Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The dangers of a University education

Following up on our previous discussion about the anti-education attitude of the current republican party, we can't overstate how much of this opposition is religiously derived.

College in our society is a time when young people are exposed to new ideas and concepts, in a sufficiently structured environment that they have a safety net.

The LA TImes reports
[F]or many students, college is a time to develop spiritually in ways that can endure after they've finished school, a new long-term study has found.
Astin said young people often enter college knowing only what they were brought up to believe. They may never have been faced with opposing views. College is a safe haven in which they can explore their spirituality and challenge it.
The study found that many students struggled with their religious beliefs and became less certain of them during their college years.

It also found that many young people eschewed the rituals of organized religion but embraced what the researchers defined as the cornerstones of spirituality: asking the big, existential questions; working to improve one's community; and showing empathy toward other people.

"These spiritual qualities are critical and vital to many things a student does in college and after," Astin said.

The researchers also found that students who were more spiritual typically performed better academically, had stronger leadership skills, were more amiable and were generally more satisfied with college.

Students engaged with the liberal arts were more likely to become spiritual; those in math and science fields were less likely. Partying and overexposure to television and video games tended to inhibit spiritual growth. Community service and taking time to reflect — as well as class assignments that encouraged those endeavors — encouraged spirituality.
Does this sound like a good thing to you? It's what an education is supposed to offer: exposure to new ideas, challenges to your worldview, and an enriched life as a result. (The failure of most mainstream faith groups to connect with those "spiritual but not religious" students is a different issue.)

But of course, not everyone thinks that's a good thing. Albert Mohler, arch-conservative of the Southern Baptists, cautions parents of Christian students against letting their children go to college.
Even as most professors see themselves as stewards of the teaching profession and fellow learners with their students, others see their role in very different terms — as agents of ideological indoctrination....A professor who acts as such an agent of indoctrination abuses the stewardship of teaching and the professorial calling, but this abuse is more widespread and dangerous than many students and their parents understand.

For Christian parents and students, this should be a matter of deep concern and active awareness. The secularization of most educational institutions is an accomplished fact. Indeed, many college and university campuses are deeply antagonistic to Christian truth claims and the beliefs held by millions of students and their families. Furthermore, the leftist bent of most faculty is well-documented, especially in elite institutions and within the liberal arts faculties. ….
Bollocks. There are lots of mainstream Christians on the faculty, lots of Jews and other faiths too. Though few are fundamentalist Evangelicals, I agree.
[A] significant number of professors are happy to have parents spend 18 years raising children, only to drop them off on the campus and head back home. These professors are confident that the four or so years of the college experience will be ample time to separate students from the beliefs, convictions, moral commitments, and faith of their parents.

Even after expressing these truly breathtaking agendas, these professors go on to claim that they do not seek to indoctrinate their students into their own beliefs and worldviews, but no one can believe them now.
Also bollocks. The only goal is to teach them to think for themselves. If that's a threat, if that's a challenge to their morals, then how strong are they? If they depend on ignorance for survival?

I once met a woman at a science conference who taught biology at a small Christian college in the midwest. She knew they would never give her tenure--she wasn't of their denomination, but since she was married to an Episcopal priest, they couldn't exactly reject her as a non-believer. She told me that many of the students arrived there with rigid views that brooked no alternatives and it was a very frustrating task to teach them, even to teach them science.

College education should challenge rigid beliefs. Exposure to the world around us should be mind-expanding. What Mohler sees as a threat is what I see as my job. It's the student's job to put what they learn into their world view (and according to the LA Times, they are… but not necessarily in the way their parents want.)

When a student "gets it", the amazing coolness that is cell biology, they fairly dance with excitement. Oh, oh, oh! How they wrap that into their world view is up to them. But students who come in rigid denial (of evolution, for example) would be denying a fundamental aspect of science. It's just not compatible with an education: it's pure cognitive dissonance.

Of course at a big Research-I university, such students are unlikely to study science. Probably their parents adhere to Mr Mohler's exhortations, and they don't apply to the sort of places I have taught.

What a waste.

What is my role as a professor? It's best described in this poem, by Christopher Logue about Guillaume Apollinaire:
Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
They came.
He pushed them.
And they flew.
And that, my friends, is what I do.


textjunkie said...

Amen and amen, IT!! Me, I'm not up on the coolness that is cell biology, but put abstract math in there and you could have been reading my mind. :)

That's what college is *for*, to expose people to new ideas and other ways of thinking. This fear of new ideas is simply appalling.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

And this is why we love you. I hope my children are fortunate enough to have many, many teachers like you!

My son is taking Honors Biology right now and is REALLY excited about it! He's initiated some really interesting discussions with me lately---about genetics. :-)

About your other points....

We could easily teach young children to think critically and analytically--but we don't, because too many parents are afraid of losing "control" over their kids. All attempts at education reform that would give us a population that can think, ask questions, and analyze data have been met with BITTER opposition.

Only 30% of the population makes it through college--which means that the vast majority never gets challenged, stretched, and taught to question and analyze. And you see the fruits of that in the vast levels of ignorance and gullibility that led to the results of the election....

dr.primrose said...

This is why, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways that TEC can spend money is establishing and maintaining good college chaplaincy programs.

I know so may people who became Episcopalians in college during this period of questioning the faith of their upbringing. The could no longer accept the doctrine of the RCC or fundamental Protestantism and welcomed a place that they could ask a lot of questions about being considered heretics or being forced to accept a string of pre-set answers.

People who want to save money by cutting college chaplaincy progams drive me nuts -- w/v "drone"!

Marshall Scott said...

Just as an aside, IT, let me share a story you (and others) will enjoy.

Early in my wife's education as an RN/BSN, I came home from the hospital and was greeted with an excited, "I saw God today!"

As my wife was not then (and is not really now) a "church-y" person, I was certainly interested. "And where today did you see God?"

"In the Krebs Cycle!" she replied.

(And what fun: my verification is "ration," so much a part of the rational for which your post is something of a rationale!

IT said...

Great story, Marshall. Funny, all I see in the Krebs cycle is torture! (I never enjoyed metabolic biochemistry) but I certainly know what she means.

IT said...

Primrose, you are right--that's the subject for a whole post on its own, by folks who know more about it than I do.

it's margaret said...

My biology teachers were very unhappy that I majored in history. I was one of those students who jumped up and down in excitement.

I, too, hope I push 'em off the edge... when they come with their 'but I don't believe' fill in the blank routines... and I say --but, neither do I!

calugg said...

As I tell me doc students, I get paid a lot of money to screw up your lives.

A university education, if it's worth a damn, gets students to think in new and DIFFERENT ways, to reconsider what they believe, and how they act on those beliefs.

If the university in question doesn't do that, they're offering intellectual pablum, nothing more.

(And lots of places do this, both secular and sacred. Just sayin).

Paul said...

I am beginning to understand how the Muslim world abandoned its intellectual achievements and descended into fundamentalism. I wonder if the US is next.

JCF said...

Mohler's only upset w/ indoctrination by "Brand Y", instead of his OWN Indoctrination Brand X! [Not that I think there are really very many indoctrinating professors outside of explicitly religious settings. And there was explicitly-religious me, who did NOT indoctrinate my students. In my religious courses, I gave high grades to religious students, I gave high grades to non-religious students, and vice-versa. I tried to prompt and promote thoughtful, quality work (whether I agreed w/ their conclusions or not). A student's personal belief-system is irrelevant to the quality of their work.]


Students engaged with the liberal arts were more likely to become spiritual; those in math and science fields were less likely. Partying and overexposure to television and video games tended to inhibit spiritual growth. Community service and taking time to reflect — as well as class assignments that encouraged those endeavors — encouraged spirituality.

I believe I speak for everyone here when I say "Duh." ;-/


As far as "those in math and science fields" go: love 'em, but they often have a tendency towards "The Right Answer" thinking. Whether it's Fundamentalist Theism or Fundamentalist Atheism. (No, not you, IT. Many exceptions to the rule.) It's we liberal arts (and/or social studies) types who have the fondness for checking BOTH the "T" and "F" boxes (of paradox)!

I'm thinking of my brother. A partier (who got good grades, cuz he's brilliant) in high school, the partying diminished in college (Engineering). Having thrown off religion (TEC) in early adolescence, he was an apathetic agnostic . . . until, post-college (working in the defense industry), he got caught up in conservative Talk Radio religion {roll eyes}

Now, he COULD be much worse (his particular flavor of conservative religion is Jewish, so it's not quite as rigid as the Fundagelicals).

But I still think that, as a liberal arts major, he might have "Asked the Big Questions" in college, and not been a sitting duck for Dennis (effing) Prager! [He might not have worked for the military-industrial complex, either, but I digress... ;-/]

IT said...

Sorry, JCF, but I don't think that's generally true--at least not of scientists. Engineers are very different.

Although the fraction of nonbelievers in science is quite high (and I will post about this anon), few in my experience are prone to fundamentalist atheism (nor are they easy prey for other fundamentalisms). They are not generally very "spiritual" in a religious sense but that does not preclude a sense of awe and delight in the world they are dissecting, even if they don't believe there is a God in it. Some people might consider that a form of spirituality.

It is one of the regrettable tendencies of the Two Cultures to disparage the scientific side for "not getting it". Yet it goes just as well the other way. To paraphrase CP Snow, why is it we consider a man ill-educated if he has never read Shakespeare but forgive him total ignorance of the most fundamental principles of physics or biology?

(ALong those lines, it's amazing what a conversation stopper it is when someone asks me what my job is, and I tell them. Usually followed by my interlocutor's expression of self-deprecation, with almost a pride that they Don't Do Science, and an immediate change of subject. The thing is, I'm actually quite good at explaining what I do to the General Public, and it's a shame that they don't give me 5 minutes to find out.)

WHen I was a Berkeley undergrad, I double majored in science and liberal arts subjects. I became quite weary of the Them vs Us attitude, which frankly was largely coming from the liberal arts side.

A vivid example: of my classmates in a humanities class was horrified I was studying Molecular BIology. "Don't you have MORAL problems with that?" he demanded, as though only non-scientists had morality, as though science by its very BEING is immoral. Uh, no. I think figuring out how cells maintain genome integrity (and thus prevent cancer) is a pretty moral pursuit.

By contrast, the scientists were (and are) generally too busy in the lab to worry about all this Them Vs Us stuff. You might argue that that's an inability to ask Big Questions, but the scientist thinks finding out how life works is a pretty damn Big Question.

The easy assumption that the scientists Don't Get It, and are more narrow and less self-aware than the Superior Humanists, that understanding how life works is just tinkering with unimportant details --it's all rather annoying. It's not unlike the easy disparagement that some religious people make about the atheists who Don't Get it, and are therefore less sophisticated or worldly than the Superior Faithful, and won't THEY be surprised some day! In both cases, there is a certain amount of condescension, which is, well, disrespectful.

I'm clearly a bridge builder with a foot at least partially in both camps, but I do find it tiresome to be constantly mediating between Them vs Us.

Prior Aelred said...

IIRC, the majority of practicing Episcopalians are adult converts -- during their college years (which is to say, dr. primrose is spot on!)

JCF said...

Well, speaking of molecular biology, IT: I hope your next post will address this: (Hat-tip . . . Episcopal Cafe! ;-p)

To break up the "Two Cultures" analogy some more: I'm the liberal arts (again, actually social studies. I would say the in-house phrase "social sciences", but I know that many "hard science" specialists consider "social sciences" an oxymoron!) major who ALWAYS assumes I can understand . . . well, damn near anything (one of the reasons my job applications range so broadly!).

Now, scientists may not want to talk shop w/ *me* (Because I might, in conversation, sound like a typical 3 year-old: "Why? Why? Why? Why?" ad nauseum). But hey: I'm always confident I (per Yogi, "Smarter than the average bear") can speak informed/informatively about ANY subject! ;-)

Jim Pratt said...

Primrose, I'm with you 100%. Campus ministry was what gave me the opportunity to explore my faith and planted seeds of my vocation.

For those who are more involved with campus ministry and college-age persons. my query is this:

My parish is 3 blocks from a university campus (the Loyola campus of Concordia University). My mission committee recently met with the campus chaplain (United Church of Canada, but partially funded by the Anglican diocese), and the context she described was very post-denominational -- students are very much searching spiritually, but rarely have a denominational or religious affiliation, nor are they looking for one. In other words, they are asking the big questions, but not looking for the answers in church or synagogue or mosque or what they represent. Needless to say, that leaves us (the parish) in a quandary in trying to figure out how we may fit into ministry on campus.

My question is, is this unique to Quebec (where there is a pronounced secularist culture and a rejection of religious institutions), or is this common in other parts of North America?

JCF said...

I think that sounds pretty typical, Jim P.

You have to go to where THEY are asking the questions. You can't expect they'll come to church (synogogue, etc) to discuss them.

[FYI (I've said this many times, so feel free to tune out, if this bores you): while I was raised in TEC, my actual ADULT faith came about as a result of the Episcopal Campus Ministry at UC Davis (1980-1984). The chaplain (a priest half-time at the local parish, half as chaplain) did come on campus, had regular hours there (mainly "hanging out" at the coffee house!) and was a stimulating presence . . . but we, the students, actually had OWNERSHIP of the ministry. Our response to anti-gay Wingnuts (in 1981, explicitly calling for the DEATH of gays: we're only about 30 years past Uganda, people!) was completely life-changing for me. I think it was safe to say that, after those 4 years, I was a Piskie for life! :-)]