Evangelicals in the Classroom

June 11, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Q: What religious group do college faculty feel least favorable about?

A: Evangelicals.

That’s one result from a recent study, and in yesterday’s post, I offered my guess that faculty were really reacting to what they perceived as the politics of Evangelicals, not their religion. In that sense, the attitude is different from other kinds of prejudice, especially prejudice based on ascribed characteristics like race.

But I would also guess that the attitude shares something with other kinds of prejudice: those who have the most unfavorable attitudes towards Evangelicals are probably those who have the least contact with them. It’s true of homosexuality, and it’s true in the current debate over immigration.

So I wonder about those professors who say they view Evangelicals unfavorably. I think about the late Donna Darden, who taught sociology in Tennessee, where Evangelicals and fundamentalists were the rule rather than the exception. She had wonderful stories about her struggles to get students to think sociologically. I’m not sure whether Donna was an atheist or Wiccan, but whichever it was, when students learned of her views, some would stand up and “witness” right in class. Here’s an excerpt from something she posted to a sociology Internet group.
Their next assignment calls for them to post a completion to the stem, “If I had been born a member of a different race...” They have read good stuff about the social construction of gender and race. Many will still tell me that they cannot answer that question because God made them the persons they are, and they cannot second-guess God.

But for all her disagreement and frustration with her students, she certainly would never have answered the survey by saying she felt “cold” towards them.

My own contact with Evangelicals and other born-again students has been limited. Northern New Jersey ain’t Tennessee, and up here in Sopranoland, most people are content to be born only once. I started teaching before the Moral Majority became a strong political force, but even so, I may have shared some of the same pre-judgments as the professors in the recent survey. At the very least, I expected that Evangelicals would be closed-minded and dogmatic. But what I found was something else.

First, I never had Donna’s experience of students injecting their theology into sociological discussions. The only way I could even guess that a student was an Evangelical was this: on the first day, I ask students to fill out index cards with their name and phone numbers. But so I’ll have a better chance of remembering them and learning their names, I also ask them to put down the title of the best film they’ve ever seen. Not just the most recent, I say; take a minute to think. OK. Then do the same thing for a book and a record. I also ask for a TV show they watch regularly — one they’d record if they weren’t going to be home when it was on. (This exercise also gives me a small window onto all those areas of pop culture that I’m growing farther and farther away from.)

Every once in a while, there’ll be a student who for best book lists The Bible. So I figure here’s someone who, if not Evangelical, fundamentalist, or born again, at least takes their religion pretty seriously. My sample is small, but my impression is that compared with the average student, they are more conscientious— less likely to miss class and more likely to do the reading and to turn in assignments on time.

But it’s not just that they are well-behaved. They regard the sociological ideas from class as something important, not just a bunch of stuff that you leave behind each day once you walk out of the classroom, except maybe to remember for a test. Where many students are content to “learn” the material in a sort of Durkheim-said-this-Weber-said-that way, these students will follow the line of thought further and look for its corollaries, implications, and applications.

They engage the material more than most students because they walk into the course already having a more or less coherent world view. Most students at age twenty or so have an inchoate set of ideas for understanding the world. They take it as it comes and haven’t thought systematically about the way they are interpreting it. They don’t even see themselves as making interpretations. They have trouble seeing the differences between theories, between Weber and Marx for instance.

But the born-again students have a systematic scheme for encountering the world. They have a “theory,” a set of related ideas, and they are constantly alert to interpret the events of the real world with respect to that theory. Give them some new data or some new ideas, and they want to know how these fit with their own view.

They may reject sociological ideas. They may even, like some of Donna Darden’s students, shun these ideas as the work of Satan. But in order to make that judgment, they first have to think through those sociological ideas and see how they match up against their religious ideas. They have to take the material seriously.


Doing Better Than I Deserve said...

I believe that it is a sad fact of modern, U.S. culture that most young people get their world view from television commercials. They are taught to be consumers and they have become comfortable with the role.

It may be that evangelicals (I count myself part of that group.) are taught a coherent world view in church that at least gives them a platform from which to view sociological theories.

The poor fellow who has only learned from the TV doesn't even know what he doesn't know. The TV advertisers wish it so, of course. And they have been successful in making it so.

My $.02

Jay Livingston said...

"doesn't even know what he doesn't know."

Right. Fish are unaware of the water. Most of us are fish swimming in the water of the dominant reality, the reality of capitalist realism, TV and adverisements, middle-class values, etc.

Those who stand outside the mainstream (to continue the watery metaphor) need to have a coherent world view. But more than that, they realize that the dominant reality is also a world view, not just the only reality. They must also have reflected on those realities in a way that most fish don't have to.