Wednesday, January 20, 2010

There will always be orthodoxies... Wheaton, free inquiry, etc.

(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.


  1. Now I'm extremely curious about this statement: "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."

    Could you provide a little more context? It seems to me you're equating a general mood of the University of Chicago which has converged on a few "orthodoxies" and may react emotionally or even socially ostracize people who critique those orthodoxies, with a situation in Wheaton where people are actually dismissed from the academy for challenging orthodoxies.

    Now, I'm not going to dispute the fact that at a private institution there may be good reason for such dismissals. But I read several of them and I couldn't comprehend what you could possibly mean by "I feel no less constrained by the academic culture in Hyde Park than I do here in Wheaton" after reading them. For the sake of argument let's say the dismissals were perfectly justified. In what way could the University of Chicago possibly make you feel "no less constrained"? What has the University of Chicago done that can be lifted up as an even close to comparable constraint or enforcement of orthodoxy on the academy?

    I think you're trying to slip one by us, Evan. You're implicitly suggesting that a justified constraint is the same as no constraint, or that a social awkwardness in Chicago resulting from a violation of orthodoxy is equal to administrative fiat in Wheaton.

    I don't buy it at all. I'd fully support you in making the case that Liftin was good for Wheaton or that academic inquiry flourished under him. I don't buy at all that you're "no less constrained" by orthodoxy at Chicago than at Wheaton. Could you provide a little more context for why you said that?

  2. By the way - make sure Tricia knows I wrote that :) I think you need to listen to her more often.

  3. I was going to comment more on that comparison, but decided to leave it vague. I figured it might attract a response. Probably from you, too. :)

    Do note that I say that "I" don't feel any less constrained at the Divinity School than at Wheaton. I'm not presuming to speak for anyone else. And the fact is, for the vast majority of people at Wheaton, the constraints of orthodoxy amount simply to unwritten assumptions about what can be said and can't be said without receiving odd looks or comments behind one's back. While situations of dismissal are serious and worth looking into, even the most colorful aspects of institutional rules function much more as definers of institutional culture than as bases for administrative fiat. Talk to most professors or students here at Wheaton, and they'll bring up various reasons why they feel constrained. A few of them will have accounts of actual exclusion or restriction. But for the most part, the effect of institutional orthodoxies at Wheaton is no different than that of any other institution. I'm not claiming that Wheaton and UChicago function comparably on an institutional level, but simply that my experience of personal constraint at both institutions is comparable.

    Of course this is easy for me to say. I haven't been the object of any sort of administrative discipline. But that's the whole point, isn't it? We can't simply assume that certain instances offer an exhaustive understanding of the institutional life of a place like Wheaton, even as we also can't simply ignore the more egregious instances when they do arise.

  4. You don't think that not having instruction from those professors that were dismissed influences your personal experiences at Wheaton vs. Chicago? Your education could have been completely different. How are you not the "object of any sort of administrative discipline" if you are denied instruction by people who violate orthodoxy?

    Maybe you get weird looks at Chicago for saying something out of the norm, but I don't think you get denied professorial interaction with the best and brightest in the field the way that Liftin denied you that interaction.

  5. That's like saying authors are the only people who are harmed by state censors. It's ludicrous and I think you know that.

  6. "You don't think that not having instruction from those professors that were dismissed influences your personal experiences at Wheaton vs. Chicago?"

    Sure it does. But speaking to the experience of constraint from counterfactuals strikes me as treacherous business. And when we get to the point of talking about people who could have instructed me, I think that the institutional values and hiring preferences of Chicago come into play as well. That is, there are plenty of professors who couldn't secure a job at Chicago not because of any scholarly inadequacy, but because their values didn't line up with the priorities of the Divinity School. And I'm not trying to cry "persecution" of some evangelical or other minority in saying that. That's just how institutional life is, wherever you go. In the discussion about Bolyanatz, Chignell notes that Stan Jones referenced a lack of "fit" with Wheaton. My point is that "fit" may be more or less rigidly defined at different institutions, but it's a constantly referenced criterion, even for the most open and non-affiliated of places.

    To that you might respond that Wheaton's practices are more rigid and explicitly dismissive. And sure, I'm willing to acknowledge that. But again, what does that have to do with my personal experience of restraint? At the end of the day, certain professors don't make the cut at the Divinity School and at Wheaton. My loss of their potential instruction seems to be distinct from their struggles with the administration over various institutional orthodoxies.

    And that's not to say that the struggles of faculty aren't significant. I agree that they are, and I agree with Chignell's article that a lot needs to change at Wheaton. I'm just trying to emphasis, however, that the view from outside is often misleading. If someone equates Wheaton with a handful of administrative decisions, then they're not getting a full picture of what life is like within the communal restraints that the college offers. And I think that even most of the dismissed professors would say something to that effect as well. And this can be said while continuing to affirm a strongly critical stance with regard to Litfin or the trustees. Further, I think this must be said, if we're going to work for constructive, edifying reform and avoid devolving into destructive ideological skirmishes.

  7. "you might respond that Wheaton's practices are more rigid... And sure, I'm willing to acknowledge that"

    That's my only point. Whatever the ideologies and orthodoxies that dominate Chicago, the idea that it is "no less constrained" than Wheaton strikes me as silly. And maybe those constraints are necessary. But if you're going to go into the 21st century with those constraints, I think we need to be up front about them.

  8. Of course... but who's not being up front? Didn't you come across this article because I publicly recommended it and endorsed its message? I think this current back-and-forth turns on a difference of emphasis more than anything else.

  9. Evan,

    I sympathize with your sympathy towards administrators, etc. in this area.

    I also think you are right about orthodoxies being omnipresent. I would make the stronger statement that they can be more strong where they are unacknowled. One of the things I find deliciously ironic about my life at Yale is that I can say with a straight face that I am less free at YDS to talk about the things that matter to me, less free even to ask questions, than I was a my evil conservative evangelical undergraduate institution. In fact, there I questioned everything from biblical authority to evangelicals on homosexuality. The former does not matter here, the latter is a good way to have your head handed to you on a platter.

    This reality caused me to take the former faculty member's comment (in Chignell's article) about people not wanting to give their names even though they are tenured with a grain of salt. No one, NO ONE, at YDS or any comparable school would go on record speaking about certain issues. And if they did speak about them, you can bet they would not want their names in the public. So, Wheaton seems entirely typical here, and perhaps more reasonably so (I can't say).

  10. Actually, I have to agree with Woodiwiss on the problem of faculty that are not willing to speak up, or aren't willing to speak up with their names attached. I think that ideally faculty should play a much larger role w.r.t. the administrative decisions of a university, and that at a place like Wheaton this doesn't always end up being the case. But that's a separate issue, I think, from unwritten cultures of orthodoxy, which I think are present at most any institution to a greater or lesser extent.

  11. I'm having considerable trouble grasping this equation of informal, personally held orthodoxies with a structural imposition of orthodoxy. They seem to be very different things to me, but you all talk as if they're comparable.

    If you can't get any traction in a discussion by citing biblical authority, you seem to be chalking that up to being "less free". How is that being "less free"? It seems to me that if you don't get anywhere with those arguments it's because your colleagues are free to not be moved by arguments from scripture - so that if you want to make an argument from that position, it's incumbent on you to justify the authority you cite.

    That's not you being "less free", Sam. That's precisely what academic inquiry is! Welcome to the party. You weren't "more free" at your "evil conservative evangelical undergraduate institution". What you were was surrounded by people who were already convinced of your prior assumptions. Don't accuse Yale of being "less free" because someone actually questions your assumptions. That's what the academy is all about - questioning logic and questioning assumptions.

  12. "I'm having considerable trouble grasping this equation of informal, personally held orthodoxies with a structural imposition of orthodoxy. They seem to be very different things to me, but you all talk as if they're comparable."

    I hope I clarified yesterday that I'm not trying to speak of these things as comparable, but rather of two instances of the former (personally held orthodoxies) as comparable. I know you think I was just being slippery with this distinction, but I don't see how it isn't a perfectly clear distinction to make, or how talking about more than one thing in a single post constitutes "slipping one by us". I have every confidence that clavi non defixi readers are able-minded enough to do the equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

    I would say that these sorts of "prior assumptions" shouldn't be viewed as always "personally held", however, as I think that they can amount to more of an institutional culture... certainly not a structural imposition on the level of rules and statements of faith, but certainly more than simply two individuals disagreeing with one another about prior assumptions.

  13. Daniel,

    You misunderstand me and insult me in thinking that I'm talking about citing Scripture and not finding it effective.

    Most people, by and large, including the administration, at my conservative school did not share my prior assumptions about Scripture, they generally do not like having their doctrinal and social shibboleths questioned, and I had the good fortune of having professors who let me freely question most of the core beliefs of my institution. Thus I meant exactly what I said about being more free; I was able freely to question core beliefs of my professors and institution. That would be academic suicide in my current context.

    So, I suggest you read a bit more carefully and charitably before you impute naivety and stupidity to myself, particularly that stupidity of not knowing what academic inquiry involves. The parties relevant to the information necessary for such a judgment would not share that assessment.

    I was talking about very real, if unstated, orthodoxies against which "heresies" are defined, and on account of which heresies various exclusionary tactics, ranging from the social to the institutional, can be brought against one. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with these things, but they are quite real in highly politicized academic institutions and disciplines, like the humanities/religious studies. Indeed, any denial of them can be grounded only in profound ignorance or bad faith. Read the autobiography of Roger Scruton, for example, to find one of many examples of someone who had his academic career destroyed for being on the unfashionable side of certainly highly politicized questions. People who go along with the mainstream do not have these problems and so may be unaware of them; but anyone who questions certain assumptions in the mainstream academy is doing something both risky and probably foolish. Nowhere did I conflate this kind of orthodoxy with an articulated one, a distinction I made explicit in my post by referring to unacknowledged orthodoxies.

  14. Evan -
    Yes, I suppose we did come around to that semi-consensus. My use of "you all" in that sense was probably inappropriate.

    Sam -
    I may misunderstand you, but I certainly don't insult you. I'd appreciate it if you assume ignorance on my part before you assume guile. And based on your second paragraph, it seems I did misunderstand your phrasing. The misunderstanding doesn't, however, alter my fundamental point.

    My point is that you shouldn't mistake criticism or outright rejection at Yale as being a constraint on your free inquiry. Perhaps you agree with that point in theory, but whether we're in agreement on it or not that's my point.

    I'd also like to take this opportunity to point out that I'm not denying the fact that de facto constraints may exist where de jure constraints do not. If a professor is denied tenure because his colleagues dismiss his heterodoxy without cause, obviously that's no different from an explicit rule that you can't teach at Wheaton College if you're Catholic. I know that sort of thing exists, and I don't recall ever denying it's existence.

    Ultimately I have no way of knowing anything about your undergraduate or graduate experiences - and by the same token you have no way of knowing the minds of the people at Yale that you criticize. You claim it would be "academic suicide" in your current context, and I have two major problems with that claim: first, you haven't made any effort to verify it except with anecdotes and hypotheticals, and second, even if it would be your demise academically you have no proof that the demise isn't deserved. Why, exactly, would it be "academic suicide"? Is it because of the closed mindedness of your colleagues, or is it because of your own inadequacies? What reason do I have for trusting that an entire community of scholars failed to acknowledge a well reasoned argument, but that a single student named Sam (with a flare for the dramatic) knows a well reasoned argument when he sees one?

  15. continued -

    If I insult you simply by pointing out that critical reception should not be confused with imposed orthodoxy, then surely you insult your colleagues at Yale with your pretense of knowing the reasons for their critical reception. By expecting me to concede the point to you, you're expecting me to assume that the scholars of Yale Divinity School, who have collectively logged centuries of academic labor, who have been repeatedly critiqued and reviewed by their peers, that these scholars can't be swayed by a convincing argument. You expect me to believe that this is the case AND that you are privy to the knowledge that this is the case and that (in this situation at least) you have seen through their prejudices and have none of your own.

    Now ask yourself - why in the world should I believe something like that? I won't, and I'd give the same benefit of the doubt to the scholars at your undergraduate institution and at Wheaton College. I imagine they all have their prior assumptions, their orthodoxies, and their character flaws, and I'd also imagine that they are all open to criticism from people who disagree with them. I see no justification for assuming that one community is more open to reason than another. And seeing no justification for that I only see one major distinction: the explicit, institutional restrictions on academic freedom in the case of Wheaton College, and their absence at Yale and Chicago.

    By raising additional, unverified differences between these institutions, you're the one going out on a limb here - not me. And you're the one with the hubris to insult, accuse, and denounce the motivations of others without any proof or justification - not me. Moreover, you're engaging in these insults, accusations, and denunciations in a situation where you feel personally slighted - where you are not an objective adjudicator. And that, Sam, is a recipe for trumped up charges, anemic introspection, and bad conclusions.

  16. That is, there are plenty of professors who couldn't secure a job at Chicago not because of any scholarly inadequacy, but because their values didn't line up with the priorities of the Divinity School.

    Precisely. Such as James Wetzel.

  17. One of the things I find deliciously ironic about my life at Yale is that I can say with a straight face that I am less free at YDS to talk about the things that matter to me, less free even to ask questions, than I was a my evil conservative evangelical undergraduate institution.

    Which is why you should all be considering Princeton Seminary, Notre Dame, and Marquette - - in no particular order - - for doctoral studies.

  18. (I think R.R. Reno has found my blog!) Welcome, Anonymous.

    I'm surprised by Wetzel's name, but perhaps there's a story behind that of which I'm not aware. I can't imagine, however, that he was blackballed or anything. The faculty at the Divinity School is pretty diverse, and I think would be quite open to Wetzel's work. In any case, my point in all of this was that any such exclusions are not necessarily a problem where they do exist; this is simply how institutions function, and I'm trying to say that while I agree that a lot should change at Wheaton, we need to keep the problem in proper perspective.

    Also, while I can't speak for Sam's experience at Yale, I will say this with regard to my experience at Chicago (since it has led to much discussion in the comment section)... in saying "I feel no less constrained by the academic culture in Hyde Park than I do here in Wheaton", I was not at all trying to say that I feel especially constrained by the academic culture at Hyde Park. Those who read it as such are probably operating under the assumption that I felt especially constrained at Wheaton, and that I'm trying to say that Chicago is a similarly constraining environment for inquiry. It's certainly not, and nor was Wheaton in my personal experience.

    As to the recommendation of a mass exodus to Princeton, Notre Dame, or Marquette, I think that such ideas have been adequately discounted in previous posts on this blog and elsewhere. Not that I have a problem with these schools- I think they would all be wonderful places to go. But the idea that they are the only adequate places to go, or that Yale or Chicago or Harvard or anywhere else doesn't offer good, rigorous theological work, needs to be dismissed. It's simply not true.

  19. Mass exodus? No such thing is being commended. Nor is the idea that the ivies aren't rigorous. But the question isn't rigor, really, is it? Rigor is up to you. The question is freedom. And that is the question you posed, not me. And Sam, a student at Yale - - not me! - - is the one who has suggested that there is "freedom" and not freedom in New Haven.

    I'm not Rusty.