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Letter From A Young Christian Scholar


Here is a letter I just received from a reader in response to the “Villanova Mentholates The Cultural Revolution” post, which is getting a lot of traffic. The reader writes:

To begin, I am a third year PhD student in the liberal arts. I have sunk too much into obtaining a degree to turn away now (what do they call it, the “sunk cost fallacy”?). What’s more, I love teaching and scholarship far too much to give up on this particular vocation just yet. I love to teach. I love hearing students discuss and argue in class. I love watching students’ faces when they discover an idea. I love it when students get passionate about ideas—whether or not their views are in accord with my own. Thus, I don’t think I can leave academia at this juncture—and I’m not sure that it is altogether worthwhile for others to leave academia, either, whether young or old scholars.

I write this to you just one day after having received a militant student’s negative feedback on one of my student evaluation surveys, a survey similar to what you wrote about in your Villanova piece. For the sake of protecting my own identity and that of the student’s, I will not go into more detail about what the student included in their response to the survey. Though, perhaps it is enough to say that our surveys do not (yet) necessarily include questions about social justice or diversity. The surveys themselves, questions of social justice and diversity aside, are altogether problematic.

In fact, I’d be interested in learning more about the history of student evaluation surveys and when they were first introduced into higher ed. If I had to guess, they are part of the larger apparatus on the bureaucratization of higher education. Student evaluation surveys help to enforce and uphold what one might call an “unholy peace” in the academic atmosphere, a type of “unholy peace” that Christ came to wage war against (Mt 10:34-36). One potential response to the current crisis in academia would be for institutions to rid themselves of these “unholy” artifacts. Perhaps this goes without saying. And I recognize that this particular suggestion is probably the least likely of my suggestions to take root.

Another potential response to the current dilemma would be to insist upon the importance of a rhetorical education. I’m serious about this. Ancient and medieval education revolved, at least in part, around the medieval trivium of rhetoric, grammar, and logic. Cicero taught the importance of arguing both sides of an argument in order to better decide how to act. Even the sophists of old, hucksters though many may have been, at least agreed that for every argument there is always a counter argument (see the anonymous sophist’s Dissoi Logoi). If we could at least agree to teaching both sides of an argument in a classroom, I think we would be OK. In fact, it behooves even conservatives, Christians, and Catholics to learn the best possible arguments that the other side puts forward, as St. Thomas demonstrates throughout his Summa. The question of presenting both sides of an argument in the classroom boils down to both how the arguments are presented and that the arguments are presented. If students have an issue with how arguments are presented in the class, then teachers can at least adapt their teaching to provide a better argument for the opposing side. In the best case scenario, both sides should have the opportunity to put their best possible arguments forward. And teachers should relish in advancing the best arguments for both positions. But if students and administrators have a problem that opposing arguments are being presented, that is fundamentally problematic and at the root of the issue.

If you cannot even present both sides of an issue, then all you have is ideology in the classroom—one way or another. If you cannot present both sides of an issue, then you cannot truly give to students that rare gem in an unreflective technological age: a liberal arts education. If you cannot present both sides of an issue, you cannot teach students how to think, you can only teach them what to think. If you cannot present both sides of an issue, you are a puppet and automaton of the bureaucratic diversity police that shun thought in favor of an unholy peace.

Let there be no unholy peace, least of all in the classroom.

I will say just a few more things. There is a need for older scholars to help younger scholars in this current academic climate. I say this as a younger scholar who has been counseled many times by older scholars in the same predicament. Their counsel has helped. There are others out there that know your predicament. Keep your head low. Be wise. Be indirect. Use satire and humor in your classroom and with your colleagues. Have the courage to speak when no one else will, but not recklessly. Observe the mean between recklessness and cowardice. Cultivate phronesis, or practical judgment (interestingly, with Christ’s call to be as “wise” as a serpent, the Greek word for wise is phronimos—a term related to the Greek ideal of phronesis, or practical judgment) (Mt. 10:16). The aim is not to retreat, but to embrace what Providence has set before us. These are dark times. No one with eyes to see and hears to hear will deny it.

There are also opportunities for non-academics to help young scholars in academia. I say this as a young scholar hunting for his first academic position (side note: if you know of anyone looking for a scholar such as me, I would be grateful to know of any open positions).

First, non-academics can support young conservative scholars by linking them into a network of people where a job may open up at an institution friendly to a true (not a faux) diversity of ideas. For example, here are three questions: “Are you a non-academic? Do you know someone in graduate school right now? Do you know someone else in academia that is at least hospitable to conservative opinions?” If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these questions, then perhaps you can serve as an invaluable link in getting that person in graduate school into a decent job.

Second, perhaps more obviously, non-academics can help young (and old) scholars by being a patron. Whatever happened to the old idea of patronage, whereby artists and scholars could work without fear of reprisal? Consider what is going on at Ave Maria University right now, which was founded by Tom Monaghan of Domino’s Pizza. At this juncture, Mr. Monaghan serves as a patron of numerous scholars and teachers. Where are the other patrons who might step forth at this crucial juncture? Will these potential patrons please come forth and give in any way they can? Perhaps they needn’t found an entire university. Perhaps there is a different way for those blessed with riches to channel their funds toward those who could profit from it, at least in times of emergency.

Third, and this is for those who haven’t necessarily been blessed with wealth, non-academics might also collectively pool together their monetary resources for scholars in need. I’m imagining a type of social insurance whereby persecuted scholars and teachers can submit claims, which could then be evaluated by a group of individuals. Such a group could then decide if money that has been set aside could be allotted to the individual in question to help pay for their monthly rent, their mortgage, etc. The goal would not be to continue to support the scholar in the long run, but in the least to give them the funds necessary to survive until whatever crisis they’ve landed in has blown over.

Perhaps this is ridiculous. I’m just thinking aloud.

One last thing. For those in academia, I would give one of piece of advice that I myself am trying to follow. And that is this: Channel your anger and resentment into prayer and writing. There is much to be upset over in these anti-intellectual times. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you respect the other side. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well you’ve tried not to offend. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you say, because you are wrong no matter what. Sometimes people just don’t want to hear your arguments, no matter how kind or gentle you are; sometimes people just want you to shut your mouth. It doesn’t matter how just your cause is—the fact that you’re a conservative or a Christian or a Catholic stains the entirety of your idea. You have become the exemplary enemy in the tragic drama of identity politics.

If you should find yourself cast in this role that you never chose, remember to pray and write. Pray because your salvation depends upon it. Write because it gives you an outlet to voice your frustration, anger, and resentment. Pray because God’s will be done, and because vengeance is His. Write because you are one of his emissaries on earth, and because others are waiting for His Word.

Pray and write, and let your words be your weapons.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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