This is part one of a three-part essay, addressing philosophical and academic problems with the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Dr. Michael Pahl.
At the beginning of this school year, Dr. Michael Pahl was relieved of his teaching duties at Cedarville University. The administration cited Dr. Pahl’s inability to fully agree with “each and every position of Cedarville University’s doctrinal statement.”
While doctrinal disagreement would be a good reason to terminate a professor from a school like Cedarville, augmenting and reinterpreting the doctrinal guidelines to exclude an admittedly orthodox position for the “best interests of its constituency” tips a crucial balance between academic freedom and the proliferation of a specific theological point of view.
Part I: Theories of Freedom
At Cedarville, I study media. One of my more difficult classes has been Media Law & Regulation, taught by a man I deeply admire. One of my professor’s favorite sources for that class, on the subject of free speech and the value of a free press, was John Milton’s Areopagitiga.
For those who slept through history class, Milton wrote Areopagitica to protest censorship of certain religious and philosophical works by the British government. At the time, the British Crown was worried about the power of books and papers to turn opinion away from the Presbyterian parliament’s party line. They felt that such blanket censorship was justified in order to keep down dissent in order to strive for peace and harmony during the chaotic years of the English Civil War.
Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?
The point is that those who guard their personal viewpoints from substantial, reasonable conflict can’t be very sure of the truth of those ideas. In contrast, those who genuinely search for truth are better served by allowing “all the winds of doctrine” to duke it out on level ground.
Those who do otherwise underestimate the power of truth to win over falsehood. Or perhaps they doubt the integrity of their own beliefs, and defend them not by reasoned argument, but by shutting out all opposing viewpoints.
This is the central tenet of liberal arts education. Many professors at Cedarville receive a complaint or two from concerned parents about something they have said or assigned in class. Usually, complaints are in this form: “Why in the world is my child reading ______ in your class?!” (insert the title of any theologically controversial book you like).
Happily, Cedarville professors often answer these panicked complaints by pointing to the central tenet mentioned above. They tell concerned parents that a broad spectrum of ideas is essential to building a well-developed mind and becoming a whole person.
Cedarville’s administrators, at least on the surface, agree with Milton (and their own professors). The second portrait statement of the University’s mission is, “Think Broadly and Deeply,” explained by the following statement:
The Cedarville graduate evaluates ideas, practices, and theories across disciplines within the framework of God’s revelation.
Think Broadly and Deeply. Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple. Similar concepts, right?
From a Christ-centered university’s point of view, however, these ideals cannot stand alone. Seniors in high school are barely adults by law, but in reality, most of us come to college as complete morons; impressionable people who will often believe anything, as long as it’s not what their parents believe and as long it’s presented by someone who is cool.
This presents a danger to any institution (like Cedarville) that does not equate coolness with truth. To combat this danger, Cedarville must draw a line between what can be examined from all angles as “liberal arts” and what is the official position of the institution.
This is as it should be. As anyone who has seriously studied philosophy can tell you, you have to have somewhere to start. Cedarville’s doctrinal statement fulfills this function. Without claiming to possess absolute truth, Cedarville outlines the point from which it will start the process of a liberal arts education. In the words of the portrait statement, “evaluat[ing] ideas, practices, and theories across disciplines within the framework of God’s revelation.” From that starting point, within the protective fence of divine revelation, Christian liberal arts can flourish in the marketplace of ideas.
Or at least, that’s the idea.
Please look for Part II of The Dilemma of Dr. Pahl soon on the Fiat Lux Blog.