Essay / Misc.

Free Their Minds

William T Cavanaugh
The brilliant young Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh deflates some gassy notions about education. This has implications for all sorts of teaching, but it rings especially true for undergraduate education.

[T]here is no good reason to suppose that authority of itself is a hindrance to academic freedom. Indeed, Christians argue the opposite: the very exercise of rationality depends on the exercise of authority. This may seem like a counterintuitive claim, given the regularity with which students are admonished to ‘think for yourselves.’

[S]tudents manifestly do not learn by becoming more autonomous. To think critically and creatively one must possess certain habits and dispositions acquired by hard experience in the context of a community in which authority has an orienting function. To ask students to make choices while attempting to strip away any basis they might have for making choices is to breed arbitrariness and cynicism, not critical reasoning. To tell students to rely on nothing but their own authority is to entrap them in a prison of the self, and they tend to resent it, not least because a professor’s denial of authority is often a ploy –conscious or not– to win the students over to his or her worldview without appearing to have exercised authority over them. Students today by and large do not need to be freed from narrow dogmatism and unthinking acceptance of religious authority. They need to be freed from the confines of the self and the dreary consumerism that teaches them to regard truth as something chosen, not something received.

— William T. Cavanaugh, “Sailing under True Colors: Academic Freedom and the Ecclesially Based University,” in Michael L. Budde and John Wright, eds. Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), p. 49.

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