Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

A Tragic Failure in Higher Education

I recently had an encounter with a student who expressed irritation with “judgmental Christians” who tell people they are going to hell.  This attitude is  common on college campuses.  Therefore, our brief conversation nicely illustrates how we are largely failing to grow thoughtful, self-aware  young adults.  To use academic speak: we are not teaching students how to think critically, even though we talk about critical thinking all the time.  Dirty little secret: “thinking critically” often turns out to mean demonstrating agreement with the professor on tests and in papers.  Students figure this one out quickly.

I know that colleges and universities all have professors who don’t fit what I just said.  They are careful, compassionate, pedagogues.  But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Walk with me, for a moment, through the conversation.  After telling me how bothered the student was by those judgmental Christians, I replied (trying to prompt thought), “So, you have an opinion about other people having an opinion.  What makes your opinion superior?”

I don’t want to get sidetracked on the theology of this question.  I know that thoughtful people disagree about people’s eternal destinies.  And I am not one who thinks going around telling people they’re going to hell represents a good Christian witness.  Rather, I want to look at the logical problem this student has.

It became clear to me that the student could not recognize that her opinion was not self-evidently true.  Merely making the assertion seemed sufficient to settle the matter.  Again, I don’t have a problem with the view.  I have a problem with the student’s inability to articulate reasons for thinking it superior to the one she was criticizing.

Why?  Not because she is intellectually slow (in fact, she is quite intelligent), but because most of us have lost the ability to have a truly open dialogue.  She assumed some moral high ground without having to think about whether this assumption is defendable.  She has learned – surreptitiously – that telling people they’re going to hell is wrong and offensive.  She learned this, most likely, not through careful thinking, but through rhetorical power plays from people she admires and respects.   They are her teachers, whether they hold the title or not.  (And we should remember what the book of James says about teachers.  See 3:1.)

In higher education, we are supposed to be in the business of helping students learn to think well.  This is not all we’re supposed to do, but certainly it is one of our main jobs.  We are to help students become self-aware and reflective about how they develop their opinions, where they get their ideas and how they support them.  We are to give them the intellectual tools to evaluate well their own thinking.  Then they’ll be able to fairly evaluate others’.

But we do not teach them.  Maybe we don’t have time.  Maybe we don’t care.  Good dialogue requires real tolerance and respect, not the mere mouthing of these words.  For all our talk about tolerance (which I support wholeheartedly), I see precious little of it on college campuses.  It’s more like we’ve declared a truce.  We don’t, in fact, tolerate each other, we just co-exist in the same general space.  We may call this arrangement “tolerance,” but it is a sham tolerance.  We tacitly make a deal not to talk to each other about controversial things.  Instead, we divide into self-selected groups and talk only to those who already agree with us.

So, nobody has to think critically, not even the professors.

To the extent that what I have said is true, to that extent we are failing to educate young people.   God forgive us.

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November 14, 2011 - Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. I have always heard that it is impolite to talk politics and religion in good company. Yet, in many regards, it looks like that’s all Jesus ever talked about. Why can’t we? Because we have not learned how–exactly what you are saying.

    Thank you for being a thoughtful educator. Stay blessed…john

    Comment by John Fletcher | November 14, 2011 | Reply

  2. Steve: Insightful and direct, and I greatly appreciate your point of view. I have said for decades that the best thing about my college experience was that I learned how to think. God knows, I didn’t learn much else. 🙂

    One of the most frustrating things to me about this disease in dialogue is the way the concept of tolerance itself has been demonized. That is one of the strategies used by those who want to claim moral high ground, regardless of what it is they are trying to portray as “correct”: tolerance is a sign, they say, that you admit there might be something wrong with your argument.

    In contemporary Christianity, I see this same thing being applied to the concept of doubt. Any expression of doubt implies a lack of faithfulness, even though those closest to Jesus, having followed him for three years, witnessing his risen presence and his ascension, had their doubts. It may have been self-doubt, but it didn’t make them faithless.

    Comment by John Fleming | November 14, 2011 | Reply

  3. I think one of the most difficult parts of any conversation between people who view themselves as opponents is the need for courage – the courage to speak one’s thoughts honestly AND the courage to listen to the opponent with charity.

    Comment by steverankin | November 14, 2011 | Reply

  4. Steve, While I do count you a friend and a teacher, I will agree. Not because of our relationship, but because of my own weakness in critical thinking. I find that I must continually sharpen this skill. If I lack enough understanding of a subject to think critically, I try to put my opinion on hold. Though this is an unpopular place with both sides of any relevant issue that asks for our allegiance.

    Comment by Daniel Thueson | November 15, 2011 | Reply

  5. Steve!

    Great post!! I’m actually speaking on a similar topic at Samford’s chapel service on Thursday — before participating in a panel discussion later that evening on the topic of homosexuality on campus.

    I have come to believe that most people understand tolerance in the way you describe above: “It’s more like we’ve declared a truce. We don’t, in fact, tolerate each other, we just co-exist in the same general space… We tacitly make a deal not to talk to each other about controversial things.”

    I prefer to talk in terms of hospitality and charity with students I encounter. It involves having a belief, or set of belief that are thoughtful, thought-through and yet open to growth and change. It involves being willing to take a stand while at the same time creating the kind of space that allows others to believe what they believe… and both (or more) parties can share openly and honestly about what they believe.

    As Christians, we cannot succumb the version of tolerance you have described above. It may “keep the peace,” but at what cost? We’ll have compromised our own beliefs while not doing anything to share the truth about the Jesus and the hope that we have in the faith we profess — testifying to who we know Jesus to be — and not for the sake of converting some to follow Jesus (although God can use a good testimony for that too!).

    Thanks for sharing this Steve!

    Comment by Guy Chmieleski (@guychmieleski) | November 15, 2011 | Reply

  6. I agree with the author, but you must dig deeper to the sources of the problem. We now live in a society saturated with advertising, political messages and “news” media that invites not to think but to feel. We have now arrived at a place in our public discourse where if someone “feels” it is wrong, it must be wrong. We must separate our opinions from our feelings, at least to a examine the opinions more completely. Just because I don’t like an idea does not mean the idea is wrong. Just because I don’t like a person, does not mean the person’s ideas are wrong. The idea of hell is offensive to me on a great many levels, but when I speak about it, I have to be able to articulate why it is offensive from a logical and critical perspective. For example, the doctrine of hell says things about God I don’t think we want to say (Love me or I will torture you forever – would we tolerate this in any relationship?) and it became at least part of the rationale for the worst excess of the Christian Church. If my goal is to save you from eternal torment, perhaps a little temporal torment is permissible. Our emotional responses should ultimately arrive from our thinking, not the other way around.

    Comment by Allan Barger | November 15, 2011 | Reply

    • Thank you, Allan Barger, for raising the point about opinions based on feelings. I agree with you to a point. Many people express opinions driven by their feelings, rather than by sober judgment. However, even here the feelings are connected to thoughts that people have been taught – over time – to think. Perhaps this is an example of how TV ads, cable “news” programs and other media actually teach us to think. For example, they have taught viewers to feel suspicion and hostility toward whoever they regard as “on the wrong side” by constantly implying that So-and-So has ulterior motives. Then code words like “conservative,” “progressive” and “moderate” help do the sifting and judging.

      In other words, we learn even how to feel about many things. So, when people express strong feelings in their opinions, some sort of idea often grounds the feeling.

      I think, then, that you and I wind up with a similar wish: that people would practice more self-awareness and ask themselves what motivates the feelings driving their opinions. I just don’t want to divide thought from feeling quite so clearly as your comment suggests we need to do.

      Comment by steverankin | November 15, 2011 | Reply


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