Villanova and the Compulsory Pieties of Higher Education
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Villanova and the Compulsory Pieties of Higher Education

Lyell Asher
Lyell Asher
14 min read

I. All We Like Sheep

In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration chose the name “Peacekeeper” for an intercontinental ballistic missile sporting 300-kiloton nuclear warheads, critics of the program were over a barrel. “Peacekeepers kill!” “Down with Peacekeepers!” “Support for Peacekeepers is support for war!” You see the problem.

Higher education gets similar rhetorical insulation with phrases like “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” which is why on American college campuses pledges of fidelity to some version of this trinity have been slipped into annual reviews, teaching evaluations, and applications for employment with hardly a whisper of opposition. Dissent always sounds diabolical.

This was demonstrated last spring when two Villanova professors objected in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed to their institution’s new teaching evaluation form which asks students to comment on the professor’s “cultural awareness” and sensitivity to “individual differences” and “social identities.” The calumny wrote itself. A “Response” signed by one hundred Villanova professors implied that Doctors Sheehan and Wilson, unlike the faculty signatories, do not take seriously “charges of insensitivity, injustice, and bigotry.” Villanova’s President and Provost attributed to Sheehan and Wilson the belief that “a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is antithetical to a liberal arts education.” Only warmongers could oppose Peacekeepers, after all.

The trouble is, words and phrases that have ordinary meanings outside the academy have been given extraordinary meanings inside. Consider, for example, what “sensitivity” to race and ethnicity means according to the magna carta of campus cultural awareness, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” by Teachers College professor Derald Wing Sue. Suppose a white professor wants to hear more from a reserved student in her class, and in office hours encourages the student to speak up: “We want to know what you think. Speak up more.” According to Professor Sue, if this reserved student is black or white, the professor is on safe ground. But if the student is Asian—and I’m not making this up—the professor has potentially committed a micro-aggression. Why? Because being quiet is evidently an Asian “cultural value.” In suggesting that the Asian student “be more verbal,” the professor is requiring him to “assimilate to the dominant [White, and evidently louder] culture.”

If the professor urges an Asian student to “calm down” and to stop being “so loud,” she is apparently back on safe ground. But if the professor asks the same of a black student, she may have committed yet another microaggression, for the remarkable reason that being “loud” and “animated” is evidently a “cultural value” for black people. In other words, demonstrating “cultural awareness” often means trafficking in facile ethno-racial stereotypes, which the illiberal Left has repackaged as “social identities.”

Then there’s the question of how one is to determine the racial, cultural, sexual, and religious “identities” of one’s students in the first place. Common sense and classroom experience suggest that it’s best to focus squarely on the course’s subject matter and to engage students according to what they say and write, without attempting to ascribe to them anything so essentializing as an “identity.” Nothing I’ve read about “inclusive classrooms” dissuades me from this view. On the contrary. Take a passage from the University of Michigan’s guide to “Creating Inclusive College Classrooms” which says that “among students who are different in a highly visible way” are women who wear “Islamic clothing.” Apart from the fact that both Christian and Jewish women in various parts of the Middle East wear what the Michigan guide calls “Islamic” clothing, the more significant point is that the guide’s authors have decided for 750 million women around the world that to be a Muslim is to wear the Abaya, Burkha, Chador, Hijab, Jilbab, or the Niqab. Surely this decision is offensive to, and exclusive of, millions of Muslim women like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who described such clothing in her book Refusing the Veil as “degrading to women,” “a cover for sexism and violence,” and inimical to the true spirit of Islam.

Even if a professor were to establish the various “identities” of her students, it’s unclear what being sensitive to those identities entails. The philosopher Erich Voegelin asserted that mass extermination in the name of religious belief is the product of monotheism—more specifically, “an innovation of Deuteronomy.” Would quoting Voegelin’s claim be considered insensitive to conservative Christian or orthodox Jewish students in the class? Or would it be offensive to assume that any of them would be offended, implying as it does that they’re uncritical pietists?

The punishments which the Koran’s Allah promises to exact on non-believers provide more evidence for Voegelin’s claim. Would remarking the Koran’s florid fantasies of violence be considered evidence of the professor’s cultural insensitivity? It wouldn’t be if students were taught to distinguish between criticizing a religion’s ideas on the one hand, and discriminating against its followers on the other. Are they so taught? The faculty “Response” to Professors Sheehan and Wilson insists that Villanova should be free of, among other things, “Islamophobia”—a term which obscures precisely this distinction between anti-Muslim bigotry and criticism of Islam. “A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia,” writes Salman Rushdie in Joseph Anton, reiterating a point he made along with eleven other writers more than a decade ago in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, where “Islamophobia” was described as a “wretched concept” used to intimidate the religion’s critics and reformers into silence. Support for that claim would seem to have been offered inadvertently by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which named Charlie HebdoIslamophobe of the Year” in March of 2015, just two months after 12 members of the satirical weekly were massacred in their Paris offices by Islamic terrorists. Yet the Villanova faculty “Response” uses the term “Islamophobia” as if it were an unequivocal tool of the morally upright.

The 100 faculty signatories also want their university to be free of “anti-LGBTQ sentiments”—a consummation devoutly to be wished. But when a conservative Muslim student devoutly wishes to condemn homosexuality and transsexuality on religious grounds, should the professor risk being labeled Islamophobic for condemning the student’s transphobia and homophobia, or risk being labeled homophobic and transphobic for refusing to?

Suppose the professor’s refusal stems from the recognition that the very ideas of “transphobia” and “homophobia” are themselves historico-cultural pejoratives posing as transhistorical, transcultural psychiatric disorders, and thus Eurocentric in principle and potentially xenophobic in practice. A far-fetched hypothetical? Last spring hundreds of predominantly Muslim parents at Britain’s Parkfield Community School withdrew their 600 children from classes because of a “No Outsiders” program which taught that “it’s okay to be gay.” “We respect the British values,” said one parent, who felt that the program was not, however, “respecting our ethos as a community.”

There is immediate evidence too for the parochialism of the term “Islamophobia”: in 2017 the Chinese government medicalized Islamophilia, declaring “extremist” Uighur-Muslim ideas to be an “ideological illness” which requires hospitalization for those who have been “infected.” A 12-minute Uighur-language recording issued by the Chinese Communist Party explains that while some people infected with the ideas “have not committed any crimes … [t]here is always the risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public.” China’s response to this illness, the internment and “re-education” of between one and two million Uighurs, likely constitutes the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority since World War II.

Would remarking on this fact signal a professor’s laudable condemnation of Islamophobia, or her latent and objectionable Sinophobia? According to the “Michigan Guide on Inclusive Classrooms,” professors should not present the policies of foreign governments “as either wholly good or wholly bad,” and should avoid regularly making invidious distinctions between American policies and, for example, “social policies in China.”

Perhaps the invidiousness of the distinction between Chinese and U.S. policies could be softened if the professor noted that Beijing insisting that Xinjiang be free of pro-Muslim sentiments is not in principle different from 100 faculty in an American University insisting that their campus be free of “anti-LGBTQ sentiments.” Or, since Villanova is a private school, maybe a closer comparison is the one between the Chinese government requiring “treatments” for an “ideological illness” in 2017, and the University of Delaware—an American state school—administering what it called “treatments” for potentially retrograde political attitudes of its entering students a decade earlier in 2007. It’s a small world after all.

II. Cult Awareness as Cultural Awareness

Highlighting the authoritarian tendencies of activist faculty and administrators is obviously not an intended outcome of “cultural awareness” and “anti-bias” campaigns. Nor for that matter is exposing the Eurocentric potential of the pejorative “homophobic,” the Sinophobic potential of the pejorative “Islamophobic,” the Islamophobic potential of the pejoratives “Sinophobic” and “homophobic,” or the xenophobic potential of compulsory multiculturalism, whose premises are by no means transcultural. But given the ease with which these intersectional prohibitions become a web of unavoidable tripwires, what’s to keep those who promote the prohibitions from being ensnared themselves? Theoretically nothing, but practically everything. With rare exception, if you’ve signaled your allegiance to the question-begging version of “social justice” now current in colleges and universities, you’ve got something close to the benefit of clergy.

Then too, the political monoculture that especially prevails in the humanities and social sciences has meant that most undergraduates are kept in the dark about the contradictory claims of intersectionality, in precisely the same way that novitiates are kept in the dark about the contradictory claims of Holy Writ. Once the institutions become ideologically homogenous within, the only credible threats are the ones from without: hence the importance of deplatforming outside speakers. Although deplatforming pretends to be about protecting fragile students from hateful ideas, it’s really about protecting fragile ideology from meaningful critique. Seton Hall’s decision to disinvite Stanley Fish from speaking on campus, for example, is as disingenuously self-serving as the Church of Scientology’s decision to disinvite Sara Kelly from attending L. Ron Hubbard’s posthumous 91st birthday bash. Kelly’s sin was trashing the film adaptation of Battlefield Earth. Fish’s sin was critiquing higher ed’s “regime of virtue.”

Charges of indoctrination are vehemently denied by academics themselves, of course, and a common defensive strategy is to wax indignant on behalf of students. Back in 2007, an administrator at the University of Delaware blamed the critics of its infamously politicized orientation program for implying that Delaware undergraduates were “so empty-headed and ignorant that they could be ‘indoctrinated’ with ease.” The Villanova faculty “Response” reprises that argument—minus the accidental self-indictment—by suggesting that Professors Sheehan and Wilson’s concerns about indoctrination were “insulting to students who are adults … capable of critical thinking and making their own decisions.”

But compare this public defense of student autonomy to what one of the two co-authors of Villanova’s faculty “Response” says when writing for a coterie audience of fellow academics. In a 2014 essay, Villanova Professor Billie Murray urges her colleagues to “establish parameters for students’ explorations of communication activism,” and explicitly rejects a non-partisan pedagogy that would let students “participate in public discussions on issues that they choose.’” Professor Murray says that her own course doesn’t simply offer a “set of tactics and strategies, but a clear understanding of what it means to work toward a world free of domination and oppression.” In practice, this means that, for example, working for Planned Parenthood is one of her course’s five service options, whereas working for a pro-life group is not. Although I support a woman’s right to choose, it is worth asking: Is this what Villanova’s President and Provost mean when they laud their institution’s commitment to a “pedagogy that recognizes that knowledge creation is part of the dynamic exchange among and between perspectives”?

The President and Provost also trumpet Villanova’s dedication “to the highest academic standards” in their dismissal of Wilson and Sheehan’s concerns about political indoctrination. Since we recently passed the fifth anniversary of the tragic events in Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown, I thought I’d test that by plugging the terms “Villanova, Ferguson, Bias” into a Google search. On the first page of results was a Villanova Tedx talk entitled “Being White and Seeing Black: Ferguson, Neuroscience and Imagination” by Villanova Professor Tim Horner, one of the signatories of the faculty “Response.” In his talk, Professor Horner confesses to his own racial bias, citing as evidence both the dispiriting results of his implicit bias test (“a moderate preference for white faces”), and the sweat-inducing fear he experienced as a young college student on Chicago’s L-train when, late one night, two black men entered the car that he occupied alone. After a brief foray into the “neuroscience of racial bias,” Professor Horner concludes that the fear Darren Wilson experienced in the moments before he shot and killed Michael Brown, was as baseless and as racially biased as the fear he himself had experienced on Chicago’s L-train all those years ago.

Excluded tout court from this analysis are the Obama Justice Department findings, readily available for six months at the time of the talk, which expose the bad faith of this conclusion. To mention the most relevant of the findings: 1) Darren Wilson rightly suspected that Michael Brown had just strong-armed a convenient store clerk during the theft of cigars; 2) as confirmed by eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence, Darren Wilson was assaulted through the driver-side window of his SUV by Brown who, in a struggle to get control of Wilson’s pistol, was shot in the hand; 3) after fleeing, Brown turned back toward Wilson, ignored repeated commands to stop, and was “moving forward,” “running toward,” or “charging” Wilson when he was finally killed—this according to both Wilson and credible eyewitnesses, most of whom were African Americans.

By contrast, Professor Horner 1) had no reason to suspect his fellow L-train passengers of anything, 2) had no contact with them during the trip, and 3) arrived at his destination without incident. Nevertheless, the only difference Dr. Horner discerns between his fear of the two black men in his train car and Wilson’s fear of Michael Brown is one which redounds to the credit of his own metacognitive acumen: “that’s the difference between him and me,” he says to his approving audience: “I no longer trust that fear—I have become mindful of how my brain constructed that bias.”

This illustrates the speciousness of the claim made by Villanova’s President and Provost that “there is no conflict between academic standards and the values of unity and love.” The problem isn’t simply that a lecture on “the science of racial bias” places a transparently un-scientific embargo on all facts uncongenial to its thesis, or even that its baseless attribution of homicidal racism to Darren Wilson is published under the imprimatur of an institution of higher learning. The larger problem is that the lecture’s misrepresentations are both enabled by and advanced with a warranted confidence that no one in the audience, certainly no academic, would risk calling out these misrepresentations because of the crucial role they play in buttressing a narrative, sacrosanct on the academic Left, about black victimization and what Professor Horner calls, with crowd-pleasing racist indictment, “toxic, white ignorance.” That’s the narrative that gets you love on a college campus, and it’s the one that gets you unity. But as the most cursory reading of the DOJ Report on the death of Michael Brown will show, it gets you nowhere near an academic standard.

III. Undergraduates Unleashed

Fortunately, the vast majority of college students are less susceptible to this kind of coercive group-think than most faculty and administrators, since less depends on their acquiescence. Most undergraduates cannot in fact be “indoctrinated with ease.” A significant minority can not only be indoctrinated, however, but roused and mobilized, which is why Oberlin College’s Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, could write credibly in 2017 of “unleashing students” on Emeritus professor Roger Copeland, who had publicly—and presciently—condemned Oberlin’s “rush to judgement” in declaring Gibson’s Bakery “racist.” “Fuck him,” Raimondo texted Oberlin’s Vice President for Communications Ben Jones, and mentioned using students—those “adults,” capable of “making their own decisions”—to do it. There’s no evidence that Oberlin’s communications VP was in the least puzzled by Raimondo’s assertion of control.

That’s because there was nothing to be puzzled about. It’s common knowledge on many campuses that those students who, with little more than rumor to go on, are willing to declare others “bigots” or “racists” and in the process derail both their lives and livelihoods on a whim, are easily influenced by those faculty and administrators with agendas to prosecute. Although it was students, for example, who disrupted Bret Weinstein’s class at Evergreen State College and then hunted for him on campus, it was a small group of faculty and administrators who’d provided the ideological marinade for them to soak up, and President George Bridges who ordered the campus police to stand down as students searched cars and roamed the campus with baseball bats.

A more recent example comes from Professor Steven Gerrard, whose support of a free speech initiative at Williams College earned him the title “Enemy of the People.” Although he received that designation in a letter signed by a group of students, at a faculty meeting in which he attempted to respond from the podium to the students’ letter it was “a group of younger faculty,” according to Professor Gerrard, “who demanded that I be quiet and let the students speak.” It was faculty too, according to Professor Gerrard, who “not only supported . . . but instigated” the “protests, marches, threats and demands—everything but rational argument.”

It’s in the context of this kind of support-cum-instigation on the part of activist faculty that soliciting student opinion about a professor’s “cultural awareness,” or sensitivity to “individual differences” and “social identities” should be understood. Having developed and then delivered to students a terminology infused with self-contradictory intersectionalist dogma, the academic Left now suggests that these terms are non-ideological registers of pedagogical inclusiveness and rapport. They’re not. If acts of genuine bigotry and bias are committed in a classroom, students don’t need special prompting to report it. But once terms like “racist” and “white supremacist” are selectively elasticized to include everything from the electoral college and defenses of free speech, to the Democratic Party, mathematics, and the anti-abortion movement, then leading questions couched in “progressive” patois are required in order to uncover the newly-minted heresies.

If that doesn’t work, there’s a further step—one which I wouldn’t have thought possible had I not experienced it first-hand a few years ago when, in a review letter, an academic dean simply invented student complaints about a lack of diversity in my choice of authors for a course on the novel—a course whose connection with diversity, ironically enough, I’ve written about in the American Scholar. In any case, although not a single student, minority or otherwise, had ever made such a complaint, not even a letter from my department chair pointing out that fact could induce the dean to remove the fabrication, which remains in my file to this day. For the equity professional, the mind is its own place.

Obviously, the problem goes well beyond Villanova. But the controversy there brings to the fore what might otherwise remain hidden in colleges lacking Villanova’s Catholic affiliation—namely, the kinship between the pastoral-aggressive rhetoric of religion and that of the activist academic Left. Villanova’s President and Provost declare in the opening line of their response to Sheehan and Wilson, that “[t]here is nothing more central to Villanova’s Catholic, Augustinian identity, than our community.” It’s worth noting that this word “community,” connected here with a religious tradition, has become the preferred term in secular institutions as well to designate what we used to call a “college” or “university.” The substitution is hardly accidental. The primary values of a college are unfettered intellectual inquiry and open, civil debate; the college “community” is whatever emerges when those two principles are rigorously upheld.

But when “community” comes first, the metabolism of intellectual inquiry—a metabolism fed by debate and dissent—is suppressed in favor of reigning orthodoxies. The “Catholic, Augustinian identity” which Villanova’s President invokes, evidently without irony, offers a long history of such suppression. Central to that history is none other than Augustine himself who, as Bishop of Hippo, wrote two letters in the early fifth century, in which he developed an influential justification for using force and “salutary fear” to bring heretics in line with the institutionalized orthodoxy of the day. In no case were the suppressions Augustine’s work helped authorize for the next fifteen hundred years ever advanced under the banner of falsehood, disunion, and hatred. On the contrary, it was always truth, unity, and love that justified the persecution of those whose opinions were considered religiously incorrect.

Is it a coincidence that such an august tradition of coercion and censorship in the name of truth and justice now finds itself embracing, and embraced by, a putatively secular tradition which, with similar arrogance, presumes to dictate “what it means to work for a world free of domination and oppression”? On this point especially, the Church might have benefitted from the mirror provided by Michel de Montaigne when he wrote, “Ambition, avarice, cruelty, vengeance, do not have enough natural impetuosity of their own; let us spark them and fan their flames by the glorious title of justice and piety.” But Montaigne’s Essays, from which that remark comes, was itself deplatformed in 1676 and placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. There it remained, along with thousands of other texts, for the next three centuries until the Index was itself belatedly abolished by Pope Paul VI. Old traditions die hard, and the oldest are always ripe for resurrection.


Lyell Asher

Lyell Asher is an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College.