What is happening (once again) at Taylor University?

James Spiegel, a philosopher professor at evangelical Taylor University, was reportedly fired for refusing to take down a video of him singing a song he wrote titled “Little Hitler.” Watch:

Here is a Facebook post from Chris Date, a friend of Spiegel:

The commentators on the YouTube video also suggest Spiegel has been fired.

Some folks are talking about this on Twitter:

As Date’s Facebook post notes, Spiegel was one of the Taylor University professors involved in the publication of Excalibur, an underground newspaper which, according to a March 26, 2018 piece in Christianity Today, “claimed the evangelical college was becoming more liberal on sex, immigration, and race.” Here is a taste of that piece:

True to its namesake, the controversial newsletter sliced through campus conversation, drawing students and staff to take sides in classroom discussions, op-eds, and official communications since its February 21 release.

Weeks after Taylor president Paul Lowell Haines condemned the anonymous publishers for “sow[ing] discord and distrust, hurting members of our community,” four members of the faculty and staff came forward online as its creators: Jim Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion; Richard Smith, professor of biblical studies; Gary Ross, men’s soccer coach; and Ben Wehling, marketing director.

They apologized for the uproar, but even their website was pulled due to the controversy.

The newsletter aimed to fill a growing conservative void” on the Upland, Indiana, campus, Spiegel explained in an email to CT.

Since this controversy, Paul Lowell Haines has resigned as president. His resignation came shortly after he invited Mike Pence to speak at the 2019 Taylor commencement. (See my piece on that controversy at Religion News Service here. I still have no idea why it is attributed to Bob Smietana, the RNS editor, but it is my work).

I visited Taylor University on the Believe Me book tour on October 2, 2018. I gave a public lecture and spent an evening with a group of students. If the campus was still reeling from these ideological differences, I did not sense it. After my visit, the student newspaper, The Echo, ran a review of my visit. I don’t think Samuel Jones, the author of that piece, was a big fan of my lecture, but he did not situate my visit in the debates taking place on campus. So far, The Echo has not reported on the Spiegel firing.

So what should we make of all this?

I understand what Spiegel was trying to do here. By invoking Hitler, brutal killers, shotguns, rape, Jeffrey Dahmer, and his own capacity for murder, he was trying to shock us into taking sin and human depravity seriously. But the song offers no antidote to such depravity. For Spiegel, human beings are one step away from committing the worst atrocities known to man. The conscience, natural law, or the indwelling Holy Spirit cannot curb the power of sin.

To be fair to Spiegel, he has also posted a video of him performing a song titled, “What it’s Like to be Born.” This song talks about conversion, the born-again experience, and redemption. Watch:

And if you really want to know where Spiegel is coming from, consider his song, “Let’s Start Our Own Country.” It opposes culture wars, nuclear proliferation, the tearing down of monuments, the renaming of football teams, dysfunction in Washington D.C., “taking a knee,” identity politics, and the closing of churches during COVID. Watch:

Should he be fired for “Little Hitler”? I can’t answer that question. I would need to know more about the local culture on campus at Taylor and the way Spiegel and his song fit into that culture. Perhaps there is a larger story here. Maybe this is more than just an academic freedom issue.

I do know, however, that Taylor University Provost Michael Hammond, a historian of American evangelicalism during the civil rights movement, is a good man with the best interest of Taylor in mind.

Let’s see how this unfolds.

UPDATE (Friday, September 4, 2020 at 9:17pm): The Echo has a piece on this today.

Is the American mind closing?

College-classroom

James Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, makes some important points about intellectual inquiry in this piece at The National Review. 

I found this section useful:

Begin with higher education, the institution traditionally charged with presenting much of our youth with different perspectives and with asking them to explore alternative points of view. University mottoes often boast of just this kind of commitment, be it Lux et Veritas (“Light and Truth,” Yale), Emet (“Truth, Even unto Its Innermost Parts,” Brandeis), or Scientia et Virtus(“Knowledge and Virtue,” Middlebury College). Many universities and colleges have become renowned for suppressing such inquiry, reversing course on plans to award honorary degrees, as Brandeis did to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or allowing their students to prevent, through disruption, an invited speaker from giving his talk, as with Charles Murray at Middlebury. Such actions are taken today in compliance with decisions of university presidents or in acquiescence to student-activist demands. The institutions now insist on their new unlimited right to indoctrinate, not their old obligation to present uncomfortable ideas. The greater problem in universities is not, however, in the limits they place or allow on outside visitors, which can prove embarrassing for the media coverage they attract. The deeper challenge is found in the day-in, day-out operation of the institution itself, where the left-leaning positions of the faculty and administration are pervasive. Higher education has become a monoculture, serving as a plantation for progressive and leftist ideas. Conservative perspectives are rarely heard. Just a decade ago, when the imbalance of viewpoints was becoming more obvious, lip service was paid to making an effort to bring to campus a greater diversity of opinions. This concern has now gone by the wayside. The term “diversity” itself now carries a completely different meaning, no longer referring to different ways of thinking but to the gender orientations and ethnic and racial characteristics of the faculty. Applicants for many faculty positions are today required to present diversity statements, testifying to their views on this subject, as a condition for employment, while existing faculty in many institutions are asked to offer a report on their equity activities. 

Read the entire piece here.

I find myself in general agreement with this part of Caesar’s piece. I actually wrote something similar here. (If you want to see proof of what I am talking about, read the comments).

I have always enjoyed working at a Christian institution because of the academic freedom I enjoy. Do Christian colleges and universities limit academic freedom? Of course they do. I have to affirm the Apostles Creed to teach at Messiah University. But for those who teach from the perspective of faith, a Christian college can be an incredibly liberating place.

But when I read pieces like Caesar’s, I wonder where conservatives draw the line in their arguments for open inquiry and academic freedom. This is an honest question. I understand that there are different views on abortion and sexual ethics. Some faculty are Republicans or, dare I say, Trump supporters. I would argue, as I did in the Aeon piece above, that there should be plenty of room for diversity on these things. I wish there was more intellectual pluralism in universities. (I also wish there was more intellectual pluralism, within the Christian tradition of course, at Christian colleges and universities. But that is another matter for another post).

But what about a scholar who denies the existence of the Holocaust? Should a white supremacist be allowed to teach on a university campus? Someone who thinks COVID-19 is not real? What about a professor who denies systemic racism? How about a climate change denier or someone who teaches a Trumpian view of American history or thinks the earth is 3000-years-old or believes the past is best explained in a history course by invoking divine providence? Certainly free inquiry can’t be completely free, can it?

Since I do not teach at a secular university, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about how to draw such boundaries. Most of my battles on this front take place from within the Christian tradition. But whenever I hear conservatives complaining about a lack of free inquiry, I seldom hear anyone offering positive visions for what they want the university to look like or how to navigate some of the questions I raised above. If there are examples of this, and I have a hunch that there are and I am just not familiar with them, I would like to learn more.

By the way, the National Review is running what looks like an interesting series on American identity, but I can’t read it or engage it because of the paywall. Authors include David French, Joseph Epstein, Allen Guelzo, and Yuval Levin.

Another Battle at Gettysburg?

monument-gettysburg-P

Next weekend marks the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It looks like Gettysburg will once again be a battleground, but this time the “war” is a cultural one, focused on modern debates about free speech, the Trump presidency, and Confederate monuments.

Read Dustin Levy’s piece at the York Daily Record.  Here is a taste:

The Gettysburg National Military Park has issued three special use permits for first amendment activities on July 1, according to a Thursday news release.

“As custodians of land owned by the American people, the National Park Service has a responsibility to make that land available for exercising those rights,” Bill Justice, acting park superintendent, said in the release.

“As with any First Amendment activities, Gettysburg National Military Park’s objectives are to provide for public safety, minimize impacts on historic resources of this park, and afford visitors an enjoyable experience.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans Mechanized Cavalry and Real 3% Risen will gather north of Meade’s Headquarters near 160 Taneytown Road from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The park expects 250 to 500 participants with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and 500 to 1,500 participants with Real 3% Risen, a Facebook group dedicated to protecting American freedoms.

Ski Bischof, of Allentown, helped organize the events with a Facebook event called “Support America and Her History.” Together, they are joining up with the other groups to form a united front against a group that might be there to protest against President Trump and/or the Confederate flag, according to the Facebook event page.

A third group, Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans, consisting of about 20 people, is planning to march in formation from the North Carolina Memorial to the Virginia Memorial, with small ceremonies along the way, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The events came about, in part, because of unsubstantiated reports of an activist group coming to the battlefield on July 1. The allegations of this group’s intended activities have spread on social media the past couple weeks, infuriating many.

Read the entire article here.

Why Are College Students Rejecting Free Speech?

Zimmerman bookWhen Jonathan Zimmerman writes an op-ed I usually read it. As I have said multiple times at this blog, he is the master of the history-informed op-ed.

In his recent piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The University of Pennsylvania education and history professor, and the author of the soon-to-be released The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools, tackles free speech on campus in the wake of Middlebury and Claremont-McKenna.

Here is a taste:

How did two ideas that used to run in tandem – free speech and racial diversity – get pit against each other? Part of the answer lies in the remarkable growth of diversity itself. Between 1976 and 2012, the number of African American college students in the United States tripled. And women now receive 57 percent of undergraduate degrees, nearly double their proportion of 50 years ago.

Over the same span, more and more students reported mental-health problems. That reflected a new and welcome awareness of psychological illness, which lost some of its longstanding stigma.

Finally, new technologies inhibited in-person communication. More than half of community college students and a third of four-year college students agree with the statement, “I pretty much keep to myself socially.” Even phone calls are avoided in favor of texting and social media, which give people more control over any interaction – and less anxiety about its outcome.

When you put these factors together, it’s easy to see why there’s less solicitude for free speech at colleges today. Arriving on campuses made up of diverse groups, students are warned that their comments and behavior could cause psychological distress to any of them. That’s a pretty distressing prospect, in and of itself, so we shouldn’t be surprised that many students would rather retreat to Facebook than risk offending someone to their face.

Read the entire piece here.

Charles Murray’s “Provocative” Speech at Middlebury

Murray

Charles Murray

It was actually pretty “middle of the road.”

Two Cornell University human development professors, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, took the text of Murray’s now infamous speech at Middlebury and sent it to seventy college professors at colleges around the country.  Some of those professors were told who authored the speech.  Others were not.

Inside Higher Ed reports on the results of their study.  Here is a taste:

Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, both professors of human development at Cornell University, wanted to see what professors would say about the talk Murray is giving about Coming Apart. So they transcribed his Middlebury talk (he gave it for broadcast by livestream). Then they sent the transcript to 70 professors at colleges around the United States, without telling them it was by Murray. The professors were asked to rank the talk politically, on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being very liberal and 9 being very conservative. Based on 57 professors who responded, the average score was 5.05, or decidedly middle-of-the-road. Then Williams and Ceci sent the speech to 70 other professors, this time telling them it was a Murray talk. The average score was 5.77, a more conservative ranking than that the first group but still in the middle-of-the-road category.

Williams and Ceci described their findings in an essay in The New York Times. Of their findings, they write, “Our data-gathering exercise suggests that Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative. It is not obvious, to put it mildly, that Middlebury students and faculty had a moral obligation to prevent Mr. Murray from airing these views in public.”

 

 

Deresiewicz: Select Private Colleges Have Become “Religious” Schools

messiah (1)

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.

What is Going On At Cedarville University?

This comes from an underground student newspaper called The Ventriloquist that has been critical of the administration of this very conservative Christian college:

On April 23, distribution of the April issue of The Ventriloquist was forcefully shut down by Cedarville University president Dr. Thomas White and VP of Student Life Jonathan Wood.

As usual, distributors were set up outside the DMC to pass out copies to students leaving the university’s mandatory chapel service. Before chapel was dismissed, White and Wood walked around the distribution stations confiscating papers. Wood forcefully removed papers from the hands of at least one distributor.

When queried, White and Wood stated that The Ventriloquist required prior permission to distribute the issue. Per the student handbook (available online in PDF format here), the only activity that specifically requires prior permission is a “demonstration.” The handbook does not provide a definition of “demonstration,” but The Ventriloquist has distributed twelve issues in similar fashion over the course of the last four years with no warning or retribution from university staff.

The move to shut down The Ventriloquist is likely the latest in a series of shifts towards right-wing religious fundamentalism by the new administration. Over the past year and a half, the university has seen large-scale changes, including a new president, several new vice presidents, new organizational structure, and the departure of several administrators, 12 Bible faculty, and 30+ staff. White has also moved to alter the doctrinal statement and shifted to a strictly complementarian stance; the university no longer permits male students to enroll in Bible classes taught by women.

I can’t imagine a college president running around campus trying to forcibly remove a dissenting newspaper from the hands of students.

I had actually thought that Cedarville was moving closer to the evangelical mainstream, but it now looks like the school is returning to its fundamentalist Baptist roots.

Should Naomi Schaefer Riley Have Been Fired From Brainstorm?

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may have noticed that I did not comment on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s decision to fire Naomi Schaeffer Riley for her blog post attacking the discipline of Black Studies and, specifically, the dissertations written by some of the young scholars who work in that field.

Laurie Fendrich, writing at the same Brainstorm blog that fired Riley for her post, is disgusted by Riley’s words, but does not think she should have been fired.  This is one of the better things I have read on the controversy.  Here is a taste:

For me, Ms. Riley got her just and sufficient desserts in the avalanche of negative comments that followed her posts. Brainstorm’s going so far as to fire Ms. Riley, however, was, in my opinion, a mistake. I think it was wrong. It was also, I think, strategically ill-advised. As a consequence of her firing, Ms. Riley emerges as a conservative martyr, able to point the finger at us liberals in academe and say, “See? We told you so all along: Liberals are for free speech until the moment one of their own oxen is gored.”

I ask that we—especially we liberals in the world of higher education—take a step back to consider the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, who famously warned that the rise of democracy would be accompanied by a new phenomenon. A new kind of tyranny would come about not from a single despot at the top, but from the majority below. The “tyranny of the majority” was an original concept to describe a brand new problem emerging in a democratic age, where conformity would result from deeply felt emotional reactions, not all of them in accordance with reason, rather than be enforced from on high. Heads would no longer physically roll, but a more insidious form of control would emerge. Tocqueville writes,

In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

Tocqueville goes on to observe this:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.