Sunday, April 26, 2009

The marketplace of ideas vs. the silence of the cloister

As the church politics swirl around this and other sites, I am not the only person who finds the parallels to academe very striking, not least in the viciousness of the battles. Of course, our modern conception of a university arose from something on the monastic model, and there's a reason our academic gowns have such similarities to clerical robes and vestments.

It's trendy to see universities as hotbeds of liberalism, and while that may be true in some faculties of the humanities, it is too facile to apply that across the community. In the sciences, law and business schools, there are a lot of quite conservative faculty and in the boards of trustees and upper administration, more than a few of Republican bent. The media stories of "attacks" on conservative students are actually very uncommon examples, and outside of a few highly politicized disciplines and issues, the ideological beliefs of the faculty are largely irrelevant to their colleagues or their careers.

Indeed, one hallmark of the university is the presence of all those ideas, and not surprisingly, a lot of squabbling. The ideal of the university as a marketplace of ideas that are forged and refined in an atmosphere of open debate is, in real life, pretty solid. We don't restrict admission or faculty recruitment to a single viewpoint. Students are generally free to challenge and the vast majority of faculty will focus on the quality of the argument rather than its content. The only absolute requirements are a respect for the facts, and a willingness to listen. That's been my experience in the many academic institutions where I have spent my career (I am a professor of science).

Indeed, it's the conservative schools that are far more likely to insist on a uniform ideological viewpoint. This has become clear to me lately as my stepson (The Boy) applies to university and to our surprise, he and several friends were interested in "Christian" schools. Now, I grew up Catholic (as has The Boy) and I know more than a few who have gone to Catholic universities, which are often the bane of the conservative hierarchy and largely support a vigorous spirit of intellectual inquiry.

But such inquiry does not exist at the colleges The Boy's friends have looked at. At least one school explicitly requires the faculty accept an evangelical view of Christianity which is a requirement they consider more important than a doctorate in the field, and further requires that the instructors incorporate "Christianity" into every class, be it philosophy or physics. This same school considers homosexuality the same as incest or pedophilia, and will expel a gay student who so much as holds hands, or states his/her desire for a romantic relationship with, a person of the same sex. It's not even having sex, simply the desire for a relationship, that will do it. (This is in their student handbook).

Students there will not meet faculty or other students who are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, or other faiths, let alone from any liberal Christian traditions, thus eliminating well over half the population. They won't meet GLBT faculty or students either.

Why would students want to go there ? We find that the boys are largely interested because they have a better chance of playing college sports; they think the people are nice and the rules aren't really enforced (dream again, lads!). The girls, because their parents want them to be protected against liberal values (I think it is a total fear of female sexuality). Still, if their values cannot survive the give and take of an actual university, it seems to me those values are pretty weak to begin with. We remain vehemently opposed to The Boy attending a school that is so narrow in outlook and so counter to everything we are.

Meanwhile, to my mind, these are not universities, not the marketplace of ideas, but cloisters. Indeed, there is no willingness to engage other viewpoints, only a desire to bar the doors and keep them out. So we see in the battle between conservative and liberals in the churches as well. The liberals are preaching inclusion, and trying to bring even those of violently opposite viewpoints to a table together, under a common roof for discussion and yes, argument. The conservatives are vehemently opposed to this and promote a purity code that will exclude those that disagree or challenge their ideas. They impose a self-segregation to ensure they are not contaminated by The Other, and retreat into the cloister.

And just as with the university or the broader society, the separation of a class of people from the whole diminishes everyone and destroys the fabric of our culture. If there is no unifying "we" there remains only "our side" and "the other". And who cares about "them"?


JCF said...

"Meanwhile, to my mind, these are not universities, not the marketplace of ideas, but cloisters."

Frankly, IT, as someone who visits St. Gregory's Abbey (to see our favorite Benedictine Prior!) a couple of times a month, I think the above comparison is an insult to cloisters. ;-/

IT said...

Yes, at some level, JCF, I can see that, but what I'm trying to do is counter the life of the university which should be outside directed to the life of the cloister which is inside directed. And there's a place for that, and it's not a bad thing. Just shoudn't be masquerading as a university when it isn't.

Although the photo I used IS from a University, which appeals to my sense of paradox.

FranIAm said...

I like this post and I think you make many excellent points. That said, I too agree with JCF about insulting the cloister, which I know is not what you were doing.

After reading your comment, I am going to disagree however and say that I don't think the cloister is inside directed in this way.

I do think that closed minds however, are. And that is what I believe your point to be and that I agree with wholeheartedly.

David |Dah • veed| said...

It has long been that there were two types of seminaries. There are the conservative seminaries, with their Statements of Faith that all students must sign at some point in their first year to continue. At these schools the curriculum is spoon fed to the students with the sole purpose to support the Statement of Faith.

Then there are the "liberal" seminaries without Statements of Faith, which solely equip their students with the tools to do critical theology and leave it to the students to use those tools honestly and to come their own conclusions regarding what to believe.

It appears that their universities are no different.

John Bassett said...

Four years ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly here. But my partner's niece attended Azusa-Pacific, a staunchly evangelical school, and it changed her from a typical suburban megachurch Republican to neo-evangelical passionate about issues of social justice, the environment, and world poverty. She went from being severely embarrassed about her gay uncle to covering her car with "NO on 8" bumper stickers. And she was not, I discovered, that unusual for that school. I was quite surprised by how broad her reading lists were, even in religious studies classes. So maybe these schools - at least some of them - are more open than they might appear to us just from listening to administrator or trustee statements.

IT said...

Interesting, John, because APU is one of the schools I was talking about. It requires a specific statement of faith from its faculty (so no faculty who aren't evangelical). It has in its student code of conduct a specific statement against gay students as follows:
10.1 Inappropriate Sexual Behavior: Students who engage in unmarried sexual behavior will be subject to disciplinary process. The following are examples of some (but certainly not all) forms of inappropriate sexual behavior:
Homosexual acts or behavior (proclamation of a romantic same sex relationship, hand holding, etc.)
Note that we aren't talking sexual relations, just stating you are in love, or holding hands with your same-sex girlfriend or boyfriend, is grounds for discipline.

And gay students report that they are asked to leave if they are open about their sexuality. Its core principles put homosexuality into the same category as incest.

I've heard that there is a strong commitment to some issues of social justice amongst the students, but I have also heard that there is a strong core of conservatives who are not welcoming. So it's a wonder how your niece became pro-gay at a school with such explicit anti-gay policies.

The school's anti-gay policies are a real sticking point for a gay family. certainly APU is not as whacked out fundy as, say, Bob Jones or Liberty University. It doesn't turn the firehose on Soulforce like others do, and is willing to engage. But it also supports "ex-gay" ministries. Therefore its formal policies on gay rights and its restricted faculty make it fall into my model of a cloistered religious school, not a university--and not one where we want to send our hard-earned gay dollars for tuition to in any way uphold their anti-gay rhetoric.

Why would we send our son to a school that considers us fallen and deviant and teaches intolerance?

IT said...

Wouldn't you say that the discussions inside the cloister are more circumscribed by their very nature than the ones outside?

I don't think that a cloister is where a Jew a Catholic and an atheist meet to discuss politics. By its nature, the cloister is about a narrower and somewhat defined set of questions. In that, there is nothing wrong with its more circumscribed nature. But that's not what a university is meant to be. That's the point I'm making.

John Bassett said...


I'm not advertising for APU, and frankly I hope your kid goes to someplace a bit more interesting. But my point was that the official policies and the classroom realities do not always neatly correlate. Our niece's take on the place was that while the administration was profoundly religious, conservative, and Republican, few of the faculty were and not that many of the students. As long as faculty or students refrained from openly repudiating the official views, dissent was knowing tolerated.

Is that a perfect model of a university? Hardly. But neither does it is what the school's brochures suggest. Life is way more complicated than mission statements handbooks. And that may also mean that a school which bills itself as a marketplace of ideas may in fact have an unwritten statement of faith to which people are expected to subscribe.

In the end, I think, efforts to indoctrinate work only if somebody wants to be indoctrinated. At other times, they backfire. And that's how our niece became staunchly pro-gay at a school with officially anti-gay policies. And it's why William Buckley became a fanatical conservative at Yale.

toujoursdan said...

I am one of the Canadian contingent that went to APU who eventually dropped out because I found the environment too toxic. When I was there it was a staunchly Republican and neo-con school. Gay professors and gay students were and still are, routinely kicked out.

At the same time there are were a few professors and staff who were gay positive. I think that is even more so now.

It seems to be in transition, like much of evangelicalism and very complex. The administration consists of old line evangelicals who are accountable to their parent denominations: The Wesleyan Church, the Nazarenes, the Salvation Army denomination, the Church of God (Anderson, IN), etc. and they are expected to toe the line. The staff and students are much more diverse.

I don't see APU becoming gay friendly in the near future, but it has come a long way. I would keep an eye on them. It is a bellwether of what is going on in the evangelical church.

toujoursdan said...

I should add that while I agree with your p.o.v. that conservative Christian universities don't provide as much exposure to diversity as public schools, the reason why many kids (not just their parents) seek out Christian universities is because in a lot of ways they are much friendlier and safer than public schools. There is no pressure to drink, have sex or anything else. People generally are more approachable, it's easier to fit in and feel accepted (important when you're away from home and friends for the first time) and it's a much more intimate and relaxed setting.

I know what you're going to say (grin): yes, you don't have to binge drink or have sex and most freshmen eventually acclimate and make friends at a public university. That is true, but there is a big cultural difference between conservative Christian schools and public universities and one that I definitely appreciated when I was there. Because of that students themselves are always going to seek it out. It provided a good bridge from high school into adulthood.

(Personally, I think the modern university have grown too big and doesn't serve undergraduate students well anymore. Coincidentally I wrote about that on my blog today.)

IT said...

Good points, all , and encouraging that there may be hope. Though, John, I suspect that "gay tolerant" students are more tolerated than actual gay students. Still, signs of hope are welcome....John's niece's experience is why the homophobes are working so hard to amend the sconstitutions because they have so little time before than generation catches up.

Nevertheless, my gay dollars will not go to an institution that has an officially anti-gay policy.

And it's not just the gay thing. I also have an issue with every faculty member required to sign a statement of faith and incorporate religion into their subjects. I have to think it's a loss for students not to be exposed to people of different faiths, or no faiths.

Does this mean that overtly religious organizations cannot really achieve the ideal of a university? I think so, in my definition.

IT said...

Good points, Dan, and that is certainly the attraction for The Boy's girlfriend and her parents. But isn't there a middle ground?

toujoursdan said...

I don't know. For all the flaws that religious communities have, they do give their members a "tribal" identity and a shared set of moral norms (such that they are), and it's those two things that forms the foundation of the culture difference found at conservative Christian schools. If students believe that others are part of their "tribe" and share their moral norms, they tend to be more open and trusting than with strangers. That accounts for the significant difference between Christian and public universities.

I wouldn't know how to create a diverse university open to different points of view but still has the shared identity, moral norms and the resulting higher level of trust and community that a conservative Christian university has.

Marshall said...

Oh, no, toujoursdan: isn't that what state school football programs are for? ;-)

dr.primrose said...

In connection with this discussion there's an article in the current issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine that you might find interesting about a Brown student who spent a semester a Liberty University -- Crossing the God Divide.

As he notes, "unlike most Liberty students, I wasn't a budding member of the Religious Right. In fact, quite the opposite—I was a fairly typical Brown student. I concentrated in English lit, sang a cappella with the Jabberwocks, wrote op-ed columns for the Brown Daily Herald, and attended the occasional antiwar protest on the College Green. I was politically liberal and, despite having been raised in a Quaker family, mostly God-ambivalent—as was pretty much everyone I knew."

His experience was a bit more nuanced and complex that he originally thought it would be.

IT said...

Yes I saw an article about him on the Yahoo AP news feed. It sounds like he managed his trip to this foreign land with honor on both sides.

FranIAm said...

IT, no I am saying that I think that while it is among those of the same denomination, that the cloister can allow for very broad questions and freedom of thought. Far more so than in the parish-based world.

I say this having had experience of discerning a contemplative vocation some years ago.

The cloister can be a surprising place of freedom and joy and no I am not being funny.

Sadly, there are schools that could learn from that model.

IT said...

I agree with that Fran. I think you are ascribing me more negativity than I meant. My point is that the cloister is NOT a university. The university is not limited by denomination, or shouldn't be. That is not to say that within its tradiition the cloister is necessarily narrow (indeed I am a big fan of such communities) but simply THAT IS NOT A UNIVERSITY. Limiting yourself to your own denomination is still a limit that is antithetical to the concept of university, even though it may be full of vigorous and spiritied openness wthin its own tradition.

FranIAm said...

I hear you IT, I do, but I think I have experience of broad thinking at a cloister and thus my reaction.

IT said...

Fran, if your cloister did not include Jews, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans, etc, it was limited and not a unversity. Broad thinking? I have no doubt that it can be done. But it starte with limits, even if those present ranged widely. That is my only point.

TheraP said...

IT, you say:

"By its nature, the cloister is about a narrower and somewhat defined set of questions."

Read Thomas Merton's book: "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander."

While monks and nuns may not be holding political discussions, believe me, mystics feel intimately connected to people in every situation all around the world. In their compassion, they are united with all people and allow themselves to be immersed in things which would perhaps surprise you.

I realize you're talking about colleges and so on. But it's very important not to discount the deep engagement of mystics, with whom you may never engage yourself - but who are engaged on your behalf, and my behalf, and everyone's behalf.

IT said...

I didn't say folks in cloisters didn't engage in deep thoughts, people. I said that by their very nature, cloisters are circumscribed in some way. That is in fact the very definition of a cloister. And IT AIN"T A UNIVERSITY, however deep the thoughts.

Interesting that about half of the comments here are people defending the cloister. But what I attacked was not the cloister per se, it was a cloister masquerading as a university.

And TheraP, I will certainly agree that "mystics" are deeply engaged but frankly I don't see how mysticism does anything on my behalf.

FranIAm said...

IT, you say "And TheraP, I will certainly agree that "mystics" are deeply engaged but frankly I don't see how mysticism does anything on my behalf."Well here is the essential question - what are the boundaries and levels of what must be done on behalf of one another, based on what we think we need versus what people think they should (or should not) be done?

Does a university- say a secular university, have an obligation on your behalf?

If so, there are some real challenges around what is taught and how in business schools, for one example.

Perhaps the real question here is that there is no apt apples to apples comparison. This would explain why some of us have reacted as we have and why you, understandably, feel the way you do about our interpretation.

Frankly, as time moves on I am less convinced of any label making sense... liberal or conservative. Ultimately, and you say this yourself, without a unifying we, there can be nothing.

And it is my experience that while the left, of which I am a part, is more potentially inclusive, I am not at convinced that it is truly inclusive.

I think such inclusion requires one and all to be able to live with a lot of contradiction. That is a good thing ultimately, but hard to do in a truly authentic way for most of us.

NancyP said...

Is his main reason for going to APU connected with staying around his girlfriend? If so, there are plenty of other choices nearby. If he wants a school with religious studies, there are many non-confessing choices, though I don't know about the CA options. My Jesuit univ. has plenty of non-Christians and is modestly supportive of LGBT (translated, in the don't ask - don't tell manner, under the radar so the bishop doesn't start yammering). There are Quaker/Friends schools, UCC schools (Boston Univ. is one), Lutheran (ELCA) schools, and others. It's a buyer's market now, as long as the parents can contribute some part of the tuition, and there are plenty of decent undergraduate colleges where students don't get lost.

IT said...

Oh, good comments.

NancyP, the girlfriend is a big part. Oddly enough if it were Catholic, we'd have less problem as there is an explicit freedom in Catholic universities that is missing from other religious units. But in fact The Boy is probably going to a state school (in this climate it would be hard to pay for the private) so its moot.)

Fran, GOOD comments. And I appreciate your engagement. I think we are actually closer together than it seems, and this comment of your
And it is my experience that while the left, of which I am a part, is more potentially inclusive, I am not at convinced that it is truly inclusive.TOTALLY resonated with me. Would you believe I get hammered over on The Big Orange (Daily Kos) for defending Christians? Me an atheist, and all. But I agree that the Left can be, and is, as exclusive as the Right in some things.

Also this:

I think such inclusion requires one and all to be able to live with a lot of contradiction. That is a good thing ultimately, but hard to do in a truly authentic way for most of us.yes, a life of tension, or paradox, is certainly part of it. I agree here too.

But you folks ARE making this more complicated. The fundamental question in the post is, does a school that restricts faculty and students to one particular religious view qualify under the concept of a UNIVERSITY? And I think the answer is NO. It may be a college, it may be a seminary, it may be a lotta things, some of which are worthy, but a UNIVERSITY it ain't.

That's really all it was about.

Tho' as I enjoy the tension of paradox, etc, I really AM grateful for the comments.

(You aint' the only one having bad times these days....hugs too)

TheraP too, thanks.

NancyP said...

I agree - a school requiring a confessional statement from students and faculty is not a university.

It does seem unfortunate that the Kos liberals have decided that politically minded televangelists are a full representation of Christianity or of religion in general.