briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, September 11, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, September 11, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

New Rules from Department of Education Protect Religious Liberty on College Campuses

If you’re looking for where the battles over the culture are being shaped for the future, you’ll be looking at America’s college and university campuses. And those on those campuses are paying very close attention to an announcement that came from the Education Department of the Trump administration this week, announcing that new rules have been put in place requiring colleges and universities to honor the First Amendment or to risk losing federal funding and several very important federal funding programs, mostly through the Department of Education. As the Washington Post reporter Collin Binkley tells us, “The Trump administration is moving forward with a policy that expands protections for religious groups on college campuses and threatens to cut federal education funding to colleges that violate free speech rules.”

The Education Department released the new rules in formal wording on Wednesday, and predictably, what you see is a divide over these new rules. The new rules are celebrated by those involved in Christian ministries on these campuses. But not only Christians: Islamic ministry leaders also spoke up their support for the rules because, after all, the free speech rules that prevent these mostly public universities from discriminating against Christian groups apply to non-Christian religious groups as well. That’s the religious part of religious liberty.

As Binkley tells us, “As part of the policy, the Education Department can suspend or terminate grants to public universities found in court to have violated the First Amendment. In extreme cases, schools could become ineligible for any further grants. The same actions could be taken against private universities found in court to have violated their own speech codes.” So immediately, you recognize a distinction: public institutions versus private institutions. The private institutions are not governed by the public, as contrasted with public universities and colleges, mostly universities. The public universities are held to a higher standard here because the prevailing law behind those institutions is the Constitution of the United States and its guarantees of free speech and religious liberty.

When it comes to private institutions, it’s very interesting. Those private schools can be found in noncompliance with this new law if they are in noncompliance with their own principles, their own rules and regulations related to speech codes. Now, without looking in detail at the exact language paragraph by paragraph of the regulation handed down by the Department of Education on Wednesday, the bottom line is this. If you are going to be an institution that participates in these very important federal grant programs, then you’re going to have to play ball in respecting religious liberty and free speech on your campus, or you’re going to make yourself liable to a student or someone else representing an interest on those campuses suing you for violating this policy. And if you are found guilty of violating this policy, you may lose millions upon millions of dollars of federal funding.

Now, that’s exactly why so many are opposed to these rules; why you’re going to hear the leadership of so many colleges and universities say, “This is a step backwards because now you have the opportunity for these lawsuits to be filed against us.” As the Washington Post reports, “Many universities, however, see it,” meaning the new set of rules, “as an unnecessary intrusion. They say the penalties are too severe and that it would be too easy to trigger a loss of funding. The American Council on Education, a group of college presidents, previously said the policy would lead to ‘a flood of frivolous lawsuits.'”

Now, no one should support rules that actually could lead to a deluge of frivolous lawsuits, but that’s not actually what’s going on here, and the language used by this group of college presidents tells us a very great deal. What they really fear is their own faculties and campus culture when it comes to the so-called “cancel culture” that’s going on, the shutdown of free speech, and overt discrimination against religious student groups. Just to give you the kind of example, you’re talking about universities that have said that Christian ministries for undergraduates and graduate students on those campuses cannot discriminate on LGBTQ+ grounds when it comes even to electing the student leadership of those organizations. Just to give one example, in the year 2018, officials at the University of Iowa actually ordered the disbanding of several student religious groups “that declined to adopt a policy forbidding discrimination based on, among other classifications, sexual orientation or preference.”

So, we’re not talking about something here that can be accurately summarized by the threat of frivolous lawsuits. These are not frivolous issues. These are very serious issues. We’re talking about serious infringements of religious liberty on many of these campuses. You’re also seeing increased hostility towards many religious ministries, and in particular, conservative Christian ministries for students on these campuses. And it’s not just the LGBTQ issues; it also comes down to the fact that you have Christian organizations that still have, for instance, official teaching that would violate so many of the modern mores on these campuses, including a basic distinction when it comes to the home and to the church between men and women.

In announcing the policy, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, “These regulations hold public institutions accountable for protecting the First Amendment rights of students and student organizations, and,” Secretary DeVos went on to say, “they require private colleges and universities that promise their students and faculty free expression, free inquiry, and diversity of thought to live up to those ideals.” Free speech advocates also celebrated the announcement. Joe Cohn, Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said, “Too many institutions violate student and faculty free speech rights as a matter of course. Hopefully, the additional risk of losing federal grant money will encourage them to rethink their practices.”

Now, this is a matter of rule establishment by a federal department, the Department of Education, that reminds us again of the importance of elections, because you have the power of the President of the United States; to a point, the main persons who’ll be making these policies in any future administration. And this could not have gone forward without the support of the President of the United States. As Chief Executive back in March of 2019, President Trump himself indicated his support for this new rule. And what we’re looking at this week is the fact that the final language has finally been released, but it can all be reversed at some future point by another administration.

But now we’re looking at one of the major issues that faces us as a society. It comes down to whether or not we actually believe in the free expression of religion, freedom of religion in general, and freedom of speech on America’s college and university campuses. That’s an open question because we have seen those rights subverted in so many different ways. The very campuses that have been famed during the 1960s as the home of something called the Free Speech Movement have now become campuses where certain forms of speech are exceedingly unwelcome. And much of this comes not only with the coercive power of institutional rules and under the heel of institutional bureaucrats, it also comes from a campus culture that says, “If you speak out of religious conviction, something that disagrees with my lifestyle or says what I’m doing is not morally legitimate, then you have created an unsafe place and you have committed harm merely by articulating these convictions.” That’s a sure way to shut down religious liberty in any meaningful sense from America’s colleges and universities.

It’s not even moral issues that are alone at stake here. It comes down to basic questions, including whether or not, at the base level, Christian ministries have a right to operate on the basis of Christian conviction. But again, this is religious liberty, so it’s not just Christians. And that’s reflected in a statement from Ismail Royer, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute. He said that the ability of Muslim student groups to choose their own leaders according to their own principles is also important and it is validated and protected under this new Trump administration guideline.

Like any important issue, protecting religious liberty and the free expression of ideas on America’s college and university campuses, surprising as that would be to Americans of, say, a generation ago, it’s going to be a long haul. It’s going to be a long fight. It’s going to require persistence. These rules are a step forward and that’s important, but they are a step forward only insofar as they exist and are enforced. And that’s going to require not only vigilance, it’s going to require people in office who will maintain this rule and not reverse it.

Part II

Teaching in a Therapeutic Age: Are American Colleges and Universities Becoming Nothing More Than Therapy Chambers?

But that then takes me to a second issue, and this is a commentary published at the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein. Epstein is a veteran essayist…one of my favorites, by the way. He taught for years at Northwestern University, discussed, you may remember, on The Briefing just earlier this week. His essay is very important. The headline, “Today’s College Classroom is a Therapy Session.” The subhead, “The Tough Guys Are Gone. Instructors are Expected to Foster Safe, Nurturing, Anti-Racist Spaces.” The point being made by Joseph Epstein is that these new rules and the new campus culture do indeed turn the classroom into a therapy session, and what’s being left behind is the idea that teachers ought to teach, that teachers are actually paid to teach, and that teaching is what students are paying for, as they pay outlandish tuition at so many academic institutions.

Epstein writes, “Now retired after having taught 30 years in the English department at Northwestern University, I continue to receive announcements from the school. One,” he says, “not long ago carried the heading ‘Seven Honored with Teaching Award.'” He says, “I read it wondering if these models of superior teaching might in some way illuminate the question of whether the value of in-person education is worth the risk of coronavirus exposure.” He goes on to say, “What I learned is that of Northwestern’s seven 2020 McCormick Teaching and Alumnae Award recipients, a majority are so ‘welcoming’ and ‘supportive,'”–those two words are put in quotation marks–“so ready to foster inclusive and anti-racist learning spaces.”

“One of the recipients,” he says, “seeks to integrate ‘methodological rigor, impactful engagement, and human sensitivity’ into every aspect of her teaching. A student says of another awardee that the ‘nurturing and supportive environment of his classes’ much improved his learning. The department chairman, chairwoman, whatever,” Epstein says, “of yet another of the award winners says her classrooms are ‘a rare phenomenon, a safe and nurturing forum for learning and debate.'” Epstein says, “If this sort of thing goes on at universities, it must be redoubled in high schools and elementary schools.”

Now, Epstein’s not arguing that teachers should not be sensitive in the right sense. He’s not arguing that teachers should not be concerned with open debate and dialogue in their classes. He’s saying the opposite. He’s saying that the words that are used here, emotional therapeutic words such as “safe” and “affirming” and “supportive,” actually don’t very well fit the goal of education, especially in this therapeutic age. Students want to be affirmed rather than taught.

Epstein then writes, “Reading about these award-winning teachers makes one wonder if teaching has become the pedagogical equivalent of psychotherapy.” He says, “Ought teaching to be primarily about building self-esteem in students, ‘nurturing,’ and above all, making them feel ‘safe?’ And,” he says, “what do you suppose an ‘inclusive and anti-racist’ learning space looks like?” He then says this, “The two biggest lies about teaching are that one learns so much from one’s students and, so gratifying is it, one would do it for nothing. I had a number of bright and winning students,” he said, “but if I learned anything from them, I seem long ago to have forgotten it. I always felt,” he says, that he was “slightly overpaid as a teacher, but I wouldn’t have accepted a penny less. The one certain thing I learned about teaching is that you must never say or even think you are a good teacher. If you believe you are, like believing you are charming, you probably aren’t.”

Now, all of this gets to something that many have observed in higher education for a long time. I actually was introduced to it when I was 13 years old. At the young age of 13, I found myself in a new experimental school, part of the public schools in Florida. And in this school, we were told that it wasn’t so much that we were going to have teachers as we were going to have facilitators. The idea was that in this new anti-authoritarian age, fueled by all kinds of leftists, educational theories, teachers were just too authoritative doing teaching, and instead, they were to be merely guides in the educational process.

Now, let me just tell you, the first thing I learned from that at age 13 is that whatever a facilitator is, facilitators really don’t facilitate. The motto back then used by many liberals was that there was to be no more teaching, merely guiding. “No more sage on the stage,” they said. “Just a guide on the side.” But the truth is, you actually need a sage on the stage. By the way, you also need a preacher in the pulpit. Christianity and the Christian worldview are based on the fact that teaching is an honorable calling essential to the church, to the family, to the entire culture in proper context, and that teachers are actually to teach.

This reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes from the entire universe of higher education, and this goes back to the astrophysicist, Robert Jastrow, one of the most famous names in science in the 20th century. He had presented a lecture at Dartmouth College on whether or not physics would support President Ronald Reagan’s effort to develop space-based missile defenses. In a discussion with his class…. Remember that Jastrow was one of the nation’s most prominent astrophysicists. In his class, one of his students dared to raise a contrary point, and said, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” Jastrow had had enough. He responded to the impertinent student, “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours.”

Joseph Epstein goes on to write this, “Since the mid-1960s, colleges and universities have instituted student evaluations of their teachers. Apart from reporting genuine delinquencies like, ‘He’s always late to class,’ or, ‘She returns our papers late and unmarked,'” he goes on to say, “these student evaluations are of little value.” Instead, the kind of evaluations he received were “mostly approving, but not very helpful: ‘He knows his stuff.’ ‘Good sense of humor.’ ‘Like his bow ties.'” The one exception in all these student evaluations that were generally unmemorable is when Joseph Epstein received from a student this evaluation, “I did well in this course, but then I would have been ashamed not to have done.”

Epstein’s just a good writer, by the way. He says this, “There used to be a tough-guy tradition in teaching that was in good part based on shame and fear.” He says, “I had such a teacher at the University of Chicago named Norman Maclean. When he asked you a question, it made you feel as if you were being interviewed by the bad cop. And,” he goes on to say, “the good cop had ducked out for a smoke and wasn’t likely to return soon.” When he himself retired, Professor Maclean wrote about how he learned this approach to his own teaching. He said that on the first day of a class he took, a professor assigned a 3000-word paper due on the second day of class. The teacher said to his students, “That’s just to show them Grandma has teeth.”

Now, all of that in Joseph Epstein’s essay is just to point to the fact that what we have in the culture of higher education right now is the increasing insistence that teachers not teach, but instead operate as therapists. Their classrooms are being evaluated, not based upon whether truth and learning are being transmitted, but rather as to how the students feel about themselves at the end of the course. The bottom line in all of that, of course, goes back to a basic principle any good teacher knows, and that is that holding high an ideal of learning is likely to produce learning. Actually, demanding a great deal of students rather than coddling them is going to not only give them a better education, but prepare them for life.

But then again, one of the problems behind Joseph Epstein’s essay is that the demand for therapeutic classrooms and a therapeutic college or university campus is increasingly being translated into the demand for a therapeutic profession, a therapeutic job, an entire therapeutic culture. But the therapeutic culture is going to turn on itself eventually, because when you run out of hope in therapy, you’ve got nothing left in your toolkit.

Part III

Once Started, Revolutions Are Nearly Impossible to Stop — Or to Contain

But third, we also need to note that it’s not just that America’s colleges and universities are being turned into chambers of intensive therapy. They are also, as we know, being turned into engines of political activism. And virtually all of this, almost 100% of it, on the left, raging towards the far left. The Federalist ran an article in recent days by Jordan Davidson pointing to a first-year composition class at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia that was entitled, “How to Overthrow the State.” Now, let’s understand something. It could be legitimate to offer a class in a university or college context raising that kind of issue if it were taught in the right context. You can ask a provocative question, but you better be ready to give a responsible answer.

Now, as the college president responded to the controversy about this, the president of Washington and Lee University said that there had been distortions about this freshman composition class. The president of Washington and Lee University wrote to the alumni saying, “The overreaction to ‘How to Overthrow the State’ also calls for a reflection on civility, another of the core values in our mission statement. Our community, students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, is large and intellectually diverse. Individual members disagree about many things, ranging from course titles to the name of the university.” Let’s just stop there. That is a huge controversy at Washington and Lee right now. And he lamented that this class, “How to Overthrow the State: Historical Lessons from the Global South,” was “distorted, sensationalized, and turned into political fodder on blogs, television, and social media.”

Now, let’s just state up front. That can certainly happen. Controversy like this can emerge, and it can be entirely illegitimate. The president of Washington and Lee University is insisting that the university has done nothing wrong here, and he sought to allay suspicions that the class actually had a leftist bent. But upon closer inspection, that defense has some problems. It’s true, we’re told, that the class is going to consider such documents as the American Declaration of Independence. But the second part of the class title has to do with “Lessons from the Global South,” and that mostly spells outright political revolution.

I went to the website of the university and was pretty quickly able to find the course description. We are told that the sections of composition stress active reading, argumentation, the appropriate presentation of evidence. It goes on and on. Very legitimate educational outcomes. But then, we’re told that the class “places each student at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society,” raising the questions, “How will you attain power? How will you communicate with the masses? How do you plan on improving the lives of people? How will you deal with the past?” And then, the course description says, “From Franz Fanon to Che Guevara to Mohandas Gandhi and others, we explore examples of revolutionary thought and action from across the Global South.”

This isn’t actually advertised in the course description as having much to do with the American Declaration of Independence, but instead specifically says it’s about figures such as Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Now, who are they? Frantz Fanon was a Marxist, a person of the left identified mostly with the Algerian Revolution, who wrote the book, The Wretched of the Earth, as a treatise against colonialism. He mixed together Marxism critical theory and anti-colonialism.

Che Guevara, of course, was one of the revolutionary figures in the Communist Revolution in Cuba and actually was, if anything, considerably to the left of Fidel Castro, leading to a break with the Castro regime. Guevara, who’d been trained in Argentina as a medical doctor, is primarily known and celebrated amongst the left. He’s the face you often see wearing a beret as it’s screen-printed on t-shirts worn by young protesters on the streets. Che, as he is often known, became a cult figure, especially after he was executed by Bolivian government agents in 1962, when he was age 39. The reason why he was executed by the Bolivians is that he had gone there to overthrow the Bolivian government in another Marxist revolution.

The point I want to make about all of this is that it’s easy to see why America’s prestigious colleges and universities are often accused of outright leftist political activism. It’s because they’re often guilty of outright leftist political activism. And in this case, if the university president’s defense is sound and the university is not guilty of it, well, they certainly wrote the class description as if they were guilty. Christians understand behind all of these headlines, behind all of these controversies, is the reality that education is never value-neutral. It can’t be. It never is. Education is always at least the intended transfer of ideas, ideology, and a worldview from someone to someone else.

Now, when you look at the traditional classroom in the United States, over the course of the opening decades of this century, it’s pretty safe to go into those classrooms knowing that those universities and the faculty in those universities felt they had a civic responsibility to produce those who would uphold and support and contribute to the American experiment as was established by the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. But you can’t count on that anymore. And when it comes to many institutions, you’d better count on the exact opposite.

Going all the way back a generation, Paul Hollander, one of the most incisive figures in academia, in looking at what’s happened on American colleges and university campuses, wrote about the rise of what he called the adversary culture. That is, a generation of younger intellectuals who see themselves in outright adversarial posture to the classical American experiment. But Hollander wrote about that decades ago, and since then, the adversary culture hasn’t gone away; it’s now become the faculty and tenured. And right now, even the adversary culture is facing a more leftist adversary culture. And on many of these campuses, it’s the older liberals who now need the therapy, perhaps more than their students. It comes back to another basic insight that Christians understand. It’s a lot easier to start a revolution than to end one…certainly to end one successfully.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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