Monthly Archives: September 2016

“PREDICTING THE NEXT PRESIDENT”

As a general rule, predicting the future is not something historians are typically comfortable with. Most of us believe that human behavior is far too complex to reduce to a deterministic formula, and we generally maintain that the value of studying the past is not that it helps us to predict the future, but that it equips us to face it more wisely.

But not all historians would agree.  An interesting exception is Professor Allan Lichtman of American University, a specialist in American political history.  I first figuratively encountered Professor Lichtman as an undergraduate when I was assigned his book Historians and the Living Past, a primer on the theory and practice of history.  Then in graduate school I did my best to wade through a second book of his with the scintillating title Ecological Inference (an introduction to multivariate regression analysis that was mostly over my head).

lichtmanProfessor Lichtman is in the news these days because he has developed a model that has successfully predicted the outcome of every presidential election since 1984.  Lichtman’s basic premise is that presidential elections are referenda primarily on popular attitudes toward the party controlling the White House, and he has devised a series of thirteen key variables that shape the level of public satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the incumbent and his party.

You can follow this link to a brief five-minute interview with Professor Lichtman.  Lichtman’s model predicts that the GOP should win this November but he himself is skeptical.  Lichtman suggests that the idiosyncratic nature of Donald Trump’s candidacy may mean that his explanatory model will no longer work.  If Lichtman is correct, his analysis offers a sophisticated statistical defense for a claim widely made this fall, namely that almost any Republican presidential candidate other than Donald Trump would be heavily favored to claim the White House.

POLITICAL DEBATES THEN AND NOW

So what will you be watching tonight on CNN?  I’ll confess that I plan on catching at least a part of tonight’s presidential debate, but then I also slow down to look at fender-benders on the side of the interstate when I pass by.  I don’t expect to see anything edifying, but somehow the possibility of witnessing something grotesque is just too hard to pass up.

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Given that I spent much of the summer working through the papers of Abraham Lincoln, I know in advance that I’ll spend much of the evening thinking about how political debates have changed over the last century and a half.  When Lincoln famously debated Stephen Douglas in 1858 for a seat in the U. S. Senate, there was no moderator–only a timekeeper–and no pre-announced topics.  The first speaker had an hour for an opening statement, the second speaker was given an hour and a half for a rebuttal, and the first speaker concluded the evening with a thirty-minute rejoinder.  (Lincoln and Douglas took turns going first over the course of their seven debates.)  Tonight the candidates will offer a series of two-minute responses to six questions posed by a moderator (Lester Holt of NBC News), interspersed with responses to each other of similar length.  The entire debate is scheduled to last for ninety minutes.

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The differences are instructive.  Surely they say something about the collective attention span of the Twitter Age, although I realize that in pointing that out I risk being dismissed for the old fogy that I am.  But seriously, who believes that such a format promotes anything but superficiality?  Does anyone seriously expect that a two-minute answer to a question on economic recovery or the federal debt or national security does anything but trivialize these difficult challenges?  The format reminds me of the Miss America pageant, or better yet, American Idol.  Why not replace the moderator with a panel of celebrity judges?

Political journalist Elizabeth Drew had an insightful editorial in today’s Washington Post (“Presidential Debates Seriously Distort Our Democratic System”).  Drew makes the very good point that

The debates test qualities that have virtually nothing to do with governing. Governing requires thoughtfulness, study, depth, patience, the ability to draw the most useful information out of advisers and arrive at the wisest policy. Consider the qualities that enabled John F. Kennedy to prevent the discovery that the Soviets had stationed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba from escalating into a calamity. During that tense showdown, Kennedy most definitely didn’t utilize his considerable wit and zealously avoided publicly humiliating Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet employing wit and one-upping an opponent are the two qualities most prized in the debates.

I think she’s right.  And my concerns were hardly alleviated when I went to the CNN website and saw that they have a feature with film clips from past debates highlighting the “best debate knockout lines“–exactly the one-liners that Drew is descrying as a false criterion on presidential potential.  Sigh.

 

“VOTER ANGER” IN 1776

Angry voters are everywhere these days, apparently.  We’re fed up, put out, put off, irate, furious, and enraged.  Depending on who you ask, voter anger is an irrepressible force welling up from the rank and file of common Americans or a tempest cynically manufactured by calculating politicians, celebrity pundits, and Fox News.  Depending on your perspective, it is popular democracy at its finest or a populist threat to democracy itself.  This much seems clear, however: 2016 will be remembered as the “Year of the Angry Voter.”

So is voter outrage a constructive force or an irrational threat?  My guess is that how we each answer that question will stem more from our personal philosophies and understanding of human nature than from a purported objective assessment of the current political landscape.  I know that that is the case with me.  When I think about today’s angry climate, my mind turns automatically to the New Testament admonition to be “slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).  I think Scripture teaches that anger can be righteous, but in our fallenness it rarely is.  Is the anger that we feel a righteous wrath against injustice, an expression of our zeal for the Lord and our love for His creation?  Or does it stem from other recesses of the heart?  I can’t say dogmatically, but surely this is the most important question we need to ask about it.

As a historian, I find myself wondering if there’s a careful study that puts voter anger in historical context.  (There may well be; I welcome your recommendations if you know of any.)  It would be interesting to see how 2016 compares in the intensity of voter outrage, and also enlightening to see what concrete results have followed in other times and places marked by strong voter discontent.

As I do every fall, I’m currently teaching a survey of American History up through the Civil War, and it occurs to me that the case can be made that the United States was born in an outburst of indignation.  I say this because my class and I just got finished discussing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, surely the most influential single work of political propaganda in our history.  Pay no attention to the pamphlet’s title. It was Paine’s anger—not his reasoned argument—that made Common Sense an overnight sensation.

paineThomas Pain (he added the “e” to his name later) only arrived in America in 1774, less than a year before the first blood was shed on Lexington Green to mark the onset of the American Revolutionary War.  Thirty-seven years old, his life to this point had been marked by failure.  The son of a corset-maker in the village of Thetford, England, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, being apprenticed to a stay-maker at age thirteen and spending the next twelve years of his life making whalebone ribbing for women’s corsets.  Dissatisfied with this life (wonder why?), at age twenty-five he left his skilled craft to become, at various times, a tax collector, a schoolteacher, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop.  By 1774, his business was bankrupt, he was separated from his wife, and his life was in shambles.  With a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he set sail for the colonies to start life anew as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine.

If prominent Founders John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush are to be trusted, Paine’s first anonymous essays actually condemned the patriot cause.  Even if untrue—it’s hard to know for sure—it is undeniable that Paine was an extremely recent convert to the cause when Rush convinced him in late 1775 to use his considerable writing talents to craft a case for independence.  Paine responded with a medium length pamphlet (in my edition it’s about fifty pages long) that was rushed into print by January of 1776.  To put this in context, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred the previous April, followed three months later by the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Despite the reality of open war against British rule, popular opinion across the colonies was still divided, and although there were no opinion polls, it seems likely that a decided majority of Americans still hoped for a compromise in which the colonies would be granted greater autonomy over local affairs but remain part of the British Empire as loyal subjects of George III.

Sentiment had begun to change even as Paine sat down to write.  News arrived in the colonies that George III had rejected a petition from the Second Continental Congress pleading for reconciliation and had branded the colonists “rebels.”  News followed soon afterward that the King had hired German mercenaries and intended to use them to subdue American resistance militarily.  Then came reports from within the colonies that the governor of Virginia was actually inviting the slaves of disloyal masters to join the British Army and was offering them freedom in exchange for their aid in subduing their former owners.  Although even now few dared to call openly for independence, the moderate argument for reconciliation was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.

This was the setting when the first copies of Common Sense hit the streets at sixpence each.  Within three months 120,000 copies were in circulation, and the number of colonists who actually read the pamphlet (or heard it read) was far larger.  A rough estimate would be that by April 1776 one half of all the households in the colonies had a copy.  For a comparable sensation, imagine a book released today selling forty million copies by Christmas!

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Paine’s case for independence was scattered—an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of argument.  He told readers that government was at best a necessary evil, and he appealed to natural law, Scripture, history, and self-interest to convince his readers that further allegiance to Britain was preposterous.  The most coherent portions of his argument were hardly new; the parts of his argument that were new were hardly coherent.  He argued, for example, that there was not a single benefit to membership in the British Empire, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.  He borrowed selectively from Scripture to argue that ancient Israel had been a republic and that the Lord condemned all monarchy.  (When John Adams privately told Paine that his reasoning from the Old Testament was “ridiculous,” Paine only laughed and made clear that he held the entire Bible in contempt.)

No, it was not Paine’s reason that made Common Sense a sensation.  Two other factors were paramount.  The first was the work’s accessibility.  Most of the political literature of the period was written for a highly educated audience of elites, complete with historical references, literary allusions, and Latin quotations.  Paine’s work was short, full of short sentences and short words that sent no one to the dictionary.

The second factor was the author’s rage, which seems to have resonated powerfully with the mass of Americans.  For its day, the language of Common Sense was coarse and shocking.  Here are some examples:

* The judgment of those who venerated the British constitutional system rendered them unqualified to speak to the present debate in the same way that “a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife.”

* On hereditary monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

* On William the Conqueror and the origins of the British monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”

* On George III: “a royal brute,” a “wretch” with “blood upon his soul” who wields “barbarous and hellish power” against his supposed children.

But Paine saved his greatest invective for the colonists who dared to disagree with him.  His ad hominem attacks began with the pamphlet’s title: the argument for independence was “common sense,” which meant that all who argued otherwise were either malevolent or stupid.  In Paine’s accounting, no one opposed independence for principled reasons.  They were either “interested men, who cannot be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; [or] prejudiced men, who will not see.”   Warming to his task, Paine told Americans that anyone who would favor reconciliation with Britain after blood had been shed had “the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”  (Look up that last adjective.  It’s not a compliment.)

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass."

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”

Although they readily acknowledged Paine’s polemical skills, few of the men we now revere as “Founding Fathers” thought highly of the writer.  Rumors circulated from the beginning that his personal habits were dissolute and that he rarely wrote until his third tumbler of brandy.  His supporters got him a position as a clerk to the committee on foreign affairs but he was soon dismissed due to his “obnoxious” manners.  When he sailed for France in 1781, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote from Philadelphia that “there never was a man less beloved in a place than Payne [sic] is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody.  The most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit.”

Paine further alienated his adopted country when he denounced Christianity in his 1794 work The Age of Reason.  Writing mostly from a French prison—Paine was variously in and out of favor in France during the French Revolution—Paine judged Christianity as “too absurd for belief.”  “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he opined, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”

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Writing from France in 1796, Thomas Paine publicly denounced President George Washington for his “ingratitude” and “hypocrisy.”

And when President George Washington didn’t act aggressively enough to try to get him released from his French dungeon, Paine further offended Americans by writing a lengthy (64-page) public letter to Washington berating the Father of their Country for his “deceit,” “ingratitude,” “hypocrisy,” “meanness,” “vanity,” “perfidy,” and “pusillanimity,” among other character qualities.  Americans had won their independence through no thanks to General Washington, Paine informed the president, for you “slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” and deserve “but little share in the glory of the final event.”  “And as to you, sir,” Paine concluded, “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”

Having denounced both Jesus and George Washington, Paine was now heartily despised by most Americans, to the degree that they remembered him at all.  He eventually returned to the United States in the early 1800s—he had nowhere else to go—and eventually settled on a modest farm in New Rochelle, New York.  There he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1809.  Most Americans now viewed him as a scoundrel and a self-promoter who turned on those who failed to support him.  The author of the most popular political tract ever written in American history was laid to rest with no fanfare, and little mourning.

HOW AMERICANS “SEE” JESUS: HISTORY’S DISTURBING INSIGHT

Even though we’ve already been back in class for four weeks at Wheaton College, it’s still technically summer, and the weather was absolutely glorious here.  I took the opportunity to spend a couple of hours earlier today on one of my favorite benches at Lake Ellyn Park, which is only five minutes by car from campus.  That’s one of the perks of my job that I treasure—the opportunity to do at least part of my work while enjoying a view like the one below.

lake-ellyn-september-2016

I was using the time to review for a class on race and ethnicity in U. S. history that I am co-teaching with my colleague, Karen Johnson.  At Karen’s recommendation, one of the books that the students are reading is The Color of Christ, by historians Ed Blum and Paul Harvey.  Just moments ago, I finished our first class discussion of the book.  (There will be more.)  It is a provocative book in more ways than one, and the discussion prompted me to re-post an essay that I shared nearly three years ago shortly after I first read The Color of Christ along with two other books that take a historical look at how Americans have “seen” Jesus over the past few centuries.  All though I do not endorse them equally, I believe that all three books are cautionary tales with insights that we need to hear.  I hope you’ll read on.

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In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes the following:

Historical perspective should make us more humble and cautious about ourselves.  People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too.  Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that “what is” is what was meant to be.

What Bendroth is telling us is that we do not naturally think of the values that we hold (what we believe, how we think, how we behave) as influenced by the historical context in which we live.  The beliefs of people in other times and places may strike us as peculiar, but not our own.  No, our way of looking at the world strikes us (if we stop to question it at all) as obvious, self-evident, natural.  Our way of thinking requires no explanation.  It just is.  It’s the deviations from our pattern that demand justification.

Reflecting on this very human trait always brings to mind an observation that my younger daughter made many years ago, when she was about four years old.  To understand this illustration, you have to know that both my wife and I were born and raised in the South, and when we moved to Seattle (and the University of Washington) right after I finished graduate school, among the baggage that each of us took with us was a couple of substantial southern accents.  My wife’s drawl was substantially moderated by several years of classical voice training, but I struggled (and to some degree, still do) not to sound like Gomer Pyle with a Ph.D., and our children, quite naturally, absorbed much of their parents’ speech patterns.  And so for years after we settled in the Pacific Northwest, it was not  uncommon for guests to our home to comment on our accents.

On one such occasion, our precocious four-year-old overheard a visitor talking about her daddy’s accent, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, she tugged on my pants’ leg and pulled me aside to ask a question.  “What’s an accent?” she asked, and I did my best to explain the concept.  She seemed to follow my explanation, but she still looked troubled.   “You don’t have an accent, Daddy,” she declared emphatically, her southern drawl reminiscent of molasses oozing across a plate.  “You talk just like I do!”

One of history’s priceless benefits, potentially, is that it can help us see with new eyes what we would otherwise take for granted.  It rattles our complacency, challenging us to think more deeply about the things we see as too self-evident to require explanation.  By introducing us to people from other times and places who saw things differently, history can put our own values to the test.  And in doing so, it makes it easier for us to fulfill the biblical injunction to “take very thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

Over Christmas vacation I read three related books that powerfully illustrate this benefit.  This semester I am co-teaching for the first time a course on race and ethnicity in U. S. history, and with that course in mind, I picked up The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.  As the title suggests, the authors are interested in how Americans have imagined Jesus in racial terms over the course of U. S. history.  (Was Jesus fair-skinned?  dark complected?)  Although focused specifically on attitudes about race, the book offers a convicting case study of the ways that cultural values inform–and often distort–the substance of our religious faith.

For broader context, I also read two other works of history that speak to this larger topic:  American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), by Stephen Prothero; and Jesus: Made in America (Intervarsity Press, 2008), by Stephen J. Nichols.  Both works echo The Color of Christ in documenting the myriad ways that Americans’ changing values over the centuries have influenced their religious convictions as reflected in their perceptions of the nature of Jesus.

American jesusI don’t endorse each of these books equally.  Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, is the kind of public authority on religion who gets invited to appear on Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or the Colbert Report.  These are not venues that typically promote deep reflection.  American Jesus is an entertaining read, but maybe more clever than insightful.  I couldn’t help suspecting that Prothero writes at times with shock value in mind.  As he explains early on, when he refers to “Jesus” he does not mean the man from Galilee whom Christians believe to be the Son of God; rather, he has in mind the “American Jesus” (hence the title of the book),  i.e., Jesus as Americans have perceived him.  Whether their perceptions are true to who Jesus really was (and is) does not interest him, and it is not at all clear that he would even view the question as important.   Perceptions of Jesus should change over time, he says.  “Only dead religions stay the same; living faiths adapt continuously to changes in their environment.”

color of christ 3The Color of Christ is a very different book.  Published by a university press, its primary intended audience (I am inferring here) is readers within the academy.  (Both authors work within the Academy themselves, Blum at San Diego State University and Harvey at the University of Colorado.)  The prose is denser than Prothero’s, the tone far more serious.   Blum and Harvey begin the book with a somber vignette: a sobering account of the 1963 bombing by white supremacists of the all-black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama.  In addition to taking the lives of four little girls, the dynamite planted by opponents of integration marvelously (miraculously?) also shattered the face of Jesus in the church’s stained-glass window.  “In the blink of an eye,” Blum and Harvey write, “the prince of peace was made a casualty of race war.”  The authors see the tragic episode as a kind of parable, underscoring how central images of Jesus have been to American understandings of race.

Jesus Made in AmericaJesus: Made in America is yet another kind of book with a different kind of emphasis.  While Stephen Prothero breezily reviews how Americans of all races and creeds have thought about Jesus, and Blum and Harvey focus specifically on how a broad sampling of Americans have imputed racial characteristics to Jesus, Stephen Nichols is interested particularly in the perceptions of American evangelicals regarding the Man from Nazareth.  An evangelical himself (a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and a professor of theology at Lancaster Bible College), Nichols writes openly to evangelicals as well as about them.

For all their differences in background and approach, all three works arrive at a core of strikingly similar conclusions.  Taking the long view of American perceptions of Jesus over the past four centuries, the evidence is overwhelming that Americans–including American evangelicals–have allowed the values of their culture to influence significantly how they envision Jesus.

Focusing on American racial attitudes, Blum and Harvey conclude that, as Americans imagined visual images of Jesus (who began to become white in their minds’ eye in the early nineteenth century), “they made a sacred window through which they could see their hopes, fears, dreams, and conflicts in racial and religious forms.”

Reviewing American attitudes more broadly, Prothero observes, “In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in His own image: in the United States, Americans have created Jesus, over and over again, in theirs.”  We have constantly imagined a Jesus who affirmed precisely the values we already hold, Prothero determines.  From our particular vantage points, we have imagined him as manly and effeminate, ” a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator.”

Nichols heartily agrees.  The review of American evangelicals’ perceptions of Jesus over time demonstrates “the ways in which we have capitulated to our culture and have subjected Christ to our cultural predilections.”

Unlike the other two works, however, Nichols’ Jesus: Made in America seeks to edify as well as educate.  Repeatedly, he challenges evangelical readers to find lessons in the story that he tells.  If, after reading his book, we simply click our teeth in judgment of our ancestors for their blindness to the ways that they conformed to the culture, Nichols knows that he has failed.  Rather, he wants us to see ourselves–at least potentially–in the pages he has written.  He insists that his account should serve “as a parable for contemporary American evangelicals.”  The trap that ensnared previous generations can capture us as well.  What arrogance to think that we will be immune to the temptation to let the culture shape our faith!  In this sense, the movement away from an orthodox understanding of Jesus across American history should make us fearful rather than judgmental.

In the course of his study, Nichols points to several aspects of evangelical belief that make us especially vulnerable to being conformed to the world without even knowing it.  Rather than summarize his argument, I will recommend that you spend time with the book yourself.  I can’t resist sharing one of the factors that he pinpoints, however: we ignore the past as a source of wisdom.  This dismissive attitude toward history–what one specialist on American religious values has termed “historylessness”–“leaves American evangelicals more vulnerable than most when it comes to cultural pressures and influences.”

It’s a sobering assessment.

“ANTIDOTES TO VOTER ANGER”

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Wheaton College Political Science professor Amy Black is a regular contributor to The Table, the online journal sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.  In the latest issue, Black writes about “Antidotes to Voter Anger.”  Self-styled “realists” will dismiss her suggestions as naïve, but we ought to find them convicting.  Here are her concluding thoughts:

Given the current state of American politics, Christians have great opportunities to model a different style of political communication. When political debates grow intense and anger rises, we need not respond in kind. Instead, we can make every effort not to incite more anger. At times, this may require refusing to speak or respond at all, at least until tempers recede.

When we do choose to respond, we can critique issue positions, individual candidates, and even the system itself with a proper sense of humility. When debates are framed in terms of personal gains or losses, we can reorient the discussion toward broader questions of political justice, asking what biblical values are at stake and what paths are most likely to serve the common good.

We can offer a quieter, less emotionally-charged counterpoint, presenting our arguments with respect and care. We can also take time to learn about political controversies before commenting on them, checking details with multiple sources and considering a range of viewpoints. Most importantly, we should commit the election, our political system, and all those participating in it to prayer.

Voter dissatisfaction has been growing for decades, and the underlying problems that have led to such anger will not be easily solved. But we can chart a different path in how we respond, modeling humbler and more informed political communication.

ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND “SAFE SPACES”

I’m back again, finally.

alumni_hall_1889_sunLabor Day has come and gone, and that means that pretty much every college and university in America is back in session after the summer’s hiatus.  The summer break meant, among other things, a break from debates about academic freedom in higher education and whether too many institutions are coddling their students and shielding them from grown-up conversations instead of preparing them to think deeply about a complicated world.  But with classes back in session and young minds once again seeking light where there is darkness, we can expect the debate about safe spaces and target warnings and the limits of academic freedom to warm up again soon.

From the heart of the Ivy League, Brown University President Christina Paxson used her holiday weekend to mount a preemptive strike against those who would question whether the Academy has lost its way.  In her Labor Day Washington Post editorial, Paxson made two emphatic points.  First, academic freedom “protects the ability of universities to fulfill their core mission of advancing knowledge,” which is precisely why institutions like Brown “absolutely protect the rights of members of their communities to express a full range of ideas, however controversial.”

Second, the creation of “safe spaces” is absolutely consistent with academic freedom, and “Yes, Brown has them.  Proudly.”  As Paxson defines them, “safe spaces” are places where “marginalized groups can come together to feel comfortable discussing their experiences and just being themselves.”  As examples of “marginalized groups,” Paxson mentions women, members of the LGBTQ community, and ethnic minorities.

Paxton fails to mention that often what makes a space “safe” is students’ confidence that certain values and beliefs will not be challenged or questioned there, which is another way of saying that certain intellectual positions are prohibited.  Nor does she acknowledge that “safe spaces” aren’t limited solely to extracurricular student activities or the meeting rooms for student organizations.  On many campuses there are calls from both students and an increasing number of faculty to make academic classrooms into “safe spaces” as well.  When this happens, as Paxson well knows, the ideal of academic freedom and the goal of the “safe space” run head on into one another.

The solution, which Paxson hints at ever so obliquely, is to sacrifice the former in the interest of the latter.  “With the right of academic freedom comes the moral responsibility to think carefully about how that right is exercised in the service of society,” she writes.  Because the university’s job is to help “create peaceful, just and prosperous societies,” it must be especially careful not to exacerbate the already “fractured . . . lines of race, ethnicity, income and ideology.”

Two quick reactions:  First, although I applaud Paxson’s reminder that freedom comes with responsibility, I wish she had been more forthright and simply conceded that there are situations at her institution when other priorities trump academic freedom.  She might then have spelled out the moral and political values that her university holds as superior to academic freedom per se.  But she did not, holding to the official line that academic freedom at Brown is unfettered and that no hard trade-offs are required.  Everyone can feel “safe” as long as academic freedom is exercised “responsibly.”

As I have written before, if “academic freedom” means the liberty publicly to explore, espouse, and promote any conceivable value or set of values in an academic context, “however controversial,” then it has never existed at Brown or anywhere else.  Our ideals are defined as much by what we consider beyond the pale as by what we hold up as ideal.  As a result, neither secular nor Christian 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.  I wish that Paxson could just admit this.

Second, as an educator, I am struck by the limitations of the metaphor of the “safe space.”  I want my students to feel both affirmed and challenged, and I doubt that truly transformative education is possible when either is lacking.  Without mounting an extended argument, I’ll just share my view that the Christian conception of hospitality might serve as a much more satisfying metaphor.  I’ll leave you with an extended quotation from Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen, the 20th-century Dutch catholic priest and scholar:

Hospitality . . . means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. . . . It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit.

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