Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Temptations of Christian Higher Education

I'm not usually inclined to agree with Allen Guelzo--but given his contrarian tendencies, agreement would almost constitute failure for him. However, his recent reflections on Christian higher education in Touchstone magazine are worth noting (HT: FT's Evangel blog).

Many will fixate on his critique of quality in these institutions (or lack thereof), as well his worry about the rise of "Rolodex presidents"--"presidents who may or may not have much understanding of the life of liberal arts education and who may or may not have much personal investment in the Evangelical identity of the college, but who have been picked out of a corporate Rolodex of “successful leaders,” either by boards of trustees or executive search firms." (I don't think this situation is quite as dire as Guelzo suggests, but we might be on the way. And I think Guelzo has a bit of an idealistic picture of colleges as "learning institutions," as if historians and philosophers would be the most natural leaders for such institutions. But the contemporary college or university is obviously a much more complex beast, and I can imagine all kinds of "scholars" who could sink a college in no time despite all their scholarly acumen and prestige.)

However, that's not my interest. Instead, I'm sympathetic to Guelzo's identification of another dynamic that compromises certain institutions of higher education: de facto allegiance to the guild rather than the institution. As Guelzo rightly notes:

Faculty want to be left alone because, for the most part, their primary allegiance is to their professional guild, “a largely closed community of practitioners,” says Louis Menand, “who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields” (e.g., history, chemistry, physics, sociology, and so on). Allegiance to the college fades far back in the wake of the academic career. Faculty think of themselves as historians, chemists, physicists and sociologists first, rather than as members of a certain college faculty, because that’s where the mobility is.

This means that, even for Christian colleges, there is only modest incentive for a faculty member to buy into a Christian college’s worldview paradigm. Given the atmosphere of financial fragility, the resources to reward the development of such a worldview are simply not there, and the professional cultures in which faculty are trained are actively hostile to it.

The yardsticks by which I have been measuring the decline and fall of many Christian colleges have been, I admit, secular ones: endowment, admittance rates, and so forth. All of these I could cheerfully agree to dismiss if they were the price being paid by a college for its commitment to a forthrightly Christian identity. But they are not. In pursuit of Rolodex presidents and guild-minded faculty, too many Christian colleges are actually begging to be judged by secular standards. They are, in effect, trying to serve two masters. I am simply taking them at their word.

The notion that Christian colleges and universities are in danger of becoming too academic and scholarly will sound almost laughable. And in many cases it is: there are all kinds of small Christian colleges which are still working to emerge from their "Bible school" heritages, and in those places there's hardly a danger of being too committed to the wider academy. To the contrary.

However, Guelzo is right that there is another tier of Christian colleges for whom I think this is a very real temptation. In the name of "rigorous" scholarship, the scholars at these institutions commit themselves to the regnant paradigms in their guilds, find their primary identity and allegiance in such guilds, and are thus puzzled and exasperated as to why the Christian institution in which they teach doesn't just simply mirror their guild or the research university down the road. As I've argued elsewhere, such a stance is usually also accompanied by the schtick that education is a hands-off endeavor of providing skills for "critical thinking" and professors who have absorbed this trope will be completely allergic to the illiberal notion that education is about formation.

In short, once a critical mass of faculty at such Christian colleges have decided that their primary allegiance is to the guild, in some sense the "core business" and raison d'etre of the Christian college has been abandoned. Or as Guelzo puts it, the college will have swapped the formative task of education--handing on a tradition--for the instrumental job of conferring credentials:
Christian higher education, if it has anyraison d’etreat all, is in the business of handing on a tradition, not of piling up research or conferring credentials—in other words, its real “core business” is education. If Christianity is a revealed religion, then the content of that revelation is both fixed and authoritative; it does not bend, wilt, or evolve gradually into something else. It will not be improved by research into religious phenomena. Thus, the Christian college may recover, re-emphasize, and reform, but it will not re-design.
While I worry that Guelzo's language conveys a problematic picture of repristination, he's certainly onto something. And as he concludes, if Christian colleges and universities are induced to give up this task of education, it will constitute a real loss in the wider landscape of American higher education:

This will be a great loss because Evangelical higher education really does possess a reason for the “core business” of educating. Evangelicals really do believe that there is a transcendent meaning to learning, that the love of learning is indeed akin to the desire for God. In fact, believing this, the Evangelical college ought to be the one place that really has a foundation from which to hold back the vast outpouring of cultural bilge, from violent video games to proletarian entertainment.

It comes as no shock to discover that secular universities can find no cultural consensus, since they abandoned that a long time ago; and it is not news, since Ex Corde Ecclesia,that Catholic colleges and universities are far from being of one mind on their identity. But it will mean the end of yet another important cultural alternative if Evangelical colleges, one by one, go down—or worse, pull themselves down, because their leaders and their faculties could not make up their minds what core business they were in, and sat in silence.

It might not be too late, but it might be getting late.