Observations at Manchester

Ashley Thorne

When NAS announced the launch of our Argus project, the initiative was characterized by Inside Higher Education as a big brother operation that encouraged annoying over-the-shoulder surveillance of colleges and universities. We defended ourselves in a reply article, showing that “the Argus Project is a call for volunteers to examine publicly available sources to report and document what’s happening on college campuses,” and that we are not interested in spying or attacking individuals.

Caboose-ing the Inside Higher Ed piece was one person’s comment that we haven’t yet responded to:

“Odd that there was no mention of NAS monitoring private religious colleges where indoctrination and bias are mandatory. Shouldn’t someone be saving us from something so blatant?” – Brian

Good question Brian. Should NAS monitor private religious colleges as well as public taxpayer-funded non-sectarian ones?  We did recently post a comment on Yeshiva University, a private Orthodox Jewish university. Here we take a look at a private Christian college. 

Recently, an Argus volunteer, sent us text from the website of Manchester College, a four-year, private, co-educational liberal arts institution affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, located in North Manchester, IN. The volunteer highlighted wording in course descriptions, the student handbook, and the mission statement of the College which he believed indicated partiality to certain ideologies. We decided to look into the issues he raised, simply because they were pushed in front of us. 

So what does NAS have to say about a college that has a sectarian purpose? We don’t have a pat answer. We can understand that the principle of academic freedom encompasses institutions as well as individuals and believe that private colleges have the right to decide the content of what they teach. And we do not object when these colleges prefer to offer education founded on traditional religious principles and creeds.  But such colleges also typically seek to be part of the broader cultural conversation and we see nothing wrong with offering an assessment based on NAS’s broader interests in the evolution of academic culture.

Accordingly, we thought it might be illuminating to take a look at the kind of college that often gets overlooked in these discussions. What does the curriculum of Manchester College look like? How is religious tradition being squared with the demands of culture fashion? Let’s take a quick tour.

Our journal, Academic Questions, from time to time, has considered developments at sectarian colleges and universities. We are, however, breaking new ground in offering commentary on a particular sectarian college—and one that has nothing so out of the ordinary to vault it to a high level of scrutiny. We just think there is something to be said for examining the in-roads of political correctness in the kind of college that often gets overlooked in these discussions. What does the curriculum of Manchester College look like? Let’stake a quick tour.  

Peace. Love.  And Tikkun Olam.

The main program that caught our eye was the College’s Peace Studies program, the oldest one in the nation. The Church of the Brethren is one of the three original “peace” churches to come out of the Reformation--Quakers and Mennonites are the other two. Its pacifist teachings have attracted those who would tease its doctrine into something like the Social Gospel. Founded in 1948, Manchester College’s Peace Studies program declares:

Whether in our personal lives or the international arena, we search for an alternative choice of action that does not tear down, but works to build up positive relations between adversaries. We resolve not to accept injustice, but to actively oppose it without taking life or forfeiting freedom, either our own or that of others.

A course listed under the peace studies program (PEAC 330 Analysis of War and Peace) makes a distinction between “negative peace, i.e., the absence of war, and positive peace, understood as the presence of life-affirming values and practices such as economic and social justice and environmental stewardship.” The course description continues to explain:

In short, the importance of moving beyond negative peace to an emphasis on positive peace suggests that it is not enough to simply be against something, i.e., war and other expressions of organized violence. To build a just and sustainable peace, we must also be for something, i.e., human well-being based on values such as justice and equality.

So Manchester College aims to produce students who advocate for social justice and environmentalism.

A note about social justice: it’s interesting to see it appear here at a private religious institution. NAS has written much about the roomy concept that has become the latest on-campus priority. In Christianity, the term “social justice” has historically referred to a religious responsibility to help the poor and the sick. The Social Gospel—the concept that the church should care for the community—began at the turn of the twentieth century and continues to influence American thought about social justice. We would have expected Manchester College, as a religious body, to take its cues on social justice from this perspective—and perhaps to some extent it does. But Manchester seems to take as much or even more from the idea of social justice current on the secular left and manifest most conspicuously in commitment to identity politics, multiculturalism, and redistribution. If Manchester College does have roots in the older Christian tradition of social justice teachings, those roots are hard to find

Every April, the College sponsors “Peace Week,” a sort of retreat for students, complete with keynote speakers (who are “peace educators”) and basketball competitions. Peace Week has also presented “classes on Gandhi and peace activism, and storytelling by a Native American.” (The last is an intriguing detail. Native American cultures were not, historically, especially known for their attachment to pacifism.) 

On its Mission Statement webpage, Manchester College lists “faith” as one of its core values: “because our diverse faiths call us to make the world a kinder and better place, establish justice, build peace amid strife, and model lives of agape (selfless love), tikkun olam (repairing a broken world), and salam (peace).” These last three qualities are respectively, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; we suppose they represent Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Another core value is “diversity,” proudly demonstrated through:

·         The aggressive recruitment of a diverse student body

·         Strong retention efforts for students of color and international students

·

         Concerted and intentional efforts to diversify faculty and staff

·         A comprehensive Human Diversity Committee, comprised of faculty, staff and  
  students

·

         Diversity training for all employees conducted through Human Resources and the 
  Office of Multicultural Affairs

·         Ongoing celebrating human diversity workshops conducted by Dr. Gary Zimmerman

·         Diversity across the curriculum through Academic Affairs

·         An Intercultural Center that serves as a resource center for the different cultural 
  groups on campus


The Office of Multicultural Affairs, which hosts the diversity training, has on its website banner a scrolling quote from Malcolm X: “I believe in human rights for everyone, and none of us is qualified to judge each other.”

 Shape-shifting Values

Humility and non-judgment sound well enough, but what happens when all judgment ceases? Truth is replaced by “values.” In fact, “values” is a keyword at Manchester. The College’s “Values, Ideas, and the Arts” program series offers a number of lectures, concerts, and other events that students can take for academic credit. Many Christian colleges require chapel attendance; Manchester, on the other hand, requires VIA attendance: five events per semester in order to graduate.

Last spring, a VIA lecture by Dinesh D’Souza was the token conservative event for the semester. It was counter-balanced by a showing of Michael Moore’s film Sicko (a sarcastic exposé of the American healthcare system), as well as the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So,” a film that denounces Christians for using the Bible to condemn homosexuality. In its official stance on homosexuality, the Church of the Brethren “upholds the biblical declaration that heterosexuality is the intention of God for creation.” Apparently doctrinal consistency isn’t a huge priority for Manchester. Rather, malleable “values” set the pace at the College, where judgment is absent and peace is paramount.

Another discrepancy occurs in Manchester’s approach to race. Its policy on discrimination (Student Handbook, page 22) says:

All persons admitted to or employed by Manchester College have the same rights and privileges. The College follows a strict policy of nondiscrimination in administering its educational policies, recruitment and admissions policies, loan and scholarship programs, employment practices, athletic and other College-sponsored programs.

Actually, all persons at Manchester College do not have the same rights and privileges. Manchester reserves its scholarship, the “Multicultural Student Leadership Award” (2008-2009 Catalog, page 153) for “students of color.” Furthermore, the College Office of Multicultural Affairs exclusively “serves African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian-American, and international students.” Part of the office’s mission statement is to coordinate “the human and financial assistance necessary to insure the successful development of African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, and international students.” No mention of serving or ensuring successful development for non-minority students.

 A Taste of the Courses

Manchester’s “values” system—seeing the world through the lens of multiculturalism and the potential for social change—continues to permeate the College throughout the curriculum. Fortunately, our fearless Argus volunteer has done the daunting task of wading through publicly available information on Manchester to find the politicized material in the courses there. He’s saved us from having to plod through all of it, but let’s sample a few recurring themes.

Among the course descriptions is a heavy flavoring of race, class, gender, and sexuality teaching. At least seventeen courses specifically identify themselves as looking at a topic from the perspective of race, class, gender, or sexuality.

An economics course, 320 Economics of Race, Gender, and Class, describes itself as:

An introduction to differences in economic outcomes as a result of group (race/gender/class) membership. Economic inequality from an environment of unequal power, participation rules, and access to resources is explored. Topics include pre-market discrimination, leisure-labor and household decisions, market discrimination, forms of oppression, race/gender/class bias (past and present), social change and public policy.

In 342 British Literature II: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, reading materials are “selected to represent the varied perspectives of gender, race, and class.” A sociology course called 333 Sexuality and Gender in Society gives “special emphases on sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender,” and a religion /philosophy course called 225 Feminist and Womanist Theologies explores “the critique and vision brought to contemporary theology by women's perspectives represented in texts by feminist and womanist theologians and in women's fiction and essays.” 

Three entire academic departments—Gender Studies, History & Political Science, and Sociology characterize themselves as prioritizing identity group considerations.

Another hot topic in the curriculum is “civic activism” or social justice/change. At least ten courses emphasize social change, and the Sociology and Social Work departments are dedicated almost exclusively to social justice. Prominent keywords in this category are, as usual, “oppression,” “power,” “social inequality,” “class structure,” and “distributive justice.”

In addition to these two main themes is a sprinkling of other emphases, such as the benefit of association with Islamic culture, the Western guilt of colonialism/imperialism, and the idea that self, gender, and reality are all social constructions. (In light of the thought of gender as a social construction, United Sexualities, a student group at Manchester, puts on an annual drag show for students and faculty members, in which “dozens of participants dress as the opposite sex to test the boundaries of gender and audience comfort.”)

 Conclusion

We’ve reached the end of our “quick tour.” What are we to make of Manchester College? As we said before, we respect the right of private sectarian colleges to offer teaching based on religious beliefs. That’s within the scope of their academic freedom.

We are struck, however, by the degree to which Manchester’s specific theology has been fused to the ideology of the secular left as it is found at any number of colleges and universities that have no connection to the Church of the Brethren or any other Christian church. Perhaps this sits well with the Church of the Brethren—and that is none of our affair. But if we may venture a little way in the direction of cultural criticism, we wonder whether the displacement of an ideal of “truth” by the amorphous concept of “values” is a constructive step in the education of students who will presumably need to find their way in the world. We wonder too whether the embrace of “diversity” as an orchestrating principle of the community and the curriculum can withstand reasoned criticism. That an idea that is, at its outer reaches about thirty years old, appears so central to the College suggests a certain vagueness about the College’s commitment to bedrock standards of higher education.   Manchester College seems rather insouciant in its embrace of various academic fads—as though it is a follower of the world’s ways, not set apart, as one might imagine in a college that is explicitly “grounded in the values and traditions of the Church of the Brethren.”

Manchester College, like any college, plays out its values and beliefs actually in its curriculum and its programs. The most striking feature of those is how similar the College looks to those that claim no religious affiliation at all. As for the success of our exercise in answering “Brian’s" challenge, we will wait to hear what others think. It does seem to us within the bounds of our own enterprise to ask whether a college—any college—upholds the standard of academic integrity, free from self-contradiction and identity politics. In the case of Manchester College, we see cause for concern. 

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