Conservative Colleges are Winning the Culture WarsRoundup
tags: conservatism, higher education, fundamentalism, Christian Nationalism, Homeschooling
Adam Laats is a professor of education and history at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford, 2018), and tweets @AdamLaats.
The right wing has education in its culture-war sights. This year state legislatures have introduced nearly 140 “educational gag orders” restricting teaching on topics like race, gender, and LGBTQ identity. Last fall the University of Florida sought to prevent three professors from taking part in a voting-rights lawsuit. In September the University of Idaho offered restrictive advice to its employees on what they were allowed to say about abortion.
These developments have been widely panned in the media. The New York Times editorial board decried such censorship as “the refuge of the weak.” A Washington Post op-ed argued that “the right thinks campuses are hopeless and has resorted to repression as the answer.” In The Chronicle, the historian Ellen Schrecker wrote about how “half-truths, exaggerations, and racist innuendo became entrenched in the popular view of higher education.”
This crackdown is indeed daunting. It is also, as Schrecker points out, just the latest outbreak in a chronic, decades-old conflict. And if that longer-term history is any guide, the real impact will come not from the restrictive laws and bans that grab headlines, but from a different and less heralded direction: right-wing-infused K-12 curricula produced and disseminated by staunchly conservative colleges. This educational activism often happens behind the scenes and to less fanfare, but over the long term it delivers an outsize portion of the culture-war punch. And in this space the action isn’t in big state systems in Florida or Idaho, but rather at a leafy liberal arts college in the Midwest — Michigan’s Hillsdale College, or, as Politico put it, “The College That Wants to Take Over Washington.” Hillsdale has faced a few recent setbacks in its efforts to insinuate its radical ideas into K-12 schools. But, worryingly, it might just have stumbled onto an older, tried-and-true conservative recipe for success.
The playbook for how to deliver a conservative, Christian version of history to schoolchildren was developed in the 1970s and ‘80s by two conservative colleges, Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. Bob Jones University was founded in 1926 by the evangelist Bob Jones to provide an unapologetically conservative and evangelical higher education. In 1954, two BJU alumni, Arlin and Beka Horton, decided their alma mater had slipped too far into liberalism and heterodoxy. They opened Pensacola Christian Academy (and eventually Pensacola Christian College) to provide an even more conservative, even more staunchly fundamentalist alternative.
By the 1970s, both institutions viewed K-12 public education as irredeemably lost. As one BJU faculty member explained in 1979, public schools were dominated by the “Satanic philosophy” of “secular humanism.” In response, both colleges dedicated themselves to producing textbooks that would offer an alternative for private K-12 schools and home-schoolers — a curriculum freed from public oversight and one that would teach a very different kind of history.