For me, as a Democrat, one of the weirdest things about working on education reform has been the never-ending fundamentalist flashbacks.
You see, I spent my first 22 years among the Baptists—and yes, we’re talking the no-drinking-no-dancing-go-to-church-four-times-a–week kind. My parents taught at a Baptist college. As part of their job benefits, I had free tuition at a handful of conservative Christian schools.
Which is how I ended up at Wheaton College in Illinois as one of the lone liberals in a sea of young Republicans. At the time, Wheaton was a school so conservative that its president once told me he didn’t believe that “anyone could have an authentic relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and still be a member of the Democratic party.”
How to respond? Smile and nod. Get the degree. I graduated in 1979—the same year Jerry Falwell launched the Moral Majority, a political group which symbolized the merger of the Christian right with the Republican party.
Even then, I knew this marriage wouldn’t end well. Because a healthy political group needs to be able to adapt to a changing modern world, which includes:
- New ideas and data.
- Nuance and paradox.
- Genuinely listening to people of different views and hues and being willing to compromise.
And alas, fundamentalists—whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu—mostly can’t do these things. Hell, they’re fundies precisely because they don’t want to adapt to modernity or compromise with anyone.
The very nature of fundamentalism tends to create a toxic political culture. When I was growing up, issues were usually framed as good versus evil; saved versus damned; heaven versus hell. And if that wasn’t enough drama, the Apocalypse also loomed as we, the faithful, were under siege by secular forces bent on destroying faith, family and freedom.
There wasn’t a lot of room for honest questions or discussions. You were either in or out of the pool. People who challenged the system were quickly demonized.
Which, according to researchers, is a classic trait of fundamentalism: one’s opponents can’t just be wrong about things—they must have evil intent, too. Hence, gays are trying to destroy the family, feminists hate men, liberals want everyone’s hunting rifles and so forth.
These conspiracy theories are helped by the fundamentalist tendency to dismiss data or evidence that doesn’t line up with their worldview. Which is why many fundies still believe evolution, global warming and President Obama’s citizenship are all unproven.
All of these traits make it hard to have reasonable or nuanced discussions with fundamentalists. Which is why most of us stop trying. Instead, we talk about our kids, dogs and sports. I still love my fundie relatives and family friends—they can be such kind, generous people. But as a group, they create deeply dysfunctional political cultures.
Fundie by Another Name
After college, I thought I was done with fundamentalism. As a Democrat, I spent decades feeling smug that the fundies were making the other party dysfunctional and not mine. That is, until I started working on education reform.
Man, it was like “Jaws 2.” Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…WHAM BAM and OMG, it’s fundamentalism all over again. Only this time, it’s coming from fellow Democrats, specifically the teachers’ unions and their allies.
Don’t get me wrong. As individuals, teacher unionists can be as kind and generous as my fundie relations and friends. But like the religious right, the teachers’ union tends to:
- Frame issues as stark series of either-or choices with apocalyptic endings.
Either you support every clause in the union contract or you’re trying to bust the union. Either you support teachers or you’re “bashing” them. Either you support public schools or you want their destruction because that apocalypse is always drawing nigh.
- Demonize opponents.
In the union narrative, ed reformers aren’t just wrong about educational policy—they must have evil intent as well. So reformers are typically cast as vague “corporatists” bent on the equally hazy “privatization” of public schools; Teach for America recruits are crass resume-polishers; and the Gates foundation is to the teachers’ union what George Soros is to the right, i.e. the funding source of all evil.
- Deny or dismiss data that challenges their worldview.
For example, 10 years after Katrina wiped out the New Orleans school system, students in that city’s new system of public charters have made remarkable gains in reading and math scores, high school graduation and college acceptance rates.
Is the new system perfect? No. Are students getting better results? Absolutely.
Yet union leaders and their allies have gone out of their way to deny or dismiss this data. And can we be real? If a traditional, unionized school district had been able to produce these results, union leaders would be shouting this data from the rooftops and claiming the total vindication of their traditional system.
- Resist any change to tradition, even if this means disenfranchising entire groups of people.
Fundamentalists insist that Marriage Is Between a Man and A Woman, so same-sex marriage is an attempt to destroy the family. In a similar vein, teachers’ unions basically insist that Public Schools Are Between A Union and Its District, so any change in this tradition—i.e. charter schools—is an attempt to destroy public education.
Neither of these statements makes sense. Same-sex couples are creating families, not destroying them. Charters ARE public schools, funded by the state and open to all.
Right now, the public schools that are getting the best results with low-income black and Latino children are mostly charters. But because charter schools are mostly non-union, the teachers’ unions are attempting to limit these schools—even though this would disenfranchise entire groups of children.
- Represent a constituency that is mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged and nostalgic for a supposedly better past that should be “reclaimed.”
Even though they represent different sides of the political spectrum, both the teachers’ union and religious conservatives are quick to blame alleged poor parenting and the culture of poverty when faced with racial disparities. GOPers often do this with sense of fury; union leaders with a sense of pity. But ultimately, it’s the same message:Our systems are fine. It’s the brown kids and their parents who are screwed up.
Both groups call for a return to a simpler, better times—before all this talk about racial equity and federal accountability. The religious right holds “Reclaim the Dream” or “Reclaim the Constitution” rallies. The American Federation of Teachers has its “Reclaim the Promise” campaign.
I could keep listing traits, but you get the idea.
And yes, I know. Comparing the teachers’ unions to Christian fundamentalists is pure heresy among Democrats. Which is why I spent years trying to ignore the similarities. I was so committed to the idea that my political tribe should be fundie-proof.
But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…if the teacher’s union frames issues like fundies; if it demonizes foes, denies data and tries to disenfranchise people like fundies…well, the union is certainly acting like a fundamentalist movement. And even though the union operates on the left side of the political spectrum, it’s getting very similar results to what’s happened on the Republican side.
For example, in Minnesota, the state teachers’ union is the single largest contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. Education Minnesota sets the tone and parameters of our education debates. And alas, our discussions have become predictably toxic, rigid and scripted.
There are so many taboo topics, so many things that cannot be said for fear of setting off our funders; so many conspiracy theories; so much dismissal of data and evidence. And for Democrats, this is happening on an issue that takes up 40 percent of the state’s operating budget; affects hundreds of thousands of children and has shamefully racialized results.
Instead of leading on education issues, our elected Democrats, from school board members to legislators act a lot like—God, this is painful—Republicans trying to placate their fundie base. Our side ducks, dodges and mostly dissembles. We block change and innovation. We defend the traditional system no matter what. And low-income people of color pay the biggest price.
How do you change a fundamentalist culture? It’s damn hard because the whole point of fundie culture is to block any change. But the first step is acknowledging how nutty it is and then start building an alternative one.