These Courses Are Condemned

NAMOI SCHAEFER RILEY

"Christian Morality in American Literature" is biased. "Feminine Perspectives in Literature" is not.

Jordan Trivison holds forth in Shannon Jonker's English class, recapping several chapters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Then he and his fellow seniors at Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murietta, Calif., start discussing it. They take up the question of whether the monster in the novel can be blamed for his behavior, since he was abandoned shortly after his formation and no one taught him right from wrong. They also discuss "whether the monster has a soul." Jordan struggles aloud with this issue, noting that, on the one hand, the monster was created by man and not God but, on the other, that he does seem capable of love and compassion.

It is just such a class — addressing profound themes in a classic work of English literature — that has the University of California worried. Most California high-school students who apply to the university submit their grades as a part of their application. But the university must deem their high-school classwork to be sufficiently demanding for the grades to mean anything. And lately the university's officials have looked upon the classes in California's Christian schools with suspicion — even as they wave through lighter-than-air classes from public schools.

The double standard is alarming, and the effects are potentially devastating to students like Jordan, a bright young man with California blond hair and a well-worn Eagles T-shirt. He plans to apply to UC Riverside, both for its proximity and its price tag. Like many of his Calvary classmates, Jordan doesn't come from a wealthy family.

Jordan hopes to major in business and political science, maybe becoming a stockbroker one day or running for Congress. As much as he likes the evangelical atmosphere at Calvary, he doesn't think that a Christian college would challenge him enough. "I want to be in a setting where I can stand up for what I believe in and not back down."


A proposed English class, "Christian Morality in American Literature," ...but it was judged unworthy because, according to the university, it "does not offer a non-biased approach to the subject matter." So what does a nonbiased class look like? The university has deemed acceptable such public-school courses as "Feminine Perspectives in Literature" and "Ethnic Experiences in Literature."


He is already getting a lesson of what it means to stand up for a belief. A year ago, Calvary Chapel sent a description of some of its new courses to UC for review and inquired about a couple of others. Sue Wilbur, the university's director of undergraduate admissions, rejected three of them as insufficiently rigorous.

Calvary officials sat down with Ms. Wilbur and her colleagues to contest the decision — joined by representatives of the Association for Christian Schools International — but the university wouldn't budge. So Calvary took a bold step. Together with the association, it filed a discrimination suit in district court. The university is filing a motion to dismiss the case today. Whatever the outcome, the complaint makes for fascinating reading.

A proposed English class, "Christian Morality in American Literature," included readings from Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it was judged unworthy because, according to the university, it "does not offer a non-biased approach to the subject matter." So what does a nonbiased class look like? The university has deemed acceptable such public-school courses as "Feminine Perspectives in Literature" and "Ethnic Experiences in Literature."

A history course, "Christianity's Influence on America," was rejected by the university because its focus was "too narrow" and because it was "not consistent with the empirical historical knowledge generally accepted in the collegiate community." But even people who don't like Christianity's effect on U.S. history don't find that it has been "narrow." And the curriculum of the course seems broad enough — covering the role of Christianity in the Founding, abolition, the civil-rights movement and the fall of communism. The course seems downright all-encompassing when compared with approved classes at other schools, like "Modern Irish History" and "Armenian History."

And of course there is a problem with Calvary's science classes. The university sends out a form letter to any school that proposes to teach biology and physics using one of the two biggest Christian textbooks now in circulation. The courses that assign such books, the letter claims, will not be "consistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community." Students thus "may not be well prepared for success" in the university's science courses. Chris Patti, the university's general counsel, tells me that the textbooks have many "scientific errors" and the "biggest one is [the way they describes] evolution."

Such a statement is itself far from rigorous. The physics textbook is like any other — with pure science in it — except that a verse from Scripture stands at the head of each chapter. Barbara Sawrey, a chemistry professor at the San Diego campus, who advised the university on this matter, told Burt Carney, the school association's legal-affairs director, that the verse appearances alone were enough to disqualify the textbook. (Talk about biased.) As for the biology textbook, it is certainly true that it includes a presentation of creationism and intelligent design, but it presents evolution as well, straightforwardly.

Mr. Patti notes that, although Calvary students who take such courses might not be admitted to the university by the normal route, they could get in with high test scores: They would have to score in the top 4% on exams like the SATII. Or they might get in under an "exception" ruling. Last year only eight students were granted exceptions in the entire California system.

The university's rules aren't affecting a lot of students right now because they apply only if a high school submits new courses to the university for approval. But it is easy to imagine, at some point, university officials reviewing the 150 or so religious schools whose current classes would be regarded as unacceptable if new. "If California prevails," Mr. Carney says, "the only way for student to go from our schools to university would be to strip out the religious elements of their education."

Indeed, a list of "helpful hints" from the university — offered to high schools as part of the curricular review process — suggests stripping religion even out of the religion classes: "Religion and ethics courses are acceptable . . . as long as they . . . do not include among its [sic] primary goals the personal religious growth of the student." Such a condition is hard to define and even harder to impose. Religion is an object of study, certainly, but it is also part of the character development of students at Christian schools. The discussion of Frankenstein in Jordan Trivison's class was not purely academic or purely religious. It was both.

Jordan's teacher, Ms. Jonker, is herself a graduate of the University of California. She says that she values the education it provides. But she is disappointed in the university's nay-saying officials. "Our students have the knowledge they need to survive in addition to being culturally aware and well rounded . . . .I thought that's what UC stood for."


  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Namoi Schaefer Riley. "These Courses Are Condemned." The Wall Street Journal (October 28, 2005).

This article reprinted with permission Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

THE AUTHOR

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste-page editor and the author of God on the Quad; How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America. A longer version of this article will appear in Education Next.

Copyright 2005 Wall Street Journal


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