Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.

Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

Fundamentalist Parents Can’t Relax

Rich parents can relax.  At least according to an article in this week’s Economist.  But fundamentalist parents never can.  They have to worry about more than their kids’ careers.  They have to fret about eternal damnation.  And they have to worry that Satan lurks in every textbook, every TV show, and every mainstream school.

The Economist article is worth reading in its entirety.  As it explains,

Well-to-do parents fear two things: that their children will die in a freak accident, and that they will not get into Harvard.

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven...

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven…

Both fears lead to exaggerated and ultimately counterproductive lifestyles.  In terms of safety, the article notes, an American child under five years of age in 1950 was five times as likely to die of disease or accident as that same kid would be today.  And though it is difficult to get into Harvard, most kids of affluent families will have fine careers without an Ivy-League transcript.

But fundamentalist parents have more to worry about.  Since the birth of American fundamentalism in the 1920s, conservative evangelicals have fretted about the influence of mainstream culture on their offspring.  Even if their kids don’t get polio, and even if their kids do get into Harvard, fundamentalist parents have to worry that success in life will lead to terrible punishment after death.  For fundamentalists, even Harvard itself can be more of a threat than an achievement.

As historian Randall Balmer put it in his blockbuster book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,

the greatest fear that haunts evangelical parents is that their children will not follow in their footsteps, that they will not sustain the same level of piety as their parents—stated baldly, that they are headed for hell rather than heaven.

As I argued in my 1920s book, historically this fear for the children has fueled fundamentalism’s public campaigns.  Fundamentalist leaders and parents worried that no level of affluence and economic privilege could protect their children from a culture sliding nonchalantly straight to hell.

As conservative leader William Jennings Bryan explained in 1922, even the rich and powerful had lost the ability to protect the faith of their children.  As a former Secretary of State, Bryan knew many of these families personally.  He wrote about one acquaintance, a US Congressman, whose daughter came home from college only to tell the family that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”

It was not only conservative Congressmen who worried.  Fundamentalist evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell the story of a less powerful family who had a similar experience.  This family, Jones explained in one of his most popular 1920s sermons, scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her mother and father.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her. It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Even when fundamentalist families did not experience that sort of cataclysm, we must keep their anxiety in mind when we try to understand fundamentalism from the outside.  Why do conservative evangelicals fight against evolution?  Why do they insist on school prayer?  Why do they worry about rights for homosexuals?

In all these cases, conservative evangelicals’ public activism is made more desperate by their intense worry about their children.  In this, there is no difference between conservative evangelicals and mainstream Americans of any background.  As the Economist article points out, almost all parents love their children and make sacrifices for them.  In the case of mainstream affluent parents, it might even help if they relaxed a little bit.  As Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues,

Middle-class parents should relax a bit, cancel a violin class or two and let their kids play outside.

Easy enough.  But fundamentalists face a very different situation.  If we want to understand the mind of fundamentalists, we can try a mental experiment.  Non-fundamentalist parents have a hard enough time relaxing about their kids, even though they feel at home in mainstream culture.  Non-fundamentalist parents fret too much about their kids’ futures, even if they don’t feel alienated by their local public schools and elite universities.

Let’s try to translate the anxiety experienced by fundamentalist parents into mainstream terms.  Imagine, for example, the sorts of public outcry there would be if public schools began promoting ideas or practices that affluent secular parents found dangerous.  For instance, what do you think would happen if a public school somewhere began promoting smoking as a fun and healthy activity?

 

The Left Seizes Science

You’ve heard the howls from creationists over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos series.  But did you know non-creationist conservatives also get cheeved at Tyson’s science punditry?

Science Snob?

Science Snob?

The creationist complaints make sense.  The hugely popular new science series pointedly called out young-earthers for their belief in a newish universe.  The series also insisted on the creation of species through evolution.

But the complaints of non-creationist conservatives might not seem so obvious.  In the pages of National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke took Tyson to task for his leftism, not just for his love of evolution.  Cooke accuses Tyson and others of his ilk of a puffed-up condescension, of glibly associating liberal politics with superior intellect.

Too many of these self-righteous faux-nerds, Cooke writes, wrap their insouciance in the mantle of science.  For these Tyson fans and wanna-bes, being smart does not mean doing actual intellectual work, but rather simply adopting a pre-packaged list of things to dislike.  As Cooke puts it, that list includes anything

southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.

This sort of prejudice against anything recognizably conservative likes to call itself the side of “science,” Cooke argues.  Yet among progressives, real science often takes a beating.  “Progressives . . . ,” Cooke says,

believe all sorts of unscientific things — that Medicaid, the VA, and Head Start work; that school choice does not; that abortion carries with it few important medical questions; that GM crops make the world worse; that one can attribute every hurricane, wildfire, and heat wave to “climate change”; that it’s feasible that renewable energy will take over from fossil fuels anytime soon . . .

Yet in spite of this demonstrably unscientific attitude, Cooke laments, the Left insists on calling itself the “reality-based” party.

Cooke is not the first to complain about such things.  In the first generation of creation/evolution controversies, anti-evolution activists worked hard—and failed—to claim “science” for their side.  As I noted in my 1920s book, leading anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan maintained his membership in the staunchly pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He refused to allow that leading science group to be wholly taken over by fans of evolution.

Similarly, prominent 1920s fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley fought hard to keep his generation of Neil deGrasse Tysons from pushing conservatives out of the world of science.  As Riley put it in a 1927 speech, the creation/evolution debate was not a debate between

Experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other.  This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.

Like Bryan in the 1920s and Cooke in 2014, the conservative Riley was loath to cede the scientific and intellectual high ground to evolution-lovers.

One of the results of that first decade of evolution controversies was the formation of durable cultural associations, the associations about which Cooke complains.  Since the 1920s, “science” has become indelibly associated in the public mind with progress, with social experiment, with iconoclasm.  Politically, if not logically, all of those things are part of the broad package of cultural leftism.  And, like it or not, conservatism has been associated time and again with obstructionism and heedless obscurantism.

For conservative pundits like Cooke, trying to fight that tradition will be an uphill battle.

 

 

Creationist Credentials and the Toilet-Paper Doctorate

What does it take for a creationist to earn a PhD?  As arch-anti-creationist Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, not a whole lot.  Coyne looked at the embarrassingly weak doctoral work of young-earth creationist Kent Hovind.  This sham dissertation leads us to ask again about the paradoxical relationship between creationism and credentials.

patriot bible university

Hovind’s Alma Mater

It does not take a creationist-hater like Professor Coyne to find big problems with Hovind’s doctoral work.  Hovind cranked out a hundred awkward pages of claptrap about creationism under the auspices of Patriot Bible University of Del Norte, Colorado.

Intelligent creationists might cringe at this sort of hucksterism, with good reason.  It allows even the most accomplished creationists, such as Harvard-educated Kurt Wise, to be lumped together with this sort of snake-oil academic flim-flam.

Throughout the history of the creation/evolution debates, creationists have struggled to prove their intellectual bona fides.  It hasn’t been easy.  For the first generation of modern anti-evolutionists, it came as a surprise to find that their ideas no longer held sway at leading research universities and intellectual institutions.

As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education demonstrated recently, this 1920s revelation led anti-evolutionists to scramble for certifiable creationist experts.  The most famous anti-evolutionist of the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, groped awkwardly among scientists to find some who opposed “Darwinism.”

Bryan wasn’t alone.  As I note in my 1920s book, all the anti-evolution activists of the 1920s were obsessed with demonstrating that creationism[*] had expert support.  T.T. Martin, for example, who attracted attention with his eye-catching booth at the 1920s Scopes monkey trial, listed his expert supporters relentlessly.  In his book Hell and the High School, 67 out of 175 pages consisted of nothing more than lists of anti-evolution experts and their backgrounds.

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Another anti-evolution activist from the 1920s showed similar determination.  On a typical page of Alfred Fairhurst’s Atheism in Our Universities, Fairhurst included only 23 original words.  The remaining 107 consisted of quotes from “leading writers on evolution.”

Writing in 1922, Arthur Brown used the same tactic.  He piled up impressive-sounding lists of experts and scientists who disputed evolution.  Why should readers accept evolution, Brown asked, when it had been discarded by the likes of

world-renowned men like Virchow of Berlin, Dawson of Montreal, Etheridge of the British Museum, Groette of Strassburg University, Paulson of Berlin, Clerk Maxwell, Dana, Naegeli, Holliker, Wagner, Snell, Tovel, Bunge the physiological chemist, Brown, Hofman, and Askernazy, botanists, Oswald Heer, the geologist, Carl Ernst von Baer, the eminent zoologist and anthropologist, Du Bois Reymond, Stuckenburg and Zockler, and a host of others. . . .  It seems to be a fact that NO opinion from whatever source, no matter how weighty or learned, is of any account with those who are consumed with the determination to reject the Bible at any cost, and shut God out of His universe.

As I traced in my 1920s book, following the work of historian Ron Numbers, this impressive-sounding list did not really make the point Brown hoped it would.  The names he listed came from earlier generations or from scientists who agreed with evolution’s broad outlines but disagreed on details.  But Brown, like Bryan, Martin, Fairhurst, and virtually all other creationist activists felt compelled to establish the academic credentials of anti-evolutionists.

Hovind’s case reminds us of this peculiar conundrum of credentials among creationists.  One does not have to be an evolutionary bulldog like Professor Coyne to find Hovind’s academic pretensions silly and reprehensible.  Hovind’s work certainly gives skeptics such as Professor Coyne an easy route of attack.

For those of us who don’t care to attack or defend creationism, though, Hovind’s doctoral ouvre offers different lessons.  Once a dissenting group has been turned away from mainstream institutions, credentials become both more precious and easier to attain.  At least since the 1920s, that is, anti-evolutionists have scrambled to find expert backing for their beliefs.  But once creationism had been kicked out of elite research universities, it became far easier for creationists to claim credit for academic work at bogus universities.  If universities themselves are suspect, in other words, the ridiculousness of diploma mills like the Patriot Bible University becomes less damning.

[*] The term “creationism” is an anachronism here.  Anti-evolutionists in the 1920s did not call their beliefs “creationism” yet.  But I’ll use it just to keep things readable.

What Would Bryan Do?

H/t KT

Would William Jennings Bryan support the recent move by the president of Bryan College?  That’s the question Bryan’s great-grandchildren are asking these days.

As we’ve reported, Bryan College’s leadership has imposed a new, stricter faculty policy.  From now on, faculty must believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical persons and the real, genetic origins of all subsequent humanity.  As science pundit Jerry Coyne has pointed out, that puts evangelical scientists in a pickle, since genetic evidence indicates that the smallest possible pool of original humans had to be at least 2,250 people.  Bryan College is home to science-curriculum innovators Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner, who hope to show evangelical students that evolution does not necessarily disprove their Biblical faith.

What would the original Bryan say about all this?  The college, after all, was founded as a memorial to Bryan’s last decade of work defending the centrality of Biblical wisdom in American life and politics.  As I argued in my 1920s book, though, Bryan himself held some beliefs about both the beginnings and the end of time that have made other conservative evangelical Protestants uncomfortable.  Bryan did not believe in a young earth, nor in a literal six-day creation.  Nor did Bryan think Jesus had to come back before the earth experienced its promised thousand-year reign of peace and justice.

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Other historians, too, have noted Bryan’s complicated relationship with the fundamentalist movement in its first decade, the 1920s.  Lawrence Levine’s Defender of the Faith and, more recently, Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero both get into the gritty details of Bryan’s anti-evolution crusade.

Historians might disagree, but we all will get nervous about trying to predict what Bryan would say about today’s dust-up at Bryan College.  Because Bryan’s ideology and theology remain necessarily part of his life between 1915 and 1925.  It is mostly meaningless to ask what he would say today, because the situation today is so wildly different from what it was back then.

For example, when Bryan led his anti-evolution movement in the 1920s, the scientific jury was still out on the mechanism of evolution.  Darwin’s explanation—modified descent through natural selection—had been roundly criticized and nearly dismissed by the mainstream scientific community.  So when Bryan led the charge against the teaching of evolution, he could claim with scientific legitimacy that natural selection was not established scientifically.  It was not until years after Bryan’s death that biologists and geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and others solved the problem of genetic “swamping” that seemed to make Darwin’s idea of natural selection a non-starter.

I’ve spent my time with Bryan’s papers at the Library of Congress.  I like Bryan.  He was a successful politician, but I don’t hold that against him.  I believe he was also sincere and devoted to justice.  I came to believe that Bryan was profoundly shocked and surprised when he could not produce his dream team of scientific experts at the Scopes Trial to put evolutionary scientists in their place.

Of course, Bryan died just a few days after the trial.  I can’t help but wonder how he might have “evolved” in his thinking if he had lived.  Would his experience at the Scopes Trial have caused him to re-think his confidence that evolutionary science would soon be disproven?  And, more intriguing, how would Bryan have responded if he had lived for an even longer stretch?  An Old-Testament sort of lifespan?

Would Bryan have embraced the “new evangelicalism” of Carl Henry and Billy Graham?  Would he have worked to make sure Biblical religion remained in conversation with mainstream American culture and politics?

I can’t help but think that he would.  I agree with Bryan’s great-grandson Kent Owen, who told reporter Kevin Hardy, “My view of Bryan is that things weren’t set in stone. . . .  He was pragmatic.”

What does this mean for today’s leadership at Bryan College?  On one hand, they are continuing the legacy of their school.  Bryan College was never bound too tightly to the thinking of the original William Jennings Bryan.  From its outset, Bryan College took a firmer, more “fundamentalist” position than Bryan himself ever did.  But on the other hand, the insistence of today’s leadership that Bryan College faculty sign on to a specific understanding of the historicity of Adam & Eve does not sound like something the Great Commoner would have supported.  As long as the principle of respect and reverence for the Bible was maintained, the original Bryan thought, people of good will could disagree on the details.

Outlaw Colleges

Why do so many otherwise right-thinking Americans embrace leftist ideas?  For generations, conservative intellectuals have blamed the skewed perspective of American colleges and universities.

This morning in the pages of National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson offers a ten-point condemnation of the American higher educational system.

For those unfamiliar with the real history, it might be tempting to assume that conservatives turned against the higher-education system during the campus tumults of the 1960s and 1970s.  Free speech movements, hippies, sit-ins, campus radicals occupying dean’s offices…there was certainly enough reason for conservatives to look askance at campus culture in those years.  But conservative intellectuals and activists had worried about the state of higher education long before that.

In the 1920s, for example, religious conservatives worried that mainstream campuses converted faith-filled young people into atheists and skeptics.  As I describe in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalists realized that college determined culture.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, often trumpeted the findings of James H. Leuba.  Leuba had studied the beliefs of college students, and in his 1916 book The Belief in God and Immortality, Leuba concluded that the number of self-identified religious believers declined during college years.  In speech after speech in the 1920s, Bryan used Leuba’s numbers as proof that college wrecked faith.

Bryan wasn’t the only one.  Throughout the 1920s, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. warned of the dangerous effects of typical college curricula on young people.  One of the reasons Jones founded his own uniquely religious school, he explained in sermons, was because too many young people became college “shipwrecks.”  He told the story of one hapless family who had scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

In the 1930s, too, conservatives fretted that college corrupted culture.  Beyond the ranks of religious conservatives, activists in patriotic organizations such as the American Legion warned that colleges had been subverted by anti-American socialist moles.  As I argue in my upcoming book, worries about the subversive state of higher education became a central tenet of their conservative ideology.  For instance, in 1935 New York Congressman, red-hunter, and American Legion co-founder Hamilton Fish attacked the state of higher ed.  He named names, including Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina.  These elite schools, Fish warned, and many others, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists, and Communists.”  A less prominent American Legion writer echoed this sentiment.  “Colleges all over the land” Legionnaire Phil Conley warned in a 1935 article, had begun teaching “the overthrow of our government . . . through subterfuge and through destroying faith and confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Long before “The Sixties,” then, conservatives concluded that colleges and universities threatened to shatter the cultural cohesion that had made America great.  These days, too, conservative intellectuals often condemn the state of higher education.  Of course, just as with earlier generations of conservatives, today’s conservatives may find many different reasons to worry about what goes on in America’s campuses.  Publications such as Minding the Campus and from the National Association of Scholars offer conservatives forums for sharing their complaints about the state of higher ed.

In the pages of National Review Online, we read one summary of conservative complaints about college today.  Victor Davis Hanson calls the state of higher education criminal.  He damns “virtual outlaw institutions” that take students’ money mainly to line their own pockets and fuel the narcissistic lifestyles of fat-and-happy professors and administrators.  “If the best sinecure in America,” Hanson concludes,

is a tenured full professorship, the worst fate may be that of a recent graduate in anthropology with a $100,000 loan. That the two are co-dependent is a national scandal.

In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree. Accordingly, society can no longer grant it an exemption from scrutiny.

Hanson offers a ten-point brief.  College can be saved, he argues, if these senseless traditions are subjected to radical reform.  First, abolish tenure.  Second, rationalize hiring.  Third, take ideological garbage out of the curriculum.  Fourth, add transparency to the admissions process.  Fifth, cut the fat out of administration.  Sixth, remove the useless teaching credential.  Seventh, add national competency tests for faculty.  Eighth, publish school budgets.  Ninth, eliminate expensive and unnecessary university presses.  Finally, open campuses to real free speech.

Taken together, Hanson suggests, these radical reforms promise to renew the promise of American higher education.  Without them, American students and their families will continue to be held at intellectual and financial knife-point by the highway robbers known as professors and administrators.

How bout it?  Have you experienced college strife?  For those readers who come from conservative religious backgrounds, did your college experience shatter your faith?  Or did college turn you from a patriotic youth into a skeptical adult?  And what about Hanson’s broader challenge?  Do colleges take students’ money and offer only a skewed ideological indoctrination in return?

 

College Is Dumb

What do college kids learn about these days?  It is a question about which conservatives have fretted for a long time.

Most recently, the Heritage Foundation warns that too many students, especially at America’s elite universities, are filling their heads with the mental junk food of Lady Gaga and zombie thrillers.  Worst of all, according to Mary Clare Reim on Heritage’s education blog, elite schools don’t seem to do much to encourage more substantial mental work.  For hefty tuition fees, Ivy League schools seem happy to have pampered youth meander lazily through fluff classes such as

“The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga”; “Blame It on the Bossa Nova: The Historical Transnational Phenomenon”; “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films”; “Fairytales: Russia and the World.”

Students are given the freedom, Reim laments, to fill their college years with nothing but such interesting but ultimately impractical mental games.

Reim cites a recent study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).  The ACTA graded schools on how much core curriculum they require for their students.  By this measure, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all get Ds.  Baylor and Colorado Christian University, on the other hand, move to the head of this class.

Reim’s worries place her in a storied tradition of nervousness among American conservative thinkers.  Since at least the 1920s, conservatives have worried that college students are being sold an intellectual bill of goods.  Classes are watered down, or worse, pernicious ideas are snuck in as the latest academic fad.

In the 1920s, for instance, William Jennings Bryan warned that elite schools such as Wellesley, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin filled the heads of students with pernicious nonsense.  In a dispute with Wisconsin’s president in 1921, Bryan snarkily suggested that Wisconsin should post the following warning sign:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

In 1935, one American Legion writer warned that “colleges all over the land” had been taken over by left-leaning numbskulls.

In 1950, one anonymous letter-writer wrote in to the Pasadena Independent to offer an explanation of why so many classes were so stupid.  If young people didn’t learn basic facts and skills, they would become easy prey for what this conservative writer called “propaganda leaders.”

In other words, keeping young people dumb was more than just laziness or faddishness.  Among conspiracy-minded activists, dumbing down colleges could work to prepare America for failure.

More recently, too, conservative intellectuals often assume that the content of higher education—especially at the most elite schools—ranges from sex-soaked to subversive.  Peter Collier, for example, in a recent article in the Weekly Standard, warned that left-wing ideas had taken over at Teachers College, Columbia University, beginning in the 1980s.  Under the name of “critical pedagogy,” Collier wrote, academics had “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

Given the possible intellectual threat posed by socialism and blundering leftism, it seems conservative intellectuals might be happy to see courses that are merely stupid.

 

Help! My Teacher’s a Girl Now!

Do young children need to be protected from transgender teachers?

Ryan T. Anderson thinks so.  And in his argument, he joins a long conservative tradition of insisting on special culture-war protections for children.

Anderson, a prominent voice in the anti-gay-marriage coalition, argued recently in the pages of the National Review that transgender teachers would force young people to wrestle prematurely with issues of sexuality and gender identity.

His argument came in the context of his opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that would make it illegal for some employers to discriminate against gay or transgender people.

In Anderson’s opinion, this is not the latest civil-rights bill.  Sexual identity and gender identity, Anderson argues, are self-identified and self-defined, unlike race.

Perhaps most compelling, Anderson thinks, this bill might force elementary schools to employ men who used to be women, or women who used to be men.  It would force children, Anderson says, to know too much too soon.

As he put it,

Issues of sex and gender identity are psychologically, morally, and politically fraught. But we all ought to agree that young children should be protected from having to sort through such questions before an age-appropriate introduction. ENDA, however, would prevent employers from protecting children from adult debates about sex and gender identity by barring employers from making certain decisions about transgendered employees.

Although ENDA includes some exemptions for religious education, it provides no protection for students in other schools who could be prematurely exposed to questions about sex and gender if, for example, a male teacher returned to school identifying as a woman.

Anderson’s argument about age-exemptions for culture-war issues echoes a traditional theme among educational conservatives.  On the issue of evolution, for example, many conservative intellectuals of the first generation of fundamentalists argued that evolution could fairly be taught, but only at the college level.

As I argued in my 1920s book, this seemingly moderate view was held by some of the most vituperative anti-evolutionists.

William Jennings Bryan, for example, the Bible-believing man-of-the-people who stood up for the Bible at the Scopes Trial, repeatedly insisted that evolution should be taught, but with proper regard for the intellectual maturity of students.  In colleges, it should be taught as an influential theory about the origins of life.  But in primary grades, students must not be taught that evolution was the simple and only truth.

Even the hot-headed polemicist T. T. Martin, author of the relentless Hell and the High Schools, didn’t insist that evolution must be utterly banned from all schools.  In a 1923 speech, Martin suggested a new set of “graded books, from primary to university.”  These books could introduce evolutionary ideas gradually, until at last for the most mature students the books would present “fairly and honestly both sides of the Evolution issue.”

Martin's Booth at the Scopes Trial, 1925

As Anderson’s recent argument about transgender teachers makes clear, the notion that young people in school must enjoy special protection from threatening ideas still has punch in today’s culture-war debates.  Conservatives have long insisted that children must be protected from premature exposure to issues of sex and origins.

 

 

Poem of the Week

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good poem has to be worth a million, right?

We stumbled across this gem recently.  For those of us who are trying to understand educational conservatism in America, the sentiments expressed here go a long way.

“Buzzsawmonkey” left this poem as a comment on a recent essay by Stanley Kurtz in National Review.

The Red Faculty
—apologies to William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon

a red prof
teaching

glazed eyed bored
students

to deride white
people.

Now, I realize the poem does not have much to do with Kurtz’s essay about the Common Core State Standards.  But it does sum up a good deal of conservative punditry about the lamentable state of American higher education.

I apologize for my ignorance if this poem has been around for a while.  It seems both too clever and too irrelevant to the essay it commented upon to have been used only in this context.  So please correct me if this is old hat.  This is my first sighting.

The skewed ideological environment of most college campuses has long been an article of faith among conservative activists and thinkers.  Long before William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career with his jeremiad about God and Man at Yale, conservatives warned about the terrifying intellectual bullying among once-hallowed quads.

In 1921, for example, William Jennings Bryan attacked the teaching at the University of Wisconsin.  In a scathing editorial, he sarcastically suggested the university post placards about the content of its curriculum.  “Our class rooms,” the warning could state, “furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”[1]

Neither the loquacious Bryan nor Buckley, however, managed to come up with as poetic an indictment as has Buzzsawmonkey.

 

 


[1] Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner, volume 21:issue 6 (June 1921): page 3.