The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching
The title of this book parallels George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,1 and the emphasis on Christian teaching is a welcome supplement to Marsden’s focus on Christian scholarship. Indeed, Marsden writes the foreword. This book is a significant complement to the more recent scholarly interest in Christian teaching.
Authors Perry Glanzer and Nathan Alleman (henceforth G&A), both professors at Baylor University, frame the challenge of Christian teaching in terms of a relationship between two identities—being a Christian, and being a teacher within the college and university context. After an initial chapter exploring the historical origins of widespread concerns about teachers’ religious identities, there are four chapters devoted to the results of an empirical study of 2,300 teachers at 49 Christian colleges and universities. These chapters are largely descriptive in nature, showing “what difference being a Christian might make for being a teacher” (14). “Teaching” is understood not only in terms of lecturing, but as including “all the background thinking and practical work related to conducting a class in a traditional educational setting” (40).
Chapter 2 explores the background role that teachers’ Christian identity and related convictions play in their teaching. Chapter 3 discusses how Christian identity shapes course objectives and curriculum content. Chapter 4 examines what Christian identity means for actual classroom pedagogy, ethics, and modeling. Chapter 5 analyzes the unique contributions that particular theological identities might make to Christian teaching.
These chapters provide a helpful analysis of various dimensions of navigating the connection between a teacher’s Christian identity and teaching at a Christian college or university, including many helpful charts, many direct quotations from teachers, and some longer vignettes from teachers that illustrate points under discussion. I did find some overlap in the topics discussed in these chapters. G&A make much of the distinction between professors who see Christian teaching merely in terms of adding some spiritual components to their teaching (e.g., prayer, biblical forays), and those who see their Christian beliefs as transforming what they do in the classroom (70–75, 78, 83–4, 125). I’m not so sure these approaches can be as sharply distinguished as G&A make out. Surely prayer is not only an add-on but transforms what is done in the classroom, and the Christian transformative approach cannot help but include the language of “addition.”
My primary concern with these chapters concerns the shift from descriptive to normative analysis. G&A are very clear that their study is meant not only to deal with the question, “How does being a Christian change one’s teaching?” but also “How should being a Christian change one’s teaching?” (5). But I found little by way of justification of their normative claims. Indeed, the authors sometimes seem to be equating empirical and normative claims. For example, while they admit that their “findings” don’t “represent the fullness of a normative approach to Christian teaching,” they nonetheless seem to assume that their empirical findings are at least in part normative (57). But just because Christian teachers integrate their identities in certain ways does not mean they are justified in doing so.
Much of past writing on Christian scholarship and the more recent work on Christian teaching has focused on Christian colleges and universities. Books and articles are for the most part written by authors and for readers at Christian colleges and universities. G&A are to be commended for including a treatment of the challenge that Christians face when teaching at secular or pluralistic universities (chapters 6 and 7). A final chapter reviews the strengths and limitations of three types of colleges and universities—church-related, interdenominational, and pluralistic. In this chapter G&A also argue for a pluralistic system of higher education, citing the American university system as “the most pluralistic in the world” (175).
This review essay will focus mainly on chapters 6 and 7, in part because I have spent most of my career teaching philosophy at Medicine Hat College, a state-funded secular college in Alberta, Canada. My interest in these chapters is also prompted by my recently having written a chapter on the topic of evangelism in the academy.2 Although G&A don’t frame the challenge of teaching in secular and pluralistic universities in terms of evangelism, this is really an underlying issue in their analysis.
In chapters 6 and 7 the challenge of identity-influenced teaching gets translated into asking whether and how a Christian teacher’s own personal convictions can be shared in a secular and pluralistic university classroom. G&A describe this as a “tougher question” than the one being dealt with in the previous chapters (125). Later they suggest that this context requires “the use of certain kinds of advanced virtues and practices in the classroom,” for example, “the courage not to teach from who they are” (154, 196). I find this rather puzzling. Why should the question of mixing one’s Christian identity with one’s teaching be considered to be more “difficult” when dealing with a pluralistic context (15)? And why does it require additional courage not to teach from one’s identity as a Christian? What assumptions are being made in these assessments? I have in fact taught at both Christian and pluralistic college and university contexts, and have found both contexts equally challenging. And my approach to teaching in each context was roughly similar, though I will admit that student responses to my teaching were different. At a pluralistic college I was thought to be too Christian, and at a Christian college I was thought to be too worldly!
Already in the introduction G&A draw on two writers to illustrate contrasting positions that can be taken on identity-influenced teaching. Stanley Fish has argued that it is inappropriate for a faculty member to “advocate personal, political, moral, or any other kind of views except academic views” in the classroom (7). By contrast, Parker Palmer has argued that good teachers join the self and the subject. They are transparent about what they believe. They trust their own selfhood and “make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning” (8–9).
These two contrasting positions appear again in chapters 6 and 7 (134–8). G&A argue that both views are too simple. Fish’s assumption of neutrality on the part of the teaching is problematic and assumes a sharp distinction between the personal and the academic. Palmer’s transparent approach to teaching fails to address the need for some boundaries between personal identity and what is taught in the classroom. What is needed is a more nuanced approach to teaching that balances the personal and professional identities of the Christian teacher.
G&A 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. However, I believe their analysis is not without some problems. The first concerns their definition of a pluralistic university. They argue that in theory, a pluralistic university “uses only academic requirements and identities to exclude students or faculty,” and it “does not espouse a particular religious or ideological identity, among other identities, and only educates with common human identities [or] ends in mind (e.g., enhancing our flourishing as human beings by discovering truth) or academic/vocational identities (e.g., fashioning good biologists, sociologists, or economists” (129).
G&A are forced to admit that in practice, there are other identities and ideologies shaping the modern university. For example, in a footnote they admit that gender studies departments have become “feminist seminaries” (230, n27; cf. 131, 196). Indeed, I would argue that the idea of a university not espousing a particular ideological identity is not even possible in theory. Religious and ideological neutrality is impossible, as John Rawls discovered when wrestling with the problem of defining justice, and hence his later focus on “comprehensive doctrines” which are inescapable in liberal societies and institutions. The very commitment to plurality is already ideological in nature.
There are also problems with defining our “common human identities [or] ends,” and assuming that today’s universities are committed to searching for truth, goodness, and beauty (129, 147). The very notion of truth is hotly contested in universities today. And there are strong disagreements regarding what human flourishing means today. Indeed, we seem to be moving toward growing polarizations precisely on these questions. So 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. Although G&A do sometimes acknowledge the existence of hostility towards Christianity at pluralistic universities (196), they tend to underplay this. I have experienced this hostility in various academic contexts associated with pluralistic universities, and I know I am not alone.3
Of course, there is still something to be said for describing the university in terms of plurality. Clearly, there is more plurality at our “secular” universities than at Christian universities, and this plurality reflects also the plurality of our societies. Somehow we have to learn how to be an academic community despite our differences. So we need to find some common ground. I wonder sometimes whether the pragmatic need to get along is in fact the only common ground we have.
My central concern with the position G&A take with regard to the boundary-markers that Christian professors need to adhere to at a pluralistic university has to do with a number of conversion rules that they adopt, drawing on Stanley Fish. They are variously labelled, the “no unwanted identity conversion rule” (138), the “no non-academic identity conversion rule” (142), and the “no contested ethical conversion rule” (144). According to these rules it is wrong for teachers to attempt to convert students to a particular ideology, religion, or vision of the good life (136). The pluralistic university is a place where identity conversions of this nature are seen as violating student dignity and undermining the implicit social contract between teachers and students (136–137).
There are a number of problems here. First, what is the basis for this “implicit social contract”? Who determines that identity conversion is “unwanted” at universities? I believe a pluralistic university could just as well be defined as a place where each professor tries to convert students to his or her position. Indeed, G&A quote Stanley Hauerwas who has argued that he wants students to think just like him (147). I happen to believe that this would make for a much more interesting university experience for students than the frequently assumed posture of neutrality.
Secondly, G&A wrongly assume that seeking identity conversions will necessarily be a violation of the dignity of students. Surely it is possible for this to be done in such a way that protects the dignity of students. If students are alerted to this possibility and if persuasion is done in such a way that they are free to reject the professor’s position, then there has been no violation of student dignity. Sadly, today, the very idea of persuasion receives a lot of bad press, and is often seen as coercive in and of itself. I have argued elsewhere that ethical persuasion is possible. Indeed, my trying to persuade you about something that I view as important is in fact a way to honor you.4
Thirdly, G&A assume that attempts to seek non-academic identity conversion will necessarily conflict with student expectations “to be initiated into what it means to be excellent in particular academic identities” (136). But what if there is an overlap between these two identities? As a Christian I believe that to become a really good philosopher my students should become Christian philosophers. After all, if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, then seeking religious identity conversion is the most academic aim that I could have. Here I concur with Jeff Astley who has boldly claimed that “Education and evangelism may be closer neighbours than many suspect.”5
Fourth, it seems to me that there is a contradiction in the position taken by G&A. In chapter 6 they suggest that it is acceptable for Christian teachers to advance their own particular justifications for common moral principles (146). A few pages later they argue that we shouldn’t downplay our particular identities in the classroom, because openness about our commitments will make it possible for students to be exposed to “a wide range of identity commitments including religious identity commitments” and to learn to live with deep differences (149). At the end of this chapter they argue that it is appropriate for a professor to “confess” his or her religious identity in the classroom (150, 151). They expand on this theme in chapter 7, where they argue that it is appropriate for teachers “to start their courses with a confession of how their primary identity influences their teaching” (155). I agree with this entirely. But to do so is to introduce nonacademic identity influence into the classroom. Indeed, for a Christian to start a class with a confession of faith is surely a kind of advocacy, which violates the “no non-academic identity conversion rule” held by Fish and G&A. It is a form of Christian witness and can even be called evangelism.
Finally, G&A tend to downplay another worry underlying the discussion of identity conversion: indoctrination. While G&A acknowledge the importance of this topic, they clearly prefer their own focus on identity-formed teaching (174). But teaching cannot be considered apart from its effects on students. After all, teaching is an exchange between teacher and student. So the problem of indoctrination cannot be sidestepped when dealing with teaching identities. In fact, G&A do touch on the topic from time to time in these chapters (139, 140, 145, 158). They also side with Fish who is worried about employees of a university using their power to “impose” their own views on “contested ethical” matters, which is “indoctrination if anything is” (144).
Here we have the real worry underlying the “no non-academic identity conversion rule.” It has to do with “imposition” (136), “pressure” (145), “oppressive opinion pushing” (156), and indoctrination. But all of these terms are rather vague, and “indoctrination” is notoriously difficult to define, as I have argued elsewhere.6 I would argue that a more nuanced description of how religious and academic identities should intersect in pluralistic universities, requires a careful treatment of the problem of indoctrination. And I don’t think the last word has been said on what indoctrination looks like in the university context. For example, how does one address the power imbalance between teacher and student at the college and university? Although G&A do refer to this power imbalance (130, 138–40, 145), they do not resolve how this can be navigated in an ethical way. One thing should be obvious, we should avoid the use of loaded terms like “imposition,” “pressure,” and “oppressive opinion pushing,” or, at the very least define them more carefully.
I conclude that G&A’s conversion rules are fundamentally flawed. 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. However, there are some professional and ethical constraints in doing so. The teacher in a pluralistic university is primarily an educator, not an evangelist (as understood in the Great Commission). Here I am introducing the notion of priorities. Indeed, at several points G&A talk about the need for teachers to sort out what they “prioritize” when they are teaching (138, 154). I quite agree that the primary purpose of the teacher at a pluralistic university is to teach philosophy or history or mathematics. While I don’t think we can exclude teachers trying to convert students in the classroom, this should always hold secondary place. The university classroom is not an evangelistic forum. A philosophy of religion class should not be changed into a course in Christian apologetics. Of course, the notion of priorities is still rather vague, but the point still remains. The primary purpose of teachers in the classroom is to educate, not evangelize.
G&A make a number of other helpful suggestions in defining the boundaries between the professional and religious identities of a Christian at a pluralistic university. I have already touched on their suggestion of transparency on the part of the Christian teacher. “Teachers need to be both conscious of and honest about how their identities and accompanying stories influence their approach to classroom objectives, curricular construction, and pedagogy” (155). I quite agree. Towards the end of my teaching career, I usually made it a point at the start of a new course to tell my students with a smile that they were stuck with a Christian philosopher and that my Christian worldview would colour everything I would say in the course. I also added that they could disagree with me and doing so would not at all preclude their getting an “A” grade in the course, a practice with which G&A would agree (156, 170).
G&A also argue for justice in presenting varying viewpoints in the classroom (139, 158–64). Here they draw on Stephan Cahn’s “academic golden rule,” grounded in a general concept of fairness or justice (158). Alternative viewpoints on any subject must be presented and these need to be treated fairly. G&A also argue that the religious identity of teachers can be allowed to shape the way they design a course (164–7). But this too must be done in accordance with the principle of fairness.
G&A have made a significant contribution to introducing the challenge faced by Christian teachers within pluralistic colleges and universities. However, there is still more to be done by way of nuancing the extent to which Christian teachers’ identities can shape what they do while teaching in pluralistic settings. This might be helped by doing a further empirical study of Christian teachers at secular and pluralistic colleges and universities. This would make a good sequel to The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching, a fascinating and eminently readable account of Christian teaching which should be read by all teachers at Christian and pluralistic colleges and universities.
Cite this article
- George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
- See Elmer John Thiessen, The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), ch. 9.
- For some of the challenges I have faced as a Christian in the secular academic world, see my recently published autobiography Elmer John Thiessen, Stumbling Heavenward: One Philosopher’s Journey (Chilliwack, BC: Mill Lake Books, 2021), chs. 8–10.
- See Elmer John Thiessen, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Milton Keynes, Bucks, UK: Paternoster, 2011), 55–9, 146–7.
- Jeff Astley, “Evangelism in Education,” International Journal of Education and Religion 3, no. 2 (2002): 190.
- See Elmer John Thiessen, Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).