Fundamentalist Colleges Have the Last Laugh

In this cartoon from the 1920s, cartoonist E.J. Pace shows the ways the "modernists" took over every institution, including colleges.

In this cartoon from the 1920s, cartoonist E.J. Pace shows the ways the “modernists” took over every institution, including colleges.

What are the best colleges in America?  A trenchant new argument by Ivy-League insider William Deresiewicz suggests that conservative religious folks may yet have their revenge when it comes to higher education.

Since the 1920s, conservative Christians have complained that “their” colleges had been taken over by a secularizing elite.  As I argued in my 1920s book, there was a great deal of truth to these claims.  Elite schools such as Harvard and the University of Chicago really had been founded by conservative Protestants.  Their original missions were explicitly religious.  And, by the 1920s, those schools really had been transformed.  Instead of their traditional goal to train each new generation of “Christian gentlemen,” elite colleges became places where students learned to question religious verities.

As a result, conservative evangelicals faced a difficult situation.  Some schools, such as Wheaton College, allied themselves with the “fundamentalist” side of the growing divide among Protestants.  Most other elite schools, though, moved toward the new vision of higher education.  Some 1920s fundamentalists responded by opening schools of their own, such as Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary.  In my current research, I’m looking at the twentieth-century history of this alternative network of colleges and universities.

Deresiewicz argues that this alternative network of schools does a better job of educating young people than do the mainstream elite schools.  Religious colleges have often avoided the elite trap of ever-increasing expectations and the soul-crushing spiral of success.  At elite mainstream colleges, Deresiewicz writes, students become “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Without the same relentless pressure, religious colleges have remained true to their purpose of encouraging true thoughtfulness and intellectual risk-taking. As he puts it, “Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect.”

Is Deresiewicz right? Do elite colleges turn smart kids into zombies? In some ways, his is not a new argument. Sociologist James Coleman argued in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society that schools did not work the way we thought they did. It was not the most talented students, the brainiest students, who did the best on school tasks. Rather, the nature of the tasks demanded in most high schools led the smartest students to opt out. They focused on success elsewhere, such as sports or social activities. As a result, the best academic records were compiled by a “sub-group” of students who agreed to buy into the school’s irrational demands.

In other words, for generations now, our educational system has encouraged a weird sub-class of hyper-successful students. These students are not turned into zombies in college. Rather, they have been zombies all along. To excel in school—not just college but the whole way through—students have to be bright enough to do well at school tasks but not quite bright enough to realize that school is just a shell game.

If Deresiewicz is correct, religious colleges may have the last laugh. Conservative Christians complained that elite schools had been stolen from them. As a result, they opened their own schools, built their own network of colleges and universities. Getting pushed out of the academic rat race may have been the best thing that ever happened to conservative evangelicals.