Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Are faith-based universities intrinsically incompatible with the hallowed principle of academic freedom? The Canadian Association of University Teachers thinks so: CAUT versus Trinity Western. Against the homogenizing efforts of the CAUT, Regent College’s John Stackhouse commendably defends British Columbia’s Trinity Western University and similar institutions. However, his defence turns out to be a weak one at best:

To be sure, anyone who has actually worked in a secular university for more than about two weeks recognizes that there are ideological pressures there, too: to conform to the preferences of one’s departmental superiors who will be deciding on one’s tenure and promotion, to the fads of one’s discipline and to the priorities of granting agencies. Still, however compromised academic freedom might be, it is an ideal to be cherished and protected.

At the same time, however, I want to urge my fellow Canadian scholars to leave a space for the alternative of a community of scholars that can take a number of basic assumptions for granted and go on together to analyze a wide range of important questions. The synergy that comes from such shared intellectual commitments is simply not to be found in the secular university.

It is an obvious and yet important trade-off: the exciting stimulation of radical plurality versus the reinforcing energy of coherent perspectives. Both are truly educational and both therefore deserve the support of the academy and the Canadian public.

Stackhouse admits that there are constraints on academic freedom at a secular university, but he seems to view these as incidental and in principle capable of being dimished in the interest of seeking to implement this “ideal to be cherished and protected.”

Nevertheless, I think the constraints are more deeply rooted than he lets on here. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would be permitted to teach my own Political Visions and Illusions at one of Ontario’s provincial universities, principally because I use the categories of religion and idolatry to understand ideology. It is possible to conceive of a university in which Christians, Jews and Muslims could teach out of their own perspectives, but this would necessitate a radical reorientation of its mission, I should think. Moreover, even in such an apparently ideal institution there would be no getting away from the reality of “a number of basic assumptions [being taken] for granted,” these assumptions undergirding the educational enterprise as a whole.

Contra Stackhouse, the crucial difference is not between “radical plurality versus the reinforcing energy of coherent perspectives.” Indeed what goes by the label of radical plurality inevitably finds its home in a controlling context of nonfalsifiable pre-theoretical presuppositions, or what might be called a basic worldview. Of course, Stackhouse may well understand this but sees fit to tone it down for the readership of University Affairs, judging it more politic to argue for tolerance of dissent, so as better to resonate with his audience.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles