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Posts Tagged ‘college

conservative religion on campus

Fredrick deBoer has a piece up on the defunding of higher education he expects given leftist controversies on campus.  It’s worth reading:

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

There are empirical arguments to be made about this, of course.  Arguments that people like Amy Binder and other do a good job of making.  Yet it’s not crazy to argue that colleges tend to be left-leaning places.  This is often discussed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality but I’ve seen it most in reference to religion. While all of these obviously intersect, it’s worthwhile to pull them apart a bit too. (BTW, it’s kind of funny to me how for some on the right and on the liberal left, the word intersectionality has gained almost a mystical power, which, as I teach Black Feminist Thought in my contemporary theory course, I can assure you is not true at least as far as answers on the final indicate.)

Nobody should deny (even if some do) that conservative Christians still have it pretty good in lots of parts of the country, even more so under the current administration.  Nonetheless, it can be a hard slog to be a conservative Christian on many campuses: there are sexual choices that seem inappropriate to you, classmates and faculty with a blanket suspicion of anything religious, a sense that any restraint you might suggest must be couched or camouflaged in secular language (to fast for Jesus is weird; to fast for swimsuits is fine).  If you are offended by someone’s representation of your sacred icons, you are told to take a joke, or learn to mock yourself, or reminded of the Crusades.  If you feel marginalized, you are told that your doctrines marginalize others.  That might well be true in regards to certain issues related to sexuality (though Christians are a diverse group), but it isn’t necessarily true.  But I’ll get more to this later.

I study Muslims and Evangelicals, and I sometimes joke that I can tell if you’re from a red state or a blue state based on which you’re more afraid of.  Make no mistake: it is harder to be a Muslim in this country than it is to be a conservative Christian, and by virtually any measure.  Much of the conservative Christian angst lately is an increasing recognition that it’s less and less easy (even if still very possible) to take for granted that America is a Christian nation.  It is perhaps because of this, and because of a general leftist commitment to the underdog, that my leftist friends seem more sympathetic to not saying anything disrespectful to Islam, to not mocking Muslim figures or Muslim worship. To be clear, yet again: this is often the reverse in much of the media, and the nation. Islamophobia is alive and well.

Yet I get a lot of feedback from just about everybody when I teach my courses on American Evangelicals and the sociology of religion.  I’m by no means an apologist in either of these classes.  One of my ongoing critiques is that American conservative Christians are too ahistorical and are simply unable to recognize structural critiques. In Smith and Emerson’s words (76),

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).

That argument strikes me as pretty close to a social fact, but I think all of us are reflective enough to know that the way we present facts in class reflects any number of ongoing normative concerns, many of which are related to the kinds of ideas we’d like our students to have and even the kinds of people (scholars? thinkers? citizens?) we’d like them to become.  My students sense within me a desire for them to engage honestly with religion, but they don’t sense a desire to dismiss religion, even conservative religion (at least that is what I’ve heard from some, and I hope it’s true for others).  They can tell pretty easily I’m not a conservative, but my conservative students can tell I take their arguments seriously.

Of course, some of the reason conservatives might not like college might be exactly what Smith and Emerson describe here: talking about structural causes is pretty common on college campuses, and it challenges not just conservatives’ politics, but also their positions in the world.  But I’m too much of a cultural sociologist to think that’s all the story.  Identity is a big piece of this story.  And part of that identity–maybe even most of it–is an old American story about patriarchy and white privilege.  But religion is a piece too. And believe it or not, it’s not just white men who hold to conservative religion, or conservative Christianity.

Look: we secularists still have a long way to go until an atheist (or a Muslim, or even a Jew) becomes president. Nonetheless, there are certain pockets of our country in which a certain kind of secularism has already done quite well, and most universities are within those pockets.  Now there are many kinds of secularism, and some simply separate religion from everything else.  But some are actively hostile to religion, suggesting an alternate metaphysics, an alternate teleology, an alternate explanation of who we are and why we’re here and by what means we can call a life good. That secularism exists on campus. Though the more common version simply never bring up religion at all, and an identity marker (in an age increasingly aware of identity) is simply not acknowledged, or if acknowledged, is brought up only to show the evils it has wrought.

Which isn’t to deny it’s wrought quite a few evils, and that conservative religion continues to cause suffering in particular lives, especially LGBT lives, but also the lives of women who want an abortion, or to use birth-control, or simply to have a one-night stand. So what to do about conservative religion on campus?

Here’s the thing. I think a certain kind of banker is a bad person. And I don’t mind saying that. And I don’t mind if the banker feels uncomfortable, even judged.  I actually want exactly that reaction.  That’s okay for most of my friends because I’m kicking up, as the saying goes. But it’s worth thinking about how moral critique can work on a college campus: are we only limited to criticizing powerful people who do egregiously evil things?  Making laws is one thing, of course, but what about expressing opinions?  These are hard questions.  I think Judith Butler is right that expressions of beliefs are never neutral: they’re performative.  They help to constitute the world. Saying that, say, gay marriage is wrong, even if it’s just an 18-year-old saying it in a late-night residence-hall bullshit session, has real effects on the world, even if they’re much smaller effects than anything a future President Pence might try to do.  So we shouldn’t be naive about speech being purely descriptive. Habermas probably is too naive.

But the data to which deBoer links indicates policing speech this way might ultimately harm more than it helps. There’s a recent move within political theory against a certain kind of communitarianism that wants everyone to feel like an included part of the group.  On one hand, that seems like an obvious thing we would all want: shouldn’t we all want to be included and to include?  Yet scholars like Jacob T. Levy and Teresa Bejan point out how an emphasis on inclusion and civility can stifle dissent and the vital disagreements that move democracy forward.  Now I’m not really a free speech purist, and, actually, nobody is (everyone agrees that certain speech really is destructive: it’s just for some that line is pretty far out there, near continuous strings of curses and racial slurs).

Yet just talking about who we let speak on campus, I think, misses the much broader point of the kind of culture we create on campus.  Do conservative students, especially conservative religious studies, feel like their point of view is respected?  If we disagree with them, do we do so with respect for their identity in a way we would for other kinds of identity categories? When people say something that merits correction (a homophobic comment; an inability to recognize structural causes of poverty), do we correct in a way that invites the student into dialogue?

There’s a lot more to say about this: about the nature of empirical data and the way academics can confuse our data for our identity; about the way in which the underlying moral imaginaries of a secular life are really no more falsifiable than those of a religious life.  But I suppose, in light of the data described above, I’d suggest one way to start thinking about how conservatives think about college is to start thinking about how colleges think about religion.

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Written by jeffguhin

July 11, 2017 at 9:26 pm

is college an intrinsic good? (on how we talk about schools vs. education)

(I made some edits from an earlier version to better distinguish sociologists of education from ed reformers.)

Teaching a graduate seminar on sociology of education this quarter has helped me to realize that I’m actually a sociologist of schools rather than a sociologist of education.  By that I mean that sociologists of education (as I’m calling them) are mostly interested in the processes of education as potential mechanisms to explain the real questions, which are about stratification.  In contrast, sociologists of schools (as I’m calling them) look at how schools work, what schools do, and the experience of schooling. That kind of work is more commonly qualitative (whether historical, interviews, or ethnography) and often books.  It’s  striking: for nine of the ten weeks of this course I’m giving a book plus some articles, and the book is almost always what I’m calling sociology of schools and the articles are almost always what I’m calling sociology of education.  And to be especially clear: that’s not a criticism.  The sociology of education’s focus on stratification is vitally important, even more so given possible changes that might be happening under the Trump presidency. So I’m not calling attention to a problem as much as a difference.

The first book we read in the seminar—Jal Mehta’s excellent The Allure of Order—describes this process not within the sociology of education but within education reform discussions, which generally focus on the difference between inputs and outputs rather than what happens between them.  The difference is that while the sociology of education brackets all but the most relevant questions about what happens in schools as a means of answering specific questions about stratification, ed reformers seem to have utterly circumscribed the understanding of what school is or could be. Of course ed reformers are a diverse bunch, but the ones who win tend to be similar.  Mehta argues that this is a function of the power of certain “policy paradigms” and also the result of a weakened education field.  Mehta gives a lot of reasons why teachers are a semi-profession, but the important point for my discussion here is that teachers are therefore unable to insist on the integrity of their process.  For more autonomous professions like doctors and lawyers, it’s actually not the input vs. output that matters but rather the process.  A doctor can get in trouble for malpractice and a lawyer can get in trouble for negligence, but these are both critiques of the process itself, not the different between inputs and outputs.  In contrast, Mehta shows, teachers are told to do basically whatever they want: there’s a shockingly wide variety of ways to teach, with a pretty big pluralism and a relatively loose coupling between high level reform goals regarding outputs and on-the-ground procedures on how to achieve them provided they achieve them. 

What’s interesting about this is how both academics and reformers can then discuss schooling as itself a black box, often with a language of (what some might call neoliberal) efficiency.  Schooling ceases to be an intrinsic good and becomes a means towards particular individual or societal ends.  I was struck by this at a talk I attended last night run by the AERA.  They invited academics from around the Los Angeles area, and we heard Bridget Terry Long give a really excellent lecture on how to help low-income students get into college. I learned a lot, and the discussion afterwards was quite helpful.  Yet what struck me was the way in which—except for two questions at the end (one of which was mine)—college was always framed as a means towards an end, a necessary way to achieve a certain amount of financial security and wider agency regarding possible life options.  That’s of course true: the data is devastating.

Yet, as I said in a question, if we—those who work in colleges and universities—cannot make the case that college is a good in and of itself rather than a means towards particular good ends, then we’re actually all doing something pretty dangerous.  We’re forcing students to spend a ton of money so they can have a particular kind of life.  Even if—somehow!—college became free, we’d still be forcing them to spend a lot of time.  Now I actually believe that’s time well spent and that college has a wide range of intrinsic goods, but that’s not often the way we academics and reformers talk about it.  If college is not intrinsically good—if it’s just an arbitrary credential people need to have a degree of agency and a wider range of life choices—it seems to me the key task is not getting more people into college but rather trying to make a world where such an accreditation is not necessary.

So why do we require college?  On its own and not just because they need it?  Part of the answer, as Professor Long said in her response to my question, is because college allows students to spend time with people and ideas who are very different from them.  Although, of course, colleges can still be quite stratified in terms of who goes where (or who’s there at all) and besides, there are much cheaper ways to produce the same effects: a required national year of service for example (look at how people talk about their experiences of the draft).

For me—and I know people think this is naïve—I’m a firm believer in the power of college to help people learn how to think and to be citizens.  College should help students become comfortable with complicated ideas, capable of understanding debates referencing science, statistics, and history.  They should read some great books by people who are like them and different from them, and maybe they should even learn some sociology.  That’s a commitment I think many of us in the academy share, and it’s something I know many of us are passionately democratic about it. But even if that’s how we think about college, it’s not always how we talk about it.

Written by jeffguhin

January 12, 2017 at 6:19 pm