In which I blame the “victim”

Inside Higher Ed has published my response to Timothy Larsen’s piece on discrimination against Christians in academia. I argue that the evangelical community itself bears most of the blame for any tension that evangelical students experience in higher ed.

I already have my first comment, from someone who apparently thinks the purpose of liberal education is to turn students into New Atheists and who refers to me as Mr. Kotsko. Ah, IHE commenters: you are truly amazing.

The desperate plight of Christians in academia

Evan makes a sensible point about the controversy over adjunct Catholic studies professor Kenneth Howell’s dismissal from University of Illinois and subsequent reinstatement, in the course of a discussion of Tim Larsen’s article on discrimination against Christians:

there’s no reason to think that any crisis of anti-religiosity is demonstrated at UI. If anything, the only reason why Howell has successfully been reinstated is because of the huge influence that Christianity maintains in our universities. Other adjuncts have not fared so well. If an adjunct instructor were dismissed for offending students with a Judith Butler reading, for instance, I can’t imagine they would have received such support or had such luck in being reinstated. The incident would have been another data point amongst many others and wouldn’t have made any news.

I agree with Larsen that if discrimination against Christians is happening, it’s bad and some kind of action should be taken. I do think that conservative Christians do present special pedagogical challenges, both because of their own attitudes (above all the tendency toward persecution complex, which is understandable given that Christian leaders are constantly teaching them to expect persecution from godless liberals) and because of the tendency for non-Christian students and, unfortunately but sometimes understandably, non-Christian faculty to react very negatively to them.

Faculty are of course the adults in the room and should figure out better ways to deal with them and guide their students in such ways — in particular, I think faculty need to be sensitive to conservative Christian paranoia and do their best not to set it off — but I think Christian leaders need to be held responsible here as well. There are probably better ways to spend the kids’ time in youth group, for instance, than presenting high school as a hotbed of violence where you’re likely to step on a used syringe while trying to dodge the couple fucking openly in the hallway and presenting college as a place where the godless indoctrinators are going to give you an F unless you tow the party line. The reality is that non-Christian faculty and students are human beings who necessarily bring their experience into the classroom, and often their past will have included negative experiences with Christian intolerance — a situation that is not helped when Christian kids are taught from age five to be as militant and defensive as possible when the topic of religion comes up.

Ontological assholishness

I often complain that I am singled out as being an “ontological asshole,” even though people are routinely much meaner to me than I would ever dream of being. I think this exchange is a good example of the phenomenon. If you read the comment, you’ll see that it basically says that everything we’re doing at AUFS is completely worthless if not outright farcical — and it does so at great length. That, in my mind, is mean. When Anthony responds angrily, as any human being would, several people leap to the original commenter’s defense and shame Anthony for overreacting, in the process seriously understating the negativity of the original commenter.

This happens again and again — the only possible sin in blog conversations is “tone” (which is, incidentally, the most difficult thing to pick up as intended in online communication!). Any kind of content gets a free pass, as long as the “tone” is right. When the sacred law of “tone” is violated, suddenly we’re locked into procedural conversations about how we all need to show the proper respect. And weirdly, it’s always the people with the minority opinions in a given setting who need to be lectured about respectfulness.

Policing Academic Freedom

A few months back the Times Higher Education supplement reported that the Department of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham were to vet all module reading lists to ascertain “whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence”. This move is in the wake of the arrests last year of two members of the campus community, Rizwaan Sabir, a then MA student in this department, and Hicham Yezza, an administrator in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the story. Such a auditing process, for all modules in the department, in the words of David Miller of the Teaching Terrorism group at Strathclyde University is a “fundamental attack on academic freedom”. Two members of staff from the department rushed to defend the university and the policy. Academic freedom they note ‘applies to staff, not students, and academics, not administrators’ – academic freedom only applies to institutionally sanctioned members of academic staff.

Such a definition of academic freedom is dangerous and it is our duty as scholars, particularly young scholars, to resist it before it becomes more common currency. Continue reading “Policing Academic Freedom”