I read a great article this week in Christianity Today by Perry Glanzer, a professor at Baylor University, on the subject of higher education. Much of what I’d love to write about here stems from the research and writing found in that article.
What makes the article so intriguing to me is that it compares the focus and training at secular institutions of learning to that of Christian colleges and universities. Glanzer’s thesis is that most secular universities focus solely on expertise while Christian colleges focus on wisdom and the whole person.
According to his research, most secular professors operate with a narrow concept of their vocation. One professor he interviewed admitted, “There are many of my colleagues who would say, ‘Look, we are at a university, and what I do is math; what I do is history. Moving into moral or spiritual development is not my competence.’” Several secular professors admit that you would be hard-pressed to find one secular college with a mission statement that claims to help give students wisdom.
Some say that an abandonment of the pursuit of wisdom can be blamed on 19th-century Germany where university faculties leaned more toward producing knowledge than with forming the whole student. Their definition of knowledge became “technical expertise in one’s discipline.”
Before that time, John Hopkins, the founding president of America’s first research university, is quoted to have said:
Everyone agrees that the job of the university and its faculty is to develop character – to make men. The university misses its aim if it produces learned pedants, or simple artisans, or cunning sophists, or pretentious practitioners.
So, in light of that, the stats make complete sense. A recent study reported that 62% of secular students say they have never had a professor encourage discussions on life’s meaning and purpose. The reason being that, without agreement on life’s purposes, any rationale for character development disappears. The article quotes David Brooks from the New York Times when he talks about Princeton University: “They don’t seem to go to great lengths to build character,” with one professor even admitting, “These are adults and this is not our job. There’s a pretty self-conscious attempt not to instill character.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, evangelical college and university mission statements are chalked full of language about moral goals and ideals, sometimes mentioning wisdom directly. Even taking a look at our denominational colleges’ mission statements, one can see a difference:
Free Will Baptist Bible College: “The mission of FWBBC is to educate leaders to serve Christ, His Church, and His world through Biblical thought and life.”
Hillsdale FWB College: “HFWBC is a Christian institution of higher education committed to the intellectual, spiritual, social, moral, and physical development of its students. It seeks to prepare students to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, both in the church and in society at large.”
Gateway Christian College: “The mission of GCC is to train men and women for an effective gospel ministry in local churches through a scholarly and practical program of biblical, general, and professional studies.”
Southeastern FWB College: “The purpose of SFWBC is to train men and women for church-related ministries which are distinctively Free Will Baptist in doctrine and fundamental in practice.”
California Christian College: “The mission of CCC is to offer academic programs that develop Christian leaders to serve Christ both in the Church and in society.”
As Glanzer points out, if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then it “should be no surprise that conversations about wisdom and character have diminished at secular universities while remaining robust at Christian universities.”
A recent survey by Hardwick-Day discovered that 65% of alumni from church-related colleges and universities claimed that “their experience often included integration of values and ethics in classroom discussions.” Only 24% of alumni from the top 50 public schools indicated that they experienced such discussions. In the same way, 36% of alumni from church-related colleges said their college experience helped them develop moral principles, while only 7% of alumni from the top 50 public schools claimed this outcome.
So this should make the Christian college ask, “If providing wisdom and building the complete person is what a Christian institution is about, how do we continue doing that without transforming into a school that only produces professional qualifications?”
Glanzer suggests 4 things:
#1 Christian higher education must always recognize that wisdom, like salvation, comes from the triune God as a gift of grace. The best route to discover God’s wisdom is through Christian practices and virtues; therefore, the Christian college must provide a Christian rationale to inspire and champion the love of truth and knowledge.
#2 Faculty must mentor students and help them understand what loving God looks like when engaged in a particular discipline. They can remind Christian students that their vocation isn’t just about studying and obtaining professional abilities, but it’s also about grasping virtues and practices necessary for loving God and gaining true knowledge.
David Brooks recently asked people over 70 to send him essays where they evaluated their own lives. His results? “Most people give themselves higher grades for their professional lives than for their private lives. Almost everybody is satisfied with the contributions they made at work, but at home, many give themselves mediocre grades.” Christian colleges have got to keep the true definition of excellence at the forefront of their educational goals.
#3 They must introduce students to complex theological, ethical, and academic discussions about what it means to be fully human. To discuss what it means to be a friend, neighbor, citizen, son or daughter, future spouse and parent, or being a steward of creation, culture, and money.
Instead of thinking of higher education as a single track and field event (training for vocation only), we’ve got to think of higher education as a decathlon (training for life as a whole). And its for that reason that Christian colleges must hire faculty and staff who not only display expertise but also the virtues and practices of a disciple of Christ along with the willingness to pass these on to students.
#4 Professors should articulate what it means to place Christ and their Christian identity first in life. This means they constantly remind students that they are more than students. Their grades don’t display their worth and identity – above all else, they are people made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ.
It’s no coincidence that the questions that most students are intrigued to ask professors are about how they are making decisions in the other areas of their lives related to the virtues, beliefs, and worldview they profess in the classroom. Students long for the institution as a whole to witness to Christ in every dimension.
So if Christian colleges want to produce more than “field experts” in their education, they can’t be satisfied with only providing disciplinary expertise in a vocation. As Glanzer says, they must “continue the grand quest to offer the world wisdom about what God’s story of creation and redemption entails for the good life and a good world.”
*Recommended Reading if you would like to study this further:
- Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony Kronman
- Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education by Todd C. Ream and Perry Glanzer