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POLITICS, RELIGION, AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST CIVILITY

a paper prepared for the Conference on Advocacy in the Classroom
Pittsburgh, June 2-4, 1995
Dr. David A. Hoekema
Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy
Calvin College

 
  Few relationships outside the family are as rich in potential for lasting benefit and harm as that between teacher and student. In early school years, the family's influence is more potent and more pervasive, for good or ill, than the school's. By the college years, however, character and aspirations are more firmly set, and dependence on parents has usually given way to a more complex and more bidirectional relationship. College students, legally and morally responsible for themselves, remain susceptible to profound personal change. An experience in the classroom may be the catalyst that triggers such change.

Our responsibility to our students in colleges and universities has little of the paternal or the custodial. The doctrine of in loco parentis is dead. Elsewhere I have argued that it should be replaced by a directive relationship, one in which faculty and administrators stand in loco avunculi, in the place of the uncle, and not--as is the case with respect to many areas of behavior on most campuses--by a stance of mere permissiveness, which one might characterize as the non sum mater tui ("I am not your mother") philosophy.

In the context of this gathering, I want to focus not on the relationship between student and college in regulation of conduct, which was my concern in the study just referred to, but rather on the relationship between instructor and student in the classroom. Even within these narrow bounds, fundamental moral questions arise, for the relationship of instructor to student at the college level remains one of great vulnerability. When we stand before a class we occupy a number of roles, including those of an authority, a moral exemplar, a citizen, a fellow inquirer. Each role carries important ethical responsibilities.

Perhaps most important, a responsible instructor strives to maintain a balance between authority and equality. She does not pretend that she is approaching her subject in the same way and at the same level as do her students but acknowledges that years of advanced study and a continuing engagement in disciplinary and interdisciplinary communities of scholarship qualify her as to serve as a guide. The goal of her teaching, however, is not the mere transfer of knowledge. Rather, she seeks to empower students to learn in ways that arise from their own awakened curiosity.

The point I am urging may seem a trite bromide, but it is acknowledged far less often in practice than in lofty discourse such as ours. And it is no less applicable to engineering than to English poetry. If students learn only to repeat what they have been told and to apply it mechanically, whether they are designing a bridge or explaining a sonnet, their instructors have failed at their most important task. Responsible teachers of every subject from moral philosophy to accounting seek to build a relationship in which students strive not for passive accumulation of facts but for active engagement in learning. Not that content is irrelevant--far from it. But at the same time that students are learning the essential content that is the foundation of any area of inquiry, their curiosity and their independence must also be cultivated. Effective and responsible teaching has less to do with transmission of knowledge than with showing students how to learn.

When the content of college teaching involves areas of controversy such as politics, special care is needed to maintain a balance between content and context, between what the instructor can provide and what must come from the student. Teachers need to be particularly attentive to students' prior intellectual and emotional commitments and must take special care neither to conceal nor to impose their own positions. Such vigilance is necessitated by the difficulty of learning to stand back from such commitments in order to examine them critically--a difficulty that afflicts us all, yet has special force during a period of life when intellectual identity and moral character are in formation. Instructors' efforts to help students think critically about politics and other matters of controversy are all too likely to be misconstrued as indoctrination or evidence of bias.

A few years ago I believed that one could maintain the balance between authority and equality by adjusting course content, phrasing questions put to students with care, and designing appropriate written assignments. The personal experiences of a friend and colleague persuaded me that more than this is needed. The story involves a faculty member who had become increasingly involved in political discussions on his campus, to the point where students and faculty alike saw him as a leading spokesperson against certain government actions and policies that had both direct and indirect effects on the campus. (I won't spell these out, but I encourage you to try the story out mentally with more than one possible set of issues--first imagine him a protestor against the Gulf War, for example, and then imagine him protesting against abortion. Either issue could have been the point of friction.) His positions and activities enjoyed strong support from colleagues in his department while provoking vigorous opposition from some students and some faculty and administrative colleagues.

In these emotionally charged circumstances, some of this individual's students complained that political concerns had invaded the faculty member's classrooms to an extent that was distracting and inappropriate, and that he imposed his own views on his students. These charges--supported by some other students, strongly disputed by others--became the principal basis for the department's abrupt reversal of its previous support for his tenure candidacy, in spite of an otherwise strong record of teaching, scholarship, and service.

In this unfortunate episode I find two lessons. The most obvious one, at least from the standpoint of a friend, is the way in which grave injustice can result when student responses to instructors are divorced from the context in which they have arisen. It seemed evident that the students' complaints had less to do with my friend's teaching performance than with their discomfort with his political views. When students are uneasy, they look for an explanation. Their complaint that politics had displaced course content was not supported by most of their classmates or by independent evidence from course syllabi and student notes. My friend had taken pains to tell students, when issues of politics had arisen, that he expected them to think the issues through for themselves and to criticize his views. His colleagues, to their discredit, failed to see the inconsistency between personal support for their colleague's political courage and blindness to the way in which political discomfort had been expressed indirectly.

But there was also a second lesson that emerged more slowly from our conversations and reflections. I believe my friend was also at fault, for he did not understand, nor did I, the ways in which the introduction of controversial current topics into the classroom changes the character of the relationship between instructor and student.

We would all like our students to grow up, take responsibility for defending their views, and accept challenges with an open mind. Sometimes they live up to this ideal--at least as often, perhaps, as do our colleagues. Yet we need to recognize that it is far more difficult to achieve such critical distance when the topic of debate is not in an impersonal academic realm but lies close to the values that motivate our daily lives. Arguments over Aristotle's conception of the relationship between virtue and habit, or over Wordsworth's account of emotion in poetry, are unlikely to involve direct personal or emotional challenge. But a classroom debate over whether abortion should be legal, or whether affirmative action perpetuates racial division, calls into question moral and political views that may lie nearer the heart than the head.

Instructors need to approach every aspect of the classroom differently when students' deepest convictions are held up for examination and discussion. Seemingly superficial changes such as moving students to the front of the room and asking them to lead discussions, or encouraging group as well as individual written assignments, can promote learning and keep discussion out of well-worn ruts. Many faculty members deride such changes as trivial or useless. In my experience, they are far from trivial and far from useless, for they give concrete expression to the essential balance between instructors' authority and students' intellectual independence. They help guard against two opposed dangers: the risk that some students who resent the instructor's views will judge him harshly because of their disagreement, and the risk that other students will allow their own views to be shaped to an excessive degree by their affection for the instructor.

Students must be shown, not merely told, how to avoid ceding to the instructor the authority to shape their personal and political views, even while a measure of authority does attach to the instructor's knowledge of disciplinary methods and findings. Rearranging the chairs and encouraging collaborative work do not achieve this by themselves. Nor does merely instructing students not to follow instructions passively. Recall the Doonesbury cartoon a few years ago in which a history instructor, frustrated beyond endurance with students' sheeplike passivity, exploded in anarchistic rage in his last lecture--"You aren't getting an education, you've only being forcefed facts in order to make you into brain-dead dupes of social engineering," or words to that effect. The students dutifully scribbled in their notebooks, interrupting only to ask which points from this lecture would be on the exam.

Special care is needed to protect the teacher-student relationship when issues of controversy arise. When advocacy enters the classroom, the relationship of trust and deference between student and instructor shifts significantly. We must not ignore the shift and carry on as usual. Instead, we must acknowledge it, adjust the ways in which we teach and even the chair in which we sit, and strive always to ensure that critical self-reflection is not displaced either by angry dismissal or, equally unfortunate, by passive acceptance.

Thus far I have spoken of advocacy in matters political. The realm of politics, in application to topics ranging from history and culture to gender and ethnicity, is the central focus of this entire gathering. In no way do I discount the importance of this discussion, nor do I dispute the need for a clearer and more forthright engagement with the political dimensions of contemporary intellectual life. In the remainder of my remarks, however, I want to shift my attention from the political to the religious realm. Our approach to the two areas, I believe, should be closely parallel. Yet, inexplicably, many advocates of political openness wish to bar the gate against religion.

Few urge today that politics be excluded altogether from the classroom. Conservatives who see a leftist bias controlling the universities acknowledge the appropriateness of political values in teaching when they call for balance, with equal representation of conservative and liberal views. Yet conservatives and liberals alike unite in the conviction that religious values belong in the home and the church, not in the university. (I am referring, needless to say, to universities and colleges having no religious affiliation. I will have a few observations about institutions with a religious affiliation below.) Instructors are criticized, and occasionally disciplined, for importing religious values into their teaching. The conviction that God should stay off campus is shared even by many religious believers, who regard their faith as a personal matter irrelevant to their role as instructors.

Religious commitments are personal in many of the same respects as are political commitments. They are nurtured in communities, they invite disagreement and controversy, and they express deep and abiding values that are not easily examined critically. These features make it clear just how inadequate a characterization it is to label such commitments "personal." It is a commonplace of our age to describe religious commitment a matter of individual choice, of taste and preference, like a preference for chocolate ice cream or for all-cotton shirts. But one's convictions on matters of religion, as of politics, are molded and refined only in the never-ending process of interchange with others. Mature and steadfast adherence to a religious community, as to a political party, can come about only when one has learned to take others' challenges seriously, tested one's convictions in the heat of argument and applied them in action, and come to align oneself with others through whom we have come to know and understand what is most essential.

To bar the campus gates against religion therefore deprives students of a vital opportunity to discover who they are by thoughtful and self-critical engagement with competing accounts of the nature of the world and the grounds of value. When an instructor brings religion into the classroom in a way that discourages dissent, much the same harm is likely to be done as in the case of politics. Some will accept what is said uncritically because of the high esteem in which they hold the instructor or the attractiveness of the worldview presented, failing to engage the ideas presented in a critical and independent way. Others will tune out, ignoring a message they have already rejected, and will fault the instructor for interjecting ideas of no relevance to the course. The remedy is the same as in the case of political discourse: the instructor must seek out appropriate ways in which she can present her own views honestly and directly, while empowering students to criticize her perspective and put forward their own.

Instructors who refrain from expressing their religious convictions in the classroom, therefore, are shortchanging their students and depriving them of a needed opportunity for learning and growth. This is not to say that religion should be imported into every class regardless of topic. It would be inappropriate to begin a calculus class with a discussion of the Bible or the Quran--or an attack on Congressional welfare reform proposals. Yet in any course of study, questions will arise that bear on fundamental issues of personal conviction. Instructors ought not to shirk such matters but rather to address them honestly and openly.

Even in a calculus class, students may raise the question of whether the powerful quantitative manipulation that continuous functions make possible is a fact about the world or only about our measurement of it. If it is the world and not merely our analysis that is orderly, they may ask further whether this implies a grounding in some intelligence that is more than human. These questions elicit different answers from nominalist naturalists, Platonist deists, and Augustinian Christians. A calculus instructor should be ready to explain these alternatives, and ready to defend one of them as that which in her judgment is most satisfactory.

Students deserve better than to be told, "That isn't mathematics, so we won't talk about it." They should receive an honest answer to their questions--or an argument that they are unanswerable, if that is the instructor's only answer. The instructor's response should promote further reflection and encourage students to seek answers independently. Even in a calculus classroom, in other words, religious inquiry has an appropriate place.

My concern thus far has been with nonreligious colleges and universities. But all that has been said--about religion and about politics--applies with equal force to religiously affiliated institutions. In church-related colleges no less than state universities, instructors in literature and engineering classes should express their religious and their political views openly and directly, with the intent not of indoctrinating but of enabling students to engage in critical reflection. What distinguishes religious from non-religious institutions is not the presence or absence of religious values, or the freedom of faculty members to express them in the classroom. Such freedom ought to obtain everywhere, although its limits may be set at different points by different kinds of institutions. Religious institutions are distinguished, rather, by the consistency of their religious stance. Many include in their institutional mission a unified and coherent religious vision, which faculty members are expected to uphold not only in teaching and scholarship but in the conduct of their lives.

The criteria for adherence to a religiously based mission may include membership in a specific church community, acceptance of creedal statements, or other indications of fidelity to a particular community. Consequently, there is likely to be greater freedom, and positive encouragement, to explore religious questions in the classroom. Yet in religious as well as nonreligious colleges, the goal of such exploration must be to empower, not to indoctrinate, the student. If students accept the institution's religious values out of a desire to conform, without critical reflection, their education is woefully incomplete. If they respond, on the other hand, by coming to a vigorously defended position of agnosticism--if they understand the institution's commitments and argue against them--they come much nearer to the institution's goals.

Some who argue for political openness on campus object to the very existence of religiously affiliated institutions, on the ground that a specific religious commitment is incompatible with true intellectual and academic freedom. This suggestion is absurd in the face of the rich historical record, from medieval Europe through 19th-century America, of religiously grounded institutions of study and higher education in which intellectual inquiry has flourished. Those who reject all forms of religious belief may prefer the secular form into which public universities have evolved over the religiously-grounded colleges that are their forebears, an alternative that lives on in many liberal-arts institutions and a few universities. Some religious believers also prefer the former environment to the latter. But this preference need not be justified by denying the possibility of academic freedom in a religiously defined setting.

It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which religious topics will enter into classroom discussions in religiously grounded colleges. Students and faculty alike expect such discussions. But let us shift our view back to nonreligious colleges and universities. What is the place of religion there? How can it be responsibly introduced in ways that nurture growth and invite reflection? Let me venture three suggestions.

First, religious aspects of topics under study should be highlighted, not dismissed or ignored. The most obvious examples arise from the study of history. We have all read of high school history texts that describe the Pilgrims without mentioning their faith and never identify Martin Luther King, Jr., as a minister--these are irresponsible omissions that need to be corrected. It is equally important to highlight religious dimensions of biology, mathematics, engineering, and psychology. I am by no means calling for equal time for creation science in every biology course--I refer you to some excellent studies by my Calvin colleagues which expose the irresponsibility of most of what flies under that banner--but I am calling for an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to reflect on whether life can have arisen by chance, whether numbers exist eternally, and whether conversion experiences are more than brain chemistry.

Second, instructors should be open and direct in expressing their own religious convictions, when they have relevance either to the subject under study or to a concern brought to them by a student. Some conservatives have chided the academy for selective openness to religion, citing campuses where Christians have been told to stop proselytizing, while down the corridor Wiccan paganism and Native American nature religion are freely dispensed. If Christians are indeed proselytizing, using the classroom as a platform for evangelism, they should indeed be rebuked. To assume the responsibility of instructor is to limit one's personal interactions in the service of nurturing students' growth. An instructor who is an ordained minister may very appropriately sound a call for repentance, in the context of an evangelistic outreach service, but she may not use her classroom to this end. Does the distinction seem artificial? Consider a parallel: there is nothing improper about selling a car to a student, but ought she to spend classroom time on that? The classroom carries special rules.

To present oneself honestly and with integrity as a teacher and scholar it is not merely permissible but necessary to acknowledge religious commitments. Militant atheists who deride all vestiges of religion ought to acknowledge their convictions, particularly when historical or cultural manifestations of religion are under study. Christian and Jewish believers, and Wiccans and New Age mystics, ought similarly to give expression to the values that ground their lives.

But a third element is essential: in presenting religious ideas in the classroom, instructors should both say and show that such ideas are open to discussion, challenge, and critique in the academy. This does not imply that argument is the basis of religious conviction, or that all such convictions either can or should be laid on the table for others' critique. But it is essential--no less in religious than in nonreligious institutions--to present issues of ultimate grounding as appropriate subjects of critical self-reflection. The means to this end include many of the same means mentioned earlier in the context of politics. Course content, the nature of assignments, and the questions put to students can all contribute. It is necessary to go beyond these adjustments here too, and to explore ways in which seating arrangements and student interaction can make these lessons more concrete. When religious questions arise on which the instructor has well-formulated views, for example, it may be appropriate to ask two or three students to prepare dissenting statements for presentation during the first portion of the following class, with the instructor simply listening. Collaborative assignments and projects can also help students engage more directly with such questions.

Why is the place of religion in the classroom so much more controversial than that of politics? The principal reason, I suggest, is fear--fear of crossing constitutional boundaries, fear of professional and institutional disfavor, and fear of causing unanticipated and unhealthy responses. Let me say a word about each of these in closing. The fear of violating constitutional limits is a result of one-sided and exaggerated interpretations of the First Amendment that have come to dominate popular discussion. Protection of the free exercise of religion is no less central to the Bill of Rights than is the bar on any established church. To welcome religious discussion into a university classroom cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as officially privileging a church, but it would serve the purposes of the free expression clause far better than the silence that now reigns.

Fear of professional disfavor is without doubt a motivating factor in academics' reticence concerning religious faith. A generation or two ago, a spirit of reductionistic positivism stalked the universities, and all matters of faith, morality, and beauty were pushed aside in pursuit of the universal scope of science. From that dream we have awakened, and in nearly every field of scholarly endeavor matters of politics and religion are once more openly addressed. To those few who would still lock the gate against scholars who are members of both religious and intellectual communities, we can say, borrowing part of the slogan of Act Up: We're here. Get used to it. Unfortunately, many institutions lag far behind the open spirit of disciplinary conversations, and instructors may have sound reasons to fear that engagement with religious questions in the classroom will bring the ire of department chairs and administrators. Those of us who are in more open-minded institutions, whether religious or secular, need to help these colleagues persuade their supervisors that the exclusion of religion does not preserve, but rather undermines, genuine academic freedom.

Fear of inappropriate reaction is the most difficult fear to exorcise, and it may not infrequently be justified. To induce students to examine their deepest personal commitments in a critical light may indeed unleash a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. When this occurs, instructors must be careful neither to ignore such responses nor to undertake to resolve them for their students. An instructor who is willing to listen sympathetically, and who shows a deep personal integrity in his own life, can be of immeasurable help to students struggling with personal and spiritual crises. But more help that this may also be needed, and the instructor's role may be to step aside so that others more expert can help a student sort out the questions and anxieties that block her path.

But we must also remind ourselves of how limited our powers over students actually are. In matters of fundamental religious conviction, a classroom experience may be the catalyst, but far- reaching change comes only from elsewhere--from deep within the person, some would say. I would say, rather, from deep without.

If we can create a campus atmosphere in which political and religious ideas are freely expressed, and in which content and pedagogy work together to nurture independence and maturity, we will serve our students, and our society, far better than at present. Our students, and our fellow citizens, deserve no less.


A FEW NOTES ON THE QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION THAT FOLLOWED MY TALK:

Comment (from a friend of Greg Garrett, Baylor):
Opening religious topics on a secular university campus doesn't work--most students don't care, and the few who do aren't able to talk about it in an open and critical way. The academy is so thoroughly post-Christian that there are few points of contact.

Question from University of Pennsylvania faculty member:
I said sometimes that professors should have the freedom to voice religious convictions, sometimes that they should do so. Isn't the latter itself an invasion of a professor's academic freedom? Do I really mean it is an obligation?
Answer:
I meant to say more than the former but less than the latter. In circumstances in which religious questions arise, faculty have an obligation to be honest about their convictions; and they have an obligation to keep the classroom open to discussion of such topics. But there isn't any general obligation to state religious affiliation--to write it on the board the first day with your office hours.

Question from Ernst Benjamin (President of American Association of University Professors):
Maybe there is an obligation, just as it has been argued that faculty ought to disclose political views precisely in order to help students avoid being unduly influenced. Students can fend for themselves better when they are put on guard.
Answer:
That suggests there is something inherently dangerous, inherently opposed to disinterested inquiry, about both politics and religion--I'm trying to challenge that assumption, while acknowledging that some special rules apply.

Comment from someone from University of Chicago law school (or maybe he was just quoting Geoff Stone, University of Chicago Provost, at previous plenary):
The exclusion of religion is not without reason--it is in response to many historic abuses of religion to curtail academic freedom.

Comment from Warren Frisina (Assistant Director, American Academy of Religion):
We've been through a generation or more of secularization, in which religion was excluded; perhaps that was justified, but isn't it time now to declare that we are done with religion's sojourn in purgatory? A: Does this mean we are entering into Paradise--or that all hell is about to break loose?

Comment by Stanley Katz (President of American Council of Learned Societies):
What I say is interesting and mostly persuasive, but anyone who has grown up Jewish in America in the 30's and 40's can't fully accept religion as something that can be put out on the table without risks! He expanded on this when we talked afterward at another session. He said he had argued unsuccessfully for inclusion of religion in a major ACLS project in K-12 education--the foundations would not buy it--but thinks I underestimate the difficulties. Religion even more than politics has been used as a tool of exclusion and oppression, and the openness that exists today in the academy is fragile.

Indirect comment by Barbara Aronstein Black (Columbia University Law School):
At the closing plenary, where she was one of four wrap-up speakers, she summarized my closing comments about fear of constitutional infringement, professional disfavor, and inappropriate responses, but then gave equal weight to the response from the audience that there is justified fear of returning to the abuses of the past, suggesting that in the present political climate that's a real danger.
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