Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, July 3, 2014

an academic farce

Peter Conn is right about one thing: college accreditation is a mess. But his comments about religious colleges are thoughtless, uninformed, and bigoted.

Conn is appalled — appalled — that religious colleges can receive accreditation. Why does this appall him? Well, because they have communal statements of faith, and this proves that in them “the primacy of reason has been abandoned.” The idea that religious faith and reason are incompatible can only be put forth by someone utterly ignorant of the centuries of philosophical debate on this subject, which continues to this day; and if it’s the primacy of reason that Conn is particularly concerned with, perhaps he might take a look at the recent (and not-so-recent) history of his own discipline, which is also mine. Could anyone affirm with a straight face that English studies in America has for the past quarter-century or more been governed by “the primacy of reason”? I seriously doubt that Conn even knows what he means by “reason.” Any stick to beat a dog.

Conn is, if possible, even farther off-base when he writes of “the manifest disconnect between the bedrock principle of academic freedom and the governing regulations that corrupt academic freedom at Wheaton.” I taught at Wheaton for twenty-nine years, and when people asked me why I stayed there for so long my answer was always the same: I was there for the academic freedom. My interests were in the intersection of theology, religious practice, and literature — a very rich field, but one that in most secular universities I would have been strongly discouraged from pursuing except in a corrosively skeptical way. Certainly in such an environment I would never have dared to write a book on the theology of reading — and yet what I learned in writing that book has been foundational for the rest of my career.

Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even naïve enough to believe that the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches, is, unlike Wheaton, a value-neutral institution. But as Stanley Fish pointed out years ago, “What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” Wheaton is differently closed than Penn; and for the people who teach there and study there, that difference is typically liberating rather than confining. It certainly was for me.

It would take me another ten thousand words to exhaustively detail Conn’s errors of commission and omission — I could have fun with his apparent belief that Christian colleges generally support “creation science” — but in conclusion let me just zero in on this: “Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”

How do accreditation agencies “uphold” “academic and intellectual standards”? They look at such factors as class size, test scores of incoming students, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, and the like. When they look really closely they might note the quality of the institutions from which the faculty received their terminal degrees, and the percentage of graduates who go on for further education.

These are the measures that, when the accreditation agencies come calling, schools like Wheaton are judged by — that is, the same measures that all other colleges and universities in America are judged by. Wheaton faculty in the humanities — I’ll confine my comments to that field — have recently published books on the university presses of Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton, among others. Former students of mine — to speak even more narrowly — have gone on to get degrees from the finest institutions in the world, and are now professors (some of them tenured) at first-rate universities here and abroad. The factual record speaks for itself, for those who, unlike Conn, are willing to look into it. And I am not even mentioning non-academic achievements.

Some of Wheaton’s most famous alumni have strayed pretty far from its theological commitments, though I think Wes Craven has done a pretty good job of illustrating the consequences of original sin. But even those who have turned aside from evangelicalism, or Christianity altogether, often pay tribute to Wheaton for providing them the intellectual tools they have used to forge their own path — see, for instance, Bart Ehrman in the early pages of Misquoting Jesus. The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.

In this respect, the institutional attitude of Wheaton College differs considerably from the personal attitude of Peter Conn, who, it appears, cannot bear the thought that the academic world should make room for people whose beliefs he despises — even if they meet the same academic standards as other colleges and universities. What Conn wants is a purge of religion from academic life. He ought to own that desire, and stop trying to camouflage it with the verbal fig-leaves of “intellectual standards” and “academic freedom” — concepts he neither understands nor values.

5 comments:

  • Excellent Fish quote. Thanks for this spirited analysis.

  • As a former teaching fellow under Professor Conn at Penn, I recall his two singular contributions to the courses with which I was charged. One was the term "prolepsis" as the key word I was lacking as I tried to engage the class in the mystery of Flannery O'Connor's short stories. The other was the elevation of a grade I'd assigned to a pre-med student, whose father objected to the damage the low grade might cause his son's future in healthcare. From personal experience, I can assure you that Professor Conn knows the meaning of his words and the value of a grade.

  • Your case is bolstered by the fact that academics on "secular" campuses also discriminate in who they will hire. They just do not do so in an official policy. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/blackwhiteandgray/2014/04/revisiting-compromising-scholarship/

  • One thing I would just point out is that, far from being resistant to outside, governmental influences, the accreditation agencies have perhaps been too eager to rush to please those agencies. Both A Nation at Risk and the Spellings Commission report so immediate activity from the accrediting agencies, but the response was scattershot and inconsistent -- which is what tends to happen when you react in panic.

  • I taught for eight years at an "accredited" state university. I was required to bow only to political correctness and all that entails, not to speak about any religious subjects in that religion-free zone, and never to question Darwinism or scientism or any theory that enjoyed scientific consensus--as long as that lasted. Are academics just supposed to be skeptical all the time? Or are we earnestly "in search of the truth," as so many college mottos proclaim?

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