Michael Bauman on Peer Pressure in the Academy

Professor Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College is among my dream team of English Professors under whom I wish I could sit and learn – for I have a love for Western Literature and Literary Criticism – a team that includes Veith, Lundin, Jacobs, Leithart, and Bauer (yes, Susan Bauer). Their distinctively Christian approaches to literature have helped me see the beauty of God in the works of history with new eyes. Of course, Piper, Hirsch, Johnson, Sire, Guinness and Lewis, have contributed to my enlightenment over the last two decades, providing the initial lenses through which I learned to see reality instead of appearances. (Am I permitted to say that I also have benefited from Roger Shattuck, Harold Bloom, and Henry Gates?)  

In particular, I appreciate Bauman’s Pilgrim Theology, and even more particular the essays entitled, “Verbal Plunder: Combating the Feminist Encroachment on the Language of Theology and Ethics,” and “The Ethics of Meaning: The Case for a Conservative Hermeneutic,” (which is also reprinted in Evangelical Hermeneutics.) I have found these works to be consistent with the theory of stability of meaning based on authorial intent. Bauman writes with simplicity of style about the obvious-yet-overlooked. I commend his works to any and all. While rummaging through Bauman’s personal website, I found a gem of an article entitled, “Peer Pressure, Confessionalism and the Corruption of Judgment: Why Theologians Can’t Think Straight,” an article I first encountered in Pilgrim Theology. Contained therein you will find some poignant words for those of us who teach in an academic setting, and words that also have significance for those of us who must be faithful to herald the Word without fear of the people we serve.  

But I must warn you, reading Bauman boundary-stretching ideas can make you call for the stake and the fire if you are not certain that he is committed to historic, orthodox Christianity. It will be like picking up Piper’s “Brothers, Save the Saints” (chapter 15) before reading Desiring God and thinking to yourself, “Does Piper believe in perseverance?” (I have had to convince more than a handful of people who have read that chapter that the reading of such vintage Piper is intended to stir one out of slumber and make one think hard about what it means to follow Christ.) So here is Bauman in his own words:

Some things we never outgrow:  a passion for deep-dish pizza, a quiet love for the mountains of Colorado, and our boyhood addiction to baseball.  Unlike these things, however, some of the things that remain with us are not so unremittingly pleasant or beneficial.   (Not that being a Phillies fan has been unremittingly pleasant or done me much good.)  Peer pressure, for example, is not merely an adolescent phenomenon.  Few of us, if any, ever outgrow it.  Theologians and their students, pastors and their congregations, all are subject to its subtle, but relentless, influences. If you have never considered it before, consider it now.  The demand characteristics of the theological classroom exert psychological, academic, and social pressure on students to conform to the viewpoint espoused by their instructors.  Very few students would submit the same research paper to Professor A, if he were teaching Systematic Theology, that they would to Professor B, if she were teaching it.  Their research topics likely would change; the conclusions they reached likely would change; the language in which their conclusions were presented likely would change; and the methods whereby those conclusions were arrived at likely would change.  By this I do not mean to say that such a student is merely contextualizing his theology — he is not.  He is changing it, at least on the surface.  He does so because he is aware of his instructor’s beliefs, passions, methods, and idiosyncrasies, and (perhaps knowingly, perhaps not) alters his efforts and conclusions accordingly.  Pragmatically, he is no fool.  Intellectually, the case is different.If memory serves, and if personal experience is a useful guide on this point, I dare say that many professors’ objectivity skills are seriously defective.  They seem never to have learned to distinguish between ideas they dissent from, on the one hand, and faulty or fallacious ideas, on the other.  Only the foolish, the arrogant, or the unteachable assume no difference exists between the two.  Such “teachers” have failed to come to grips with the possible (perhaps probable) divergence existing between the positions they themselves hold and the truth.  In short, they lack perceptiv­ity and humility.  Or, to turn it around, they seem never to have learned to distinguish between good thought and their own thoughts.  That failure, because it inevitably leads to inflated grades for the theological conformists in their classrooms and to de­flated grades for all others, serves only to extend the professor’s own intellectual thralldom onto his students.  Those students are justifiably wary both of asking new questions and of answering the old ones in a new (and perhaps better) way.  Thus, while the theological party line prospers, theological progress and true education flounder.  And more’s the pity.  Professors ought to be scrupulously honest, not per­petrators of pedagogically insidious pressures that prevent or pervert real learning or discovery.

The full essay can be found here 

(By the way, C. S. Lewis also helps in criticism with this, this, this, and this.) 

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One response to “Michael Bauman on Peer Pressure in the Academy

  1. Pingback: Gene Veith on Barack Obama « A Man from Issachar

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