Of all the bones to pick with contemporary American higher education—and there are many—the University of Pennsylvania’s Peter Conn has decided to call our attention to what he calls “The Great Accreditation Farce.” For him, the farce is that regional accreditors—who hold the keys to all-important federal student aid—actually display a modicum of respect for the distinctive missions of America’s religiously-affiliated colleges.

By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.

Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious. . . .

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold. If accrediting agencies are playing by the rules in this continuing fiasco, then the rules have to be changed—or interpreted more aggressively, so that “respect” for “belief systems” does not entail approving the subversion of our core academic mission by this or that species of dogma.

Objecting to what he regards as anti-intellectual fundamentalism, Conn indulges in a fundamentalism of his own—the a priori assumption (in effect, an unexamined prejudice) that reason provides the sole high road to truth and that it can in no way coexist with faith. I doubt that my friends and colleagues at impressive places like Wheaton, Calvin, Union University, and Houston Baptist (to name just a few) would agree. Indeed, it would be helpful for Professor Conn, if he wants to have a genuinely informed opinion about his subject, to acquaint himself with the kind of teaching and learning that occurs at these and similar places. To begin with, I might call his attention to Naomi Schaefer Riley’s God on the Quad and Alan Wolfe’s The Opening of the Evangelical Mind, not to mention the thoughtful criticism and self-criticism of distinguished scholars like George Marsden and David Lyle Jeffrey.

It would also be helpful for Professor Conn to become acquainted with the history of American higher education, so that he could learn how much of our higher learning depends upon institutions with religious roots. Perhaps he could take a look at Bruce A. Kimball’s Orators and Philosophers in this connection.

Would that the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education had held Professor Conn’s essay up to the rigorous standards of rationality and attention to evidence that he says he wishes to enforce against the religious colleges and universities he regards as benighted.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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