Historian starts a row with Christian colleges

tags: religion



HNN Editor:  In a recent Huff Post piece Steve Conn, a history professor at Ohio State, charges that Christian colleges violate academic standards and shouldn't be allowed to call themselves colleges.  His post drew wide attention.  See here and here

Excerpt from Steve Conn's essay:

The Supreme Court's dreadful Hobby Lobby decision is yet another example of how religious "freedom" is increasingly being defined as the "freedom" to impose one's own beliefs on others. Over the past several years, the five-member majority, all conservative Catholics, have issued several rulings that erode our right of many to be free from religion, in the name of allowing a few to define their freedom of religion.

In fact, religious institutions receive tremendous public subsidies in all sorts of ways, starting with the tax-exempt status of religious property. But I suspect many are not aware that we subsidize religion through our system of federal support for higher education. And the mechanism that makes that possible is the way accreditation work for colleges and universities.

I live about 20 miles from Bryan College in Dayton, Ohio, but I confess that I had never heard of the place until it turned up on the front page of the New York Times(May 21, 2014). The controversy that brought the college to national attention involves changes in what amounts to the loyalty oath it makes all faculty sign as a condition of their employment.

Until February, faculty had to put their names to a statement that included this: "The origin of man was by fiat of God." But that expression of fundamentalist orthodoxy was apparently not sufficient to protect the college from the lurking menace of Darwinism, and so now faculty must also acknowledge that Adam and Eve "are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms." The place is named after William Jennings Bryan, after all, he of Scopes trial fame.

As it happens, I also live about 10 miles down the road from Cedarville University, a place with a history of the very same sorts of controversies. Cedarville was at the center of a piece written by Jack Hitt for Harpers back in 1996. Hitt was interested in a group called the "young Earth creationists" and Cedarville, as it turns out, is a leading hotbed of it. Young earth creationists, as the name implies, believe the world is no older than the few thousand years you can count in the Bible.

More recently, Cedarville has made the news by firing faculty whom the president, acting as a grand inquisitor, deemed to have strayed from the faith. The AAUP censured Cedarville in 2009 for violations of academic freedom. Unchastened, administration at Cedarville have fired more faculty since and the doctrinal debate that resulted in those firings continues to roil the campus.

To see these episodes -- and plenty of others at places like Wheaton College not too long ago -- as threats to academic freedom, however, rather misses the point. Academic freedom isn't being restricted at Bryan and Cedarville and Wheaton and plenty of other Christian colleges, because none of those places acknowledges academic freedom as the core principle of higher education in the first place.

And in failing to do so, these institutions pose the question: Do they belong in the same category as the rest of higher education, where freedom of inquiry and intellectual pursuit is the only thing non-negotiable? As Bryan College professor Kevin Clauson put it to the Times: "Academic freedom is not sacrosanct. It too must submit to God in a Christian college." That doesn't sound like the free and open exchange of ideas to me -- it sounds like intellectual tyranny.

Broadly speaking, American higher education began as religious instruction. Colleges were founded, usually by denominations, in order to train ministers to perpetuate the teachings of that group. But the religious focus of higher education changed radically in the latter part of the 19th century. The new university - and the liberal arts colleges that followed their lead - were not simply creations of a secularizing society but were engines that drove society in that secular direction. "I deny that any university worthy of that great name," said Cornell president Andrew White, "can ever be founded upon a sect." And his Harvard counterpart Charles Eliot agreed when he wrote, "A university cannot be built upon a sect."

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity.

Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers at Bryan College where the motto is "Christ Above All." When Jack Hitt visited Cedarville he went along on fossil-hunting field trips where a geology professor spun various fairy tales to students explaining that the fossils were all 10,000 years old or less. In truth, the science faculty profiled at Cedarville were sort of sad -- alchemically trying to turn their faith-based lead into some kind of scientifically legitimate gold. Critical thinking is what higher education is supposed to teach our students, but critical thinking this is not.

Let me be clear: The problem here is not the obvious one of intellectual dishonesty or obtuseness. Rather the problem is that Bryan College and Cedarville University are both fully accredited institutions of higher education. Which means that they receive all the benefits, financial and otherwise, that come from that imprimatur without having to uphold higher education's foundational principles. They call themselves "colleges," they are recognized as such by the authorities that matter, but they don't play by the rules of intellectual freedom. I would uphold the right of Cedarville faculty to speak on my campus; Cedarville would not return the courtesy....


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