Straw men and punching bags: balancing our conservatism


Sean McElwee. Submitted photo. Among the reasons I came to King’s was the mantra: “teaching you how to think, not what to think.” I am not naive enough to believe that any individual can be completely objective, but I do believe that with the right mentality and standards an institution can come close. King’s does not.

I have come to see that the administration is dead-set on ensuring that students are exposed to as few viewpoints as possible. Consider the presidential scholars who came to speak in the last year: Alvin Plantinga, Wayne Grudem, John Stossel, Stephen Barr, Brian Wesbury, Dallas Willard, Benjamin Wiker and John Lennox.

These speakers, Matthias writes, are “leading Christian and liberty-minded intellectuals.” For those outside of King’s, “Christian” is code for Protestant and “liberty-minded” is code for "far-right.” The homogeneity of the views of our “Presidential Scholar” series is a detriment to our school.

The views expressed in classrooms are only marginally better. Some professors deserve high praise for encouraging their students to read and seriously consider the arguments of a wide swath of intellectuals from varied perspectives. Other professors are not so successful, but it is hard to blame them; one told me he was sure that were he to say, write an op-ed supporting President Obama, he would fear for his job.

The “no tenure policy” doesn’t encourage intellectual pursuit, but is rather a weapon which can be used to frighten free-thinking professors. That being said, it is unnecessary for the board to pressure professors – most wouldn’t need it anyway. Liberal-minded thinkers are immediately disqualified from the hiring process – if they even desire to apply.

I, of course, should not overstate my case. Many students have stellar internships and are far more experienced and intelligent than I am. It’s unlikely but possible that the dearth of liberals may point to the bankruptcy of liberalism. Furthermore, I highly regard many of the professors who taught me at King’s.

But that’s not my point. I’m arguing that King’s should be a Christian school, but that doesn’t necessitate it also must be an evangelical and conservative school. If the school remains sectarian it sacrifices its own mission.

There is a common fallacy in debate called the “straw man.” It’s what happens when a speaker creates a facile or absurd “straw man” version of her opponent’s argument and then knocks it down. I’ve discovered a similar, but different fallacy at King’s. It’s called the punching bag. Here, the argument is set up properly, and fairly, and then the teacher and students punch it, weakening it. It builds intelligence and character, certainly, but the problem with a punching bag is that it can’t punch back.

If King’s wants the most intellectually powerful students it can have, we need someone to push back, to poke holes in our arguments. If King’s really stands behind its goal and wants to meliorate the stifling intellectual propinquity why not invite Noam Chomsky, Barney Frank, Richard Dawkins, Paul Krugman or Chris Matthews rather than Callista Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Benjamin Wilker, Stephen Barr and John Stossel? Better yet, why not have them debate like Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens did?

King’s should hire more center and center-left professors. I’m not saying we need a token Marxist on staff, but plenty of Christian schools like Cedarville have a diversity of opinions that could benefit King’s. There’s always the charge of “leftism” at most universities and yet there are still a number of “rightist” academics at nearly any major school. King’s cannot boast even one centrist. We King’s students have had punching bags for long enough. We want a sparring partner.

Sean McElwee graduated from King's in 2012 with a major in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.