Published December 6, 2021
“Do I teach at a woke school?” was not a question I seriously considered until one evening last week when I received an email from a friend assuring me of his prayers for me in my workplace. The reason was an article he had just read on a website, The American Reformer, entitled “Wide Awoke at Grove City College?” The background to the article was a petition launched some weeks ago by parents of Grove City College (GCC) students and alumni concerning what they perceived as a woke drift on campus. The GCC president had responded to the petition in a way that I myself had thought was solid but American Reformer dismissed as “limp” and, by implication, disingenuous. I do not know if the author of the article has ever set foot on the campus which he writes about, but I confess that had he not told me he was writing about GCC, I might have struggled to recognize the ethos of my institution in the way he described it.
Now, wokeness is surely a serious problem in American higher education. Parents and alumni of all schools are right to be concerned about how various institutions are responding. I am not persuaded that petitions are ever the best way to address such problems but I can certainly sympathize with those anxious about their children or about their beloved alma maters. I myself am passionately committed to saving education from wokeness. I am a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University and the National Association of Scholars, both of which have a keen interest in maintaining the importance of academic freedom and excellence on campuses. I am a contributing editor at the decidedly anti-woke First Things and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, one of the best-known conservative think-tanks in Washington, D.C. I am acutely aware of the struggle many friends face at this difficult time and I understand why parents and alumni are disturbed when they hear stories (or, in this case, mostly misguided rumors) about their institution. They are right to ask questions and raise concerns. They need to know if the colleges that take their money are providing the education they claim to be doing.
At the heart of academic institutional excellence is, of course, academic freedom. That can be tricky at a school that holds a stated religious position, such as a Christian college like Grove City College, but it can be done. The way a Christian school can hold to its beliefs yet give students a good education is to hold faculty to a standard of belief but then ensure that they engage other viewpoints in the classroom, host speakers from a variety of political and philosophical traditions, and encourage students to wrestle honestly with the great ideas and the hard questions of the past and the present. For example, as I recently told the Religious News Service, I declare my classes to be free-speech zones (something none of the more progressive figures interviewed said about their classes). I do not require students to agree with me in order to get a good grade. But if they dissent from my view they need to do so respectfully and give me an argument as to why I am wrong. For me, education is not about cloning myself intellectually in the classroom (as it is becoming at so many woke schools); it is about giving the students the skills to think for themselves.
At the center of the storm surrounding GCC was an invitation to Jemar Tisby to speak in chapel. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in retrospect inviting Tisby to give a chapel address may have been a mistake. A chapel address carries a certain institutional imprimatur that a simple guest lecture does not, though inviting guest lecturers to campus to engage our students on critical topics such as race, in this current culture, is an important role of any college or university. But that is not a criticism of my colleagues who invited Tisby to speak in chapel. One of the hallmarks of wokeness is cultural amnesia—the swift forgetting of what was true the day before yesterday in order to demonize those who still hold, say, to the importance of biological sex for gender. Conservatives need to be careful not to play their own version of the woke-amnesia game when it suits them. Tisby is a good example. He was first given a platform by Reformed Theological Seminary where he had been a student on its Jackson, Mississippi campus. That is a flagship conservative reformed institution. Indeed, as recently as 2015, he was appointed director of the African-American Leadership Initiative at RTS. He was described at the time by the RTS Chancellor, Ligon Duncan, as follows: “a man I trust … a dear friend … an educator and a churchman…. His commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, the Reformed faith and the gospel ground all his efforts towards our honoring the image of God in all people.” Ligon Duncan is no woke progressive, as anyone who knows him will attest.
Duncan’s eulogy is a reminder that Tisby has been on a long journey, from RTS poster child in 2015 to working for Ibram Kendi’s outfit in 2021. Indeed, even The Color of Compromise, a book with which I have some stated disagreements, is surely not representative of where he is today. The fact is, the summer of 2020 appears to have been a radicalizing watershed for Tisby as for many others on both sides of the political divide. The college can hardly be blamed for failing in 2019 to predict the radicalization of the RTS graduate who had recently been seen as the emerging African American bridge-builder in conservative reformed Presbyterianism.
That makes Grove City College, even with all of its mortal failings and human flaws, a remarkable place. My wife and I recently hosted students at our house for a dessert evening. One of them asked if I hoped to stay at Grove City College until I retire. I responded yes, because I love the college and, more significantly, because my writings and lecturing have made me likely unemployable almost anywhere else in this age of the woke. As evidence, I told them about a Christian college where I gave a lecture by Zoom in the last year. The professor who invited me to speak asked if he could record the session because he expected to be the subject of a complaint that he had created an unsafe learning environment by having someone of my views speak. And that was a Christian college. A Christian college. That would not happen at Grove City College.
Is Grove City College perfect? No more than I am. But I am a conservative and a Christian and that means that I believe certain things are true. For example, I believe that no institution can ever make no mistakes and do the right thing every time. And the larger the institution, the more likely it is that issues will arise. With nearly 200 faculty, a large staff, a student body of more than 2,000, and more than 800 courses taught each semester, GCC is too big for even the most perfect administration to micromanage. Built from the crooked timber of fallen humanity, Grove City College, like all institutions, reflects our own failings and weaknesses. But if the test of people’s character is not whether they live a perfect life but how they handle their mistakes and failings, then the test of an institution’s integrity is how it addresses those things which have not gone as planned or have proved unexpectedly counter-productive. GCC’s management of this continuing challenge is smart and effective. It strives to hire excellent scholars with solid Christian convictions. There is no tenure; everyone gets a one-year contract requiring affirmation of the college’s mission and values. When occasional issues arise, direct and constructive conversations take place with the expectation of missional alignment. That is why it is sad that the college’s recent statement about its commitment to addressing the matters raised by the petition has met with such cynicism from an ostensibly conservative Christian source.
I do appreciate my friend praying for me. I hope that he prays that all of us at Grove City College will stand firm for God’s truth, academic freedom, and intellectual integrity in this storm of wokeness that surrounds us. But above all, I hope that he gives thanks that I and my colleagues work at a place where we have the freedom to be faithful in our callings, a freedom that exists in few other institutions of higher education today.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Aberdeen and has taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen and Westminster Theological Seminary. Most recently, he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He writes regularly at First Things and Modern Reformation and co-hosts a weekly podcast, The Mortification of Spin, for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Photo: Glenn Marsch/Flickr