"I’ve been asking my friends on the academic left what rights conservative students have, in an era of a university culture obsessed with trauma." (Freddie deBoer)
The motto of my alma matter, the University of Calgary, is taken from Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes.” It evokes the widening of horizons that has traditionally been associated with a university education. We sometimes forget, it seems to me, that “academic” knowledge is precisely the sort of thing that, when presented to young men and women, typically between the ages of 17 and 23, will raise their sights and broaden their vistas. It is important to notice what this implies: before arriving at university their minds are somewhat narrower, their view of the world somewhat more parochial. The university experience is fundamentally that of having your pet ideas challenged by a wider view.
To put this in its perhaps starkest terms, imagine a freshman, 18 years old, who believes that homosexuality is immoral—bad for the soul. It is not difficult to imagine where a young man might get such an idea. His parents and his pastor, let’s say, have been quite clear that homosexuality is contrary to the will of God, not “conducive to human flourishing,” as some evangelicals like to put it. Let us assume, further, that he is a congenial, curious and compassionate human being, intelligent and understanding in his interactions with others. As a Christian, he is committed to loving the sinner, even where he hates the sin, and he is used to being around people whose lifestyle he disapproves of, while remaining courteous and helpful to them. He comes from a good home, never having doubted the love of his family.
In order to make this interesting, however, let us suppose that he is destined, over the next four years, to change his mind about homosexuality, and therefore to a certain extent about Christianity. Like I say, he is naturally curious, and once removed from the direct influence of his parents and pastor, he will “lift his eyes” and consider novel points of view. Indeed, while at university, he will discover that he is himself gay, and, like so many other college students, before he graduates he will meet the man he will marry. Applying his intelligence, he will find a way to reconcile his love of Jesus with this unexpected love of a man. He will go from following the ministry of someone like John “Desiring God” Piper, perhaps, to something more like that of Rob “Love Wins!” Bell.
Needless to say, this will be a major life crisis for him. He will have to find a way to come out with his parents, who will in turn have to decide whether to accept his new lifestyle. He may have siblings who have not yet lifted up their own eyes. It’s a difficult situation for him, and all of it will be happening at a time when he is also earning his first university degree. Given his intelligence and interests, let us say he is destined to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, to graduate with honors, and to enter the law school of his choice. Once there, he should once again do very well, eventually becoming a very successful civil rights lawyer. It will not be an easy life, perhaps, but it will be a rich one.
I have said he is “destined” for one or another outcome a couple of times now. What I mean is that these things are “in his nature”, part of his developing set of dispositions. By the time he gets to university his personality and character have been shaped in a certain way, with some moveable and some immovable parts. He has a certain intellectual aptitude and a certain set of interests. He is emotionally predisposed to fall in love with a particular man who happens to be attending the same university at the same time. If left to his natural inclinations, I am saying, this is what we would expect to happen.
But what actually happens—whether he “fulfills his destiny”—will of course depend on all manner of happenstance and circumstance. A beautiful (or tragic) accident will (or will not) bring him together with the man of his dreams. And favorable (or unfavorable) institutions will (or will not) allow him to pursue his happiness. We have already touched on his family and his church as institutions that will either help or hinder his development toward his future identity. But what about his university? This is the question I want to raise. Given his destiny, what should it be like for our young hero to attend four years of university? What sort of experience do we wish on him?
He’s a history major, let’s remember. So let us suppose he takes a course called “Civil Rights in the 20th Century.” He might have expected it to cover mainly the struggle of African Americans for equality since the 1960s, but is quickly enlightened about the struggle for women’s and LGBTQ rights during roughly the same period. While he has long taken the philosophy of Martin Luther King as gospel, as a freshman his traditional Christian values are still less amenable to expansive freedoms for women and gays. Moreover, he is somewhat shocked at the fervor with which these ideas are presented, somewhat confused by the “appropriation” of the “We shall overcome!” rhetoric. But he’s here to learn and he will do what he can to understand the course material.
What about his personal views about the immorality of homosexuality? While his destiny is to abandon these views, he has not yet begun the transformation. How should he feel about expressing them and discussing them? If he did, should his words be denounced as “hate speech” or opposed with arguments like any other opinion? Should he be browbeaten into silence in the name of a “social justice” it is his destiny to one day represent in the courts? Where, and how, should he be able to express his vision of “human flourishing”? How, and when, should it be challenged? Should he be exposed to speakers that help him to articulate it more clearly, thereby opening it to the criticism of others who can help him carefully dismantle it? Should speakers on both sides of the issue be brought together before him, engaged in vigorous, enlightened debate?
These are rhetorical questions on my part of course. While you may not agree with my answers, I hope we can agree that the questions are timely. We need to talk about what it should be like for our young hero to attend four years of college. There are some who would make it hell for him. Some of them, ignorant of his destiny, would do this quite deliberately. Others would perhaps excuse his treatment as the necessary cost of “progress”. While they might regret the inconvenience done to this particular young man, whose heart is in the right place, if at the wrong time, they don’t want to risk according even a modicum of respect to the true, “ingrained”, incorrigible "homophobe". I would encourage these people to lift up their eyes a little too and take a wider view. All I am proposing is, indeed, a modicum of respect. It is, I would argue, what the university is all about.