My first book, which came out seven years ago, was written for freshmen entering Christian Colleges. Far too many books at the time were warning students about how college could threaten their faith and I wanted to provide an alternative view. Instead of seeing higher education as threatening, it could be seen as a means for growth in a mutually reinforcing faith and learning. That this could happen in the midst of an environment where students, faculty, administrators, and staff were exploring the large implications of their faith lives in service to God.
I confess that the book was much more aspirational than descriptive. Given stints at five Christian institutions as both faculty member and administrator, I saw glimmers of what I’d hoped for at times. Other times, I worked to push back on old narratives about secular schools, the dangers of reading difficult material, and always catering to the most conservative elements of the constituency.
Reviewing news reports regarding Christian Liberal Arts Institutions over the last couple of years has brought me to the unhappy conclusion that not only is my aspirational vision for Christian Higher Ed not broadly embraced, but it is farther away today than it was when I wrote the book. Liam Adams has done excellent reporting on the ways Christian Colleges have modified their programming and reduced staff and faculty positions as a means of responding to budget challenges. While Liam’s stories focus on changes prompted by the uncertainties of the COVID pandemic, what he reports is simply an acceleration of trends that had started years before.
In part, this is due to serious demographic challenges. There simply aren’t enough high school graduates out there to populate the slots Christian colleges hope for. College costs are a challenge for many families. Adult programs, which once were big revenue streams, have been crashing. Online competition is fierce and dominated by the big players. Most significantly, the percentage of students identifying as evangelical is shrinking rapidly. All of these factors, and others, have created a greater sense of competition between Christian Colleges. No longer able to rely on denominational loyalty, the institutions have added majors in high demand areas and innovative athletic teams (fishing and trap shooting are two of my favorite additions).
Yet the solutions institutions have advanced have come at the cost of a significant shift in mission. The faculty reductions have disproportionately come in the humanities and social science areas. At the high point of my time in my last institution, there were 44 faculty members in the eight departments of history, psychology, sociology, art, music, religion, english, and communication. In the fall of 2021, that number will be 22. It is true that the total number of faculty has declined somewhat, but in general those liberal arts positions have been replaced by programs with a greater vocational focus: social work, nursing, engineering, sports medicine, and the like.
In many ways, it’s hard to argue with these changes. They are couched in a Weberian rationality that relies on fairness, measures, and return on investment. I saw the seeds of this in my administrative days as conferences celebrated with work of people like Robert Dickeson, whose Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services laid out a model for comparing credit hours, number of majors/graduates, and faculty positions. It was very academic, so faculty would buy in. Besides, comparative institutions were making cuts far deeper, so cheer up — it could be worse.
Administrators will respond that they haven’t shifted away from their liberal arts commitments, pointing to general education requirements students must fulfill. Even those schools with an integrated core have substituted “critical thinking” and a distributed smattering of introductory classes for a more robust understanding of liberal arts. In a post while I was working on the book, I wrote:
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.
This suggests that Liberal Arts is embodied and not simply a matter of course content. It happens when a history major and an economics major discuss current events over dinner. It happens when a chemistry professor and a sociology professor discuss the implications of Ayn Rand. It happens when students work to reconcile what they’ve heard from faculty members who, though both beloved, have very different perspectives. [In my first institution, students organized a forum with me and a new testament scholar representing a progressive position and an economist and historian representing a (very) conservative position. I’ve always thought of it as the height of liberal arts.]
The long-term implications of a move away from Liberal Arts are profound. Recent surveys on the number of church people who are supporting Qanon conspiracies — or elements of those views — are alarming. Katelyn Beaty wrote a great analysis in Religion News Service that was picked up by a variety of other sources, including NPR. She writes:
Jared Stacy said the spread of conspiracy theories in his church is particularly affecting young members. The college and young adult pastor of Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Stacy said some older members are sharing Facebook content that links the coronavirus to Jeffrey Epstein and secret pedophile rings. He says his and other pastors’ job is to teach that conspiracy theories are not where Christians should find a basis for reality.
I have written elsewhere that this challenge doesn’t simply fall to evangelical church pastors. It requires the congregation itself to have robust conversations about what is true, what is trustworthy, and what is distortion. Imagine the impact that graduates from Christian Liberal Arts Institutions could have on their local churches! A major theory of millennial disaffection with religion places conservative politics at its center. If graduates were empowered to take their learnings back to their church, they would be tremendous resources for healthy congregation (and provide them with more reason to stay engaged).
Yesterday, James McGrath shared his concerns about a young man who had been in his youth group in the 1980s. How had this young man moved so deep into conspiracy circles? Today, Fred Clark shared similar perspectives on how a focus on end-times conspiracies of Hal Lindsey created a worldview that saw conspiracy and oppression as normal.
Alan Noble has regularly advocated for the more hopeful vision that I’ve been suggesting. In his vision of what is possible,
[w]e should want Christian colleges and universities to be successful so that they can do critical work assisting local churches and communities in strengthening our foundations and providing lasting, meaningful relief from some of the crises that plague our time.
For example, as our society struggles mightily to maintain the basic level of public discourse necessary for a democracy, Christian schools can provide room for robust and charitable debate over ideas that matter, as I have previously argued at CT.
Last week, Alan tweeted a selection from Michael Sandel’s new book (which I need to read). Sandel said that the purpose of higher education was “to prepare [students] to be morally reflective human beings and effective democratic citizens, capable of deliberating about the common good.”
The motto of the first institution I served is “Education with a Christian Purpose”. I’ll never forget a faculty meeting where a communications scholar from Wheaton challenged us on what that meant. Was the focus on Education or Christian? If Christian, as opposed to what other purpose? I’m not picking on them — most school mottoes don’t hold up to detailed scrutiny.
At the other end of my career as a now retired Christian college professor, I find myself thinking more about that faculty meeting. It seems that “Christian” has become a generic identifier of what Christian Liberal Arts Institutions are. As long as we contrast with the larger society and its secular institutions, we can claim fealty to mission. But along the way, we’ve substituted Liberal Arts for generic critical thinking. We’ve operated the university as any other institutional form with a bottom line to cover.
Even “Christian” becomes circumscribed in particular ways. Gordon College is going to court on Monday to argue that all faculty are ministers, suggesting a parallel to monastic structures. This is part of Gordon’s defense against a discrimination claim brought by a faculty member who didn’t support the school’s stance on LGBTQ issues. At precisely the time when young evangelicals want a robust conversation about how LGBTQ students are welcomed on a Christian college campus, too many Christian Liberal Arts Institutions are narrowing the definition of “Christian”.
It’s a shame. It’s bad for the students. It’s bad for faculty members struggling with what it means to be faithful Christians in an era of immense social change. It’s bad for the churches to which students hopefully will return and that faculty invest in. Ultimately, it’s bad for the Christian Liberal Arts Institutions themselves.
A more robust sense of mission would bring back questioning students who see Christian colleges as places that close off debate. It would produce a vibrant academic community that was unafraid to tackle the key issues of the day. It would allow a prophetic voice for which the colleges have longed for decades. And, as Alan Noble points out in the piece above (and others he has written) it has the potential to excite the philanthropic community that could set Christian Liberal Arts Institution on a remarkable path for decades to come.