A Christian Education Worthy Of The Name

Christian colleges must not serve an impressive but bogus smorgasbord of bits and pieces of learning.

My own decision to attend college came in the early thirties during the darkest days of the Great Depression. At that time, a college education was not taken for granted even in well-heeled or cultured families. My family was certainly not well-heeled, and neither of my parents had ever attended college or, for that matter, high school. Only one had graduated from the eighth grade. Why should I attend college?

I can remember the arguments—pro and con—about attending college. The clinching argument in favor of college was economic. The life earnings for a college graduate averaged $135,000. Total life earnings for a noncollege graduate averaged less than $50,000. Obviously, then, a college education was worth approximately $85,000. The cost of a college education in those depression years was approximately $600 a year for four years. Tuition for the year varied from zero at many state universitites to an exorbitant $400 at Harvard.

With a full tuition scholarship, my last year at university cost me exactly $278.25 for board and room (away from home) and all incidentals—including 10 cents for the offering plate on Sunday. I also received generous parcels of food from loving parents and free typing of all papers by my girl friend (who has continued to do that job now for 44 years).

It was difficult to beat an investment of that sort, especially at a time when savings banks were paying only 3 percent interest, while an investment of $2,400 in college would ultimately bring a clear capital gain of $85,000. But my reason for going to college was that I wanted to be a lawyer or teacher, and I knew that either required college. To my everlasting disgrace, I cannot remember if I ever even asked myself if I wanted a college education for the main reason a college exists—namely, to help me become an educated person. I hope I did! But at that time, alas, I was obviously more interested in what a college education would enable me to do than in what it would enable me to be.

In hindsight, I deeply regret this, and look back with chagrin on what I remember of my motives. I ought to have reversed these considerations. I certainly ought to have placed the value of a cultural education above professional skills.

The American people have always reckoned both aspects of a college education important. But their practical orientation has led them to put far too much emphasis on what a college education will enable one to do.

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The first college in the United States was formed, as most of us know, to make sure an educated clergy would not disappear from the new land in which the colonists of Plymouth and eastern Massachusetts had settled during the first part of the seventeenth century. We must not sell too short the goals of these first Americans to set up a Christian college. In earlier days, most ministers, like most doctors and lawyers, were trained very practically. But our Puritan forefathers were not so much interested in the more mundane skills of the professional ministry as they were in the kind of person who would become a minister.

The motto of their school clearly reflects this. We know it as Veritas (Truth), but the original motto included the context in which our Lord himself placed it: “If you adhere to my teaching you will truly be my disciples. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). There is no focus on professional occupations in that. The founders of our first Christian college understood well the basic principle that a profession is dependent on the quality of the persons who function within it.

That points up precisely what a Christian college is supposed to do. Certainly it shares with home and church the overall goal of forming Christian men and women who are able to function obediently and effectively in society for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom and the good of the social order. If a Christian college fails to recognize its responsibility for this most fundamental goal, it will also be unable to make its own unique contribution. For while the tasks of these three institutions—home, church, school—overlap immensely, the school has a special responsibility. It is the college that must transmit the intellectual and cultural heritage of our society, and cultivate a creative thinking person who can function effectively in that society. The first goal of a college, to use an old fashioned phrase, is “to improve the mind.”

Colleges also have a secondary goal: to prepare a student professionally for certain duties in life. And just as it is crucial that a college not shirk the responsibilities it shares with other fundamental institutions of society, so also it is crucial that it not become confused about its own distinctive goals. First things must be kept first. What a man is—the character of his soul and the quality of his mind—should be infinitely more important than his professional expertise—though I should not wish to be operated upon by a doctor with no surgical skills.

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Therefore, unless a Christian college carefully protects its distinct role of improving the mind through the transmission of our intellectual heritage and seeks first to prepare an effective creative thinker, it cannot properly educate for a profession.

Where Christian Colleges Have Gone Wrong

If we agree that the main function of a Christian college is to prepare effective Christian thinkers and workers in the church and society at large, we must ask how this can best be done. And, most crucial, how can a biblical Christian faith structure this process? Where does the Bible best fit into a college-level Christian education? There is no aspect of a Christian college more misunderstood. And over the course of the history of higher education in the U.S., no misunderstanding has proved more devastating to its success.

But what ought a Bible and religion program not do? Surely its faculty members ought not to be reckoned primarily as guardians of the morals of the college. Nor should they assume a preeminent role as guardians of an institution’s orthodoxy. And no Christian college should saddle them alone with responsibility for integration of faith and learning. No doubt they have their duties in each of these areas; but woe to the Christian college that holds them exclusively, or even primarily, responsible for these necessary tasks. Because this was their role in most Christian colleges through the nineteenth century, no greater tragedy ever hit the cause of Christian higher education. In the end, it was these institutions’ undoing as truly Christian colleges, and for two reasons.

First, all too often Christian colleges became pagan institutions with a few Bible or religion courses tacked onto the fringe so as to support public morals and pacify pious alumni and donors. Students didn’t get a Christian education. At best, the Bible was ignored because it was deemed irrelevant for the truly serious business of education. At worst, it was regarded as a dangerous hangover from a benighted age, taught by incompetent mossbacks.

Second, even this proved to be only a transitional stage. American colleges are seldom democracies, but faculty usually determine curriculum and have a major voice in selecting new faculty. A consistently evangelical Bible and religion department does not often survive in a college whose faculty have become “liberated” from their evangelical heritage (but “trapped” by their pagan culture).

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As a consequence, our land is dotted with colleges and universities formerly Christian, but now offering students in the name of Christian education an impressive but bogus smorgasbord of bits and pieces of learning that is neither Christian nor, in the best sense of the term, a college education.

Where Does The Bible Fit?

What then is the task of a Bible and religion program in a college that seeks to be truly Christian? Its most important purpose is to do its part to achieve the general goals of the college. It is to do what it can to foster a truly Christian liberal arts education.

In the colonial period and in the early nineteenth century, it was rightly assumed that students who came to a Christian college already had a knowledge of the content of the Bible, so such courses were not ordinarily offered. That can no longer be taken for granted today.

A typical freshman in a Christian college will have nothing like an adequate understanding of the content of the Bible, its historical background, the hermeneutical principles by which it is to be interpreted, or even the basic doctrines of Scripture. While a Christian college certainly cannot make up all the deficiencies of precollege education, neither can it carry out its tasks realistically without recognizing the cold truth about our society. Some principles of interpretation, apologetics, some biblical content, and some teaching of doctrine and theology are essential to the curriculum of today’s Christian college. And the Bible and religion program has the special task of teaching the basic elements of Christianity necessary for any truly Christian integration to students (and, alas, sometimes faculty) illiterate in the Christian faith. This is true no matter whether that integration is carried on largely by the Bible and religion faculty or by the arts and sciences departments.

This is the most important function of the Bible and religion program. Polls consistently show the abysmal ignorance of Christian people regarding the most elementary aspects of biblical knowledge and doctrine. If the Bible and religion programs of Christian colleges do not take this role more seriously than they ever have in the past, they are failing at the most crucial point. Of course, it is impossible to say exactly what or how much must be taught in terms of credits. Students come with varying preparation, and our culture is changing continuously. But certainly such programs must primarily provide an understanding of biblical truth to serve as the basis for integration of Christian wisdom and a truly Christian college education.

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The Crucial Task Of Integration

The task of integrating biblical knowledge with the arts and sciences is even more important than securing isolated pieces of biblical knowledge. It is also more complicated. Integration can be handled in many ways in a Christian college—through the philosophy department, through theology, through apologetics, and by every department in the liberal arts faculty.

In fact, if integration is not carried on assiduously in every department, it will not be done effectively. Integration is the climax of a college or university education. It is the essential glue that attaches to the wisdom of a truly educated person, setting him apart from an educated fool. Without integration, it is doubtful if one can really speak of an education and certainly not of a “university”: that is why it got its name. Of course, integration cannot take place in an intellectual vacuum. It requires both the facts of Christian faith and the facts of the disciplines in the arts and sciences. But integration does not take place automatically. It must be tackled deliberately and energetically and by all members of the faculty from every discipline.

And it is critical for the kingdom of Christ and for our society that this task be done well. This is the great lacuna of American education as a whole. It represents the most devastating cause of our failure to truly educate the young people in our American colleges and universities. Most young people today have no opportunity to secure an integrated education. We live in a pluralistic society, and our courts have barred religious instruction from our public schools. The fact is, of course, that no education is value free or divorced from a philosophy of education. In practice we find that any philosophy of life except a Christian religious one is tolerated. But it is a worse tragedy that even our private Christian colleges make no sustained effort to integrate Christian faith and the facts of the world about us.

In our more than 3,000 private religiously related colleges, scarcely a handful make any effort to provide the kind of integration that really makes a truly great education. Roman Catholic schools formerly sought to provide this, around a Thomistic philosophy of life. In recent years, however, they too have repudiated any truly integrating philosophy for their schools. Outside of a few evangelical schools, conscious integration does not take place except on a personal basis. But this is the great strength of a truly Christian college.

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The Sum Of It All

Evangelicals have a strong commitment to the liberal arts and sciences as well as a firm stake in biblical truth. We hold that no education worthy of the name can slight either, for both are essential. And the integration of the two is the highest task of a college or university education. A Christian college or university faithful to this task will bring a truly “liberalizing” influence to our youth and in turn to the entire church of Christ.

What a tragedy it is that we have allowed that noble word “liberal” to become debased by its association with unevangelical religion. A Christian education does not shackle the soul or narrow the mind. Our Lord himself set the matter right from the very first. Only as we truly become his faithful disciples shall we know the truth. And that truth makes us truly free—free to live life to the full as men and women created in the likeness of God himself and redeemed by the Savior to the goodness and greatness of a life with God. A Christian college education is the most liberating higher education in all the world.

But a commitment to a Christian liberal arts education carries with it also a commitment to excellence. A Christian liberal arts college cannot do everything. It depends upon the home, church, and society in which we live—and particularly upon the educational process that determines the kinds of students who enroll. Still, for the sake of Christ and his kingdom, a Christian college must assess its task and determine to do well whatever it does. Let us not short-change either the church of Christ or the society in which we live.

Especially, let us not cheat our students by sending out graduates who are less than educated persons capable of functioning effectively in our society. Our churches require the best-trained graduates we can provide. If we are engaged in the business of education, we are answerable to God for the quality of education we offer. If we provide below average or moderate quality education for a student, we do neither him nor the church a little service or render a modest benefit. Rather we do that student and the church of Jesus Christ immeasurable harm. The second-rate is always the worst enemy of the best. And the church needs the best. It will only secure the best if we provide our students the best quality of education possible in our world.


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