The concept of the university as a place of genuine learning with the free flow of ideas and the cut and thrust of rigorous debate creating a place where the brightest of minds might grow and blossom intellectually is, to a significant extent, no more. And this should concern Christians.
When only a single viewpoint is accorded legitimacy we turn our back on education and enter the sphere of indoctrination, which is the norm in many Western universities today. Secular values and worldviews dominate teaching, resulting in an emphasis which is destructive of Christian values.
We joke about degrees in underwater basket weaving at the University of Easy Access, but the reality is serious. Ball State University, Indiana, recently hosted a presentation to ‘engage with the question of how English language practices in college classrooms contribute to white supremacy’. The English department at Rutgers University, New Jersey, has decided to de-emphasise English grammar in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In these cases, as elsewhere, progressive concerns shape the curricula.
University has become a difficult environment for any who do not go along with the progressive agenda. Christianity is frequently marginalised and even attacked as the originator of the forbidden attitudes of our day, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. In our tolerant progressive universities with their commitment to diversity the only ‘phobia’ permitted is that which targets Christians and social conservatives.
Sir Roger ScrutonRead this damning indictment by Sir Roger Scruton, probably the best English-speaking philosopher of modern times:
‘The university, instead of transmitting culture, exists to deconstruct it, to remove its “aura”, and to leave the student, after four years of intellectual dissipation, with the view that anything goes and nothing matters . . . If the purpose were merely to substitute one belief system for another, it would be open to rational debate. But the purpose is to substitute one community for another. When institutions are incurably corrupted, as the universities were corrupted under communism, we must begin again.’
The brilliant Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly Britain’s Chief Rabbi, is of the opinion that ‘university campuses throughout the West have become places of swirling intolerance of a kind I never thought I would see in my lifetime’. He adds that ‘the role of the university as the arena of intellectual diversity, reasoned argument, civil debate, respectful listening and collaborative pursuit of truth’ is at risk.
Post-modernism teaches that there is no truth, only interpretations, that there is no history, only narratives. Nietzsche warned that when truth dies, all that is left is the will to power. This emerges in the university, supposedly the home of the pursuit of truth, and from there spreads via the media throughout society.
JK RowlingWhen what matters is not truth but power we find conflict between opposing identity groups clawing for power. The feminist J K Rowling questioned the phrase ‘people who menstruate’ and tweeted, ‘I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’ She was virulently condemned because truth would offend transsexuals and reduce their power.
When the pursuit of objective truth is abandoned in favour of subjective truth which pleases an identity group, the university is changed from a community of scholars pursuing truth to a system of power. It is at this level of truth being exchanged for power that we are most at risk as Christians.
The institutions we identify as being Western, such as our laws, hospitals and education system, including universities, were shaped by Christianity. But Christianity did much more: it revolutionised the ways in which people thought, it brought together two elements of thought which previously, if held at all, had been held in tension – faith and reason.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did not believe in the existence of the gods and their somewhat colourful home lives; they belonged to a separate compartment of thought. Christianity sees faith and reason as both coming from God. This has allowed the West to become the centre of learning. Science was able to develop because God was logos (reason), the Creator of a universe which ran on reliable principles which man, using his God-given reason, could discover.
In the secular worldview shaping universities today and spreading to society generally, faith and reason are rent apart as in the pagan world. Faith is seen as a personal subjective view which has dangerous consequences for society if it is not kept as a purely private affair outside the public square. Faith is understood as the seed-bed of intolerance and hatred, leading to the rejection of marginalised groups.
Tolerance has flipped 180 degrees. Liberal concepts of non-judgementalism and moral relativism have been replaced with progressive judgementalism and moral absolutism, all swirling around the deeply destructive concept of group identity. When the supposed right not to be offended is exercised, safe spaces for some become unsafe spaces for others. Twentieth-century Germany shows what happens when specific faith groups are sidelined from universities: it never stops there.
If the Christian view is ignored and Christians are marginalised and gradually excluded, the church must share responsibility. In the midst of intellectual turmoil the church allows the Christian case to go by default.
Universities consistently teach a worldview and churches don’t. Our universities have a secular humanist worldview which forms the underlying basis of all their teaching. At the same time our churches don’t teach the biblical worldview, a Christian way of interpreting the world around us. Most churches don’t teach much of anything other than disjointed Bible stories at best.
As well as the weekly sermon and Bible study there is a pressing need for the development of an accessible course such as the Alpha course, but aimed at developing an awareness amongst Christians of the coherence of biblical revelation, its impact on history and its importance for and application to the world today.
Conservative Christians must ask whether we are equipping our young people to enter an intellectual battlefield. Unless we do so, we should expect casualties in the shape of bright young Christians emerging from three or four years of university believing in nothing very much.