Colleges have faced a flurry of criticism in recent years over the topic of censorship. Some argue that colleges are generally “illiberal” and that efforts have been made to create new learning environments to foster liberal learning that is believed to be denied elsewhere. Students also contributed to this widespread criticism, suggesting that they “self-censor” when challenged to voice their opinions in class.
While universities are flawed institutions that need to be debated, these conversations often overlook the many ways colleges continue to cultivate critical thinking. Learning requires us to accept some level of discomfort and question our long-held ideas about the world. It’s not censorship; when done correctly, encouraging people to think with new perspectives provides them with unprecedented opportunities for intellectual growth.
When I enrolled at St. John’s University, a Catholic and Vincentian university in New York, I was already an atheist. I had never been religious and I never questioned my religious identity or, more accurately, my lack of religious identity. I chose St. John’s partly because I knew it would make me feel uncomfortable and challenge me in so many ways, especially because I’m an atheist. I would have to take theology classes, and since I knew very little about religion, I thought it was important to learn more about it. I knew my educational experience would be uncomfortable at times, but I looked forward to these opportunities.
After being encouraged by my ethics professor to consider philosophy as a major, I enrolled in history of medieval philosophy and then in history of modern philosophy in the following two semesters. Both of these classes were more about the question of God than my theology classes seemed to be. I learned that people not only wonder if God exists, but also wonder, how can we make sense of God’s existence? How can we reason that God is real? These are questions I never thought I would think about.
The conversations were intriguing – not only did people believe in God, but there were whole aspects of philosophy, from metaphysics to ethics, that centered on the existence of God. Even though many of these scholars disagreed, and so each class session tackled these same questions in an entirely new way, I would be lying if I said I was eager to know more, because the question of God was not of great interest. volume. Still, I don’t think I missed a day of either class. I was learning a lot, and I was interested in what these thinkers had to say philosophically, even if those lessons didn’t take my soul away from atheism.
No scholar in the Course has convinced me that God is real; yet I was often tasked with writing articles that forced me to reflect on their philosophies to assess my learning in the course. When I was asked to write articles on philosophical arguments for the existence of God, I didn’t say, “I’m an atheist – none of these arguments are convincing!” This course forces me to self-censor. I never would have even thought of taking on a mission like this.
Instead, I wrote articles that touched on the main tenets of various philosophers’ arguments, tried to make sense of them in new ways, and sometimes critiqued them using disciplinary knowledge. I never thought that taking these positions was self-censorship or denying my identity as an atheist. On the contrary, I took it for what it was: studying. I was learning to step out of my own beliefs and assumptions in order to think with people and from perspectives that I would never have thought otherwise.
I criticized the belief in a root cause, or prime mover, i.e. God in my History of Modern Philosophy class. To do this, I decided to draw lessons from another course on existentialism in my final article. When my professor returned my article, I saw that there were reactions. From what I remember, he wrote that the premise of my argument was not correct partly because not all existentialists are atheists. I got an A, but I remember being hurt and embarrassed by that comment. After two semesters of being probably the only atheist in the room, since the classes were filled with seminarian students, I received critical comment the only time I criticized God’s premise. Still, my teacher’s attempt to postpone my learning was probably not a criticism of me, as I had originally understood. The comment may have been partly because the argument assumed that all existentialists were atheists, and that is not the case.
People often confuse personal opinions with theoretically and empirically grounded arguments or think that disagreements are necessarily the same thing as a reasoned exchange of ideas. When I engaged in the question of God, I developed my ability to reason. My opinion certainly shaped the kind of arguments I made, but my homework wasn’t designed for me to share my opinion. They were designed to measure my ability to think with these scholars and interrogate them using philosophical approaches to answering questions.
I can’t know exactly why my professor wrote this comment, because I didn’t ask for it, but instead of denying me the opportunity to learn, he questioned my basic assumptions about the field, like an expert should do this for novices like undergraduates. He offered a perspective that I did not engage with but needed to consider in developing my argument. As such, he may not have criticized me for being an atheist but for providing an incomplete analysis based more on opinion than an accurate understanding of existentialism. It offered an intellectual challenge. Moreover, even though it was a criticism of me as an atheist, it did not deny me the opportunity to learn or write from my point of view, as incomplete as the analysis could have been.
What I have learned in this course and in others since this experience is that a criticism from an instructor or a classmate does not necessarily mean that my point of view is wrong, but that my analysis and understanding of the subject may be incomplete. Similarly, students’ opinions are not nullified when they are asked to adopt the perspectives of the course material – they are asked to feel uncomfortable and to think in new ways designed to make disciplinary learning happen.
The courses I took that focused on the question of God were uncomfortable. I didn’t like my experience with them, in part because those conversations weren’t about the issues that mattered most to me. I also often felt like I was the only atheist in the room. In some ways, it was educational in itself. I also had the opportunity to learn in a way that I otherwise never would have, because I was willing to sit in that discomfort and because I attended a school that prioritized to a liberal education. I’m hopeful that I don’t appear to be alone, as students on campuses across the country are similarly committed to creating spaces that center discomfort to debate current affairs and social issues.
Being uncomfortable in our classrooms means we create spaces for critical inquiry, but it doesn’t mean we create spaces that perpetuate evil. The teachers, too, are thinking about how to proceed.
Being asked to verify your privilege or reflect on the assumptions you bring to conversations is not censorship. Being asked to write from another point of view rather than your own is not the height of illiberalism. Rather, these are the characteristics of a liberal education. It’s when people don’t invite us to think about new perspectives that we create illiberal spaces, and it’s when we don’t try to think from another perspective that we deny ourselves a liberal education of college level that many of us seem to agree is worth fighting for.