ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT–MORE THOUGHTS

It’s been too long since I last posted. I marvel at bloggers who are constantly connected and constantly conversing with the rest of us. All I can figure is that they have more hours in their days than the paltry twenty-four I get.

It’s been nearly two weeks—the internet equivalent of an “eon”—since I wrote about the academic freedom I’ve known at Wheaton College these past six years. I wasn’t trying to make a systematic argument comparing secular and Christian contexts. I just wanted to testify to my experience. Ever since my colleague Dr. Larycia Hawkins posted comments comparing Christianity and Islam last month, Wheaton has been the focal point of a social media frenzy. Champions and critics have rushed to do battle, one side denouncing Hawkins for her fanaticism, the other condemning the college for its bigotry. Charity has been scarce, but there’s been more than enough dogmatism to go around. As Alan Jacobs has observed, both sides seem able “to read the minds and hearts of people they don’t know.”

The goal of my previous post was not to take sides in the dispute, but to take issue with critics who insist that academic freedom can’t exist in a confessional community. For me, joining the Wheaton faculty in 2010 after twenty-two years at the University of Washington was a profoundly liberating experience. Day after day, I enjoy a degree of freedom in the classroom here that far exceeds what I knew at UW. And day after day, the freedom that I feel here thrills my heart and nourishes my soul.

This post elicited some thoughtful responses, and I’d like to reply to one of them briefly. One commenter says that his experience teaching at two Christian colleges was less positive than mine has been, and I take his testimony seriously. I also respect his conclusion that he “functions much more effectively . . . at a secular institution.” If that is true, then a secular institution is where he should be. And let me add here that I have no doubt that God often calls believing scholars to secular schools and empowers them to labor faithfully. But Steve’s point is not simply that his story is different from mine. While he respects the “many excellent scholars at Christian” institutions and the “amazing work” that they do, he knows that no school that requires its faculty to affirm a statement of faith can pretend that it also honors academic freedom. The two are simply “incompatible.”

So where does this leave us? I observed that I feel greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I experienced at my previous secular institution. Steve replied in so many words, “No, you don’t.” Wheaton may be a “good fit” for me, but what I’m experiencing here can’t be true academic freedom because, as he understands it, academic freedom can’t exist here.

We’re at an impasse. But before we throw up our hands and drop the matter, it might be worthwhile to go back and define our terms. To paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya, let’s make sure that “academic freedom” means what we think it means. The early-twentieth-century historian Carl Becker once wrote, “When I meet a word with which I am entirely unfamiliar, I find it a good plan to look it up in the dictionary and find out what someone thinks it means. But when I have frequently to use words with which everyone is perfectly familiar . . . the wise thing to do is take a week off and think about them. The result is often astonishing; for as often as not I find that I have been talking about words instead of real things.”

Maybe we need to take Becker’s advice and revisit what we mean by “academic freedom.” What we cannot mean by the phrase is the liberty publicly to explore, espouse, and promote any conceivable value or set of values as an employee of an academic institution. Such a definition would be utterly useless, for I know of no place where it exists.

The unsubstantiated, near universal assumption suffusing the present controversy is the fiction that secular schools erect no boundaries to academic expression. When Steve says that secular universities “do not require people to hold a certain perspective,” I don’t begin to know how to respond. I could quickly tick off a long list of conservative political or moral positions that are unacceptable across a broad swath of today’s secular Academy.  There are countless positions which, if not kept private, would effectively preclude those who hold them from promotion and tenure, or even the possibility of employment to begin with. There’s no need to make such a list, however, because one simple example will suffice.

Today’s secular Academy insists that faculty adhere, at least publicly, to a materialist, rationalist world view. Its credo, to quote atheist Matthew Stewart, is that “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it.” In theory, at least, faculty are utterly “free” to pursue truth wherever it leads, as long as they do nothing to challenge this a priori answer to the most fundamental of all human questions.

Again, Alan Jacobs puts it well:

Imagine a tenured professor of history at a public university who announces, “After much study and reflection I have come to believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ holds the full meaning of historical experience, and henceforth I will teach all my classes from that point of view.” Would the university’s declared commitment to academic freedom allow him to keep his job? No, because he will be said to have violated one of the core principles of that particular academic community, which is to bracket questions of religious belief rather than advocate for a particular religious view.

I would add to Jacobs’ example that if the hypothetical public university in question ousted this trouble-maker, it would deny that it had infringed on his academic freedom. If this looks like hypocrisy to an objective bystander, technically it’s not. This is because when the twenty-first century university speaks of freedom, it really has in mind a concept closer to the seventeenth and eighteenth-century meaning of liberty. Three centuries ago, liberty meant the freedom to behave uprightly. It was commonly contrasted with license, the practice of abusing freedom by behaving immorally. From the dominant viewpoint of the secular Academy, appeals to religious truths are intrinsically illegitimate, which means that no educator has a moral right to make them in the classroom, and an institution committed to academic freedom has every moral right to prohibit them. It’s a comforting rationale.

Let’s be clear: neither Christian nor secular institutions exalt unfettered academic freedom as their highest good or as an end in itself. This is because both claim to serve something larger, whether they speak in terms of “the public good” or of “Christ and His Kingdom” (goals that are hardly mutually exclusive, by the way). In pursuit of these greater goods, both Christian and secular schools establish boundaries within which they expect their faculty to operate.

The main difference I see is that the secular Academy denies that it does so.

4 responses to “ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT–MORE THOUGHTS

  1. Pingback: ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND “SAFE SPACES” | Faith and History

  2. This post is quite insightful. I worked at a secular university for 25 years fulltime and for 2 years part time after retiring. The boundaries for exposition of moral views have tightened in recent years on subjects that effect moral priorities of many Christians. I taught tax accounting which was a safe, technical field for many years since we dealt with technical tax problems as well as professional responsibilities in tax practice but not with otherwise controversial issues. However, I also taught a business ethics class for a number of years in the MBA program where I was able to bring in a Christian perspective on business decision making as part of a pluralistic approach which included discussions of business issues from a range of world views including other major religions as well as secular philosophical perspectives. I always posted an autobiographical sketch of my professional background and world view which is rooted in Christian Scripture and tradition. I am not sure that someone with my commitments will be hired in the future in areas that are not more technical such as tax accounting. I enjoyed my years of teaching and research but am less optimistic about the future of a true pluralistic perspective where Christianity is often viewed with open skepticism.

  3. Great reads. Thanks. I’ll definitely file this one away for future reference.

  4. Like yourself, I have taught in both a secular (public high school) and an evangelical Christian (Wheaton College) environment. The boundary that I could not cross as a high school history teacher was to use my classes as a forum for teaching about the doctrines of my faith or for trying to convert my students to my particular faith. I was never, however, forced to falsify the history I was teaching in order to meet some secular materialist standard. I felt free to teach about the world view of the Puritans and the impact of the Great Awakening on American society. Since this was some years ago, perhaps this would not be as true today. At Wheaton, I was much freer to explain the implications of my faith for the practical act of teaching (I taught Education Methods). The boundary at Wheaton was that I was not free to lead my students into some kind of cult or a system of beliefs that denied their Christian faith. All of us and all institutions operate from within a world view that creates possibilities and establishes boundaries. If we don’t want to act within those boundaries, we need to go elsewhere.

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