Category Archives: Higher Education

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.

DAVID BROOKS ON CHRISTIAN COLLEGES

I thought I’d call your attention to a speech that New York Times columnist David Brooks recently delivered to a celebration in Washington, D.C. marking the fortieth anniversary of the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.  I’ve often appreciated the conservative columnist’s columns and also recently picked up a copy of his 2015 book The Road to Character.  In his address to the CCCU, Brooks, although not a Christian himself, made a case for Christian higher education that I wish more evangelicals would take to heart.

Brooks2

Here is a sample of what Brooks had to say:

You [Christian colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect.  You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind and a purposeful soul.  Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it.  From my point of view, you’re ahead of everybody else and have the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent.  I visit many colleges a year.  I teach at a great school, Yale University.  These are wonderful places.  My students are wonderful; I love them.  But these, by and large, are not places that integrate the mind, the heart and the spirit.  These places nurture an overdeveloped self and an underdeveloped soul.

Regarding his students at Yale, specifically:

They assume that the culture of expressive individualism is the eternal order of the universe and that meaning comes from being authentic to self.  They have a combination of academic and career competitiveness and a lack of a moral and romantic vocabulary that has created a culture that is professional and not poetic, pragmatic and not romantic.  The head is large, and the heart and soul are backstage.

I’m sure that my colleagues and I at Wheaton don’t fully realize the goal that  Brooks ascribes to us, but I know that we aspire to do so, and being part of that collective endeavor has been rewarding beyond words.

WHY I LOVE WHEATON COLLEGE—PART ONE

Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall

These are difficult days at Wheaton College, dark, discouraging days. A storm broke over our heads last December. It erupted when our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, posted comments online that some readers interpreted as equating Islam and Christianity. It intensified when the college’s administration first suspended Dr. Hawkins, then announced that it would seek to dismiss her from the faculty. Perhaps an end is now in sight. Over the weekend the administration announced that it was withdrawing its request to terminate Dr. Hawkins and then disclosed that Hawkins and the administration had mutually agreed to “part ways.” How these steps will be received—what they will mean to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the larger world—is an open question.

What is certain is that the controversy has exacted a heavy toll. For the past two months we’ve been besieged left and right. Liberal detractors have denounced Wheaton’s fundamentalism and Islamophobia, even as conservative critics lamented the school’s surrender to theological liberalism and political correctness. “Woe to you when all men think well of you,” Jesus said. At least we don’t have to worry about that.

Just as sloshing a coffee cup reveals what’s inside it, the stress and strain of the controversy has shown the world the truth behind our admissions brochures. We’re a fallen institution staffed by fallen men and women. More precisely, we’re sinners—to use an unpopular term—and I’m the chief of them. As a recent speaker on our campus put it, it’s wholly fallacious to think that we’re in the business of receiving innocent Christian teenagers (they’re not) with the goal of preserving their innocence (we can’t). Instead, we’re a community committed to joining a two-thousand-year-old conversation about the meaning of the claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Together, we explore the implications of that declaration, both for our innermost selves and for the way that we engage the world. Yes, we are fallen, but our calling is high and wonderful, and the opportunity to pursue it is unspeakably precious.

That is why I love Wheaton College.

I don’t love it because it’s perfect. (See above.) And I’m not saying that I love it at this moment in order to make a point about who’s been right in the current controversy. I’m making this declaration—I feel compelled to make it—because I’m sick at heart and I’ll burst if I stay silent. Too much recent criticism of the college goes beyond the matter at hand to call into question Christian education more generally. In reply, I want to follow the example of generations of evangelicals before me and share my testimony. I use the term advisedly. What follows isn’t a systematic argument about the pros and cons of Christian education. I’m just going to testify to my experience. You can make of it what you will.

You should know that my perceptions of Wheaton College are inseparable from the twenty-two years that I spent at the University of Washington before coming here. William Faulkner is famous for observing that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” More poetically, in Intruder in the Dust, one of Faulkner’s characters explains, “It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.” Faulkner meant that we never meet the present in pristine purity. The past is ever with us, shaping who we are, what we notice, how we see. Surely my story bears this out. Every day that I come to work, I see and feel and experience Wheaton in the light of my time in the secular Academy. How could it be otherwise? It was in the secular Academy that I first learned to think, to research, to teach and to write. It was there that my sense of vocation was originally conceived and nurtured. And it was there, above all, that I developed a longing for a kind of education that the secular Academy could never deliver.

The University of Washington's "Cathedral of Learning," Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library's fifth floor.

The University of Washington’s “Cathedral of Learning,” Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library’s fifth floor.

As I reflect on it, my time at the University of Washington divides neatly into two periods. The first was the tenure-track years, when my highest priority was not to think about my job but to keep my job. If you’re not familiar with the process, most colleges and universities give their new full-time faculty six years or so to earn tenure, and if they fall short of the institution’s standards, they’re sent packing. You’ll probably think that’s more than generous if you earn your living in the business world, where employees are regularly fired or laid off with short notice. The difference is that in the academic world—in large part because of the tenure system—job turnover and new job creation is minimal. Professors who are denied tenure rarely find other academic positions. You don’t start over at another school. You start over in another line of work. And if you’ve already spent six to eight years (or more) toiling on a Ph.D. and another six years of 60-70-hour work weeks as an assistant professor, you can understandably conclude that you’ve just wasted a good part of your life. The stakes are enormous, and that has a way of keeping you focused.

At the time, I would have described these years primarily in terms of their intensity. Now, I remember them more as a period of sleepwalking and inertia. With little self-awareness, I jumped onto the academic treadmill and did what the Academy asked of me. It wasn’t unpleasant. I benefited from UW’s exceptional resources, worked with bright students, and learned from supportive colleagues. And if you had asked me during those years, I would have said that I was being faithful to my calling as a Christian university professor. I was teaching a college Sunday School class, occasionally witnessing to unbelieving students, and (as a good Southern Baptist) saying “no” to wine at faculty parties. Above all, I was pursuing excellence in my field, loving God with my mind by pressing toward the prize of tenure, promotion, and professional recognition.

Or so I thought. And then I got tenure.

Isn’t it funny how God can expose the emptiness of our ambitions by fulfilling them? In the spring of 1994 I received two momentous pieces of mail almost simultaneously, and in tandem they changed the direction of my life. First, I received an advance copy of my first book, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. It was pretty typical of first books that begin life as doctoral dissertations. It was deeply researched but narrowly focused. Specialists praised it—it won two professional book prizes—but almost no one else could understand it or desired to. Worse, there were no eternal issues in its pages, no engagement with Permanent Things, no grappling with questions of importance to my local church or to the broader community of faith. It was of the Academy, to the Academy, and for the Academy.

And the Academy, for its part, said “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your lord.” That same week I received formal notification from the UW trustees that I had been promoted and granted tenure. The real decision on my tenure application had been made much earlier—once Cambridge had offered me a book contract the outcome was certain—but there was still something symbolically jarring about receiving the book and the promotion letter in the same week. I weighed these two “successes,” figuratively holding one in each hand and reflecting on what my university chose to value and reward. What I felt wasn’t elation, or affirmation or gratification, but a profound sense of emptiness. I was thirty-three years old, at the salary I was earning I knew I would have to work until I died, and I couldn’t imagine being able to continue for much longer.

Humanly speaking, I was experiencing what academics know as the post-tenure letdown. It’s so common that it’s become a cliché, so I don’t pretend for a moment that my experience was unique. But I believe that God used this time of discouragement and searching to help me think critically and deeply—really for the first time—about the pluralistic multiversity of which I was a part. I began to read—more enthusiastically than systematically—about the relationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the nature of true education. And as I did so, I began to see the university with new eyes. Then I began to see myself with new eyes, as I realized how effectively the Academy had shaped me into its mold.

Peter Kreeft writes that our culture wants us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of This World.” Through years of osmosis, I had come to be a well-adjusted citizen of the Academy. It didn’t strike me as odd that the university had no cohering vision, that it denied the unity of truth, that it sought to expand knowledge while ignoring wisdom. I swallowed the Academy’s claim that it was ideologically neutral. Most troubling, I accepted as natural its compartmentalization of religious belief, with the attendant assumption that we can understand vast domains of human experience without reference to God.

I began to see these things, little by little, in the years following my promotion and tenure. This wasn’t a Damascus Road experience—no scales suddenly fell from eyes. It was more like coming out of anesthesia, a gradual awakening to reality. And like a patient just out of surgery, my discomfort increased as the anesthesia wore off.  As I began to see my surroundings differently, I also began to experience what Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

My Christian friends in Seattle regularly assumed that life was hard for a Christian professor in a place like the University of Washington, and they were right, but not for the reasons they supposed. They imagined that the environment was openly hostile to believers and figured that I must be the target of ostracism or even persecution. That was never my experience. Oh, there were continual reminders that I wasn’t in church: the student government association distributing “condom grams” in honor of Valentine’s Day, drag queens performing in the library courtyard (for course credit, no less), the school newspaper proclaiming “Jesus Should Have Been Aborted,” the department colleague who was a transvestite, to mention a few.

Such things were disturbing, but it’s not like I’d been unaware of them earlier. What distressed me far more were the limitations that I faced in the classroom. I hadn’t felt them when I first arrived at UW fresh from grad school. My primary goal was to help students understand the past on its own terms and largely for its own sake. And because they typically came to the university with pretty simplistic historical views, I would inevitably explode many myths that they harbored and complicate their understanding both of the past itself and of the craft of the historian. In the process, I was quick to assure them, I would also teach them critical thinking skills that would help them land good-paying jobs at Boeing or Microsoft or Amazon.

And then my sense of vocation began to change, in large part because of the reading I was doing about the nature of true education. I came to believe that my highest goal was not to help my students make a better living, but to help them wrestle with what it means to live well. I came to believe that authentic education is not the same thing as vocational training (important though that is), that it is a transformative experience that changes who we are. And as I began to take that goal seriously, I began to struggle with an ever increasing sense of futility.

In his 1947 meditation The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not primarily to debunk our students’ unsubstantiated convictions. “The task of the modern educator,” Lewis maintained, “is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s challenge both inspired and depressed me. Every day I taught students who had learned at the university that it was not necessary to have a consistent philosophy of life, that rationality was a “western construction,” that ideas were merely “convenient perceptions” and moral claims only rationalizations for self-interest. And because of the authoritative rules of the secular Academy, when those students came into my classes, I was free to pose religious questions to them but never answer them authoritatively. I was allowed to introduce religious perspectives to them but never endorse one above the rest. I could demonstrate the contradictions of particular belief systems but never proclaim the good news of a consistent alternative. In sum, if I was going to irrigate deserts at UW, I would have to do so without ever testifying to the “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13).

This was frustrating, as well as profoundly alienating. I never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular university until I began to try to think like one. As I did, I came to see myself, as Blamires put it, as “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.” And so, by the year 2000, I had begun to pray for an opportunity to teach in a different setting built on a firmer foundation. A decade later, God answered that prayer.

I’ll be back with Part Two in a few days.

Wheaton I

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.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT

Last week I asked for your prayers for Wheaton as the College seeks a resolution to the heart-wrenching controversy swirling around our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Several of you have contacted me privately to say that you are praying, and speaking for the whole campus community, we are grateful. For now, the firestorm continues, exacerbated by an often misinformed media and by a cacophony of voices certain that they know exactly what has transpired and who is to blame.

Some of the criticism directed at the college comes from concerned Christians who believe in Christian education but disagree with how the controversy over Dr. Hawkins’ public statements has been handled. Much of it, however, comes from secular critics who believe “Christian education” is an oxymoron. From this perspective, the current controversy merely highlights the utter incompatibility of academic freedom and Christian conviction.

Last week my friend and colleague, Dr. Timothy Larsen, responded to such views in a thoughtful essay for CNN.com, and I highly recommend it. In his plea to “Let Wheaton and Other Christian Colleges be Christian,” Larsen reminded us all that “Wheaton College is a covenant community” in which faculty “voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community.” Secular critics, Larsen acknowledges, will conclude that this “prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.”

But “it feels differently from the inside,” Larsen observes. He goes on:

The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.

I am one of the professors Larsen is describing. I have previously written at length on this blog about my experiences in both secular and religious academic contexts, essays sparked by University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn’s crusade against religious institutions of higher learning. (See here, here, and here.)  Perhaps this much is worth repeating:

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions. For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. In many ways, my time there was a blessing. The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources. During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my wellbeing, both personal and professional. Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally—in certain respects. I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided. I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis. In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW. For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum. If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good. Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation. Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life. “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton five and a half years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more. Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

PRAGER UNIVERSITY: RAY BRADBURY’S NIGHTMARE

One of my  favorite sayings comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  Reflecting on his 1831 visit to the United States, the Frenchman observed, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”   Tocqueville’s adage doesn’t always holds true, but it often does, which is why I regularly share it with my students.  Across the generations, Tocqueville reminds us to be wary of our fondness for simplistic answers to complicated questions.

Tocqueville’s words came to me repeatedly over the weekend, as Colonel Ty Seidule’s five-minute explanation of the causes of the Civil War went viral, attracting more than four million views in a matter of days.  (It’s now topped six million.)  In my last post I explained how Colonel Seidule effectively replaced one myth about the Civil War with another one, and there’s no good reason to cover that ground a second time.  But I do want to share a thought abut the venue in which it first appeared: the absurdly misnamed “Prager University.”

“Prager University” is the brainchild of conservative radio personality Dennis Prager.  It is not an accredited educational institution, and no one connected to it claims otherwise.  It offers “free courses for free minds”–professionally produced five-minute videos on a range of topics in economics, political science, philosophy, history, and religion.  I have nothing personal against Dennis Prager, and as a political conservative myself, I suspect that we could probably find several things to agree about.  But I’m offended by anti-intellectualism parading as a commitment to knowledge and wisdom, and that’s what I see in this online travesty.

I hesitate in sharing these strong words, because I’m aware that a number of serious scholars and public intellectuals have lent their names to Prager’s undertaking.  Perhaps they thought they were doing the public a service.  Perhaps they hoped to stimulate informed discussion and raise the level of public debate about important questions.  If so, then they were well intentioned but misguided.

When a ruler of Egypt supposedly asked the Greek mathematician Euclid whether there was an easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”  He meant that there were no short cuts.  No Cliff’s Notes. It would take time, concentrated effort, and perseverance.  As 19th-century philosopher Charles Peirce put it, “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”

“Wrong!” says Dennis Prager.  When you visit “Prager University” online, you’re immediately reassured that “there are no fees, no tuition, books, homework assignments, or grueling midterms here – just clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers.”  Who could turn that down?  It’s not just that the student at P.U. can receive “life-changing insights” without forking over a pile of cash.  He can also get them without wasting valuable time reading, studying, or thinking deeply.

There are “no long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures” at P.U., the web site proclaims.  “All our courses are five minutes long,” the spiel continues. “That’s right, five minutes.”  And how is such brevity possible, you ask?  It’s possible because “our faculty get right to the point.”  You’ll find “no fluff” at P.U.  And if five minutes still strains your attention span?  Not to worry.  Each life-changing insight “is supported by cutting edge, visually-compelling, entertaining images and animation.”  Since you’re likely to get tired of looking at world-renowned intellectuals, in other words (and let’s face it–most of them aren’t that photogenic), P. U. will regularly interject cartoon figures to help you concentrate.

P.U.'s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes

P.U.’s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes.

“Just as a shot of espresso boosts your energy,” P.U. promises,

“a shot of Prager University boosts your brain. Because not only will you have more knowledge, you will have more clarity. You’ll get one other thing, a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”

In sum, “Prager University clarifies big ideas.  Five minutes at a time.”

If this were only a parody.

I’m sorry, Dennis, but I’ve got to go with Euclid on this one.  Like the path to geometry, there is no royal road to wisdom, much less a five-minute video, no matter how compelling its animation.  P.U. doesn’t clarify big ideas.  It trivializes them.  Rather than teach its students how to think, it tells them what to think.

The idea of a five-minute video isn’t inescapably awful.  If each video were paired with another that offered a competing answer to the same question, together they might stimulate rather than indoctrinate.  If the “world renowned thinkers” were encouraged to treat competing interpretations seriously, or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.

But that would suggest that some questions are complicated and don’t admit of simple answers, and that flies in the face of P.U.’s whole philosophy.  Want to know whether the U. S. should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?  P.U. will cut the fluff and give you the “clear and unambiguous” judgment of history in five minutes.  Interested in the truth about Vietnam?  Five minutes should be plenty.  Want the straight scoop about the Constitution? the Ten Commandments? capitalism? feminism? racism?  global warming? abortion?  Five minutes a pop or your money back.

In addition to Alexis de Tocqueville, I’ve also kept coming back to Ray Bradbury these past few days.  In his marvelous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradford eerily anticipated the denigration of the life of the mind that Prager University embodies.  Writing in 1953, Bradbury described a twenty-first century world in which the primary task of firemen was not to put out fires but to burn books.  Intellectual had become a swear word.  Entertainment was life’s primary pursuit.  Happiness was life’s ultimate goal.  Complicated ideas got in the way.

Early in the novel, Bradbury speaks through a Fire Department captain to pinpoint the genesis of the gradual denigration of learning.  It began with the rise of mass culture, Captain Beatty relates to fireman Guy Montag, who has become curious about books.  As late as the Civil War, Beatty says, “books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.”  But then the population began to grow rapidly, and with it came the birth of mass culture.  “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

Gradually everything became “boiled down,” Beatty explains.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  . . . Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

Ray Bradbury died shortly after Dennis Prager founded his “university,” and I won’t presume to say what he would have thought of it.  I don’t mind telling you what I think, however.  Following Captain Beatty, I’d say there’s more nursery than university in P.U.

SECULAR EDUCATION HAS ITS OWN “CRISIS OF AUTHORITY”

I just finished reading Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen, and I thought I would think out loud with you a bit.  If you’re not familiar with the book, it is an intellectual history of American evangelicalism since World War Two.  It focuses on the various ways that evangelicals have tried to resolve the tension between faith and reason and the related question of how they should engage intellectually with the larger secular culture.  The book came out a year and a half ago to great acclaim, and I figured it was a book I should get to know.

Although I am a Christian who studies American history, I am not a historian of American Christianity, so I read the book more as a student than a specialist.  Primarily, I wanted to learn more about the evangelical culture in which I am now immersed here at Wheaton.  The author, a recent graduate of Yale and now on the faculty at the University of North Carolina, delivered what I was hoping for . . . sort of.  The book is deeply researched, the scholarship is careful, the argument strikes me as judicious, and the tone lacks the element of condescension that so often creeps into academic treatments of evangelical intellectual life.  Worthen doesn’t openly identify with the evangelicals she is writing about, but she takes their ideas seriously and treats them respectfully, and that counts for a lot.

Apostles of Reason

Worthen’s thesis is captured in her subtitle: there is a “crisis of authority” in American evangelicalism.  Evangelicals after WWII took the life of the mind seriously and were determined to engage the culture rather than withdraw from it, but they didn’t begin to agree on how to go about either task.  Without a single authority to formulate an official approach, they floundered, contending with each other as much as with the culture they hoped to redeem.

A reviewer for Books and Culture described Apostles of Reason as “the most exciting history of evangelical intellectual life to appear in decades.”  I was less enthralled.  Maybe that’s because I don’t know the topic well enough to be suitably impressed, or maybe it’s that I wanted a different kind of book than the one Worthen wrote.  I wanted Worthen to offer some theological reflection on the dilemma she was describing.  I would have been delighted if she had come out from behind the curtain and told us if she sees any answer to the dilemma.  But it’s not that kind of book.  Worthen has written about the Church, but she is not writing to the Church.  She has written her book for the Academy, which, to be fair to Worthen, is exactly what the Academy demands of its untenured professors.

Apostles of Reason has been reviewed extensively online, so I won’t go to the trouble to offer an extended synopsis, much less a critical assessment, which I’m not really qualified to make.  I do want to share one reaction that I had while reading, and it’s only obliquely related to the book at all.  As I read, I was concerned by what Worthen seems to imply about secular intellectual culture, the world that I have inhabited for most of my career until recently.

In the book’s final chapter, Worthen sums up her argument by explaining, “The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority.  All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions.  The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time” [italics added].  The implication is that, because evangelical thinkers have to balance the competing claims of faith and reason, they face a challenge that secular intellectuals do not.  A page later Worthen backtracks halfheartedly, admitting that “some version of this dilemma afflicts all thoughtful people,” but even here she sets evangelicals apart: Only evangelicals “have turned this torment into the hallmark of their identity.”

What concerns me is how easily this book will fit into the comforting larger story that the secular Academy likes to tell about itself.  According to this self-justifying narrative, the interjection of religious faith is a “problem” for the life of the mind.  It poses insoluble dilemmas that only the secularization of education can overcome.  By vanquishing religious dogma and enshrining reason as its sole authority, the contemporary Academy banishes bigotry, breathes vitality into the open-ended pursuit of knowledge, and promotes a free, democratic, and pluralistic intellectual community.

And yet, as I’ve written before, today’s secular universities are awash in moral truth claims that reason did not lead them to, nor can it.  As philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it, a secular world view “has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort.”  This did not stop my students and colleagues at the University of Washington from holding fervent moral commitments—against homelessness, human trafficking, and apartheid; in support of affirmative action, conservation, and same-sex marriage—but these were moral commitments suspended in a vacuum.  In today’s secular university it is perfectly acceptable (and I would say typical) to start with a wholly materialist understanding of existence, add to that the axiomatic assumption that all moral values are “social constructions,” and from there to avow any number of moral dogmas.

Today’s secular university has its own “crisis of authority.”  More like evangelicals than they would care to admit, secular academics juggle the dual demands of faith and reason.  But unlike the evangelicals they often scorn, they normally lack a philosophically consistent foundation for the moral convictions that they hold.  Worthen is correct that the secular Academy is not defined by a struggle between faith and reason in the way that evangelicals have been, but this is not because the Academy has successfully resolved the tension between faith and reason.  Instead, it simply ignores it.  It’s easy to cling to a contradictory worldview when you distance yourself from those who might challenge it, and today’s secular Academy is nothing if not homogeneous.