Over the past few years, editorials in state papers across the SBC have lamented the arrival of conservative leadership on our seminary campuses. The latest round of commentaries have included a call by one editor for churches to actually boycott graduates from Southeastern, another called for the creation of a seminary to compete with Southern and suggested the Kentucky seminary remove Baptist from its name, and several others suggested that only extremely conservative students would want to attend the six seminaries funded by the Southern Baptist Convention.
The implication, along with some downright explicit comments, is that the six Southern Baptist seminaries are somehow less academic than they once were, no longer embracing the ever fuzzy concept called "academic freedom."And the suggestion is that moderate or liberal seminaries somehow maintain an even-handed perspective on education while conservative seminaries are only capable of indoctrination.
But wait a minute! Are moderate to liberal educators, by their nature, somehow less partial in their classroom presentation than more conservative professors? For that matter, can any form of education ever be truly neutral?
The reality is every educator carries into the classroom a philosophy, complete with principles and values, that is revealed not only in the content he chooses to teach, but also by the very methods he uses to teach that content.
And every educational institution has some sort of a bias reflected in its educational mission. Even if that mission is to explore any and all academic theories as equal (which would be ruled ridiculous even in the most liberal of institutions), somebody, somewhere, sometime determined the type of student-product that educational entity would produce.
Now most of us do not like the term "product" when applied to education, but like it or not, every educational institution works toward developing some sort of a student-product. We would have little use for education in this country if all our academic institutions were doing nothing more than educating for education's sake. In fact, if students are not changed or improved through education, we tend to consider their education a failure. Imagine how disillusioned we Baptists would feel if, after years of study in one of our seminaries, our ministers were no better able to minister than before they enrolled.
Our seminaries are for equipping people for ministry, and the battles to control them were not about academic freedom or indoctrination: they were about how best to equip our Southern Baptist ministers and about what type of student-product emerges from our educational institutions.
Even secular educators acknowledge that educational institutions have a built-in bias. Howard R. Bowen, in Investment in Learning, writes, "Though most institutions have a strong tradition of freedom of thought for students as well as faculty and of aversion to overt indoctrination, in practice they are far from neutral in their influence on students. In most institutions, there is a prevailing conception of what the educated man or woman should be like … " (emphasis added).
Whether hidden or highlighted, there is an agenda in every college, university and seminary in this country — not just in the conservative ones, but in all of them. That's why the role of the institution's president, its trustees and its professors are so important.
A former Princeton history professor, James Billington, says even the way something is taught reveals a bias: "In (the teaching of) history, for example, the prevailing mode of thought suggests that people's actions are not the result of conscious moral choice but of a combination of socioeconomic pressures and psychosexual drives. This conveys a sense that history is made by broad, impersonal forces — a perspective that diminishes the importance of individual choice and of the moral component in that choice. There's a tendency to see things in a deterministic way and not to study what is most human about people — their anguish, achievements and aspirations. This view of people helps make us a less caring society and may also play a role in the decreasing enthusiasm for politics."
Is it a surprise to anyone that what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught changes a student? That's what education is all about — to effect change. And don't forget it's a system. Trustees determine the direction of an institution, administrators figure out how to make the plan work, and professors have to take that plan and turn it into a reality that engages and entices the minds of students.
And it's a carefully planned, highly interdependent system. If one part of the system changes direction, then it begins to impact all the other parts of the system. For instance, the institution's mission statement may say one student-product is desired, but a professor who disagrees with the institution's direction can, consciously or unconsciously, begin producing a different type of student.
Professors have tremendous influence upon their students with the educational research indicating that it's impossible for them not to transmit their personal values to students and that they carry more influence than the average person, even when speaking out of their area of expertise. A professor's influence can even be subtle and unconscious through his choice of classroom goals, reading lists or even his emotional response to students' questions.
So next time you hear accusations of indoctrination by conservatives, remember it's impossible for any professor or any institution — even moderate or liberal ones — to be truly objective. The best they can do is try to be objective, and the first step toward that objectivity is to acknowledge a bias, rather than to argue there is none.
Diversity of opinion and attitude can be one of the strengths of an academic community, but it's only fair that everybody involved, especially the students, know exactly where the institution stands and exactly where the professor stands when it comes to principles and values, and when it comes to the classroom agenda.
Freedom, even in academics, is not the absence of all restraints. It is, to quote educator J. E. Colman, "submission to the best and the fullest truth that can be known." Within the educational institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention, Who the fullest Truth is and where He can be found should not be in question, and that is why our seminaries have been redirected.