Are universities really the enemy?
Some are, but the founding idea of the university is worth defending
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Perhaps at no point since the 1960s have Americans had such a fraught relationship with their institutions of higher education. At the National Conservatism Conference in November, J.D. Vance, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, gave a keynote address titled, “The universities are the enemy,” an argument that struck a responsive chord with many on the political and cultural right. Clearly, the contemporary academic establishment has become increasingly hostile to traditional values and free inquiry. Woke ideology often functions as virtual religious dogma rather than the subject of healthy intellectual debate, and conservatives have had enough.
But before we get too carried away with this fashionable rage, we should take care that we know just what we are blaming the universities for. Is it for liberal indoctrination or for asking uncomfortable questions? And if universities have become craven echo chambers of woke orthodoxy, is that the whole story?
The fact is that many of the worst examples of campus illiberalism in recent years have been student-driven, not faculty-driven. Consider the Yale Halloween costume mania of 2015, in which swarms of angry students threatened a professor and his wife for daring to suggest that they should be able to make up their own minds about what to wear for Halloween, ultimately hounding the couple into resignation. At many institutions, teachers and scholars are still trying to do their job of teaching young adults to ask hard questions and make good arguments but have found themselves stifled and gagged by “progressive” students unable to handle disagreement and by cowardly administrators who want to maintain peace at any cost. Although Vance and others lay the blame for intolerant campus cultures on leftist professors, in some cases the faculty are the ones fighting a rearguard action against this insanity.
It’s important to ponder this point because there is a very real danger that in our understandable reaction against “wokeness” on campus Christian conservatives might play a role not unlike that of the Yale students who wanted to silence dissent. Consider the furor recently raised over supposed wokeness at conservative bastion Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Although the petition from concerned parents and students raised some genuine concerns, it also complained that books promoting critical race theory were assigned in classes or promoted in reading groups. But professors might assign such books in order to critique them. Across the country, leaders of Christian colleges are under increasing pressure from parents who do not want their kids even exposed to ideas that they disagree with. University students need exposure to a range of worldviews, and at Christian colleges, this should be done while measuring each worldview against a Biblically defined one.
The university was, in its origin, a deeply Christian idea. That Christian vision was grounded in a community of scholars and learners, committed, under God, to the fearless pursuit of truth in service of neighbor and to the use of disputation to sharpen ideas. It has always had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with its stakeholders, who are sometimes fine with asking questions, so long as everyone ends up with the right answers. The problem with contemporary universities lies precisely in their failure to live up to these founding ideals and in their willingness to cave to outside pressures (real or imagined) to avoid giving offense. As Christians expressing justified concern about “wokeness on campus,” we need to be sure that we distinguish between actual indoctrination in radical ideologies and scholars raising issues that might make students uncomfortable. We need to model the very thoughtful discourse that we think the culture around us is undermining.
This is not to say, of course, that any academic inquiry can be genuinely neutral. “I’m just asking questions,” if not serving as a mere mask for a radical agenda, can easily serve as a self-delusion for the open-minded agnostic afraid of any real convictions. “The purpose of an open mind,” G.K. Chesterton once said, “is the same as that of an open mouth: It is meant to close on something.”
Any real quest for truth must start somewhere and end somewhere—and it should do so honestly. That is why it is difficult to take seriously reform movements like the recently announced University of Austin, a new thoroughly secular liberal arts college “dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of truth” that seeks to resist the suffocating “cancel culture” stifling free inquiry on so many university campuses. Founded on a secular vision, how is this new university able to define the very truth it claims to seek?
The fact is, without the confidence given by the liberating truth of Christ, humans are always in danger of falling into either a brazen advance into an anything-goes subjectivism or a cowardly retreat into the protective shell of the latest fashionable orthodoxy. In a world increasingly gone mad in its lurch between these two temptations, Christians have a golden opportunity to model anew the fearless humility of the search for true wisdom in the light of Christ.
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