Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed a new name popping up in the right-hand column of this blog, on my rotating list of “A Few of the Blogs, Publications, and Writers I Follow.” Adam Laats is historian of education at SUNY-Binghamton, currently writing a book tentatively titled Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. (John Fea got a sneak peek at a chapter draft and says it’s “excellent.”)
That by itself should put Laats on the radar for many of this blog’s readers, given how much I’ve been writing about Christian higher ed. But you don’t need to wait for the book to come out: I’d also recommend Laats’ blog, I Love You but You’re Going to Hell. The name, he explains, comes from a comment made by an older woman to one of his students, who happened to be living with her longtime boyfriend:
Of course, my student took this as an aggressive, hostile thing to say. But the old lady didn’t mean it that way. She really hoped to connect with my student, to help her recognize the errors of her ways.
When I started this blog a few years back, I was hoping to use it as a way to help explain American conservative thinking—especially religious thinking—to non-conservatives. I’m no conservative myself. But I think too often folks like me assume the worst about conservatives. We take the old lady’s statement as a threat. We hear the “hell” part, not the “I love you” part.
As Laats goes on to explain, his interest has shifted to larger questions about schools and education, but he has continued to post on Christian higher education, particularly as it’s understood by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.
I admire how Laats, a self-described secular progressive, is so committed to empathetic (but critical) study of religious conservatives and how they engage in education. (He expands on his approach here.) For example, he recently sided with Grove City, Christendom, and other conservative schools who complained about being left out of the Education Department’s new college scorecard because they don’t accept federal financial aid. (And, more importantly, he worried “about any ranking of higher education based mainly on economic factors.”)
See also yesterday’s post on lifestyle codes at schools ranging from Bob Jones University to Wheaton College (two of the subjects in Fundamentalist U). The easy move here (even for many of us in evangelical settings that are more “postfundamentalist” than BJU) would be to snicker at and/or be appalled by such rules. But Laats historicizes them and comes to conflicted conclusions: “On the one hand, the system of sexual policing seems to pushed sex on campus into dangerous and degrading directions”; but at the same time, he muses that regulation of drinking and drug use could potentially have protected students at those colleges from reckless sexual behavior. (“Or did the added illicitness simply push students to take more risks?”)
Generally, I just appreciate how insightful an observer Laats is. (Having been an outsider to Christian higher ed when I first arrived at Bethel, I know how hard it can be to understand.) For example, earlier this month he wrote about the particular dilemmas facing evangelical colleges in a time when higher ed is under enormous economic pressure:
For small evangelical colleges, this presents a double pickle. In desperate need of more students, schools will likely become extra-timid about offending conservative parents and pundits…
We’ve seen it happen at Bryan College. Rumors of evolution-friendly professors caused administrators to crack down. Any whiff of evolutionary heterodoxy, and schools might scare away potential creationist students.
At other evangelical colleges, too, as we’ve already seen in schools such as Mid-America Nazarene or Northwest Nazarene, administrators desperate for tuition dollars will be tempted to insist on a more rigidly orthodox reputation.
Things aren’t looking good for small colleges in general. But conservative evangelical schools face this special burden. In order to attract the largest possible number of students in their niche, they might have to emphasize more firmly the things that make them stand out from public schools. In the case of conservative evangelical schools, that distinctive element has always been orthodoxy.
I Love You but You’re Going to Hell: check it out!