Education and Academic Freedom at Wheaton College

In a recent article titled “The Great Accreditation Farce,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn wrote “that Wheaton and other religious colleges are ‘intellectually compromised institutions’ that betray the intellectual standards that should mark accredited institutions of higher education.” He also wrote that Christian colleges “systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.”

In response to Conn’s criticism, Stanton L. Jones, the provost at Wheaton College, wrote an article titled “All Knowledge Starts Somewhere in Faith,” also published in  The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he defends Christian schools like Wheaton College and defends academic freedom in Christian institutions.

Below is an excerpt of Jones’ article:

Conn portrays academic freedom at places like Wheaton College as an illusion. It is not an illusion, but it can be complicated. Academic freedom, as Wolterstorff convincingly argues, is never uncomplicated or unqualified. Professors are never free from the ideological constraints of their disciplines or the judgments of their peers. Any rigorously honest history of any academic discipline shows, in hindsight, the blind spots and uncritically accepted dogmas of the moment. Academicians swimming with the contemporary intellectual tides often feel great freedom.

Those whose convictions take them against those tides do not feel so free. Interestingly, when we hire colleagues away from nonreligious institutions, we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers, because they are finally in a place where they can teach from and explore the connections between their intellectual disciplines and their religious convictions. And as I write from my convictions with the support (but not always agreement) of my community, it is not uncommon for me to hear from colleagues at nonreligious institutions that they have no such freedom, as their careers would be compromised at their home institutions were they to express similar views.

Regarding Conn’s concern for our requiring faith-statement affirmations, Wheaton College is emphatically open that we seek to be a voluntary community of like-minded scholars who, within the framework of the defining characteristics of our institution, have the academic freedom to teach and to pursue knowledge as persons of shared religious conviction. We publicize those characteristics explicitly. In constitutional terms, we do this as an exercise of our rights of freedom of religion, speech, and assembly. Faith-based institutions must have some such procedure to maintain fidelity to their guiding purposes. On that basis, Wolterstorff concludes that “it would be a violation of the very idea of a liberal democratic society if a movement arose to prevent or restrict the formation of religiously based colleges and universities.” That outcome seems to be exactly what Conn advocates.

Jones has a point that deserves to be emphasized. In non-Christian institutions professors do not have the freedom to speak freely about some issues, primarily when the topic is about religion, Christianity, or the Bible. Although these institutions say that they allow academic freedom, the truth is that in most secular institutions, academic freedom is a joke.

Faith-based institutions allow freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. These freedom are almost non-existent in secular institutions of higher learning.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to Education and Academic Freedom at Wheaton College

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    What Jones says is true. What I thought he could be much more clearer in his response is that EVERY person approaches their respective discipline from a “faith” or “belief” system. That the person has to use “faith,” “belief,” or “trust” in the sources used or relied upon. Faith and knowledge go hand-in-hand. Both faith and knowledge are intuitive, intellectual and experiential. The difference between faith and knowledge (God is the exception since He is “all-knowing”) is that knowledge from man’s point of view is limited to the past and present, while faith will take what knowledge has provided and project that to the future.

    Furthermore, in most cases, a person with a Masters in History will has a two years Masters degree; a Doctorate would take an additional three to five years depending on the discipline. The typical Masters of Divinity program is a three year Masters program with an emphasis on theology, ancient history, church history, Greek (3 yrs), Hebrew (1 yr), Rhetoric (sermon or speech classes) and Biblical exegetical classes. [NOTE: it took me five years to complete my M. Div. and I took Hebrew and Greek all five years]. There are some classes or courses that I have probably did not mentioned, but I think you get the idea.

    The academy thinks that Biblical Studies and related disciplines are NOT RELEVANT to today’s modern society. You and I, and a host of others, would seriously decry such a notion. Any time you leave a part of the equation out of the answer, then the answer you have is false. The Academy leave God out of the equation especially with regards to the Creation-Evolution Debate and its consequences.

    “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god” (Pss. 14:1 & 53:1). “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…(Romans 12:2). I wonder if trying to match the pattern of this world in Christian academic circles is really a good idea. But I also understand that the Christian Academy must outshine the world in knowledge of God and this world.


    • Bryant,

      The reason many people believe that theology is not a valid area of study is because theology deals with the study of things related to God. Since most people in academia are atheists or secular in their perspective of the world, they believe theology has no place in the academic world. It is true, as someone has already commented, that some Christian schools are almost indoctrination centers. And so are some secular universities. Christians institutions should be open to investigation because no one should be afraid of the truth. Many secular schools refuse to discuss some items related to religion and Christianity because they believe that they are the guardians of truth.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Ben says:

    Problem is there are many small colleges where it seems they’re just indoctrination centers. The thought of true Christian academic schools focus one building men and women that are equipped to serve God no matter what the job is.


    • Ben,

      You are right. Some of these colleges do not prepare men and women for the real world. When they graduate they are unprepared to face the challenges of a secular society.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


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