Finally got grades done for the semester on Monday. The last thing I graded was an assignment I use in our senior capstone class. The class is called “The Christian in the Contemporary World” and serves as the bridge class from college to the world beyond. It relies heavily upon exploration of the Spring Arbor Concept: Spring Arbor University is a community of learners, distinguished by our lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts, total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning, and critical participation in the contemporary world.
Their final paper is to explore the Concept in their own words, using it as a lens to look backwards at their college years and forward into their projected future. Of the four components of the Concept (community of learners, liberal arts, Jesus Christ as perspective, critical participation), it was the liberal arts piece that proved most problematic for them. To many, liberal arts is a description for the general education classes we tell them make people well-rounded. To some, it was a major distraction from the important classes in the major. At best, they had a vague sense of benefit from the experience of college but couldn’t exactly articulate why.
I’ve been puzzling over this all week. How often do we use the phrase “Christian Liberal Arts Institution”? It seems to be central to the mission of Christian Higher Education. Why don’t we do a better job of explaining it?
My pondering has led me to three working hypotheses. First, the students are right that we’ve confounded general education requirements with the notion of liberal arts. We describe the importance of a range of subjects (because it’s “good for them”). Liberal Arts, in this sense, is contrasted with that university education that focuses on specialization. It’s why many research universities moved to completely distributive requirements and added all kinds of cute course titles.
My second thought is that most of our Christian universities were birthed as Bible Colleges. They had a focus on ministerial training and Biblical apologetics. As institutions began to pursue regional accreditation, they called themselves Christian Liberal Arts institutions. But the Bible School ethos, while no longer dominant, is still a foil. We can find schools that maintain the central focus on ministry, while adding other programs to fill out enrollment options.
My third hypothesis is that our incessant job focus in recent years has diminished our ability to talk about liberal arts. The more we worry about placement rates, the job market, and loan repayments, the less we can talk about the long-term values liberal arts perspective brings.
Here’s what I want us to talk about: Liberal Arts is a perspective on life. It’s not the range of courses we’re talking about. Those are only the raw materials with which liberal arts works. It is understanding multiple perspectives, yes, but more importantly it’s about the connections across the perspectives. It is about connecting Christian faith with the contemporary world, but not in a fixed form. It’s about the exploration that allows vibrant expression of faith in a changing world. In that regard, Liberal Arts is a means of interrogating options. It is about finding balance. As Morgan Guyton wrote today, it is an expression of Wesleyan methodology (i. e., “the quadrilateral”). It’s about the process of bringing together diverse perspectives, being able to communicate those clearly, and to creatively solve problems. That’s why the American Association of Colleges and Universities has shown the same pattern for years: that employers favor the skills that come from liberal arts education.
Employers aren’t asking for employees that could tell you about art history or english literature or introductory sociology. They want people who can anticipate a world in development. The same thing the church desperately needs. The same thing our students need to “critically participate in the contemporary world“.
Christian Liberal Arts is about seeing a variety of perspectives (faith, science, economics, humanities, etc.) synthesizing those perspectives in creative ways, and following the leading of the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom of God. That’s a story that works on all levels and I’ll need to spend more time unpacking it next time I teach the capstone course.
So I’m in the process of finishing up my grading for this year. Two sets of papers to go plus a couple of stragglers. Commencement is Saturday. This is the end of my second year at Spring Arbor. It means I’ve been here long enough to have significantly invested in the folks who will cross the platform to shake the president’s hand.
I knew something had changed about a month ago. I was at the spring play (starring one of my students) when one student I haven’t had told me he was excited to be taking my sociological theory class next spring. Shortly thereafter, I realized that a number of our majors had taken to calling me “Hawthorne“. Not Dr. or Prof or even John. Just Hawthorne. I realized that it’s what they use as a reference when they talk about me. And now they use it as my appellation. It means I have an identity in their universe.
Last week I was in a meeting with the peer advisors who work with our freshman groups. We were talking about the nature of service. I wound up repeating a line I’d used for years: that the thing that makes a Christian residential liberal arts institution special isn’t that people know students by name — it’s that they know me. Not as the name at the top of the syllabus but as me.
I’ve invested myself in them and they’ve invested themselves in me. It’s what Spring Arbor means when we call ourselves a “community of learners“. Those that leave us this weekend change that community as we go forward. I’ll feel a sense of loss (even though Facebook lets me stay in touch). And we’ve already begun investing in a new group of freshmen who came to preregistration last weekend.
This interpersonal dynamic is what Pete Enns was describing in this excellent post yesterday on the joys of teaching Bible classes at Eastern University. He wrote: Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.
I’d take Pete’s point one step farther. To create that culture, he has to embody transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. As Parker Palmer has written in nearly all his books, that embodiment (incarnation) is game-changing. Students find the ability to dream, to take chances, to push themselves.
One of my students wrote yesterday that she’d always thought the integration of faith and learning was about balancing content. Now she thinks about seeing learning as an expression of her commitment to Christ. She’s still working on what that means for her, but it’s exciting.
Today Christianity Today had this editorial about the future of Christian Higher Ed. It tells the familiar story: rising costs, concerns about debt, ponderings about the role of distance education. The author argues that churches should care about Christian universities because that’s where ministers come from and how parishioners get benefits from Christian faculty in their midst (and who, in turn, keep aware of life in the pew).
Such a narrow vision of the purpose of Christian Higher Education will not serve us into the future. We don’t exist FOR the church by operating as some kind of leadership farm club. We exist AS the church reaching out into the highways and byways. Our graduates can go out and work in community to advance the Kingdom of God because they’ve been practicing faithful Christian living for four years.
We send out missionaries. Some of them go overseas. Some work in insurance companies. Some work at Starbucks while they figure out the right grad program to attend. But they’re all carrying something forth — the notion that a community of learners matters in shaping identity.
This is why MOOCs are not the solution. If having great content delivered by folks like Michael Sandel (and he is good — I use his book in my capstone class) was all that mattered, then the folks at San Jose State and American University need to get with the program.
But it’s not just about content. It’s about personal investment in lives. And that investment is worth more than the tuition we charge. The payoff comes when we see that timid freshman cross the platform four years later as a confident and thoughtful adult. It comes when we hear that the village he serves in the Peace Corps has been dramatically changed because of his investment in the people there. It comes when new ministry forms emerge that keep Young Evangelicals engaged in the local congregation in ways that are authentic and meaningful. It comes when their children show up at the college ready to go through the whole cycle for a new generation.
Saturday my students will cross the platform and I’ll stand and clap for them. I’m looking forward to meeting their families and talk about how much we’ve been through together.
But mostly I’m excited about who they are and where they’re going. The world will be changed by their presence in it. And I’m just humbled to play a part in God’s work in this place.
Christian Higher Education hasn’t lost its mission. We just need to do a better job of reminding ourselves that it’s been right here under our noses the whole time.
I’ve written before about the work of David Kinnaman and the Barna Group’s research on young adults who attended church as teens who aren’t any longer part of a congregation. His book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, reports that “59 percent of young people with a Christian background report that they had or have ‘dropped out of attending church after attending regularly’.” So when I learned that they were doing a workshop on the book in Indianapolis on Tuesday, I figured that I needed to free my schedule and make a one-day road trip.
YouLostMeLive.Indianapolis was held at a large evangelical church northwest of town. From what I could tell, the vast majority of those in attendance were pastors or youth ministers with some parents thrown in. Granted, I’ve been following the argument longer than they have, but I was struck by some comments that they were looking for tools to get the millenials to accept The Truth.
But Kinnaman and colleagues did some great stuff. He kept referring to millenials as living in a digital Babylon — connected to the broader culture in all its dynamics while still holding to their faith, even if in nontraditional ways. He made some wonderful points about the nature of exile, drawing on the book of Daniel. Daniel and the fiery furnace boys maintained commitment to their traditions (purity) while still participating in leadership (proximity) in the dominators’ government (he highlighted the interesting fact that the leaders refer to the Israelites by Babylonian deity names). The millenial generation doesn’t live entirely in online community — they have real live friends. But they aren’t looking to the local congregation as the source of that social connection. Millenials live in a “two screen” world where the television is accompanied by a laptop, phone, or ipad.
Sitting in this nice church building with its projection screens, music stage, and high tech production values, I suddenly realized that I was literally right in the middle of a great contradiction. There was almost nothing about the way the church was structured that responded to the needs of millenials (the church’s two-screen world meant the one on the left side of the stage and the one on the right).
Here’s what’s at the heart of the contradiction — the evangelical church has organized itself around being separate from “the world” while millenials are characterized by cultural engagement. While the evangelical church created alternate prom events and harvest parties and jazzercise, millenials are navigating the real world. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they’re engaged.
Today I was teaching about Jean Baudrillard in theory class. It’s a bunch of postmodern stuff but it has to do with the separation between a sign and what it symbolizes. Eventually, we get to the point of hyperreality where experience becomes an end in itself. We talked about the hyper-structure of evangelical church services as an example. This stands in stark contrast to a millenial search for authenticity, honesty, and “being real”.
My Monday night class was dealing with the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr. I played audio of two sermons. The first was when MLK was completing his degree at BU and trying out for a church in Detroit. The second was delivered at the National Cathedral five days before he was shot.
That sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, opens with reflections on the story of Rip Van Winkle. When Rip went to sleep, the Inn had a picture of George III on the wall. When he awoke 20 years later, the picture was of George Washington. Rip Van Winkle, he said, had slept through the whole revolution.
In the next two weeks, I start participating in a collaborative writing project on the Future of Evangelicalism (watch for entries here starting May 1). This week has me wondering about the future of separatism and how evangelicalism works in a postmodern age. I have a deep fear that the church will sleep through its own revolution if we can’t adjust to the contemporary culture.
At the end of Tuesday’s workshop, Kinnamon listed five ways that the evangelical church could respond to the 59%. They were good suggestions (not unlike what I wrote here) that could make a real difference. But he ended with a somber challenge: “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” It’s a question the church desperately needs to answer and do so quickly.
Over the past six months, I’ve been reading a steady diet of Young Evangelical blogs and books. I have the sense that they’re all either side of 30, which puts them behind me by over a quarter century. Some I found on Facebook. Others I found through reading other people’s blogs and seeing who they cite. I read folks my age as well, but that’s the subject for another post.
I’m reluctant to start listing people because 1) I know I’ll leave people out and 2) I’m finding new people every day. But let me mention some anyway: Rachel Held Evans, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, Jenny Rae Armstrong, Lana, Morgan Guyton, Jonathan Fitzgerald and Carson T. Clark (no blog at the moment but good FB stuff). You should take a serious look. They are asking important questions and thinking of faith in vital and significant ways. Many have reflected deeply on an upbringing that focused on knowing answers without really pondering questions. Now that they are in their 30s, they are finding the means of exploring the questions and testing whether the answers work.
My reading has taught me a few things. First, they have a high view of scripture as the Word of God. That view is high enough that they aren’t afraid of asking difficult questions in its presence. They trust God with their questions and confidently believe that God will show them Truth.
Second, they have a high degree of compassion for those outside the evangelical fold. This is why they write on topics like gay rights or religious nones. They have made it a point to interact with those from different backgrounds and commitments and attempted to write with those individuals in mind.
Third, they are essentially hopeful about God’s work in contemporary society. There’s not a slippery-slope argument in the bunch. No looking back wistfully at Mayberry (maybe Common Perks on Friends, but that’s a different thing). They see change in society as something to be engaged — not blindly embraced but not attacked either.
In a word, they are believers in Grace. The see God extending it all around us and are smart enough to extend it to others as well. Even those older bloggers who dismiss them or call them names.
One of the great things about surrounding yourself with college students all the time is that their optimism is contagious. I see what they hope for their future and how they engage the world. And I’m confident that in another decade they’ll be impressing me with their writing as well. When I listen to them, I learn stuff. And I find that the world is a better place. Far better than grasping a sour vision of a world in despair.
I read folks my age as well. They do great work. I’ll give them a shout-out in a future post. I’m probably way more selective in the older list. Too many of today’s leaders make me mad. But enough of them open windows to the soul to let me know that we older folks can learn a lot by listening to our youngers.
Tomorrow’s sociological theory class is about Jurgen Habermas.
How’s that for a conversation starter? Actually, reading up on Habermas helped me make some connections with practices we need in the church, our colleges, and our politics. It came at a good time when I was dealing with high degrees of frustration about communication.
Yesterday former ambassador, presidential candidate, and conservative pundit Alan Keyes spoke on Spring Arbor’s campus. I didn’t go to the lunch (it cost money) but I did attend the open discussion in the afternoon. We had a couple of interactions that I’ve written about on Facebook. I want to be clear — I have no objection to having conservative speakers on our campus. Both Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo did chapel this spring and were well received.
What troubled me about Ambassador Keyes was the way he made his arguments. Not just loud and ideologically driven, they actually made it hard to follow the argument due to the sheer number of loosely connected ideas. On many occasions, I felt that it would be good to hit the “pause and rewind” button to review the logical connection that was being made. Because many in the crowd liked his conclusions, it seemed the way he got there was less important.
The same thing happens to some liberal pundits. They are so intent on making their derisive points about conservatives that they don’t make good argument.
It happens in churches. Thanks to a tweet from Rachel Held Evans today, I learned of this story of Tim Keller’s speech at the Gospel Coalition. According to the author (and commenters who were there), Keller suggested that one of the major obstacles to true revival was related to young people having premarital sex. I’m not advocating for premarital sex, but the issues of today’s culture cannot be handled in such a reductionistic fashion. There are a host of issues related to the authentic questions young evangelicals are asking. Sex is a minor one. As Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote, sex is a big deal but not the biggest deal. I’m reminded of the argument Putnam and Campbell made in American Grace: that the rise of evangelicalism was in part a push back against sexual freedom of the 1960s. It proved not to be enough of an argument over the long run.
Politicians’ “discourse” seems intent on stating their preferred positions (especially those favored by the gerrymandered constituency). Politicians and pundits caricature the other side, distort their positions, and make speeches in front of empty house chambers in order to cut YouTube videos.
Which brings me back to Habermas. His project in the latter part of the last century involved the connections between quality communication and civil society. He makes some remarkable claims. First, he suggests that there is a form of Objective Truth and that we can attend to a reality not dependent upon our personal opinions. Second, he affirms the possibility of intersubjectivity — that we can understand another’s position even if we disagree with it. Third, our conversation must avoid both coercion and ideology. Finally, by practicing careful conversation that attends to the other and respects the value of their position, we begin to weave together a civil society.
I’m reminded of a book I read long ago by defense attorney Jerry Spence. It was called How to Argue and Win Every Time. It was a little slight of hand: he really suggested that if you made your argument so carefully that the other fully understood, that constituted a win. I still find it helpful.
I don’t know if Spence read Habermas, but I like the continuity. We must learn to speak in ways that carefully engage the other’s legitimate position, examine complexity in place of shibboleths, and think about how our argument will be heard. These are important liberal arts skills directly related to critical thinking.
Our colleges do best when we figure out how to handle diverse positions. Our politics do best when they are addressing the complexity required to pursue the common welfare. Our churches do best when we can affirm God’s Story without minimizing the complexity of His work in the contemporary world.
I needed to hear Habermas today. He will keep my optimism alive for at least another week.
Last night I had a visceral reaction to David Brooks’ column in yesterday’s New York Times. I felt compelled to rant about it on Facebook. My reaction must have been even more extreme than I thought as it prompted my wife to make a FB post to make sure I was okay.
I’m attending the North Central Sociological Association meeting in Indianapolis with three of my students. The sessions have been generally good and the keynote speech by Sheldon Stryker of Indiana was very interesting.
When I got back to my room and checked on the day’s happenings, I saw Brook’s article, “The Practical University“. He begins by assuming that the point of education is preparing workers for the workforce. Beginning with this technical focus, he then begins to suggest that technical competence (being all that is necessary) can better be shared via technological media. Even the heart of the pedagogical process can be construed as a technical challenge — class discussion is about the skills required in group interaction (these will be valuable in future jobs).
Here’s my rant from Facebook: This is wrong on more levels that a FB post will allow me to unpack. First, the premise that education is about “technical knowledge” like biological recipes that nurses can use to deal with medical issues. The truth is that I don’t want nurses who know technical knowledge — I want them to think critically, deal with whole people, and know when innovation is lifesaving. Second, the notion of “boot camp for adulthood” is ridiculous on its face: made even more so by references to binge drinking, appropriate fornication, and “handing things in on time.” Third, seminars are not about seminar participation skills (which is why you’d videotape them and then discuss performance). They are the actual substance where learning occurs; learning for the students, learning for the professor, and learning by the entire community. When that happens and students practice engaging broader world in meaningful and life-changing ways, the university is as PRACTICAL as it can possibly be. Can we have non-educators please STOP pontificating on things of which they know very little?
Brooks’ article makes me reflect on how much of this tripe I’ve had to read over the last couple of years. In doing a very informal meta-analysis on these educational pundit articles (my definition is that they appear in popular print by people who aren’t professional educators), I think I found some patterns. If you want to become one of these pundits, there are some general rules that can get you started:
1. Select a shaky metaphor and build your whole argument around it. Manufacturing metaphors are popular (importance of product). So are retail metaphors (students as customers). Whatever you do, don’t spend any time thinking about what most colleges or universities actually do. Don’t think about how you or your children feel about the college experience.
2. Pick an isolated fact and use it as an argument for how it changes everything. For example, have you noticed how today’s students like this thing called the internet? These kids are tweeting and texting and doing FB updates all the time. Surely they don’t want to sit in a classroom for 60 minutes and listen to a lecture when they’d rather watch YouTube videos! It is true that students are technologically savvy but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is their preferred mode of learning. Don’t consider the fact that we’re expecting people to use technology appropriately on the job without moving everyone to telecommuting.
3. Make sure to use an anachronistic understanding of higher education as your point of contrast. Ideally, you can pick on the worst teacher from your own college experience. Clearly, you argue, that folks like that guy can’t be the mode for future educational behavior. Don’t mention that he was abnormal even in the day. Whatever you do, don’t pay attention to people like Parker Palmer or read The Courage to Teach.
4. Pick one particular egregious example as an indictment of what’s wrong with the status quo. This is a strategy that has worked very well for people like David Horowitz. Write a book about Ward Churchill’s egregious behavior. Blog about the “stomp on Jesus” professor (which was a case study of this rule from the day the story broke). Identify that professor at the major research university who makes $170,000 but never teaches undergraduates. If these instances are generalized across academia, we clearly have major problems (of course, they are outliers and not at all representative of faculty in general).
5. Make sure you get the phrase “creative disruption” into your article. This allows you to argue that “this is a new world” and we have to leave our prior assumptions behind. Pay attention to MOOCs, online programs, the University of Phoenix, industrial training, and competency based learning. Don’t ask questions about how these innovations fit the incredible diversity of American higher education.
If you follow these five simple rules, you can join David Brooks and George Will to point out to all who will listen how higher education could improve if it weren’t for intractable faculty members. Since you are not connected to an institution or involved in teaching undergraduates over time, you will never have to put your ideas to the test.
Stryker’s keynote address was a reflection on what’s wrong with theory in modern sociology. He argued that there is a relationship between “frameworks” (broad theoretical perspectives) and “theories” which are empirical tests of predictable variable relationships. He said that we don’t focus on the connection between the two ideas because sociology has been overspecialized (he had a fascinating contrast between an early ASA meeting with 200 attendees who shared dinner and last summer’s ASA meeting with 4500 attendees who were divided across multiple hotel venues).
His critique of hyper-specialization makes me think of the pundit rules above. If my focus as a sociologist is within my own little research world, I’m not thinking cogently about the nature of modern higher education. More than that, I’m not explaining my work to the various publics with whom I engage.
My silence on these issues winds up empowering folks like Brooks and Will. Trustees, legislators, and parents are more likely to read a David Brooks column that they are to read this blog. That means I must write more and find more public venues to present the alternative view.
Maybe if I can do that more regularly, my reaction to silly pundit arguments can be less visceral. I think that would make my wife happy.
So this happened yesterday. Pat Robertson took new steps in considering the relationship between faith and learning. On his long-running 700 Club, he explained why we don’t see miracles in America — it’s because of Ivy League schools. It’s the focus on “skepticism and secularism”. Africans, he says, lack that kind of formal education and are more willing to accept miracles for the sake of miracles.
It makes me stop and wonder why we so quickly pose education as an enemy of simple faith. Our search for reasoned answers and careful exploration of natural and social sciences may be contrasted to a particular form of blind near-superstition. But I’d argue that this supposed contrast isn’t helpful to the church, its institutions of higher education, or society in general.
For one thing, there are many faculty members at Ivy League schools who are neither skeptics nor secularists. They are careful scholars attempting to learn what they can about the world. They may not express their faith (even if a humanistic faith) in language that certain church folk would recognize but the secularist caricature isn’t warranted.
For another, the idea that exploration and questioning are anathema to faith does not stand historical scrutiny. Much of the history of science is the story of linkages between new frontiers of learning and new affirmations of faith. These may not come right away, as Thomas Kuhn reminds us, but eventually new paradigms begin to resolve prior anomalies.
When we insist on such a sharp division of faith and learning, we manage to communicate to our students that they should live compartmentalized lives: one set of behaviors for classes or work and another set of behaviors for chapel or church. We teach them to shift roles sharply depending on the demands and play out their parts accordingly. And then we have workshops on why students don’t develop deep character.
It’s not just Rev. Robertson who’s concerned about these elite schools. Today’s Chronicle had this story on how the National Association of Scholars had issued a 377 page report documenting how Bowdoin College suffered from a “moral deficit”. The critique is that the school is characterized by groupthink that marginalizes conservative thought. At the heart of the problem, according to the NAS, is that BC abandoned its general education program 44 years ago(!) in favor of letting students plan their own education. The Chronicle story explains that William Bennett (is he still around?) wrote that ”Bowdoin illustrates the intellectual and moral deficit of the American academy.”
Bowdoin is one institution with under 1800 students. I’m impressed that this school near Portland, Maine, represents the moral failure of modern education. This is especially remarkable because my spell check doesn’t recognize Bowdoin (did you mean Bowfin?)
Why do conservative voices place the problems of modern education in the lack of mandated course curriculum of a certain type? During the Republican primaries, Rick Santorum kept repeating that the University of California schools don’t require US History (this was debunked more times that you can count).
We can’t identify the past methods of curriculum as inviolate approaches to learning (or faith). We find new way of learning and teaching, we find ways of incorporating new methods and insights, and we engage our students where they are. Besides, can we really argue that having students make sense of their own educational pathways is really a BAD thing?
I have long looked at the methods of instruction these folks prefer as an expression of their own educational experiences. The NAS scholars want a revisionist history taught. Pat Robertson wants us to trade learning for the trusting faith of Africans (I haven’t even addressed the serious racial and colonial implications of this). They seem to want the educational experience that “worked for them” even though it hasn’t been sufficient to develop bold, forward-thinking leadership.
But maybe the insistence on denouncing academe instead of seeing learning as a valuable avenue forward is what got us into the current national impasse on a number of topics. Maybe we could figure out gun safety issues and the 2nd amendment, infrastructure spending and deficit control, environmental challenges and economic well-being, if we were willing to be a little less afraid of learning something.