I asked the reader to drop me an e-mail to let me know what he/she meant by these remarks. The reader did — and I am posting, with their permission, an edited version of the e-mail (edited to protect their job). I know the reader’s identity and the institution at which the reader teaches:
Students who are fired up by social justice issues, including race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are “well-catechized.” Given the chance to write on topics of their choice in the required composition classes, they take to their politics with energy and zeal and a good amount of firepower to help them. It’s not well-researched, not deep reading, but they are building on what they have read. Even though my part of the US is considered a Christian- and Catholic-dominant area, in comparison the Christian and Catholic students do not write about anything remotely faith-related (even though I say all perspectives are welcome), not even from a secular conservative viewpoint. The two reasons for that are 1) everyone knows how unpopular that would be, and 2) Catholics and Evangelical/Pentecostal Christians seem not to be catechized in the basics of their faith, much less conservatism, much less the growing threat to religious freedom. It’s not on their radar. They are completely unaware of it.
I’ve taught composition in my state’s university system for roughly 20 years, as a part-timer and full-timer. I’ve done this work as an atheist, Evangelical and a Catholic (at first fervent and then less fervent as the abuse crisis dragged on).
Being neutral toward students and issues is considered the proper ethical stand for comp teachers. Composition is, in my opinion, something of a non-subject to begin with. Then, on top of that, at most colleges the required course has no content. Students bring topics from their lives to fill that void.
When I first taught this course in the early 90s, I was the freakish left-liberal atheist who had to refrain from imposing my viewpoints on my students, who were in those days strong Catholics and Evangelicals who were adequately versed in their faith traditions.
Today, I am still a freak, but now a more-or-less conservative/sometimes libertarian traditional Catholic convert who does not want to impose my views on left-liberal atheists, adiaphorists, MTD Catholics and the handful of Southern Baptists. Announcing my point of view would probably embolden my leftist students and completely silence my students of faith.
I do assignments that include having my students make a long list of things they think about, have questions about, care about, etc. So early on, I have a good idea of what my students are like and what they might write about.
To go back to the main point, students with social justice and other left-leaning interests have great passion for their views and have obviously done some reading. It becomes my job to help them better their papers about LGBT+ rights or “why religion should not exist” etc.
I do ask them to consider other points of view than their own and incorporate that into their paper. I have often directed students to The American Conservative as a resource for finding those alternative or opposing views.
But there was a day last week when in one class, every student I helped was advocating ideas which, if extended, would either result in a confrontation with religious liberty or would, if enacted, curtail or end it.
It’s a strange job helping the next generation to destroy the traditional view of the world, but someone has to do it.
Many decades of enforced, lifeless religious instruction in the Catholic parishes have left the few who complete it without much real knowledge of the faith. Evangelical/Pentecostal kids read their Bible, and once in a blue moon one will venture a paper from a Christian viewpoint. The last time that happened was three years ago. These papers often argue that because the Bible says something, it should be adhered to. A good argument for an audience of Bible believers, but not as effective for a general audience and certainly it will not help Christian students succeed in the academy.
But, mostly, it looks like there’s a Great Forgetting going on. The Secular Academy and the public schools simply finish the job of anti-intellectualism begun in the parishes. It’s not that what people know is wrong, It’s not even that they don’t know. It’s that they don’t even care that they don’t know.
So I often find myself having to give C’s and D’s to Christian students and ask them to rewrite their papers to passing while at the same time giving A’s to social justice-oriented students who aim their papers at an academic audience.
I question the ethic of teacher neutrality. One colleague announces to his classes that he is an atheist. As you can guess, there’s really no trouble with that.
My county votes Democrat, but the area is somewhat conservative. But more to the point, the area is deeply impoverished. We are high in teen pregnancy, and everything else that goes with chronic poverty.
My students are good people who work hard. Many are full-time students and full-time workers and also take care of their elders, siblings and children. Many of my students are single mothers. Many while Catholic or Christian are living with their boyfriends or girlfriends, and these girlfriends may often have children from an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. This situation is due in part to poverty, and also due to the fact that 70% of Catholics here (my guess) don’t see this as an issue for the church. Many of my students are children of divorce. I can already think of students this semester whose parents divorced when they were infants, 3 and 4 years old. Many blended families. It is difficult for me to see how generations of families affected by divorce and remarriage can come back to the Catholic Church, but some are trying.
It may also be one reason why the great number of students who identify as Catholic or Christian don’t venture to write papers about it, and once again, if they did, the ethic of neutrality would dictate that I help them write the best paper they could about why the Church is wrong about everything, especially divorce, remarriage, living together and premarital sex.
I have had students write powerful essays about what being Catholic means to them. One single mom wrote, “Being Catholic means being forgiven and taking up your cross.” A+.
I like my students. They are very respectful to me as a teacher. They are much more charitable, generous and caring than I ever have been, for the most part. They are kind and helpful people who care about their neighbor. Even the left-liberal kids are not radical. People discuss things (in the halls, mostly) civilly. We are not yet like the colleges on the East & West Coasts. My students got a raw deal in the K-12 schools and the Church isn’t reaching them. I am a certified catechist in my Catholic diocese. I believe the effects of poverty have overwhelmed this area. I also believe the CCD program, a failure in logistics as well as handing on the faith, shares much of the blame for the tremendous apathy among Catholics here.
My Catholic students seem to me lost sheep without a shepherd.
The social justice tradition must, in the end, be called an intellectual tradition. These students are being formed, educated and catechized, whereas most students who identify with faith simply are not.
A neutral teacher in a course without content has few opportunities to do anything about that.
One last thing: my part of the world is not radical at all. Even if one no longer associates with religion, one does not disrespect it. Theirs is a family oriented culture. The young women have their babies. They will often then struggle as single mothers, but they have their babies. This was not true where I went to school. I don’t remember any students there having children, in or out of marriage. At this college, every class has many young women who are also mothers. There is no protest or uproar here because the general culture at my college is very conservative and the social justice movement here is only just beginning.
Educational neutrality is puzzling. I tend to think that we only begin to understand things in the humanities and social sciences by understanding point of view. Point of view journalism, at least in analysis and commentary, unlocks stories in a way neutrality cannot.
I cannot impose my viewpoint on students who are still struggling to understand themselves and their world. At the same time, it’s more than curious that a so-called traditional Catholic Christian who is certified as a catechist by a Catholic bishop is working doubletime to completely unravel the traditional understanding of the world.
It’s hard for me to believe that God wants me in this job since I am doing such a good job of empowering all those who oppose Him. God does indeed work in mysterious ways, or maybe I have to find a way out of the maze of neutrality.
Thank you for inquiring about my comment. I am honored. The American Conservative and your blog in particular are the best political writing on the Web.
Sadly, if any of this seems blogworthy, I would ask that you be vague enough that I can’t be identified. I don’t have tenure, and while the social justice contingent is not radicalized here yet, the majority of professors are. The students are not aware of all the politics yet; they just want a job. While things are quiet for now, I don’t think they will stay that way. After all, we have Title IX funding.