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Survivor’s guide

Learn from college professors, but be willing to talk back

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Christian students encountering secular liberal professors at non-Christian colleges and universities often fall into one of two errors.

The most frequent one: to succumb to professorial mocking and start regurgitating academic biases. Students who lose their Christian salt in college often do so not because of their reason but because of their emotion: With biblical belief culturally unfashionable, they slide to what will preserve them from social excommunication. The milder form of surrender is to see the Bible as personally meaningful but irrelevant to public discussion. That’s also destructive to faith in Christ’s lordship.

The opposite extreme: begin a course disposed not to learn, even though the professor does have a lot to teach. That’s certainly true in STEM majors—science, technology, engineering, math—and in any field that requires learning of techniques. It’s partly true in the humanities and social sciences, although in some classes the propaganda percentage is high.

Be willing to read not only books on the syllabus but also books that offer opposing views.

How, then, should Christian students prepare to be active but not belligerent in class discussions? (And, let’s be frank: Students who want to glorify God still do not want to be academic-suicide bombers stuck with scarlet F’s on their transcripts.) Here are seven pieces of advice:

1) Be willing to read not only books on the syllabus but also books that offer opposing views. It’s hard to do double the reading, but the Christian life at Big U. will never be easy. Professors who are members of Cru’s Faculty Commons or advisers to campus Christian groups will probably be able to put you in contact with a Christian professor willing and able to recommend helpful books.

2) Bulwark your understanding of a Christian worldview with books that will prepare you generally. Here are two each from probably the best “accessible theology” writers of three recent generations: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters; Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason; Tim Keller, The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. Two new books that I’ll review at length when we have room: Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief and Michael Rota’s Taking Pascal’s Wager.

3) Learn about the major trends of academic thought within your majors. P&R Publishing is putting out “Faithful Learning” booklets: The list now includes Chemistry, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, and Sociology. Crossway has 11 “Student’s Guide” books (subjects include Psychology, Natural Sciences, History, Political Thought, and Art and Music) and a Christian Guides to the Classics series containing Leland Ryken’s expert analyses of major works. While not specifically Christian, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 16 Guides to the Major Disciplines will help you understand some specific challenges in history, economics, literature, and other fields.

4) Once you’ve done basic reading, visit a liberal professor during his office hours. Tell him where you’re coming from intellectually and why you have questions about his approach, but be a legitimate seeker after dialogue rather than an arrogant know-it-all, especially because you still know very little. You’ll become a human being in his eyes. You may broaden his perspective.

5) Those visits will help you learn which liberal professors tolerate challenge. Some who have taught a pet course many times before will enjoy a student who can make the classroom livelier. Ask thoughtful questions. Good news: Some professors on the left still distinguish between teaching and preaching.

6) Bad news: Some Marxists, feminists, and other “-ists” are totalitarians who get pleasure out of making omelets by cracking student eggs. As a student you’re in a position of weakness, so discretion in this instance may be valorous: Don’t take the course. If you have no alternative, hold on to all your papers and essay tests, and—when confronting totalitarians—tape what goes on in the classroom or in professor/student conferences. If you can’t win internally, you might be able to apply external pressure through conservative journalists.

7) One final bit of preparation: If you get into an exchange with a professor and find yourself not knowing how to respond, you can always stall for time (and the opportunity to arrange your thoughts) by asking him one of these four questions: What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong?

Email [email protected]

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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An incredibly helpful column!

Brendan Bossard

This is a great column, the principles of which I plan to teach my son.  I would add one more to the list, though:  be open to new ideas, and admit when the professor is right.  Even tyrants have a soft spot for that.

Judy Farrington

This is excellent advice. I very much like the tone. Thank you, Mr. Olasky.  A good student studies.


P.S. Be aware of "Christian" groups that engage in meditative prayer, lest you get sucked into eastern mysticism. In other words, don't just go with an on campus group Bible study because they're the only group. You may gain some sympathetic friends, but be cautious. Get involved in a local church, and invite others along. You will find people who can offer mature wisdom and advice to mentor you. 


Great questions. I will be using these.