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02 February 2020

Belmont and Me

My alma mater is back in the news so I wanted to take a minute to reflect.

I made the decision to attend Belmont University because of its Music Business program, small campus size, and liberal arts mission. I made that decision despite the fact that Belmont was owned by the Southern Baptist Convention and imposed its brand of Conservative Evangelical morality on its students. When I was there (1998-2002), we could only have co-ed visitors in our dorm rooms during narrow daytime hours, and the guests had to check themselves in with an RA. We had to deadbolt the door open, and each party was required to keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. (Can we pause for a minute to note how boring Evangelical sex must be? Anything beyond heterosexual, missionary-style intercourse is somehow unimaginable.) To be clear, these rules were barely enforced, with most RA's happy to look the other way. I had been raised in a conservative religion, though, and even as I was actively questioning my religious identity, these kinds of mores seemed equal parts ridiculous and familiar.

The Belmont I experienced was quite schizophrenic. There was the Belmont known for music, music business, art, and theatre, and there was the Belmont for the Christians. To be clear, there was plenty of overlap individually. I, for one, was a "Christian," though certainly not an Evangelical, but there really were two differentiated communities of students. I never experienced them to be in tension. Everyone coexisted. People just filtered into their own groups. On day one, I found my people. We hung out at "the smoke pit," a square of benches nestled between two dorms where we would all smoke cigarettes. We were misfits and malcontents. One of us was genderqueer (though we didn't yet have that language to describe them). Campus was dry, and that part was strictly enforced, but we quickly found the skinny on where the off-campus keggers were and which bars downtown didn't check ID's.

I was among the first classes who enjoyed a change from required "Chapel hours" (i.e. forced participation in worship services) to required "Convocation hours" (i.e. attendance at extracurricular academic or altruistic events). I was happy not to have to sit awkwardly through a foreign church service, but the convocation experiences were often patronizing, boring, and unhelpful.

Academics were different. I had heard from professors that they had been required to sign a statement that they were Christian and had to provide a signed letter from their clergy to confirm this. To be sure, not all denominations were counted as Christian. Mormons, for example, didn't make the cut. The facutly, though, did not take this requirement seriously, and it was easy enough for people I knew who were atheist and agnostic to convince a minister to write a letter. I never witnessed a professor proselytize to students. To the contrary, I recall several instances where faculty presented critiques of orthodoxy. It's true that we were required to take a semester of "Old Testament History" and "New Testament History." This was a requirement that I had absolutely dreaded, but I was surprised to find both courses academically rigorous, intellectually illuminating, and quite critical. In short, they were college classes, not a backdoor attempt to evangelize. Ironically, I found myself much more comfortable in those courses than many of my Evangelical Christain peers. I ended up with a PhD minor in Religious Studies in part because of this exposure.

My time at Belmont was not without controversy, though. A beloved adjunct in my major program came out as gay during my junior year. He did so knowing full well that it would mean losing his job. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I didn't do more anything to fight for him. I know that it's not what he wanted of me, but perhaps it's what I needed of myself.

Since I graduated, much has changed at Belmont. The university bought itself away from the Southern Baptist Convention. While it retained an identity as generically Christain (read: Evangelical), it would be unaffiliated denominationally. I had expected that this was in part to loosen many of the conservative restrictions that I had endured, but I'm not sure that's actually happened. The campus hosted a presidential debate in 2008 and will again in 2020. In the fall of 2010, Belmont gained national attention for firing a gay women's soccer coach. While I was utterly disgusted by the administration's actions, I was proud of the way the faculty and students responded. A year later, the university expanded spousal benefits to same-sex partners. In 2016, Belmont expelled a racist student. Meanwhile, the size of the campus has expanded dramatically as the university continues to gobble surrounding real estate. Most disappointing, in the fall of 2014, Belmont declared itself no longer a small liberal arts college, as the student body had doubled in a dozen years. I don't recognize the school I see in the alumni mailers I now receive, but I also don't recognize that kid who chose to go to such a school all those years ago. Both Belmont and I have changed. As a father of two young children, I can't imagine encouraging them to consider Belmont as an option. While I cannot say that I regret my time at Belmont, I have sometimes regretted the actions of Belmont. Like most institutions, mine is complicated, and so are my emotions toward it.

30 January 2020

So You've Got an Opinion about the Local Schools?

My wife and I are frustrated with friends and neighbors who express ill-informed and socially-harmful opinions about our local public schools, several of whom have moved out of district, or threaten to, or enroll their kids in private schools. We have one child in kindergarten and another who will start preK in a couple years so the issue is suddenly more salient in our social circles. When confronted with the topic, I often find myself mute or inarticulate so I wanted to get a few somewhat disjointed ideas down and clarified.

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You think you're entitled to an opinion?
In a democratic society where your individual beliefs and behaviors have an effect on the rest of us, you are not entitled to uninformed or demonstrably-wrong opinions.

You've heard bad things about the schools from your friends?
Anecdotes and hearsay are necessarily biased. You need data.

You think schools are really important?
While I would agree in some ways, schools do a lot less than we give them credit for. Parents' education level, income, etc. are far more predictive of their children's successes/failures later in life than anything that goes on in school. If you're white and relatively-affluent, your kids are going to be just fine no matter where they go to school.

You've seen data that show that these schools are "bad?"
Just because it's data doesn't make it useful. If the report doesn't control for race and class, it's useless. Cross-sectional data (e.g. reading scores at one point in time) are misleading. Panel data that track progress over time—while accounting for race, class, etc.—are necessary. The bar should not be "Do kids in this school have good test scores?" or even "Do kids' test scores improve while they're in this school?" Instead, we should ask, "Does kids' learning improve while they're in this school even after we control for demographics like race and class?" We shouldn't be surprised when a school that is mostly white and affluent has "good" test scores, but are they as good as we would expect given that they are white and affluent? Are they showing improvement over time or are they just statically "good." Conversely, we shouldn't be surprised (even though we should be angered) when a school that is mostly black and poor has "bad" test scores, but are they as "bad" as we would expect given that they are black and poor? Are they showing improvement over time even if they are still "bad" in general?

You think your child deserves every "advantage?"
Education is a public good. In other words, we all benefit from an increase in the overall average quality/level of education. It's not (or at least shouldn't be) zero-sum.

You think this school is unsafe?
Too often (and often unwittingly), "unsafe" is code for "too black." It's racist (even if you're not a racist person). Bad things happen, and we all want kids to be safe. Often, we overlook or are shielded from the bad things that happen in "good" schools. At the same time, we focus on the bad things we hear about happening in "bad" schools (irrespective of their veracity) because they confirm our preconceptions. Regardless, poor and black students deserve to be as safe as affluent and white students.

You think "choice" is important?
Your economic advantage that allows you to move into the school district of your choice (or to opt into a private or charter school) means that you take your tax dollars, your charitable fundraising dollars, and your political capital with you, leaving behind those who are the most socioeconomically and politically marginalized. Choice is constrained for those who are poor.

Think your kid's different because they're special needs or gifted?
Going to a different district leaves poor kids who could benefit from such services behind. Your taxes could help pay for those programs, and your political capital could be wielded to expand and improve such services.

You don't think it's fair to "punish" your child to solve the problem?
Solving the problem only for your kid punishes the poor kids you leave behind.

You don't think it's your responsibility to fix a systemic problem?
Your kids benefit at the expense of others. Justice would demand that you are responsible. Granted, while staying put doesn't solve the problem, moving does exacerbate and exploit the problem. Political reform is needed (e.g. decoupling local education from local funding). It may not be your individual responsibility to fix the problem, but it is our collective duty.