As I was driving to Bakersfield last week, it occurred to me that it was thirty years ago this year that I began my academic career as a teacher. In 1993 I was serving as the pastor of what was then Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church (RCUS; now Northland Reformed Church). I applied to a few graduate/post-graduate programs. One of them said yes, and September found my wife, our two small children, and me in Oxford, UK so that I could begin researching and writing a DPhil (PhD) thesis (dissertation) on the covenant theology of Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587).
I earned my BA at the University of Nebraska in 1984. I experienced some hostility to Christianity. It became fairly clear rather early in my college years that people who actually believed Christianity to be true were considered a little backward. Three episodes come to mind: 1) the first lecture I heard as an undergraduate was given by a well-known paleontologist and was an extended rant about the Bible; 2) a political science professor, in response to an after-class question told me that he thought that Christians had no place in the USA and that I should move to a nation with an established church; 3) in a film studies class the professor asked “Are there any Christians in the room?” The last question was innocent (although it did not seem so at the time). There were other episodes but these are illustrative. Looking back, though I was sometimes uncomfortable as a Christian in the university, most of the professors with whom I talked about Christianity took the classically liberal approach of disagreeing with me but affirming that, as an American, I had a right to my views.
I remember disagreeing politely with both professors and other students. I knew that I was part of a religious minority on campus, but there was never any question of whether I would be sent to Maoist struggle sessions or hectored by faculty or even by other students. University was a sometimes uncomfortable place but it was not an unsafe place. The sexual revolution had not yet taken its late-modern/postmodern turn. There was no LGBTQ movement really. There were Ls and Gs but they were more concerned with the AIDS crisis than with revolutionizing marriage. There was some talk of “gay marriage,” but it seemed impossible—no politician dared advocate for it. It was the first Reagan administration. The economy was still in bad shape and most students were just trying to survive.
Nine years later, however, things had changed rather dramatically in the university. The university, when I left it for seminary, was still overwhelmingly Modern—that is, it assumed universal rationality, the brotherhood of man, the fatherhood of God, and human perfectibility, the intellectual culture in which I found myself was increasingly postmodern. Just a few years after I graduated from Nebraska, the question of whether authorial intent or reader response was more important for understanding a text was a live question. French Deconstructionism hit the College of Arts and Sciences (e.g., the English Department) like a grenade. As an undergrad, and later as a seminary student, the primacy of the author was largely unquestioned.
To be fair, little in my pastoral ministry required me to face postmodernity in the late 80s and early 90s, but the Deconstructionists had declared that nothing was real and that everything was a social construct and therefore subject to deconstruction. It is not that everyone at Oxford was saying that. Indeed, my encounter with it was purely academic and mostly in the pages of journal articles and books. I did a little remedial reading which helped, but what I found in the UK was that so long as I could defend myself reasonably I was free to say what I thought. In fact, it seemed to me that I was more free there, in that respect, than I had been in the USA.
Thirty years later, however, the deconstructionist revolution has left wreckage everywhere in the university. The generations that had some idea of what a liberal arts education was supposed to be are retired or defeated by what Garrison Keillor calls “the diversity cops.” It is common knowledge now that no one wants to be summoned to Human Resources (HR) because this is where the DEI enforcers, LGBTQ radicals, and the Marxists exercise their authority by censoring speech and enforcing the new workplace orthodoxy.
In light of the widespread calls seen since October 7, 2023, on university and college campuses far and wide, for the destruction of the State of Israel and the death of Jews generally, it seems self-evident what the university is in 2023. It is not a place for the reasoned exchange of ideas because the very ideas of reason and evidence have been denounced and rejected as “white supremacy.” Of course, these claims have nothing to do with the truth, and the rejection of reason in favor of pure manipulation and power politics reveals the university for what it is: an over-priced indoctrination camp to which parents willingly send their children.
The “shrieking girl” episode at Yale, eight years ago, was a marker for the decline of the university [language warning]:
Remarkably, as it turns out, the answer to her question about who hired Nicholas Christakis, is: she. The student screaming at Christakis was on the search committee who hired him. This episode was symbolic of what the university was becoming: privileged undergrads screaming irrationally at anyone who disagrees with them. There have been several such episodes involving both students and faculty since.1 The very existence of organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the formation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard (following the complete collapse of the ACLU as a meaningful voice for free speech) testify to the problem.
Most of the irrationality is manifested most obviously in the arts departments but the science departments are not immune from politicization and the influence of critical theory.
What The University Was Supposed To Be
Lecture halls and academies of various sorts have existed since the days of Plato (c. 420s–348 BC) and before. Christians remember that the Apostle Paul taught in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). Christians established catechetical (instructional) schools in Alexandria (Origen taught in one in the early third century AD) and those schools grew up to become regional cathedral schools associated with a bishop. Over time, scholarship began to become more specialized and advanced and scholars (typically monks) gathered in Paris and Oxford in the high Middle Ages to form universities with multiple faculties (e.g., theology, arts, law, and medicine).
To be sure, the Medieval universities were not the universities of the Enlightenment, but they were places where reason was valued. Students and teachers were required to make reasoned arguments in which conclusions were said to follow from premises. Education began with the trivium (i.e., grammar, logic, and rhetoric). It continued with the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Education was literally about letters (grammar) and numbers (the quadrivium). Students were expected to learn about the world outside themselves.
Prior to the European and British Enlightenment movements of the eighteenth century, reason was generally subordinated to divine revelation. In the Enlightenments, reason (for the rationalists) and sense experience (for the empiricists) supplanted divine revelation (Scripture). Still, even though the subject of the verb shifted from God to man, reason was of the essence of the university. The post-Enlightenment university still felt an obligation to be reasonable and to give an account of the world beyond the self.
In the postmodern academy, however, the obligation to be reasonable (as understood since from time immemorial) and to give an account of the world outside oneself has been brought into serious doubt and in many places rejected as antiquated, colonial, etc.
What does the crisis in the university mean for Christian parents and their children? It means that, in most places, the university is no longer a safe place for reasoned discourse—places in which to learn material (grammar), to learn to think (logic), and to learn to express oneself (rhetoric). Most of them have become factories for Marxist-inspired critical theorists to behave irrationally and imperially (in contrast to collegially). They must be presumed to be guilty of irrationality until proven innocent. In 2014, the University of Chicago adopted a statement in defense of free speech, but the list of schools that have followed suit is noticeably short.
This means that parents and students should consider very carefully whether they they should invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a university education, and they must consider with equal care where they do so. There are many good, important, skilled, and even lucrative vocations in the world that do not require a college degree. The idea that a young person who does not attend college is doomed to poverty is Big Ed propaganda.
For parents who are determined to send their children to college, there are alternative schools beginning to spring up, e.g., The University at Austin (UATX) seems to be aiming to recover Enlightenment-based free speech and free enquiry. As a general rule, parents and students should be very skeptical of state schools. It is virtually impossible today for an applicant, who believes in the traditional idea of truth and objective reality, who is not “woke,” to candidate successfully for a tenure-track position in a publicly-funded university. It matters not how academically qualified or skilled an applicant may be if his politics are incorrect.
Christian parents and students should be looking at Christian Colleges with high academic standards. Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) twenty-nine years ago this year. I was in my second year of grad school and I was a little offended by it, in part because it described a world and expectations that were so different from my own. I thought that he was being unfair, but I have come to see that he was right then, and he is right now. Indeed, if job openings are any indicator, it may be that things are getting worse in evangelical academia. One sees openings for instructors of nursing, but Christian colleges do not seem to be hiring many professors of English, theology, or history. There are good Christian schools, but you need to do your research.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. E.g., 1) University of Missouri Professor Charged With Assault; 2) Cornell Student With Making Antisemitic Threats; 3) Professor With Machete Attacks Reporter; 4) UNL Controversy Over Free Speech; 5) The Weinstein Affair at Evergreen State; Conservative Students Subject To Discrimination.
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