I apologize for my long silence. Between traveling to a family wedding in southern Maryland (along with some sightseeing in D.C. and a visit to the Naval Academy—my fifteen-year-old son’s current collegiate aspiration), furiously grading all the papers and exams that didn’t get graded the long weekend we were out of town, Christmas, and a post-Christmas visit from my parents, I’ve had no time to impose my views upon an unsuspecting world.
But, like it or not, I’m back in the saddle.
As I was operating this morning’s swim taxi, I was listening to a conversation between Bill Bennett and David Gelernter, at the end of which Bennett asked Gelernter about the significant lacunae in the education of his Yale undergraduates. Gelernter’s answer (as I distractedly remember it—apologies to those more attentive or with better memories than mine): his students were unfamiliar with America’s greatness (especially as expressed in the U.S. military) and with religion. Undergraduates at most of America’s elite colleges and universities have little contact with military life. In addition, all too many of them exhibit little serious engagement with religion and theology.
I remarked upon this to my son (who, unlike his sister, is willing on occasion to cede command of the car’s radio to his father, and will listen to Bennett, Medved, and Hewitt on our trips to and from the pool). He answered that he knew lots about the military, the Bible, and theology. (I’ll concede his encyclopedic knowledge of the various weapons favored by spec ops troops, not all of which has been gleaned from video games, and his willingness to defend positions taken by R.C. Sproul against his somewhat less rigorously Calvinist Bible study mates.) I remarked that he doubtless knew some things that Yale undergraduates didn’t know and they knew things that he didn’t know. Yeah, he sighed, geometry (a subject currently giving him fits).
But leaving aside the oddball home-schooled kids of an oddball professor and his oddball theatre director wife, I thought about my own students. I guess I can be relieved that, at least in the respects cited by Gelernter, my students resemble Yale undergraduates. Or disturbed . . .
My institution doesn’t have an ROTC program; the few ROTC students I’ve had did their thing down at the Trade School on North Avenue. I’ve also had the privilege of teaching a few veterans, the most impressive of whom had been a staff sergeant in the Rangers and was, last I heard, a prosecutor in south Florida. Suffice it to say that military culture does not have a big impact on campus.
Nor does religion. Though founded by Presbyterians, my institution has not been affiliated with that denomination in its modern history. We have neither a chaplain, nor a religious studies program. (I’ll leave it to others to say whether the presence of either of these features does more harm or good to the cause of religion on college campuses.) Many of my students have at best a nodding acquaintance with the Bible or with the teachings of the denominations with which they nominally identify (if they identify with any at all). Many are, I suspect, “moralistic therapeutic deists,” at least if they haven’t left the faith of their fathers (or grandfathers) altogether. (I hasten to add that those who make it through our core curriculum will have been required to read—most emphatically not the same as “will have read”—selections from St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Old Testament, as well as works like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Weber’s Protestant Ethic, so that they “might could” be a bit more sophisticated on their way out the door than they were coming in.)
But there’s one group of students I encounter who do not conform to either of these descriptions—African-Americans. They seem to be much more likely to have a friend or relative who is spending or has spent time in the service. And they seem to be much more likely to continue to be engaged in the life of their churches while they’re in college. They tend to light up in class when we discuss religious questions, and to offer thoughtful and reasonably well-informed observations. (To be sure, their peers set the bar pretty low, but they have little difficulty exceeding it.)
I realize that my experience is limited and that the plural of anecdote is not data, but I wonder whether others have similar impressions of their African-American students.
It would be nice to think that some of my students are in some respects better than run-of-the-mill Yale undergraduates. Perhaps we can arrange an exchange, mutually profitable to students at both institutions.