The Case against Evangelical Higher Education

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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.

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  • Lefty Blitzer

    Calling it a college is misleading. These institutions are nothing but religious propaganda mills and religious indoctrination centers, nothing more.

    • Many religious institutions offer degrees in multiple subjects (including STEM) besides in various religious studies. Your statement seems like a straw man to me.

      • Tom Ritchford

        Can you give examples of a religious institution that offers a well-regarded STEM degree, please?

        • Bob

          Dordt College has a large amount of engineering majors who mostly do well in finding jobs. I believe that covers the “E”, no?

        • I’m not up on the who’s who, and I’m not sure what criteria I would use to judge “well-regarded”.

          I also don’t think it’s necessary to show, as the question is whether such schools should ever be allowed accreditations (again, which?), even if their programs and students can pass academic muster. If they can’t, it seems to me that a religious exclusion shouldn’t be necessary to deny discipline- or program-specific accreditations, at least.

          I’ll try to pose my argument in a more logically rigorous way later, in reply to others.

      • philip rea

        Straw man? Perhaps you should spend some more time understanding logic before throwing out such a diagnosis.

        Your incredible error is in your assertion that the author’s thesis is without basis with an argument that a) lacks any clear relevance to the author’s idea, b) presupposes a condition without any attempt to justify its validity, c) and uses this irrelevant and unfounded proposition to claim falsity on the author.

        In simpler terms, the idea that the variety of accreditations offered by an institutions is evidence of a proper intellectual environment that can facilitate learning and growth is absolutely baseless. Furthermore, the consequences that stem from your argument – that religious institutions are worthy of accreditation and public support – is where the burden of proof lies. Simply offering, “STEM” programs has nothing to do with critical thought.

        For example, talk to any moderately successful physicist and I’d be willing to stake the bank on the fact that they would admit that understanding physics from the perspective of knowing all of the facts and other discoveries is relatively unimportant and can be accomplished without any use of intelligence or the application of any substantial logical reasoning – the entire point of “higher education”.

        This substitute of “fact memorization” for intelligent critical thought is a true perversion of the entire higher education system. This perversion is precisely what the author is arguing and is exactly what we see from fundamentalist institutions. In fact, the issue permeates much more deeply than the evidence provided which is recognized by the author, hence, his additional argument based on psychological theories of development.

        It is precisely here that we must recognize that if such theories are correct – and they seem to be given empirical evidence such as Ms. Hawkins unfortunate situation – then these institutions not only fail to provide proper free intellectual environments necessary to be compatible with “higher education”, they actively suppress them. That is, its not just that Wheaton has failed it is that it is actually opposed and active in its desire to stifle.

        Oh, and if the physics example is in some way not clear or seemingly without basis, note that full reconstructions of our universe can be modeled and simulated on modern computers to remarkable accuracy. What the computer is doing is equivalent to “fact memorization”, it knows everything it is told, yet the computer has zero intelligence.

        While knowing the discoveries made by physics is no doubt important for understanding what the field sets out to accomplish – explaining our physical reality – and for anyone who wants to participate in it (which is everyone given their participation with reality), it is not the engine driving progress. That engine is critical and logical thought and their full understanding. (Actually if you really investigate it you will realize that knowledge of all the facts discovered by physics over time is not even a prerequisite to progress – take relativity for example).

        Due to these arguments and demonstrations it should be clear that not only is their no “straw man” here but that the author’s argument is strong. In fact, the thesis presented, viewed from the notion “should public resources be allocated to such institutions” backed by these arguments demonstrates an answer of “No”. To see this understand that accreditation is for institutes of “higher education” as is the current system of public resource allocation. Clearly, these institutes are not of the “higher education” type and, therefore, should not participate under its veil. Namely, obtain the same accreditations and funding.

        If you think they should be publicly funded and/or that they should provide some sort of accreditations, that is perfectly fine…

        You will just have to find some other way to justify it, and cannot use the same credentials and credit-granting institutions…

      • Jim Jones

        But first, you have to accept the unbelievable.

  • Harrytttttt

    Great article, Vic. American Humanists should agree with Peter Conn and publicly adopt a knowledge-based standard for accreditation. Knowledge is best found through science – as Sagan said, “The scientific method of attaining knowledge is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.” Students should learn about religion in a scientific way; i.e. as a cultural and mythological phenomenon that has influenced many aspects of life, including moral philosophy. Any use of a religious basis for knowledge beyond this is improper.

  • martindmadrid

    Let’s call it what it is: indoctronation, not education!

  • usrev

    but… they do worship the same god… I went to catholic school from preschool till i finished highschool and we learned that very early on that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are very very similar.

    • Jim Jones

      At these ‘schools’ the conclusion precedes the investigation.

    • Rita

      That was before the Catholic hierarchy started following the Evangelical’s lead and went to the fundamentalist right.

  • The writer seems to mistakenly assume that secular humanists are the only ones who don’t bring assumptions and pre-suppositions to the philosophical table.

  • Mickey W

    I think that too broad a brush is being applied. Please consider Georgetown, Notre Dame and Boston College, Baylor, Furman and Davidso when writing that universities that are still rooted in a religious faith don’t also have strong science programs and a broader perspective. Further, not all sectarian colleges with no roots at all in religion have strong or even decent STEM programs. Flagler College in Florida is a case in point. Often it comes down to financial resources. STEM is expensive both because of the equipment and facilities needed and the cost of faculty.

  • Greg_Peterson

    I’ve said it before, but it has never been more relevant: The “biology” courses I took when going to Northwestern College (now University of Northwestern St. Paul) in the 1980s were creationist propaganda, and in no way gave me a proper grounding in biology. I would literally sue for academic malpractice if that were an option. In fact, as soon as I started learning actual biology, that was a very strong impulse in me. How DARE an accreditation board approve this nonsense? It is also the case that the Bible education I received was garbage and was nothing more than an effort to provide a stalking horse to prevent us learning what biblical scholarship now actually states. But I don’t care about that anymore. The biology thing still really bugs me, because I love biology and have had to go to a great deal of effort and expense to learn things that should have been foundational in any real college-level biology coursework.