The Conversation Continues

An institution deeply rooted in its own core traditions enjoys a particular freedom to entertain, explore and engage with a multiplicity of perspectives.

It was my first class as a student at St. Norbert and there we were, right out of the gate, identifying some key human questions -– and one of them was “Is there a God?” I was shocked. Coming from seminary to a Catholic college, I think I had assumed we would be taught what the Magisterium said, and that it would be that to which we would be held accountable. 

But this was Intro to Philosophy, taught by Bob Vanden Burgt (Philosophy, Emeritus), where we talked about Plato but also about Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. It was a genuine, free discussion and there was no heavy-handedness about it. As a student in the 1970s, I learned here that the classroom was a special haven. As I got to learn about academic freedom, I came to understand that this college, and other colleges, are special places where we have an unusual opportunity to talk freely together; where we can let our imaginations run; where we have the privilege of thinking out loud and testing out ideas. I felt almost like an eagle, soaring. It made me want to listen more, to try and understand.

I remember being surprised and impressed by how non-judgmental professors were in their presentations of perspectives that were often not considered “orthodox.” They wanted us to understand diverse views and appreciate both the strengths and limitations of them. They encouraged understanding before criticizing or dismissing ideas that were different. It was essentially an experience of Norbertine hospitality: not only of seeing how that key Norbertine value was lived in the classroom through the professors’ friendliness and concern – and many of them were, in fact, Norbertine priests – but of seeing how diverse perspectives and views were welcomed, presented and discussed.

As a scholar, I have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the academic context of my own student experience and, as a teacher, to this day, I continue to live in that tradition. I try to avoid caricature of positions and strive to have students understand the nuances of diverse perspectives. In my discipline of religious studies, that means welcome discussion of, for instance, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, mainline religious perspectives or atheism. 

As for my own faith, I think that, at one time, I found God more in the answers. Now, I find God in the questions – in the probing and the challenging. Our best moments of asking the toughest questions are buoyed up by the spirit of God. I’ve really become aware of the mystery of a living God who surprises us – sometimes uncomfortably.

Freedom and responsibility
It should be noted that understanding positions does not mean accepting or approving them. As I tell my students, to be open-minded does not mean to be empty-minded. All the same, such academic freedom, critical as it is, is often misunderstood by many outside of higher education and, at times, even by those within the academy.

Too often, academic freedom is seen as a professor’s right to say whatever he or she wants to in the classroom or other public venues – in other words, unrestricted and unconstrained free speech. Such an understanding of academic freedom is a serious misunderstanding of this necessary professional privilege, and not reflective of my own experience. 

The Statement on Academic Freedom published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) makes it clear that this privilege extends only to the area of a professor’s training and competence. It does not mean that, as a theology professor, I can say anything I want on any matter. Rather, it means that I can present material and probe areas that are in my area of academic expertise. In my case, that is Christian theology, specifically Catholic theology. Even in this specific area, I must represent the tradition accurately and be ready to explain/defend claims to questioning students in the classroom, and to fellow theologians at conferences and in publications. 

Additionally, the AAUP parameters remind professors to acknowledge the limited and partial nature of their disciplinary approach. In other words, I cannot enter the classroom and make sweeping statements in the area of politics or economics, or in the vast array of other disciplines in which I am not trained. 

While it is important to recognize the constraints that are embedded in the principle of academic freedom, it is critical to also acknowledge the protection that it offers for critical inquiry. 

First, a teacher/scholar can follow his or her quest for greater knowledge unimpeded by external powers and influences. This is critical so that the pursuit of truth can proceed according to the internal dynamics and traditions of specific disciplines. It should be noted that this protection against external intervention is also critical for the well-being of today’s society, in which special interests and powers – be they political, economical or ecclesiastical – too often drive the flow of “public information.” Academic freedom seeks to carve out a space where these extrinsic forces are held to a minimum. 

Second, the AAUP definition implicitly recognizes that each area of knowledge and skills – each academic discipline – has a tradition, and an intrinsic method and history, that needs to be honored without extrinsic interruption. Each discipline needs to be seen as an ongoing conversation, a conversation with its own dynamic and rules of discourse.

The St. Norbert context
As a Catholic, Norbertine liberal arts college, St. Norbert offers a unique context in which the principle of academic freedom takes on a distinctive texture. The reality of academic freedom as I have experienced it here as a student, and as a professor and administrator, both accentuates and elaborates the core AAUP understanding of academic freedom. 

St. Norbert, like other institutions of higher learning, formally upholds the AAUP description of academic freedom. The exposure of students to a wide range of perspectives and the development of their critical thinking skills is the heart of a liberal arts education. We professors are to encourage and challenge students to engage critically the material presented in classes. We don’t tell students what to think; rather we have them think critically and creatively about the material in front of them. 

Specifically, in theology, I present orthodox teaching, with its rationale, and challenge students to understand and analyze it. This requires me not only to present the position and its best arguments, but also to make students aware of criticisms of it and other viable, contemporary views. So, in my Introduction to Theology class, students read Freud, Marx and Nietzsche along with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila and Rahner. 

In similar ways, my own research on the question of God and evil in the world (that is, theodicy) is marked not only with knowledge of past theological understandings but also a critical appraisal of them.

The reality of academic freedom in a Catholic college context underscores the reality that any genuine freedom is more than simply a “freedom from”; it is a “freedom for.” It does not mean a release from all restrictions and constraints. Rather, the Catholic intellectual tradition argues that academic freedom carries with it inevitable responsibilities. 

Specifically, the pursuit of truth in any discipline should not further only the advantage of the professor, the few or the privileged. Rather it should be beneficial for all, and especially the most vulnerable in society. This emphasis on the common good means that I, as a professor, must not let my own idiosyncratic likes and preferences determine what material I present to students. Instead, I must ask the larger question of how course content leads students to grapple with the pressing issues confronting humanity. 

Furthermore, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and especially the Catholic theological tradition, encourages the use of reason and critical thought as a way to explore the very mystery of God. The tradition has argued that faith and reason are not contradictory realities but rather complementary. Faith and reason must stay in conversation with each other. As Pope John Paul II reminded us, “Faith without reason is superstition, and reason without faith is idolatry.” 

The Norbertine tradition further contextualizes the reality of academic freedom, with its emphasis on radical hospitality. This is experienced on campus on a variety of levels – from friendliness, to helping out someone in need, to extending congratulations for various successes, to condolences for loss. An essential characteristic of such hospitality is a genuine interest in and openness to the other, the stranger. In a world more and more driven by quick dismissals that caricature opposing viewpoints, I believe it is essential that we continue to foster this aspect of a Norbertine education.

And the Norbertine emphasis on addressing the needs of the local community further accentuates my responsibility to structure my classes and my research in ways that address needs – not in some abstract and vacuous fashion, but concretely and specifically. This focus has also led me to explore the place of some form of service-learning opportunity as an addition, or possible requirement, to my current courses.

A privilege to cherish
Academic freedom cannot be taken for granted. It would be wrong to think that its reality and practice can be without tension and controversies. 

For instance, the distinction between teaching and/or advocating ideas in the classroom is a delicate and complex issue. Some might ask, does our identity as a religious foundation – specifically as a Catholic, Norbertine institution – mean there are certain ideas that simply cannot or should not be discussed? These are difficult questions, yet where better to air them or – even more important – where else should they be aired? 

There are subtle, and not so subtle, forms of power and influence that try to subvert the open and free exchange and exploration of ideas. But my experience as a student, teacher and scholar at St. Norbert has affirmed that the college has been vigilant in protecting this essential trait of higher education. Academic freedom is a legacy that is both a gift and a responsibility. It is a great heritage, and we are privileged to stand in such a tradition.