Since Elmer John Thiessen is one of the foremost philosophical thinkers in Christian education, we are grateful for his review. Furthermore, considering Thiessen’s contributions and his extensive teaching experience in pluralistic contexts we are similarly grateful for his claim that we “make a significant contribution to providing a more nuanced answer to the question as to whether and to what extent a Christian teacher’s own identity can shape his or her teaching in the classroom of a pluralistic university.” Of course, as any good reviewer Thiessen has some important concerns and critiques.
The first tension Thiessen finds in chapters 1–4 concerns a differentiation we made between what we call Christ added approaches (e.g., prayer and devotions before class) and an approach that transforms the rest of what is done in class. Thiessen is skeptical of the difference and thinks that prayer, if integrated properly, can transform what is done in the classroom. This was not supported by our evidence. We found only occasional evidence of professors connecting opening prayer and devotions to their classroom content in significant and sophisticated ways. Yet, they were in the minority.
Second, Thiessen notes some slippage between our descriptive and normative tasks in the first four chapters. We think he noted an important limitation that is best corrected by reading our more normative Restoring the Soul of the University (co-authored with Todd C. Ream) or perhaps is supplemented with books such as David I. Smith’s excellent recent work, On Christian Teaching.1
Thiessen raises some more serious praises and critiques regarding our last three chapters (5–7). He agrees with us that in a state-funded university setting, “The primary purpose of teachers in the classroom is to educate, not evangelize” and that their teaching practices should be guided by the virtue of justice. He then makes four critiques that are caused by his confusion of our view with that of Stanley Fish. First, he notes that our view is that a pluralistic university should only use academic requirements and identities and that it should not espouse particular religious or ideological identities. Then he writes, “G&A are forced to admit that in practice, there are other identities and ideologies shaping the modern university.” Actually, we did not feel “forced” in that confession at all. Furthermore, we agree that the notions such as truth, goodness, beauty, human flourishing, along with other terms such as the “common good” or “good life,” are contested terms in pluralistic universities that necessarily require a larger narrative.
Second, we agree with Thiessen that “the problem Christian teachers face at a pluralistic university is perhaps better described in terms of how to interact with competing and often hostile ideologies that underlie the university.” Thiessen claims we underplay this point. Perhaps we should have emphasized this more.2
Third, Thiessen also maintains we downplay the problem of indoctrination. Again, we are surprised to hear this point because our concern with indoctrination and the use of power by Christian teachers in a publicly funded education system is the basis for the two rules we proposed that Thiessen does not like. In fact, we proposed the rules because we think state-funded universities should not be funding professors who say that one of their course objectives is to make someone an atheist, agnostic, Mormon, Muslim, Christian, etc.
Finally, Thiessen appears to think we, like Fish, emphasize separating one’s Christian and professional identity. Thiessen states, “As a Christian I believe that to become a really good philosopher my students should become Christian philosophers.” We think every Christian should agree with this sentiment. Yet, that agreement does not mean that we think this Christian and academic aim should necessarily be a course objective in a state-funded university class.
Where then do we disagree? In general, we think some disagreements stem from two things. First, it derives from our different national locations. Thiessen’s primary concern is that we propose that pluralistic universities, their professors, and student life staff should try to limit their evangelistic efforts when it comes to religious/nonreligious identity and contested ethical issues. Here is where our American and Canadian differences emerge (Thiessen is Canadian and has taught largely in Canadian contexts), and we realize we should have been more explicit about the legal context in which American professors operate.
The general American principles of the educational game regarding religion have been largely set by Supreme Court interpretations of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Legally speaking, publicly funded educational institutions have not been given free reign to evangelize their students. Why do we accept these American legal restrictions? We think that forcing citizens to support a state-funded educational system in which teachers will attempt to convert one’s children or college-age students to alternative worldviews is an unjust system.
We would agree with Thiessen that the blind-spot for most secularists is that they think these legal restrictions apply only to religious worldviews. Thus, to counter secular indoctrination, we think the moral principle of justice requires extending the legal principle to secular worldviews.
Second, we also think that our differences with Thiessen stem from a misunderstanding of the “no identity conversion” rule. We think it applies to course objectives (versus overall life or professional objectives), curriculum, and pedagogy. For example, we suggest a number of pedagogical practices that we think advance students’ learning in a classroom such as:
- Sharing one’s religious reasons for believing common moral principles (146)
- Sharing one’s religious identity in the classroom (150, 151)
- Confessing how one’s primary identity influences one’s teaching (155)
Thiessen is fine with these pedagogical practices and then claims that a Christian professor who starts a class with a confession of faith is violating the “no non-academic identity conversion rule.” We disagree with Thiessen’s claim on this point for several reasons.
First, Thiessen does not acknowledge that we are discussing identity conversion versus general knowledge, affections, and behavior conversion and in fact seems to confuse the two. Every class deals with trying to change students in these latter areas. What we think Christians should refrain from is not this kind of knowledge, affections, or behavior conversion but with professors making it a classroom objective to try and convert students to one’s particular identity.
Second, the pedagogical practices we suggest are being employed precisely to promote the classroom objectives of learning and honesty and not primarily the religious or secular identity conversion of students.
Third and finally, we believe that in a just postmodern classroom, honest Christian teachers should not pretend to adhere to some sort of mythical modern objectivity. However, they should aspire to be just and fair toward all their students. This justice involves how they use power in the classroom and how they make students aware of their own major identity influences. In other words, we think the approach Thiessen describes as the one he takes is the best one.
We agree that the relationship between religious and academic identities at a pluralistic university requires attention to the problem of power imbalance and the possibility of indoctrination. Thiessen also agrees but thinks we have not adequately addressed that problem. However, we think our rules directly address this power imbalance. Of course, these two rules alone are not sufficient for learning this kind of teaching practice without additional virtues, practices, wisdom, and mentors, as Glanzer describes in his most recent book.3
Thiessen concludes, “Teaching is finally all about converting students to better understandings of truth, goodness, and beauty. And there is nothing wrong with a teacher seeking to convert students to his or her understanding of these.” We think this comment needs more nuance. Teachers always try to convert students to particular views of truth, goodness, and beauty but that is different than seeking a general conversion of a students’ meta-identity. In fact, a professor in a state university who tries to convert students to Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism may face legal or other problems. If the poor in America can only afford public institutions of higher education, we want them to be places where professors of all worldviews seek justice and fairness toward various meta-identities.
Cite this article
- Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream, Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017); David I. Smith, On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).
- I (Perry) have written about this concern. See for example Perry L. Glanzer, “Recognizing Christian Complexity and Secular Privilege in Higher Education: A Response to Recent Christian Privilege Arguments,” Religion & Education 49, no. 2 (2022): 119–137, https://doi.org/10.1080/15507394.2022.2051973; Perry L. Glanzer, “Taking the Tournament of Worldviews Seriously in Education: Why Teaching about Religion Is Not Enough,” Religion and Education 31 (2004): 1–19, https://doi.org/10.1080/15507394.2004.10012330.
- Perry L. Glanzer, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).