Academic Criticism, Civility, Christian Higher Education and the Common Good

Academic Criticism, Civility, Christian Higher Education and the Common Good

Spring 2024

Stanley P. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

To this day, I am still shaped by my decision not to attend either of my top-choice graduate programs after reading book reviews written by the scholars who would have been my primary advisors. The harsh and cruel judgments they meted out shocked me and led me to reject the offers, with considerable regret. I knew I would have been formed by them. The mimetic (reflective) tradition of medieval pedagogy is, as we know, part and parcel of advanced studies, with supervisees often taking on many characteristics of their supervisors — both the desirable and productive and the undesirable and toxic.

My “no, thank you” to those offers turned out to be a tremendous boon, leading to graduate training that was both academically far superior and positively formative at The Catholic University of America. I’ve been thankful ever since for the grace to say “no” and revelatory moment that led to my “yes.” Visiting CUA’s library for some research, I had an instinct that this university was where I needed to study the Church Fathers. That instinct led to a meeting with the program director that same day. In what became a three-hour meeting, or interview, rather, about the possibility of my studying there, I asked, “How would you as Catholics treat me as an evangelical?” To that less than graceful but honest question, he had the grace and insight to respond, “That’s interesting. I’m Catholic; how will you treat me?” Therein lay a critical lesson in the making of civility!

Scholars regularly face and form civility and its contrary, incivility. The prevailing winds of culture are such now that incendiary comments, inattentive listening, ego-driven and hostile criticism, and polarized political positions have become our regular experience. For scholars, we find this condition not only in the culture at large but also our academic conferences, journals, and conversations. As specialists in offering criticism, we can forget ourselves, or promote ourselves, and quickly move from constructive offerings to destructive incivility. How we handle civility among our colleagues and in our academic communities shapes both us and our students, and so will inevitably inform how we — and our alumni — handle matters in the broader world.

Too often, culture’s image of scholars is the out-of-touch, untouchable, self-righteously critical academic. With 61.8% of high school graduates matriculating in higher education (in 2022; 70.1% in 2010), a vast proportion of Americans have experienced academic criticism with its benefits and its faults. Anecdotes abound and feed public perception that scholars offer harsh criticism, ideological biases, judgments, and pettiness rather than the positive formation of critical thinking historically promised by higher education.

How we handle civility among our colleagues and in our academic communities shapes us and our students and so will inform how we — and our alumni — handle matters in the broader world.


Arguably, incivility found in the modern American university has exacerbated the toxicity in our culture and may well have emboldened some of the political backlashes afflicting many institutions recently. Perhaps this has fed into a culture which now, to its own detriment, denigrates expertise (on this self-defeating attitude, see Tom Nichols’ incisive commentary in his work, 2017). The doubt, dismay, and denigration that academics and academies now face are legion. As an enterprise and a community, we must acknowledge how higher education has helped to spawn distrust. Our expertise, where it does not satisfy some personal need, such as a well-engineered smart phone or a coherent transportation system, is dismissed by the culture at large. In the face of such a response it is tempting to criticize more, complain, and/or renege on expressing our vocation as expert scholars and remove ourselves from the broader culture. Any such reactions are their own breach in trust, and further ruptures the integrity of our academic enclaves. The toxic feedback loop extends itself, expanding the breaches in society.

Into these massive and growing breaches, Christian higher education — CCCU members, other Christian institutions including both Protestant and Catholic, and individual Christian scholars at public or private, non-sectarian institutions — can and should be able to enter, offering a balm to the ails of our society. Given higher education’s arguable contributions to incivility, Christian higher education can and should move toward solving this damaging phenomenon.

A scholarly vocation is a particular form of caring, of expressing love, for our neighbour. To wrongly adopt uncivil forms of attack in place of generously formed criticisms is to fail in the expression of our scholarly vocation and thus to denigrate the gifts of God. Welcoming others into the community of knowledge, rather, requires learning to communicate difficult matters with grace and sensitivity. We welcome others by how we teach and communicate. This is a spiritual enterprise and a form of academic hospitality which is deeply Christian.

But it is also a practical act shaped by methods of communication. A vision for hospitality requires that we open up our understanding to others more broadly. Too often we convey our scholarly findings in a manner requiring trained understanding of nuance and highly technical jargon (e.g., I have foresworn talking about “heuristic devices”!). Much of what we learn as scholars is not intuitively obvious, else we would not need the years of training required. Among other things, we can contribute to civility by generously communicating scholarly knowledge in a way that is accessible to a broader audience. Instead of fortifying ourselves in our ivory towers through rarefied language, we must open our doors, inviting understanding and participation.

To invite participation is to model something of the divine life. I write these words during Holy Week when we remember the consummation of God’s work. In the words of Augustine, “God Himself, the blessed God, who is the giver of blessedness, became partaker of our human nature, and thus offered us a short cut to participation in His own divine nature” (IX, 15). Entrusted with the tools and content of knowledge, we are called to welcome others into the community of knowledge. This extends the grace of participation, profoundly reflects the vision of integration, and expresses a vision for the love of neighbour, which sometimes goes by the description of the common good.

STANLEY P. ROSENBERG, Ph.D, is the CCCU’s vice president for research and scholarship and the executive director of SCIO: Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford, the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary.