The Case against Evangelical Higher Education

On February 10, Wheaton College officials and Wheaton Professor Larycia Hawkins gave a press conference in which they announced they had mutually agreed to part ways. “Publicly the school and Dr. Hawkins say they are in agreement about terms of her departure,” but the details remain confidential.

Wheaton had attempted to fire the political science professor for heresy, maybe even apostasy. Hawkins—the school’s first tenured African-American female professor—was placed on administrative leave for wearing a hijab in support of Muslims. According to college officials, the real problem was her claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This wasn’t the first time Hawkins had run afoul of the Wheaton thought police. According to the Chicago Tribune, Hawkins had been reprimanded four times since she started teaching at Wheaton nine years ago. In addition to the latest debacle, she was called out once over a paper on black liberation theology that one college official thought smacked of Marxism, once over a Facebook photo that put her too close to a gay pride parade, and yet again when she suggested diversifying the college curriculum to include discussions of sexuality.

Wheaton’s handling of a college professor who is apparently an engaged, thinking human being, is a fine example of what Peter Conn was talking about in his essay “The Great Accreditation Farce” published last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Conn argues that an Evangelical (Fundamentalist) college—he specifies Wheaton—should not be granted accreditation. “Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research,” he writes. “However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth.” He concludes, “The contradiction is obvious.”

Conn writes that he has “no particular objection” to religious colleges, but he does object to accrediting them when it means “[conceding] that the integrity of scholarship and teaching is merely negotiable.” He strongly objects to “the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in support of religious ideology, in particular when that ideology has set itself in opposition to the findings of modern science.”

It’s no surprise that rebuttals and objections flourished, most of them from Christian (not always Evangelical) sources. One from outside Christianity came from David Coleman in the National Review Online, in which he defends Wheaton’s ability to “fully cultivate students’ minds,” and even offers a wager:

Let’s compare the academic growth of similar students who attend a religious school such as Wheaton with students who go to secular colleges. We could compare the growth in student performance during college in areas such as literacy, math, science, even critical analysis. Let’s grade their papers blindly; I think we would be surprised by what we found.

Coleman’s defense of Wheaton appears to be based on his experience attending a C.S. Lewis conference at the school. He found a reverence for deep and careful reading there that reminded him of how “[his] own Jewish upbringing had contributed to [his] sense that reading carefully can open up worlds of thought and spirit.” His interaction with the scholars at Wheaton sold him. Coleman is mistaken, however, to conflate academic ability with intellectual integrity. If the current political climate demonstrates anything it is that very cleverness with which anti-evolutionists and climate-change deniers continue to defend demonstrable absurdities.

The most common defense I hear from Fundamentalists is that “secular humanism” is a religion as well—the religion of public universities that claim to value intellectual freedom. It is secular humanism, they claim, that is the real enemy of unfettered inquiry.

Robert P. George makes this argument in his book Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. “We begin to understand the much misunderstood and abused concept of academic freedom,” he writes, “when we consider the central importance of the interrogative attitude to the enterprise of liberal-arts learning. The interrogative attitude will flourish only under conditions of freedom.” George holds out for “freedom” because it “is as necessary to the intellectual life of man as oxygen is to his bodily life.” He decries the loss of academic freedom in higher education. He clarifies that “the strong leftward tilt and the manifest ideological imbalance at most of our nation’s colleges and universities,” makes it “almost always the case that the victim of the attack is a student, professor, or member of the administrative staff who has dared to write or say something… that disputes a politically correct dogma.”

He is quick to qualify that “the legitimate scope of expression is obviously narrower in institutions that are founded on particular religious and moral principles than it is in institutions that proclaim themselves to be nonsectarian and nonpartisan.” Professor Hawkins stepped out of that scope of expression at Wheaton, and the doctrinal hammer came down on her.

I experienced something similar when applying to teach English at Liberty University. I sat through a two-hour grilling that professors at the school jokingly call “The Inquisition.” Conn’s argument about Fundamentalist schools resonates with me. His concern is twofold: First, he doesn’t believe accreditation should be granted to a school that puts religious clamps down on “skeptical and unfettered inquiry.” As Bertrand Russell writes in his criticism of Thomas Aquinas:

He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic Faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.

This is a real roadblock for the professor and student whose own intellectual curiosity takes them out of bounds. Another possibly even more troubling problem is that a university, charged with shepherding a young adult into a well-rounded, productive life, purposefully and actively stunts that growth.

William Perry’s stages of growth maps the intellectual and ethical development of a college student from dualism through multiplicity and relativism to a mature and informed commitment. The first stage, dualism, is characterized by either/or black/white thinking and the appeal to authority for validation of one’s beliefs. It is the way a child sees the world. The problem with Fundamentalist schools like Wheaton is that just when a young person needs developmentally to move through these stages to informed commitment, they are immersed in a culture designed to hinder their necessary growth out of dualism.

The episode at Wheaton College was sensational and plastered all over the news for a time, but similar scenarios play out daily at every Fundamentalist school you name. It lends strong support to Conn’s assertion that Fundamentalist colleges should not be accredited, and should not receive government funding.