The closing session of this year’s Minnesota Undergraduate History Symposium featured a faculty roundtable on academic freedom. Professors Tycho de Boer, from St. Mary’s University, and David Sellnow, from Martin Luther College, also spoke. The following were my remarks:
In October 2015, the Atlantic Monthly carried a story about the ways in which sex-harassment policies were being used to “diminish” free speech on a variety of college campuses. The article claimed that compromised free speech was due, at least in part, to pressure from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights which has helped perpetuate the idea that “illegal sexual harassment extends to campus speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive.” Professors, consequently, have found themselves under attack to the extent that professors at Harvard are apparently “jettisoning teaching tools that make any reference to human sexuality.”
As a person who both researches and teaches in the field of sexuality and gender within American history, I found the article interesting and yet not surprising. The refrain of sexual misconduct and/or sexual scandal on college campuses is by now rather commonplace. From my vantage point, the arguments surrounding academic freedom and sexuality are minor compared to the problems confronting students in their navigation of the treacherous concept of what passes for “consent” with regard to their sexual activities. But. Here we are.
The Atlantic Monthly article noted that the harassment policy which seems to have diminished free speech has at its heart the goal of protecting students from exposure to ideas that make one uncomfortable and that such a goal is antithetical to education. It is unfortunate that even in the larger academic context, ideas surrounding sexuality and/or gender tend to be ones that are linked to creating a particularly uncomfortable situation. But it also makes me feel a little better about the peculiar context of talking about sexuality here at Bethel.
A couple of years ago, Bethel University had a conversation about a proposed gender studies minor. The pressure against the minor came not from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights or from students but from a number of faculty who expressed skepticism about the minor. One colleague, for example, asked if it was possible that those working in the field really had the “academic freedom” to “work from within a framework of biblical sexuality, as Bethel understands it,” a reference, I presume, to Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together which claims that sexuality is one of God’s good gifts but states that “monogamous, heterosexual marriage” is the proper context for “sexual intercourse and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity” and condemns pornography, and sexually exploitative or abusive behavior as well as sexual harassment.
I think it is, and while I certainly strive to be transparent about my own beliefs, preferences, and feelings about sexuality, I also believe my commitment to a truly liberal arts education means that my students and I together confront ideas that make us uncomfortable. It is sometimes uncomfortable, for example, to acknowledge that in spite of Bethel’s commitment to a particular sexual ethic, Christians do not agree among themselves what “biblical sexuality” is. Views differ among individual Christians, by denomination, by culture, by time period even. Acknowledging those differences is often more uncomfortable than, for example, studying the history of homosexuality, pornography, venereal disease—all topics which we discuss in the History of Sexuality in the United States course. Studying the history of the sexual landscape of the past, knowing it too had its own pitfalls and complexity, I think makes us better equipped to enter into dialogue about how to approach the current sexual landscape—one that we share with a diverse group of people and communities, not just Christians who subscribe to Bethel’s interpretation of biblical sexuality.
I think that we do a great disservice to ourselves if we believe that silence and avoidance of uncomfortable topics or subjects will cause them to go away, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to engage in frank discussions with students about such topics. I am also grateful that the students taking my class seem to see the value of developing historical empathy for a range of views that don’t necessarily align with their own. Part of the success of the course, though, relies on what I think the original intention of the sexual harassment laws may have been, namely, to treat the people around you, with respect. Again, Bethel approaches this goal from a fundamentally different direction from the Department of Education. I doubt, for example, that the concept of imago dei appears in any of their documents, but possibly we may be trying to create what could amount to a similar learning environment which seeks to create a safe space for all people to learn together even while working through uncomfortable, even earth-shattering and heartbreaking ideas. Because, really, as much as the world is beautiful, it is often, too often, one that breaks our hearts. And that is more than uncomfortable, it is tragic. We won’t be better at coping with tragedy, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist.
– AnneMarie Kooistra