April 1, 2020

Is Intolerance Crushing Academic Openness?

By Rev. Dr. William C. Myers and Scott Blair | July 7, 2018

Scott’s Statement
There have always been people concerned that teaching institutions, cauldrons where minds are brewed, might be spiked with unwholesome ingredients. (In 399 BC, the teacher Socrates was convicted of impiety and corruption of youth.) Nowadays, there are college activists coached in finding, provoking, or fabricating situations that can be held up in partisan media as evidence that their enemies are poisoning academia.

In my college days, I had Christian friends who were involved in a nationally organized Christian group that was active on campuses. One of the local leaders sometimes returned to the dorm after philosophy class recounting his sparing with the instructor in defense of Christianity. His religious commitment seemed to compel him to oppose an ungodly narrative wherever he encountered one. To him it was a righteous battle similar to the absurd plotline of the recent God’s Not Dead film series. Later in life, I became acquainted with my friend’s former philosophy instructor and learned that he is actually a Christian.

Another acquaintance, an atheist who teaches college philosophy, surveyed his students at semester’s end and asked them to guess how he identifies with respect to religion. Only a minority pegged him as an atheist.

Both of these instructors are doing their job! Their personal perspectives are not clearly readable by students, let alone foisted upon them. Neither these, nor any other philosophy or religion teachers of my acquaintance, desire to indoctrinate students; rather they are passionate to expose their students to ideas, to elicit meaningful evaluation of those ideas, and to help them become skillful thinkers able to form coherent arguments.

I suspect our colleges are not at risk of being dominated by intolerant ideologues. I think a functional open academic environment exists at depth, even while culture battles rage at the surface. The battles take a toll though; students who take a victim’s posture in class miss a learning opportunity. Also, such culture battles contribute to the loss of public confidence in the higher education system, and by extension, contribute to loss of confidence in intellectual exchange and rationality itself. 

Bill’s Reply
Yes, Scott, and a lot of good white folk wonder what this “white privilege” stuff is all about, too! Those in power often don’t see a problem in their exercise of power.  I’m not surprised you question whether intolerance for opposing views — which don’t pass the political litmus test on campus, no matter how well thought out they are — is impacting public discourse in the academy. You and I lean a little left on social issues, so appreciate much of what is being taught. But, I also lean right on theological issues, so can appreciate the concerns being raised, even when I disagree with their political ends.  But don’t take my word for it. The President of the American Academy of Religion sees we have a problem. The question is: What will we do about it? “Speak the truth in love”!

Bill’s Statement
Of what are we afraid? A decade ago, in rural Illinois, I submitted three different course proposals to three different academic deans at my alma mater. Each dean approved the proposal, pending departmental approval. Each time, with no explanation, the religious studies department denied my request.

There were no budgetary implications. I offered to teach the courses as an in-kind gift. There were no questions about my credentials. I had taught in other departments, and my evaluations were excellent. The courses were rejected because of a departmental bias against Christ-centered theology.

Last month, Dr. David Gushee, president of the American Academy of Religion, was invited to comment on the story of Dr. Alison Downie and the implications for religious scholars. Dr. Downie, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was targeted by right-wing and social media attacks for disciplining a student. The student believed he was unfairly disciplined for expressing his conservative opinions in class.

Dr. Gushee offers a balanced and insightful reflection on this incident and the challenge of public discourse in an academic setting. While sometimes overstated, there is evidence to support the contention that young people with conservative views are, at times, oppressed and silenced because of their views.

Dr. Gushee could have warned his peers to watch their backs. Instead he called professors and students to be accountable for restoring trust in the educational process. “ … the deeper challenge is this: whether professors of religion can contribute to a bit more trust, a bit more mutual understanding, and a bit of progress toward healing the divisions that are tearing our country apart — and whether their students will give them a chance to do so.”

Intolerance, deceit, and intimidation are but a few of the factors destroying public discourse and the search for truth. Restoring trust would be a good start. Taking our lead from the Apostle Paul and “speaking the truth in love” — even better!

Scott’s Response
I don’t assume denial of Bill’s offer to teach at a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college is an example of inappropriate bias. The course might have appeared to proselytize, or might simply not have matched with school needs at the time.

An occasional instructor might allow personal views to color assessments of students’ work. Students registering complaints might come into class primed to see themselves as an ill-treated minority. Instructors are employees; feedback loops exist to keep a college’s staff aligned with the mission of the institution.      

A tactic of culture warriors is to find or invent egregious examples, paint them as evidence of a corrupt system, and generate contempt. A more innocent failing of a larger number of us is to allow the vibe from such stories to kindle our own contempt.  Let’s all be careful about that.

 

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