An academic’s reluctant conclusion: Fundamentalist teachers don’t belong in college classrooms
By Robert Jensen
Published in TomPaine.com · March, 2000
[This article appeared on TomPaine.com, March 22, 2000. The website is no longer available.]
Presidential politics has once again pushed
religious fundamentalism onto the front page.
As George W. Bush was forced to back-pedal
on his relationship to a fundamentalist
university with an embarrassing history of
racism, John McCain went on the offensive
against some of the most popular
fundamentalist public figures. Through all this,
pundits pontificate about the appropriate role
of religion in politics.
But left unexamined is a much deeper question
with important implications for education and
public life more generally: Are fundamentalist
religious faith and the modern world
compatible? To raise that is not to be irreligious
or question the value of spirituality and
religious faith. It merely asks a question the
culture would prefer to ignore: Can one be a
thinking person in the modern sense and a
Nowhere is that question posed more sharply
than in a public university. An example from my
“Critical Thinking for Journalists” course:
A student came to my office after a recent
class discussion that covered disputes about
truth and knowledge claims in contemporary
society. She explained that she came from a
strict Christian family that believed in a literal
interpretation of the Bible and that the
discussion in class about different approaches
to the concept of truth was leading her to
question some of those doctrines.
I told her that confusion over such questions
wasn’t unusual, or bad, and that questioning
beliefs was what college was all about. She
understood, but that didn’t reduce her distress.
She feared she would have to choose between
the reassuring fundamentalism she had grown
up with and a new intellectual life that seemed
exciting but full of uncertainty.
She was right; she has a choice, and the paths
are mutually exclusive. The choice is commonly
framed as being between religion and science,
or faith and the secular world. But in fact, the
choice is between different understandings of
religion and the role of faith in modern life.
My central point is simple: One cannot be an
intellectual (used in a broad, non-elitist sense
to mean any person engaged in serious inquiry
about how the world works) in a meaningful
sense and hold onto fundamentalist beliefs
about the nature of truth and language. That
simple fact is largely ignored in university life
because educators, and the culture in general,
can’t quite figure out how to deal with the fact
that the religious fundamentalism of a
significant chunk of the population is
incompatible with education in the modern
Such a statement is not an attack on religion
or spiritual attempts to understand questions
about human existence and the natural world
that are beyond the ability of rational systems
to comprehend. It’s not even an attack on
fundamentalism. Despite the fears of many,
universities are not engaged in a conspiracy to
strip students of their faith. But if we take a
central mission (no matter how rarely realized)
of the university to be to foster questioning of
authority structures and of the
taken-for-granted assumptions of a culture,
then students inevitably will question faith
systems as well as political, economic and
social systems. Such questioning is not an
attack, any more than criticizing U.S.
government policy is an attack on democracy.
It is simply an exercise of human intelligence,
creativity and moral responsibility.
Fundamentalist students often deal with these
tensions by choosing church-affiliated schools.
But given the mandate of state universities to
educate the public, conflicts inevitably arise on
campuses like mine, the University of Texas.
Most administrators would prefer the problem
go away, or at least remain invisible, but
professors know that it crops up fairly
regularly. I have yet to find a way to finesse
the issue; talking honestly with students about
my views sometimes leaves them feeling as if I
have attacked their beliefs.
But even more dicey is the question of faculty
members who hold such beliefs, for in a
fundamental sense they are not qualified to
teach in the modern university. When
interviewed by a journalist for a story about a
conservative fundamentalist Christian colleague
of mine, I made this point, arguing not that he
should be fired but that we should consider the
crucial issues his teaching raises. I expected
criticism; I got total silence. That silence,
which I take to be about the fear of engaging
the issue, prompts me to expand on those
comments, not out of disrespect to my
colleague but to suggest the culture cannot
forever ignore such a basic tension.
My undoubtedly harsh-sounding assessment
that faculty with fundamentalist beliefs are
unqualified to teach in a modern public
university is based on two arguments.
First, one of the foundational principles of a
modern university is that everything — every
theory and bit of evidence and proposition and
argument –is up for grabs, is potentially
wrong. A corollary is that there have to be
some generally accepted rules for defending
evidence, arguments and theories.
So, in an open intellectual atmosphere, nothing
can be assumed to be true. A theory about the
nature of the cosmos or the proper functioning
of government can never be taken to be
definitive and final. The history of inquiry is a
history of change in ideas and understandings;
being an intellectual means, in part, accepting
that what we take today to be the obvious
truth is quite possibly dead wrong.
Another aspect of intellectual life is being
willing to subject one’s evidence and
arguments to critique from others, following
shared rules about how that argument and
critique can go forward. Those rules are always
being contested, but some rules are basic. One
is that the evidence and argument have to be
accessible to others.
In a free society, one is free to assert that a
single god encompasses all truth, that
knowledge of that fact is acquired through
faith, and that the question is settled,
permanently. But such claims do not make
sense in an intellectual arena committed to an
open process of critical inquiry. If a professor
contends that all propositions, in the end, can
be judged true or false on the basis of a
principle that is asserted but cannot be
defended by an open intellectual process, that
is tantamount to rejecting the basic premises
of the university.
Another problem arises around fundamentalist
notions about language. Literalist claims about
how one reads a divine text are so radically
inconsistent with contemporary understandings
of language that, again, those who hold such a
view and incorporate it into their teaching are
embracing a non-intellectual, if not
A discussion I once had with a fundamentalist
Christian graduate student sharpens the
language question, and highlights the problem
of trying to be an intellectual who will not
engage intellectually on certain questions.
Although we had very different approaches to
life and scholarship, the student — I’ll call him
Fred — and I had been talking for some
months. He would wander into my office every
few weeks for a quite lively debate about
media, politics and religion. One day, Fred
asked me to explain my concerns about
literalist ideas of Biblical interpretation. I began
by pointing out that there are many different
kinds of writing in the Bible: parables, poetry,
accounts of historical events, assertions of
moral rules. Do you read those all the same? I
asked. He acknowledged that he didn’t.
So, I continued, you establish an interpretive
framework for understanding how to approach
different kinds of material in the Bible. Yes, he
So, I asked, you use an interpretive framework
to understand the text, but you claim that you
do not interpret the text? Fred stopped for a
moment, pondering how to respond. He had a
choice of either exploring the implications of it
with me or simply abandoning the discussion.
He chose the latter.
Then, in the last substantive comment I made
to him, I suggested that he had a choice: He
could either hold onto such beliefs or he could
be an intellectual, but he couldn’t do both.
Fred earned his Ph.D. and went off to teach at
another public university. I am not particularly
worried that he will inappropriately inject
religion into his classroom, that he will
proselytize on the job. He was an honorable
fellow who seemed to understand why that
would not only be inappropriate, but
counterproductive for his cause, just as I
understand that proselytizing for my politics in
the classroom is both wrong and ineffective.
I am worried, however, that Fred will model for
his students a stunted approach to intellectual
life. From many discussions with him, I know
that he was a person who enjoyed asking
questions and discussing a variety of issues
with others, including those who disagree with
him. But that final conversation with him made
me realize that he had been playing by a
different set of rules than I.
I had assumed that when he engaged me in
conversation about a question, he was open to
being changed. I am not shy about arguing
forcefully for positions and ideas I believe in,
but I do that with an acute awareness that I
could be wrong. I have been wrong, many
times. But I found that on key issues, Fred
didn’t share that view. I assumed he was
willing to offer evidence and argument that
another person could evaluate to defend his
views. He wasn’t. It wasn’t that he thought he
was so smart, but that he knew his god was
the definitive source of truth and that he had
had a bead, now and forever, on the path to
know that god.
I had always known that Fred was out to
convert me, which never bothered me. I was,
in some sense, trying to convert him to a
different way of seeing the world. So long as
we were both playing by the rules, such a
discussion could have been productive, for
both of us.
The sad part is not just that he wasn’t open to
learning from me, but that his approach made it
difficult for him to teach me anything.
Professors know that the most important
educational experiences involve learning that
goes both ways. I did learn a few things from
Fred, but the most important lessons he might
have been able to teach me were lost in the
huge intellectual divide that separated us.
I know such exchanges between secular and
religious people are possible. In the
peace-and-justice movement, I sometimes
work with people whose commitment is based
in faith. I learn from them, and I hope they
learn from me. That is possible because their
conceptions of faith, truth, and language do
not preclude them from those exchanges, nor
does the fact that faith systems are not
meaningful to me block me from engaging them.
What differences we have can be understood
and bridged by a commitment to public
conversation in a pluralist society.
That’s why I say this is not a clash between
the religious and the secular, but between
different conceptions of religion. The student
who came to my office after class, nervous
and confused about the choices she faced,
knew that she could expand her horizons and
retain a faith in her god, but she knew that she
couldn’t do that and retain the fundamentalist
faith of her family.
These questions are important not only to
university folks, but to the whole culture.
Public debate about fundamentalism and
politics typically turns on questions of
hot-button issues such as abortion and gay
rights. But the deeper issue is what kind of
public sphere, what kind of democratic
dialogue, is possible when fundamentalist
claims to truth have such force in shaping
This is an issue on which there is no obvious
compromise, no easy way to cut a deal. The
fundamentalists, I suspect, have long known
that, and their organizing strategies are geared
not toward compromise but toward control.
Those who want the modern university to
remain modern — and who hope for a rich
public sphere that allows for maximal public
participation — need to think about what that
kind of university and public sphere — what
kind of knowledge — we are willing to fight for.