What Does Beto O’Rourke Think About His High School Alma Mater?

Beto

Beto O’Rourke went to high school at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. He graduated from the boarding school in 1991.  Woodberry Forest is an all-boys school.  Like most schools, colleges, and universities, it is a non-profit organization with tax-exempt status.

I have lectured on Woodberry’s beautiful campus, ate dinner in its dining hall, and spent a memorable post-lecture evening with the president and faculty talking about the humanities and history education.  Woodberry Forrest is probably a bit too elite for my tastes, but it is certainly a place that takes the education of boys very seriously.

Woodberry Forest

Earlier today, I did a post on last night’s CNN’s Democratic presidential candidate’s forum on LGBTQ issues.  During the forum, Beto said that if he were president he would remove the tax-exempt status of churches and religious institutions and schools that “oppose same sex marriage.”  Institutions that uphold traditional views of marriage, according to Beto, “infringe on the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

So I have two related questions for Beto:

  1. Does Woodberry Forest discriminate against the human rights of women by forbidding them to attend the school?  Should Woodberry Forest lose its tax exempt status as a result?
  2. What happens if a boy at Woodberry Forest transitions to a woman while matriculating at the school?  Does she have the right to stay at the all boys school?  If Woodberry Forest asks her to leave, would that be a form of discrimination?  Should the school lose its tax-exempt status as a result?

By using Woodberry Forest as an example here, I am drawing heavily from the work of John Inazu in his book Confident Pluralism.  He uses the example of Wellesley, an all women’s college in Massachusetts, that has wrestled with the same questions in recent years as some students at the college transition to men.

Here is a taste of 2017 post I did on Inazu’s argument in Confident Pluralism :

I have been reading Washington University law professor John D. Inazu‘s challenging and refreshing book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  

Here is a passage from the Introduction that really hit me between the eyes:

“Wellesley College, an all-women’s school, now confronts internal challenges around its growing transgender student population.  Even though Wellesley admits only women, a number of its current students have transitioned to men after matriculation.  As a recent New York Times story asks: “What’s a women’s college to do? Trans students point out that they’re doing exactly what these schools encourage: breaking gender barriers, fulfilling their deepest yearnings and forging ahead even when society tries to hold them back.  But yielding to their request to dilute the focus on women would undercut the identity of a women’s college.”  One student reasoned: “I realized that if we excluded trans students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team.  We’d be on the wrong side of history.”  A recent graduate reached the opposite conclusion: “Sisterhood is why I chose to go to Wellesley.”  The New York Times noted that this woman “asked not to be identified for fear she’d be denounced for her position.”

The last example exposes a particularly acute challenge: Wellesely cannot remain a women’s college whose identity in some ways rests on gender exclusivity and at the same time welcome transgender students who identify as men.  It will have to choose between two competing views.  But perhaps even more important than what decision Wellesley reaches is how it reaches that decision.  Will Wellesley be able to choose its own institutional identity, or will the government impose a norm on the private school through law and regulation?  Will other citizens tolerate Wellesley’s choice, or will they challenge its accreditation, boycott its events, and otherwise malign its existence?  Will the process through which Wellesley reaches its decision be one of open engagement across deep difference, or will students, faculty, and administrators speak only under the cover of anonymity?”

Will Beto’s views allow Woodberry Forest to continue its identity as an all-boys school that “discriminates” against women?  I am sure there are many parents who send their kids to Woodberry precisely because it is an all-boys school.  Will Beto’s view allow churches, religious charities, and faith-based colleges to continue their Christian identities without government interference?  This might be stating the obvious, but there are many Americans who attend churches and send their kids to Christian colleges precisely because they hold certain beliefs that are rooted in deeply held religious convictions.

Out of the Zoo: When Historians Ask “Why”

 

march for our lives

Some friends and I participated in a “March for our lives” in Kalamazoo back in March 2018.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her gun violence and her current research paper.  –JF

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I prefer not to think about my middle school years. I had braces, acne, and wore virtually the same outfit every day of the week. A self-proclaimed tomboy with a secret girly side, a goody-two-shoes who still wanted to be seen as “cool,” I still had a lot of things to figure out. I guess there were some good things that happened to me in middle school too– I got to learn history from Mr. Bussies, one of my favorite teachers of all time, and started what would become a six year track and field career. But all this being said, there’s no denying that middle school was a dark time.

At any rate, my middle school years were also dark for another, more serious reason. I was in seventh grade when a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut sent the nation reeling. I had always been pretty aware of current events growing up–I would hear about major hurricanes and earthquakes as they occurred, and I even knew about the movie theater shooting that took place in Colorado earlier that year–but I had never heard about anything like this. I remember my family turning on the news to find it plastered with reports of twenty-seven lives lost, flashing images of an elementary school surrounded by flashing police lights and a maze of crime scene tape. The next day in my current events class we learned more about the tragedy and discussed it together. All I remember thinking was why? Why would someone kill so many innocent people? Why could something like this happen? Why an elementary school of all places? 

Fast forward half a century into 2018. Yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, shocked and outraged students, teachers, and lawmakers around the country. Students organized walk outs and marches and cried out for reform. Even then, six years later, we still asked why. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen again? Why are we still fighting this battle?

As it turns out, we’ve been fighting this battle for much longer than I originally thought. I came across the topic of school violence yet again when mulling over potential subjects for my Historical Methods (HIST 258) research paper this semester. After nixing a few ideas for the essay, I thought it might be beneficial for me, a future teacher, to research something related to education. After a few minutes of brainstorming and Google searching, I discovered that one of the first major incidents of school violence not only took place in Michigan, my home state, but it occurred nearly a century ago, in 1927. This tragedy, a bombing at Bath Consolidated School, claimed 44 lives–as much as Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.

I’ve only just begun researching the Bath tragedy. Even so I find myself asking the same question I did back in 2018 and 2012: Why? However as I continue to study the tragedy, and as I learn more about the discipline of history, I am reminded there is rarely a simple answer to such a question. There is rarely a simple answer to any historical question for that matter. People don’t often fit into the neat little boxes we try to cram them into–even mass murderers, especially mass murderers, are far more complex than that. We try to decipher causes, try to put ourselves in century-old shoes, but our undertaking always turns out to be more ambitious than we planned. That’s why studying history is so hard sometimes. When we ask why, we tend to want a simple, neat answer that we can easily turn into some groundbreaking discovery or concise thesis statement. But what we have to learn to accept is the fact that the past is messy. People are messy. So it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to dive right into the mess.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Gross

 

GrossRobert Gross is a United States History Teacher and Assistant Academic Dean at Sidwell Friends School. This interview is based on his new book Public v. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Public v. Private?

RG: I have always been deeply invested in educational policy debates about school choice, charter schools, and private schools. As a historian I wanted to look to the past to understand the origins of what I consider to be modern school choice and what we can learn from that history. I ultimately found that this was a 19th- and early 20th-century story, when public systems arose to eliminate the private, market-based schools that had existed earlier, and when Catholic school systems then emerged to challenge public schooling. It was in this period that, after significant conflict, Americans agreed to the existence of systematic alternatives to public schooling. Understanding how that happened, what it tells us about broader American legal ideas about public and private, and what it might mean to the present is what I wanted to write about.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Public v. Private?

RG: That we owe the existence of school choice in the United States much less to market forces than to public regulation—Americans have consented to private schools precisely because states have regulated them substantially, and, in return, given them significant public subsidies. I also argue that broader American legal battles over the scope of public power over private enterprise have been centered on, and determined by, state regulation of private schools.

JF: Why do we need to read Public v. Private?

RG: As I indicate above, American historians have missed the central role that private schools have played as sites of contestations over the extent to which states can regulate private enterprise. I don’t think we can understand just how powerful state regulation has been in this country without looking at schools, and private schools in particular. Secondly, this story has important lessons for our contemporary discussions over charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice more broadly. Too often we frame our debates about school choice over whether one is “pro” or “anti” charter schools, to cite the most prominent example. Public vs. Private argues that the more important question, perhaps, is how we will regulate school choice. What should be the standards for a school to receive a charter today? How should we hold these schools accountable? What do we collectively owe parents to help them navigate educational markets? These kinds of questions became essential to working out the relationship between public and private schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we would do well to return to them.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RG: I suppose I’ve always been searching for the answer to the question that David Byrne of the Talking Heads posed: “How did I get here”? I think my particular path to becoming primarily a historian of American education emerged from my own schooling. I’ve always sought to know why our schools look the way we do, why private schools exist, and how Americans have thought about education in the past.

JF: What is your next project?

RG: Nothing is imminent at the moment. I currently live in DC and am fascinated by the history of the city and what it tells us about so many important areas of American life, from race to urban planning to the role of the federal government.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

Montville

My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

9781421423210-2
Johann Neem
is a Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Democracy’s Schools?

JN: I decided to write this book for two reasons. First, and foremost, I worried that citizens and policy makers did not have a “go to” book for the formative era of American public education. The leading books in that field were influenced by the culture wars—and thus they were highly critical of the potential of public education. Scholars on the right and left agreed that schools promoted “social control” and served elites, not ordinary people. At a time when our public discourse of education is increasingly vocational and instrumental, I wanted to clear the space to remind Americans today why we had public schools in the first place: to develop the capabilities of citizens; to promote human flourishing for each individual; and to bring together a diverse society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Democracy’s Schools?

JN: Democracy’s Schools argues that there exists a longstanding and productive tension between the demands of “democratic education” and of “education in a democracy.” Democratic education emphasizes civic goals and the liberal arts and was often promoted by elite reformers such as Horace Mann, whereas education in a democracy depends on local control and schools tied culturally and politically to citizens themselves.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy’s Schools?

JN: We need Democracy’s Schools because we’re adrift today. At a time when we tend to focus on narrow skills and economic training (“college and career readiness,” in the words of the Common Core—see my essay on the subject), it is worth looking back to an era when public schools served democracy’s needs and represented democratic values. It is worth remembering why reformers sought to increase access to the liberal arts. And it’s worth recognizing that the public schools have a responsibility not just to reflect our differences but also to bring a diverse people together. In short, we need Democracy’s Schools to remember that in the dirty bathwater of our education history there is still a baby worth caring for.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JN: I was a history major in college, but had intended to go into education policy. I wrote my senior thesis on civic education in a democracy, so in some ways I have returned to my roots in this new book. I decided to become an American historian after taking Gordon Wood’s class on the early American republic and realizing that the questions that most intrigued me were being asked by all Americans– whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female– in the decades following the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JN: I’m not sure. I am continuing to write about education, democracy, and higher education reform. I have started doing some work on the historic relationship between the humanities and American democracy, not just in schools but in society more broadly. We’ll see where it goes!

JF: Thanks, Johann!

What Does the Trump Budget Mean for Civics, History, Archives, and Education?

make-america-great-againThe National Coalition for History sums it up pretty well:

On May 23, President Trump sent his proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request to Congress.  As expected, it includes devastating cuts to federal history and humanities funding including elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and K-12 history and civics grants and Title VI/Fulbright-Hays international education programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Click here for a link to a chart summarizing the proposed budget for these and other federal history-related programs. There will be an in-depth agency-by-agency analysis posted on the NCH website shortly.