25 January 2010

Academic responsibility

During my first years teaching at Redeemer University College, I quickly discovered the impact I was having on students and initially found it a somewhat jarring experience. I had recently gone from being a lowly graduate student at Notre Dame’s Department of Government and International Studies to being a not-quite-so-lowly (but not terribly exalted either) assistant professor of political science at one of Canada’s few Christian universities. This commanded the respect of the students, most of whom had grown up in the Christian Reformed Church and similar bodies and had been educated in the day schools connected with Christian Schools International. The Dutch Reformed tradition in particular has long had a strong educational tradition, beginning at least with Abraham Kuyper’s Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 and extending to Calvin College and other institutions in North America. One need only think of Alvin Plantinga’s and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s works as premier examples of scholarship in this tradition, to which Redeemer is heir.

One day while I was sitting in the cafeteria around a table with some of my students, one of them turned to me and repeated something I had said in class as though it were gospel truth. Still being quite green, I was startled at this. That night I had difficulty sleeping and James 3:1 kept running through my mind: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” To say that this scared the hell out of me would be something of an overstatement, yet I had come to understand something of the awesome responsibility of a teacher, even at the post-secondary level.

Not too long ago I posted something on Academic freedom and the faith-based university in response to John Stackhouse’s defence of Trinity Western and other confessional universities in Canada’s University Affairs. I return to the topic here.

As I see it, there are two sides to this: teaching and research, each of which must be handled somewhat differently, even if they are interconnected in numerous ways. Ideally each should support the other, which is why universities try to provide sufficient time and monetary resources for research, even if some overburden their faculty with teaching responsibilities. Many of the smaller Christian universities tend to have their faculty teaching as many as eight courses per year under nine-month contracts, thereby making it difficult for them to pursue a scholarly agenda in any serious way. This is an issue for another time.

The crucial concern for present purposes is that Christian universities often require of their employees adherence to a particular confessional statement, sometimes associated with the supporting denomination. It is not unusual for a Presbyterian university to hire only those agreeing with the Westminster standards. Calvin College itself requires its faculty to attend Christian Reformed Church congregations or those of other denominations with which it is in ecclesiastical fellowship. It also requires adherence to the Three Forms of Unity. Do such requirements constitute undue limitations on academic freedom? Not necessarily, though they can do so, depending on the content of the prescribed statements.

The stereotypical case has a professor of, say, biology coming to believe that the bulk of the evidence points to macro-evolution, including the descent of human beings and the higher primates from a common prehistoric ancestor. However, because she has signed a statement supporting fiat creationism at the time she was hired, her findings threaten her continued employment. Or what of the professor of biblical studies who has come to conclude, based on literary evidence, that Isaiah 40-66 were written centuries after the first 39 chapters, or that Daniel was probably written in the second century BC? If this conflicts with the official understanding of biblical authorship supported by the institution, this puts him in a tough position and could result in the loss of his job.

These are the sorts of scenarios of which faculty at christian universities ostensibly live in constant fear. To be sure, I think it is unwise to prescribe a statement of faith in effect prohibiting faculty from exploring human origins and other fields of legitimate human endeavour. In short, it ought not to tell scholars what they can and cannot learn about God’s creation or what sort of evidence they are allowed to uncover. But that the world is God’s creation should obviously not be called into question.

Does this limit academic freedom? In one sense, yes, it does. Christian believers are not free to accept the sort of dualism that assumes that our ultimate convictions can be safely sequestered from pedagogical and scholarly pursuits. Nor should we embrace the various reductionisms that plague the secular academy in so many ways. We are not free to ignore the many idolatrous worldviews that vie for our loyalty or to pretend that they have no impact on the life of the mind. Any effort to rehabilitate, say, the Marxian project without noticing its reduction of the full complexity of human motivations to material productive forces falls well short of the spiritual discernment sorely needed in academia.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a university without some form of undergirding faith commitment, even if it is only implicit. In a public university, which is supposedly neutral with respect to various religious commitments, there are certain academic activities that are at least unofficially out of bounds. J. Philippe Rushton’s controversial investigations into intelligence and racial differences have skirted the edges of these boundaries for obvious reasons. One suspects the same would be true of those exploring gender differences. Even if the latter were permitted by one’s academic peers, one would have to tread very carefully to avoid causing offence to the easily offended. Yet, ironically, questioning Darwin’s theory, which would appear to imply at least the possibility of biological inequalities, is also beyond the pale. It overstates the case to conclude that a common commitment to methodological atheism is required for teaching at a public university. All the same, one could not simply assume that, say, God created the heaven and earth and redeemed it from sin through Jesus Christ, and then proceed to conduct one’s academic inquiries on the assumption that this is true.

Yet this is exactly what scholars at a Christian university are privileged to do. There is no doubt that, given my own faith commitment and how I understand it to impact my field of political science, I am freer at Redeemer to follow my own interests in teaching and research than I would be elsewhere. Academic freedom? Yes, but I prefer to speak of academic responsibility, recognizing that true freedom is not mere licence, as many seem to think, but always functions within a larger communal context wherein we exercise a fearful responsibility, not only for the young lives God has put in our care, but for the larger world of scholarship.


David Koyzis said...

This is crossposted at First Things: Evangel.

jonathan. said...

I feel like I hear echoes of Calvin College's recently-infamous "memo" in your discussion of academic freedom.

One thing I like about your term 'academic responsibility' is that it does not leave room for lifestyle contracts, or other such things that are becoming a fad in Christian universities. These contracts seek to replace responsibility with a binding signature. Any expectation of responsibility is foregone and the legal document is put in its place instead.

David Koyzis said...

Jonathan, responsibility does not by any means rule out legal contracts. Everything has a jural side to it, including marriage, employment, citizenship, &c. Every community has both an internal legal identity and a public legal side. The former may be of only an informal nature, tacit but well understood, but that does not make it less binding.

However, given the litigious character of our society, it behooves any organization, including universities, to codify the expectations made of members at the time they joined. One can quibble about specific requirements, e.g., no drinking, smoking, dancing, &c., that one sometimes finds at christian universities. But that requirements do exist and are spelt out to those on whom they are binding is not especially objectionable, as I see it.

jonathan. said...

Thank you David. You are right to qualify the jural side of academic responsibility.

I was focussing on a tendency to replace the risk of trust with contractual obligation. When one is trusted to be academically responsible, then such a one bears the responsibility of that trust as well. (It's a more difficult "contract" even!)

There is something about pre-empting the possibility of trust with contractual obligation that runs counter to the spirit of an academic community, especially a community that counts faith as a both public and foundational aspect of itself.


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