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?

Why Don’t More College Christians Fight Campus Rape?

The fight against sexual assault on college campuses has cranked into high gear. At least one conservative intellectual is asking where the conservatives are in this fight. We could get even more specific: Where are all the campus Christians? Wouldn’t it make sense for conservative religious folks to lead the charge against drunken fornication?

California attracted attention recently for its new “yes means yes” law. Both (or all) partners in any sexual activity must give continuing and explicit consent to every new advance. Just because someone grinds on the dance floor, the reasoning goes, she or he has not consented to sex. Even the White House has gotten involved, launching a task force to investigate campus rape culture.

Allies in the fight against hook-up culture?

Allies in the fight against hook-up culture?

In this week’s Weekly Standard, Heather Mac Donald wonders why more conservatives aren’t participating in the current campaign against campus rape. As she puts it,

Sexual liberation is having a nervous breakdown on college campuses. Conservatives should be cheering on its collapse; instead they sometimes sound as if they want to administer the victim smelling salts.

She argues that the so-called “epidemic” of campus rape is a figment of the overheated leftist imagination. Yet Mac Donald acknowledges that college leftists have succeeded in their fight to redefine sexuality on many college campuses. They have done so, Mac Donald writes, by unintentionally creating a “bizarre hybrid of liberationist and traditionalist values.”

As we’ve seen, some evangelical groups have found themselves at loggerheads with secular schools. Why don’t they jump on this bandwagon? Could campus evangelical groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship build bridges to campus feminists on this issue?

In the past, we’ve seen efforts in this direction. This same not-coalition of feminists and cultural conservatives has struggled to come together to fight against pornography.

Of course, what seems like an obvious partnership has even more obvious reasons to stay separate. Even when both groups staunchly oppose pornography or fornication, their yawning differences tend to split them apart.

The new batch of anti-rape rules, for example, never suggest that casual sex should be avoided. Rather, the rules imply that pleasurable, consensual sex is a valuable experience.  Schools should improve this experience, not eliminate it. In other words, the new campus affirmative consent rules do not hope to limit fornication, but rather to encourage it by making it safer and more pleasurable for all. As one proponent of affirmative-consent laws put it, “good communication between sexual partners can be fun, even sexy.”

It might make conservative campus Christians a little queasy to become political partners with activists who have this sort of attitude about the proper relationship between sexual partners. But historically, conservative evangelicals have managed to forge political partnerships with other groups they found theologically objectionable.

Perhaps the most dramatic example has been in the fight against abortion rights. As historians such as Daniel Williams have demonstrated, at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, many conservative evangelical Protestants viewed the anti-abortion cause as a peculiarly Catholic issue. Yet over time, the pro-life cause united conservative Protestants with conservative Catholics. Though it may be hard to remember in retrospect, for decades—centuries even—conservative evangelicals viewed the Catholic Church as the embodiment of the Anti-Christ. For evangelicals to team up with Catholics required—for some—an enormous amount of nose-holding.

Couldn’t conservative evangelicals do the same here? They don’t need to agree with the sexual-liberationist ideology that guides many campus activists. Instead, they could partner with feminists to fight campus rape, while maintaining their own very different reasons for doing so.

Vouchers: The Path to the White House

How can a conservative candidate get elected in 2016?

According to a recent story in the Weekly Standard, the conservative path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. may be paved with school reform.

Image Source: Governor Jindal's webpage

Image Source: Governor Jindal’s webpage

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood side by side at a Washington press conference to denounce federal interference in conservative school reform efforts.

In Louisiana, that has meant a Department of Justice crackdown on the state’s aggressive voucher program.  The federal government has warned that Louisiana’s voucher system may violate racial desegregation laws.  For a while now, left-leaning pundits have warned that the voucher scheme swipes public school funding and gives it to conservative religious schools.  Diane Ravitch has concluded that Louisiana’s privatization program will drive a stake through the heart of quality public education.

Such criticisms don’t deter Governor Jindal.  He has insisted that the program represents the best educational hope for low-income students in his state.

Michael Warren of The Weekly Standard suggests vouchers may also represent Governor Jindal’s best hope for higher office.  As Warren notes,

the Obama administration’s attempt to thwart the voucher program has also been a gift for Jindal, who may run for president in 2016. Since the DOJ filed its lawsuit on August 18, Jindal has been campaigning loudly and publicly against the suit and, more broadly, for conservative education reform.

 

 

A Conservative Plea for the Common Core

Don’t throw the conservative baby out with the Common Core bathwater. That’s the plea this morning from two leading conservative intellectuals.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli rally conservative support for the new standards.

As we’ve noted in these pages, all sorts of conservative activists, from Phyllis Schlafly to the Heritage Foundation to the Tea Party, have denounced the centralizing tendencies of the Common Core.

The conservative credentials of Finn and Petrilli are difficult to dispute.  Both have long been leading voices for the movement to introduce market choices into public education and reduce the influence of unions and left-leaning schools of education.  Both have worked in conservative think tanks and conservative political administrations to fight for such measures.

They want conservatives to embrace the Common Core as the best available program to heal public education.  As they argue,

the fact that Obama thinks well of it doesn’t means there’s anything (else) wrong with it. This is understood by the many respected conservatives who back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are only the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, however, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.

Finn and Petrilli offer three specific ways to use the Common Core to best conservative advantage.  Conservatives, they insist,

should maximize the good it can do and minimize its potential harm. Here are three useful steps:

  • Draw a bright line between the standards and the federal government. (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is onto one approach with his proposal to ban any further federal spending related to the Common Core.)

  • Overhaul No Child Left Behind as proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander and House education committee chairman John Kline, in effect rolling back the regulatory regime that has turned results-based school accountability into Uncle Sam’s business. (The tighten-the-screws alternative advanced by Senate Democrats would entangle Washington even further with states’ standards and accountability systems—as well as much more mischief.)

  • Continue to push aggressively in dozens of states for more school choice, both public and private—and allow voucher schools (and maybe charters, too) to opt out of their states’ standards and tests (Common Core or otherwise) if they can present alternatives that are just as rigorous. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece are still tussling over this one!)

Finn and Petrilli base their argument on a conservative vision of the recent history of American education.  As I’ve argued in the pages of Teachers College Record, conservative school reform proposals, no less than progressive ones, depend on their own interpretations of American history.

In this case, Finn and Petrilli remind their fellow conservatives that the fundamental ideas embraced by the Common Core, including elevated academic standards as well as rigorous standardized testing, began as conservative responses to a public education system that had strayed from its true mission. In the 1970s, they recount, control over public education had been seized by well-meaning but short-sighted leftists who emphasized equity at the expense of rigor.  After 1983’s Nation at Risk report, bold conservative reformers such as Ronald Reagan, Lamar Alexander, and William J. Bennett took steps to reverse that curse.

The solutions back then included increased public money for private education as well as ambitious new standards.  To lend heft to such standards, iron-clad standardized tests hoped to limit the ways educational bureaucrats could game the system.

The Common Core, Finn and Petrilli insist, represent an imperfect attempt to impose those higher standards.  In the end, by providing better information about school performance to parents and policy makers, the standards will fuel the conservative drive for greater privatization of public education.

So what is a conservative to do?  According to these scholars, the real conservative choice is to back the Common Core.  As they conclude, conservatives who take time to read the standards themselves “will be impressed by their rigor, thoroughness, solidity, and ambition—even their ‘conservative’ nature.”

 

 

In the News: Fundamentalist Religion and the “Liberal Media?”

Fundamentalist America has long had a somewhat uncertain relationship with mass media.  On one hand, lots of prominent conservatives make their mark by bashing the biases they see in what they call the “liberal media.”  For a recent example, check out William Kristol’s challenge to the New York Times regarding its treatment of Andrew Breitbart.  On the other hand, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the late Andrew Breitbart himself have relied on their mastery of mass media in order to win whatever influence they may have.

Conservative religious folks usually complain the loudest about media bias.  Two years ago, for instance, a comment by Fox News’ Brit Hume that golfer Tiger Woods ought to embrace Christianity evoked a teapot tempest of discussions about the anti-Christian bias in most media outlets.

Thanks to Walter Russell Mead at Via Meadia, we come across a new study by scholars at the University of Southern California and the University of Akron.  This survey suggests that there may be more to conservative religious folks’ complaints than just Fox News sensationalism.  This study surveyed 2000 media consumers and 800 producers.  Some of the findings seem to confirm an anti-religious bias among most journalists.  More precisely, they seem to confirm a NON-religious bias.  Among the reporters, only 20% described themselves as “very knowledgeable” about religion.  Also, the category of white evangelical Protestants was notably underrepresented among the reporters surveyed.  Reporters tended to feel that the most important part of religion was its impact on politics (48.1%), while fewer media consumers (37.0%) saw that as the most important religious topic.  Also, the general public tended to think there was far too much sensationalism in religious coverage (66.5%), as opposed to reporters (29.8%).

The survey broke down media producers into categories including “Focused,” “Frequent,” “Infrequent,” and “Non-producers” of religion coverage.  In terms of religious identity, only a small minority of the reporters surveyed (5.1%) called themselves white evangelical Protestants, compared to 20.8% white Catholic, 34.9% white mainline Protestant, and 12.8% unaffiliated.  This doesn’t match the percentage of the general population.  According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelicals make up just over a quarter of the US population.  If we look a little closer, even among the self-identified white evangelical Protestant reporters, there is a distinct skew toward religious coverage.  White evangelicals made up just over 16% of the “focused” religion reporters, and only 2.1% of the “non-producers.”

What does it all mean?  First of all, as with any such survey, the results mustn’t be overdone.  The fact that a minority of journalists who took part in this survey called themselves “very knowledgeable” about religion doesn’t mean that they are biased against religion, much less against a certain type of religion.  But the fact that white evangelical Protestants are notably underrepresented among this sample suggests that there is a trend among reporters away from evangelical Protestantism.  Especially when the responses are broken out into more detail.  Even among the small minority of evangelical reporters, the percentage of such reporters who are not specifically focused on religious issues shrinks to near-nothingness.  One way to look at this might be to think that evangelicals—when they become journalists at all—tend to restrict themselves to specifically religious issues.  Just as with other minority groups, evangelical reporters might find themselves pigeonholed into just one aspect of their public identity.  In this case, evangelical reporters might be considered to be legitimate only for reporting on religious issues, not for sports, education, politics, or foreign affairs.
Does it mean that the “mainstream media” are unfair to Fundamentalist America?  From this limited evidence, of course, it’s impossible to say for sure.  However, this survey does suggest that reporters tend to look different from the rest of America.  They tend to be less knowledgeable about religious traditions than the rest of America. They tend to be less interested in spirituality than the rest of America.  And they tend to be less often from a white evangelical Protestant background than the rest of America.

As with any sort of bias, it is much easier to be inadvertently biased about groups different from ourselves.  It is even easier to be biased when we know very little about such groups.

Fundamentalist America complains that most reporters don’t “get” them.  This study seems to support that complaint.