Religious Hostility in Academia: A View from 2005

A story in the New York Times this weekend sent me back through the archives of World Magazine, looking for a 2005 article that played an important role in my journey into academia.

The Times story—headlined “His Reasons for Opposing Trump Were Biblical. Now a Top Christian Editor Is Out”—describes how Marvin Olasky, a former University of Texas journalism professor who also played a role in shaping the early domestic agenda of George W. Bush, seems to have lost control of an evangelical Christian newsmagazine that he has edited for more than a quarter of a century.

The cover stories of the April 30, 2005, issue were profiles of Pope Benedict XVI and Senator Rick Santorum

For complicated reasons, what this story dredged up for me is a memory of a specific pair of interviews that World ran under a single headline, sixteen years ago.

The headline of that article, published on April 30, 2005, was “Uncongeniality Contest.” The subhead was “Two views of elite academia from Harvard Law School.” I remember it vividly from my days as a subscriber. Going back to re-read it now, I find the article substantially as I remember it.

At the time, I was in my junior year of college at an evangelical university, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs to study history. I took the article as an attempt to frighten me. (Not me individually, of course, but people like me.) It was one of countless messages I’d seen over the years warning that American secular institutions of higher education were comprehensively hostile to people like me.

But this time, I looked closely at the evidence provided, and what I saw was patently absurd.

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A Case for Trusting Human Nature

Jonathan Marks’s new little book Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education (Princeton University Press, 2021) is flawed but important.

It is flawed partly because its conception of liberal-humanistic education seems to be almost exclusively a Great Books model, which offers a limited view of what higher education should encompass. The book is important, on the other hand, because it’s written primarily, though not exclusively, to Americans who think of themselves as political conservatives, and it asks them to defy their own movement’s leaders by supporting, and generally having faith in, American colleges and universities.

I say Marks addresses readers who “think of themselves” as conservative because it’s not always clear how much practical common ground he has with the Trump-era conservative political movement, despite repeatedly declaring himself to be a conservative in this book and despite writing for well-known conservative publications including Commentary and the Weekly Standard over the years. A lot of self-declared conservative academics have that problem in 2021.

But nevermind: I know with some certainty that an audience exists for this book on today’s American right, however small a part of the conservative political coalition these readers may be. Likely readers include conservative high schoolers and new undergraduates—and their parents—who should definitely read this book as a counterweight to the massive stacks of books and articles that explicitly aim to terrify them.

Speaking to conservatives’ anxieties, Marks argues—correctly—that recent commentators have largely misrepresented what U.S. college campuses are like. College campuses, he writes, can be overwhelmingly left-leaning without being a stifling atmosphere for conservatives like him. (A full professor, he chairs the department of politics and international relations at Ursinus College.) Colleges are committed to rational discussion, and this means they have great potential for liberating minds. And pundits’ claims that millennials and Gen-Z undergraduates are intolerant little wilting orchids? They sound, to Marks, almost exactly the slurs older people cast upon the youth of his generation.

Let’s Be Reasonable asks readers to have faith in human nature: in the willingness of students and professors alike to answer the call to engage in rational discourse for the sake of rational discourse, trusting that it will have a freeing effect on the conversation’s participants.

College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself

This week, Heterodox Academy—an organization founded in 2015 to promote “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” in universities—released the results of a survey conducted in the fall of 2020 on U.S. college campuses.

This second annual Campus Expression Survey, in a report authored by Melissa Stiksma, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University, purports to substantiate Heterodox Academy’s claim that “students and professors have been ‘walking on eggshells,’ censoring their opinions and thereby depriving others and themselves the opportunity to learn from counterarguments and constructive debate.”

Republican students are especially susceptible to self-censorship on campus, according to the report. To be sure, the report attributes this self-censorship primarily to the fear of other students’ opinions, rather than to fear of reprisals from professors or administrators. But Stiksma told Inside Higher Ed that it shows “that Republican students are not part of the conversation on some of the biggest issues” on American campuses.

These are bold claims related to heated public debates about the future of American higher education. But I find that the survey—on the whole—does not support these assertions.

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What Americans Think About the Humanities

Click to view the report on another site

On Monday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a 100-page report called “The Humanities in American Life.” It comprises the results from a national survey administered last November. The researchers asked more than 5,000 respondents about their engagement in “humanistic activities” and their attitudes toward humanities education.

On the whole, the report’s findings should encourage most humanities workers, including social studies teachers and historians. But careful examination of the details may be especially useful. This report identifies important discrepancies or tensions in public attitudes.

Champions of humanities education should be prepared to expose or remedy—or exploit—these tensions. There are both dangers and opportunities here.

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“Why Wasn’t I Thinking?”

In America, a Jesuit magazine, a recent college graduate reflects on how his years at a religious university changed him.

By his own account, Elisha Valladares-Cormier arrived at college as a conservative Catholic culture warrior. And his school, Franciscan University of Steubenville, has a reputation among American Catholics as a very conservative institution. He entered college during the 2016 election, a divisive moment for U.S. Catholics.

Looking back, he writes:

The skeletons in my closet pop up when I least expect them to. I am reminded of them when Facebook tells me that five years ago, I shared a meme from a conservative page essentially using the Boston Marathon bombers’ refugee status as a rationale for stopping all refugees from entering the country. Other links I shared include headlines beginning with ‘Liberals Lose Their MINDS When…’ followed by examples of what today would be referred to as ‘Karen’-type behavior.

I am only 22, but I cannot pin exactly what led me to share these posts, full of exaggeration, hyperbole and more. I was at that know-it-all age most teenagers land in, where the best argument is a ‘gotcha’ one. But looking back, what frustrates me the most is the intellectual dishonesty of some of these posts.

What was I thinking? Perhaps I should be asking, why wasn’t I thinking? These were complex issues, but the world around me had taught me to view these issues through binary, partisan lenses. …

I did not come out of Franciscan University less conservative or more liberal, or vice versa. Instead, I was pushed to consider new perspectives, to question positions I previously held, to take a Christocentric view of the world even though I might not feel at home with any major party.

—Elisha Valladares-Cormier, “I started school at Steubenville as a conservative culture warrior—and came out the other side more Catholic”

Experience tells me that we shouldn’t assume any new college graduate’s current views will remain static. As a thoughtful person with a university education, Valladares-Cormier is likely to continue evolving in unpredictable ways. This may well lead him to new forms of partisanship, to a fundamental change in political or religious views, or perhaps to complete disillusionment with the position he now holds. (Then again, he may turn out to have changed very little thirty years from now.)

What I think is useful about this essay is that it presents us with a snapshot of a young student who recently has experienced a higher education as transformative—and intellectually liberating and generous—in unexpected ways.

Versions of this story (mutatis mutandis) are very common among university students and graduates who came to college anticipating, or trying to engineer, a specific intellectual outcome. You’ll hear stories like this from students at all kinds of universities and colleges, including schools with reputations for producing belligerent partisans and culture warriors.

This is what gets lost in much of the storm and stress of American political debates about higher education. In all the nonsense about students’ supposed brainwashing and indoctrination* at the hands of professors, we rarely hear about the downright ubiquitous experiences of students—of all kinds—for whom college, sometimes in unexpected ways, lives up to its mission of intellectual liberation.

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* Ironically, of course, in this case, indoctrination would be a quite literally correct description of what Valladeres-Cormier says he sought and received from his Catholic professors. It just turned out not to mean what he expected.

Image: Steubenville, Ohio, 2007. Photograph by Mike Sharp via Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0.