Why the Duggars Say They’re Not Quiverfull

On Facebook a friend who is familiar with my area of research asked me to weigh in on the Josh Duggar scandal. (For anyone who has just returned from hiking in the wilderness without any access to TV or social media for the past few days, I’m talking about the oldest son of the “19 Kids and Counting” reality TV show who recently admitted to having molested five young girls twelve years ago when he was fourteen.) While there’s been plenty of the typical inane news coverage, there has also been very thoughtful critique from bloggers who are familiar with the social and religious circles in which the Duggars move. Some of these bloggers explain how the absence of consent is at the heart of this situation, the theology behind this absence, how these views warp normal human development, and the frustration with major media outlets who never seem to get it

These writers do such a great job that there doesn’t seem to be much more for me to say about the situation even though I wrote an entire dissertation that traced the social and rhetorical development of “family values” and its legacy in the Duggar’s strain of Christian fundamentalism.

But my friend’s question on Facebook reminded me that I do have something to say, particularly for readers who had normal American childhoods going to public school, summer camp, playing sports, taking dance classes, and watching cartoons Saturday morning. Since the Duggars are white and speak standard American English, it can be very easy to assume they are just like you–only a boatload more kids than were in your home growing up. But they’re not, and this blogger does a great job explaining why that matters.

On the other hand, most mainstream Americans have a very limited vocabulary for talking about people like the Duggars are on the far right edge of Protestant fundamentalism (or getting close to it). There’s the c-word, cult, and that’s about as far as it goes. The problem with using cult to describe these contexts is that it invokes a world that doesn’t capture the reality of this strain of Protestant fundamentalism very well at all. It invokes a world of recruits confined to damp basements, chanting crowds, forced behaviors, members cut off from family and friends, a top-down-structure with clearly defined hierarchies.

This is not the Duggars’ world. Their strain of fundamentalism doesn’t function like a 1970s cult with a rigid boundaries between the in-group and out-group. Rather, its processes are thoroughly post-structural. Everything Foucault said about atomized power applies here. While there are certainly specific organizations such as IBPL, Vision Forum (recently defunct), or HSLDA, like the Moral Majority of the 1980s, no one organization has exclusive influence over other orbiting bodies of related and often overlapping ideology.  And I haven’t even begun to name all the homeschooling conferences, the para-church organizations, and lobbying groups who also circulate in this universe. The leadership of these groups often share personal connections; individuals who attend their conferences, read their materials, and buy into their ideology mix and mingle–they don’t identify with just one organization. Therefore, people like the Duggars can deny being part of “the Quiverfull movement” as so many journalists call it, because to them it’s not about joining an organized movement, but about following a very narrow, (to them) literal interpretation of the Bible.

As a result, unlike traditional hierarchical religious structures where members can be compelled to comply with the institution on the basis of its authority alone, these organizations evolve in a marketplace of ideas where speakers and writers must draw on all available means to draw an audience for what they are selling. As a result, rhetorical appeals in this universe are often fascinating to analyze as they are layered with obscure references, audience identity-building, scapegoating, and fear mongering. Like cults, people are drawn in by the promise of identification with success and goodness and division from all that is wrong with the world.

Where the most disturbing power dynamics play out is in the home. The absolute power typically associated with cults happens not so much in the organization (unless you happen to be so unlucky as to work at its headquarters, or attend its schools), but is reserved for the patriarchal figure who maintains a cult-like control over his family. Yet this control is cloaked in nostalgic “family values” terminology that assumes parental figures must “shelter” children by shutting out the evil of the world “out there” and grooming them to become compliant members of the household. Cultivating the image of successfully shielding one’s family from the influences of the broader world becomes paramount–the means for accumulating social capital in these religious circles.

And the day it is discovered that their child has molested other children in the home, it is far more important to maintain the image of innocence than experience the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they have failed in their life’s mission to keep their children pure from the filth of the sinful world. Since they rejected women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy long ago, there is little impetus for recognizing the personal horror of the assault on the victims. Rather, “forgiveness” becomes a useful term for maintaining the charade that all is well. The only time that Christian fundamentalists like these have any interest in the idea of equality is when it helps them mask the abuse of power.

And they get away with it because of the loose network of organizations that resists any real accountability for heads of households. It allows the Duggars to claim they are just following the Bible, not an abuse-condoning organization. And when this happens to a family that doesn’t have a public image to maintain, this hyper-individualistic structure allows others in their community to turn a blind eye, pretend they didn’t see anything. Because nothing is quite so sacred to these folks as the independence of the nuclear family–not even the well-being of young children.

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More Thoughts on Ed Tech

Today I find myself at the tail end of finals, a brief season of role-reversal where students work while professors Facebook.

As a follow-up to my previous post, I wanted to point out a recent article that made a similar point, Why Technology Will Never Fix Education. The first comments showed how deeply the author’s argument resonated with many (although the defenders of ed tech soon swooped in to defend their turf, reminding readers that chalkboards are technology too–a wet-noodle counter-argument for sure). Technology can only amplify what is already present, offering excellent opportunities for school settings that are already doing well, but doing little good (if any) in schools that are suffering from lack of resources.

In other words, all that tech-rich education can actually promise is making tech companies rich. Doing this in the face of slashed federal, state, and local education budgets shows what a detriment high-tech can be when it is valued more than things such as small classrooms, current text books, arts programs, professional development, and nutritious food.

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“Message” Misses the Point

Recently a Huff Po article, Message to My Freshman Students, has been stirring up discussion on my Facebook feed. The author, Keith Parsons, PhD., is a philosophy professor who expresses frustration with the expectations his first-year students bring to college.  While his overall tone is condescending and somewhat abrasive, he owns those qualities, essentially telling his students to toughen up and take responsibility for their own learning.

I’m divided in my reaction to this open letter. On one hand, the tone is off-putting. I know how difficult it can be to learn when a philosophy of “students are responsible for their own learning” is interpreted as a license for terrible teaching. Even when such classrooms might claim to be student-centered with teachers/instructors refraining from lecturing or offering much of any conceptual framing, students may not actually learn much when they haven’t the foggiest about what do do with the content of the course. Luckily for me, I’ve suffered very little from boring lectures, but I’ve survived enough dense conference presentations to grasp how very painful they must be, especially when accompanied by dismissive attitude. And Parsons seems to be justifying that kind of approach.

On the other hand, as a graduate instructor and now as an assistant professor, I also have been exasperated at some students’ expectations that college will spoon-feed them–not just broccoli and peas, but pureed broccoli and peas. And if they spit them out, their professors should sweeten them with sugar and thin them out with enough water so that the course work can be bottle-fed too.

But when students’ educational experiences have been dominated by testing-taking, we shouldn’t be so surprised by these expectations. What I find far more troubling is when a similar message comes through teaching and learning materials that tell professors to take lessons from computer games to “game-ify” their courses or to offer points as motivation for every little desired behavior. Although I have learned much from these kinds of books such as Teaching Naked and Make it Stick, I’m troubled when these suggestions are accompanied by the implicit promise that if only teachers were to use the proffered strategy of the month, students would magically transform into the white unicorns we’ve been waiting for.

My hunch is that students’ lack of engagement may be less about course content and teaching style and more about being 19 and doubtful that investing effort will ultimately serve them well. It’s more about managing jobs, extra-curricular activities, illnesses (mental and physical), family responsibilities, and school all at the same time. It’s more about being caught between the rock of “you-must-go-to-college-or-you’ll-be-doomed-for-life” and the hard place of “there’s-no-guarantee-you’ll-get-a-job-that-justifies-your-student-loans-in-the-end-anyway.”

So maybe the question of where responsibility for student learning lies–with the hard-nosed professor or with the infantile student–is beside the point. Maybe lack of student engagement has as much to do with an environment of lackluster opportunity for students and too many underpaid, overworked professors. Maybe it’s about an environment where funding for education is slashed year after year and where trade deals ship opportunity overseas while those of us who should know better fight over crumbs.

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