(The picture to the right is from a restroom wall here at the library. It seems we might be in the midst of an advertising blitz here at Wheaton!)
The "Whither Wheaton?" article has received a lot of attention; I actually got to it a week late, and now Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has gotten a hold of it and filed it under a headline of "Academic and Publishing Freedom". This is what I wanted to discuss.
Insiders & Outsiders
For those who are a part of the Wheaton community, reading these sorts of critiques can be a delicate matter. There is much to be said about current affairs here, but as Chignell points out, it makes all the difference in the world whether one comments as an insider or as an outsider. I read Chignell's piece with some comfort that he had an interest in and commitment to the good of Wheaton. I read Jaschik with a little bit more suspicion, because he is an outsider. Jaschik's piece ended up being just fine and didn't offer anything all that controversial, but the default suspicion was there nonetheless, and I think it's perfectly appropriate to harbor such suspicions.
Apart from institutional concerns, people have to keep in mind that there are even deeper bonds in play here than those between administrators, faculty, students, and alumni. As a reader of Chignell's critique, one thing that lingered in my thoughts was the fact that Stan Jones (the provost of Wheaton College who features prominently in the article) and probably half of the Christianity Today staff (whose CEO killed the article's original release in Books & Culture) are fellow parishioners at the church we attend. We went through the membership class with Stan Jones. One of our priests holds an executive position at Christianity Today, and many other staffpeople are involved in our church community (to clarify- as far as I know, the CEO of Christianity Today does not attend our church, and no one who does attend played a role in cutting Chignell's article).
These are people of whom I think well. They are kind, humble, and practice a generous faith. Yet for those who only know them from the pages of critical articles, a much different picture is formed. I may disagree just as firmly with any given decision that the administration makes, but there are faces and hearts behind that decision that are not immediately apparent to Scott Jaschik or any other outside commentator, however fair and balanced.
There will always be orthodoxies
At our orientation for the University of Chicago Divinity School in April 2008, the dean gave a speech that he probably offers in some form or another for each new cohort of students. The basic message centered around his assertion that "here at the Divinity School there is only one orthodoxy: there are no orthodoxies." Of course it's a little cliché, but his point is a fair one to make. The Divinity School seeks to defend a strong commitment to inquiry free of doctrinal constraint. On the whole I think they do a decent job of achieving such an environment.
But let's be serious. There will always be orthodoxies, and no one should be surprised about this fact. Just as there are delicate matters of orthodoxy here at Wheaton, they are present at the Swift Hall as well, and anywhere else. I feel no less constrained by the academic culture in Hyde Park than I do here in Wheaton- the constraints are simply different (much different!), and based on certain understandings of communal orthodoxies, whether written or unwritten.
This is why I have a problem with Jaschik's perspective on Wheaton, which seems to operate primarily through a prism of "academic freedom". While I'm happy to stand as a proponent of free inquiry, I think the idea has become overused and unhelpfully grandiose in its connotation. Troublesome as it was that Chignell's article was rejected by Christianity Today, that's just the politics of publishing, folks. If that constitutes a repression of ideas, then it is a very anemic sort of repression. One publication withdraws its support for an article, perhaps for political reasons, and the article ends up online a few weeks later to a rather impressive reception from readers and other publishing venues. That hardly warrants comparison to the index of some Inquisition (a comparison I've seen made repeatedly in various comment sections). For those who aren't aware, Stan Jones' latest book was also rejected from a number of non-religious publishing outfits for the explicitly stated reason of being too politically dangerous a venture. Eventually his work was put out by InterVarsity Press. This was a book involving some considerable amount of preparation, not an article that took a few months to research and write. So it's not as if the Wheaton administration is unfamiliar with being at the receiving end of constraints of orthodoxy.
Competing orthodoxies are inevitable, and it's either disingenuous or naive to act as if a pure stance of free inquiry and discourse is alive and well in any corner of the academy, or even should be. Critical discourse implies constraints of all different sorts if it is to remain critical. Some of these constraints will be political, dogmatic, or ideological... that is, not based on reasonably neutral assumptions or universally accepted objective rules. These constraints will always be in the process of negotiation, but I think that all sides would benefit from recognizing that such negotiation sits amidst the fray of discourse, and never stands above everything as some transcendent ideal... of "free inquiry" or of anything else.
Where I sit amidst this particular fray of discourse
As I said in my previous post, I think that Chignell's article is wonderful and it fits my views pretty well. I've also said above that I think Jaschik's piece was reasonable and fair to the whole situation as far as outside perspectives go. So my above comments aren't meant to dismiss these critiques, but merely to offer some cautions and minor disagreements.
Those who have read clavi non defixi for a while might think that I'm a bit contradictory about these matters, and I may be. In the past I've written in support of (or at least in sympathy with) various institutional censures or dismissals of theologians or other thinkers. I've even put in a good word or two for the CDF. At the same time, I've posted articles about academic freedom often enough, and offered my share of criticism of the CDF and other more local bodies of institutional enforcers. In private conversations about Wheaton with my wife, I can tell you that I tend to be the one bending over backwards to defend Litfin and the rest of the administration (much to her frustration!). And I imagine, if my wife were the one being supportive of the administration, I would find myself bending over backwards to criticize it for some decision or another.
This may be contradictory, but more than anything else I think it reflects my view that, in the vast majority of cases, these disputes over institutional identity and orthodoxy are relative to critical discourse as much as they are foundational to it. I'm generally unconvinced by grand meta-ethical accounts or transcendental arguments concerning the basic principles of free inquiry and discourse. I'm happy for people to advance these sorts of projects as a matter of rhetorical strategy, because talk of universal academic ideals and virtues and whatnot certainly has a significant effect on the intellectual formation of scholars and scholarly communities. But at the end of the day, what we're talking about is not some universal cause, however praiseworthy or convincingly sloganized. We're talking about fellow parishioners, or friends, or intellectual partners and exchangers of ideas. We're talking about the mechanics of different communities that work well towards different (though by and large, probably pretty similar) goals of discourse and inquiry.
There is still much to critique about Wheaton (or any other institution). There is still much to be hashed out as the process of selecting a new president and reforming administrative practice continues. But we should continue with these challenges aware of the fact that there are very little unquestionably "right" or "wrong" stances with which to identify oneself as regards such broad things as "academic inquiry" or "freedom of [activity of present concern]". Problems of communal practice strike me as decidedly more complex, and less aloof, than that.