My first lesson in academic freedom came not long after completing my Ph.D., at which time I was invited to teach a course in Medieval Drama at a Research-I university. In addition to allegorical morality plays, wherein Everyman must negotiate attacks from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, medieval playwrights dramatized Bible stories and legends about saints. Hence, in addition to the thousand-plus page tome my predecessor had required for the class, I added as a course text the Bible, introducing students to the hermeneutic tradition in order to establish that literary works must be understood within their historical and cultural contexts. Because it was a secular institution, I was very careful never to share my own faith in class, or even sermonize on doctrinal profundities in the plays. Instead, after providing sociological and theological backgrounds, I merely guided discussion about medieval words inspired by the Biblical Word.

It was tremendous fun. Students were shocked by the humor of medieval clergymen who wrote the plays, authors whom they assumed would be dour docents of dry doctrine. The fourteenth century Wakefield Cycle is a special delight. The Second Shepherd’s Play highlights a comically self-serving couple who hide a stolen sheep in a baby’s crib, only to be exposed by shepherds on their way to visiting the crib containing the baby Jesus. The tale of Noe is filled with slapstick fighting as Noah’s wife refuses to go aboard the ark Noah threatens to “smite” her while yelling “hold thy tong, ram-skit.” Students enjoyed learning how the medieval “ram-skit” follows the same pattern of linguistic sh/sk transpositions, as when the driver of a ship is called a skipper rather than shipper, or the shape of the land is called a landscape, not land-shape.

Even The Crucifixion of Christ, from the York Cycle, contains heart-breaking humor. As incompetent Roman soldiers struggle to nail Jesus to the cross, dislocating Christ’s limbs to fit the nail holes, their complaints about the job radically contrast with Christ’s silent suffering. Hence, when Jesus finally pronounces (in my transliteration) “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” the words had comic double meaning for the medieval audiences. And since my students had studied the biblical account, we were able to discuss that double meaning, if even as a literary trope.

At the end of the semester, I set aside the last day of class to review for the final. To start the discussion, I asked students to share the favorite thing they learned in class. I was floored when one said, “Before I took this course I thought Christianity was ram-skit [titters from students]; but now I recognize it’s far more profound than I ever realized,” multiple others endorsing his perception. Later in the day, a student visited during office hours to tell me that, as the daughter of a pastor, she had become a pariah when she had a baby out of wedlock at age 15. And then she said, “But after studying Medieval Drama, I know that Jesus still loves me.”

Similar comments about the profundity of Christianity were written on my course evaluations, which were the highest of my career. . . . Yet, I was never allowed to teach the class again, my load switched to the far less enticing “Seventeenth Century Drama Excluding Shakespeare.”

Soon thereafter I accepted my first tenure track position at a Christian Liberal Arts college. Later, when friends at secular institutions commented about limitations to “academic freedom” at a “religious” institution, I told them my Medieval Drama story, arguing that, as a Christian, I had as much academic freedom at my CCCU institution, perhaps more, than I did at a famous research university. One friend admitted I had a point and told me of an interaction with a Christian student at the secular college where he taught. This was a place where one professor bragged about proclaiming to students, “Christianity is ‘bull-dung’ and that’s not opinion; it’s fact.” When my friend asked the student why she didn’t attend the equally priced CCCU college near by, she answered, “I heard that professors at that Christian college make students grapple with the history of the Bible and theology, but I don’t want my faith to be challenged. I can ignore the prejudices of non-Christians.” I wish I could have assured her with words from The Flight into Egypt, a Medieval York play based on Mt 2:12-23. Joseph, holding the baby Jesus in his arms, comforts Mary as they prepare to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents:

I love my maker most of might
That such grace has grant me tille’s.
Now shall no hatyll [nobleman] do us harm:
I have oure helpe here in min[e] arme!

Crystal L. Downing

Wheaton College
Crystal Downing is Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College (IL)

2 Comments

  • Deron Walker says:

    From my experience of teaching at American universities both Christian and secular and Korean universities, I have to say I find American “academic freedom” over-rated. Succinctly stated, I don’t think what you described is as much Christian or secular universities in America having more or less academic freedom than it is that the universities of many other advanced nations actually enjoy more academic freedom than we do. Why is this so? There are many reasons: American anti-intellectualism, empowered American special interests groups, American ideas of separation of church and state, etc. Nevertheless, at universities both Christian and secular in America, I have encountered far more restriction on academic freedom. This is true not only at universities but with some of the leading academic journals as well. Many academic forums in America have staked out politically correct positions that please their stakeholders, and if your ideas violate those sacred cows, there will not be an honest and open critical examination of your work or serious consideration of the ideas, methods, and sources presented, you will simply be marginalized, shut down, rejected, or shown the door.

    For instance, I am reminded of a blog of commenters responding to the Higher Education Academe a few years ago who wanted to fire a lab assistant who did not believe in evolution even though his lack of belief in evolution had no impact on his work. I am also reminded of the extremely heated criticism of alternate theories like Intelligent Design not being criticized on their merits but simply because evolutionary theory was a sacred cow to some which could not be questioned. Many secularists have elevated the “theory” to “fact” and scientific “law” level holding it beyond question. Likewise, at American Christian universities, it could be dangerous these days to be too outspoken in criticizing Donald Trump or the Republican Party for becoming too greedy, too extreme in their practice of capitalism, too self-interested in representing corporate interests and too guilty of abandoning the core values of Christianity. Many Evangelicals are following the Trump movement and Republican Party in cultish fashion. These are just a couple of examples but the censorship of ideas can be found in many fields.

    I have had American academic journals outright reject manuscripts I have written without really reading the writing, method, ideas, but just saying “we have already decided this issue and our opinion is different from yours.” Then I turned around and published the same manuscript in international journals who actually believe in the discussion of ideas openly and applying critical thinking to vet them. The topic of the articles I am talking about is intercultural rhetoric. On a variety of topics, I find American higher education is more closed-minded and politically correct than other advanced nations and more narrow-minded and provincial than it would like to believe about itself.

  • P. Taylor says:

    If your beliefs are completely and exactly in line with your particular religious college, yes, you may have more freedom there. But I can’t help but think of this author’s former colleague, who was let go from Wheaton because she chose to wear a hijab in solidarity Muslims. Or the professor at Calvin who was let go for wanting to attend a church with other Black Christians. Or the theater professor at my own alma mater who was let go for performing gender-reversed Shakespeare. Or the dean at a Baptist university that accused me of being a heretic—during a job interview—for suggesting that racial justice was part of the necessary work of Christians who are called to love their neighbor. (“So you think salvation is by works, not faith,” he said. “We’re looking for someone who won’t convince our students they have to be heretics to be good Christians.”)

    I have taught deeply religious material my entire career (including both medieval drama and seventeenth century literature), mostly at large secular institutions. My research is on explicitly religious topics, and it takes faith seriously. But I’ve never had any of the pushback this author experiences, or anything equivalent to what I’ve seen at religious schools. I’m sure it happens occasionally, but I cannot accept the argument that most Christian schools are better.