Notre Dame and the Fundamentalist Dream

Is it practical? I have no idea. But the proposal last week from students at the University of Notre Dame to block porn from campus pushes all the buttons that animated fundamentalist college reformers a century ago. It goes against the very openness—as Gene Zubovich wrote recently—that has led Catholic higher education to be so much more intellectually vibrant than the conservative evangelical versions.

notre dame

Can they keep the baby if they block the bathwater?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for student activism against pornography. I admire the zeal and vision of the Notre Dame students. I’m especially happy to see my fellow men stand up against the exploitation of women and children. As the Notre Dame signatories argued,

We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women. . . . Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years. . . . ​Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women — violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.

I don’t dispute any of that. Historically, however, the goal of blocking and shielding students as part of a righteous college education has had some unintended consequences. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, the heart and soul of the fundamentalist college dream was to block, ban, prohibit, limit, encircle, and deny. In short, what fundamentalist school founders wanted was to create an alternative system of higher education in which young people could learn without being exposed to the behaviors and attitudes that had taken over mainstream higher education.

As Gene Zubovich argued recently, Catholic higher education has had a different tradition. Of course the Catholic Church has its own long, lamentable tradition of prohibition. Nevertheless, Catholic intellectuals became the big brains of America’s conservative movement in the twentieth century, Zubovich wrote, because

Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism.

Now, I disagree with Zubovich’s across-the-board dismissal of academic and intellectual life at evangelical universities. It was not only Carl Henry (whom Zubovich mentions) who dreamed of creating an academic intellectual powerhouse. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, the roots of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in another ambitious and practical plan to improve the tenor of intellectual life in evangelical schools.

However, that quibble is beside the point this morning. Zubovich is absolutely correct in marking a big difference between the attitudes of leaders at Catholic universities, compared to evangelical ones. Faculty at Catholic universities do not have to sign detailed statements of faith. Hiring for academic positions is done by credentials, not by faith backgrounds. Most important, the expectations of students at Catholic universities has never matched the sometimes-extravagant lifestyle controls imposed by evangelical schools.

What does this all have to do with Notre Dame’s proposed porn filter? Just this: imposing a block or a filter might seem like a laudable purpose, but the long-term impact on any academic institution will be serious, even severe. Do Notre Dame’s signatories want to take their institution down the long path to wall-building?

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  1. If they want to remove porn from campus, they will need to disconnect the campus from the Internet.

    • Right. And confiscate all phones. …and televisions, magazines, stereopticons, etc….

      • Agellius

         /  October 29, 2018

        First, the student statement says that it’s already against university policy to access pornography on school internet connections. So they’re just talking about enforcing a policy that already exists.

        Second, they write, “A filter on pornography may not end its use on campus, but it will significantly erode its presence. With a filter, every time students attempt to access pornography, they would encounter Notre Dame’s enduring message that pornography is destructive and exploitive.”

        They seem to realize that completely eradicating access to pornography isn’t a reasonable goal, but believe a filter is a good idea nevertheless, if only to send the message that the university disapproves of it.

        Adam: Why do you say the long-term impact will be severe? Is it just that blocking one type of content is liable to lead to blocking others?

      • Yes, I think the potential might be severe for exactly that reason. If Notre Dame (and other Catholic schools) submit to the logic of prohibition, they are in danger, IMHO, of sliding into the fundamentalist mindset. FWIW, I think secular schools are in similar danger, when it comes to blocking controversial speakers and even mentions of controversial topics.

      • Agellius

         /  October 30, 2018

        I see your point, but it’s hard for me to say that a Church-run institution should not filter internet content. This is a moral issue, and churches are supposed to avoid providing occasions of sin, things that entice or tempt people to sin, of which internet pornography is certainly one. Our government bans plenty of things for what are basically either moral reasons or safety reasons.

        I think where we differ is that you are thinking of banning pornography in the same way as banning speech or expression or opinions, and I’m thinking of it as banning bad behavior. To me it’s more or less like banning a speaker coming on campus to incite people to violence. That’s bad on the part of the speaker, and it’s also bad for those who might be enticed by him. Why is it bad? Because people and property might be hurt. But people are also hurt by sin and temptation. A church would no more want someone coming on campus to teach people how to commit financial fraud; and a secular campus would probably agree on that. The difference being that a secular campus doesn’t consider watching pornography, and being tempted thereby, to be particularly sinful.

        It’s one thing to try to keep bad things out, it’s another to actually provide them to your students. You don’t necessarily have to ban students from bringing issues of Hustler magazine on campus, but neither should you sell them in the student bookstore. One could argue that providing unfiltered internet is like handing out Hustler on the street corner.

      • This is a moral issue, and churches are supposed to avoid providing occasions of sin, things that entice or tempt people to sin, of which internet pornography is certainly one.

        If the porn is on Notre Dame servers, that would be providing it. But merely providing unfiltered Internet access does not amount to providing porn (in my opinion).

      • Agellius

         /  October 30, 2018

        Well, suppose the university provided free cable TV service to all students (which maybe they do, I don’t know). If that service included pornography channels, and if they had the option of switching those channels off, and chose not to, I think that would amount to providing pornography. The fact that the broadcasts don’t originate on campus is neither here nor there.

      • That’s not a fair comparison.

        If the campus provides TV service, presumably it has signed contracts and pays for the content. With the Internet, it only contracts for the transportation, not for the content.

        Should the university be turned into a prison camp, with students not allowed to leave, because there might be some porn houses within driving distance?

      • Agellius

         /  October 30, 2018

        If the internet provider offers something akin to parental controls that can block porn, and the university declines them, I don’t see an essential difference between that and providing cable service without omitting porn channels. It seems we’re arguing semantics.

        By the way, I’m really just playing devil’s advocate here. I’m not sure that the university does have a moral obligation to block porn, but I can understand the argument that it does, and I don’t see it as a mere matter of thought control or sheltering people from reality. If there is such an obligation, it’s the obligation not to provide occasions of sin.

        Obviously what happens off campus is not the university’s responsibility.

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