How Far Fallen?

Any “regular readers” here will know that I’m a graduate of Patrick Henry College, a small, Christian liberal-arts college here in Northern Virginia. Since my time at the school, they’ve established the Faith & Reason Lecture Series, described on the school’s website as a semiannual, “day-long shared experience that involves a presentation by a faculty member or guest, lunch with the speaker, small-group discussions, and an afternoon question-and-answer session with a faculty panel.”

The most recent such lecture occurred on Friday, September 13, 2013. It was given by faculty member Dr. Stephen Baskerville, and was entitled Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology. I was not present at the initial lecture (though I plan to attend a follow-up session for alumni later this week). However, after reading the content of the lecture, I am left with grave concerns about the state of education at my alma mater.

It’s long, but if this is a topic that interests you and if you have not already done so, please read the above link before you proceed. I fear what follows will make little sense otherwise, and I dislike presenting only my perspective on an issue without the reader having an opportunity to become familiar with the other side. If a discussion of academic rigor, logical argumentation, and what it means to have a “Christian education” does not interest you, you probably won’t care to read further, though you’re certainly welcome to do so.

Others have posted a variety of objections to much of the lecture’s content. I’d like to take a slightly different, though related, approach. The content is problematic enough, but I am also gravely worried about the effectiveness of an institution of higher learning at which this lecture masquerades as genuine scholarly discourse. It is fraught with logical fallacies and inconsistencies that are not worthy of a PHC student, much less a PHC Professor – and I say this as a professional writer who has had the pleasure of observing, editing and critiquing the writing of several PHC students and alumni both during and since my time there. Below are some of the most egregious examples of the lecture’s numerous lapses in logic:

Objection 1 – Appeal to Emotion: Any academic should be familiar with Aristotle’s three rhetorical means of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos: Logic, Ethics and Emotion. A “Faith & Reason” Lecture should, by its very definition, focus on ethos and logos. This lecture instead relies on pathos very nearly to the utter exclusion of the other two forms.

Objection 2 – Tautology: While Dr. Baskerville’s discourse devolves into a “two-minute hate” against his chosen villains, it begins as an examination of ideology (In this context, I use the term “examination” very loosely). He declines to define “ideology” choosing to describe it instead. In doing so, he says “A feature of the ideological mind itself is that it seeks to make everything ideological (just as it seeks to make everything political) and to portray all of public life as a clash of ideologies, which enjoy a status of rough moral equivalence.” So the defining feature of the “ideological mind” is that it’s . . . ideological. Got that? Me neither. David Sessions, another former PHCer who has written what seems to be the definitive critique of Dr. Baskerville’s lecture, calls this “little more than a tautology.” I find Sessions’ assessment to be overly generous.

Objection 3 – Hasty Generalization: This is akin to Objection 2, but is broader in scope. It’s a research cliche that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Here, Dr. Baskerville doesn’t even provide the anecdotes – he merely alludes to them – much less the actual data. He makes a series of claims (some more dubious than others) about things that are happening in the world, and from those isolated claims, he crafts a broad “clash of civilizations” narrative that may or may not bear any semblance to reality, but is certainly not justified by the evidence provided.

Objection 4 – Guilt By Association: Sessions points out in his piece that Dr. Baskerville accuses feminists of guilt by association with the French and Russian revolutions, and perpetuates thoroughly discredited accusations that homosexual activism was behind the rise of Fascism and Nazism. Like Sessions, I have to wonder if Dr. Baskerville thinks equally ill of the feminist-backed abolitionist movement, or if he would argue that PHC should cease to be a “dry” campus because feminists were the driving force behind prohibition.

Objection 5 – Weasel words: Dr. Baskerville castigates his accused villains of indulging resentment “expressed not at individuals – who can be confronted personally or formally charged and tried for recognized crimes according to accepted rules of evidence – but against impersonal groups.” He does this in an essay that frequently excoriates “homosexuals,” “feminists,” “radicals,” and even “civil servants.” He doles out superlatives with reckless abandon, only occasionally couching them in vague caveats like “nearly all” or “almost every.” He routinely engages in rhetorical devices like “Many observe,” or “Some may.” Any writer as prolific as Dr. Baskerville is necessarily familiar with the use of these terms to avoid being held accountable to actual facts or numbers. Such tricks of the trade have an important place in certain genres of communication. An academic discourse isn’t one of them. A polemic is, but that’s not what he claims to be engaging in here.

Objection 6 – Special Pleading: The closest Dr. Baskerville ever comes to a definition of “ideology” is this:

All true ideologies channel grievances into government power, with the ultimate aim of settling scores against politically defined criminals. Christianity alone offers a theology of forgiveness that neutralizes resentment and channels its sources into service for others and for God.

If that is indeed a definition of ideology, it is one which Dr. Baskerville’s version of Christianity fits perfectly, as he channels grievances and stokes resentment toward his “enemies list” of groups from this lecture’s first word to its last. He states that, “One obvious reason why Christian faith is not an ideology is because of its unique and highly qualified relationship with the state; Christianity does not augment state power but limits it.” This claim ignores the history both of Christianity and of PHC itself. Christianity has been, in a wide variety of geographical and political contexts, an instrument of enhancing state power since the days of Constantine. Indeed, PHC itself was intentionally established with the stated goal of changing and shaping the culture of the United States in an explicitly Christian mold. Yet somehow, Christianity is “not an ideology” as Dr. Baskerville understands the term.

Objection 7 – Red Herrings/Causal Oversimplification: During his discourse, Dr. Baskerville touches on some very important and under-appreciated issues. He would say that’s his whole point; I would say he’s missing the point entirely. The most glaring example is found in his (all too accurate) references to unfettered bureaucratic immunity and prosecutorial discretion. He’s entirely correct to criticize a legal structure which has so many laws that even those who write and enforce them can’t truly understand them, but which still considers that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” He’s equally correct that the level of absolute power afforded to bureaucrats and criminal prosecutors is completely incompatible with the operation of a free society. However, by choosing to focus the blame for this state of affairs on his chosen “enemies list” of radicals, feminists, and homosexuals, he misses the point that this same sort of absolute power is at work in the prosecution of virtually all crime in this country. The abuse of prosecutorial discretion, in particular, is something of a hobby-horse for libertarian-leaning lawbloggers like Instapundit, PopeHat, and The Volokh Conspiracy, and it’s emphatically not unique to the realm of family law. Dr. Baskerville is also dismissive of the political right’s complicity in bringing about this state of affairs through aggressive prosecution of the “war on crime” and “war on drugs” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Measures such as mandatory sentencing minimums and harsh penalties for victimless drug crimes “both long championed by the political right” have had no less impact on the skyrocketing rates of incarceration and single parenting than the “divorce regime” he so vaguely derides.

Objection 8 – Straw Men: The most controversial piece of Dr. Baskerville’s lecture is his discussion of “new gender crimes,” which according to him, “play on the fear of sex crimes, but they redefine these politically to include not simply acts but heterodox political beliefs.” If only he’d stopped there! It’s undeniable that political partisans on both sides of a given issue frequently attempt to criminalize disagreement with their positions and actions “it’s been happening in this country since at least 1789, and in other countries long before that. Unfortunately, Dr. Baskerville goes on to try citing specific examples, to include (scare quotes in original):

  • “rape” that includes consensual relations and in most instances is no more than that; (emphasis mine)
  • domestic “violence” that involves no violence or any physical contact or threat of it;
  • sexual “harassment” that can mean anything from simple flirtation to unauthorized opinions about morality or politics;
  • “child abuse” that is routine parental discipline, or homeschooling, or concocted altogether to win advantage in divorce court;
  • “bullying” that involves criticism of the homosexual agenda or other differences of belief and opinion;
  • “stalking” that is forcibly divorced fathers trying to see their own children;

Dr. Baskerville provides no examples to support any of these claims, and Patheos points out that every one of these supposed redefinitions is a mischaracterization. I can’t speak to most of these from personal experience, but I can speak to a couple: I’ve sat through multiple government and private industry lectures and online training courses regarding sexual harassment, and every one of them emphasized that in order to be actionable, it must involve public activity that the recipient has made clear is unwelcome, and that would be clearly offensive to a reasonable person (a common legal standard).

On the issue of rape, I can’t believe I have to point this out, but while fraudulent accusations of rape certainly exist, they are far less frequent than the entirely too true accusations of rape that are never made, or never prosecuted, because the crime itself is so incredibly difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt. I have not one, but three, personal friends (that I’m aware of) who have been raped. Two never reported it because of personal circumstances at the time. The third reported it, but the case was dropped when she declined to take the stand against her accuser after learning that the defense team’s tactic of choice would be to drag her through the mud and accuse her of promiscuity. Again, the plural of anecdote is not data, but in this instance, the data concur. I have other friends who have been victims of other forms of sexual abuse and harassment, and who have been let down by the parents, churches, and legal authorities who were supposed to be there to protect them. My opinion – based on the personal experiences of people I care about – is that, far from being too quick to abandon men accused of abuse or other sex crimes as Dr. Baskerville suggests, the Evangelical Christian Church is instead far too lenient toward the perpetrators of such crimes when they are committed. I feel deep sorrow for any female member of Baskerville’s audience, or student in his classes, who is forced to endure such humiliating and belittling discourse . . . and especially for anyone with a history as a victim of abuse who hears someone in a position of authority so callously delegitimize her experience.

Objection 9 – Begging The Question: As I read through the text of Dr. Baskerville’s lecture, I successfully managed to squash the urge to skip to the conclusion in order to discover his proposed prescription for his litany of supposed social ills. When I finally reached the end, I found this:

It is especially incumbent upon Christian intellectuals to make these issues the highest priority of scholarly inquiry. There could hardly be a field of investigation more appropriate or more glaringly demanding the attention of Christian scholars than one that validates vital truths of the Gospel for our public life. And yet Christian scholars hardly seem interested. Indeed, we seem timid if not terrified to apply the tools of learning and scholarship to this challenge.

So he has already reached a series of very detailed conclusions about the state of the world and its reasons for existing in that state, and his entire solution to the issues he raises is . . . to study them further. Yet his entire premise is to assert that they have been studied enough (at least by him) to justify the sweeping conclusions he makes here (a premise that  – at least in this forum – is not supported by the evidence provided). Which is it?

As a member of PHC’s very first graduating class – the second person ever to be handed a degree from that institution – this whole episode saddens me. While we had occasional guest lecturers and special presentations, we didn’t have access to a forum like the Faith & Reason lectures during my time at PHC. We did have access to Dr. Noe’s rigorous exercises in logic, Dr. Bonicelli’s challenging Comparative Politics course, and the rousing discussions facilitated by Dr. Stacey in “Freedom’s Foundations.” If I’d attempted to turn this discourse in as a paper to any of those professors, I would have failed their courses. If I’d attempted to argue a debate round with evidence this thin, it would have earned me (and on at least one occasion, did earn me) a loss in the round, followed by a stern lecture from the judge.

If this is representative of what an education at PHC has become, I feel very sad for the many friends of mine who have spent so much time and energy investing in the institution, as well as for the students currently in attendance there. I fear they are not getting the same caliber of education I received. I hope I’m wrong.

2 thoughts on “How Far Fallen?”

  1. No one can hold a candle to Dr. B and Dr. Stacey…its really too bad PHC couldn’t hang on to that caliber of professor.

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