promoted by the force of a policeman . . . “

“There are many ideas as to what is a good government.  But only one idea can be taught in government schools.  And that idea cannot be anything unfavorable to existing government institutions.  It would be impossible to find any teaching in government schools unfavorable to government schools.  It would be impossible to find anything taught in government schools unfavorable to existing state administration.  We cannot now find anything taught in government schools really unfavorable to New Dealism.

            “We believe it would be next to impossible to find anything taught that preaches old-fashioned American individualism as against our modern New Deal fraternalism in government.  Thus we believe that government schools’ teaching in regard to government must favor administration policies, whatever they may be.  Hitler and Hirohito used government schools to promote their regimes. 

            “Stalin is using Russian government schools to promote his regime.  Karl Marx made free public schools one of the points in his famous ‘Communist Manifesto.’  Any government delights in having schools to propagandize its doctrine.” ….

“It has often occurred to me that if an overwhelming majority of Americans really favor the present system of education, it should not be necessary to compel anyone to support it.  A system as sound and popular as tax-supported public schools are supposed to be should be well supported on a voluntary basis.” 

Funding of schools will likely always be a contentious issue.  Taxpayers, especially those who have no children or send their children to private schools, have a dollars-and-cents reason to oppose public schooling.  Perhaps the powerful tradition in Fundamentalist America of opposition to federal funding—or even to any public funding—of local schools can be reduced mainly to a desire to keep more money from the hands of the tax man.  But there also seems to be a deeper ideological connection.  Since the 1940s, at least, fighting against federal funding for local schools has become an article of conservative faith among some citizens of Fundamentalist America.

FURTHER READING: Douglas J. Slawson,  The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932; Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005; Madeleine P. Scharf, “The Education Finance Act of 1943,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 77 (October 1943): 635-637.