Post-Christian Ideologies at Christian and Secular Colleges
For some time now, truthXchange has been warning the church about the inroads that post-Christian ideologies are making into Christian colleges. The pagan worldview that reasserted itself in America in the late 20th century has now incorporated new ideas about sexuality, race, and other hot-button topics. A recent series of articles in mainstream outlets shows just how bad things have become in both secular and Christian higher education.
That secular education has become hostile to the truth is at one level not surprising. In a broadly Christian culture, the expectation that we will be truth-seekers spills over from Christianity into the broader social world. Colleges have had many problems, but until recently there was no debate whether the purpose of a college was to discover the truth and to pass it on to the next generation. The ability to freely discuss and debate contested ideas is part of that truth-seeking enterprise. Professors do research, make presentations, and have their conclusions challenged by their colleagues. There were always limits, of course – heresy and political insurrection weren’t treated as ordinary topics for discussion. But, today, the limits have moved.
Campus speakers have been subject to threats and cancellations for some time. The attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury College, when he was about to give a speech to the local chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, is now nearly five years ago. And, we have come to expect that schools simply will not allows some speakers and some topics to be discussed in public. But things have become much, much worse. Now, anyone who has an unpopular opinion about any topic may be “uninvited,” even if their talk is not about that controversial issue.
In October, Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot had a public lecture cancelled at MIT. Why? The answer is surprisingly mundane. This summer, in the pages of Newsweek, he argued that universities are being taken over by administrators and bureaucrats committed to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI). Their task is to increase DEI on campus, and they do so through a whole range of student life initiatives, scholarships, success programs, hiring mandates, etc. While well-intentioned, the practical results are often destructive. He writes:
“equity” does not mean fair and equal treatment. DEI seeks to increase the representation of some groups through discrimination against members of other groups. The underlying premise of DEI is that any statistical difference between group representation on campus and national averages reflects systemic injustice and discrimination by the university itself. The magnitude of the distortions is significant: for some job searches discrimination rises to the level of implicitly or explicitly excluding applicants from certain groups.
Abbot argued that schools should return to merit-based student admissions, and even go further, eliminating legacy, athletic, and race-based advantages for certain groups of applicants. It’s an old-school framework that he says is about “Merit, Fairness, and Equality.” While not the majority viewpoint, is this something that should get an otherwise world-class professor uninvited from giving a lecture on his area of expertise? At MIT that answer is apparently “yes.” And what signal does this send to every other academic? “If you agree with Abbot, keep it to yourself, or your job will be in jeopardy.”
Also in October, the accomplished physicist and President of the Origins Project Foundation Lawrence Krauss wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How ‘Diversity’ Turned Tyrranical.” It adds to Abbot’s argument, providing an incredible exposé of how DEI programs are suppressing debate and research on a range of issues. As the article’s subtitle reads: “What began as an effort to hire more minorities has turned into a demand for ideological engagement.” A range of initiatives designed to help hire minority faculty and make the campus environment better for minority students have turned colleges into something that they were never intended to be. There is now “a climate of pervasive fear on campus” which “shuts down what should be an important academic discussion” about healthy diversity.
A recent Atlantic article argued this this is a whole new level of “cancel culture” in action. The author writes “Abbot’s disinvitation…is qualitatively different from other recent instances in which invitations have been rescinded—and suggests that the scope of censorship is continuing to morph and expand.” Not only are “his opinions are much less extreme,” he writes, but “It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture.” It’s one thing for campuses not to want certain controversies to be discussed. It is a whole further level to exclude any speaker who has an unpopular opinion utterly unrelated from the topic of his speech. If we are always having to worry that our political arguments are going to get us into trouble, trouble of the sort that ends people’s careers, then “in effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.” This is not a small problem, it is huge. The author concludes: “MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.”
Some secular scholars who support free speech have had enough. A group of them has decided to found a new, anti-woke university, The University of Austin. This is no fly-by-night operation. Their first president is Pano Kanelos, who resigned his position of President of St. John’s College (Annapolis) last spring. Their advisory board has been stacked with academics and public figures who have been burned by the intolerance of the new left: Journalist Bari Weiss, Biologist Heather Heying, Stephen Pinker, Glenn Loury, Jonathan Haidt, Larry Summers, Andrew Sullivan, and the list goes on. The group is heavy on secular progressives and light on Christians, so it seems unlikely they can maintain a spirit of free inquiry over the long run. But, in the medium-term one thing is certain – the education at this school will not merely be theoretical, but will recognize the courage required in defense of the truth. These students will have professors who have paid a real personal price to stand up for truth.
But what about Christian colleges? As we mentioned at the outset, things are grim there, also.
One of the more conservative Christian colleges is Grove City College. But, this fall a group of parents and concerned friends wrote a petition outlining the widespread presence of Critical Race Theory at the college. Grove City is one of the more conservative colleges in Christian higher education. They are part of a small circle of long-established colleges who refuse to take federal money because they want to maintain a strong independence of governmental interference. But, this petition outlines how Critical Race Theory (CRT) has made significant inroads at the college. The means are not surprising to some of us in higher education: student life programming, chapel speakers, the teacher education program, and administrative bureaucrats. A chapel speaker used a secular TED talk that promoted CRT and urged students to reflect on the way that it displayed “justice” and “biblical mercy.” The school established a “Diversity Council” that is promoting DEI-friendly books. An RA training session presumed that every white person carried “white guilt” and tried to get students to confess.
Followup articles, first in American Reformer and then in the Daily Wire, showed that the parents’ case was even stronger than it initially appeared. For one example: an education professor is teaching an education activism course about “how to become actively anti-racist.” If pursuing “antiracism” simply meant being opposed to racism and trying to get rid of it anywhere it appears, every Christian would support it. But, being “antiracist” means much more than that – it requires white people in particular to “acknowledge and understand their privilege, [and] work to change their internalized racism.” It presumes that normal American society is radically racist, that while people inherently have white privilege and white guilt. Being “actively anti-racist” requires seeking to tear down ordinary and customary American ways of life. It requires seeing racism everywhere – race becomes the lens through which life is viewed. “Antiracism” also turns out to be central to the chapel series. A headlining chapel speaker went on to be hired by Abram Kendi, author of How to be Antiracist and one of the most influential persons in the country when it comes to promoting Critical Race Theory. Even one of the most conservative colleges in the country has chapel speakers that promote Critical Race Theory – that is where Christian higher education has reached in 2022.
Grove City is in a mild situation relative to the rest of Christian higher education. Gerald McDermott of Beeson Divinity School recently brought to light the extent to which CRT has made inroads into Wheaton College, Baylor University, and Samford University, in his article “Woke Theory at Evangelical Colleges.” Wheaton has an “Office of Multicultural Development” which hosted a “Racialized Minorities Recognition Ceremony” during graduation week 2021. One of the main speakers at this event, who had served as Wheaton’s chief diversity officer until this summer when she was hired by a large secular university, said America had a “racialized caste system” and encouraged the students to pursue “anti-racism.” If this seems strange to you, or perhaps like something you would hear from a secular news outlet, realize it has become the new normal at Christian colleges.
McDermott also outlines new policies at Samford University in Alabama, a Baptist university and a member of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. Every student organization now has to host a race-related event every year in order to remain in good standing with the school. So, as McDermott notes, “Parents might wonder why a math or chess club must talk about race in order to survive.” It is not just student organizations that are having to adjust: faculty at Samford must now undergo “implicit bias” training, despite piles of evidence that such training does no good. In fact, there’s evidence that a lot of the time the training backfires, since many people resent being falsely told that they are biased. Implicit bias training has become a standard part of many workplaces, so at this point it is an “industry standard,” but one would hope that Christian institutions would find ways to address racism without simply going along with current faddish trends.
At all of these institutions there are dissenting faculty members – professors who would like to do things differently, but are unable to bring about change. At some institutions, like Grove City, their jobs may be at risk if they speak out. Grove City professors are all one one-year contracts. And, while turnover seems relatively low at the college, there is the constant background risk that if you offend the president or provost, or cause public embarrassment for the college, you could be out of a job. Even at other institutions, where faculty have the job security of tenure, there are major risks. You could be ostracized by your peers, both locally and in your broader academic community. You could be uninvited from conferences or attacked by organizational leaders (like eminent philosopher Richard Swinburne was attacked by the Society of Christian Philosophers). You could be turned down for promotion, have teaching assignments changed, or lose your leadership positions. Christian academic cannot easily just “find another job.” Even large colleges employ only a handful of professors in each discipline. When an accountant is fired, there are lots of places that they can move to. When a professor is fired, it can mean the end of a career they have been investing in for decades.
Christians often arrive at certain fads even after the broader culture has moved on. Wokeness may turn out to be one such issue. The tides appear to already be turning. The 2021 election for Governor of Virginia is a warning beacon for Christian colleges that are flirting with new left-leaning ideologies. Between the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 governor’s election, the state votes shifted 10% away from Democrats and toward Republicans. Rarely are such large changes seen in such a short amount of time. What was the major issue that prompted such change? Schools and race. Parents around the state realized that racial ideologies, like the “antiracism” ideas of white guilt, white privilege, and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” were being taught in their kids’ elementary school classrooms. It was not just left-wing professors or mainstream media that had bought into these ideas, it was their child’s 2nd grade teacher, who was teaching kids about their white privilege and the need for “equity.” The rise of virtual, at-home schooling because of the pandemic allowed parents to “sit in” on their kids’ classrooms for the first time. When the reality of these ideas comes out into the light, secular parents and Christian parents alike reject them.
Christian schools must recognize that these new progressive ideologies pose an existential threat to their continued existence. As colleges around the country struggle with enrollment, and face the risk of closure at an unprecedented rate, Christian schools must send a clear message that their education is fundamentally different from what goes on in secular institutions. Parents, donors, and k-12 educators must have confidence that what happens at Christian U will build on, rather than tear down, the early education of their students. If you hear stories about a college, reach out to them. Ask questions. Don’t accept easy answers. Many leaders at many colleges want to do the right thing, but aren’t convinced it will work. The more encouragement they get from parents, pastors, and k-12 educators, the more they will be strengthened to lead with integrity.
David Talcott is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Anna and their six children. He is an elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) and oversees the Christian College Project of truthXchange.