Category Archives: Higher Education

If I Didn’t Know it Was True, I Would Think It’s a Wild Conspiracy Theory

I just finished reading James Lindsay’s new book The Marxification of Education: Paulo Freire’s Critical Marxism and the Theft of Education (2022). I recommend it to anyone concerned about education in the United States and, indeed, the world. If you are a teacher or a professor, if you have children or grandchildren, if you care about future generations, read this book. Or listen to Lindsay’s podcasts. If you know someone that falls into these categories, share this post with them. If I did not know from forty years of experience in higher education that Lindsay is telling the truth, I would think he was spinning a wild conspiracy theory.

In his book, Lindsay documents the work and influence of the Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire on American schools of education and, through the teachers trained there, on all levels of education. Until a week ago I had never heard of him, but he is one of the most influential theorists in contemporary education. His methods are used in virtually every school in the United States, public and private. Much of the time teachers, administrators, and facilitators have no idea of the theoretical background of these methods or of their aims. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, for I hate to think they know what they are doing.


South American liberation theology—a mixture of Marxism and Roman Catholicism condemned by Pope John Paul II (1978-2005)—was a formative influence on Freire. And the religious aspect of his work comes through quite often. He speaks of his educational method as inducing “conversion,” and an “Easter” experience. He speaks of hope for the coming “kingdom of God,” that is, socialist utopia. Che Guevara is at the top of his list of saints. Freire’s first book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was published in 1970, but the book that made him famous in the United States was his 1985 book, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. When I say that Freire is a “Marxist,” I am not speculating or trying to discredit him by association. He makes his adherence to Marxist analysis unashamedly clear in his own works.

Educational Aims

In traditional education the goal is to transfer to students the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the culture in which they live. Freire calls this the “banking” or “nutritionist” view of education. It reproduces the teacher in the student and hence perpetuates the status quo of society. But through his Marxist lens, Freire sees society divided into those who have power and those who don’t, the oppressors and the oppressed. Society should be changed radically in a socialist direction. He offers his method of education as a means to this radical end. Freire redefines what it means to educate, to be educated, and to know. “To educate” means to awaken the oppressed to their status and empower them to take charge of their lives by working for societal change. “To be educated” means to be awake to the power dynamics in society. “To know” is to be attuned to the nuances of your own experience as oppressed. The oppressors, too, need to be awakened to their guilt and complicity in oppression. The “oppressed” become perpetually angry and offended, and the Woke “oppressor” enters a life of self-loathing and perpetual apology. And everyone becomes an activist.

The upshot of all this, according to Lindsay, is that students get robbed of a real education in reading, writing, mathematics, and every other content area. And they become “emotional wrecks” in the process.

The Method

Freire’s method unfolds in three phases: generative, codification, and decodification. “Teachers and students” are replaced by “educators and learners” who learn together through a “dialogic” (conversation) method. In the first phase of the dialogue, the educator generates from the learners information about their “lived experience” in search of hidden relationships of power, privilege, and oppression. In codification, the educator creates an image that pictures these structures of power, privilege, and oppression in an objective way so that the learner can see them from a distance. The learner, then, comes to see themselves in this generalized image, but now they understand themselves as a part of a class of victims in an unjust power structure. Thirdly, the process of decodification applies the Marxist analysis to the codified image. Decodification awakens the learner to the systemic causes of their oppression and to the possibility and necessity of wholesale societal change. It sensitizes them to the subtle ways in which traditional language, rules, traditions, expectations, and norms serve to justify and reinforce the power structures of stratified society.


The Marxification of Education explores dozens of ways Freire’s educational theory and its offshoots are applied in colleges, universities, and K through 12 schools. I can highlight only two. Read the book!


The Freirean educational model is a perfect way to educate learners in Critical Race Theory. CRT contends that the United States is systemically racist and has been so from its founding. Only a radical reordering of society along antiracist lines (diversity, equity, and inclusion) can address systemic racism. In Freire’s “generative” phase, learners are canvased or surveyed looking for indicators of unequal power between people of color and white people. The next phase encodes those indicators in objective images, for example, a video clip of a white person double checking to see that their car doors are locked after parking in a black neighborhood. In the third phase, the coded images are decoded and interpreted through the lens of Marxist theory, that is, Critical Race Theory.

Sexual Minorities

Perhaps you have wondered why many public schools require young children to read or listen to books such as Gender Queer (written in comic book style) and others that contain pornographic illustrations of sex of all kinds and at all ages? And why would school districts and public libraries sponsor “Drag Queen Story Hour”? I did not understand these trends until I read Lindsay’s explanation of the aim and method of Paulo Freire’s theory of education. Reading Gender Queer and watching a grown man dressed in “women’s” clothes dance provocatively are part of the generative and codification phases of learning. These experiences elicit information from children about their understandings of gender, family, and sex, which can then be used in the decodification phase. The drag queen is a living illustration that rules are made to be broken, that the present social/moral order possesses no real authority but is imposed by those who benefit from it. Drag Queen Story Hour is a defiant and irreverent attack on the “oppressive” societal structures associated with sex, family, and gender identity. Children are thrown into a world without boundaries, they are robbed of their childhood, and their education is stolen from them. And Freirean educational theorists call it “learning.”

Optional Homework

Lindsay discusses many other terms and concepts associated with Freire’s educational theory. You may have heard of some of them without realizing their theoretical meaning. Do a quick search on some of them. Wikipedia usually has the basics even if it tends to sanitize the ideas a bit:

Cultural Competence, Comprehensive Sex Education, Culturally Relevant Teaching, (Transformative) Social-Emotional Learning, Problematization, Knowledges, Critical Pedagogy, Liberatory, Project-based learning, Decolonization, Conscientization, Queer Marxist Theory, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Antiracism, and Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED).

To be continued…

In Praise of Ignorance

What does it mean to be an educated person? I posted an introductory essay on this topic in June, 2022. I promised to continue this theme, but more pressing issues distracted me. I concluded that…

Acquiring an education is a self-conscious process of learning the inner workings and interrelationships of the major sectors of the society within which we live—economy, politics, art, literature, law, science, technology, ethics, and religion.

I want to continue exploring the idea of education, focusing today on one mark of an educated person, intellectual responsibility.

Learning and Ignorance

I have been an educator for half of my life and most of the other half I was studying to become one. I have read more books than I can count; and I have written a few. I still feel ignorant! Hence, in this essay I want to address the place of ignorance in intellectual life.

I have found it a rule that the more we learn the more we become aware of our ignorance. The deeper we probe a topic the more we realize its connections with other areas of knowledge. And those areas are connected to still others. At some point it dawns on us that the web of mutually conditioning connections spreads out infinitely in all directions. Not only must we admit that we do not know how far our ignorance extends, we must also acknowledge that things we do not know could affect the meaning of the things we believe. That is to say, becoming aware of the extent of our ignorance casts doubt on what seemed certain.

The Skeptic

Let me differentiate what I am saying from thoroughgoing skepticism—the thesis that we know nothing at all. Suppose I gain by close inspection some empirical knowledge of a certain mountain peak. I learn about its resident animals, plants, and many of its physical features. These facts will not change no matter how much I learn later about the rest of the mountain and its setting in its mountain range. These facts would remain the same even if we mapped its entire setting on earth, in the history of geology and biology, in the solar system, in the galaxy, etc. But coming to know this extended web of connections would expand our understanding of the origin, history, function, and significance of this mountain peak. Gaining such information would not convince us that our previous knowledge was erroneous, but it would show its incompleteness.

I believe we could apply this same procedure to almost any assertion of fact or truth whether philosophical, theological, historical, or scientific: that God exists, murder is immoral, the American Civil War ended in 1865, or that knowledge can best be defined as true, justified belief. If a belief is true, no new information can make it false. But new information can deepen our understanding or expand the meaning of a belief.

What does this exercise have to do with being an educated person? An intellectually responsible person knows enough about an area of study to be able to give good reasons why gaining further knowledge about that area and its connections with other areas will not falsify the knowledge they have gained so far. At the same time, however, educated people are aware of their ignorance of other related facts and truths that could deepen and expand their current understanding. Unlike the skeptic, the educated person’s awareness of their ignorance is hard won and productive of further knowledge.

The Dogmatist

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the skeptic is the dogmatist. Dogmatists identify their isolated beliefs with absolute truths, that is, truths whose meaning is fully and unambiguously present in the very words of the assertions. Dogmatists are not open to modification, deepening, and expansion of their beliefs by pursuing additional information. Like the skeptical attitude, the dogmatic mentality is not productive of further knowledge.

Neither the skeptic nor the dogmatist measures up to the ideal of intellectual responsibility. Educated people should know enough about the wider context of their beliefs to defend them against total denials but also be aware enough of their ignorance to learn from their opponents. The attitude of which I am speaking combines intellectual confidence with intellectual humility in a way productive of continued learning.


Dogmatists fear that admitting the least smidgen of incompleteness in their beliefs will plunge them into complete relativism and skepticism. Skeptics dread making commitments for fear that they will be disappointed. Both lack the Christian virtue of hope. Hope embraces unwaveringly the truth it knows, believing that it is only a taste of what is to come. Hope unites confidence and openness in a way productive of joy. Both dogmatists and skeptics are miserable.

What Does It Mean To Be An Educated Person?

What does it mean to be an educated person? This question assumes that becoming an educated person is a valuable goal. Also presupposed is the fact that people are not born educated but must achieve this state through a process of learning. What, then, does one need to learn and how may one become an educated person?

Perhaps the first thing on which to get clear is that one does not need to know everything to be considered an educated person. To begin with, human beings cannot know everything. Much about nature, human history, and culture is not known by anyone or has been forgotten. Future human beings may discover and invent many things hardly imaginable today. Additionally, there is too much knowledge available even now for any one person to master in a lifetime.

The educated person of fifth-century B.C. Greece or eighth-century Persia would not be considered educated for life in twenty-first century America or France. Your ability to negotiate life in rural America won’t sustain you in New York City. Nor could the New Yorker make it on the farm. These examples hint at the nature of education and the basis of its value. Education is a process of gaining at least the minimum of knowledge and skills needed to thrive in a particular society and age.

I think it is helpful to distinguish between acquisition of technical skills—brick laying, cooking, farm animal care, or welding—and acquisition of social skills, the so-called “liberal arts.” In our society we don’t consider a person “educated” simply because they are skilled at husbandry or car repair. We reserve the label “educated” for a person who possesses the knowledge and skills that enable them to engage fully and gracefully in all sectors of the dominant society in which they live. Of course we need to understand our subculture as well, but we don’t need a formal education to achieve this goal. We acquire this knowledge in the same way we pick up our local dialect.

(Note: Acquiring “cultural competence” is all the rage in education circles these days. It seems to mean learning about other people’s subcultures–especially “marginalized” cultures–when what is needed is for everyone to learn how to live in the national/international culture.)

Usually, then, acquiring an education is a self-conscious process of learning the inner workings and interrelationships of the major sectors of the society within which we live—economy, politics, art, literature, law, science, technology, ethics, and religion. Since each of these institutions has come to be what it is today over a long period of time, study of their history is an essential part of understanding their present constitutions. Communicating effectively and gracefully with people from different places and backgrounds is an essential social skill. Reading, writing, and speaking well are, therefore, essential marks of an educated person. And no one can learn to write well or speak well without reading examples of well written literature.

The process of education requires some institutionalization: libraries, schools, presses, and publishers. The reason for this is simple: the knowledge and skills needed for education has been produced over centuries by millions of people living at great distances from each other and speaking different languages. This knowledge must be collected, winnowed, concentrated, and, for the last 2500 years, usually written in books. Becoming an educated person is a process of assimilating the knowledge and skills discovered and developed by many other human beings. Becoming an educated person is a social affair, a process of socialization or even humanization.

As a cautionary note, something has gone terribly wrong if education itself becomes a narrow subculture that so alienates students from the major institutions of society that they cannot skillfully and gracefully live within them.

Questions for future essays: What does it take to be an educator? What does it mean to be a theologically educated person? What does it take to be a teacher of theology?

Academic Freedom in Context


I wrote this document to clarify my ideas on matters being discussed in the college where I teach. Your observations on how I could improve it are welcome.

Human Freedom—Conceptual and Practical

Freedom is primarily a negative concept. It names the absence of a determining, coercive, or deceptive force that channels human action to a particular end.

The concept of freedom does not contain within itself any evaluation of the ends toward which human action is obligated or desires to move. In other words, the bare concept of freedom contains no information about what is right or good. Freedom is of value only as a means to right or good ends. And freedom is of value to a particular individual only as a means to ends that that individual desires or feels obligated to seek. Hence freedom cannot serve as an end in itself; it is not a freestanding value.

Freedom is openness for action or inaction with other ends in mind. Freedom is meaningless (that is, without purpose as a means) unless the action it permits is directed by compelling ends. But to direct an action to an end is simultaneously to negate other possible actions. Hence freedom cannot be a means to any particular end apart from limits that exclude other possible ends. Interestingly, then, freedom, that is, unlimited openness for any logically and physically possible action, is useless (as a means) apart from limits!

Does the concept of limit, then, contradict the concept of freedom? Of course, unlimited freedom cannot coexist with limits. But we must remember that freedom is not an end in itself. It is a good only insofar as it enables an agent to act toward a good or right end. And freedom is a good to a particular agent only as it provides the conditions under which that agent is enabled to work toward an end that seems good or right to them. Hence an agent’s decision to limit its action to achieve particular good and right ends does not contradict the concept of freedom-as-a-means; it contradicts only the concept of freedom-as-an-end-in-itself.

Human Freedom in Community

As we concluded above, even considered solely as individuals—at least in a world like ours in which not all actions are good or right—to be a value freedom must be limited by the directing power of worthy ends. But we also live in a world with other agents. And other individuals have differing conceptions of good and right and of what ends to seek. Hence arises the possibility of another type of limit on freedom. When conceived as the freedom of multiple particular agents acting simultaneously, freedom may even contradict and limit itself; because the space in which these agents act overlaps. A new problem then arises: how may we harmonize the freedom of many individuals. Perhaps we could dream of a utopia where the desires and consciences of everyone are in complete harmony and everyone could pursue their desires without being limited by others’ pursuit of theirs. But that is not the world we live in. In the world in which we live the freedom of an individual is limited not only by the ends we seek and limits we impose on ourselves but by the freedom of others to do the same.

To live in our world we must live in community, that is, in some mode of harmony achieved by coming to a common understanding of the good and right ends to which freedom is a means. Through long-term experience we learn how to give and take, compromise, care, share, and otherwise enjoy the benefits of living cooperatively with others as compensation for the limits on freedom of action. These arrangements and rules are institutionalized and codified in tradition and law. The optimum balance of freedom and limits is called justice.

Academic Freedom in General

Just as we can consider human freedom as an abstract concept or as it applies to life in community in general, we can also consider the concept as it applies to a particular sphere of institutionalized social activity. The concept of academic freedom can be considered as abstracted from any particular academic institution. Drawing on our analysis above, we can say without extensive argument that academic freedom is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Whereas the concept of absolute freedom is not self-contradictory in itself, unlimited academic freedom is a contradiction in terms. For the modifier “academic” limits the word freedom. That’s what modifiers do. “Academic freedom” by definition directs—and therefore limits—freedom to serve the end of the academic enterprise, whatever that may be.

What is the end of the academic enterprise? The proper end of academia can be, has been, and (from my perspective) should be a matter of continuous enquiry. Historians of education often point to two master paradigms of education: (1) one focused on traditioning, character building, and moral training. This view may be called the classical paradigm, and it dominated education in the western world until recently. (2) The other paradigm directs its energy toward discovery of new knowledge, critical thinking, and developing skill in research methods. This view is relatively new, and some see its origin in 1810 with the founding of the University of Berlin. It has been called a never-ending, never-arriving “search for truth.” The clash of these two very different paradigms explains much of the contemporary debate about the scope and limits of academic freedom. If the end of the academy is traditioning, character formation, and moral training, academic freedom will be directed to whatever promotes those ends and exclusive of whatever thwarts achieving those ends. Similarly, if the end of the academy is the production of new knowledge and bold researchers, academic freedom will be directed to whatever activities promotes those ends and exclusive of whatever thwarts achieving them. An institution that attempts to work toward both ends will inevitably be involved in constant tension over the scope and limits on academic freedom.

Academic freedom, then, must be conceived as a means to a particular conception of the nature and end of the academic enterprise. The precise articulation of a theory or a policy on academic freedom must be accompanied by an implicit or explicit understanding of the ends of the academy. Discussing academic freedom without also seriously discussing the ends of the academic enterprise will produce nothing but a clash of subjective opinions and wishes determined as much by private interests as by rational discussion. And agreement on the one demands agreement on the other.

Academic Freedom in Individual Institutions

Drawing on our reasoning above, we know that the scope and limits on any coherent theory and policy of academic freedom must be based on a clear understanding of the nature and ends of the academic enterprise. Since there is no universally accepted understanding of the end of higher learning, there are bound to be differences among theorists on the end of the academy. And those different understandings have produced differences among institutions. In turn, those differences produce different understandings of the nature and scope of academic freedom, which will be reflected in policy. A research institution will naturally have a different understanding of academic freedom from that of an institution that conceives of its end as traditioning, character building, and moral training. It makes no sense for one type of institution to criticize the other for its policies on academic freedom. They are living from incommensurable paradigms. Let Providence be the judge of which institution has chosen the better end.

Academic Freedom in Christian Educational Institutions

What can we say about academic freedom in Christian institutions of higher learning? Much of what to say can be easily drawn from the line of reasoning developed above. Christian institutions of higher learning—if the designation “Christian” is not to be a meaningless holdover from another era—conceive their ends as determined by the truth, wisdom, and moral vision of the Christian faith. It makes sense that most Christian institutions of higher learning lean heavily on the classical (traditioning-character building-moral training) view of the end of education. After all, most Christian colleges were founded to defend, explain, and pass on the truth, wisdom, and moral vision of the Christian faith. And the concept of academic freedom that fits an institution devoted to research and production of new knowledge will not fit a Christian institution devoted to the ends I described above. Nor, of course, would it fit with any program of classical education.

In the past, from about 1880 to about 1980, Christian colleges were criticized by the dominant academic culture because they supposedly stifled the disinterested search for truth and the advance of knowledge in deference to their religious commitments. They limited the questions and answers researchers could pursue. Christian colleges were at fault for not accepting the view of academic freedom demanded by the dominant understanding of the ends of the academy. The academic enterprise should be carried on, they contended, according to its own internal rules rather than having to consider external authorities. Recently, however the dominant academic culture has begun criticizing both the Christian understanding and the older value-neutral research understanding of the ends of higher education and consequently it has begun to limit academic freedom in new ways. I am speaking of course of the rise of the political correctness, leftist politics, and wokeness that now dominates many institutions of higher education. The rise of political correctness signals a return to the traditioning and character-forming model of education but with a different tradition to pass on, a different moral vision to inculcate, and a different vision of how character should be formed. These institutions now openly suppress academic freedom in view of their new orthodoxy in ways they imagined Christian colleges did in the past in service to Christian orthodoxy. Measured by a classical liberal view of the social order and its value-neutral understanding of the search for truth the new orthodoxy is illiberal, intolerant, and unscientific. And so Christian institutions of higher learning must fight on two fronts to maintain their liberty to teach and learn according to their understanding of their ends.

If a Christian institution understands its reason for existence to be producing good human beings as measured by the Christian faith, if that is its non-negotiable end, then it will not accept any view of academic freedom that allows teachers to thwart achieving that end—either by restricting academic freedom to suppress politically incorrect speech or expanding academic freedom so as to undermine the Christian purpose of the college. Each particular Christian institution will have to define the scope and set the limits for academic freedom in its own way and according to its understanding of what activities help it achieve its ends or prevent it from doing so. But one thing is certain: the scope and limits of academic freedom in a Christian college must be determined not by an abstract concept of freedom, not by a general concept of academic freedom, not by a disinterested research ideal of academic freedom, and not by the new limits on academic freedom imposed by the politically correct academic establishment but by a clear and unapologetic understanding of the ends the institution holds dear.

Careerism and Silence in Higher Education

I’ve spent 45 years in higher education either as a student or a professor. I’ve blogged about it before, and I will have more to say about higher education in America in the future. No doubt this is true in every profession, but careerism is among the most serious problems plaguing colleges and universities today. There are certain paths that lead to tenure and promotion or to administrative posts in academia, and not all of them benefit students or advance knowledge. Some faculty appear to care only about making a career, and others compromise their ideals, their good sense, and even their consciences to play the game. And some, of course, selfishly use their classroom to recruit activists for their favorite cause.* But I am convinced that most teachers — even though they consent to jump through the hoops, play the game, and hold their noses and bite their tongues — care about students and the pursuit of knowledge.

But as I took my walk this morning, thinking about these things, two analogies came to mind. I think, given the context of contemporary culture, they speak for themselves.

The Sheep and the Wolf

Sheep outnumber wolves 100 to 1. But the wolf is fierce, loud, and fast. The wolf appears, and the sheep scatter or cower in a corner. Then, one by one, the wolf picks them off. But had the sheep understood the power of coordinated action they could have trampled the wolf under their cloven hooves.

The Bully

To be successful, the schoolyard bully must isolate the smallest kid and provide an example to the rest of what comes of resistance. The silent kids outnumber the bully and his toadies 10 to one. Should the 10 find the courage to rush him, the bully’s courage will fail and the specter of his power will vanish like the morning fog.

*Let me make this point clear: a good teacher cares about students’ individual welfare and invests the time it takes to promote it. Bad teachers treat their students as means to the professor’s own ends: vanity, career, or political ideology. Good teachers teach their students to think clearly while bad teachers train their students to talk like the professor. Good teachers love their students, but bad teachers love themselves through their students.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—Christian Ideals or Golden Calves?

Deceitful Words

Almost every day I have to endure listening to non- or even anti-Christian meanings being poured into traditional Christian words. Even worse, I hear words whose meanings are determined by non- or anti-Christian contexts proclaimed as the height of Christian orthodoxy, piety, and virtue. This experience is as painful to me as I imagine Moses’s experience was to him as he descended mountain having heard the very voice of God only to discover that Aaron and the Israelites had made a golden calf and were worshiping it as the God who brought them out of Egypt (Ex 32). Today we have a multitudes of “Israelites” and plenty of “Aarons” within Christian circles who are only too happy to assimilate Christianity to the pagan culture surrounding it. And playing word games is one way of disguising the substitution.

Some Contemporary Golden Calves

Traditional Words Are Given Alien Meanings

Some years ago I had to study the works of some very liberal theologians. One theologian, Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004), kept using the word “salvation” in an odd way. He kept saying that there is salvation in all religions. What did he mean? Did he mean that the adherents of all religions would achieve what the New Testament offers as liberation from sin, death, and the devil? Do all religions lead to the arms of Abraham, to resurrection of the dead, to union with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to eternal life in fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? However as I kept reading I realized that Gilkey meant something quite different. He meant that all the major religions humanize, elevate, and spiritualize their followers in this life. These religions provide meaning, purpose, and identity. They create community, human solidarity, and ethical guidance. And this is what Gilkey meant by “salvation.” Jesus saves, Buddha saves, and Mohammed saves. They all make people better and happier.

Later in my historical studies, I discovered that retaining a traditional Christian word while shifting its meaning has been the strategy of liberal Christian theology from its beginning in around 1800 until today. In the liberal dictionary,

“Resurrection” means not that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead and that Jesus reigns as lord but that Jesus’s influence lives on and exercises a powerful force in the world.

“Atonement” is not about God actually changing the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus but about the positive impact of the teaching and example of Jesus.

The “Holy Spirit” is not the powerful presence of God witnessing to Jesus Christ and transforming people into his image but for all practical purposes is identified with the progressive spirit of the times.

“Justice” in the Bible means individual behavior that measures up to the letter and the spirit of God’s just laws. Today it has come to mean “social justice,” which is an agenda for reordering society toward equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Words with Secular Meanings Declared Christian

As examples secular/pagan meanings being imported into Christian churches and such parachurch organizations as Christian colleges I will examine the pervasive call for diversity, equity, and inclusion—aka social justice—in all spheres of modern society. As someone who lives and works in higher education—today’s literal counterpart to the mythical Pandora’s Box—I hear this triad invoked at least three times a day as a self-evident moral ideal. In the modern university you can blaspheme the Holy Trinity of Christianity or burn the American flag with impunity but questioning the axiomatic nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion is to commit the unforgivable sin and become subject to cancellation or termination (of employment).

Hence I am constantly amazed when I hear Christian people invoke diversity, equity, and inclusion as Christian ethical imperatives. They do this uncritically and seemingly without awareness of the radical political context within which this triad gains its meaning. In its secular context the triad sets the agenda for the fundamental reordering of society at all levels through political coercion, accompanied with violence if needed. Equity is not identical to the traditional ideals of equality before the law and freedom of choice; it is a condition within which equal proportions of society’s goods are distributed among different communities of identity—especially communities determined by race and gender.  Diversity means that the membership of every institution in a society—business, club, school, etc.—reflects proportionally the diversity of identity groups in society at large. Inclusion refers to the intentional effort to include sufficient representatives from every identity group contained within society at large, especially from those groups whom society tends to oppress, overlook, or marginalize.

Clearly, achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels of society cannot be left to meritocratic and free market forces or freedom of choice or speech. The interplay of these forces has always led and will always lead to lack of diversity, inequity, and exclusion. Left to themselves historical prejudices, natural affinities and competition always produce insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed. Hence the government must position itself as a counterweight to these forces in service to the ideals of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Next Time: Are equity, diversity, and inclusion Christian Ideals? Hint: The answer is no.

An Open Letter to Christian Colleges and Universities (Part One)

About My “Harsh” Letter

As you know, recently I wrote a letter to American academia. Some readers thought it was too harsh and sweeping. Others took it personally. And still others thought my criticisms were aimed at Christian as well as secular higher education. Allow me, then, to correct those misperceptions. As to its harshness, I do not think I can satisfy those who thought it was too harsh. I thought about softening it somewhat, but I decided not to do so lest its impact be lessened. Concerning its target, the letter was aimed at the dominant culture of academia, not at any one person within it. Many wonderful professors, administrators, and staff—some of them sincere Christians—work within this system. They care about students and value reason. My criticisms were directed not at them but at the system that, regardless of the beliefs of any individual, harbors irrational bias against orthodox Christianity and lives in dread of a right-wing takeover. I described it as systemic animus, and I stand by that assessment.

Nor did I have you in mind. You do not fit the pattern of the dominant academic culture. Indeed, your only reason for existence is to protest against that culture and provide a clear alternative. But now I am writing to you. I want to warn you, encourage you, and, yes, advise you about how to guard your identity as a light in darkness.

A Little History

There is so much to say! We go back a long time, and you predate me by hundreds of years. I would love to rehearse your entire history from Colonial America to today. We could learn so much from that story. I will indulge myself, however, with only a few historical observations. Nearly every college founded in the United States between 1636 (Harvard) and 1900 was begun by a Christian denomination. They did not need to call themselves “Christian” because all the colleges were Christian in some sense. However, between 1875 and 1925 many American Colleges began to call themselves “nonsectarian,” meaning generic or cultural, as opposed to confessional Christianity. The case of Johns Hopkins University is instructive. America’s first research university, founded in 1876, JHU labeled itself “nonsectarian” from the beginning. Toward the end of his founding address, the University’s first president Daniel Coit Gilman turned to the Board of Trustees and addressed them in these words:

Before concluding, I repeat in public the assent which I have privately made to your official overtures. In speaking of your freedom from sectarian and political control, you expressed to me a hope that this foundation should be pervaded by the spirit of an enlightened Christianity… I now as then express my cordial and entire concurrence.”

Only in the Twentieth Century, after the majority of colleges and universities in America had completed the transition from “enlightened Christianity” to complete secularity, did “Christian” colleges begin thinking of themselves as a group in distinction from the secular majority.

What Makes a College “Christian”

I am writing to colleges and universities that wish to be known as “Christian” and market themselves to students, donors, and alumni as such. My first question, then, is this: when you say you are a “Christian” college or university, what do you mean? More importantly, what should you mean?

The Individual “Christian”

I have to ask this question because calling yourself Christian does not make it so for an institution any more than it does for an individual. The New Testament book of Acts reports that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). In the course of history there have been many reasons why people called themselves Christians. But the only reason I will acknowledge as legitimate is that you confess and live by the same faith that the disciples in Antioch held and that Paul, Peter, and John preached: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised from the dead on the third day…” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Paul says in another place,

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved (Rom 10:9-10).

There is more to say about what it means to be a Christian, but at minimum professing to be a Christian should be a clear sign that you believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, crucified and raised from the dead. It should also go without saying that you are committing yourself to live according to Jesus’s and his apostles’ teaching.

The “Christian” College

In the same way, for a college or university to designate itself as “Christian” should mean at minimum that it confesses the same faith that believers in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome, under the guidance of the apostles, confessed: Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and Savior, crucified and raised from the dead. A Christian college must live out its institutional life under the guidance of this faith. I will not acknowledge as genuinely Christian any college that will not make this confession before the world and conduct its affairs on this basis. There are, of course, differences between the ways Christian colleges and individual Christians live out their faith. Universities do not have hearts with which to believe or mouths with which to confess that Jesus is Lord. As corporate entities, universities exist in and act on the basis their charters, policies, mission statements, codes of conduct, and desired outcomes. In Christian universities, these institutional identifiers must affirm Christian faith clearly at every level, from charter to desired outcomes. Moreover, these commitments mean little unless they are taken seriously in hiring, retention, curriculum, teaching, and student life. Christian colleges must remember that their existence makes sense only as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia.

To be Continued…

An Open Letter to American Academia

Dear American Academia:

Except for a few years in between schools, you have been my home for my whole life. After age eighteen, I spent thirteen years in college and graduate school. Since receiving my PhD in 1988, I’ve given thirty-two years to teaching in colleges and universities. I’ve been through the tenure process, published several books, participated in national and international professional academic societies, and achieved the rank of full professor at a prestigious university. I think I know you pretty well. And it is from my experience that I write.

A Sense of Self-Importance

I get it, you think you are an important social institution. You present yourself to the larger society as the champion of science, the engine of technological innovation, and the guardian of civilization. You market yourself to potential students as a four-year rite of passage into the professional class. I do not deny that much of what you say is true. My life testifies to that. Becoming a professor was my dream from age eighteen onward, and I am still amazed that the dream came true. I would not accept anything in exchange for what I learned from my teachers and students. I could not have written the books I have authored were I not a professor paid to teach and research. But I am not writing to praise you. Nor do I write to bury you. I write to admonish you and warn those who accept uncritically your rhetoric of self-importance.

Hidden Motives

The inviting narrative created by your public relations offices and published on your websites and in glossy brochures does not tell the whole story. Whatever your value to the common good, you are but one sector within a larger society encompassed by concentric circles of government power. Well hidden among your noble motives lie the most primitive of all drives: instinct for survival, desire for autonomy, and yearning for honor, security, and economic well-being. I could write an essay on each of these motives. But I want to focus on your quest for autonomy.

I believe your desire to become and remain self-determining is the driving force, the systemic ethos, of your behavior.  Autonomy allows you to pursue your self-interest without interference from external factors. It is your most cherished possession, and losing it is your greatest fear. The story is too long to tell here, but you write the history of American higher education as the struggle to free academia from the oppression of what you perceive as its two greatest enemies: right-wing politics and orthodox Christianity. And you tend to combine the two, although they are not natural allies.

Orthodox Christianity

You are driven by fear and hatred of these two enemies. You see them as sinister forces ever conspiring to bring you back under their control. You fight orthodox Christianity by attacking its truth and goodness and naively embracing almost any ideology, superstition, moral philosophy, or religion that criticizes it. Your reaction is a perfect illustration of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You consider any enemy of Christianity your ally. In your narrative, orthodox Christianity is anti-scientific, superstitious, imperialistic, historically unfounded, metaphysically absurd, morally oppressive, and, well, just plain evil.

Right-Wing Politics

Right-wing politics plays the second villainous role in your narrative. You interpret every voice on the right as an echo of the National Socialist (NAZI) takeover of the German universities, or of Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to root out communists from the entertainment industry and academia, or of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. You fear a right-wing takeover to the point of paranoia. And your fear is compounded by the fact that you have no power of your own with which to resist such a takeover. Hence you seek powerful friends to protect you. To fight the Right you made friends with the Left. To escape the eagle’s nest you fled to the bear’s cave. You are like ancient Israel in the Seventh and Sixth Centuries, BC, a weak vassal state set between two giant empires. In fear of Assyria and Babylon, you seek the protection of Egypt. For you must serve one devil or the other. Over a hundred years ago, when the Right and Christian orthodoxy were much stronger than they are today, you decided that the left-wing empire would give you more autonomy that a right-wing master would allow. And you have kept to that policy right up to the present time.

You have adopted another famous saying as your guiding light: “There are no enemies on the left.” To resist the Right, you embrace any and every cause that weakens it. It has been said in jest that the only thing that unites the modern university is the electrical and heating systems. No ideal, no mission, no philosophy, or moral imperative commands the loyalty of all the factions that congregate on your campuses. But I make no joke when I assert that the unity of the modern university is forged by one thing only: hatred of your common enemies, orthodox Christianity and right-wing politics.

Why do you, the modern university, put such emphasis on ethnic, racial, and gender identity and embrace anarchic, disruptive, and violent movements? Why target white privilege and systemic racism so vociferously? Why celebrate transgression of all traditional moral distinctions? It is not because of your love of humanity. It has little to do with a coherent philosophy of human dignity. Are you a champion of the oppressed? Not really. Are you motivated by your commitment to tolerance? I don’t think that is plausible. Do you love justice? No. That’s not it. I know you too well. These causes and movements weaken the Right and Christian orthodoxy. That is the reason you embrace them so fanatically. No enemies on the left! Your autonomy is all that matters to you. And your autonomy is a means to your selfish ends.

The Magic Mirror

Your fear drives you into hatred, suppression, and violence toward your enemies, whom you hate because you think they are bent on your destruction. You suppress speech in the name of free speech! You persecute dissenters in the name of compassion. You do violence in the name of peace. You preach superstition in the name of science. You demand conformity in the name of diversity. You deny truth for the sake of ideology. You exclude in the name of inclusion. If your enemy praises it as a virtue, you condemn it as a vice. And if your enemy condemns it as a vice, you defend it as praiseworthy. You are as closeminded and dogmatic as any “fundamentalist” who ever “thumped a Bible.”

Look in the mirror! The magic mirror of your conscience! There you will see everything you hate in your enemies, down to the last eyelash. Everyone who loves brightens the world in their own distinct way. But all who hate look alike in the shadows they cast.

Let Me Count the Ways

Do I write these harsh things because I hate you? No. You were a second mother to me! I write them because I love you. Or to be precise, I love you for what you could be: a place where friends meet to sharpen each other’s understanding. A symposium in which we explore the meaning of our humanity. A laboratory in which we implore nature to reveal her secrets. A cathedral where everyone worships at the altar of truth and reality. A hall where hypotheses are tested in the furnace of respectful debate. A town square where no one who speaks in the voice of reason is silenced because of what they say. Do not fear that reason is too impotent a power to defend goodness, truth, and beauty against the crude designs of the eagle and the bear. Eventually, reason’s clear, sonorous voice will distinguish itself from the cacophonous babel of party interests.

With much affection and not a little grief,

Ron Highfield