Editor’s Note: Covenant College professor Jay Green is a faithful Christian and a committed academic. As such, he’s become “bilingual” — conversant in two cultures — and here functions as an ambassador to each.
Trigger warnings. Microaggressions. Safe spaces. Snowflakes.
These terms will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time during the past few years reading about current trends of American higher education. And, if you’re among those following these trends, chances are good that you’ve found them disturbing. An increasing number of news stories in recent years describe how college campuses are becoming little but staging areas for self-righteous crusades against sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of hatred. No longer interested in the free exchange of ideas, universities and the students who attend them seem determined to cleanse campuses of any ideas or words that might offend, creating “safe spaces” for political indoctrination and emotional shelter.
My prayer is that a spirit of Christian charity will help us look beyond the extremes and keep us from trading in unwarranted caricatures.
By these accounts, higher education has lost its way. Initially created to “search for truth,” universities now evidently prefer to protect their emotionally fragile “snowflake” students from supposedly bigoted ideas that might offend or “harm” them. And the privileged snowflakes are demanding the same. College campuses are antagonistic environments to traditional values and the Christian heritage of Western civilization, not merely because they clash with secular ideologies, but because they threaten the health and safety of women, students of color, and members of the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community. Barely a week goes by that we aren’t confronted with new instances of campus speech under assault from liberal activists: from efforts to remove major thinkers and writers in the Western canon (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Shakespeare) because their “whiteness” perpetuates the harmful colonization of the curriculum, to the increasingly frequent practice of “shouting down” or disinviting visiting speakers (many of them quite mainstream) who fail to meet the minimal requirements of politically correct orthodoxy as judged by socially conscious (and angry) faculty and student groups.
News outlets from across the ideological spectrum have documented this rising tide of liberal intolerance in higher education. “Free speech” liberals are probably the most alarmed of all. But I think we should take a moment to consider how readily we fit these stories into an already established and all-too-familiar conservative narrative about higher education. I don’t point this out because I cynically believe these storylines are dishonest or wrong; there are solid reasons to be troubled by some of what we read. But I think it’s worth noting that, as conservative Christians, these stories tend to confirm what we’re probably already inclined to believe: that modern colleges and universities, held captive by liberals, are out to destroy conservative and Christian ideals. While I think this conservative narrative has merit, I wonder if it tells the whole story. And I similarly wonder if we, as Christians, might have a responsibility to examine the situation — and ourselves — more critically.
A Battle That’s Raged for a Hundred Years
Christians viewing higher education as a dangerous force that threatens biblical and conservative values is hardly a recent development. Nearly a hundred years ago, Christians already had reason to believe they were at war with modern education. Early 20th-century fundamentalists made it clear that Christians who engaged in modern learning did so at their peril. A cartoon that appeared in a 1922 edition of the Sunday School Times, for instance, portrayed modern education as a “Pied Piper” leading unsuspecting young people down a path of unbelief and destruction. The Cold War brought new conservative anxieties. In 1951, William F. Buckley published his famous memoir of college, “God and Man at Yale,” which took aim at liberal professors (some by name) who pushed collectivist ideas in the classroom while also attacking all forms of traditional religious belief.
Fears that universities were becoming pumping stations for un-American and anti-Christian ideals only grew during the 1960s and 1970s, as a new generation of campus activists took up the causes of civil rights, women’s liberation, and opposition to America’s war in Vietnam. By the time Roger Kimball published “Tenured Radicals” in 1990, conservatives were fully persuaded of a complete liberal takeover of American higher education. The modern university was enemy territory for conservative Christians.
When I entered college as a young Reagan/Bush conservative and evangelical, I was already convinced of this storyline. Chuck Colson made it clear in his 1989 book “Against the Night,” that I was entering college at the dawn of “the new dark ages.” Not long before, Allan Bloom published his landmark book “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987), which argued that universities were weakening democracy by teaching relativism and neglecting the classical humanities. It set the tone for how conservatives should view life on college campuses. I was drawn in those years to editorials by John Leo, who exposed absurdities on American college campuses such as political correctness, multiculturalism, and other liberal pieties. I implicitly understood that mainstream American colleges and universities were cesspools of corrupt thinking, and that my generation’s faith was in jeopardy.
“Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.”
Can We Dismiss Everything?
As I passed through college and into graduate school, however, something interesting began to happen. While it was undeniably true that a certain liberal orthodoxy dominated the way many professors and students in my experience saw the world, I found it increasingly difficult to dismiss everything I witnessed there as absurd or hostile to faith. I didn’t hide my identity as a Christian and was never harassed for claiming Christ. In fact, I found the university to be a relatively open place for exploring all kinds of ideas and learned a great many things from professors who espoused a range of worldview commitments. As time went on, I found it harder to reconcile the dominant conservative narrative about higher education with my day-to-day experiences in academia. I began to see aspects of the higher education project through new eyes, and my once cocksure confidence that it was all antagonistic to my faith no longer seemed tenable. Moreover, many of the concerns expressed by the academic advocates of social justice, multiculturalism, and even political correctness I encountered were (gasp!) actually starting to make some sense. I began to wonder if at least some of the “liberal” commitments championed on college campuses might have things to teach me about my own understanding of the Bible and of Christian faithfulness.
By the end of the 1990s, I had finished my Ph.D. at a major university and took my place as a member of the academy. And through it all, I also managed to maintain firm commitments to a very traditional understanding of Christian faith. Thus began a rather complicated dance that called on me to claim a genuine home in two different worlds that others told me were alien from — even at war with — one another. It’s hard to imagine two dimensions of American culture more ostensibly irreconcilable than traditional Christianity and modern higher education, but I felt strong allegiances to both at once. While I had no trouble seeing my commitment to Jesus as ultimate and my membership in the academy as secondary, I felt called to participate genuinely in both worlds.
In my experience, being both a faithful Christian and a committed academic has meant becoming “bilingual” — being equally conversant in the language of two different cultures — and committing myself to functioning as a kind of ambassador to each. If many Christians default to a conservative narrative to make sense of higher education, you can be sure that just as many academics employ an alternate narrative (equally prone to distortion) to help them make sense of evangelicals. What a wonderful, if deeply challenging, opportunity it is to try to explain some of the inner workings of each of these communities to the other.
This brings us back to trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces, and snowflakes. First, let me say that there are most definitely things happening on college campuses relative to these issues that are dangerous, genuinely stupid, and beyond defense. Justifying all of it is hardly my aim. But, on this point, I think we need to be careful never to assume that the silliest examples of these practices we can cite provide a true reflection of how all students and professors experience and utilize them.
My prayer is that a spirit of Christian charity will help us look beyond the extremes and keep us from trading in unwarranted caricatures. There are principles associated with these practices that are worth understanding and defending. By the same token, there are many out-of-control applications of these principles that are abhorrent, inexcusable, and threaten all that is good in higher education. I think that faithful Christians need to develop the patience and the will to think carefully about both.
The rise of classroom and campus practices designed to curtail racist, sexist, and homophobic speech is rooted, at least in part, in a moral framework committed to justice, human dignity, and even civility. Among the humbling lessons I’ve learned since attending graduate school is the extent to which academic thinking has very often outpaced Christian churches in the treatment of society’s weak, marginalized, and oppressed. We might not always agree with the sources of marginalization academics assign or the solutions for lifting them up that they propose, but, especially since the social revolutions of the 1960s, academic discourse has displayed an undeniable concern for society’s lowliest members. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to label much academic work as prophetic in the tradition of Jeremiah and Amos. Christians can probably learn a lesson or two from this spirit of concern for those Jesus called “the least of these.”
This prophetic stance has taken the form of paying close attention to the undisputed power that has historically accrued to white people, to the materially wealthy, to men, and to Western nations. Uncovering stories of repression and suffering, especially in mixed classroom settings, understandably carries the prospect of producing shock and even personal pain. A colleague of mine who teaches African-American history spends considerable time exploring our nation’s dark heritage of lynching. If students of all races are to understand and morally process its challenges, significant preparation is required. As a devoted and skilled teacher, she spends time helping students anticipate challenges that will undoubtedly trigger some difficult emotions.
Trigger warnings are simply advance notices that readings in a class might include materials that some will find difficult, even traumatizing. In a 2015 survey by National Public Radio, of 800 college and university instructors polled, only about half reported using trigger warnings with their students, and nearly all who did so noted that it was voluntary rather than required by their institutions.
Most I have spoken with who incorporate this practice in their classrooms tell me that they offer these warnings not as a way to let students exempt themselves from assignments, but as a means to better prepare them for deepened learning. In short, most view it simply as a part of good teaching.
Regarding students as complicated emotional creatures rather than disembodied receptacles of information doesn’t assume them to be privileged and fragile “snowflakes.” Doing so treats them as human beings.
Recent concerns for student well-being are by no means limited to the classroom. Due in part to a federal Title IX compliance mandate, universities that receive federal funding maintain a heightened interest in restricting hostile, derogatory, and hateful speech — along with everyday insults and slights — directed at people based exclusively on their membership in marginalized groups. Most college administrators would agree that placing limits on both overtly incendiary speech and even certain “microaggressions” succeeds in creating safer learning and living environments (safe spaces), especially for women and minority students. While the federal government admittedly carries a big stick in this endeavor, I believe that most schools (including my employer) understand these policies as consistent with more fundamental obligations to promote mutual respect, gracious speech, and even love. At their best, they help college communities recognize that words are important, human dignity matters, and that cultivating civility requires thoughtful attention, hard work, and sacrifice. Reckless public condemnations of “politically correct” language in recent years have sometimes seemed to enshrine the right to give offense as a greater good and a higher calling than the responsibility to care for one’s neighbor. As Americans, perhaps this right can be defended as absolute and unrestricted. I don’t know. But as Christians, I’m sure that it cannot.
In highlighting a few positive (some might say common grace) principles standing behind some of the “emotionally protective” trends in higher education, critics might be wondering if I’m not simply putting lipstick on a pig. Perhaps it isn’t all that helpful to identify these trends with principles of decency and respect when, in practice, so many are actively using them as a license to shut down ideas and beliefs — sometimes violently — that do not conform to a narrow code of liberal orthodoxy.
On this, my critics have a point. But William Deresiewicz draws a helpful distinction between two definitions of “politically correct”: one meaning “the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency,” which he (and I) would defend; and the other, meaning “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas,” which he (and I) would condemn. Deresiewicz argues that the latter has become an unrelenting fundamentalist religion that has completely taken over many secular college campuses, effectively destroying the free exchange of ideas and any hope of genuine learning. If this is the great crisis of contemporary higher education, we should be clear about which idea of “politically correct” is actually driving it. It isn’t an underlying PC concern for human dignity and civility, which we as Christians can and should defend, but it is the PC religious rigidity of liberal groupthink that many students and professors now use as a bludgeon to beat down any who would question it.
The Best Learning Environments May be Christian Colleges
Deresiewicz’s keen observations lead me to a final, ironic observation on this subject. I believe that one of the great challenges today in higher education is how we can cultivate vibrant learning environments that take seriously and balance the demands of free inquiry, justice, emotional sensitivity, and civil discourse. Many colleges that believe themselves to be the greatest champions of these ideals have become so rigidly “religious” and exclusionary in their practices that they have undermined the very tasks of teaching and learning. Where can we go today to see these good ideals lived out? I am not the first observer to argue that, ironically enough, the best learning environments available anywhere in the world along these lines are Christian colleges. Although some are still denigrated as backward and ideologically narrow, Thomas Kidd goes further, arguing that “Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.” Enumerating all of the reasons this is true would require a different essay. But suffice it to say that the real “religion” that threatens higher education today is not a faith in Jesus Christ.
As disciples of our Lord, we must become more winsome in the ways we think and talk about the challenges of higher education, and more self-critical in some of our own knee-jerk reactions. While we may continue to feel strong affinities to many of the insights generated by the traditional conservative narrative, we must stop assuming that its practices are entirely within the devil’s domain. And even as we recoil from some of higher education’s excesses, let us also endeavor with God’s help to learn from some of the good principles of Christian faithfulness that it has to teach us.
Jay Green is professor of history at Covenant College.