Here’s a composite email, representing a kind of question that the office gets frequently–and which generally gets passed on to me.
Dear Dr. Bauer,
My high school junior is applying to colleges. He’s a strong reader and an excellent writer, and he’d like to study literature or possibly philosophy at a good school.
Could you help me identify some universities that aren’t completely dominated by liberal faculty and their agendas? We would like him to be in a department that emphasizes reading and writing and discussion but that doesn’t take a politically correct/feminist/postmodernist approach.
We are heartened to see that you are teaching at William & Mary. Would that be a good place for him to apply? Thank you for any help you can offer.
I dread these emails, because I can’t really answer the question that’s being asked.
I should say right off that I’m sympathetic to the underlying concern, which is: I don’t want to send my child off to a place where he will be mocked and made fun of for beliefs which may be out of step with those of the majority of his classmates. I’m getting ready to pack my oldest off to college this fall. I too have parental worries.
But this particular way of expressing that concern has three major problems with it that I’d like to point out.
1. Failure to understand the nature of academic departments.
Academic departments, particularly in the humanities, are hardly ever homogeneous. (I’m talking here about medium to large departments at secular, or for-all-practical-purposes secular, schools; the most homogeneous departments around are those at smaller religious schools that require adherence to a confession or creed, but those aren’t generally the schools I’m being asked about.)
Your typical good-sized department will probably contain one or two observant Catholics, two or three observant Episcopalians, a handful of nominal Presbyterians and Baptists who are for all practical purposes secularists, a couple of militant left-wingers out to make converts, one or two ex-hippies, the odd evangelical, and an array of folks who have never had a religious thought in their lives. In any university, you’re likely to find sympathetic faculty and hostile faculty, Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians, gay faculty and straight faculty, faculty with kids and faculty without kids. Universities are kind of like real life in that way (if in very few others). There will be many different voices and many chances to hear them.
2. Failure to understand the terms.
What does “liberal” mean? Votes Democrat? Has different views on sexual morality? Doesn’t go to church? Will advise your child to ignore his parents from here on out?
These terms (liberal/ politically correct/ feminist/ postmodernist) tend to be used as general scare-words, not as representations of particular points of view. “Liberal” and “conservative” are almost empty terms at this point; they’ve got to be defined. Particularly in certain homeschooling circles, “feminist” FAR too often means “Everything that’s wrong with the twenty-first century in my opinion.”
(Hint, people: that’s not what the word means.)
Perhaps you have a particularly definition in mind. You may indeed find it worrisome that your child will be taught by Democrats. (See Point #3.) Fine; you’re entitled to your worries. Just be sure that you define those terms clearly for yourself if you’re going to throw them around.
3. Failure to understand the purpose of higher education.
Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds should be mature enough to take classes from faculty they disagree with–or else they’re not mature enough to be at university.
Higher education isn’t just about absorbing information; it’s also about learning how to listen to someone with whom you largely disagree, pick out what’s valuable, and figure out how to respond to the rest. It is also –and this is even more important–about allowing yourself to be challenged. If you go into university unwilling to even listen to opposing perspectives, you’re not likely to benefit a great deal. You’ll be so busy defending yourself that you won’t be able to entertain the possibility that, in some areas, you might be wrong.
I myself have had a very frustrating time teaching students who come into William & Mary primed to resist the lies of “liberal faculty.” (That includes a lot of home educated students, who register for for my classes because they think I’m safe.) Every time I say something that strikes them as possibly “liberal,” all of their defenses go up and they tune me out. I can’t play devil’s advocate or dialogue with them–they immediately put me on the list of untrustworthy professors and stop listening.
And at that point they become unteachable.
I’m often asked how home educated students stack up against others in my classes. My overwhelming impression is that they’re more fragile. They’ve got little resilience; I can’t push at their presuppositions even a little bit. Maybe they’re afraid those presuppositions will shatter.
See why I can’t answer the questions in those emails?
What should these parents be asking instead? How about: How can my student find a group of likeminded peers, a religious community, a church, to support them as they study? In my opinion, that’s far more important than finding faculty that agree with you. How can I find a Dean of Students office that thinks parents should be partners in education, rather than telling them to bug off and leave eighteen-year-olds to their own devices? I think the most destructive attitude to encounter in university staff and faculty is the one that says: They’re grown-ups. Pay your tuition and get out of their lives. Do you know of a faculty member in literature/philosophy/biology/history who is thoughtful and trustworthy and willing to mentor? One or two close relationships are important; a whole faculty that agrees with your entire belief system is not.
As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.