DeVos’ Trump Card

Why, oh why, would anyone think Secretary Betsy DeVos was qualified to serve as leader of the Department of Education?  We see a hint this week from pro-DeVos protesters in Maryland.  Secretary DeVos is tapping into the most powerful impulse in American schooling.  Schools have always promised first and foremost to do something more important than readin, writin, and rithmatic, and DeVos gets it.

First, the background: Secretary DeVos teamed up with friendly GOP Governor Larry Hogan to visit a Bethesda elementary school.  They planned to read some Dr. Seuss to compliant little kids.

Recent Trump politics, however, turned the visit into a forum about Trump’s immigration policies.  As Politico reports, Governor Hogan attracted anti-Trump ire by insisting he would veto a school sanctuary bill for undocumented students.  Protesters blasted DeVos and Hogan for targeting immigrants.

Trump’s team, though, shifted the discussion to America’s primal fear about schooling.  Why should undocumented immigrants be rooted out of American schools?  Spokesperson Sean Spicer focused on the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl at a Maryland high school.  Her alleged attackers were in the country illegally, Spicer explained.

Secretary DeVos didn’t miss a beat.  Before she ventured out to visit another school, DeVos offered a public statement.  She didn’t talk about Dr. Seuss or the Common Core.  She didn’t talk about school vouchers or charter schools.  Instead, she talked about rape:

As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of this terrible crime.  We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.

At least some of the Bethesda protesters thought DeVos hit the nail on the head.  While most of the signs protested against DeVos’s policies, at least two of the protesters agreed with her.  One sign read, “Protect Children in Our Schools.”  Another said, “Thanks Betsy.”

pro devos protesters

Safety First. Photo by Sonya Burke

For those Bethesda supporters and for DeVos fans across the nation, the most important job of schools is not teaching kids to read or to share.  Rather, the most important thing a school needs to do is keep children safe.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, no matter what the issue, conservatives were able to win when they built their arguments about children’s safety.  Because no one, of course, wants to put kids in danger.  So when anti-evolution protesters wanted to ban evolution, they compared evolution to poison.  When sex-ed protesters wanted to ban sex-ed, they compared sex-ed to rape.

Over and over again, protesters focused on safety.  And conservatives aren’t the only ones who win with this strategy.  These days, leftist college students and their faculty allies have scored terrific success in a seemingly quixotic campaign to ban controversial speakers from their campuses.  Pundits and professors have often been flabbergasted at the ways college administrators cave to such censorship.

Why is it so easy for protesters to ban ideas?  Because they appeal to administrators’ prime directive: Keeping students safe.  Listen to the odd apology given by Yale’s administration in the wake of the Christakis costume controversy.  Instead of talking about the politics of Halloween costumes, Dean Jonathan Halloway told student protesters,

Remember that Yale belongs to all of you, and you all deserve the right to enjoy the good of this place, without worry, without threats, and without intimidation.

First and foremost, no matter what the issue, safety wins.  As always, The Simpsons said it best.  In any discussion about schools or public policy, Helen Lovejoy could be counted on to wail, “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?”  It didn’t have to be relevant.  It didn’t have to be helpful.  But Helen would always belt it out, because she knew she could never lose by harping on the safety of the children.

It’s funny because it’s true.  And Secretary DeVos knows it.  We can argue about vouchers and charters.  We can hem and haw about religion in public schools.  But no one—NO ONE—will ever win a political fight in these United States by saying that schools can be risky places for kids.

Fundamentalist U: The Original “Safe Space”

It’s not a new idea. In spite of what journalists and pundits might suggest, today’s push on college campuses for “safe spaces” has a century-long tradition. The schools I’m studying these days—conservative evangelical colleges, universities, and Bible institutes—have always promised to provide “safe spaces” for young people.

We’ve talked before about the ways the recent spate of college protests might best be understood as an “impulse to orthodoxy.” Sometimes the ferocity of student protests seems woefully out of proportion to the alleged offenses at elite schools such as Yale and Claremont McKenna College.

At Yale, for example, two faculty members were berated and hounded for their suggestions that some Halloween costumes might be acceptably offensive. And at Claremont McKenna, a top administrator was driven out for her worry that non-white students might have a legitimate reason to feel unwelcome on her campus.

BJU BALMER

You’ll be safe here…

The moral outrage of students, however, makes perfect sense as a defense of a moral orthodoxy. As with any orthodoxy, deviation is not just disagreement. Orthodox thinking raises seemingly mild disagreement into existential threats. Those who veer in the smallest degree from orthodoxy must not only be ostracized. Their heterodox notions must be denounced in the most ferocious terms in order to emphasize one’s own continued loyalty.

Seen in terms of orthodoxy, talk of “safe spaces” makes perfect sense. In the orthodox mindset, challenging ideas raise the specter of unacceptable deviation. Young people must be protected from threatening ideas until they are well-enough schooled in orthodoxy to protect themselves.

Today’s protesters might not like the company, but the network of Protestant fundamentalist schools that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s made such “safe spaces” its raison d’etre.

In the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago told parents to send their fundamentalist children to his “safe space” for two years of Bible training before they went on to a traditional four-year college. Why? In his words,

It renders [a student] immune to the evolution and modernistic germs, while it enables him to examine them in the light of the Christian revelation as he could not have done before.

A few years later, school founder and evangelist extraordinaire Bob Jones promised parents a new sort of college, one that would offer a totalized “safe space.” In the June, 1928 edition of Bob Jones Magazine, Jones promised,

If you fathers and mothers who read this magazine have children to educate, and you wish them to attend a school which will protect their spiritual life, send them to the Bob Jones College. The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

This tradition of fundamentalist “safe spaces” continues today. As young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham argued last year in response to my questions,

We are burdened to help parents choose a college wisely that does not put stumbling blocks in their children’s way that could lead them to doubt and ultimately disbelieve the Scriptures.

If some ideas are indeed sacred, then young people do indeed need “safe spaces” in order to preserve their impulse to orthodoxy. For fundamentalists, it was easy to declare their schools “safe spaces,” since they wanted explicitly to protect young people from certain heterodox ideas.

It is much harder, of course, for non-fundamentalists to make the same point. Students who want “safe spaces” without acknowledging their impulse to orthodoxy don’t have the same explicit rationale. They want the results of fundamentalist higher education without being able to acknowledge their desire for it.