Academic Standards and Religious Doctrine Don’t Mix

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I recognize that my opinion on religiously-affiliated universities is “controversial.” I have been admonished and challenged by my peers and colleagues for suggesting that any religious doctrine is an obstacle to rigorous academic study. You can’t expand human thinking if you are being told how to think. You can’t explore different opinions (academic freedom) and different forms of diversity if you are surrounded by people who believe (by mandate) the same as you. My argument is not that you can’t have a positive learning experience attending a religiously-affiliated school, but that we shouldn’t treat them as if they are “on par” with other institutions whose environment is not so limited.

I want to specify that I’m not talking about schools with loose affiliations to certain religious organizations, but schools like Wheaton College, Liberty University, Bringham Young University, and Oral Roberts University where religious belief dictates campus policy. These include rules for what students can and cannot do on campus (or even what information they can or cannot access), rules for what professors can teach, oaths that all students and staff are expected to take regarding what they believe and do not believe. By letting beliefs dictate knowledge instead of the other way around, these schools inherently lack the open critical exploration that the highest standards of academia demand. They have a right to exist, they have a right to do what they please, but I don’t think they should be immune to critique from academics for the learning environments they create (or rather, don’t create).

News this week from Calvin College in Michigan demonstrates just how limiting this set-up can be not only in the professional lives of the school’s community members, but in their personal lives as well. Here’s what happened:

College employees received a memo last week saying the Board of Trustees has revisited issues surrounding the college’s position on homosexuality, concluding it is “unacceptable” for faculty and staff to teach, write or advocate on behalf of the issue.

Where to begin? How about the fact that homosexuality isn’t an issue; it’s a phenomenon. I don’t know how you properly study or teach communications, education, biology, psychology, sociology, social work, art, music, English, writing or any kind of history without including homosexuality, yet those are all majors at Calvin College. The American Psychological Association just published an important review of scientific studies about the dangers of trying to suppress homosexuality, but I guess understanding human nature according to scientific research is not acceptable at Calvin College.

Of course not:

The college in 2008 affirmed its commitment to the Christian Reformed Church’s position on homosexuality: that the practice is sinful, but a person’s orientation is not. The board formed the Homosexuality and Community Life Working Group to discuss the implications of the college and church position and how it relates to the day-to-day life in the college.

See, it doesn’t matter what knowledge tells us about these issues, because the school will continue to follow what the Church says. The Church can say whatever it wants, but such untruths are even more dangerous in the hands of an institution of higher education. The Church just says what to believe, but then the college actually prevents the dispensation of any information that might counter subscribing to that belief. How can such a school have any dignity or claims to academic discipline? We only study that which doesn’t run counter to what we believe. Then how do you ever grow or learn anything new?

And just belonging to such a community is toxic:

The trustees in May revisited the topic and stated expectations for the faculty, including that advocacy by faculty and staff both in and out of the classroom is unacceptable.

So now, a place of work is dictating what its employees can do (or in this case, possibly even what they can be) in any part of their lives. In fact, it would be the school’s right (because of its religious designation) to fire any employees, regardless of their esteem and possibly even tenure, if they do not comply with the policies. (Many such schools include some kind of oath or pledge to the school’s belief system in job contracts employees are required to sign.) Duty to the Church comes before any sense of duty to knowledge or academia:

The board says there are cases where academic integrity will “require acquainting students with alternate views. However, the position of the church and the college should be clearly and sympathetically presented, and advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is not permitted.”

I read that as saying that any teachers who even suggest the position is not totally merited (in other words, who don’t present the position “sympathetically”), are in violation of the policy.

These kind of policies might be the exception, but they still set a precedent! If I had studied music education at Calvin College, I might have gotten the same course of instruction regarding how to be an effective teacher (minus all that appreciation of teaching to diversity I got in my sociology classes). However, knowing that there are some facts that the college refuses to acknowledge tarnishes academic standards across the board.

Institutions either have academic integrity and academic freedom or they don’t. There should be no room for exceptions. Schools that try to make such exceptions should never develop competitive academic reputations. I would go so far as to suggest that by accrediting these institutions the same as others, the value of all schools’ accreditation is compromised. If they teach beliefs, they’re houses of religion; if they teach knowledge and critical thinking, they’re schools. There isn’t room to have it both ways.

I’m just one young professional with one unpopular opinion, but I will say it here and without hesitation: by humoring these schools that have questionable approaches to academics, we are doing a huge disservice to education in our nation. It’s not working and it has to change.

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There are 1 Comments to "Academic Standards and Religious Doctrine Don’t Mix"

  • Allison says:

    As a self-identifying “progressive evangelical Christian”, I have to agree with your position on this, Zack. It is frustrating to see and hear the stunted intellectual development of my friends and colleagues who attend or have attended such institutions. From this Christian’s perspective, such individuals are often ill-equipped to interact with the world around them, much less represent and explain their faith in a compassionate, culturally-relevant manner. It is no true test of faith to surround one’s self with others who believe the same things.

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