Friday, July 4, 2014

The Attack of the Conns and Alan Jacobs to the Rescue

I don't know if Steven Conn and Peter Conn are related, but neither of them like Christian colleges very much.  In fact, both of them have just taken to the Internet to express their disgust.

Over at The Huffington Post, Steven Conn, a history professor at Ohio State, asks if a "Christian college" is an oxymoron.  A few years ago I met Conn when we were both invited to attend an informal meeting on academic blogging sponsored by the American Historical Association.  At the time I did not realize he had such strong feelings about Christian colleges. 

Here is a taste of Steven Conn's essay:

Let me be clear: The problem here is not the obvious one of intellectual dishonesty or obtuseness. Rather the problem is that Bryan College and Cedarville University are both fully accredited institutions of higher education. Which means that they receive all the benefits, financial and otherwise, that come from that imprimatur without having to uphold higher education's foundational principles. They call themselves "colleges," they are recognized as such by the authorities that matter, but they don't play by the rules of intellectual freedom. I would uphold the right of Cedarville faculty to speak on my campus; Cedarville would not return the courtesy.
If the administration at Bryan College, Cedarville University, Wheaton College and other Christian institutions want to continue firing faculty for failing their theological/ideological litmus tests, I say by all means and go ahead. But if you do so, you shouldn't be permitted to call yourself a college or university. If you don't pay the basic dues, you shouldn't get to join the club.
And then there is Peter Conn, a professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania. He does not think Christian colleges like Wheaton College in Illinois deserve accreditation.  Here is a taste of his piece, "The Great Accreditation Farce":
I want to raise a different and, in my view, far more important objection to accreditation as codified and practiced now. By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.
Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious...
This, in my view, can only be described as a scandal. Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold. If accrediting agencies are playing by the rules in this continuing fiasco, then the rules have to be changed—or interpreted more aggressively, so that "respect" for "belief systems" does not entail approving the subversion of our core academic mission by this or that species of dogma.
Let me be clear. I have no particular objection to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their religious beliefs affirmed. However, I have a profound objection to legitimizing such an association through accreditation, and thereby conceding that the integrity of scholarship and teaching is merely negotiable. I also object to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in support of religious ideology, in particular when that ideology has set itself in opposition to the findings of modern science.
I was going to try to respond to these criticisms, but Alan Jacobs did it much better than I ever could.  For those of you who do not know him, Jacobs taught for twenty-nine years at Wheaton College before recently moving to Baylor University.  Here is a taste of his response to Peter Conn from his blog at The New Atlantis:
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....

There is not much more I can add to Jacobs's post other than the fact that all Christian colleges are not the same. There are some fundamental differences, for example, between Wheaton College, Bryan College, Cedarville University and Messiah College (where I teach).  Both of the Conns fail to address these nuances.

I would also love to try to get both of the Conns to the campus of Messiah College to meet our students, dialogue with the faculty, and learn more about the quality of education we offer. Perhaps they could even offer a lecture or two on their own scholarship much in the same way that Annette Gordon-Reed, James McPherson, Peter Onuf, Henry Louis Gates, Harry Stout, Francis Fox Piven, E.J. Dionne, James Leach, Geoffrey Harpham, Tony Grafton, and others have done in recent years.  I would love to have Steven Conn come and talk to the students in our public history concentration, the students taking our urban history course, or my colleagues involved with the Digital Harrisburg Project. Maybe they could come and participate in the yearly Humanities Symposium sponsored by our NEH-funded Center for Public Humanities. Since they know so much about what goes on at Christian colleges I am assuming they have spent some time on one of our campuses. Nevertheless, perhaps a second visit might be in order.