Christian Higher Ed: Thoughts on a Friday Afternoon

Sometimes it’s useful to have a blog to connect the dots on things I’ve been reading or seeing all week. Late Friday afternoon seems like a good time to stop and ponder stuff.

FridayIt was encouraging to read this piece yesterday from Thomas Albert Howard, professor at Gordon College, about the unique value of religious institutions. Dr. Howard summarizes the history of faith-based institutions. He observes that our schools have had a bias toward cultural separation and were fans of in-loco-parentis (or at least the parents and trustees were fans). He contrasts the Gordon experience with Tom Wolfe’s hypothetical (and hyperbolic) I Am Charlotte Simmons.

To Howard, the real heart of institutions like Gordon depends upon the value of personal mentoring; investing in the lives of students as they make sense of their vocational call. This, he says, is not something done in large lecture halls, or MOOCs, or online chats. He concludes:

But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity.

He observes that other colleges may pursue similar goals. Sure enough, the same day that Howard’s piece appeared in Inside Higher Ed, a piece appeared in the Chronicle written by A.W. Barnes, dean of liberal arts at the Pratt Institute in New York. Barnes similarly dismisses MOOCs and large-scale efficiencies. Instead, he advocates for a form of education analogized from the farm to table movement. Eschewing mass production and genetically modified gimmicks, he wants a “farm to brain” approach to education. This would be heavily dependent upon interaction, mentoring, and joint exploration.

Barnes concludes by addressing the question of costs. While he sees the locavare approach to education as superior, he rightly worries about how accessible it would be for students of average means, the very students who most need that investment of time and personal resources. In fact, the commenters on Howard’s piece (at least one of whom has commented here) raise the question of the cost of private religious education.

The concerns about costs are real and should make us all refocus our energies on the distinctiveness of institutional mission. I was struck by this argument in the Chronicle by Henry Riggs, president emeritus at Harvey Mudd in California. Riggs suggests that our focus on competing for the best and brightest may be fueling the tuition discount wars and possible tuition escalation. Maybe we would be better to focus our energies in a triage manner — invest in those students who will be most changed by their time in a smaller, faith-based institution.

Of course, doing so runs the great risk of not being recognized by the mighty U.S. News and other college rating surveys. Since so much of their calculation goes to reward schools that are highly selective, pay large salaries, and have significant endowments refocusing our attention to real mentoring and life-shaping would seem to hurt institutional reputation. Perhaps Christian universities especially should prioritize service to others over recognition by the educational establishment.

I’ve written quite a bit on the whole millennials and faith question. But yesterday I received an update from the Barna group about their ongoing millennial project. They identify five components necessary for millennials stay connected to church. Here are the five: 1) meaningful relationships, 2) practicing cultural discernment, 3) focus on “reverse mentoring” (where the millennial is valued as a person of dignity), 4) importance of vocational discipleship, and 5) facilitate connection with Jesus. It doesn’t take much imagination to connect Barna’s five components with what Howard and Barnes are advocating about good education.

I’ve had a couple of student Facebook friends knowingly share  a cute article, “22 Signs You Went to a Small Liberal Arts College in the Middle of Nowhere“. I liked it a lot (especially #13). And yet there is something that happens in that environment that is potentially revolutionary. I’ve argued in my book that the Christian university aspires to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God. It’s a place where the last are first and were we lay down our lives for others.

It’s been a good week. Lots of good class discussions about privilege, justice, the limits of utilitarianism and measures of central tendency. A quick decision to take the justice class to watch a drama colleague do a wonderful one-woman show on Flannery O’Connor. An opportunity to hear a theologian discuss the connections between ecology and faith with a commitment to seeing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. All that surrounded by too many good conversations with students to count.

I think I’ll do this all again next week.

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