Religious Universities: “Seeing the Light” Means Turning a Blind Eye

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As I have written about before, I have three major complaints about religiously-affiliated universities (though they’re arguably more complex than how I’ll present them here):

» Handicapping of critical thinking by comparing religious “truth” to scientific “truth” (like Liberty University’s Noah’s Ark expedition, for example.)

» Social restrictions that hamper student development, as well as academic freedom.

» Self-segregation of worldviews that has a cloistering effect of privilege, severely limiting exposure to new ideas, perspectives, and aspects of diversity.

I think these are serious, valid concerns when it comes to the reputation of higher education in general. While not every religiously-affiliated has all (or in some cases even any) of the above concerns, they are all concerns unique to religiously-affiliated universities. I don’t think they’re simply biased or unwarranted concerns either, particularly when it comes to professional ethics and academic rigor/accreditation.

Apparently, though, Samuel Schuman is out to challenge these prejudices. His new book, Seeing the Light, examines the place of religious colleges and universities in higher education. Of course, he has his own bias, and they were nice enough to identify it right in the product description:

Seeing the Light considers, instead, what can be learned from the viability of these institutions.

That alone makes me lose any interest in reading this book. If it were an investigation into the concerns above, it might be interesting. Instead, Schuman is clearly an apologist just looking to reinforce the privilege of religion in higher education. His recent interview with Inside Higher Ed is illuminating in this regard.

Throughout the interview Schuman seems all too eager to simply dismiss all criticisms of religious institutions:

One uninhibited professor asked, with obvious distaste, if we “really wanted to be associated with those two-bit Bible colleges.” Later, when I asked the objector if she had ever actually been to such a place, her reply was “no, and I don’t need to.” This struck me as the antithesis of the kind of open-minded, truth-seeking perspective those of us who practice liberal learning should embody.

That’s such a religious tactic, isn’t it? When someone says something you don’t like, just lob ad hominem attacks at them behind their back and call them closed-minded. He then tries to boast his objectivity by indicating his subjectivity in the same sentence! It’s quite impressive how he does it:

I thought that perhaps as an objective outsider — my own faith is rooted in the tradition of Judaism — I could share some of what I had learned about the religious colleges and universities, and dispel what I had come to see as the largely unwarranted prejudice against them held by some within the world of secular American higher education.

By my reading of this interview, Schuman does an incredibly good job at reminding us what all the criticisms are, but does absolutely nothing to respond to them. In fact, he shrugs them all off by just pointing fingers. Rather than recognize there are unique criticisms to religious institutions, he just draws comparisons between public/private, northeast/midwest, etc. or points out other university policies that raise eyebrows too. Ooh, good argument pathetic red herring. Then he just chastises us all by saying:

Whatever the causes, though, it is quite remarkable how many of my colleagues outside the faith-based schools know very little or nothing at all about this important segment of our higher education community.

We just don’t know. We aren’t as “objective” as he is, I guess.

Nothing made my blood boil more than this statement:

I, personally, am not particularly troubled by any private school that clings to a belief or maintains a practice with which I disagree, as long other options are equally available to me.

Can you be a bit more insensitive, Mr. Schuman? I’m sorry, but it’s still a problem for me if people are being encouraged to demonize and self-hate, whether it’s at my institution or not. Do we care about the work that we do and the reputation that we have? Are we so self-centered that we don’t actually care about the greater impact on society of the work that we do? Can we so easily turn a blind eye to institutions that restrict freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and basic human respect for core dimensions of identity?

I surely hope not. But that is just what Schuman wants us to do. Just like religious apologists, we are to ignore the bad and just “see the light.” And he supports his argument by citing that wickedly biased study of “spirituality” Alexander Astin’s been working on. Like Astin, Schuman is eager to reinforce belief in God in all students by any means necessary:

So, if you will forgive a rather pig-headed overgeneralization, our students overwhelmingly want something; we have it; we haven’t given it to them; I think we should. But we need to figure out how to do so in a way which is non-sectarian, non-intrusive and non-directive. I think this is something we can do, and I think it would be good to do it.

He’s basically saying that he doesn’t want to offend anyone, but he wants to do something that’s inherently offensive to some people. Yeah, I’m sure we’ll find a way to do it, and it’s exactly how we should be spending our time.

Oh wait, we have atheist students? Oh, they don’t count. We don’t need to do anything for them.

I am totally unimpressed by Samuel Schuman and I highly discourage people from buying his book. If we are truly going to move forward in serving the development of our students, we need to recognize the incredible biases we already have catering to religious belief in our institutions, religious and otherwise. Continuing to ignore and dismiss valid criticisms is just letting privilege tread water.

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