The history of American higher education might have changed radically if Harvard College had pulled off an incredible feat when looking for its first president. The college's Puritan founders offered the position to the most innovative Christian educator of the time, the amazing Czech John Amos Comenius. He never came.
Comenius's fame derived from his theological and practical advances. He set forth the theo-logical proposal that all people, including women and the poor, should be educated, because all are made in God's image. He created educational techniques that appealed to all the senses—for example, his Latin grammar text Orbis Pictus was the very first illustrated book in print history.
When it came to the purpose of higher education, however, Comenius shunned innovation. His illustrated book hints at what he saw as a primary aim of education. An invitation at the beginning bids the reader, "Come, Boy, learn to be wise." He later described the university as "a permanent assembly of wise men" and "a factory for wisdom." Comenius represented the expectation, now nearly 400 years old, that universities should help students cultivate expertise in the conduct of a good life—a quality the Book of James identifies as the mark of wisdom (3:13).
Today, however, the idea that professors should dispense moral wisdom is passé. Contemporary universities consider themselves sources of technical expertise for professional practices. If their professors dispense advice beyond their discipline, it usually concerns matters of public policy or political life.
Consequently, professors operate with a narrow conception of their vocation. As one professor admitted, "There are many of my colleagues who would say, 'Look, we are at a university, and what I do is math; what I do is history. Moving into [moral or spiritual development] is not my competence.'" I have found not one secular college mission statement that claims to provide students with wisdom.
What caused this shift away from wisdom? And are Christian colleges and universities any different from their secular counterparts?
Many historians lay blame for the abandonment of the pursuit of wisdom on the development of the research university in 19th-century Germany. Faculty who taught and trained at these universities grew more concerned with producing knowledge and passing it along than with forming the whole student. As one historian has described it, the student became "a mind to be loaded with facts like a tank car with oil."
Research professors also began to change their view of knowledge. Knowledge simply became technical expertise in one's discipline. A recent book by Yale professor Anthony Kronman, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2008), contends that this approach marginalized broad topics related to life as a whole, as subjects beyond one's narrow field of expertise began to seem like unprofessional distractions.
But these factors do not fully explain the change. Early research universities still thought they should form students morally. In 1876, Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of America's first research university, Johns Hopkins, claimed that "everyone agreed" that the job of the university and its faculty was "to develop character—to make men." The university "misses its aim," he continued, "if it produce[s] learned pedants, or simple artisans, or cunning sophists, or pretentious practitioners." But these factors do not fully explain the change. Early research universities still thought they should form students morally.
What eventually changed the priorities of many universities pertained more to their constituency. Prior to the Civil War, church-affiliated colleges educated 90 percent of undergraduates in America. Later, with the help of the Morrill Act in 1862, the state increasingly dominated the creation of colleges and universities, resulting in increased secularization. A century later, more American students would attend secular state colleges than private colleges. Today, public universities educate over 73 percent of American undergraduates.
This shift transformed higher education in two fundamental ways. First, state legislators expected these universities to produce technical experts and civil servants, not liberally educated, wise humans. It comes as no surprise, then, that a recent study reported that 62 percent of students never had professors encourage discussions of life's meaning and purpose.
Second, state-funded institutions do not have the freedom to form the whole person. Unconstrained by religious mission statements and denominational ties, they may enjoy a certain kind of academic freedom. But government oversight and Establishment Clause strictures preclude more vigorous forms of moral and spiritual instruction. Thus, public universities aim simply to form professionals, citizens, and broadly defined leaders, to whom they provide generally defined capacities such as critical thinking.
As a result, secular universities have transformed into "multiversities"—institutions with no unifying core of knowledge or identity that can provide students moral wisdom for life. Without agreement on life's purposes, any rationale for character development disappears. In an article about Princeton University, New York Times columnist David Brooks found the university does not "go to great lengths to build character"; as one university administrator claimed, "We've taken the decision that these are adults and this is not our job …. There's a pretty self-conscious attempt not to instill character."
The Christian Difference
When it comes to the moral dimension of education, are Christian colleges and universities different? Actually, they are. Evangelical college and university mission statements are filled with language about moral goals and ideals. Sometimes they even mention wisdom. For instance, Indiana's Huntington University seeks to "educate students broadly for a life of moral and spiritual integrity, personal and social responsibility, and a continued quest for wisdom."
But does it matter in practice? Research shows that Christian, particularly evangelical, institutions demonstrate a marked moral difference in five areas: (1) faculty attitudes; (2) Bible, theology, and ethics in the curriculum; (3) measured or reported impact on character or moral attitudes; (4) students' moral reasoning; and (5) alumni views about moral education.
While less than half of the faculty at public universities think it very important or essential for higher education to help students develop moral character, one study found that close to 75 percent of faculty at Catholic and Protestant institutions affirm this view. Whereas every evangelical college requires classes in the Bible, theology, or ethics, most secular universities do not require even an ethics course.
In addition, studies have noted the uniqueness of particularly evangelical schools. One analysis of moral development at private liberalarts colleges and public research universities showed that the institutions with the most distinctive impact on character were colleges associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. More recently, Donna Freitas, in the book Sex and the Soul, found that evangelical institutions created a moral culture that helped counter the destructive "hook-up" culture prevalent on most other college campuses.
With regard to alumni perceptions, a survey by the higher-education consulting firm Hard-wick-Day discovered that 65 percent of alumni from church-related institutions claimed "their experience often included integration of values and ethics in classroom discussions." By contrast, only 24 percent of alumni from the top 50 public schools indicated that they experienced such discussions. In addition, 36 percent of alumni from church-related colleges said "their college experience helped them develop moral principles," while only 7 percent of alumni from the top 50 public schools claimed this outcome.
If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then it should be no surprise that conversations about wisdom and character have diminished at secular universities while remaining robust at Christian universities.
In light of this research, Christian colleges and universities can celebrate their distinctive moral contributions. But they must also ask how they can continue to avoid the flight from wisdom to expertise taken by secular universities. The temptations are many: Financial and peer pressure to attract a greater variety of students, particularly through barebones online degree programs, entice Christian universities to abandon their theological and moral distinctives or to gear curricula toward building professional qualifications. The desire to bolster one's academic standing may lead administrators and faculty to downplay an institution's Christian identity when hiring. And the personal failures and struggles of faculty members may discourage them from moving beyond narrow forms of professional training. I'll offer four suggestions for how universities might flee these temptations.
First, Christian higher education must always recognize that wisdom, like salvation, comes from the triune God as a gift of grace. Scripture reveals that wisdom is especially nurtured through worship and prayer (Proverbs; 1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 2:2-3; James 1:5). In other words, the best route to discovering God's wisdom is through particular Christian practices and virtues.
While the church has a primary responsibility for shepherding its charges along these lines, universities do play a unique role. Historically speaking, they have served as "the mind of the church"—the place where Christians, as image bearers of God, have searched out God's truth in every area of knowledge and practice, and transmitted wisdom gathered from God's created order. When speaking to the world about how to construct a good family life, the university is better equipped than the church to engage in discovering and disseminating empirical realities, such as studies on the long-term effects of divorce and fatherlessness upon children.
A number of Christian scholars have pointed out how Christian educational communities can cultivate the intellectual virtues needed for these tasks. Douglas Sloan, formerly with Columbia University, has suggested that wonder and reverence "become primary cognitive organs without which nothing of genuine newness can be known." Valparaiso Provost Mark Schwehn notes how the virtues of humility, faith, self-sacrifice, and charity are essential for the communal quest for knowledge and truth. "The wisdom of loving God for God's sake," observes Cambridge divinity professor David Ford, provides "a Christian rationale to inspire and champion the love of truth and knowledge for their own sake—this being perhaps the goal of universities that is most under threat in the 21st century."
Second, university faculty can mentor students and help them understand what loving God looks like when engaged in a particular discipline. For example, Christian historians should be able to provide young historians with wisdom about how to research, interact with sources, empathetically interpret opposing views, and truly love their subject. They can remind Christian students that their vocation entails not merely studying and acquiring professional abilities, but also the virtues and practices necessary for loving God and gaining knowledge of God's creation.
There is danger, however, in concentrating only on cultivating virtues for work-related vocations in a way that mimics secular universities. Most people lack the skills and wisdom for success in areas of life outside of work. David Brooks recently asked people over age 70 to send him essays in which they evaluate their own lives. "Most people," he found, "give themselves higher grades for their professional lives than for their private lives. Almost everybody is satisfied with the contributions they made at work …. At home, many give themselves mediocre grades."
In contrast, consider Habib Malik's testimony about his father, Charles Malik, a Lebanese philosopher and diplomat who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "People ask me, what was it like growing up the son of a great man? My answer is, it was great! But only so because Charles Malik never let greatness detract from fatherhood." We should, as Malik does, redefine greatness, making sure Christian higher education considers all our roles and identities.
This fact points to the third unique task Christian professors and student life professionals should accomplish: introducing students to complex theological, ethical, and academic discussions about what it means to be fully human. With great sophistication, Christian professors should reflect on and communicate what it means to be good in such non-work vocations as being a friend, neighbor, citizen, son or daughter, future spouse and parent, or being a steward of creation, culture, and money. In reality, evangelicals are not the leading scholars in areas such as marriage, friendship, and fatherhood. While we may be known for political and cultural advocacy in these fields, we are much weaker when it comes to using academic disciplines to strengthen the work of the church.
Of course, we cannot expect professors and staff to cultivate this deep academic engagement without also promoting excellence in all areas of life. In other words, if we think of life as a track event, as the apostle Paul does, the university should educate students not merely for one event (one's work vocation) but for multiple events (the good life as a whole). I recently asked the father of the National Junior Decathlon champion how his son trained. He said they sought coaches to teach the unique skills associated with each event, since a decathlete must excel in multiple areas. Christian higher education, I suggest, should be similarly formative.
To this end, Christian universities must hire faculty and staff who demonstrate not only expertise and the willingness to sign a confessional statement, but also the thinking, heart, virtues, and practices related to a well-lived Christian life, and the willingness to commend these things to others. Perhaps even more demanding, the Christian university will need to demonstrate God's grace and forgiveness when an individual or the whole academic community falls short of this ideal. Historically speaking, many of them have chosen instead to ignore this difficult challenge and focus on hiring primarily for academic expertise.
Lives of Integrity
Finally, professors should articulate what it means to place Christ and their Christian identity first in life. Students, who are learning to prioritize and combine their own multiple identities and loyalties, surely profit from such wise counsel. Professors can constantly remind students that they are more than students. Their grades do not constitute their worth and identity. They are first and foremost persons made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ.
Yet students need more than occasional admonitions. To approach this subject in a more complex fashion, professors could actually end their classes with a lecture about how their subject fits into their lives and how they put their lives together. I find the questions that most intrigue students are about how I'm making decisions in the other areas of my life: How do I balance being a professor with being a husband, father, citizen, and church member? How do I school my children in light of my education? How do I integrate not only faith and learning, but also faith and learning with living? Students are interested in acquiring wisdom relevant to life. They long for the institution as a whole to witness to Christ in every dimension.
Of course, professors are not necessarily wise people. They've been socialized to be experts, not sources of wisdom. I hope professors are wise enough to require students to read biographies of how people in their field and Christian saints in general have seen their lives redeemed under the power of the Holy Spirit. For example, I find that books relating issues about someone's life journey, like Augustine's Confessions, continuously fascinate my students. As Richard Foster writes,
In every age, great Christian saints have cultivated their life with God using the writings of Scripture, the theological reflections of others, the capacities of human reason, the cultural resources of the day and the spiritual disciplines. Through their reflections, the great saints witness to the work of the Holy Spirit and, when we study them, guide our spiritual life as well.
Thus, since professors will always be deficient in this area when compared to great sources of wisdom, they should point students to other mentors. They must continue, as Hebrews 11 reminds us, to help students contemplate the wisdom offered from the whole Christian tradition.
If Christian universities hope to remain more than training grounds for narrow forms of competence, they must avoid the secular temptation to be satisfied with providing disciplinary expertise in a field of study. They must continue the grand quest to offer the world wisdom about what God's story of creation and redemption entails for the good life and a good world.
Perry L. Glanzer is associate professor of education at Baylor University, and the co-author, with Todd C. Ream, of Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan).
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Christianity Today's March issue looks at the challenges facing Christian higher education:
Sailing into the Storm | College presidents Philip Ryken and D. Michael Lindsay discuss the challenges in Christian higher education today.
Little Colleges That Could | How five small Christian schools are adapting to the new environment.
Previous CT coverage of education includes:
A Private Matter: Vanderbilt Vets Student Ministries | Campus ministries need different defenses. (December 15, 2011)
Education Is in Our DNA | We should support every effort to upgrade our failing schools. (December 13, 2011)
School Choice Programs Snowball | Forty-one states introduce or pass new programs. (November 14, 2011)
The Lasting Effects of Your School | A new survey found that Christian schooling makes a difference—and that different kinds of Christian education produce different results among their graduates. (August 29, 2011)
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