In the Christianized subculture where I spent much of my childhood, characterized as it was by social conservatism and a sometimes thoughtful but often reactionary approach to cultural critique, there was frequent discussion of “liberal,” “secular” higher education and its evils. My parents and their friends were understandably apprehensive of college campuses. Whatever your background, you can easily imagine why the idea of thousands of 19-year-olds living together, under the tutelage of hundreds of self-proclaimed Marxists/feminists/atheists/fill-in-the-blank-ists who profess to offer exclusive access to knowledge, enlightenment, and humanism, would be distasteful to conservative evangelical parents.
But, I never fit in very well with the Christianized subculture in which I came of age, familiar as it was. I had no desire to stay within it in adulthood, because of its flaws and my own flaws working in synchrony. Thus, I never considered attending a religious university, and set my sights on UC San Diego (its department in my field of study is well-renowned, and I love my home city). Now, this side of graduation, I’ve identified some specific reasons for why I’m so grateful for that choice.
**My goal here is to articulate gratitude, not to make a comparison or persuasive argument.
My liberal, secular higher education taught me how to speak English the way normal people do. While there is certainly a place for the rich terminology granted to us by our biblical, theological, and ecclesial traditions, there exists in American Christendom a particular social dialect that is often unintelligible to outsiders. A lot of it is shorthand drawn from biblical imagery, as when you hear people say “a seed was planted.” That means that some portion of Christian teaching was shared with a non-Christian, with the hope that said person’s interest in Christ will grow over time. Like jargon everywhere, it serves the functional purpose of allowing people to say what they mean with brevity. But, it also creates the impression that the world of Christians who are fluent in the jargon is a different world from the one where the rest of us live. It can also prevent us from actually thinking through what we mean. Much of the time, phrases and idioms are parroted without understanding. My time at university forced me to avoid the American Christian dialect and taught me how to express my beliefs in everyday English.
Living on campus made me learn how to live with sex, drugs, rock and roll, etc (that is, with young people). It did not change my convictions about the moral status of these behaviors. If anything, it reinforced ad nauseum how damaging promiscuity is and how unattractive substance abuse is in otherwise amiable people. Nonetheless, learning to live with and love people who think of these behaviors as normal or natural saved me from becoming a moralist. Jesus preached against the self-righteousness of religious people much more than the self-indulgence of pagans. Spiritual pride is the deadliest of sins. Thus, living in an environment run by self-indulgent pagans solidified my own moral convictions while at the same time forcing me to learn how to “eat with sinners,” for my good and theirs.
Living on campus gave me the chance to become friends with people who are vastly different from me. One of my roommates during my first year was a sorority girl who seemed to know everyone at our school of 28-thousand. She’s pretty, bubbly, outgoing, a natural romantic. That’s not me at all, yet somehow we became friends. Another girl in my hall taught me how to skateboard, and we challenged each other frequently on politics and God, even though by the end of the year she was tripping on acid almost every day. Another friend of mine struggled with her self-image for the first two years that I knew her, until she decided to start the process of female-to-male transition last year. The point is that I made real, actual friendships with people I would otherwise have little opportunity to know. Living in the dorms was hard for a lot of reasons, but it was worth it for that.
My secular university education taught me how to be fair to my intellectual opponent. On both sides of every ideological divide there is a pernicious tendency to read and cite the best, most nuanced sources produced by the acceptable side, and then compare that with pop journalism produced by the unacceptable side. This leads to a lot of straw man arguments, which in turn leads to a lot of self-congratulation despite the fact that no real intellectual work has been done. By exposing me to the best, most nuanced ideas produced by my intellectual opponents, my secular education made me a more fair-minded thinker. There is no need to resort to mockery as a form of self-defense when you understand that your opponent is sincere, and probably as thoughtful as you. Rational dialogue can actually happen between people who are in deep ideological opposition! It may be rare, but I learned how to do it at school.
My time at university deeply challenged my beliefs. I arrived at school with the presupposition that the search for truth would be worthwhile, no matter where it led me. That enabled me to take classes and read books without fear that my belief system would be undermined. If it was capable of being undermined, I didn’t want it. Many others have made similar attempts at objectivity and have arrived at different conclusions, so I know that teachability will not overcome confirmation bias always and in all cases. Nonetheless, there are times I have wanted Christianity to be false, because that would make some things in my personal life a lot easier. So my own confirmation bias was lessened, if still present at some level. Some of what I learned at school forced me to seriously reconsider some things I had assumed as true, in light of new evidence–and recognizing flaws in your belief system can be a painful process. Despite all of that, my faith came through the other side, refined and modified in some ways, but still intact, and still orthodox. Looking back now, I think my faith is, though much more humble, more confident than ever. It faced down its ugliest demons and came through victorious. That kind of intellectual and personal harrowing taught me not to fear the truth. If it’s true, and if God is real, then the truth unquestionably belongs to him.