Deresiewicz: Select Private Colleges Have Become “Religious” Schools

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William Deresiewicz‘s recent article at The American Scholar is especially pertinent in light of what recently happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury College. Deresiewicz writes “political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideas.”

Here is a taste:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude….

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.

Read the entire piece here.  It is definitely worth your time.  At one point in the piece he challenges the notion of “civility” on college campuses, calling it a “management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and pureeing them into a pablum of mush.”

As I read this I could not help but wonder if a similar kind of “religiosity” permeates evangelical or so-called “Christian” colleges.  A few additional thoughts:

  • For some Christian colleges the “religiosity” that Deresiewicz describes is defined as a commitment to a conservative political agenda that forbids any kind of dissent among its faculty and students.  Those with more moderate or progressive political viewpoints, articulated from within the Christian tradition, are ostracized.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog knows that I have been very critical of this approach.
  • For other Christian colleges this “religiosity” is defined by a commitment to a progressive political agenda that is often articulated in terms of “following Jesus” or “fighting for social justice.”  Those who see liberal arts education as primarily the pursuit of an “examined life” or as a pursuit of “truth,” rather than as a means of primarily fighting for justice, are often viewed as outside the mainstream or perhaps even less Christian.
  • In both of the aforementioned models, liberal arts education is subordinated to either conservative politics or a progressive Christian mission to change the world.  While I hope that a Christian liberal arts education will challenge students to be politically active, change the world, and fight for justice, I don’t think that this is the way the questions raised by the liberal arts and the humanities–both in terms of the classroom and outside classroom (guest lecturers, etc…)–should be framed.  (This, by the way, is why I have been critical of both Howard Zinn and David Barton).  Back in the early 1990s I went to seminary. I could have chosen a path in the ministry, but I chose to pursue a life teaching history.  I see these things as two different callings.

One thought on “Deresiewicz: Select Private Colleges Have Become “Religious” Schools

  1. Your last line is the most provocative to me, since I am both a history professor and an ordained minister. I teach at a school that fits your first listed model of a Christian school. One of my most enjoyable ongoing “challenges” in life is teaching history at a Christian college where I am expected to openly embrace my faith and show how it impacts my teaching and understanding of history and on some weekends preach to an audience that is mostly lower middle class and not of my race. The two parts of me overlap and inform each other. I think we need more preachers trained in history so that they will stop using history as ammunition for some political or theological agenda.

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