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A Theology of Higher Education

Mike Higton
Published by Oxford University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Perry L. Glanzer, Educational Foundations, Baylor University

Do not let the title of this book fool you. Mike Higton, Academic Co-Director of the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, and Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Exeter, has not written this book for scholars working in Christian colleges and universities. Instead, he penned his theology of higher education for both Christians and non-Christians serving in secular universities. Higton aspires to demonstrate how a theologically rooted understanding of learning can help us find good in the contemporary university and call that university to a greater good. He succeeds masterfully at the former; however, the call he makes to the secular university, while engaging, lacks a prophetic edge.

Higton organizes his book around three core themes: “higher education as training in intellectual virtue; the inherent sociality of university learning, reason and knowledge; and the proper orientation of higher education towards the common good—the public good” (1; italics in original). According to Higton, Christians can recognize in these three ideas connections to Christian virtues, the sociality of the Body of Christ, and the pursuit of human flourishing tied to our ultimate Good. To help us recognize these theological roots, he takes us first on a historical journey and then on a contemporary excursion that link these three themes to his own theological voice.

The historical journey starts appropriately with the creation of the University of Paris during the medieval period. Higton provides an insightful correction to historians of the university brought up as Enlightenment devotees, such as Hastings Rashdall, who too easily separated Christian devotion and reason. Higton reminds us that in the University of Paris “reason emerges not over against Christian devotion, but as a form of Christian devotion” (13; italics in original). In other words, the development of reasoning practices, such as certain kinds of meditation, were not a means of escaping the Christian tradition, but the means by which those devoted to the Christian life can better understand and order such life. In this sense, learning was a spiritual discipline that required particular kinds of intellectual virtues and practices (such as humility and confession) previously nurtured in the monastic orders, but now practiced in the world. Ultimately, its practitioners sought “the establishment of well-ordered individual and public life before God” (36).

Higton then moves from the birth of the university to the birth of the first research university, the University of Berlin in the early nineteenth century. Berlin’s founders, Higton argues, actually sought to repair the remnants of a fractured “traditional-specific Christian vision of free, peaceable exchange (the economy of gift and reception in the Body of Christ), and sought to remake the whole world of learning on the basis of that vision” (5). Yet, they ultimately saw themselves as serving not the ecclesial body of believers but a different community, the modern nation-state.

One might expect the vision of the university offered by Cardinal John Henry Newman, written soon after the founding of the University of Berlin, to provide a robust theological counter to this vision. Instead, Higton astutely points out that Newman actually failed to provide a vision of intellectual formation that allows one “to speak theologically about secular and religiously plural universities” (105). The reason is that Newman drew too sharp a distinction between natural intellectual formation provided in a university and Christian formation (shaped by special grace supplied by the church). In contrast, Higton believes intellectual formation, which requires the acquisition of intellectual virtue, should be understood as part of Christian discipleship. His review of contemporary authors, such as George Marsden, highlights what he believes is a Newman-like weakness in some of them that take for granted the basic methods of intellectual formation without placing them in theological context.

The second part of the book contains Higton’s own argument. He starts by providing a vision refreshingly and unapologetically rooted in a specific Christian tradition, English Anglicanism. Unlike Newman, Higton baptizes learning so that it emerges as a practice of discipleship. Like faith, he contends learning is a gift “received on the path of discipleship” (154). Along this path of learning, one experiences a continual “breaking and remaking” of the sense that one has made of God, oneself, and the world, similar to that one experiences through active participation in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This journey is also a communal one to be shared both with the body of Christ and strangers.

Higton then seeks to connect this theological vision to the life of the secular university using his three themes. First, he claims the secular and religiously plural university can be a school for intellectual and moral virtue. After all, Higton writes, “a Christian may know, for instance, that she is called to honesty—but that does not mean that she knows what the exercise of the virtue of honesty looks like in all contexts” (174). Thus, the university initiates students into disciplines which are themselves “communities of training in virtuous perception, and in the judgment that springs from it” (178). Such initiation involves a type of apprenticeship that includes a willingness to judge and to be judged. In this respect, he sees his work in a secular and religiously pluralistic university as producing in students, “a life of openness to judgement that in its own way echoes the dynamic of crucifixion and resurrection that shapes discipleship” (196).

Second, he argues that true learning requires what he calls “free sociality—an economy of gift and reception that resembles what Christian theology knows as the life of the Body of Christ” (201). Christians can thus commit themselves fully to tending to and improving the common life of the university. Furthermore, they may even learn something from it. Unfortunately, Higton then proceeds to write in the usual way one hears in higher education about the various ways academia is really an introduction to various types and levels of conversation. What could strengthen his argument is attention to the ways that Christians or non-Christians may agree or disagree about how this conversation should be conducted (for example, the role of virtues such as honesty, truthfulness, love, and so on).

Third, he sets forth an ideal of the good university. He differs from Newman in that while Newman thinks learning should be an end in itself, Higton thinks we develop intellectual virtue and sociality “for the flourishing life of all God’s creatures together” or the “common good” (216). For Christians, the fact that secular higher education serves God’s creation and not God opens up the secular university to the distorting consequences of misdirected love or idolatry. Yet, Higton wants to focus Christians’ attention upon the good that can still be done which involves promoting virtuous, sociable, and inclusive conversations about the common good.

All in all, Higton’s work provides a sophisticated theological framework by which Christians who work in the secular university can think theologically about the positive aspects of their work and institution. In particular, readers exploring his thoughts about a theologically informed vision of intellectual formation as one aspect of Christian discipleship will be well rewarded. The only significant shortcoming is that in Higton’s efforts to present a winsome vision for a wide-ranging audience, he avoids addressing some deep-seated problems with the structure of the secular university. Is the state still a sort of reinvented church for the contemporary university? If so, what does a theology of higher education have to say to national universities that are more interested in the public good (defined as the good for a particular nation) than the human good or the good of the Kingdom of God? Higton never brings up this line of questioning. One will read more about Christ’s body than Christ’s Kingdom.

Yet, these questions are quite relevant in England. England hosts few Christian colleges and universities. The few more overtly Christian ones, such as Liverpool-Hope University and Canterbury Christ University, are prevented by the government from hiring only Christians except in two or three leadership positions (for example, Chancellor, chaplain, leader of the theology department). When the state funds and controls the university, Christians must bow to its mandates. When discussing the question of “Who pays?” and its implications, Higton does not address these unpleasant realities. In fact, Higton’s work largely tends to avoid Christian critique of the secular university beyond the last page and a half where he acknowledges two major limits of the secular university (the lack of worship and discipleship and the fragmentary and frustrating nature of the work). While Higton’s focus on a positive theological vision is refreshing and original, I often found myself hoping for a more expansive conversation about the implications of the limitations he identifies.

Overall though, for those looking for guidance about how Christian academic servants can try to think theologically about the universities their government masters are running, Higton provides an excellent vision. For those wondering how the work of the Church, the university, and the common good of humanity are possibly undermined by such arrangements, readers can hope that Higton will say more in subsequent works.

Cite this article
Perry L. Glanzer, “A Theology of Higher Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 307-309

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.