Friday, May 19, 2017

The Terrible Temptation of "Christianity and..."

Years ago, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters warned against the dangers of what he called "Christianity and":
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. 
My Facebook feed (because of a comment by a friend) served up a striking example of this phenomenon today - a graphic accompanied by the following text, posted by a FB group called "Our President and Savior":

Of all the sacred institutions upholding our democracy, none is as important as loyalty to the President. What better way to show your loyalty than by making a formal pledge in the sight of GOD, for all to know? Voluntarily pledging in the comments will demonstrate superior integrity than if you wait for the pledge to become mandatory. Don't delay; pledge your loyalty to President TRUMP today!

The Donald J. Trump Presidential Pledge of Loyalty:

"I swear to GOD this sacred pledge that to the President of the United States and people, Donald J. Trump, supreme commander in chief of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave patriot I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this pledge."

In the (unsurprisingly extensive) comments section came this particular addition from the poster of the original:
Our President and Savior ATTENTION LIBERALS: This is a CHRISTIAN page and foul language will NOT be tolerated. We permit you to be here for your own benefit, but cussing and profanity are strictly FORBIDDEN. You have been warned!
I am baffled. Under what reading of the Christian Bible does it become "mandatory" to pledge allegiance to an earthly ruler? What kind of theology allows you identify as a Christian and call Donald Trump (or any other President) "Savior"? Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light" - I'm pretty sure he didn't make mention of the President of the United States, or the Emperor of Rome, or the Governor of Syria, or Pilate, or anyone else.

I'm also not sure what understanding of "democracy" regards "loyalty to the President" as one of the "sacred institutions" that upholds the system. Our government was founded on disloyalty to a ruler, and is clearly designed to protect the rights of anyone who wants to speak out and oppose those elected to office.

Somewhere, Screwtape is laughing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ideological Purity and the Loss of Tolerance

I've written before (here and here) about the dangers of trying to create an ideologically "pure" environment. Our politics are problematic in part because there are some folks on both the Left and the Right who refuse to have anything to do with anything that smacks of the other side. These people are doomed to live frustrated lives, since they will never achieve what they seek.

In academia, the forces pulling in this same direction can be even stronger. There is something about academic training, about dedicating a large portion of your life to seeking truth in a particular area, that seems to engender in us the need to Be Right and to vanquish all of the Wrong Thinking in the world. Academics are not much known for humility.

In this context, the latest wave of opposition to campus speakers has become particularly fertile ground for this sort of quixotic quest for purity. In the minds of some, to host an outside speaker on campus is to allow anything and everything that person has ever said to taint you. The institution itself becomes unclean by their presence, requiring rituals of purification. You could write these sorts of strictures up in Leviticus and they would fit right in.

One of the latest of these incidents involves a kerfuffle surrounding an invitation extended to James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who, along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, discovered and articulated the structure of DNA. He had a hand on one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, on which a vast amount of biological and medical knowledge has been built. He is, as the saying goes, one of the giants in the field.

He has also, at various points, expressed some outdated views about race, gender, and other social issues. He has expressed concern that people in Africa are less intelligent than people in other parts of the world. He has said various things about women, about body types, and about homosexuality which most people these days don't agree with. He has also apparently been a supporter of eugenics, at least at the individual level. He is, from many points of view, on the wrong side of history on a number of social issues.

So here we have a man who has led a stellar scientific career, contributing to some of the most impactful scientific advances of the modern age, who also apparently holds some retrograde views on issues of race, gender, and sexuality - views not that uncommon, it should be noted, for white men born in the 1920s.

In other words, James Watson is a human. He has done things that are laudable, and he has done things that are condemnable. He has said things we wish he hasn't said, and he has done things we are extremely grateful for.

So when he is invited to give a talk about science - about the thing for which he clearly deserves praise - and then is disinvited because of things he has said unrelated to his scientific research, I not sure what the standard is. Can we only invite speakers who have led exemplary lives and have been saints since birth? Can we only host speakers who have never said anything that might offend someone's point of view? If so, our list of campus speakers will be very short indeed.

From a Christian point of view, this kind of intellectual purifying of the academy is nonsense. We are all sinners, and there is no coherent theological justification to suggest that some sins (racism, for example) are more egregious in the eyes of God than others (pride, or lust, or greed). People love to read the Beatitudes, but the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 makes us profoundly uneasy (Cut off your hand! Tear out your eye!)

I am therefore a little perplexed when people write "I am ashamed to be faculty at Illinois" because some part of the university - which is a large, complex organization with many parts, not a unified whole - has decided to host Watson for a talk about his research. Such a person must be perpetually ashamed of many things, because we are all connected to institutions and social structures that do things that we find objectionable.

None of this is to defend racism, or sexism, or homophobia. When Watson argues that one "race" of people is inherently less intelligent than another, he is doing so on the basis of prejudice rather than careful scientific study. The bases of intelligence are complex and multifaceted, and it is entirely likely that his own intelligence is a result of the nurture of his upbringing and circumstances (of having "won the ovarian lottery", as Warren Buffet puts it) rather than what's in his genetic code. As we seek the roots of intelligence we find a very complex web indeed. We would also do well to carefully untangle judgments about intelligence from judgments about moral value, lest we fall into the trap of moral elitism - "smart" people do not have a greater inherent moral value than "dumb" ones.

But it is one thing to disagree with an argument or a point of view. It is another thing entirely to assert that, by inviting a speaker to talk on one topic, you are in some sense endorsing his views on others - an assertion that, when brought to light, is clearly silly. It is still another thing to claim that, by that person's presence on campus in some kind of invited capacity, the institution as a whole is morally tainted - a modern version of the Levitical code of purity.

Ultimately, I think our problem is that we are confused. We see ourselves as individual moral agents - as responsible for our own moral choices. Yet we also imbue our institutions - which are, after all, simply collections of individuals - with a sort of moral status of their own. In itself, this can be useful,  because we want to feel that we belong to and contribute to something greater than ourselves. But we are unclear about the moral rules surrounding our institutions. We seek to hold our institutions to the same standards as ourselves - forgetting that we are not alone, and that others may have different ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate.

All of this, of course, is just a description of what it means to live in society. My concern is that we are forgetting this - we forget that one of the chief qualities that enables us to get along with each other and improve our individual and collective lives is tolerance for difference and ambiguity. The quest for purity is really just the reduction of the moral world to a zero-sum game: either I win, or you do. Either we are not racist, or we are. We are either a conservative place or a liberal place. Throughout the history of humanity, this approach has always led to suffering, and never to the victory that its adherents sought. Maybe we should step back and look for a better way to listen to each other without so much throwing of stones and slurs and signs.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Limitations of Surveys

In perusing the higher education press this morning, I came across this story:
Americans see value in higher education, survey finds, but are unhappy with current system
The results of this survey are likely to be seized on by various constituents and interests. No doubt state legislators will see it as further evidence of the need for "reform" in higher education.

I don't intend to argue here about whether universities need to reform or not. In a certain sense, that's a silly question - all universities at all times can do things to make themselves better, and should. We can all find ways to better serve our students, to help our students learn and grow more, to be more efficient and cost-effective, and so on. This is the normal state of affairs.

One thing state legislatures and the general public don't often realize is that, despite our desire for simple answers, the kinds of change needed are usually university-specific. Even within one state or public university system, the issues and challenges facing any two universities within that area are likely to be very different. I have recently made the transition from one public university in Ohio to another. Both are sizable comprehensive universities serving metropolitan areas that in many ways are mirror images of each other. Both need reform. The kind of reform each needs, however, is radically different.

So a survey that says "things need to change!" isn't useful at all. Very few doubt the need for change on any campus, and those who do tend not to be in positions of authority or influence. Yes, there are rear-guard actions by groups of faculty or (less frequently) staff, but these are increasingly ineffective. Most good faculty leaders I know understand the need for reform. We just need to agree on what kinds of reforms are needed.

But the survey referenced above isn't just useless because it makes an obvious point. The observation that "58% believe colleges put their own interests ahead of students", or that "just one in four respondents feel higher education is functioning fine the way it is", reflect genuine opinions. But where do those opinions come from? As has famously been said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Legislators or others with an agenda will argue that these opinions are evidence that things have gone wrong in higher education, that there is a "crisis". They assume, in other words, that people's opinions reflect reality. Unfortunately, that's not true.

If you call me up and ask me what I think of the nature of the health care system in the US, I have to construct an opinion on the spot. Like most Americans, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about "the health care system". I occasionally interact with that system, because (like most Americans) I tend to be generally healthy. Moreover, even if I like my particular doctor, I may not see that one data point as representative of the system as a whole. I'm likely to simply think that my doctor is a good fellow, or that my doctor's office is a nice and reasonably well-run place.

So where does my opinion come from? If I read stories all the time about how health care is "failing", how people can't get treatment, how drugs are too expensive, how hospitals are terrible, and so on - those things are likely to be "top of mind" for me when the pollster calls. We have known for a long time that in public opinion polling, people base their answers on the most recent relevant information in their memory banks, even if that information isn't that representative or even all that relevant.

So when somebody does a poll of 1600 people nationwide and asks their opinions about college, I know that the vast majority of those respondents are unlikely to have had a significant interaction recently with a college. Moreover, even if they have, we tend to differentiate the individual cases we know from the broader "system" we're being asked about. This is the same dynamic that leads most Americans to despite Congress, yet like their own individual representative. So the "raw material" we're likely to base our opinion on when asked about "the higher education system" is the general stream of stories and headlines we're exposed to in media coverage and our social media streams.

Polls like this, in other words, are self-fulfilling prophecies for politicians who have been railing against higher education for years. They don't reflect the reality of higher ed; they don't even reflect the reality of individuals' experience with higher ed. They reflect the narrative we have constructed of a "system in crisis" - a narrative that has been built to serve specific interests, mostly in service to political ambition.

The media (including the higher ed press and the social media sphere - bloggers included!) play into this. A handful of stories about interrupted speeches on college campuses created a narrative that we have a "crisis" of free speech on campus. Stories of free speech rights being appropriately exercised and protected don't make the news or the blogs, although I have personally seen more of that than of the "bad" cases. In my own small way, I'm guilty of perpetuating the problem here.

None of this is news. We know this is the way public opinion works, and have at least since John Zaller published The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion back in 1992. But polls make good headlines, which then further feed narratives.

For those of us in higher education: we need to stop playing defense and responding to specific charges, and build a different narrative. We have the tools and we have the facts. The reality is that American higher education is the envy of the world, which is why the United States brings in far more students from overseas than any other country. We need to tell that story, and enlist allies to help us tell it broadly and publicly.

For the broader public: we need to develop the skills that everyone keeps saying we need - critical thinking. The level of education needed to develop a little critical distance and not swallow a particular story wholesale is not unattainable. It probably doesn't even require a bachelor's degree. What it does require is training and practice (which higher education are designed to provide), and a willingness to think a little. That latter point is up to the rest of us.