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Why Do Christian Schools Get a Pass in Conversations About Academic Freedom?

The College of the Ozarks is creating snowflakes.
The College of the Ozarks.

The College of the Ozarks.

In response to National Football League players protesting state violence against African Americans, the College of the Ozarks, a small, Christian liberal arts institution in Missouri, is ordering its students to pick up a gun. The 93 percent white school now makes all first-year students take a Patriotic Education Fitness class. According to the Miami Herald, the course includes, "lessons on American politics, the military, and flag norms." Through their studies, "students will learn rifle marksmanship, map reading, land navigation, and rope knotting. Students also must be able to run a mile and will engage in other physical education activities." It's unclear how such activities will foster the college's mission of making students more "Christ-like."

This course is pure indoctrination. In fact, schools such as the College of the Ozarks explicitly demand homogeneity and fealty to religious and nationalistic ideologies. They punish divergence, and they aren't alone. There's a whole class of schools, some wealthy and influential, that demand obedience and conformity. And we are in a national moment when far too many influential voices are characterizing liberal arts institutions as hotbeds of politically correct intolerance. It's true that many schools do push students to think about diversity, but the "Patriotic Education Fitness Class" ought to give us a little perspective.

Like the College of the Ozarks, a lot of schools, whether religious or secular, have mandatory courses and programs for incoming students. They are often constructive and important. Some courses of this type engage canonical works or push students to consider enduring questions. I recently spoke to first-year students at the University of California–Santa Cruz who were all required to take a class where they study different conceptions of justice across time and throughout global history. At Dominican University, where I taught for a decade, first-year students read some of the works of the Buddhist philosopher Thích Nhất Hạnh. We wanted them to use his work, in conversation with other pieces of writing, to think about how to live a more-examined life. I also know of institutions that use introductory courses and require orientations to help students make the transition from high school to college, choose majors, or even begin considering how to find a vocation.

In my experiences as an educator, these mandatory introductory classes tend to foster deep, searching questions about the self and the function of education. They allow both teachers and students to explore things that matter before the cynicism of years (there's no one more cynical than a sophomore) sets in. Such curricular choices reveal a lot about an institution's aspirations and identity.

As an undergraduate, I went to Wesleyan University. It was lampooned in the 1990s, when I attended, as PCU. There was no single core class that everyone took, per se, but I've never forgotten the early mandatory orientations. We were pushed to talk about diversity. Within a few days, new friends came out to me as queer. I learned about what we now call affirmative consent. We had long discussions about culture and power. In many ways, my ongoing work of self-improvement that still pushes me today began during those opening weeks. I'm told that these efforts continue. Last August, Vanessa Grigoriadis, a fellow Wesleyan alum from the '90s, returned to campus to find out what students are saying now; she subsequently wrote a reassuring report in the New York Times about the way today's "'P.C.' students" have an "overwhelming urge to be kind to each other." It doesn't mean they always get it right, but the driving force is to pay attention to vulnerabilities and then do no harm. If this is the scourge of political correctness on campus, sign me up.

Places like the College of the Ozarks have made the choice to erect barriers around their students in pursuit of comfortable sameness. They ensure that no student will ever be forced to encounter a significantly divergent idea in the classroom, and they preserve unity of thought by means such as requiring prospective faculty to submit letters of recommendations from their pastors. Such practices are common among evangelical universities, including at Wheaton College in the Chicago area. Sometimes called the "Harvard of Christian schools," Wheaton tried to fire professor Larycia Hawkins last year for writing on Facebook that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God." Hawkins, an African-American political scientist, had clashed for several years with Wheaton authorities over her refusal to conform her personal theology to the confines of the Wheaton statement of faith and educational purpose. Here it's not merely required that one be a Christian, as Hawkins is, but that one profess a specific set of theological principles.

To be clear, the hundreds of colleges that impose doctrine on their students are well within their rights to do so. Moreover, many religiously affiliated institutions rely on their spiritual identity as a foundation for engaging the broader world, rather than as a means to erect barriers around their students. Dominican, where I taught, is one of those. Somehow, though, America's extensive discourse around academic freedom, political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and snowflakes never extends to talk about the explicitly exclusionary, safe, trigger-free (except on rifles), snowflake-ridden campuses like the College of the Ozarks.

Take, for example, Frank Bruni, the latest New York Times op-ed columnist to talk about academic freedom and the importance of a diversity of ideas in a good education (Bret Stephens was the previous one, just 10 days before Bruni. It's a pretty regular theme over there). In a piece advocating that universities make room for more Donald Trump voters on campuses, Bruni targets University of Colorado–Boulder, New York University, Bowdoin College, Warren Wilson College, Johns Hopkins University, and my beloved Wesleyan. Like many proponents of intellectual diversity on campus, Bruni makes a passionate argument that the best education relies on engaging with those who disagree with you, without regard for safety or emotional triggers. Let's assume he's entirely right. Shouldn't we be as concerned for the young folks who attend the College of the Ozarks as we are for the students at Wesleyan? At the very least, such examples could help us talk about speech and diversity on campus without panicking over alleged P.C. fascism.

Free-speech norms, like curricular design in higher education, are complicated. They all involve trade-offs. I believe in transparent, intentional processes, whereby communities develop their practices collectively. I acknowledge there are other ways to build community, though I admit I have become tired of my fellow white male pundits telling people of color what's good for them when it comes to giving racists a platform.

I do not believe that the platonic ideal of abstract debate in which all sides are equally considered is really possible to institutionalize. A college can choose to hire faculty with conservative views, or bring in speakers from across the political spectrum, and probably should. But students will self-select, get distracted, sleep in late, and pick courses that fit their worldview. Elevating one voice will create silences elsewhere. These things are complicated.

But when new students arrive on campus and attend mandatory orientations and courses, a college or university has an opportunity to embed its core values in the students arriving to pursue their dreams.

I'll take Wesleyan's message of radical inclusion and kindness over flag worship and rifle training any day.