‘The Narrative of Christian Oppression’ (Updated)
A Christian professor at a secular university has had it with the accounts I publish from Christians in higher education. This is a great letter:
I’ve wanted to write to you for some time about your coverage of higher education, but your latest post is the last straw. I want to say two things. One, this student who wrote to you would not be rational—assuming he describes events accurately and completely—in leaving academia on the basis of those events. Two, the way that you write about these things and the stories you publish are destructive. They are not helping the situation of Christian academics—they are making things worse. I say this not out of any hostility to you or your blog. I’ve been reading your blog for years. I agree with you about almost everything. My complaint is not about your point of view; it is about how you are expressing it.
I have been in the academic world for almost twenty years; many of those as a graduate student, and many as a teacher and researcher. I have always studied and taught at secular institutions. In the beginning, it was by default; I was secular, when I started out. I converted to Christianity shortly after I started teaching, and from then on it was a choice that I made–more than once–to stay and teach in secular schools. I have witnessed many incidents that fit well into your narrative, ones that you would quickly publish as evidence of the complete corruption of the academic world and for the necessity of retreating Benedict-style into the wilderness. And yet these incidents are not the whole story.
Take the student’s story that you published today. Is this a story about the unbearable climate for Christian academics? In a way, yes. But there’s another perspective. In a way, there is no such thing as a ‘climate’. There are only individual human beings. This professor is a human being– a bad professor, if he or she is as described. Why? For one thing, he has a bad interpretation of the Annunciation. He is (I take it) assuming that the story has its source in pagan myths about the gods raping mortals and producing offspring. But it is much more plausible to think that the gospel writers, insofar as they have stories like this in mind, are undermining them, are arguing that this God, the true god, does not deal with mortals in this way. The gospels emphasize consent. The fathers of the Church emphasize consent. Nothing could be more important (in a certain respect) to Catholic and Orthodox theology than the consent of Mary. It is a fallacy to assume that when an author has a source (assuming the myths are a source here) he or she uses it uncritically. Given that—could the graduate students have brought an alternate interpretation to the professor directly? Would he have engaged in the conversation? Will he engage in it now? Mind you, he might not be convinced, but he should engage. If not, he is a bad professor and a bad thinker, too wedded to his own views to analyze them or defend them. The student could find a secular professor (or more than one) who would find such behavior objectionable—it violates common-sense standards. If he can’t find a sympathetic person in his department, he should transfer out of that program, because it is not one that has any serious standards.
The fact that the chair of the department held a meeting with the TAs and the professor shows that the chair believed that something may have gone wrong. That is a sign that the ‘climate’ is not quite as the letter-writer sees it. Now, the chair made a mistake in handling the situation this way. That’s because everyone knows that grad students are cowards. They will not state their honest opinion in front of the professor, because, as the letter writer notes, they are afraid that their careers will be damaged. The chair should have talked to students privately and formed his or her own judgment. The letter-writer, or the woman who was badly treated, should now talk to the chair privately about how they think the situation was handled. Perhaps this conversation will not go well. Perhaps the chair is really deeply unsympathetic to the students and doesn’t care about upholding standards for reasonable disagreement. In that case, again, find a different department. In terms of the professor’s outrageous remark to the student to STFU: how has the student complained about it? As about the professor’s refusal to engage with disagreement (one issue) or as about inappropriate or abusive behavior (another issue)? Both separately can be raised both with the professor and with the chair.
Notice that none of these possible conversations are about the treatment of Christianity or Christian students. Rather, they are about 1) the meaning of the Annunciation and the correct representation of Christian theology 2) appropriate ways of responding to disagreement from students 3) effective ways of handling conflict between professors and graduate TAs 4) inappropriate or abusive behavior.
What I suspect has happened instead is that the letter-writer has viewed these events through the lens of the oppression of Christian academics—the Narrative of Christian Oppression. That has led him to view the situation as hopeless and to fail to try to communicate with the human beings in question in a way that might resolve the difficulties. Now, I know nothing about the outcomes of these possible conversations. Perhaps they will end with the professor or the chair saying “You, Christian, do not belong in this department”, or the equivalent. If so, the Christian student can depart in peace, shaking the dust from his feet, knowing that he has reaching the limits of what he can reasonably do. But perhaps they will end quite differently. Perhaps they will not fit neatly into the narrative at all. The student has neatly skated over the evidence that his department is not as bad as he thinks: the fact that the chair held a meeting about these events, and the fact that they accepted him into the program, even though he interpreted literature in his writing sample. Some member or members of the department read that writing sample and thought it was good: that is a fact.
The way to survive in these programs is to cling to common ground. Cling to standards, cling to the love of literature (or history or whatever it is). Cling to the work that you share as a project with your non-believing colleagues and teachers. Seek out people who value something in common with you, especially if they are not Christian. Form friendships. Work together on the basis of those common values. A standard for behavior or a standard for good thinking is not a static thing. It is valued in the breach as well as in the observance. Speak to your teachers and fellow-students as if they, too, can recognize the breach and can respond to it. Accept their response if they acknowledge the breach, even if the result is not what you wanted. Forbear some injuries. Fight when necessary. Make the choice to stay, make it repeatedly, because of your love of the subject and because you can adequately pursue what you love.
When you are in an environment where there is no common ground, where there is nothing you value in common with the others—when you know that not because you read too many blogs but because you have met your teachers and fellow-students eyeball-to-eyeball and forced them to clarify what they accept and what they reject—then it is time to leave. Or you can choose to leave because for you the pain of the struggle outweighs the joy of the work. But make no mistake: that’s your calculation, and it’s your choice.
Having these conversations and forming these relationships is difficult. It is awkward. The continual testing of the difficult teacher, the difficult department, is tedious and fraught with anxiety. Engagement involves taking a risk, the risk that the authority figures in question will turn against you, that you may not be able to succeed in the way you set out to do. But look—if you are thinking of leaving the profession, what difference does it make? If the climate is that bad, you have nothing to lose by engaging your teachers and colleagues. You have nothing to lose by speaking your mind. Nothing to lose, that is, but the sense of your superiority to them—the sense of superiority which is the worst temptation of Christian academics like myself.
Not only that, but there are always other options beyond leaving the profession: switching advisors, switching programs, switching fields. Part of the human perspective on these questions involves taking in the massive differences between individual teachers, programs, and fields. For instance, I suspect English is the worst field for this sort of thing. History, philosophy, classics, the sciences are generally better. You very often have the option to switch. But you won’t think about those options if you are enchanted by the Narrative of Christian Oppression. You will flee at the first difficulty, just as this student seems ready to do, because you will think from reading Rod Dreher that the whole university system has gone to hell and there’s no hope for any of it.
I teach now at the secular liberal arts college where I was an undergraduate. It has never been a place where religion was marginalized—never. But over the past few years we get fewer and fewer Christian students. The student body is increasingly secular. I wonder if that is because the Christian students and their parents read this blog (and others like it) and think that their only hope is in a Christian college. This is a terrible shame for two reasons. For one, it is a terrible loss to colleges like this one. I would never have become a Christian if I had not forged friendships with Christian students at the secular institutions I attended. Further, how will our tradition of open conversation and real community across differences hold up if there are fewer and fewer religious students and teachers?
But there is a second reason that the abandonment of secular institutions by Christians is a shame, and I will be blunt. Contemporary Christians—taken as a group—do not have the intellectual heft of their secular counterparts. The best scholarship, the highest quality thinking, still goes on at secular institutions. To go to a Christian institution involves—by and large–an intellectual compromise. (Notre Dame is one exception, but you could argue that that is because it is such a secularized place). The Narrative of Christian Oppression is partly to blame. Rather than thinking about history, or philosophy, or literature, or any of the disciplines, Christian academics have a tendency to get preoccupied with their correctness, with their superiority to their secular counterparts. Insofar as this infects the Christian curricula and the culture at these institutions, their precious focus on their disciplines themselves and the excellence it makes possible are lost. Someday secular academia really may go to hell in a handbasket, and your Benedict Option will be necessary. But I sure hope that in the meantime Christian academics will carry away as many Egyptian treasures as they can. What they’d take now sure wouldn’t count for much.
I’ve had my own struggles. I too am continually tempted by the prospect of my own superiority. I’ve always tried to engage with the secular world. I have felt sometimes as if the attempt to engage was too draining to be worth it. It certainly isn’t for everyone. Members of oppressed minorities, whether they are historically oppressed races, women in male-dominated fields, or Christians in secular schools, they have to take on more strain. It is harder for us. That strain can make you bitter, or it can be taken up with that cross we are all supposed to take up. It can, indeed, be a heroic, beautiful, joyful struggle, just as anything worthwhile is, no matter how small or invisible or seemingly ineffectual.
If you print this, please don’t print my name, not because I’m afraid of repercussions, but because I don’t want the image of a culture warrior with my students. At my school we don’t talk about our religious or political identities in class. That’s because we create real “safe spaces” where students can actually say what they think without any fear of judgment. My views aren’t secret—I share them with students and colleagues privately—but I do not publicize or flaunt them out of respect for the openness of those conversations.
The professor identified herself to me privately, and her institution. I’m really grateful to her for having written. I don’t know about the climate in higher education aside from what friends within it and readers tell me. More information is better, I think. So, thanks.
UPDATE: Here is an e-mail from the professor who wrote the above essay:
I am concerned that I seemed to be judging the grad student harshly. That was not my intention. I am deeply sympathetic with the grad student and with all Christians trying to live their faith in a secular environment. The approach to conflict that I suggested of conversation, engagement, and civil confrontation is very rarely seen in academia. If the grad student didn’t try it, or didn’t try it hard enough—and that is just my guess based on what he or she said—that isn’t surprising or particularly blameworthy. I know about the power of the Narrative of Christian Oppression, because I’ve fallen prey to it many times, and it has discouraged me deeply and has fed my impulses to leave the profession. But I know, for myself, that to give into that impulse would be a mistake, and I think it is a tragedy if others give into it prematurely or hastily or without looking at their circumstances with a cold eye to the possible.
I didn’t call anyone a snowflake and I didn’t tell anyone to suck it up. Many of these events are real injustices and real outrages. Injustice of this kind can shake you down to your elements. My intention was to encourage: it is worth it, it is worth it—and to give some practical suggestions as to how to move forward. But it was not to deny reality. I wouldn’t read Rod’s blog if I didn’t think he was tracking something real. Academia is in a steep decline. Many corners of it are toxic. Sometimes the approach I suggested will result in rejection and failure. It is very difficult to find a place where you can do your work and thrive. It took me a long time to find mine, and I know well enough there are few like it and that they face a growing legion of challenges. Probably I have been too hard on Rod too. The fact is that journalism might help you track the bigger picture of the state of our institutions. Still, the stories that are most newsworthy aren’t the most representative. That’s why reading journalism can be so destructive for living your daily life. It really can blind you to who is standing in front of you and what is possible with them. It feeds fear and despair. Fear and despair are poison. A touch of ‘damn the torpedoes’ is essential to survive and be happy in academia.
As for the relative quality of Christian vs secular institutions, I meant no offense. Obviously there is widespread stupidity and intellectual dishonesty at secular schools. That was, in fact, a premise of my letter. Still, I spoke too loosely. There are legions of wonderful Christian scholars, teachers, and institutions. In many cases a Christian institution may be preferable. My point was simply that the Narrative of Christian Oppression can discourage attending secular schools in cases when they are, in fact, the better option; that, in many cases, a secular school is a better place in terms of intellectual excellence; and that secular schools can nurture faith for believers and non-believers. My concern is partly too that if we were to all secede, Benedict Option style, we would have a pale and paltry sort of academy, taken as a whole, that the loss of intellectual excellence at this point would be a steep price to pay for independence. I could be wrong about that, but it’s surely worth asking the question of what the Benedict Academy would really look like.
Retreat is not the only response to decline. A firefighter can keep pulling children out of burning buildings even as his resources decline, his equipment decays, and bureaucracy strangles common sense. It’s still worthwhile, down to the last child, if he can stay focused on what matters.
The grad student who wrote the original complaint responds to the professor’s first letter (above):
I understand many of your commenters’ misgivings about the story, including the professor for whom my letter was the “last straw.” I could have elaborated several other incidents in which I was directly involved or witnessed at first-hand, but the one I related seems best to exemplify how bad the situation can be even at “safe” schools. I do recognize that it is a solitary incident, not a pattern of abuse, and one that I didn’t experience directly. These elements of my story are impeachable, obviously. I’m glad that many of your readers expressed their understandable dubeity regarding the story. I certainly don’t begrudge them that.
I would note, though, that incidents of this magnitude don’t happen everyday, of course, but varieties of them do happen everywhere and to a lesser and more insidious extent. What concerns me most isn’t the Christian vs. non-Christian dynamic here; rather, it’s the issue of narratives that have power (and the institutional wherewithal to enforce that power) vs. the narratives that don’t. Perhaps it was irresponsible of me to send along that particular story, and I apologize if it was. Perhaps I unwittingly fanned the flames of the “Narrative of Christian Oppression.” In any event, your readers have made of it what they will. It was merely my small contribution to the discussion.
I would also note, since some readers seemed to mistake me, that I’m not overly bothered by the ham-fisted, “edgy” misreading of the Annunciation narrative. I mean, goodness, we’re in the season in which the astonishingly radical Christian belief in the Incarnation is repackaged and commodified into something that is neither threatening nor even remarkable to polite consumerist sensibilities. This pervasive commercialization of Our Lord’s Nativity disturbs me way more than some prof spouting eisegetical garbage to a room full of undergrads, most of whom were probably paying closer attention to Facebook than to said lecture. The problem has more to do with expectation of TAs’ corporate submission to that secularist reading, which seems much more sinister and problematic.
And please don’t get me wrong: as I noted, [my university] isn’t the worst place in academia. Far, far from it. … Relatively speaking, it is less hostile to Christians and conservatives than elsewhere. I was blessed with a few professors and a handful of classes that were dedicated to true humanistic inquiry rather than proliferating theoretical mumbo-jumbo. “Relatively speaking” is the operative phrase, though; the department is huge, so one is bound to have a handful of professors who don’t fit the mold. And the sympathetic ones are all, not coincidentally, older professors, in part because they have the professional luxury not to put their tenure or promotion on the line.
But younger professors don’t have the same prerogative to step out of line. That’s the case in any hierarchical organization, of course, but the standards–one would think–ought to be higher in a profession that prides itself on fostering the virtue of boundless inquiry. When one looks at what is published in the field, one realizes that the gatekeepers to publication (and thus to professional success) have very little interest in publishing anything that strays beyond a certain, narrowly-construed set of ideological commitments. Prof. Lisa Ruddick’s article in The Point reinforces this point. Some of this is a matter of generational perspective. Having senior professors tell grad students and junior faculty that it’s not really as bad as we’re making it out to be strikes me as a bit patronizing, but maybe that’s just me? I’ll admit that we grad students (and I, the chief of sinners) need to do less extrapolating from, and hand-wringing over, our own limited experiences in the academy.
Maybe I’ve also fallen prey to Special Snowflake Syndrome and am thus willing to internalize and personalize events that are ultimately impersonal. I entertain that possibility. Many of the comments and letters in response to my story were useful in helping me to recognize that I may need to moderate my perspective somewhat. I do worry that some of my thinking in this regard merely serves to reinforce the ghetto-ization of Christian academics. (But then one wonders if the ghetto doesn’t already exist and its boundaries are simply beginning to become apparent to us?) In any case, there are enough other structural problems in academia apart from this issue that have also contributed to my decision to get out (for the moment, at least). At least half of my PhD cohort has left academia for reasons having nothing to do with any of these issues. So it goes. It’s a weird place to be.
My friend and TAC contributor Alan Jacobs, a Baylor University literature professor (who used to teach at Wheaton) addresses this controversy here. In this excerpt, he challenges the Fed-Up Christian Professor’s claim (in the original essay above) that secular universities on balance offer a better education than Christian ones (“To go to a Christian institution involves—by and large–an intellectual compromise.”). Here’s Alan:
I believe the kind of education students receive in the Honors College at Baylor, and at Wheaton, is in most respects far superior to what they would receive at secular schools of greater academic reputation and social prestige. Indeed, in my years at Wheaton I often heard comments to this effect from visitors. I think for instance of a professor at one of America’s top ten universities who said to me, after spending some time with one of my classes, “Your students are better informed and ask more incisive questions than mine do.”
I could adduce more examples, and explore more comparisons, but let me conclude with this: If this professor’s commendation of Wheaton’s students has at least somevalidity, how might we account for this state of affairs? I would point to three factors:
1) At Christian colleges, students and faculty alike tend to think of learning as a project in which the whole person is involved. Information is not typically separated from knowledge, nor knowledge from wisdom. The quest for education is less performative, more earnest than at many secular institutions. People are more likely to think and speak of education as something that leads to eudaimonia, flourishing.
2) A closely related point: Christian institutions tend to think quite consciously that their task involves Bildung, the formation of young people’s characters as well as their minds. So in hiring and retention they place a greater emphasis on teaching and mentoring than is common in secular institutions. (There are exceptions, of course, but even the most student-centered secular institutions cannot, because of their intrinsic pluralism, specify what good personal formation looks like.)
3) Perhaps the most important feature: Christian teachers and students alike can never forget that their views are not widely shared in the culture as a whole. We read a great many books written by people who don’t believe what we believe; we are always aware of being different. This is a tremendous boon to true learning, because it discourages people from deploying rote pieties as a substitute for genuine thought. No Christian student or professor can ever forget the possibility of alternative beliefs or unbeliefs. Most students who graduate from Christian colleges have a sharp, clear awareness of alternative ways of being in the world; yet students at secular universities can go from their first undergraduate year all the way to a PhD without ever having a serious encounter with religious thought and experience — with any view of the world other than that of their own social class.
And Robert Oscar Lopez, a tenured Christian academic who has been put through professional hell because of his stated views on homosexuality, says in the comments section:
I have to break ranks and offer a critical response to this anonymous letter. I think the unnamed author is unfair and condescending. She admits she doesn’t really know the particulars of the story she’s responding to but she presumes that the coping mechanisms that have served her in her apparently fortunate and comfortable situation will work for everyone. Given that she does not reveal her name, which all but discredits her in my view (if she can’t deal with possible resistance to her ideas from other Christians on a blog, why on earth do I think she knows how to deal with serious anti-Christian bias on a hostile campus?) I think her feedback with its somewhat overheated reaction to what she sees as Christian whining is frivolous. I have been in the academy for 20 years, I got tenure, I made nice-nice with everyone and tried going to lunch with colleagues, but in the end, when they came for the Christians, they came for me, and I had to sift through the wreckage. The person who wrote this anonymous letter sounds like the whispering chorus of frightened, cowardly conservatives who have crossed my path over two decades, always hiding in their bunkers and wanting so badly for leftists to really like them and think they’re not like those smelly ones, still “clinging,” as the author puts it, to a mythical meritocracy as if the leftists who have demonstrably destroyed the academy are reasonable people to be persuaded by someone with the right rhetorical gifts. People like Carol Swain, John McAdams and me are under fire–serious, vicious, unyielding attack–and we need bold Christians to defend our faith in the public square, not timid little squirrels offering stale chestnuts under pseudonyms. I am sorry to be so rude, but her letter is rather dismissive and inconsiderate in its own way so I don’t feel that bad.
(This has been such a great discussion!)