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If only I had a blog back then… Some thoughts about academic nonsense and integration of faith and learning

If only I had a blog back then… Some thoughts about academic nonsense and integration of faith and learning September 8, 2012

So, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’ve been teaching in Christian higher education (three Christian universities) for going on 31 years now. Many times in the past, both when I was a student and when I was teaching, I wished for a way to express my opinions of what was happening around me publicly–especially the nonsense I occasionally experienced. That’s right, even Christian academics can engage in nonsense now and then.

First, let me preface this by saying how much I appreciate the colleagues I’ve had over the years. For the most part, with a few exceptions, they have been delightful, challenging, supportive and inspiring. Even the best of them, however, occasionally did or said something I just wanted to react to with “Huh? What are you talking about?” I’m sure many of them felt the same way about me!

None of what I write now relates to anyone or anything in my current professional location. And I’m not going to name any names. And my point in telling these things is not to expose anyone or anything but to encourage Christians in educational settings (and perhaps other settings as well) to think through what they are about to say or do first–in light of the Christian worldview (broadly defined).

If “integration of faith and learning” (an ideal highly valued by most Christian educational institutions) means anything, it must mean, at least, considering messages carefully in light of the existence of God, sin, Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. At the very least it means: Just because in idea is all the vogue in some branch of scholarship or the academy does not mean it is compatible with Christianity. Insofar as it is incompatible with basic Christianity, it ought not to be taught as truth in a Christian educational institution.

The problem is, even evangelical academics sometimes miss the inconsistencies. For example, if a professor in an evangelical Christian university says (not ironically) “God is dead” without qualification, most of his or her colleagues and certainly administrators will sit up and take notice and ask for explanation. They will say “That’s not compatible with Christianity and we are a Christian university. You can’t teach here and say that.” But if a professor says… And that’s some of what I want to talk about from my past.

Over the years I participated in many, many continuing education type seminars and workshops for teachers in higher education. Sometimes these were put on by colleagues (fellow professors and administrators of Christian universities) and sometime by total outsiders (brought in as experts to facilitate the event). Usually they were informative, instructive, valuable and useful. Sometimes they were downright a waste of time and worse.

I remember one summer workshop on helping students write better term papers. An expert was brought in who spent time talking with us about helping minority students write better papers. However, she spent much of that time telling us that we should NOT correct minority students’ grammar as they have their own way of communicating learned at home and in their own culture. We pressed her about this and there was no doubt about it–she was telling us that African-American students should not be taught to write grammatical English but allowed to express themselves in their own ways. Now, I’m all for flexibility in grammar and in grading. But this facilitator’s message to us had nothing to do with really helping students write better term papers (which was her assignment). Her message was that there is no normativity in language. Does this apply only to African-Americans? She didn’t really answer that. A Christian approach, of course, would be one that sensitively takes into account legitimate differences of culture and seeks a middle ground between absolutism of language and sheer relativism. She came down on the latter, clearly, unequivocally. Needless to say, the workshop (or at least that day!) was useless.

Another workshop remembered. It was about communication in teaching and was taught by several experts including some of my colleagues in the Speech-Communication Department. It was a good experience, overall,  but the over riding message left me dazed and confused: “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” Huh? No amount of questioning could get the experts to qualify that. “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” Sorry, that’s wrong. I didn’t learn their message, so they didn’t teach me? What about Jesus? Many of his listeners didn’t learn his message. Did he not teach them? As a teacher for going on 31 years, I can assure you that “If they have not learned, you have not taught” is nonsense. Some students listen and hear the very best presentation of a lesson and still don’t get it. The motto implies that there exists some ideal, even perfect, set of words and method of teaching that guarantees learning. It puts all the responsibility on the teacher. It ignores the reality of dullness, resistance to truth, sloth, sleep.

Yet another learning event for teachers was about art. One statement reiterated often was “Art is for art’s sake.” How a Christian can believe that simply eludes me. I know it’s the motto of the National Endowment for the Arts, but so what? That doesn’t make it gospel. In fact, it says nothing at all, whatsoever about its truth! “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It may not be in the Bible, but it succinctly expresses biblical truth about the purpose of our lives and everything we do. No activity of humans is free of responsibility; every activity ought to serve a good purpose. In a Christian context, anything does not in any way glorify God is not valuable. “Art for art’s sake” is simply a way of trying to make art immune to criticism by non-artists. There. That’s my opinion.

To me, more sinister than any of those, was the underlying and sometimes explicitly stated message about sexual harassment given out in many seminars and workshops, some of which we were all required to attend. Don’t get me wrong, given the problems and need for adjustments in many peoples’ behaviors, I defend requiring employees to attend sensitivity training events. But some of what I heard at these events was simply ludicrous. I still consider it so years later. Here’s something I heard again and again: “Intent doesn’t matter; it’s the effect that matters.” I asked “Can a hug be totally innocent and yet later turn out to have constituted sexual harassment because of the delayed effect it had on a person?” The answer was yes. By “totally innocent” I meant and made clear that I meant–mutually welcomed, not imposed. “Experts” told us time and again that a person’s (always a man’s) intention in an act or message is irrelevant to whether it constitutes sexual harassment. A colleague was charged with sexual harassment and fined (and a memo placed in his permanent personnel file) because he allowed a discussion of pornography and masturbation to take place in his class on ethics. A female student found it offensive and claimed it created a “hostile and intimidating learning environment.” The professor was required to undergo special sensitivity training and was never allowed to confront his accuser or even know her identity. Another colleague was charged with sexual harassment because a student committee he advised put posters up around campus advertising a public forum on women in ministry. One of the posters asked “Can women teach men?” The context was clear–“in the church.” A female faculty member accused the faculty adviser (who had nothing to do with the poster) of sexual harassment for contributing to creating a hostile and intimidating work environment. Fortunately, he was exonerated, but, by policy, a memo had to be put in his permanent employee file (to the effect that he had been accused of sexual harassment). In the middle of all this, I found out (from some female students) that a particular female faculty member was recruiting women students to charge male faculty members and employees of sexual harassment (there could be no negative consequences for them) to test the boundaries of the policy. Numerous male faculty members were accused. Most were exonerated, but had notations placed in their employee files anyway.

During that controversy, a brochure was published and placed everywhere on campus. It’s source was the sexual harassment compliance officer–a member of the administration. In big, bold letters its said “It’s Rape Even If You Didn’t Say No.” It was about date rape. Nowhere in the brochure did it explain the referent of “it.” Think about the sentence. “It’s Rape Even If You Didn’t Say No.” What’s “rape” in that sentence? I asked the compliance officer who said any sexual act could turn out to be rape if it had a negative impact on the woman even if it was totally consensual at the time. I went away simply bewildered at the absurdity of it all. Of course, we didn’t want our unmarried students having even consensual sex, but to suggest that any consensual sex could turn out to “have been rape” based solely on the feelings of the woman seemed absurd to me. Further investigation discovered that, according to law, the criterion would be “what a reasonable woman would conclude” was rape or sexual harassment. But that means a man cannot anticipate it. The criterion is not what a reasonable PERSON would conclude, but what a REASONABLE WOMAN would conclude. Such a bifurcation and dualism between the sexes seems both unreasonable and unchristian to me.

Christians, especially in Christian educational institutions, need to give serious Christian critical reflection to messages being promoted in their communities. Too often they don’t. Messages are simply imported from somewhere else–perhaps from a nearby secular university or government agency.

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