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A Decade on Campus

The dominant philosophies on secular campuses are not Christian, and could even be described as actively anti-Christian. But while a Christian student just starting college or university has good reason to be concerned, I strongly believe that a student who works hard and treats people with respect will be treated with respect in turn.

I became a believing Christian during my undergraduate years and later went on to graduate school at two different universities. In total, I had nine years as a Christian in secular universities. My experiences gave me a particular outlook on how a Christian student should approach his or her studies in secular institutions. Different people will encounter different circumstances, so I wouldn't want to lay down a set of proposed rules for Christian students. This article is just "for what it's worth" based on my own observations and experiences. I was in a social science field, so my views apply primarily to the study of social sciences.

 

 

 Observations From a Long-Time Student

 

By Michael Wagner

 

wagnerPublished in the September, 2010 issue of Reformed Perspective magazine(http://reformedperspective.ca/), pages 14-16.

 

     The dominant philosophies on secular campuses are not Christian, and could even be described as actively anti-Christian. But while a Christian student just starting college or university has good reason to be concerned, I strongly believe that a student who works hard and treats people with respect will be treated with respect in turn.

Nine years as a Christian on campus

     I became a believing Christian during my undergraduate years and later went on to graduate school at two different universities. In total, I had nine years as a Christian in secular universities. My experiences gave me a particular outlook on how a Christian student should approach his or her studies in secular institutions. Different people will encounter different circumstances, so I wouldn't want to lay down a set of proposed rules for Christian students. This article is just "for what it's worth" based on my own observations and experiences. I was in a social science field, so my views apply primarily to the study of social sciences.

     I became a Christian just before my second undergraduate year. My new church was conservative and evangelical, but not Reformed. So I didn’t have a Reformed worldview—the prevailing worldview of my new Christian circle was dualistic: serving the Lord involved praying, evangelism and explicitly Christian activities, everything else was of the "world."

     In this respect, my university studies were not an integral part of my Christian life. I was expected to be a good student, but I did not have a Christian way of thinking about areas of study. I felt a strange unease with many of my subjects because there often seemed tobe information that challenged my Christian beliefs and I didn't know how to handle that information intellectually.

     Anyway, after finishing my undergraduate degree I discovered Reformed theology. To make a long story short, the apologetical approach of Cornelius Van Til changed my thinking entirely and helped me to understand a comprehensively Christian approach to looking at many things in life, including my studies in the social sciences. Most of all, it gave me the confidence to face challenging perspectives and ideologies without feeling that my Christian beliefs were being undermined.

     Christian students and other conservative students are going to face challenging information and perspectives at secular (and even Christian) colleges and universities. That's a fact of life. The big question is, how should they respond to these kinds of challenges?

1. Seek help from conservative experts.

Conservative scholars

     First of all, it’s very helpful to find out who the conservative scholars are in a particular field. There are conservative political scientists, historians, economists, sociologists, etc. A Christian student who is beginning to study in one or more of these areas will benefit by becoming familiar with the conservative scholarship in that area. Many of these conservative scholars do not have a specifically Christian perspective, but understanding their work can often help provide an intellectual bulwark against the reigning left-wing orthodoxies in those fields.

     For me, discovering the work of conservative intellectuals in my field (political science) helped boost my confidence enormously. For the first few years of my undergraduate degree I thought all academics were left-wing, because all of the material we studied in class was basically left-wing. I don’t recall any classes where I was introduced to conservative scholarship, except perhaps for the purpose of mockery. Although academic work in the social sciences is dominated by leftists, there are important conservative scholars whose work is recognized in their fields.

Conservative organizations

     There are also organizations that can be helpful for conservative students looking for intellectual support. One is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or ISI (www.isi.org). It’s not a Christian organization as such, but its purpose is to help college and university students defend the principles that underlie Western civilization. Another good one is the Claremont Institute (www.claremont.org). Again, it is not specifically Christian, but it focuses on the philosophical defence of traditional Western positions. These two organizations are not activist groups with student chapters, but provide academic information buttressing conservative views and perspectives.

2. Just be a student.

     Secondly, I think it is important for a student to approach his or her post-secondary institution as a student. That might sound strange, but I’m trying to make a point about the different attitudes people have when they go to school.

     When I went to university I saw myself as a student. I was going to university to learn from the professors. I knew most professors were left-wing and would favour left-wing perspectives, so I wasn't under any illusions that way. But my purpose for going to university was to learn, to get the education that I needed, not to change the university or the people there.

     There are horror stories about Christian and conservative students being mistreated by professors. No doubt there are cases like that, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule. Most professors are professional in their attitude and just want to be treated with respect like anyone else. Generally they're nice people. If someone is a good student,works hard, and treats people with respect, he or she is likely to be treated in the same manner, even if he or she is a Christian and conservative.

     Students who study the social sciences and humanities at a secular post-secondary institution are likely going to be taught from a left-wing, non-Christian perspective. If the student is self-conscious of this fact from the outset, he or she does not need to fear. There is no compromise involved in learning our opponents' theories and perspectives and showing a proper respect for people who hold those views.

     Personally, I benefited tremendously from learning various left-wing perspectives. In fact, nothing helped me more to understand the weaknesses of socialist theory than gaining a deep understanding of that theory. Oftentimes it's easier to construct an effective criticism of a perspective or philosophy when you know it inside out. And there’s no doubt that anyone can learn non-Christian and anti-Christian views at secular colleges and universities.

     Some people may view my approach as being one of compromise. I know that when I was in graduate school some of my Christian acquaintances would ask sneeringly, “How can someone with your views survive at that university?” The implication was that I must have been compromising my views to get by.

     In fact, I knew one conservative Christian university student who would basically accuse me of being a compromiser. His approach in any class he took was to be outwardly confrontational. He wanted to publicly challenge every comment by a student or professor that disagreed with his Christian perspective. It seemed like he saw it as his task to change the university by convincing the students and professors to adopt conservative Christian perspectives. He was going to straighten out all those left-wing professors and student organizations, and put them in their place. So every time he heard something he disagreed with--boom!--he swung into action. He wasn’t going to let those leftists get away with anything without an argument. As a result, his university life was miserable and full of controversy. Eventually he dropped out.

     Personally, I don’t think his approach achieved anything. He needlessly offended lots of people and contributed to the stereotype of conservative Christians being loudmouthed and angry.

     He saw me as a compromiser because I focused on my studies rather than spending my time fighting unnecessary and pointless battles. But the Lord put me in university to acquire knowledge and credentials, and I wanted to put first things first.

     Don’t get me wrong. It’s good and necessary to stick up for Christian principles at times,but students need to pick their battles carefully. When a point must be made, it needs to be made in a spirit of meekness and humility. Being seen as an argumentative person won’t help the cause.

     The fellow I just referred to isn’t the only one to take that confrontational approach to student life. The year before I attended a particular graduate school, another conservative student had been expelled from the program I was about to enter. He was interviewed in the media and stated that he was kicked out because of his conservative views. That made me fearful for my prospects in the program. So I spoke to a professor who knew that fellow and was sympathetic to him. Basically, this professor said the guy was overzealous and very pushy about his views. Then I spoke to another graduate student who was in the program with that student and I got the same story in more colourful words. Basically, the guy who got expelled was a hothead. Even the people who liked him said he had a temper problem. He had to confront someone every time he heard an idea he disagreed with. There’s no need for that.

3. Most profs will appreciate hard work.

     When I began that graduate program I had a course with a female professor who seemed hostile to me. She knew I was conservative and didn’t like that. I could sense tension in her presence. Then for one of her classes we had to do readings in a particular aspect of feminist theory and discuss them in class. I didn’t agree with the material at all, but I worked hard to be ready for the discussion, and it paid off. She was impressed by my grasp of the issues and stated she could tell I'd done a lot of work. That changed her attitude towards me completely. I had not relinquished my views, but we had a positive change in our relationship because I proved that I was a serious student. I could discuss the material knowledgeably and respectfully. I think most professors, whatever their views, will treat Christian students with respect if the students work hard and treat others with respect.

     Later I had another experience that helped me to understand that many professors sincerely want their students to be exposed to various perspectives. I was a teaching assistant for a liberal professor in a class that covered controversial issues, including abortion. He called me into his office one day and said something like, “You’re pro-life,right?” Of course, I answered “yes.” So he asked if I would take one whole class to present the pro-life position. Not both sides on the issue, just the pro-life position. I was flabbergasted at such an opportunity. The students would get the “pro-choice” position as well, but from some other source. The point is, though, that this professor wanted his students to get an accurate presentation of the pro-life side, even though he personally supported abortion. There are plenty of professors who want their students to get a good grasp of the various ideas and perspectives in our society, even ones they disagree with personally.

     In most cases professors are good people and won’t gratuitously punish a Christian student who works hard, takes the subject seriously, and treats other people respectfully. That’s my experience, anyway.

Conclusion

     A college or university is a tool to gain the knowledge needed for a career. It can be a dangerous tool, but used rightly it can help even Christian students to develop in their callings and thereby serve the Lord. The atmosphere is often hostile to Christian perspectives, but in most cases that can be managed.

     You don’t go to university to straighten people out. You go to university to get an education. So get your education and be a good witness by being a good student. You are going to hear lots of information that contradicts your views but that’s okay. It doesn’t hurt to learn non-Christian perspectives if you understand that they aren’t Christian and shouldn’t be embraced.

     I had a very positive experience at university so my analysis and advice is coloured by that positive experience. Some Christian students have apparently had very bad experiences with hostile people at secular universities. So you might want to get a second opinion that disagrees with what I’ve written. But I strongly believe that a student who works hard and treats people with respect will be treated with respect in turn, even if he or she holds Christian views.