Uncritical, unthinking

Conservative English Major, a PhD candidate in English at an unnamed university, finds little respect for diversity by his fellow academics.

I recall when I started my PhD program that the professor I was “TA”ing for at the time, got all the TAs together and told us how to deal with “right wing assholes” who will try to steal the discussion and push their narrow views on the class.

I made a comment about how, yeah, extreme views on either side of the spectrum are bad when taken overboard – what is needed is real discussion considering all the sides of the issue.

I was given an odd look and told that liberals are never wrong and their views are appropriate for class, since liberals are open-minded and tolerant and that’s what higher education is about: liberalizing the students.

Silly me, I thought it was about clear and honest discussion of all sides of an issue.

CEM is a TA for a professor who teaches a general education literature class. The prof “admitted he chooses works of literature that are anti-religious because he wants to show the students how idiotic it is to be religious.”

Via Erin O’Connor, who faced similar experiences when she in grad school in 1991. A Critical Mass reader adds another example:

I was a TA for a British lit survey class, in which we were discussing Milton. Of course, the only important thing about Milton was what a sexist he was, and we spent some three days of lecture looking at his negative depiction of Eve. For the most part, this consisted of looking at select passages and simply noting how sexist he was.

Many students began asking questions about Milton’s theology. The response of the professor was — I kid you not — that she was a post-Christian, and that she didn’t think a discussion of Christianity was important to an understanding of Milton.

‘Cause Milton never wrote on religious themes.

About Joanne


  1. I heard a similar story from a gal who was beginning her grad school career at a very prestigious, secular university in Texas. History department, I believe, and she was a devout Catholic, although I don’t think anyone in the dept. had figured it out yet.

    One of the topics that came up at one of the first department meetings for TAs was how important it was for the undergrad students to lose their faith, since faith was apparently some kind of impediment to doing real historical research. Very scary. I never heard how she got through the program, although knowing what a tough kid she was I suspect she did it somehow.

  2. I looked up “Milton” and “sexist” and I got this link: http://www.pinkmonkey.com/booknotes/barrons/paradis13.asp

    For an English class, they should be studying Milton for his influence on English literature and language, and only tertiarily (if that is a word) for his imprint on English / European social attitudes. That last is better suited for the History department.

    As for whether Milton-era “sexism” was good or bad for that time or this time – that’s Philosophy-fodder.

  3. Personally, i think any preconceived notion is a real impediment to critical thinking. Never mind “critical thinking;” rational thought in general.

    But universities – even Bob Jones University – are full of folks who are so sure of the answers, they needn’t tarry with trivia.

    …but then, academia is a microcosm of life, ain’t it? :^>

    I think we need to remember that education is not indoctrination – and especially when one is paying for education, one should not accept shoddy substitutes.

  4. Fortunatley, in my department (math), politics is much less of an issue.

  5. jeff wright says:

    This is a surprise?

  6. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Can you study history properly if you believe a particular religion is almost all good? If you start from the premise that Islam is the only true way, and the West deserves suicide bombers? If you believe history is steered by a God who disapproves of condoms more strongly than He disapproves of raping children? If you believe Earth is 6000 years old? We don’t call it “faith” if the evidence for a belief is all that strong. Losing faith is a necessity for objective study.

  7. Ken Summers says:

    Nice straw men, Richard. Your assignment for tonight is to count up how many unwarranted, bigoted assumptions about religion are in that statement.

  8. I disagree with your assessment that a person have to lose his/her faith for objective study . If your post is true,then why are there many so called objective historical studies made by atheists,agnostics and the like are more bias driven than people who profess their faith . The correct view should be,to remove political leanings,biases as well as preconcieve notions in order to obtain a reasonably objective study on history .

  9. There is a place for faith – but it’s not in a classroom.

    In classrooms, one has to learn to deal with facts and manipulate data. Pretending that faith IS data is as bad as saying that since there is no data to support faith (by definition), faith is false.

    Frankly, one’s faith should be irrelevant. Pitch or catch.

    Save for this ONE niggling little point – one should first be able to evaluate something that is taken on faith -say, for example, “Trickle-Down” economics or the premise that Affirmitive Action is a moral good – and see if there ARE data that relate to outcomes and thereby reflect back on it.

    Faith that can actually be altered by factual data is NOT faith, it’s simply some form of preconcieved notion, having nothing to do with Gnosis of any form.

    And frankly, if some ultra-liberal twitterpate or some uberconservative authoritarian bigot CAN affect your faith by argument – it’s time to question whether you ever DID have any faith at all, or if it was just a series of comforting assumptions.

    In 9th grade, I was taught religion by Jesuits. I’m not Catholic and they thought that beside the point entirely. Trying to inutit their faith, if any, from the arguements they engendered was like trying to staple jello to to concrete.

    It was a little disturbing, actually for them to make the distinction between religion and faith and lead us to the realization that the two had nothing nessecarily to do with each other.

    Faith is something that can ONLY be addressed personally and internally – if it offers any handle for real discussion, it’s something else entirely – and fair game!

    Mind you, the other unspoken assumption here is that the purpose of education is to teach facts.

    Nonsense; it’s to teach means of eliciting facts from piles of possibly relevant data – in othere words, it’s how to ask good questions. The actual answers are almost irrelevant – save as a validation for the process so that it can be relied upon when the “right answer” is not yet known.

  10. “There is a place for faith – but it’s not in a classroom.”


    My daughter’s biology teacher in 9th grade told the kids this on the first day: “We are going to learn about evolution in this classroom. I believe in a creator God and I see no conflict with evolution. No one in this room is going to be asked to set aside his or her beliefs.” They never had to address that subject for the rest of the school year, which is how it should be.

    But I think it would be a ridiculous waste of time and energy to study Milton and ignore his religious beliefs. His beliefs were what drove him to write what he did. In other words, the “piles of relevant data” from which one is to elicit facts would just about have to include Milton’s religious beliefs, unless the student is supposed to limit himslf to a shallow and fairly irrelevant study of Milton’s sexism. I guess a student could study the religious thought of his day to see how original his ideas were, how controversial his work might have been, and so forth, without comparing all that to the student’s personal faith (if any) but what’s the big deal if he does?

  11. From graphic truth:
    “Mind you, the other unspoken assumption here is that the purpose of education is to teach facts. Nonsense; it’s to teach means of eliciting facts from piles of possibly relevant data – in othere words, it’s how to ask good questions. The actual answers are almost irrelevant – save as a validation for the process so that it can be relied upon when the “right answer” is not yet known.”

    That’s really an amazingly oversimplistic view of education – I sincerely hope you are not a teacher. Of course, part of a good education is learning how to ask questions, but let me ask you a question: should all instructional hours for all twelve years actually be spent only learning “to ask good questions”? That should generate some interesting lesson plans! More seriously, I have a BS in mechanical engineering, and believe me, the vast majority of the courses I took taught hard facts, and how to apply them. Is my degree disfunctional because I was taught facts (irrelevant according to you) on properties of various materials, rather than how to ask questions? The bridges you cross without thinking about their design were indeed designed by people who were taught facts, and I suspect you would really rather have it that way.

  12. To study Milton, while ignoring his religious beliefs, reveals this professor’s rank ignorance. It’s all good fun to pick out his depictions of Eve, which if uttered by your neighbor would count as sexism. Without the historical context, and the theological arguments Milton addressed thereby, a great body of thought can be reduced to dribble which scans.

    In addition, during Milton’s life, anything touching religion was highly political. At various times, any public stand on either side of the great theological divide could get you killed.

    This person is teaching literature? British lit is certainly much less interesting when leached of all historical, political, and religious associations. When I hear such blanket dismissals of Christianity, I suspect the person dismissing it doesn’t have the native intelligence necessary to understand and debate theological points. This is not a question of faith. Whether you believe the world was created by God, or little green men, an academic purporting to teach the literature of any period, of any culture, should know the basic intellectual theories and sentiments of that period.

    Of course, if the professor chose to spend three days of lecture time in a survey course looking at Milton’s “sexist” portrayal of Eve, I suspect that this “post-Christian” was ignorant of 1) religion, 2) history, 3) the societal context of Milton’s writings, and 4) poetics. How else can I explain such a limited choice of topics? Milton’s work is ridiculously rich in potential topics for lecture, particularly in a survey course. If the professor was not ill-educated, I would say that her own, post-Christian faith crippled the instruction she offered students.

  13. To throw in my two cents: I’m an agnostic (albeit one with very strong atheistic tendencies). I won’t say that I KNOW what exists and what doesn’t. I don’t, obviously – if I could PROVE either way that god/gods/goddesses/whatever existed or didn’t, then I’d be rich. Not to mention the fact that I could end this debate pretty handily, eh?

    So: atheism is am much an article of faith as theism (and that’s small-t theism, not Big-T Theism). Atheism is the faith that there is NO deity of any sort. In short, you can’t prove that god/s/desses/etc don’t exist, either. So to claim that an atheist historian is somehow unbiased in a way that a theist is not is quite frankly ridiculous; they are plainly biased in favor of atheism.

    Further: there simply is no such thing as an unbiased historian. Every historian brings with him or her an enormous set of assumtions, and a good reader must account for as many of these as possible when reading a text by that historian.

    For a good example, read later-Roman Empire texts by pagans and Christians; many depict the same events in completely different lights, and it’s quite likely that neither version is absolutely correct.

    Anyway, the same thing applies to all historical texts. You have to know the writer and know his/her biases to be able to even begin to understnad the texts.

  14. Well, Doug, I grant that there’s a difference between a Liberal Arts degree and an engineering degree- but all the same, if you are desinging a bridge I’m driving across, I’d really PREFER you looked the facts up, instead of relying on your memory. I mean, if it’s all the same to you. 🙂

    So yeah, I think I’m still essentially correct in this; learning materials properties is aboute evaluating facts, not about memorizing materials properties – it’s more, “hm, what can I do with a tonne of THIS cool stuff!”

  15. Doug, I can’t speak for Grpahic Truth, but I will assert that what he says about education being about asking questions applies completely to any in-depth study of history. Sure, I beleive Hirsch was right about cultural literacy, you have to know facts in order to be able to know much else.

    That is, it’s essential to know that the Boston Tea Party happened in late 1773 in order to place it in context with the other events that led to the Revolutionary War in order to understand both why the War happened and why the Tea Party was important. However, while dates, names, places, etc are quite necessary to being able to ask good questions, they are simply a means to that end and certainly not an end in and of themselves.

    And of course, this doesn’t apply so much to, engineering, low-level math and physics (high-level math and physics are all but philosophy), and any number of other disciplines – but it does apply to many of the liberal arts.

    Last thing: To respond to the article, I think it’s important to see as many aspects of a writer as possible. However, Milton’s writing style and religious themes are far more important than his sexism – practically everyone was sexist in Milton’s time, but almost none of them were writers or theologians of his caliber. So yeah, which is more important?

  16. Nick & Graphictruth – I’m in complete agreement that knowing when, what, and how to question are essential and must be taught and learned. Memories like mine are not to be trusted! Again, my reaction is to the statement that “the actual answers are almost irrelevant” -in my opinion that’s a sweeping oversimplification. If teaching is practiced from only that position I’m afraid students will be shortchanged. I think Nick might agree, in light of the mention of the necessity of knowing “facts” in order to analyze history. To sum up, if facts aren’t important, why ask questions to learn them in the first place?

  17. “Losing faith is a necessity for objective study.”

    Spend time in any social science or humanities department and you will meet many academics who embrace post-modernism, post-colonialism, Marxism, etc. with as much faith as a Trappist novice.

  18. I would put C.S. Lewis up against this professor any day of the week and he (Lewis) would make mincemeat of him. *Especially* about Milton. Not because he was religious but because he was superbly educated. And stangely enough, he didn’t find knowing “facts” any barrier to his faith.

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