Snyderian Truism #3

Some of my “truisms” come from personal experience in the classroom. As I embark upon my twenty-fifth year of teaching at the college level, I can attest to the accuracy of Snyderian Truism #3, which states,

Ignorance can be corrected, but apathy makes learning impossible.

IgnoranceThe word “ignorance” sometimes gets an undeserved image. To be ignorant is not to be immoral or foolish or stupid or anything necessarily negative with respect to character. It simply means to be uninformed. I have no problem with the task of helping the uninformed come up to speed with the knowledge they need. Isn’t that the basic goal of teaching?

With respect to the average college student’s grasp of American history, ignorance is nearly epidemic. Most of the students I have in my survey courses have little or no real knowledge of what has occurred in the past. Their understanding of American history is spotty at best, non-existent at times. What they think they know has been filtered through a public education system that has its own agenda, concentrating on the latest trendy topics. The history they’ve received is stuffed with the grievances of minorities, the unfairness of American capitalism, and/or some variant of radical environmentalism.

They know little of the sacrifices made for the current generation, the Biblical principles upon which the culture was based, the concept of the rule of law, or the strides made to correct abuses of the past. They lack context: they don’t know to compare America with other nations throughout history and see some of the stark differences. Consequently, they develop virtually no appreciation for what has preceded their limited time on this earth. For most, history doesn’t go back much further than what they remember personally.

I’ve had more than one student, after taking one of my survey courses, tell me they had no knowledge of almost everything I taught them. A few have even said that I presented the history in a way that contradicted what they learned previously. I distinctly recall one student saying, “Everything you said was good, I was taught was bad, and everything you said was bad, I was taught was good.” Yet all I did was present my interpretation of history based on the most reliable primary sources. I seek accuracy above all.

ApathySo ignorance is not the real problem. It’s apathy that diminishes learning. Ignorance is not a character issue, but apathy is all about character. Although I do my best to make learning enjoyable and interesting, with some students, no matter what I do, there is no desire to learn. One phenomenon I’ve witnessed is that if you have too many apathetic students in a course, their attitude spreads to others and a heavy, oppressive spirit seems to dominate in the classroom.

That’s why I make this truism known to them very early in the course. I want them to ponder the implications of their lack of initiative. I hope it will at least challenge them to make an honest effort. There’s nothing better, perhaps, than to hear students tell me later that, for the first time, they actually wanted to learn history—that my challenge to them and my approach to teaching converted their apathy into an active interest in the subject.

God never promised that ministry would be easy. Neither did He promise that everyone would appreciate what we do. Yet it’s all worthwhile when He uses us to reach into the hearts and minds of others. I thank the Lord for this opportunity He has given me.

Education vs. Thought Control

Universities hold to the fiction that they are temples of reason where honest debate takes place and students hear all sides of an issue. In reality, they are bastions of liberal/progressive thought with little tolerance for Biblical perspectives or political conservatism. Surveys consistently reveal, particularly in the liberal arts, psychology, and sociology programs, that something like 90% of the professors self-identify as either moderate or liberal. Of course, their definition of “moderate” has to be taken into consideration—a moderate in university-speak is left-of-center politically.

Many universities have gone to great lengths to ensure this slant continues to dominate:

Speech Code 1

By the way, this mirrors the stance of the major historical associations. They are constantly taking official positions against anything the government does or might do that would hint of conservatism. I belong to one of those associations and get their newsletters, which are filled with left-of-center articles and stances on hot-button political controversies. I had allowed my membership to lapse for a number of years due to this bias, but I thought I’d try again. After perusing the views of this organization anew, I’m probably going to become inactive again. Why waste my university’s funds on membership in a group that is opposed to everything a Christian university seeks to accomplish?

These speech codes can get pretty ridiculous at times:

Speech Code 2

While I”m not aware of any university making “Paula” part of their hate speech (wait for it—it might be coming), they have a tendency to see everything through a “diversity” prism [prison?] that seems to spot racism and various other types of “isms” everywhere.

What about an honest debate about speech codes? After all, these are universities where all views should be on the table for discussion, right?

Speech Code 3

Now, I realize some may criticize Christian colleges and universities for holding to a certain framework of thinking for their courses. They may say we are too narrow and don’t allow thinking outside the box. First, face the reality that secular universities don’t allow much thinking outside their self-imposed boxes. I know I would not be allowed to teach what I’m currently teaching now—and the way I teach it—at any state university. I would be sent to “sensitivity training.”

The acquisition of knowledge, along with an understanding of the significance of that knowledge, never exists in a vacuum. Everyone has a worldview. All a Christian university is doing is setting the framework in which a discussion takes place. It begins with a settled faith in the God of the Bible and that this book contains the essence of what God wants us to know about the universe He created. It’s a belief that Biblical faith contains key principles about who man is and why the world has the problems it does—starting with an explanation of sin.

The secular concept of a university is not the same as a Christian concept of what the university is supposed to do. A Christian university exists to develop the faith of its students. That includes investigations of non-Christian views and comparison with how a Christian worldview differs, and why. Overall, if done properly, it produces well-rounded, well-educated students who can take their Christian faith into the world to make an impact for the gospel. We follow the number one mission given to us by Christ: make disciples of all nations.

Christian universities are up front about their goals. Professors can decide whether they share those goals; no one is forced to teach at a place where they disagree with the aims of the education. Students know ahead of time what they can expect, and they can decide if that’s the type of education they seek. Secular universities, meanwhile, promote their openmindedness, then stealthily advance the kingdom of man.

Which approach is more honest? Which one is really more into thought control?

A Teaching Ministry: Worth the Effort

El PradoAs August draws near, my thoughts are beginning to turn once again to the new academic year. All my courses are ready and syllabi complete. I have to admit I always look forward to the fall semester. Fresh new faces showing up in the classroom, very welcome “old” faces, and the opportunity to share God’s truths make it all worthwhile.

I am privileged to be at a university like Southeastern where I have liberty to teach without censorship or threat of “re-education” training. This will be my eighth year here, and I’ve been able to develop new courses without hindrance. I doubt there are many universities where students can take a course on Ronald Reagan and modern conservatism—taught sympathetically, that is—or another entire course on Whittaker Chambers and the history of communism. In most places, I’m sure you can learn about communism, but only as a springboard for promoting radicalism:

Limber Up Cliches

Christian universities are not immune from such perspectives, but they’re not as prevalent as at other universities. Our students differ as well. When you think of the typical college student, what image comes to mind?

Familiar Refrain

Yes, we have our quota of students who don’t take their studies seriously, but we have a much higher percentage of those who seek to do God’s will through what they learn. That makes for a far better classroom environment. Not a perfect environment, by any means, particularly in a survey course where many students don’t really want to be there, but even that is part of the ministry God has given me. If I can, by the end of the semester, convince many of those apathetic students that learning history is essential for their overall understanding of life, I will feel like I’ve succeeded.

When you view your life’s work as a ministry, it stops being merely a “job” or “career.” I thank the Lord for the ministry He’s allowed me to have. This is my twenty-fifth year of teaching at the college level; sounds like it ought to be celebrated as some kind of landmark. I don’t need some special celebration, however; I celebrate each day as I receive reports from a few hundred of my former students who are now raising families and fulfilling the ministries God has given them. Those good reports make all the trials of these twenty-five years worth the effort.

Lewis on Education: Go to the Sources

C. S. Lewis with BookNot all of C. S. Lewis’s writings are explicitly Christian, yet he brings a clarity to any subject that is drawn from his Christian convictions. One of his favorite subjects, naturally, was education, since he spent a lifetime teaching and tutoring students at Oxford and Cambridge. I find this particular Lewis commentary in an essay titled “On the Reading of Old Books,” to ring true. See if you agree.

I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books of Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

In my courses, particularly in the upper-level history courses, I try as much as possible to get students to read the documents from the era and what the people of each era actually said. I don’t avoid using interpretive books also, but I seek those books that are filled with the writings of the principal actors in the history. A good interaction between the historic agents and the modern commentators is a nice mix. I think we need both, yet Lewis is correct in emphasizing the originals. They are essential, so we can judge whether the modern analysts have understood those writings correctly.

This is called real education. We should try it more; students might like it.

Obama’s Skewed View of Christian Education

Barack Obama, Michelle ObamaEarlier this week, when he was in Ireland for the first leg of his European trip, President Obama made a speech that didn’t garner a lot of attention at the time, but now part of that speech has raised some very real concerns among Christians, not only in Ireland but in the U.S. Essentially, the president criticized religious education as divisive and a contributor to violence. That’s startling to those of us who are deeply committed to providing a Biblical foundation to all learning. Here were his exact words:

Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity—symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others—these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it. If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

Notice how the critique of religious schools is couched in the very real desire for peace and harmony, something everyone wants, at least on the surface. But you have to look deeper. Obama’s worldview doesn’t have room for differences; all are to be incorporated into the whole, under the wise guiding hand of the federal government. Any deviation from that would be “division.”

His wording assumes that somehow segregation and lack of opportunity in society can be traced back to religious differences. He believes that these differences lead to fear and resentment. Certainly, in history, that has sometimes been the case, but with one mere paragraph, he has tarnished all religious education. What he either fails to realize, or seeks to ignore, is that Christian education, whether via homeschooling or private schools, is a major source of strength for the country. There is no war in America between Protestant and Catholic; the only battle I see waging is between Christian faith and encroaching statism. The president’s own signature piece of legislation, which we call Obamacare, began the war by trying to force religious schools to provide contraception and abortifacient drugs in direct violation of their bedrock beliefs.

Who’s causing the division? It’s emanating from Mr. Obama himself.

Further, any objective study of the results of private education shows that students are learning more through that medium than through the government-controlled system of schools. I don’t accept the argument that government schooling is the way to go. I’ve always been disturbed by how easily our citizens, even those whose Christian beliefs should alert them, become like sheep when herded into that system. Civil government is not the Biblically ordained agency for the education of children. Parents are to take that responsibility and then decide if and how they want some of that education delegated to others. All too often, we have come dangerously close to the idea that children belong to the government.

So I oppose government-controlled education on principle. Others look mostly at the bad results. While I would like for more people to be informed on the principle, I am happy when anything attracts their attention to the woeful state of education as it exists today. On the practical level, we are failing:

Get With the Program

The bad results should make us want to reexamine our most basic concepts of how education should be carried out. Failure should lead more parents to consider the alternatives.

No, President Obama, the homeschoolers and private Christian schools in our nation are not the problem; they are the beginning of the solution.

Lewis: The Learned Life Is a Duty

For me, as a university professor, this quote from C. S. Lewis is one I would think of framing and putting on my office wall. Please don’t skip over any of it; each sentence is truly weighty, if you stop and ponder as you should. I’m particularly drawn to phrases about “good philosophy” answering “bad philosophy,” our need for an “intimate knowledge of the past” (well, I am a history professor, you know), those trendy ideas that Lewis terms “temporary fashion,” and the “nonsense” that emanates from the press. Give this one a few minutes out of your busy schedule and see if you might agree with me.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods, and that much that seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

I’ve been trying to shoulder that duty for quite some time. There are others with a greater intellect than mine; I know that without a doubt. Yet those of us who have been tapped on the shoulder by the Divine Tapper to teach must remain faithful and continue to seek His grace to work with our efforts. This is really not an onerous duty; it is a privilege.

Screwtape’s Education Formula

C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters remains one of his most admired and imaginative books. In the later editions, Lewis added a little essay called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the master devil shares his insights into how to undermine the human race. One of his methods is to destroy education. If his formula sounds familiar, there might be a good reason. Here’s a portion of Screwtape’s speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils”:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.