Okay, this fall you’ve filled your schedule with courses like “The Bible as Literature,” “American History Survey,” and “International Poverty Fighting.” Then your professors tell you that Bible stories are fiction, history is a tale of class friction, and what you’ve heard about biblical poverty fighting is a false depiction. How should you respond?
Christian or Orthodox Jewish students with secular liberal professors can readily fall into two errors. One is to begin a course disposed not to learn, even though the professor does have a lot to teach and is probably a decent person (though perhaps with a screw loose). The other is to become a teacher’s pet, kissing up to professorial mocking. If you want to be active but not belligerent in class discussions, this article is for you.
I taught at the University of Texas for twenty–four years and listened to students who had resolved to be neither silent nor obnoxious. None wanted to be an academic suicide bomber stuck with scarlet Fs on a transcript. Some found that classes with progressive professors sharpened their ability to engage others. Here are ten things I learned from them:
1. Be willing to read. Students hoping to be more than stenographers need to read not only books on the syllabus but also ones that offer opposing views. Most students, unwilling to do double the reading, settle for hooking up, dumbing down, and just taking notes.
2. Prepare generally. Four books are crucial aides: C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, John Piper’s Desiring God, and Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God. Also learn about the major trends of academic thought within your majors: ISI’s Guides to the Major Disciplines will help you understand challenges in history, English, and other fields.
3. Before signing up for a course, read the syllabus. You can usually get hold of the syllabus the professor is using in the current semester or at least one used in a previous semester. Watch out for strident ideologues—for example, it’s trouble if a history professor assigns Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and other radical works. Try visiting that professor and ask if next semester he could add some diversity to the syllabus by including a conservative work such as—if we want a nearly literal balance—A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.
4. Visit professors during office hours before you enroll in their classes. Syllabus reading and an office visit will help you discern the difference between professors who tolerate challenges and those who are totalitarians demanding absolute control of the classroom. Take classes when possible from the former and avoid the latter unless you’re exceptionally brave.
5. Keep up the office visits after the course has begun. Many liberal professors truly believe in liberal arts dialogue. Tell your professor where you’re coming from intellectually and why you have questions about his approach, but be a legitimate seeker after dialogue rather than an arrogant know-it-all, especially because you still know very little. Many liberal professors who have taught a pet course many times before will relish a student who can make the classroom livelier. Ask thoughtful questions, and if yours can be the face that launches a thousand quips, many professors will remember it favorably.
6. Confront classroom totalitarians. It’s important to show a totalitarian professor that messing with you will cost him time plus trouble, so he should turn his attention to easier victims. Hold on to all your papers and essay tests, and be sure to tape what goes on in the classroom or in professor-student conferences. If you can’t win internally, you might be able to apply external pressure through conservative journalists.
7. Prepare specifically. To learn a lot and maximize your effectiveness, you need to go beyond general guides into course-specific reading. For a “Bible as Literature” class, for example, ask your pastor or rabbi for reading suggestions concerning the historicity of Scripture. Several that come to mind: John Blanchard’s Does God Believe in Atheists?, Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, and Josh McDowell’s oldie but goodie, Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
8. Build a good alternative reading list. My sense is that, in course after course, it’s not as hard to put together such a list as it used to be. For example, when people fifteen years ago asked me about good books on international poverty, all I could recommend were P. T. Bauer’s Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion and Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path. Now, though, we have at least a dozen more, such as Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures, William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth, and Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts.
9. Reach out to authorities outside the classroom.
Your alternative reading list is a good place to start. One good contrarian book can lead you to many others, simply because you can see which works its author cites and recommends. You might even e-mail the book’s author, tell him what you want to do in your course, and ask for reading recommendations. Many authors are not as hard to approach as you might think, and many conservatives will find your effort so charming and gutsy that they’ll be glad to respond.
10. Learn to parry. If you get into an exchange with a professor and don’t know how to respond, you can always stall for time—and the opportunity to arrange your thoughts—by asking one of these four questions: What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong?
Marvin Olasky is editor in chief of the World News Group, holder of the Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy at Patrick Henry College, and an Acton Institute senior fellow.