My Experts Can Beat Up Your Experts

None of us knows what we’re talking about. That is the problem driving much of our culture-war animus. We can’t possibly understand all the nuances of every field of study, so we rely on networks of competing experts and authority figures to tell us what to believe. I do it, you do it . . . we all do it.

This week, we’ve seen it again with the topic of teaching American history. A coalition of conservative scholars and activists has signed an open letter attacking the new framework of Advanced Placement US History guidelines. They hope to use their collective clout to prove that the “experts” are not all on one side of this debate.

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, these new history guidelines have proven intensely controversial. Conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma have proposed nixing the new standards for Sooner schoolchildren. Conservative pundits have blasted the framework as biased and warped. Professional organizations such as the National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have fought back, insisting that the new framework is exactly the sort of thing we need in America’s history classrooms.

And, as I argue in my new book, these battles over the nature of American history have a long history themselves. In the 1930s, conservatives successfully blocked a popular series of textbooks that they felt told a slanted, anti-American vision of the nation’s past. More recently, the attempt in the 1990s to write a set of national history standards was sunk when conservatives made similar complaints.

In those battles as in this one, culture-war combatants have hoped to win their case by compiling intimidating lists of experts who back their respective positions. This week’s letter includes a mix of signatories. Some of them really are leading academic historians, such as George Marsden and Joseph Kett. And they take their inspiration from a recent diatribe by renowned historian Gordon Wood. Other signers are not historians, but conservative scholars who disagree with the general drift of mainstream academic life, folks such as Robert George and Patrick Deneen. Yet another category of signer is that of activist conservative historians, a rare breed including folks such as Ronald Radosh and Victor Davis Hanson. Plus, there are political signatories such as Lynne Cheney.

The letter complains that the new APUSH framework pushes an “arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history.” The new framework, the letter argues,

Is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

As a professional academic historian, I’m certainly not neutral in this fight. My sympathies lie with the new framework. Don’t get me wrong: I admit that these conservative charges are not without merit. Academic historians really have isolated themselves over the past forty years. Americans love history, but they find academic history simply beside the point. Academic historians have tended to obsess over issues that only other academics care about, leaving high-schoolers and regular folks to learn their history from journalists and from Hollywood. But that has always been the case with scholarly work and it does not mean that the big lessons of the past forty years should not be taught to high-schoolers.

More important here, though, is the way culture-war issues are often addressed by letters like this one. Because none of us can understand the nuances of every issue, because none of us really understands what all the fuss is about, we rely on networks of competing authorities to give us our culture-war positions.

In the creation/evolution battles, for instance, we’ve seen this time and time again. Nearly every pro-evolution argument these days starts with some statement that mainstream scientists all agree on the fact of evolution. Activist organizations such as the National Center for Science Education compile bulletproof lists of all the scientists who agree that evolution occurs via natural selection. It has always been this way. In the 1968 US Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the National Science Teachers Association submitted a statement signed by 179 leading scientists. Evolution, the signatories told the court, had become a “fundamental scientific principle” supported by all “scientists and other reasonable persons.”

Creationists, of course, have always compiled similar lists of experts. As I noted in my first book, sometimes such lists took over the whole argument. For instance, T.T. Martin’s 1923 book, Hell and the High Schools, was a slim 175 pages. Of those pages, a full 67 were nothing but lists of anti-evolution scientists and experts.

For those few true experts such as Ronald Numbers or Glenn Branch, it is possible to wade through these lists of names to tease out the scientific street cred of each person. For most readers, though, the lists of experts serve only to prove the reliability of writers’ claims.

In every culture-war field, we rely on experts we trust to tell us what to believe. And then we believe it, whether or not we really know what we’re talking about. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It doesn’t mean we’re ignorant. As Dan Kahan argues so convincingly, our beliefs about evolution tells us about who we are, not about what we know.

What are we to believe about the new Advanced Placement US History standards? Are they the best wisdom of historians, vetted by true experts in the field and reflecting the latest developments of academic knowledge? Or are they the puerile croaking of a self-satisfied and out-of-touch ivory-tower elite, bent on promoting ideology over true knowledge?

The answer, of course, depends on which group of experts you prefer.

Advertisements

Schools of Social(ist) Work

America’s colleges and universities have become left-wing indoctrination factories. At least, that has long been a favorite conservative complaint. Today in the pages of the Weekly Standard we see another example of the “closing of the campus mind.” Why do so many conservatives seem to take such intense pleasure in the supposed leftist domination of American higher education?

Bearded weirdos...

Bearded weirdos…

In today’s Weekly Standard, Devorah Goldman shares her horror story from Hunter College’s School of Social Work. As a conservative, Ms. Goldman was asked politely not to participate in class discussions. She had to hold her tongue as she read anti-conservative textbooks. She had to hold her tongue as professors imposed racist, ideologically slanted ideas on her classes.

Goldman’s story of abysmally closed-minded universities seems to resonate among conservative intellectuals. As we’ve seen recently, some conservative academics have interpreted recent events as the death knell for conservative thinkers at mainstream universities. Elsewhere, critics have wondered if higher education as a whole has been irredeemably lost to true open-mindedness.

As a non-conservative who writes a lot about conservatism and education, these complaints raise two difficult questions for me.

  1. First, why do so many conservative thinkers seem to emphasize the leftism of colleges? That is, why do conservatives seem to take such bitter joy from an exaggerated assumption that they are no longer welcome in higher ed?
  2. Second, why don’t these conservative intellectuals recognize the long tradition of conservative laments about higher ed? In every case, it seems as if conservatives think higher ed has just recently switched over to the dark side.

Let’s take the second of these questions first. As Ms. Goldman’s story shows, every conservative complaint implies that the closing of the college mind is a recent phenomenon. But conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) have been protesting against the goings-on at mainstream colleges for almost a century.

In 1987, for example, Chicago’s Allan Bloom scored a surprise best-seller with his Closing of the American Mind. Bloom worried back then that universities had become nothing but indoctrination factories.

Even earlier, conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr. began his long career with an indictment of the culture at his alma mater. In God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley blasted the sneering secularism and lax morality of his school.

Some people think Buckley invented modern conservatism, but the same themes go way back. In the 1930s, for instance, Congressman Hamilton Fish excoriated leading schools as subversive breeding grounds for communists. Fish named names. Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina, Fish charged in 1935, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.” As I note in my new book, Fish and other anti-communist conservatives in the 1930s assumed that leading colleges had recently been hopelessly lost to left-wing collegiate cabals.

Back in the 1920s, too, religious conservatives warned each other that recent events had caused the loss of mainstream colleges. As I’m digging into in my current research, fundamentalists such as Bob Jones Sr. convinced themselves and anyone who would listen that 1920s trends had moved college into the enemy camp. Too many schools, Jones charged, attacked the faith of conservative students. As Jones put it,

I had just about as lief send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions. We are spending millions of dollars on education in this country, but if that is the kind of education we are going to have we would be better off without our universities and colleges.

In every case, each generation of conservative activist has implied that these lamentable changes were recent occurrences. In every case, conservatives suggest that higher ed “these days” has been taken over by left-wingers. If this is such a long and strong tradition among conservatives, why do they keep insisting it is a recent phenomenon?

And why do conservatives seem so eager to emphasize their own victimhood? I don’t doubt Goldman’s story. I can imagine that some teachers and some schools really do insist on an ideological conformity. But there are plenty of other schools that do not. Why don’t conservatives spend more mental energy trumpeting their own dominance of some forms of higher education?

Recently, for example, conservative academic extraordinaire Robert George praised his school’s new academic-freedom rule. Why don’t more conservative intellectuals join Professor George in proclaiming the continuing academic clout of conservative or conservative-friendly ideas?

Some might think that conservatism only dominates less-prestigious schools. Ms. Goldman, for example, would likely have had a very different experience at a less prominent school of social work. But as the case of Professor George makes clear, leading schools such as Chicago and Princeton have long served as congenial homes for conservative intellectuals.

Instead of tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth due to the supposed loss of higher education, why don’t conservative intellectuals celebrate their continuing influence at many leading colleges?

Persecution, Mozilla, and Gay Rights

Who is the bully? Who is the victim? Is it former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich? Or is it the many LGBT people who might not have equal marriage rights?

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve heard the story by now. Co-founder and former Chief Technology Officer of Mozilla Brendan Eich recently resigned from his new job as Chief Executive Officer. Why? In 2008, he donated $1000 to support California’s Proposition 8. The Proposition would have banned same-sex marriage. His donation caused such a backlash against Mozilla that Eich resigned.

Throughout the furor, Eich made conciliatory noises about the values of diversity and tolerance, but he did not abjure his political beliefs against gay marriage. For many in the tech community, such beliefs are tantamount to bigotry and politicized hatred. To be against gay marriage, for many folks (full disclosure: I include myself in this group), implies a willingness to deny equal legal rights to a category of people. This is the very definition of bigotry. Such a position, pro-gay-marriage activists insist, is akin to denying people the right to marry across the race line.

In short, by opposing gay marriage, Eich defined himself as a bully and a bigot. To oppose gay marriage, many felt, puts Eich and his ilk beyond the pale of civil society.

In the conservative intellectual community, of course, the shoe is on the other foot. Conservatives insist that the bullying is being done by the pro-gay-marriage crowd. How is it “tolerant,” conservatives ask, when successful business leaders are forced to step down strictly because of their political beliefs? The bigots here, conservatives argue, are those who won’t allow a true intellectual or political diversity. The real bullies, conservatives say, are those who won’t allow for any disagreement with their worldview.

As usual, one of the most perspicacious articulations of these positions came recently from Princeton’s Robert George. In the pages of First Thoughts, George argued the case that the victims here were religious folks. Anti-Eich-ism, George asserts, threatens to squeeze religious folks out of the public sphere entirely. As Professor George puts it,

Now that the bullies have Eich’s head as a trophy on their wall, they will put the heat on every other corporation and major employer. They will pressure them to refuse employment to those who decline to conform their views to the new orthodoxy. And you can also bet that it won’t end with same-sex marriage. Next, it will be support for the pro-life cause that will be treated as moral turpitude in the same way that support for marriage is treated. Do you believe in protecting unborn babies from being slain in the womb? Why, then: “You are a misogynist. You are a hater of women. You are a bigot. We can’t have a person like you working for our company.” And there will be other political and moral issues, too, that will be treated as litmus tests for eligibility for employment. The defenestration of Eich by people at Mozilla for dissenting from the new orthodoxy on marriage is just the beginning.

Are conservatives the victims here? Is it legitimate political activism to oppose same-sex marriage? Or is it bigotry and intolerance?

 

Catholics against the Common Core

Don’t do it, a group of Catholic academics advised their bishops recently.  Don’t let Catholic schools follow the new Common Core Learning Standards.

As with everything Catholic, the signatories of this letter were a diverse bunch.

They were led by Notre Dame’s Gerard Bradley and included prominent conservatives such as Anthony Esolen, Robert George, and Patrick Deneen.  Also signing on was Lehigh University’s intelligent-design black sheep, Michael Behe.

Why did this group want to keep the new standards out of Catholic schools?

For one thing, they argued the new focus on nonfiction threatens to water down the rich cultural heritage of Catholic schooling.  “Common Core,” the letter charges,

shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government. . . . Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work.  But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it.

But there is more at stake than just a profound, moral education.  Bradley’s letter worries that future new standards will directly contradict the specifically religious values at the heart of the Catholic faith.  As the letter put it,

In science, the new standards are likely to take for granted, and inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics that is incompatible with the spiritual realities—soul, conceptual thought, values, free choice, God—which Catholic faith presupposes.  We fear, too, that the history standards will promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive anti-religious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.

As Richard Perez-Pena noted in the New York Times, the letter-writers do not represent the entirety of Catholic opinion.  Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director for Catholic education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she viewed the new standards as an opportunity, not a threat.  And Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Chicago’s Catholic schools, agreed that Catholic schools must maintain their high educational standards, but did not see the standards as a problem.

 

 

Do Georgians Hate Gay Kids?

About a week ago, an article in the New York Times drew attention to a report about anti-gay discrimination in tax-funded private schools in Georgia.  Though liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have publicized the findings, responses from conservative America seem more muted.  I wonder if this lack of indignant defenses from conservatives results from the implicit connection between this issue and racial discrimination.

The report from the Southern Education Foundation warned that of the 400+ Georgia private schools that receive tax-funded scholarship money, 115 schools discriminate openly and explicitly against homosexuality.

The report included policy statements from several such schools.  For instance, according to the report, the parent/student handbook at Shiloh Hill Christian School in Kennesaw warned that any student who said, “I am gay,” “I am a homosexual,” or a male saying, “I like boys,” could be expelled.  Another school statement quoted in the report warned,

“In accordance with the Statement of Faith and in recognition of Biblical principles, no ‘immoral act’ or ‘identifying statements’ concerning fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, or pornography, will be tolerated.  Such behavior will constitute grounds for expulsion. . .”

These schools all receive funding from student scholarship organizations (SSOs).  SSOs, active in eleven states, according to the New York Times, allow taxpayers to divert taxes dollar-for-dollar to these scholarship organization.  Instead of paying their money in taxes, in other words, taxpayers can pay for students to attend private schools.

How have conservatives defended the program?  Fairly quietly, it seems to me.  Perhaps my antennae are simply not sensitive enough, but I have not read many endorsements of the Georgia program.  This is surprising, since other school-funding options such as charter schools and school vouchers usually draw vociferous defenses from conservatives.

There have been some arguments in defense of Georgia’s policies.

In a post on First Things’ First Thoughts blog, for example, Joseph Knippenberg made a religious-liberty defense of the Georgia program.  First, Knippenberg argued, taxpayers ought to have control over their tax dollars, to some extent.  Until their money enters the public treasury, it is still private, Knippenberg pointed out.  Therefore, choosing to donate to certain schools must be considered in the same category as choosing to donate to certain churches, or hospitals, or advocacy organizations.

Second, Knippenberg extended this argument to people’s right to practice their religions freely.  “To deny people the opportunity to make a contribution to the faith of their choice,” Knippenberg wrote, “is to deny their religious freedom.”

It seems there are other arguments conservatives could make.  As one commenter on a Christianity Today blurb noted,

“Sexual preference or orientation is not a person. It is not unjust discrimination to discriminate between acts, including sexual acts that respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus acts of authentic Love, and acts, including sexual acts, that do not respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus demeaning.”

These comments from “Kathleen” articulate a deeper possible defense of Georgia’s policies.  Though I personally agree that Georgia’s tax money ought not fund schools that discriminate against homosexual students, let me try to spell out this possible argument a little bit.

Here goes:

The argument against Georgia’s tax-funding scheme implicitly uses the history of racial school discrimination to discredit the current policy of religious school discrimination.  It fudges the difference.  This implied analogy does not hold water.

All schools, all people, all organizations discriminate.  Any school that admits some people and does not admit others discriminates.  In some cases, private schools discriminate openly against people who can’t or won’t pay their tuition.  And this sort of discrimination raises no objections.

The issue, then, is which sorts of discrimination are legitimate.  On the whole, Americans agree that discrimination by race is not legitimate.  Of course, there are plenty of white- and black-supremacist holdouts.  In general, however, in terms of constitutional law and explicit policy practice, America has abjured its white-supremacist past of schools segregated legally by race.

To imply that all school discrimination belongs in the same moral, legal, and Constitutional category as racial discrimination unfairly smears religious dissenters as bigots.

Again, just to ward off misunderstanding, let me be clear: I’m playing devil’s advocate here.  In this case, I personally believe that public money should not fund private schools that discriminate against homosexuality.

But intelligent scholars have pointed out the flaw in the “bigotry” analogy.

In an essay on Public Discourse a few months back, Princeton’s Robert George assailed the tendency to label all forms of discrimination “bigotry.”  Speaking in regard to the definition of marriage, George argued,

“Thus, advocates of redefinition [of marriage] are increasingly open in saying that they do not see these disputes about sex and marriage as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of reason, enlightenment, and equality—those who would ‘expand the circle of inclusion’—on one side, and those of ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination—those who would exclude people out of ‘animus’—on the other. The ‘excluders’ are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists. Of course, we (in the United States, at least) don’t put racists in jail for expressing their opinions—we respect the First Amendment; but we don’t hesitate to stigmatize them and impose various forms of social and even civil disability upon them and their institutions. In the name of ‘marriage equality’ and ‘non-discrimination,’ liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.”

Similarly, Peter Berger noted the increasing tendency of homosexual-rights advocates to frame their arguments as matters of rights.  As Berger wrote in The American Interest,

“At the time [the 1950s] homosexual rights were advocated by a discourse of individual freedom, basically freedom to choose one’s values and way of life. In other words, the discourse was in terms of the first amendment to the US constitution. The discourse now is very different: Homosexuality is not a choice, but a destiny—an individual does not, cannot choose to be gay—one is born gay—and society should acknowledge and respect this congenital fate. I think it is very clear why this change in discourse occurred: If homosexuality is destined not chosen, it is analogous to race—and thus the movement for homosexual rights can wrap itself in the mantle of the Civil Rights movement. Let me reiterate: I have identified all along with the insistence on the rights of homosexuals, and I think I understand the rhetorical logic of the changed discourse. Is it based on good scientific evidence? I don’t know.”

In other words, if conservatives hope to maintain schools—even private schools, even religious schools—that discriminate against homosexual students, it will be imperative for conservatives to reframe this issue.  If Americans see Georgia’s funding of anti-homosexual schools as a fair analogy to public funding of anti-African American schools, the writing is on the wall.  Such racial discrimination no longer musters any public support.

Arguing that this is an issue of religious freedom will not be enough.  Conservatives must do more than just argue that discrimination against certain lifestyle choices is a legitimate part of their religious freedom and expression.  After all, religious freedom has been abridged in the quest for racially desegregated schools.  Conservatives, it seems to me, must do what Professor George advocates: break the intellectual connection between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on other bases.  Only if discrimination against homosexuals is seen as a legitimate option—even by those who do not agree—will religious institutions manage to maintain such policies.

Quantum Physics and the Need for God

Here’s one we missed until Anna Williams of First Things brought it to our attention: Stephen M. Barr, physicist at the University of Delaware, examines the argument that quantum mechanics suggests a reality beyond the material world.

Barr walks readers through the argument that quantum mechanics makes more sense if we include a notion of transcendent mind.  Here is his conclusion:

“The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.

“If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.  It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?”

One of the favorite scientific arguments of many intellectuals in Fundamentalist America is that their faith does not contradict the discoveries of true science.  From evolution to abortion, many conservatives will insist from time to time that science will eventually catch up with their religiously motivated beliefs.  Many, like Robert George recently, note that false science, like that of eugenics, has historically captured the fidelity of mainstream scientists for a time.  George insisted that the arrogance of mainstream science often mistakes its own fashions for abiding truths.  In the 1920s and 1930s, George argued,

“Affluent, sophisticated, “right-minded” people were all on board with the eugenics program. It, too, seemed like a juggernaut. Only those retrograde Catholics, joined by some other backward religious folk, resisted; and the thought was that the back of their resistance would soon be broken by the sheer rationality of the eugenics idea. The eugenicists were certain that their adversaries were on “the wrong side of history.” The full acceptance of eugenics was “inevitable.” But, of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way.”

The false science of eugenics and its temporary dominance among mainstream scientists has also long been a favorite theme of creationists.  For example, as David Dewitt argued on the Answers in Genesis blog, eugenics was simply the “dark side of evolution.”

The long-standing hope of many conservatives is that science will eventually come around.  Outsiders often accuse conservatives, especially creationists, of being anti-science.  But a better term might be “anti-professoriate.”  Many conservatives cling–sometimes with increasing desperation–to the hope that mainstram science will someday recover from the long night of materialism.  Arguments such as Professor Barr’s provide fuel for this long siege.