In the midst of a cultural climate which is increasingly critical of higher education and particularly anti-spiritual, can Christian colleges and universities provide models for study of “the best that has been thought and said?”
At a recent symposium on “The Future of Christian Higher Education,” hosted by The Trinity Forum, panelists offered aspirational and unaplogetic visions for liberal arts training within a religious framework.
Panelists included Michael Lindsay (President of Gordon College), Shirley Hoogstra (President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), and Pete Wehner (Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center).
As Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder explained in opening remarks, the Forum aims to help answer three of life’s greatest questions: What is a good person, what is a good life, and what is the just society? Harder said, “Such questions not coincidentally once formed both the basis and the purpose of higher education.” Presently, however, higher education tends to function as a composite of increasingly arcane and disjointed academic silos. At the same time, she added, institutions have been distracted from their original missions as schools chase research dollars or aim to fill football stadiums. As a result, student instruction has deteriorated.
What, then, is the role of Christian schools in reforming higher education? The panelists’ answers to that question revealed two main themes: training in the liberal arts provides essential preparation for a varied, unpredictable life, and Christian institutions can uniquely lead students towards answering fundamental questions about purpose and being.
Panelists noted that Christianity and academic institutions have been deeply intertwined. Lindsay said, “The church, after all, basically invented higher education,” while Wehner reminded the audience that schools such as Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Harvard, and Yale all have Christian roots. He added, “Universities began as a Christian project, and I’d say today that Christian colleges are in many cases carrying forward the best of that project.”
According to Lindsay, one of the best ways for Christian schools to “light the way for the rest of higher education” is by reasserting the value of liberal arts training. Although schools currently tend to emphasize skills creation and job placement, this focus cannot prepare students when an estimated 65% of future jobs do not yet exist. Moreover, a liberal arts education can equip students with a “voyager’s vision” which allows them to adapt to constant change in both work and the rest of life.
Building on this theme, Hoogstra recounted the academic experiences of her daugher, who attended a Christian undergraduate school and then a state graduate school. At that public school, Hoogstra’s daughter noticed the institution “was not as interested in talking about the meaning or purpose of life, nor about the big questions that included a sovereign or creator God.”
Lindsay also commented on the need to embolden Christian youths with a “fearless faith,” observing, “Too many Christians today are afraid of what the wider world thinks about them. We’ve become so enamored with cultural relevance that we don’t know what we believe, or why.”
Wehner similarly emphasized the need for more candid and spirited dialogue on school campuses, saying that schools tend to lack the freedom of inquiry which is essential to enlightenment. He said students are currently treated like “porcelain dolls,” as if they need protection from foreign or potentially offensive words and ideas. Christian universities, Wehner said, “can continue to be at the forefront of creating a culture where free expression is valued and understood.”
Wehner also criticized the fashionable tendency of the modern student to “forever hover” in a relativistic state where one constantly entertains questions without ever pressing for answers. The way one answers those questions, according to Wehner, “is with engagement with the best that’s been thought and said and written.”
All of the panelists alluded to the present malaise which characterizes our post-Christian, post-truth society. “We’re seeing what life in [this type of] world looks like, and its not a pretty picture,” Wehner said–but he added that a longing may arise to reclaim the missing virtues of past traditions. He quoted William Wordsworth to describe how Christian schools can serve as models within this bleakness:
What we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how.