How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 5 (The Revolutionary Age)

This is the fifth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Revolutionary Age.”

I approach this week’s episode of How Should We Then Live with trepidation. Halfway through his sweeping ten-episode story about “the rise and decline of western thought and culture,” Francis Schaeffer has now arrived at historical territory that I can consider really mine: the early United States. That means the temptation to embark on a detailed fact-checking of his work is going to be strong.

And let me tell you, this episode has some major opportunities for fact-checking.

But the larger problems with Schaeffer’s story are already familiar. In “The Revolutionary Age,” Schaeffer continues to compress and stretch time according to the needs of his argument. He crowds complex experiences under simple labels. He passes reductive judgments on entire societies and civilizations. He shows little interest in historical study as such; he embraces it just to the extent that it serves his evangelistic or political purpose. And he seems determined to see the best in the past people he identifies with his own evangelical Protestant faith, and the worst in those he doesn’t.

Unfortunately, while sharing its basic flaws with the previous episodes, “The Revolutionary Age” lacks their crucial redeeming element: It does little to cultivate appreciation for the visual art, music, and other cultural monuments of the societies it discusses. As this series moves into the modern age, I’m worried that Schaeffer is losing interest in ushering his viewers into the bygone social world.

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Red or Blue, Your State’s History Standards Probably Aren’t Great, a Review Says

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education advocacy organization that promotes charter schools, has released a report called The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.

This review concludes that a bipartisan mix of governments—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.—have state-level standards for American history and civics that excel in “content, rigor, clarity, and organization.” At the other end of the grade curve, the report gives its lowest marks to a red-blue mix of ten states: Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

I’ve read enough to say it’s an interesting document. I don’t share Fordham’s views on “school choice,” but so far, I don’t see any reason for that to affect my assessment of the report. I’m skeptical of the notion that it’s possible to assign a meaningful grade or linear ranking to a state’s standards, but then again, I know how disseminating a report through news media works.

My primary problem with its approach—again, so far—is that I don’t share the authors’ faith that specificity in state history standards is always a good thing. In this respect, I tend to agree with the criticism of the external advisor Meira Levinson (Harvard GSE), who comments on page 11 that “there is just too long a history of teachers’ treating packed knowledge standards as content to be marched through.” On the other hand, I tend to side with the authors, rather than Levinson, on (for example) the importance of chronological organization.

And I deeply appreciate other aspects of the report. For example, it advocates a strong emphasis on U.S. (and other) history throughout K-12 education, calling out state standards that relegate history courses to a small part of a student’s career.

The full document is almost 400 pages long, with assessments of the history and civics standards in every state, so it’s bound to include plenty of observations and claims that teachers of any background can argue over. What I appreciate most is that such debate is likely to be both possible and rewarding. This kind of review is difficult to do in a fair-minded way, especially at the present moment. There’s a lot of material here that seems good for thinking with.

You can read more about the review in Cory Turner’s story for NPR.

Colleges Are Mostly Supportive Toward Evangelicals, Say InterVarsity Members (UPDATED)

If you’ve followed this site long, you know I have a particular interest in addressing the popular notion that U.S. higher education is a hostile environment for conservative students—including students with conservative religious commitments.

Last week, a major evangelical Christian campus ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, released the results of a member survey conducted online for its PR firm, Pinkston, between May 3 and June 3. All eleven questions in the survey (PDF) may be interesting to college educators.

For my purposes here, the most interesting is Question 8: “How would you describe your college campus’s attitude toward Evangelical Christians?” Among the 316 students (from 127 campuses) who responded, the consensus was that college is a good environment for evangelicals.

More than a third said their college is either “extremely” or “very welcoming and supportive”; and an equal number said their college is “moderately welcoming and supportive.” Fewer than five percent said their college is “not at all welcoming and supportive”:

Now, it’s probably important not to overinterpret these results. The sample size was small, representing a tiny fraction of InterVarsity’s membership and just 17% of the college campuses where InterVarsity has chapters.

More importantly, it isn’t clear what kinds of colleges appeared in the sample. This ministry has representatives at religious institutions as well as secular colleges and universities. That could obviously affect whether students felt they were in a welcoming environment. It’s also possible that different students have completely different kinds of criteria in mind for feeling supported on campus. (I would especially like to know more about the 20% who say they feel “slightly” welcome.) And there’s always the question whether respondents’ campus experiences, positive or negative, have been defined primarily by administrators, by faculty members, or by other students.

Christian Universities6
Secular Universities116
Private Universities40
Public Universities85
Community/Junior Colleges10

(UPDATE: Elizabeth Chung, an account coordinator at Pinkston, has very kindly supplied me with a basic breakdown of the types of colleges represented in the survey responses. I’m not sure exactly how these categories overlap; for the purposes of this post, the crucial facts are that only a handful [6] of the campuses were Christian universities, and most [85] were public universities.)

It’s also very likely that the respondents—for whatever reason—are less politically conservative, on average, than white* American evangelicals generally are. This could play a role in their sense of comfort on campus. When asked what social issues are most important to them (Question 11), the greatest number of respondents (39%) named racial justice as one of their top three issues; the next highest number named climate change. Reducing abortion was fourth on the list of responses, named by just over one quarter of students as one of their top three interests.

(* Most respondents were white [62%] or Asian American [18%]. Almost two thirds [65%] were women.)

Nevertheless, the data we have are the data we have. However far they go, we can tally this survey as the latest of many pieces of evidence that American higher education is generally not the hostile environment many conservative religious students are told to expect.

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 4 (The Reformation)

Following a hiatus for summer travel, this is the fourth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Reformation.”

So far in this series, we’ve seen Francis Schaeffer reduce the experiences of whole civilizations to a set of simple patterns in order to attack their worldviews—presenting them as negative object lessons for 20th-century audiences, especially in the United States. The Roman empire, Schaeffer said, was hideously cruel and ultimately collapsed because it was polytheistic and therefore pluralistic. For the same reason, he said, Rome was unable to tolerate Christianity, its eventual Christianization notwithstanding. Then Medieval Europe, he said, disastrously abandoned the authority of the Christian Bible for “humanistic” reason, despite (or because of) the problematic authority of the Catholic church; the Renaissance continued that process, “opening the door” for 20th-century relativism.

In each case, Schaeffer’s view of his subject has been deliberately negative. In going negative, he sometimes seems to be struggling against his own obvious appreciation for the art, architecture, and other lasting accomplishments of the societies he halfheartedly attacks.

But with this week’s episode, on the Protestant Reformation, Schaeffer suddenly inverts this approach. He is still forcing a lot of varied European history into a predetermined pattern, presenting a complex intellectual and social revolution as a half-hour object lesson for modern audiences. But now he makes European Protestantism play the role of a cultural hero, dismissing its flaws, rather than its virtues, as aberrations.

Perhaps that is part of the reason this episode draws so much from a 1953 movie.

Filmed in West Germany by the Jewish director Irving Pichel (a victim of the Hollywood blacklist), the Oscar-nominated Martin Luther had been commissioned by American Lutherans and written by a team that included the distinguished church historians Theodore G. Tappert and Jaroslav Pelikan. The title role was filled by Niall MacGinnis, an experienced and charismatic Irish-British character actor.

Scenes from this biopic are scattered throughout the fourth episode of How Should We Then Live. (Martin Luther also influenced the episode on the Middle Ages, which includes a dramatic reenactment that clearly plagiarizes a shot in the movie.) I find these excerpts enjoyable, and I think they enhance the episode. In fact, I also rather like the full movie, though most viewers, including critical historians, will find it very dated.

But one reason these scenes are here is that only a hero-worshiping, great-man-centered view of the Reformation can easily sustain the story Schaeffer wants to tell. Apart from Luther’s greatness and (presumably) divine providence, How Should We Then Live just doesn’t seem to have any clear historical sense of where the Reformation came from.

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“Clear-Eyed, Nuanced, and Frank”

This morning, dozens of scholarly and educational organizations in the United States—including PEN America, the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Federation of Teachers—have signed a joint statement condemning broadly-worded bills that aim to curtail discussions of racism and history in schools and colleges.

First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.

Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History, June 16, 2021