Who is really teaching us?

Bill Zingrone
Assistant Professor of Psychology

The start of the school year is a time to reflect on the purpose of higher education. The transfer of information is the best of man’s endeavors, responsible for taking us beyond a barbaric and short existence to relative ease and longevity, improving the lot of billions. However, some see an inherent danger in college education. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed his concern on its website over the excesses of college instructors.

Of college teaching he warned “… most new professors find the experience to be nearly intoxicating” and “… the power of the professor in a classroom is immense.” Although myself and my colleagues thoroughly enjoy the teaching profession, we’re hardly drunk with it, nor do we wield immense power over our students. He then related the statements of two professors he claims engage in “ideological indoctrination”, a “matter of deep concern” to Christian parents and students since there may be a lot more college instructors having just such an unspoken plan.

This agenda includes secular ideas which may be antagonistic to Christian truth claims: exposing students “to the world outside of their town and to moral ideas not exclusively derived from their parents’ religion.” Sounds like Dr. Mohler would prefer students to remain inside a cocoon shielded from any “outside” knowledge.

I’d wager that the vast majority of college instructors do feel that exposure to ideas different from the religious culture one was brought up in, be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. is an enlightening experience, good for any student.

However, I suspect the vast majority of college instructors could care less about and remain unaware of their students’ religious affiliation out of respect for the students’ personal business and given that the students’ beliefs are wholly orthogonal to the course subject. In addition, the teaching of critical thinking, inviting students to disagree, question and argue is standard in every classroom. Dr. Mohler incorrectly surmises that college instructors teach in the same manner as religious instructors do worldwide where the student is expected to fully accept everything, without question and under threat of strict penalties now and forever.

And even the two instructors he quotes who may well overstep their bounds in attempting to ram their views uncritically down the throats of their students share a crucial difference with all college instructors from religious teachers: we wait until our students are adults.

Our students are not underage children. Our students are all 18 years of age and older who freely choose their courses and can seek redress should we overstep our bounds.

If we become boorish and stifling “preachy” they can drop our class, give us appropriately low evaluations as is their right, they can tell all their friends to avoid our sections and nowadays with the ubiquity of Internet use really rip us a new one on “Rate my Professor.”

Imagine if religion students did semi-annual evaluations of their preachers and had access to “Rate my Minister.”

The noted Christian apologist Josh McDowell recently decried the hemorrhaging of the ranks of American evangelical churches as young children are staying away in droves.

One factor he blamed was college instruction.

But consider that any professor has but one or two semesters to influence an adult student’s (not a child’s, or adolescent’s) perspectives in a free open forum while religious instructors have a decade or more of exclusive preaching to a captive audience of underage children who are not allowed to question, lest they incur the disdain of their parents, preachers, family and community. The real power is in the information and its free exchange, which is the purpose of higher education.

It’s difficult to hang onto outmoded cultural ideas which have lost their relevance in modern times, or may be cruel, repressive or just plain wrong in light of new information.

And however intimidating a professor attempts to be he can’t threaten his students with eternal damnation either. It seems Dr. Mohler and Mr. McDowell just don’t like competition, even when we play fair, as even the worst among us wait until their students are old enough to tell us to “go to hell.”