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Grassroots Commentary

Christian Colleges Lead the Way on Robust Debate

Philip Massey · Apr. 13, 2016

Condoleezza Rice. Christine Lagard. Ben Shapiro. What do these individuals have in common? All were invited to speak at elite universities across the nation. Yet increasingly, such speakers find themselves being subsequently disinvited, heckled by students, and/or withdrawing from the planned event. For example:

  • Students at Rutgers University performed sit-ins and protested Dr. Rice’s invitation due to her service in the Bush administration, causing her to withdraw from the invitation.

  • Students at Smith College protested Ms. Lagard’s invitation due to the unpopularity of certain IMF policies. She withdrew from the invitation.

  • Mr. Shapiro braved the protesters and hecklers of California State University Los Angeles, but he needed a police escort for protection. Afterward, many students sought the resignation of President William Covino for allowing Mr. Shapiro to speak on campus.

How have students at our elite universities become so afraid of opposing viewpoints that they feel justified in shutting down such speakers? The mission of a college education is to expose students to a wide range of ideas, even — and especially — ones that they may find uncomfortable. For example, the mission statement of Brandeis University, another university that rescinded a speaking invitation, proclaims that it is a community of scholars united by a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. The aforementioned Smith College’s mission statement likewise declares its commitment to learning and critical thought. The pursuit of knowledge, learning, and critical thought cannot flourish if college students refuse to hear viewpoints that diverge from their own.

Things need not be this bleak. Though it may appear that a spirit of anti-intellectualism pervades higher education, this is not true everywhere. Surprisingly, evangelical Christian colleges, which are often maligned as “doctrinaire” or “narrow-minded,” seem to demonstrate a greater willingness to defend the ideals of robust debate and diverse viewpoints. Consider the following recent examples:

  • In 2015, President Everett Piper of Oklahoma Wesleyan University resolutely defended the school’s commitment to challenging students’ thinking. When a student complained of hurt feelings after hearing a chapel speaker, Dr. Piper famously replied, “This is not a day care. This is a university.”

  • In 2015, Bernie Sanders was invited to speak at a convocation of Liberty University, founded by the conservative televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell. Although student attendance at convocations is mandatory, there were no campus protests or attempts to silence Mr. Sanders. At one of the most conservative evangelical schools in the nation, students respectfully listened to a man whose political views sharply differ from their own. After he finished, they asked thoughtful questions about his views.

  • My own school, Biola University, demonstrated perhaps the most striking example of robust debate. In 2009, Biola invited one of the world’s preeminent advocates for atheism, the late Christopher Hitchens, to speak on campus and debate the existence of God with one of its own faculty members, Dr. William Lane Craig. Again, there were no campus protests or attempts to silence Mr. Hitchens. To the contrary, the event filled every seat both in the university gymnasium and in the overflow lecture halls. As with the students at Liberty, the students at Biola also asked thoughtful questions in response. Imagine that: a top-notch Christian university, firmly rooted in its commitment to orthodox Christian beliefs, was not afraid to let a renowned atheist speak to its students and challenge those beliefs.

It is ironic that allegedly “dogmatic” Christian colleges seem more willing to encourage robust debate than elite universities. As evidence of this, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education documented 45 incidents in the past two years of attempted or actual speech suppression on college campuses. Only one of these incidents was at an evangelical Christian college. Thus, the general trend in Christian higher education is toward open dialogue. As a result of such open dialogue, students at Christian colleges, such as the ones cited above, have a better opportunity of becoming well-rounded scholars and critical thinkers.

America’s elite universities were once champions of free and open debate, but now they risk turning out graduates who are narrow-minded thinkers. At a town hall in Iowa last year, President Obama said, “I’ve heard [of] some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. … I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” Christian colleges are leading the way in embodying President Obama’s ideals for higher education. How refreshing it would be for elite universities to emulate their example.

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