A Few Agreed Upon Principles

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The conservative critique of American higher education is well known to Journal readers: The universities are run by intolerant progressives. The left counters with an insult: The lack of intellectually respectable conservative arguments is responsible for campus political uniformity. Perhaps a better starting point in this debate is the students, most of whom actually want freer discourse on campus. They want to be challenged by views they don’t hold.

[. . .]

True engagement, though, requires honesty. In an anonymous survey of my 110 students this spring, 68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends. That includes self-described conservative students, but also half of the liberals. “As a Duke student, it is difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist,” one wrote. Another remarked, “Although I support most BLM ideas, I do not feel that I can have any conversation that even slightly criticizes the movement.”

To get students to stop self-censoring, a few agreed-on classroom principles are necessary. On the first day, I tell students that no one will be canceled, meaning no social or professional penalties for students resulting from things they say inside the class. If you believe in policing your fellow students, I say, you’re in the wrong room. I insist that goodwill should always be assumed, and that all opinions can be voiced, provided they are offered in the spirit of humility and charity. I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting. What students discover is that they are not alone in their misgivings.

John Rose, associate director of the Arete Initiative at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, writing in The Wall Street Journal, “How I Liberated My College Classroom

Rose set ground rules and then helped his students stick to their agreements. After observing over three hundred students engage civilly and honestly on a range of complex and emotionally loaded topics, his conclusion is that they have flourished. Rose writes:

On the last day of class this term, several of my students thanked their counterparts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom. Not only is it possible, it’s what students pine for.

Rose’s class enters the fray on political topics. These same dispositions and postures, however, prohibit the free flow and exchange of ideas in the theology classroom. Institutionally, we are a confessional body. We have doctrinal commitments and agreed upon ideals that define our community life. But as a Baptist institution, we believe in religious freedom and respecting the conscience and conviction of the individual. Some of our students are still working out what they believe. There are differences of opinion. Some perspectives are shaded by the debates of the moment, current events, or popular ideas in the culture. But being honest about those differences can be tough.

You’d think a Christian community would be uniquely equipped to navigate these differences. A commitment to truth, humility, seeking unity together in Christ, confidence in the Spirit, love of neighbor…I could go on. Virtues must be practiced. When we assume everyone is of the same heart and mind, it can take courage to bring other opinions into the open. When we believe we represent a divergent viewpoint–whether that viewpoint is liberal or conservative–we fear being marginalized and rejected, labeled a false teacher, or rejected outright.

I’m going to keep this Rose essay in mind this year.

There are insights I may apply. As I engage with students, I try to demonstrate the ways in which I do my own homework, even going so far as to try and explain the position that differs from my own, even while disclosing that I do not agree with that position. I also try to call attention to the moral and ethical commitments the Christian community shares, and to point to the Scriptures and the wisdom they contain for disagreeing with one another, both in how we can engage with one another constructively, and when it may be necessary for our disagreements to be sharp.