Last week Daniel Silliman reported out a fascinating story for Christianity Today. The centerpiece of the story involved research conducted by Southeastern University scholar Jennifer Clark on how students’ faith patterns change during their educational journey. She found that students at evangelical colleges commonly “feel unsettled about spiritual matters, unsure of their beliefs, disillusioned with their religious upbringing, distant from God, or angry with God.” Surprisingly, these doubts occurred not when they arrived at college (which was true for more secular institutions) but later in their college careers.
People outside Christian higher education may find this surprising. They too often assume that Christian universities are indoctrination institutions, where students simply learn the Christian answers. Those of us on the inside recognize that students have selected a Christian university for a variety of reasons (or had it selected for them) but haven’t really thought deeply about what they expect — which may be why admissions viewbooks sell the images of happy Christian community. You can make that mean whatever you want.
If students arrived on our campus this past week as eager Christian learners, what accounts for the faith challenge? There are as many reasons as there are students, but I can make some general suggestions. First, there is the obvious separation from family and home church. No longer being at home and now being challenged to take personal responsibility for one’s positions creates anxiety. Second, there are the classes students take. One of the “liberating” parts of liberal arts is that the students are exposed to ideas and readings that are hard to square with one’s upbringing. (It’s very important not to demonize that upbringing — students have enough challenges on their own.) Third, they take classes from Christian faculty who have walked similar paths. To see a biology or sociology or english faculty member who has engaged the complexity of the world without abandoning faith provides an encouragement to students that confronting that complexity has rewards and that one’s faith is strong enough to handle it. Finally and maybe most importantly, students are shaped by their peers. To discover that students at one’s dinner table are also Christians yet have very different viewpoints from what you grew up with can be disconcerting.
Yesterday The Atlantic posted a piece from the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, on the role of religion in his classroom. As a Wesleyan, I was happy with his acknowledgement of John Wesley’s impact on both personal spirituality and social impact. Yet Roth’s reflections on religion raise questions about the nature of critical engagement in secular institutions (even if formerly religious):
Yet classroom discussions of these very subjects often seem threatening to even students of faith, who tell me they don’t want to be “outed” on campus. These undergrads encounter mostly secular professors who sometimes treat religious believers as somehow intellectually deficient, or as morally compromised by their commitments to traditions that their teachers have left behind.
To be fair, most students at Christian universities are not likely to share their faith challenges in class for exactly the same fear of being “outed” –except reversed. They don’t want professors (and mostly peers) to think that they’ve “lost their way”.
And yet most Christian universities provide the space and climate for students to wrestle even with the most challenging issues: justice, racial animus, sexual orientation, war and peace, and the role of the church in modern society. Silliman’s story shows that many leaders in some fairly conservative evangelical schools are aware of the faith challenges our students face. The parents and donors may not like having that publicly noted, but it is key to the educational journey.
Molly Worthen wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times this weekend exploring conservative concerns over perceived exclusion of conservative voices on college campuses. She does a great job of showing that while the concern of activist groups is overblown, there may be some valid critique:
The conservative boogeyman of the tenured atheist radical who brainwashes innocent undergraduates is more myth than reality. It’s true that academia has long leaned to the left, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and activist professors do exist. But they are a minority. Where professors more commonly fall down, I suspect, is in our failure to grasp how changes in the broader culture — like omnipresent social media and polarized, cruel politics — have made students reluctant to embrace the freedom that we like to believe our classrooms provide.
This is likely true on Christian campuses as well. Increased polarization and expectation that one’s views will simply be affirmed without engagement is a problem to be addressed. In my experience, this usually happens by expecting students to grapple with the implications of their sociological readings while not mandating specific policy outcomes that their author (or their professor) might prefer.
Worthen explores campuses where the ethos of hospitality to ideas is more available than others. She cites Great Books programs and Civil Discourse Clubs as examples. It makes me think that an overarching campus culture that affirms conversation while maintaining the interdependence of its members (faculty, students, and staff) goes a long way toward supporting the kind of inquiry that allows both faith and learning to be affirmed.
As recent analysis has suggested, the road ahead for Christian universities will be a rough one. As the percentage of today’s rising generation is less likely to be evangelical (8% by recent measures), the market for students seeking a Christian university will become much tighter with noticeable winners and losers. Financial pressures from external costs to internal amenities to attract that share of students will be real.
Those pressures are pushing many schools to rethink their curriculum. To pick one significant example, Gordon College announced this year a major shift in their programmatic focus, shrinking some traditional liberal arts majors to create room for other, more vocational, majors. As they explain on their webpage:
Gordon is once again making necessary adjustments to respond to the market realities of today that demand greater affordability and adaptability. The next chapter not only retains the core Christian liberal arts foundation, but makes it more accessible and relevant for what students and families want from college and what employers want from graduates.
The shift of liberal arts education to a core foundation is somehow set against what students, parents, and employers want. As a cabinet member of CCCU institutions over 17 years, I understand the market sensitivity the changes reflect. And yet I fear that the changes reflect a move away from the community orientation of the Christian university toward a balkanized pursuit of personal economic worth.
Where, exactly, will future Christian university students find the support as they work through the faith crises of learning seen as part of the process of affirming both faith and work? I wish I knew the answer.
As I have begun my final year of teaching before retirement, I will work to be acutely aware of the students Jennifer Clark identifies in her research. They will work to navigate the doubts they are confronting and I want to support them in that journey.