The Central Task of the Christian University

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which Christian Higher Education has unique characteristics compared to other segments of the higher ed universe. As someone who did all of my education at a land-grant institution (Boiler Up), I came to teach in Christian universities with some of the analytical detachment that comes with being a sociologist.

This morning my analytical antennae perked up when I saw this piece from Frederick Buechner on his stint as a visiting professor at Wheaton College in 1985. The first paragraph of his reflection (which comes from his book Telling Secrets) speaks of the rules he was expected to live by during his time on campus. The second paragraph speaks to the critical thinking and open-mindedness of the faculty who taught there. I realized that in this short contrast, Buechner captured some of the inherent tensions present in the Christian university. On the one hand, there are sectarian-like rules (some of these vary by institution in type and justification). They are designed to foster good Christian living and a harmonious community atmosphere. Sometimes they simply provide a way for students to avoid the perceived temptations of the large secular university. On the other hand, Christian Universities are populated by faculty members who want students to think for themselves, confront challenging ideas, and deepen their character in the process (this too varies by institutional form — some are more open and others are far more restrained).

What this suggests is that the Christian University, more so than other venues in higher education, stands between a protective view of the world and an exploratory view of the world. Like most organizational forms, these are matters of social construction: one knows you’ve pushed too hard or gotten too lax because problems arise. Short of that, you live in the ambiguity and accept the tension you’re living within. (Advice to young faculty: don’t use that contrast as a teaching point as it’s not always appreciated! Trust me.)

Two things stand out to me from this ambiguity. First, faculty members (and others) model to students how to navigate those tensions. It’s why autobiography is so important in teaching (and any good communicating). The relationship between faculty member and student is a key part of seeing the navigation happen — not simply in the delivery of content but in the greater sense of modeling (I read a lot of Parker Palmer). The second thing that stands out is the changing nature of our students. They, and their parents, have made decisions on various life issues long before attending the college. They made decisions about the social acceptance of wine. They have made decisions about acceptable sexual limits and necessary precautions. Increasing numbers of students will see “the rules” as hindrances and not as helps.

Managing this balance between structure and openness is at the educational heart of the Christian university. It’s why we hire Christian faculty, have classes that are smaller, invest funds in student life programs, and develop robust residential programs. This makes the education more expensive than your average state school (even though Christian universities are less expensive than non-religious private schools).

Many Christian institutions like the ones I’ve served have diversified their programs to include adult education, online programs, and graduate degrees. These are useful. But the key activity remains the set of relationships the students maintain with faculty, staff, and other students. In the midst of those commitments they learn who they are, how to ask questions even when they don’t have answers, and impact the larger world.

This is why so little of the national dialogues about higher education challenges and reforms speak to the Christian university. I’m a regular reader of Jeff Selingo’s blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. He explores the suggested innovations that will deal with rising costs, student debt, job placement, completion, and access. But few of these innovations speak to Christian higher ed. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) work well when you’ve got huge lecture halls and can explore issues of scale but not when I’m talking to the registrar about bumping my class of 24 to 30 and justifying how it won’t interfere with the personal contact the course demands. Online programs work well for people who don’t have access to traditional university schedule, but my most recent evaluations report that the students prefer to learn face to face. Increased focus on vocational connection may work to enhance enrollment at community colleges but won’t speak to the broader mission of a liberal arts institution. We want students to be employed but we want them to be of impact in thoughtful and creative ways.

The significant challenge for the Christian University is to find new and better ways of talking about our uniqueness. We’re not unique because we dont’ allow drinking for those underage. We’re not unique because we deliver lectures in cost-effective means to thousands of students. We are unique because we embrace the kind of open stance to faithful learning that models how to deal with a complex and changing world.

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