It has now become commonplace to say that if a college is Christian, this does not change its essential nature as an academic institution. For a college to be Christian in no way inhibits the way courses are taught or what is taught. The church has no interest in trying to impose a particular point of view on its academic institutions. Rather, the church invests in its universities because it has a stake in the objective pursuit of truth. Its own particularistic stake in such a pursuit does not mean the integrity of the search for truth is compromised.
Even though I am in essential agreement with this kind of argument, I think its frequent use today among Christian educators and in Christian institutions has tended to blur rather than clarify the issues concerning the nature of the Christian college. One of the reasons this has been the case is that such statements are often only ideologies for a completely different set of factual circumstances. For in spite of the claim made by such schools that they do not have a corner on the truth, they often impose a very definite academic and community norm on the student.
Academically, the contemporary small Christian college has wedded itself to the “liberal-arts” ideal. That this is a union of necessity is revealed by the fact that the church through much of its history has existed in an uneasy tension with such “humanistic” study. Moreover, though no one seems to have a very clear idea of what a “liberal-arts” curriculum is, the “liberal-arts colleges” continue to justify a great number of required courses in its name. Generally it seems to mean that the student should know as little as possible about as much as possible in order to make him a responsible and “modern” human being.
As a result, such curriculum tends to develop dilettantes who have little competence in anything. Such education also does little to give its students a feel for the fragile and ambiguous task of learning. Instead, it produces the most dangerous kind of men—that is, men that are just smart enough to be impressed with the half-truth. Having never gotten into any subject-matter deeply enough to know the limitations of generalizations, they think themselves competent in many fields to which their “liberal-arts” training has introduced them. While there may be a more defensible understanding of the idea of “liberal-arts” education, one cannot help but think that such an idea is often but an ideological justification for mediocre education. At least it can be said that if a college is using the idea of “liberal-arts” it should be forced to state clearly what that means and to form its actual academic policy in accordance with its stated aims.
In terms of community the Christian college still maintains the right of enforcing a certain kind of ethos on its students in the name of creating character. The justification for this has nothing to do with the academic enterprise itself, but rather is claimed to be the something “extra” that the Christian college can give that secular institutions cannot. This aspect of the Christian college sometimes assumes the form that the college should act as the parent in the academic setting. Such an assumption has become increasingly difficult in the modern pluralistic world, as it is by no means clear what acting like a parent means. Often as a result, the college ends up enforcing a morality on its students to which their parents no longer adhere but wish their children would. The tension that results from this leads either to extreme hypocrisy in terms of the actual enforcement of such an ethos, or to confrontation, or to sullenness—all of which inhibit the kind of openness and frankness necessary for the academic enterprise.
Sometimes the warrant for the imposition of such an ethos assumes an extremely sophisticated form. The Christian college, it is claimed, ministers to the person in an age where all other institutions, such as the “big state university,” treat each man as only another number. Thus the Christian college’s concern about the student’s personal and moral life, its constant check on his attendance in class, and its emphasis on student services are all seen as the institutionalization for a concern with the person. However, such a justification cannot remove the essentially paternalistic character of this kind of care for the student. Paradoxically, such concern for the “person” often is depersonalizing, as the student is treated as less than a responsible being.
A Community with Moral Commitment
For the college to see itself in this way implies that it views itself as an extension of the church’s soteriological task. It is extremely doubtful, especially in a Lutheran context, if such an assumption can be theologically justified. The institution of learning is no less an institution of this world in spite of its connection to the church. In more practical terms, however, the problem with such activity is it detracts the college from its main task as an institution dedicated to the search for truth. It obfuscates the priorities of the university leadership by directing attention to non-academic matters. It detracts the students themselves from their main task as students and instead encourages an extension of adolescent rebellion. Furthermore, it ill prepares the student to meet or to criticize intelligently the demands of the modern competitive and highly organized world.
These criticisms are not the more substantive questions concerning the current understanding of the nature of the Christian college. For the really serious questions are not about fact but principle. The most serious problem with the idea that the Christian college is primarily concerned with truth is the implication that this is a simple and easy matter. As it is used, it is a way of saying that the Christian college is no different from our more secular institutions of higher education. It is assumed that the contemporary form of general college education sets the norm of what the pursuit of truth should be like. Such an assumption avoids the really hard question of what genuine education ought to be like in our contemporary experience.
I would argue that more than any other institution it is exactly the Christian college that has the substance to explore this kind of question. For it is the Christian college that is underwritten by an institution that makes the substantive claim that we need have no fear of the truth about our existence. The Christian church thus can allow its academic institutions to pursue the truth without concern for its cash value or its destructive potential for our contemporary sensibilities. The Christian college should be interested in a pursuit of truth that is deeper than the current sentimentalities about the truth can know.
Of course this is not meant to imply that such activity is not also possible at a “secular” institution. Rather, it is to point out that ultimately all universities take out a metaphysical draft on the nature of the world. Such drafts are seldom made explicit, but their implicitness does not make them any less real. It is now apparent that the “secular” university’s necessary political claim to represent no one version of the truth tends to make it a too willing servant of the explicit needs of its society. The invasion of the university by the military is but the most flagrant example of a much more subtle process. The Christian college has of course in reality been as open to this perversion as the secular institution. I am trying to suggest, however, that ideally it serves a society that should give it the necessary freedom to perform the critical work that is the essence of the academy.
Unfortunately, the perversions of the contemporary Christian college have prevented even the discussion of this possibility. The conditions necessary for the development of such a college always tend to be misinterpreted in terms of categories essentially foreign to them. This can be illustrated in respect to two of the fundamental prerequisites for the development of a real Christian college, that is, community and moral commitment. The search for truth requires the development of community, for the question of knowledge is a social process. What we know is given to us from the past as it is mediated through others of our community. The academic community specializes in such transmission of knowledge through the development of scholarship. The community not only mediates our knowledge, but also provides the conditions for testing its viability. For it is by juxtaposing our conceptualizations with those of others that we grope our way to distinguishing truth from opinion. The question of the development of community, therefore cannot be ignored in terms of the formation of a Christian college. It is not, however, a community that serves a dying ethos, but a community of discourse aimed at the discovery of the truth.
Men Charged with the Desire to Know
Secondly, the search for truth requires moral commitment. Plato perceived long ago that the questions of truth, good, and the beautiful cannot be separated. For the truth is not something we simply learn by perceiving an external reality, but requires the qualification of the self. To know the truth requires correspondence to the truth. Most of us are rather lacking in this respect, but the pervasiveness of our failure must not be allowed to blind us to this requirement for those who pursue academic study. Such moral commitment is not to be equated with the mediocrity and triteness of the reigning piety; rather, it has more to do with such virtues as integrity, honesty, justice, humility, humor, and kindness.
It requires integrity, for those who labor in the academic vineyard are constantly tempted to sell their wares at the current cultural store. It requires honesty because learning is essentially a matter of recognizing our limitations. It requires justice in the sense that we must learn to gaze fairly at reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. It requires humility as the recognition that we can never contain the truth within our conceptualizations. It requires humor to guard us against the most dangerous of all intellectual sins, which is the temptation to take ourselves too seriously. To have humor is to recognize that the viability of truth does not rest on our particular formulation of it. Finally, it requires kindness and mutuality as the demands of truth can be so hard and destructive that only the love of others can sustain us in the endeavor.
If academic reform is to be seriously pursued it must break out of the limitations of the current debate. This does not mean that issues such as quality of faculty, class size, and types of courses are not important, but such changes can be made without the more basic questions about the nature of the academic enterprise being raised. Because such issues have long been neglected by many Christian colleges, these institutions have simply become servants of the going ethos. In such a context, the issues of reform become a political question of how to balance the various interest groups that make up the academic marketplace.The clearest indication that this has become the prevailing condition at many of our institutions is seen in the kind of men who become their administrators. They are good men who see their job primarily in terms of preserving the institution. Their vision and imagination is limited by the realist assumption that the status quo is about as good as one can do. They are extremely able politically in that they have the ability to turn every question of principle into a question of interest. They excel in manipulation, but offer little genuine leadership, as such would require vision beyond the present possibilities. It is not that they do not will to do good, but their wills are paralyzed by their limited vision.
In such a context, the students appear to be the more progressive forces; they represent the negativity of the false justification of the contemporary academic establishment. It remains to be seen, however, if the passing youth revolt will be beneficial to the academic enterprise. There are some disturbing indications that the students represent another attempt to capture and direct the university from its true aim of scholarship. The cries of freedom and the demand of relevancy often seem to contain a particularistic content that tries to avoid the kind of searching criticism to which the university must subject all positions. The students are right to question the easy accommodation the university has often made with its society, but they fail to realize that often their calls for reform are attempts to make the university serve but a different aspect of that society. The problem with their critique of the contemporary university is not that it is radical, but that it is not radical enough. Since I am a theological ethicist, in closing I would like to suggest the kind of contribution the church can make to academic reform. The church’s contribution of course is not in the creation of institutions dedicated to the preservation of innocence and to turning out socially acceptable beings. Neither do I think that the church’s main task is the creation of institutions that authentically try to be dedicated to the truth. Instead, the church’s most important gift is to create men who hunger and thirst after the truth, for such men are the backbone of the academy, whether it is Christian or secular. This is no small contribution, as substantive academic reform will ultimately depend not just on institutional change, as important as that is, but on men who are charged with the desire to know.