The Economist situates within the culture wars the pending lawsuit against the University of California, in which the plaintiffs accuse the UC admissions officials of discriminating against Christian high school graduates who took courses taught from textbooks published by Bob Jones University.
Welcome to the latest front in America’s culture wars. The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the Calvary Chapel Schools and six Calvary Chapel students are suing the university, whose campuses include that traditional bastion of liberal thought, Berkeley, as well as the huge UCLA campus, for what they call “viewpoint discrimination”. The Christian schools add that the university is violating the students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and religion. The university naturally denies the charges, and this week a federal judge in Los Angeles began considering the preliminary arguments of a contest which could eventually reach the Supreme Court.
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UC denies it practices secular intolerance and “viewpoint discrimination”. It notes that it has approved plenty of courses at Christian schools and in the past four years has accepted 24 of the 32 applicants from the Murrieta school. And it says that if the courses had used these textbooks “as supplementary, rather than primary, texts, it is likely they would have been approved.”
What is really being challenged, says the university, is its right to set its own academic standards and admission requirements. In which case the question is what that right implies. The Christian plaintiffs say they have no objection to science students, for example, being taught conventional wisdom, but “their constitutional rights are abridged or discriminated against when they are told that the current interpretation of scientific method must be taught dogmatically, and must be accepted by students, to be eligible for admission to University of California institutions.” In other words, what the case involves is not so much the now-familiar tussle over intelligent design, but a student’s freedom of speech and thought.
The Economist thinks that this conflict will escalate until evangelicals play a greater role in higher education.
Fifty years ago there were only a handful of “megachurches”, drawing more than 2,000 each Sunday; today, there are more than 1,200 such churches, three of them with congregations of over 20,000. Not only is the nation’s president a born-again Christian, but so (according to the Pew Research Centre) are 54% of America’s Protestants, who are 30% of the population.
Will America’s public universities take on a similar tinge? To the extent that educational establishments reflect cultural reality, it may be inevitable. After all, before the liberal era of the 1960s, there were no such things as courses in “Women’s Studies” or “African-American Studies”. Now, no prudent American university would be without them. It would be odd if conservative Christians did not leave similar footprints on the syllabus.
I think the Economist is right on both counts: this issue is much larger than Calvary Chapel’s perceived lack of standards, and this kind of conflict is not likely to disappear.
I know nothing about Calvary Chapel’s quality of education in particular, but having some familiarity with the Christian school movement, I’m fairly confident that UC’s claims are not really about standards. Often, many students educated in the Christian school movement are better-prepared than their secular counterparts in this sense: they learn both the secular dogmas as well as the religious ones. For example, I’ll wager that a good student at Calvary Chapel would be able to explain the theory of evolution as well as creationism, whereas we would expect her public high school counterpart to know only about evolution.
The same is true of conservative students in general. Because those with liberal political views dominate the American higher education system, conservatives are forced to learn both languages. The UC officials should appreciate how that tension–between politically liberal educators’ beliefs and conservatives’ beliefs–actually offers some pedagogical advantages. For one thing, a somewhat adversarial position and skeptical mind on the part of the student further critical thinking skills. For another, the different beliefs and cultural background of conservatives further universities’ vaunted “diversity.”
However, the cynic in me suspects that the UC officials are less interested in improved critical thinking and cultural or viewpoint diversity than in hegemony over California’s secondary schools.