As the rehash notable news stories start rolling in for 2015, the conflict between campus radicalism and free speech has been an unavoidable addition. From the Yale halloween costume fiasco to the Missou poop-swastika, this has been a banner year for progressive campus melt-downs.
A less well publicized scandal was a reciprocal right-wing over-reaction coming from a midwest evangelical college. While, I can’t say the incident is indicative of a larger trend, the story of a Wheaton Professor being suspended for wearing a hijab and stating that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” was certainly chilling. In fact, I find it odd that the incident didn’t get more media coverage, especially since it contrasted the main narrative of intransigent campus progressive busy-bodies cracking down on largely conservative victims.
Now the suspension of the Wheaton professor does has some caveats that make it less egregious than the radicals at Missou or Yale. Wheaton is explicitly religious and does not accept federal funds (in contrast to larger state-schools). The professor also signed an agreement to adhere to orthodox Christian doctrine as a condition of employment, an agreement that was arguably violated by her stating that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” (this might be argued one way or to the other). However, despite these excuses, the incident at Wheaton demonstrates what the college is at its core. Wheaton is first and foremost a safe haven and platform for ideological instruction. It is only secondarily a community for exploring and exchanging ideas.
Strangely enough this evangelical perspective on the role of the university dovetails exactly with the oft-heard radical demand that secular campuses should primarily be homes for radicals to find shelter and make common cause. Both groups implicitly desire a situation where discussion and investigation take a back seat to moral insulation. In fact, the foundational idea of a Patrick Henry or a Wheaton college is identical to the cause of radical progressive activists. Setting aside that the progressives are lobbying for ideological control inside supposedly neutral state-financed institutions, the alignment of the two demands is telling.
But perhaps the convergence of the left and right over the idea of college as an ideological finishing school is not so coincidental. The original purpose of the university was in fact evangelization and training clergy (see Harvard’s own history). It was not until the late German enlightenment that the university was put forward as a non-ideological space for debate and investigation. Subsequently the idea was copied throughout the 19th and 20th century and only then became universal throughout the modern world. But this transformation may only be temporary. Ultimately, the 20th century perspective of a neutral and intrepid institution of higher education might itself represent only a marked intermission between the university’s role as an organ of Christian evangelization and the university’s new role an organ of Marxist and progressive evangelization.
Too much digital ink has already been spilled lamenting the closed mindedness of the modern campuses and I don’t intend to spill more here retreading the same tired points. However, before we completely resign ourselves to the death of the intellectual university there might be a few reservations that should be considered even by those firmly enconsed in the left or right side of the culture war.
There is a central problem with treating advanced education as an ideological finishing school; namely, it really only works well in societies where the indoctrinated viewpoint is nearly universal. Hence, the old Christian colleges of the renaissance worked very well in times of universal religiosity but began to shift in their foundations after the move towards secularization in the late 19th century. As students, it’s just not very comfortable moving from an ideologically pure university to a society where those very principles are routinely called into question. The education feels incomplete.
I have noticed this phenomenon in some of my own friends who have come from more conservative communities and subsequently attended ideologically conservative Catholic colleges. Many of them – even those still firmly committed to their faith – seem wistful for the opportunity of greater engagement with the intellectual ideas that undergird the society that they now occupy. It’s one thing to be educated as a conservative Catholic to live among one’s own while dealing with outsiders only through activism, it’s quite another to take this educational perspective to the life of a minority in a highly secular city such as New York or San Francisco. It occurred to me many times that these student’s own religious perspectives might have been made more confident had their alma mater made a greater effort to incorporate controversy and contrasting views into the ideological curriculum.
There are be some lessons here, most obviously for those religious conservatives calling for a further “Benedict-option” withdrawal from contemporary society. But more so, I think there is a stark warning for progressives. So far it seems that the breakneck leftward lurch of the universities was catalyzed by similar leftward shift in major urban areas. Without the assurance that alumni would not be greatly perturbed in their progressive perspective during their post college lives, the radical tilt could have never been accomplished with such ease. It’s not hard to graduate a generation of college students with no knowledge of non-progressive ideology if those students are headed towards lives in an urban area that votes 99.9% democrat.
However the ideological shift in the university towards radical pedagogy may make their indoctrination all the more brittle. Progressives might assure themselves that they will maintain a near ideological monopoly in the academy. However, the near conformity of the progressive world-view in wealthy urban communities is unlikely to be sustained. If history is any guide, urban areas are prone to ideological flux. This change may not be conservative, Christian or even Western in nature but ultimately the universal progressive dominance of urban spaces will eventually fall.
With this change to, radicalized universities will finally have to come to terms with their roles as ideological clearing houses for a very particular kind of religion. Perhaps, more disconcertingly students graduated from these institutions will have to come to terms with their roles as evangelical ideologues placed within an intellectual environment of which they have no understanding, nor tools to confront. Perhaps this will be an environment to forge a new generation of intrepid progressive missionaries but it certainly won’t be a place of safe-spaces and trigger warnings.