I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Racist Simpsons and other stories that came across our desks this week…

The White House Bible study group, at BBC. HT: MC

  • A “high-protein diet” of conservative evangelical Christianity for the Cabinet.

Much Apu about Something: The Simpsons punts on its racial stereotypes, at EW. HT: MM

How much public school can you buy for $25 million? Not as much as this billionaire wanted, at PI. HT: MM.

The “free-speech crisis” is worst at evangelical colleges, says Sarah Jones at NR.

Peter Greene asks: Why are we still giving Big Standardized Tests?

“Teaching for homecoming:” Why Wendell Berry thinks education is dangerous, at Forma.

  • “I know you all are learning a lot of methods about how to teach, and I’ll tell you something: None of them will work.”

Pro-choice “callous and violent,” says Ross Douthat at NYT.

The progressive perfidy of “dialogue:” Rod Dreher at AC.

School Is Life

For one homeless girl in New York City, school is life.  In any case, that’s the story told recently in a New York Times feature article.  “For Dasani,” the story opens,

School is everything—the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting.

In the progressive tradition, as Bill Reese demonstrated so powerfully almost thirty years ago in Power and the Promise of School Reform, this vision of school as social-redistribution center fulfills a long-held and deeply cherished ideal.

But how do conservatives view this use of public schools?

To be sure, in various instances, as I noted in an article several years ago in Church History, conservatives have also taken advantage of the wide reach of public schools.  Conservative evangelicals, for example, have used schools as a convenient distribution network for Bibles and religious tracts.  But in general, conservatives in America have not yearned for redistribution the same ways progressives have.  Schools, many conservatives might agree, must be understood as educational institutions, not welfare agencies.  When public schools try to do too much, some conservatives might argue, they end up doing nothing at all.

When school reform has worked for conservatives, Ross Douthat argued recently, it has been when market-based reforms have made schooling more equitable for low-income and minority students as well as affluent whites.  That sort of concrete reform, Douthat wrote, has been the primary success conservatives have scored in overcoming their legacy as the party of white racism.

But that is not the sort of success trumpeted in the NYT feature.  Those market reforms, the article argues, merely move schooling and public services farther out of the reach of girls like Dasani.

No, the article concludes, for homeless youth like Dasani,

school and life are indistinguishable.  When school goes well, she is whole.  When it goes poorly, she can’t compartmentalize like some students, who simply ‘focus’ on their studies.

According to the New York Times feature, Dasani’s life as a homeless eleven-year-old in glitzy New York City is rough.  She shares a room in a shelter with her entire large family.  They endure infestations of mice, roaches, and sexual predators.  In contrast, Dasani’s classroom is a “cozy haven of book-lined shelves and inspirational words scrawled in chalk.”  At school, Dasani gets attention from a brilliant and caring classroom teacher, as well as a social worker and medical professionals.

For us at ILYBYGTH, this seems like a perfect example of a perennial question at the heart of educational culture wars.  What are schools for?  Ought they provide all the services needed by every child, no matter how extensive those needs might be?  Or should schools limit themselves to a narrower definition of “education,” focusing on academic work and leaving families to provide the rest?

In America’s twentieth century, one’s position on this question often served as a quick-and-easy definition of “progressives” vs. “conservatives.”  Progressives wanted schools to think of education as a whole-life question, meeting children where they were and providing every social service possible to ensure a high-quality education for everyone.  Conservatives, in contrast, have pushed for the elimination of “fads and frills” from public schools.  The government—in school or anywhere else—ought not take primary responsibility for children or anyone else.

In this story, we see one example of the way this long-running disagreement has been won, largely, by the progressive vision.  Dasani’s life is far from easy.  But her ability to secure a range of services through her public school demonstrates the long-run triumph of one central progressive idea.

Private Schools Are Only for Bad People

Send your kids to your local public school.  Even if the school sucks.  Even if it won’t teach your child anything but how to get drunk.  Even if you have better options.

That is the provocative manifesto offered recently by Slate editor Allison Benedikt.

If you follow the latest, you’ve probably seen it by now.  Since I can’t keep up, I didn’t hear about it until this morning, and then only from the heated reaction it sparked among conservative commentators such as Ross Douthat, Erick Erickson, and Rod Dreher.

Benedikt’s diatribe was meant to poke the conservative bear.  She opens with the bear-poking line, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”

Her argument, in a nutshell, is this: only if all parents send their kids to their local public schools will those schools improve.  If you send your kid to a private school, you are hurting everyone for the sake of your own perceived benefit.  Ipso facto, you are a bad person.

She proudly proclaims that she went to crappy schools and turned out okay.  She didn’t learn anything about history, literature, science, or math, but she did get drunk behind the bleachers with kids from different social backgrounds.

In fact, she promises that your children will do fine in bad public schools, if you are the sort of person who cares enough to pull your kids out of public schools.

Predictably, conservatives couldn’t resist such low-hanging ideological fruit.

Rod Dreher proclaimed, “This is one of those things that only a left-wing ideologue can possibly believe.”

Ross Douthat tweeted, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Erick Erickson twisted the knife, declaring that Benedikt only holds this outlandish position because her husband told her to.

But Benedikt’s position, minus the blogosphere-riling rhetoric, is nothing new or strange.  Indeed, for anyone who has studied the history of American education, even at a public school, Benedikt’s call for full enrollment in public education sounds traditional, even boring.

It was Horace Mann, after all, in the years before the Civil War, who midwived our system of public education.  In those years, our notions of “public” and “private” had not yet taken hold.  Parents or sponsors paid out of pocket for most formal education.  Those schools that required no tuition were commonly known as “charity” schools, fit only for the lowest class.

Mann realized that tax-funded education could only work if it received the endorsement, and the children, of the emerging affluent business classes.  This is why he made a powerful two-pronged appeal.  First, Mann argued that tax funds must be used to pay for tuition-free education, an education available to all.  Second, he argued that everyone should send their children to these schools.  These would not be “charity” schools, Mann argued.  They would not be “church” schools, or “dame” schools.  In today’s lingo, he would have insisted that these would not be “government” schools.  Rather, the name Mann promoted was the name Benedikt and other commentators would use for generations, even centuries: Public Schools.

Benedikt’s essay is intentionally provocative.  But its central idea is as old as American public education itself.  Our public schools can only function if they have the full-throated support of the public.  That support, as Mann argued and as Benedikt repeats, will come most easily if everyone sends their children.


2016, Rubio, and the Age of the Earth

Senator Marco Rubio’s comments to a GQ reporter have attracted more than their share of attention lately.  When asked about the age of the earth, Rubio hedged:

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell  you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I  think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of  the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our  economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to  answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple  theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country  where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents  should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says.  Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll  ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

This answer certainly sounds like a dodge from a 2016-conscious politician.  Keenly aware of the thinking among the GOP base, and with an eye to the 2016 presidential primaries, it seems, Rubio carefully gave an answer designed not to offend the sensibilities of young-earth creationists.  Rubio’s language here clearly differentiates him from the true GOP creationist politicians like US Representative Paul Broun.  Good science?  Definitely not.  But is it good politics?

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat offered a politician’s answer that might serve the GOP better in the long run.  Aspiring GOP leaders, Douthat suggested, could respond to gotcha questions in this way:

“I’m not a scientist, but I respect the scientific consensus that says that the earth is — what, something like a few billions of years old, right? I don’t have any trouble reconciling that consensus with my faith. I don’t think the 7 days in Genesis have to be literal 24-hour days. I don’t have strong opinions about the specifics of how to teach these issues — that’s for school boards to decide, and I’m not running for school board — but I think religion and science can be conversation partners, and I think kids can benefit from that conversation.

Douthat makes the excellent point that this is more a crisis of Christianity than of the GOP.  The notion of a young earth has only been used as a litmus test for fundamentalist Protestantism in the last fifty years or so.  For centuries before that, Bible Christians could legitimately disagree about the age of the earth without being accused of backsliding away from true faith.

However, for someone like Rubio with his eyes on the White House, Douthat’s suggestion does not fit.  Politicians don’t win national office by moral or intellectual courage.  They win by offering a recipe of ideological notions that satisfy their constituents.  And these days, like it or lump it, the GOP base has strong feelings in favor of a young earth.