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I am a Third Order Franciscan of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Conservative Christian schools and the Common Ground Initiative

As a teacher, I find the apparently growing politicization in academia interesting. Most issues concern more conservative teachers or students running into problems within a more liberal academic environment. If this is not absolutely the case throughout higher education - though based upon issues presented on FIRE, one would be hesitant to doubt it, the perception of this does indeed motivate students to seek out small schools that will likely be friendlier to their political and religious views.

For example, Jason Mattera, spokesman for the Young American Foundation stated, "We kept getting calls from students and parents who said, and we agree, that their conservative values were viciously attacked on campus."

As a teacher there are a couple of points to consider on this regarding the nature of a university education. On the one hand, the point of a university education is to challenge the students - and this means including challenging the perceptions of the students, trying to get them to move beyond relying on a certain point of view simply because they have always held and instead try to found their view on a more reliable source of support.

However, this goal can easily be undermined if the teacher seeks to get the student to adopt their perspectives -regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Some feel that education only comes from presenting all points of view, however I think that you do a disservice by presenting students with obviously wrong points of view. For example, in a geography course I wouldn't feel obliged to give evidence in support of someone who believed the earth was flat. However, I can also see that it would be easy to put any idea with which I disagree into that category regardless of the evidence in support of it. For example, in my own field, I have a particular perspective about socialism and communism based upon my education which leads me to be skeptical that there is anything good in them. Still, while it might be easy for me to put the communist in the same league as the flat-earthest, it wouldn't be intellectually honest.

Thus, in dealing with the conservative student is it possible for the academic at a non-conservative institution to both challenge the student and to give them a certain degree of respect especially if the teacher disagrees with them? Perhaps if we keep this discussion simply in the mind, but not so clearly in reality.

Unfortunately, this means that neither the liberal nor the conservative treats the other with repect and they cease to speak the same language. Even among fellow academics.

Awhile back the some members of the Catholic Church began the Common Ground Initiative in an attempt to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. In my mind, the initiative failed for a couple of reasons. First, because either by choice or by chance it became a presentation of only one side of the problem - as can be seen by the names presented on its website.

Secondly, because it promotes dialogue for its own sake and not dialogue to honestly move toward a certain perspective - i.e to get closer to the truth. It's more along the lines of "1. Take irreconcilable issue. 2. Dialogue about it. 3. Convince no one. 4. Repeat."

Thirdly, because of my own experiences with the CGI make me doubt that anyone on either side really wants it. I can remember being at a seminar run by the CGI in DC where we had to role play a scenario in which we were pastor of a multi-ethnic parish and had to deal with a desire of many different ethnic groups to emphasize their particular tradition in the parish. One of the members of the group referred to the Spanish members of this imaginary parish community leading another of Hispanic background to complain how offended he was to be classified as "Spanish", that the first member should remember that the Hispanic members of the imaginary parish came from many different traditions. Now the first member had spent over a decade of missionary work in Brazil and didn't have a prejudicial bone in his body - but the second one saw no need to initiate dialogue in seminar precisely designed to promote it and attended by people who all appealed for more dialogue.

Getting back to conservative students at conservative universities, I can see that ideally all students and teachers regardless of political background should be able to work together in a common persuit of truth. In reality, agendas get in the way and even if we can say with our mouths that we "just want to talk about it", our hearts and minds say something different.


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