Life still surprises: Where I expected full-on Kellerism -- reporting in which certain "settled" matters are declared unworthy of balanced coverage -- The New York Times offered, well, some degree of balance when writing about a controversial public figure and the intersection of education and faith.
Journey with me now, gentle reader, to the western Michigan shores of Lake Macatawa, where we find the city of Holland and the alma mater of one Betsy Prince, who in 1975 graduated from Holland Christian High School.
As Betsy Prince, the now 59-year-old graduate might not attract much public attention, and certainly not for where she attended high school.
However, as Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, there's plenty of interest in such details. As shown in the video clip above, DeVos isn't always warmly embraced by her hearers and is a controversial figure.
Take it away, New York Times:
The students formed a circle around the Rev. Ray Vanderlaan, who draped himself in a Jewish ceremonial prayer shawl to cap his final lesson to graduating seniors in his discipleship seminar at Holland Christian High School.
“We’re sending you out into a broken world, in part because of my generation,” the minister told the students. Referring to God, he exhorted them to “extend his kingdom.”
Mr. Vanderlaan could not have missed his lesson’s echoes of Holland Christian’s most famous graduate, Betsy DeVos, who proclaimed in an audio recording that surfaced in December that her education advocacy would “advance God’s kingdom.” Last month, in her first commencement address as education secretary, Ms. DeVos again reflected her own education when she told graduates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., that “my generation hasn’t done a great job when it comes to dealing with one another in grace.”
She continued, “You have an opportunity to do better.”
Holland Christian is one of several western Michigan nonpublic schools that have helped shape Ms. DeVos’s views of elementary and secondary education, and that her critics fear she will draw from to upend the nation’s public schools. The private Christian school that she attended, another that she sent her children to and a hardscrabble private religious school that she has long supported have dominated her time, money and attention.
I'll grant that there's a slight edge here: DeVos is said to have been shaped by schools whose worldview "her critics fear," and the story is topped, online, with a picture of a student in the hallways standing before a mural on which is printed "Transform the World for Jesus Christ," and the text of Matthew 6:10, " ... your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
Only the sawdust trail was missing.
But move past the top-heavy visual-and-text demarcation of Holland, Mich., as ground-zero for "Jesusland," so called, and you find a rather evenhanded approach to HC High itself and the other schools with which DeVos is associated in the story. The Education Secretary gets to put her views out there first, for a change:
Critics say this lopsided exposure fueled Ms. DeVos’s staunch support of privately run, publicly funded charter schools and voucher programs that allow families to take tax dollars from the public education system to private schools.
In an interview, Ms. DeVos disagreed, saying the schools in which she has personal investment reflect only an agenda of empowering parents with a right that she was afforded by privilege: choice.
“Some say, ‘You’re trying to force all families to make choices other than public schools,’ and the response to that is, ‘Absolutely not,’” Ms. DeVos said. “If your public school is working great for your child, you should embrace that and support it and celebrate it. And if not, you should have the opportunity to choose something different.”
Times reporter Erica L. Green -- who the next day examined a private, non-parochial, aviation-focused charter high school Betsy and Dick DeVos sponsored in Grand Rapids -- did a great job of putting Betsy's high school days in perspective:
Ms. DeVos attended the elementary, middle and high schools at Holland Christian. Students there go to chapel three times a week, a display of crucifixes from around the world graces the main corridor and the school’s sports teams are encouraged to “compete in God-honoring ways.”
Ms. DeVos was not as cloistered as her schooling would suggest, she said. She attended dances and football games with her public school friends because there were none at Holland Christian. She recalled that for her high school’s junior banquet, students would decorate the gym, get dressed up, go out to eat and then go home.
“I thought: ‘That is really dumb. We need to have dancing,’” she said. During her junior year, her parents began sponsoring dances off-site after the banquet, a tradition that continues.
For those unfamiliar with the region, Holland, and much of western Michigan is heavily Calvinist and a tad austere, perhaps owing to the often-inhospitable existence farmers there had in the Depression years and at other times. The 1984 film "Footloose" could've been set in Holland, Mich., almost as easily as in its fictional burgh of Bomont.
We also learn the commitment of Betsy and husband Dick DeVos to private education extended to their daughters, each of whom attended the $10,000-per-year Grand Rapids Christian High School:
On a recent visit, the school looked like a relaxed comprehensive public high school: Students lounged in the hallway eating ice cream cones or bantered with their chemistry teacher. The school embraces both secular and nonsecular curriculums. Students learn creationism and evolution and study other religious influences like Hinduism.
“It’s impossible to separate God and Scripture from any other aspect of life,” but other influences do intrude, [high school superintendent Tom] DeJonge said. “We do not put our heads in the sand, and neither does Betsy.”
Larry Borst, who taught all of the DeVos children, recalled their asking probing questions about religion. They did not expect to be treated any differently just because their last name adorned buildings across town.
“Sure, they went on better vacations, but they’re just dirt-floor people,” Mr. Borst said.
I'm guessing the DeVos' floors weren't comprised of actual dirt, but it's a nice touch.
Because this really is a balanced story, DeVos' critics -- in this case the head of the teachers' union in Grand Rapids and a former state legislator who now heads the Michigan Democratic Party -- have their say. The politician, Brandon Dillard, anoints DeVos as "Public Enemy No. 1 for public schools."
But the overall tone of this piece is one of seeking to explain how Christian education influenced the nation's top education official and her family. Indeed, the Times makes strenuous efforts to show the positive effects of the schools DeVos attended or has supported financially and as a volunteer. The people involved in the schools are allowed to present and explain their viewpoint without too much scorn being heaped upon them.
That may sound like what should be standard journalism practice, but coverage that is, dare one say, truly "Fair and Balanced" is hard to come by in some precincts nowadays. If it weren't your GetReligionistas might have much less to blog about.
Your correspondent grew up in New York City and attended a non-religious private high school just off of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I have a sense of what the target New York Times reader might believe about the world in which Betsy DeVos was educated. That the paper and its reporter went beyond stereotypes to present useful information in a straightforward manner is a pleasant surprise and one worthy of commendation.
INITIAL IMAGE: Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 CPAC event in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.