Take the Terrible Schools Challenge

This week, I’m asking graduate students to consider a tough question: Are America’s public schools terrible? For our seminar, I asked them to read arguments from a bunch of smart people who say that it is, for different reasons. It leads us to our ILYBYGTH challenge of the week: Can you find a pundit these days who DOESN’T think schools are a mess?

For class, we read snippets from Paolo Freire, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and Terry Moe and John Chubb. They don’t agree on much, but they all started from the premise that most schools are horrible.

For Freire, the big problem was that schools tend to recreate the social hierarchies of an oppressive society. Even well-meaning teachers tend to see school as, at best, a way to help students get ahead in an inherently unfair society.

For Hirsch, the problem was Freire. Well-meaning progressives, Hirsch argues, think that teachers need to liberate students from learning. Balderdash, Hirsch argues. If we really want to make a more egalitarian society, we need schools to pour information into students more efficiently. We can’t afford to have teachers who try not to “bank” information into students.

For Moe & Chubb, the problems are rooted in stultifying tradition and self-seeking politics. Too many schools keep repeating mistakes of generations past, locked into inefficient and unfair structures because of the political power of entrenched organizations such as teachers’ unions.

Three very different visions of how to make schools better, but all with a strong agreement that schools today are terrible. We know that most Americans tend to have a skewed vision about school quality. According to Gallup, people think their kids’ schools are great, their local schools are fine, but the nation’s schools are abysmal.public view of public schools gallup

Why is that? Why do so many of us assume without thinking about it that public schools are terrible, when the local schools that we see every day are great?

Could it be because every pundit begins with the assumption that public schools are, at best, a cruel joke? Like Freire, Hirsch, Moe, and Chubb, writers about education tend to start with dire alarms. Whether you read the retreat-and-regroup plans of neo-Benedictine Rod Dreher, the subway fare of the “failure factory” headlines in the NY Daily Post, or the neo-progressive hand-wringing of Diane Ravitch, you could be excused for assuming that we must be in the midst of an alarming educational crisis.

Whatever their politics, most pundits start from the assumption that schools are terrible. So here’s our challenge: Can you find news headlines that disagree? Can you find stories out there about successful schools and wonderful teachers?

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Believe it or not, Labor Day is already here. Time to put away those white shoes, fellows. It has been a hectic last week of summer here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few stories of interest that you may have missed:

Are some cultures better than others?

Love means never having to say you’re sorry: Trump pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

At The Gospel Coalition, an open letter from Christian scholars denouncing racism.

Are white evangelicals more racist than Christian?

The problem with “privilege.” Jeffrey K. Mann wants us to look beyond race and gender.

What happened to all the Christian bookstores?

Yes, you read it correctly: Reese Witherspoon will be playing the role of a defector from the “God-Hates-Fags” Westboro Baptist Church.

Where are all the sinister atheists who are trying to undermine Christian America? The Trollingers couldn’t find them at the American Atheists Convention, from Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Family sues NYC schools over their son’s “gender expansive” preference for dresses. The school accused the parents of sexual abuse.

Vouchers and stealth vouchers: The Progressive offers a guide to the wild and woolly world of public-school funding options.

What should conservative evangelicals think about gender and sexuality?

Only in New York: A Brooklyn school principal accused of recruiting her students into the communist movement.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading: Charlottesville Edition

We’re still reeling from the events in Charlottesville. Here are some related stories that caught our eye:

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

There’s no more pretending, at least not way up here in upstate New York. The leaves are turning, the back-to-school sales are already over, and city folks are bringing their kids up here to start their semesters…the evidence is in: Fall is just around the corner. Here are some stories you might have missed as you scramble to store up acorns for winter:

Our ILYBYGTH story-of-the-week: Google fires an engineer for questioning diversity policy.

Other stories that floated by our raft this week:

Want to try Christian theocracy? Ari Feldman wonders if you can do it with a quick trip to Texas.

Trump’s “court evangelicals” ask the Vatican for a meet. Why can’t they all get along?

How did climate-change denialism become an evangelical belief? Check out Brendan O’Connor’s piece in Splinter. HT: DL

How did one evangelical purist hope to save the Religious Right from its deal with the GOP devil? Daniel Silliman explains the history at Religion & Politics.

Captain America, meet POTUS Shield: Prophetic Order of the United States. Pentecostal leaders declare Trump “anointed by God,” an interview at Religion Dispatches with Peter Montgomery.

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Charismatics take action…

Parents win a big settlement from a Minnesota charter school. They had sued because the school did not do enough to protect their transgender six-year-old. The school promised to force all families to go along with its new inclusive policies, even if the parents have religious objections.

Forget evolution, religion, or any of that noise. The real problem wrecking public education is the forty-year old boondoggle of special education. At least, that’s Stephen Beale’s argument at American Conservative.

Worried about Florida’s new textbook opt-out law? Relax, says historian Jonathan Zimmerman—it’s a good thing.

Do YOU Hate Science?

We all know the stereotypes: Conservatives love God and hate science, vice versa for progressives. But it’s utterly untrue, and every once in a while we see new evidence to prove it. These days, the frouforale over James Damore’s gender/diversity manifesto at Google has us asking the question again: Who hates science?

We’ll get to Damore’s story in a minute, but first, a necessary reminder. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing this, but I’m not interested in attacking or defending Damore. If I have to pick a side, I’ll generally stick with my progressive roots. Luckily, I don’t have to pick a side, so today I’ll bring up more interesting questions. I’m working these days on a new book about American creationism. One of the vital points to understanding creationism, especially the radical young-earth variant, is that creationists are not anti-science. Creationists LOVE science.

As anthropologist Chris Toumey puts it in his terrific and under-appreciated book God’s Own Scientists, radical creationists are just like the rest of America. They don’t dispute the authority of capital-s Science. In Toumey’s words, radical creationists have deep faith in the

plenary authority of science; that is, the idea that something is more valuable and more credible when it is believed that science endorses it.

For radical creationists, the problem isn’t science. The problem, rather, is that benighted false scientists have hijacked science and replaced it with ideologically driven materialism.

Of course, to the rest of us, creationists’ preference for their own bizarre “zombie science” makes their claims to love science hardly credible. To the rest of us, radical creationists seem to insist on their own outlandish scientific beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence from real science.

Are Damore’s opponents guilty of the same thing?

If you haven’t followed the story, Damore was a Google engineer who was fired for a leaked ten-page memo. In the memo, Damore opined that Google’s diversity policy was deeply flawed. The goal of hiring equal numbers of male and female engineers, Damore wrote, didn’t match reality. In fact, Damore wrote, there are biological differences between men and women that make men—as a statistical group—more interested in engineering.

Like Larry Summers before him, Damore was fired and vilified for his words. And like ex-president Summers, Damore insisted he was only citing scientific data.

At least one scientist agrees with Damore. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Debra Soh argues that

the memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.

I’m no scientist, of gender or anything else. But conservative pundits have latched onto Soh’s comments to howl that progressives are just as blind to real science as are radical religious folks. As Benedictine pundit Rod Dreher frothed wordily,

Gender non-essentialists are the young earth creationists of the Left.

Maybe, maybe not. But in one thing, at least, Dreher is exactly right. Just like young-earth creationists, the anti-Damorists insist they have real science on their side. When it comes to culture-war issues—whether it’s the nature of gender or the origin of our species—everyone insists they are the side of true science.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Bible studies in the Trump White House, cultural surrender at evangelical colleges, firing professors for threatening the President…it has been quite a week. Here are some of the stories you might have missed:

Watch out, conservatives. Carl Trueman predicts that their “cultural Waterloo” will take place on the campuses of conservative evangelical colleges.

Why don’t college presidents say they’re sorry? Rick Seltzer looks at the politics of higher-ed apologies at Inside Higher Ed.

You’re fired. Professor who said Trump should be shot loses his job at Montclair State.

New York Times: The Vatican condemns Trumpism and the right-wing Catholics who support it.Bart reading bible

More from NYT: The Trump Justice Department plans to attack affirmative-action programs in higher ed, policies “deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”

Is it really the “most evangelical cabinet in history”? Pastor claims plenty of Trump’s cabinet members attend weekly White House Bible study. And that VP Pence dresses nice.

(Why) Are there so few conservative university professors? According to Damon Linker at The Week, it’s not what you think.

The Big Ten: Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit offers a culture-war history of Ten Commandments monuments.

Arizona update: Still battling over Latinx-studies classes in public schools.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

You might have been out fishin’, but the interwebs kept foaming over. Here are some stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed:

From the University of Colorado, Boulder’s latest token conservative scholar reflects on his experience.

Trump, Bannon, Conway: Historian Andrew Wehrman says they would be right at home with America’s Founding Fathers.

Cut it out: Tom Englehardt argues in The Nation that progressives should stop insulting Trump.

Atheists strike back, ninety-two years later. Freedom from Religion Foundation sponsors a statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee.

We know Republicans don’t like colleges these days.

Who gets to define “hate?” American Conservative Rod Dreher tees off on the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Bart reading bibleIf Americans really do oppose school segregation—as they tell pollsters they do—then why are schools getting more and more segregated? In The Nation, Perpetual Baffour makes the case that class prejudice has supplanted racial prejudice.

Harvard considers banning fraternities and sororities. It hopes to diminish exclusionary, inegalitarian arrangements.

  • At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf asks, “is there any American institution that trades on unapologetic exclusion and perpetuates inegalitarian arrangements that benefit an in-group more than Harvard?”

Why does the Trinity Lutheran decision matter? Not because of playgrounds, but because of vouchers.

Don’t do it: Medievalist argues against luring college students into medieval studies with Game of Thrones references.

Queen Betsy’s civil-rights deputy apologizes for saying that 90% of campus rape accusations were due to regret over drunken hook-ups.

The segregationist history of school vouchers.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene on the ignored dilemmas of rural schools.

Why bother killing the Department of Education? It has already been dying on its own for the past thirty years.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As we Americans get ready to celebrate our nation’s heritage by blowing up some small portion of it, here are a few stories you might have missed:

A new plea for an old idea: Nobel laureate explains how to improve science education in colleges.

SCOTUS decides in favor of religious schools. Government can be forced to include churches in grant-funding schemes. Blaine Amendments are out.

What could a religious conservative dislike about “worldview” education? Rod Dreher thinks it misses the point of true education.

How can we encourage career-changers without allowed untrained teachers? Curmudgucrat Peter Greene makes his case for high-quality alternative teacher certification.Bart reading bible

Historian Daniel K. Williams explains the “Democrats’ religion problem” in the NYT.

Amy Harmon follows up on her story about teaching climate change. What are real teachers doing?

Historian John Fea blasts the “Christian Nation” rhetoric of Trump’s “Court evangelicals.”

Do “evangelicals” oppose same-sex marriage? Or only old evangelicals? In WaPo, Sarah Pulliam Bailey looks at new survey results.

What does it mean to learn something? Daniel Willingham wrestles with a definition.

Who is protesting on campuses? It’s not “liberals,” Jacques Berlinblau argues.

Peter Berger, RIP. D. Michael Lindsay eulogizes Berger’s influence among evangelical academics.

Forget Benedict, It’s the DeVos Option

You’ve heard it by now: Rod Dreher is pushing a “Benedict Option” for religious conservatives. He wants the good people of America to pull back from mainstream society into purer enclaves. When it comes to our long-simmering creation/evolution debates, that sort of BO has never really been necessary. And Trump’s latest executive order makes it even less so. Why would creationists retreat when they’ve already won?

berkman plutzer REAL chart

Traditional schools, traditional teachers, traditional “science”

In case you haven’t seen it yet, President Trump has continued his charm offensive with America’s conservatives. In his latest executive order, he has promised conservatives something they have long yearned for: greater local control of public education. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos will conduct a 300-day study into the issue. She is charged to find ways to limit the influence of the federal government in local schools.

As DeVos crowed, this order gives her

a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached. . . . And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.

Obviously, there are enough dog-whistles in there to win an Iditarod. Conservative activists have long yearned to shackle the federal education bureaucracy. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, since the 1930s conservatives have looked askance at federal control of local schools. Time and time again, distant experts have advocated more racial integration, more evolution, and more multiculturalism in K-12 schools. Time and time again, state and local officials have pushed back, fighting for more religion, more segregation, and more traditionalism.

In the specific case of evolution and creationism, creationists have always worried that outside control meant more evolution. Back in the 1920s, for example, anti-evolution leader William Jennings Bryan railed endlessly about the infamous influence of outside “oligarchs” on local schools. The local hand that wrote the paycheck, Bryan insisted, must rule the schools.

Bryan wasn’t alone. In North Carolina, anti-evolution activists blasted their university president for pushing evolution into their flagship public state university. President Harry Chase, they charged, was nothing but a “damn Yankee,” messing up local schools by importing “modernists, Darwinian apologists, and Northerners.”

In the case of evolution education, though, creationists have always had the last laugh. Yes, conservatives have worried about the influence of outside experts. But in most schools, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, local values dominate. Local attitudes were the most important factor, they found, in determining how much creationism was taught in public school science classes. As they put it,

Traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture (pp. 199-200).

In communities that favor creationism, teachers teach it. In communities that are on the fence, teachers mumble about it.

So why would creationists ever want to retreat to Benedictine purity? They have already won. And, as Secretary DeVos promises even greater local control, creationists have even more cause to celebrate. As young-earth activist Jay Hall put it recently, “we support the efforts of the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice.”

More choice plus more local control equals more creationism.

So, though there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to head for the hills, evolution education ain’t one of em. Local schools have always allowed local creationists to dictate the goings-on in most science classes.

And Secretary DeVos’ new local imperative seems destined to only make local creationist control stronger.

A False “Idol?”

I admit it. I’ve never watched it. But bajillions of Americans have loved American Idol for the past fourteen years. It has been one of the most influential TV programs in our recent past. And it has proven particularly friendly to conservative evangelical Protestant singers. To this reporter, the life and death of American Idol seems to typify the paradox at the heart of American religious culture. Is America sexier and more secular now than it has ever been? Yes. And is America dominated now by fiercely traditional evangelical Protestantism? Also yes!

adam lambert

Would Adam Lambert have made it on the Ed Sullivan Show?

The face of conservative Christianity has changed a lot in the past century, but one thing has remained constant: Christian thinkers and pundits have consistently lamented the supposed fact that America has just kicked God out of its public life. As I’ve argued in academic publications here and there, evangelical Protestants, especially, have continually lamented the fact that their generation—whether that was the 1920s generation or the 1960s one—has witnessed the final prophesized turn of America away from its Christian roots.

There is no doubt that mainstream American culture has changed over time. Mainstream America was ferociously, even murderously hostile to homosexuals as recently as the 1950s. Public norms of dress and behavior have certainly loosened up in the past century. And public pronouncements have shed over time much of their explicitly Christian language. Some of them, at least.

Even granting all those major changes, it still seems remarkable to me that smart conservatives still lament the “loss” of America. Crunchy thinkers such as Rod Dreher call for conservative retreat, for a “Benedict Option.” And conservatives of all sorts recently howled over a perceived “War on Christmas.”

In each case, conservative Christians have insisted that the last straw had finally been laid, that American culture had finally transformed from a city on a hill to Babylon.

Now, it’s not my place to tell conservative Christians or anyone what to think. Anyone who reads their history, though, can’t help but be struck by the complicated truth. There has never been a single event or Supreme Court decision that finally kicked God out of the public square, but there has always been an outcry among conservatives that they were witnessing precisely such an event.

Today’s news about American Idol serves as a good illustration of this weird legacy. On one hand, we can see in the blockbuster show just how much America has changed. The stars wear intoxicatingly low-cut dresses. There is no defense of old-fashioned gender or racial hierarchies. Famous contestants such as Adam Lambert have been proudly gay. None of this would have happened on a TV show from the 1950s.

On the other hand, as the Christian Post reported recently, the show has also launched the careers of some of today’s top evangelical Christian performers. Singers such as Mandisa, Colton Dixon, Jeremy Rosado, and Danny Gokey all got their starts on the show.

Now, I admit it proudly: I have no idea who any of those people are. According to the Christian Post, however, they seem to have made a splash in the world of Christian pop music.

We might say, then, that as American Idol goes, so go America’s idols. The show is certainly not explicitly Christian or even religious. Its norms for dress, language, and behavior would certainly shock mainstream Americans from the 1920s or 1950s. Yet among all the hedonism, anything-goes morality, and sexiness, conservative Christianity still claims an enormous place.