Monday, February 28, 2011

Academic Freedom and Teaching in a Christian Post-Secondary Context

Blog posts are always work in progress: In my previous post I was thinking exclusively of research, academic writing, and intellectual environment. I should add that there are all sorts of factors that affect what I say in class (and, to some extent, what I post on my blog). The most important of these are students and the school's mission. According to Briercrest's home page,
Briercrest College and Seminary is a community of rigorous learning that calls students to seek the kingdom of God, to be shaped profoundly by the Scriptures, and to be formed spiritually and intellectually for lives of service.
I aim to help my students cultivate a robust faith that combines the kind of critical thinking that a university is supposed to strive for, and a responsiveness to God that is at the heart of the Christian tradition. The point is not to tear down--much less to be "an incubator of evil"--but to build up. As Thomas H. Benton (aka William Pannapacker) put it not too long ago, to steer "students away from self-gratification, materialism, and worldly ambition toward a purity of purpose sustained by cultivation of the intellect, discipline, and cheerful self-denial."

It is common, I think, for first year university students to be more interested in answers than in learning to think through questions. A Christian context adds an additional twist in that some students suppose that critical thinking and spiritual formation are opposed to each other. Questions can be threatening. If I can't wed the two or demonstrate the practical relevance of what I am teaching, I risk losing my students.

So because I want to begin by reaching my students where they are at, and because there is a positive goal of contributing to students' formation, there are limits on a say-whatever-you-like version of academic freedom. But, again, it is a voluntary restriction and, arguably, richer for having a shared purpose. And, of course, there are similar restrictions on the academic freedom of "secular" university teachers. In a non-confessional university context, for example, I would not have the same freedom to talk openly about the practical significance, for Christians, of Christian Scripture, or to discuss how one can live Christianly with the difficult questions that academic study sometimes raises.

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