Academic freedom as a concept is often touted but little understood. As Craig Kaplan so succinctly wrote in Regulating the Intellectuals, “There is little consensus regarding the meaning of academic freedom, although there is agreement that it is something worth protecting.” This statement is no less true for Christian higher education, and that is the motivation for the latest book from William Ringenberg, professor emeritus of history at Taylor University. In The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom, Ringenberg seeks to explain Christian higher education to outsiders, to discuss the history of “truth-seeking within the context of Christian theism” (p. xvi) and to show how secular and Christian concepts of academic freedom are complementary.
Part I outlines the values Ringenberg considers important for Christian higher education, including freedom, community, prudence, love, harmony and balance, among others. Reprinted from an earlier book, this section imparts the wisdom Ringenberg has attained through a long career in Christian academe. His statement summarizes this part: “Young people do well to regularly talk on a deep level with mature adults, including those who were not mature in earlier life” (p. 23).
Part II describes the historical development of academic freedom from a Christian perspective. Here Ringenberg outlines how the American academy synthesized models from Britain and Germany even as it focused on students’ character development and provided additional constitutional freedoms to faculty at public institutions. He shows how Christian institutions have distinguished themselves from their secular counterparts while maintaining robust academic integrity.
Part III is the most contemporary and – as Ringenberg himself admits – the most controversial. Here he describes some pressing issues for Christian colleges, including the social shift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality, the ongoing debate between creationists and evolutionists, the need for clear due process grievance procedures for faculty, and others. At times, this section reads like a litany of what is wrong with Christian higher education. This is due, in part, to serial vignettes that could be under the heading, “Administrators behaving badly.” The narrative would have benefitted from including the experiences of those who have engaged in rigorous scholarship around controversial issues without interference.
While Ringenberg’s book offers a useful starting point for understanding academic freedom in the Christian context, the work is not without flaws. Nowhere does Ringenberg define what he means by “academic freedom.” This leaves the reader wondering what the term means, and to whom and under what conditions it applies. Neither does he define “Christian college,” but by default uses the term broadly to include examples from evangelical, Catholic and even Mormon institutions.
Additionally, he seems to follow the reasoning of secular critics of Christian academe who consider religious commitments an embarrassment, hindrance or “threat” to true academic freedom. Ringenberg’s critique that some Christian institutions have not progressed enough or are not “mature” enough in their understanding of academic freedom is fair enough, but it seems that the only “mature” understandings are like those adopted by secular institutions. This undermines the otherwise credible argument advanced by Christian scholars (George Marsden, Arthur Holmes, and Duane Litfin, to name just a few) that Christian institutions are and should be different in their understanding and practice of academic freedom since their vision and mission are different from those of their secular counterparts.
There are also times where Ringenberg, a self-professed “progressive Evangelical,” seems to project his personal preferences as prescriptions for all Christian institutions while concurrently arguing for institutional autonomy. For example, in the controversial area of human sexuality, Ringenberg recommends that Christian colleges “support with enthusiasm gay civil unions” (p. 171). Of course, this is a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores significant differences among Christian institutions. It also eschews biblical and other arguments for maintaining traditional sexual ethics (celibacy in singleness; fidelity in male-female marriage) advanced by other reputable Christian scholars. Additionally, his observations occasionally come across as conversations about aspects of Christian colleges that worry him rather than an apologetic for Christian higher education.
Ringenberg’s survey of academic freedom serves as a somewhat helpful and engaging starting point for further investigation, but the serious investigator may also want to read additional works on academic freedom that delve deeply into the topic.
Jerald H. Walz is a graduate of Asbury University and is completing a Ph.D. in higher education at Virginia Tech; his dissertation is on academic freedom at Christian colleges and universities. Walz previously served as a vice president at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, and served on the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals.