Christian Higher Education: Faith, Teaching, and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition
Reviewed by Andrew Mullen, Education, Westmont College
“Oh, give it a few years and it’s bound to go secular like Harvard and all the rest.” The words of my somewhat fatalistic father-in-law on the occasion of his first visit to the college where I now teach regularly echo in my mind. His words potentially serve as a reminder to all of us involved in Christian higher education of the fragility of the enterprise.
Much as we might protest his sweepingly grim prognostication in the case of our own institutions, no one familiar with the history of American higher education—and the long-term trajectory of church-affiliated colleges in particular—has cause for complacency on this score. Today’s Evangelical colleges, considered individually or in aggregate form, are subject to pressures and temptations similar to those that historically took kindred institutions down a markedly different road. And while there has never been a golden age for “our” sort of college, many factors contribute to an especially acute measure of vulnerability at present. In addition to the obvious external threats, the lack of a shared and deeply internalized vision for Evangelical higher education among faculty, board members, donors, students, families, and other relevant parties may constitute as great a threat as any to our ability to fulfill our collective mission.
Any attempt, then, to articulate or re-articulate such a mission is welcome. In Christian Higher Education: Faith, Teaching, and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition, 27 essays contributed by 29 different authors offer readers an admirably expansive conceptual consideration of American Evangelical higher education. Sections on theological foundations, instruction across academic disciplines, and selected aspects of co-curricular life explore the challenges of offering to contemporary students an education that is deeply and coherently Christian. A consistent, if implicit and relatively anodyne, argument across the three major sections of the book is the need for individual faculty and administrators themselves to think in a distinctively Christian manner. As one contributor puts it, faculty must develop the capacity to “stand outside one’s discipline and assess it according to Christian canons of good science and scholarship”—a capacity that, increasingly, no institution can take for granted when hiring.
One co-editor explains, without going into additional detail, that this volume “began with a conversation on the campus of Trinity International University.” Nineteen of the writers are identified in some capacity with TIU, most holding positions there at the time of publication. Reflecting the co-editors’ own academic journeys, a significant number of contributors outside of TIU have past or present ties to institutions associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given TIU’s institutional origins and the editors’ own academic formation, theologians and explicitly theological discourse disproportionately shape the book’s overall character. The volume is, accordingly, somewhat less broadly representative of Evangelical higher education than it might appear at first glance. The volume clearly has significant strengths. More than many explorations of Christian higher education, the writers are refreshingly orthodox and almost without exception provide evidence of a vibrant personal faith. Throughout the book, writers call attention to the need for maintaining and strengthening ties between Christian colleges and local churches. The writers not only testify to a high view of scripture, but also proceed to link much of their thinking explicitly to particular Bible passages. Most contributors solidly ground their reflection in the 2,000-year history of the church. Augustine and the Protestant reformers are perhaps the names most frequently referenced, along with Abraham Kuyper and more recent figures such as Arthur Holmes, George Marsden, and Mark Noll; but the citations as a whole are commendably catholic. To offer but one of hundreds of possible examples, the reader has scarcely opened the book before encountering two pages devoted to the educational vision of Clement of Alexandria.
As a whole, the seven essays focused on different academic disciplines may be the volume’s greatest contribution. They represent, at their best, compact and contemporary syntheses reminiscent of the full-length books in the “Through the Eyes of Faith” series published a generation ago by Harper & Row in collaboration with what was then known as the Christian College Coalition (see, for instance, Ronald Wells, History Through the Eyes of Faith, 1989).
Of the disciplinary essays, the two chapters on mathematics and the sciences are among the strongest. Consistent with the volume as a whole, Glenn Marsch’s “Teaching and Learning in the Sciences” is a synthesis and restatement of existing ideas rather than the development of an original argument. It serves nonetheless as a model for what we might call the Faith-Learning Genre of essays. Marsch brings a direct, conversational style that combines personal narrative and even an occasional humorous aside to explore a sampling of the perennial questions relevant to the historic Christian faith and the methodology and prevailing presuppositions of the sciences. Without neglecting scripture or the history of the church (the volume’s hallmarks), he consistently demonstrates an awareness of today’s students and of his reading audience that other authors might well have chosen to emulate.
Similar in certain respects to Marsch’s contribution, Paul Bialek goes even further to offer the reader concrete examples of what it might mean to teach mathematics (in this case), in an authentically Christian manner. Bialek builds on David I. Smith’s insights on teaching modern languages (see, for instance, Smith and Barbara Carvill’s The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning, William B. Eerdmans, 2000). Specifically, Bialek builds on Smith’s emphasis on the way ostensibly neutral curricula inevitably reflect a set of cultural values—values that may or may not be compatible with the historical Christian faith—and applies Smith’s thinking to his own discipline of mathematics. Whatever the mathematical concept at hand—Bialek offers examples from statistics and linear algebra in relation to questions about the environment and matters of social justice—the applications of any given mathematic tool may serve to support or to undermine Christian beliefs or affections. Incidentally but not insignificantly, the references in this context to Smith’s reflection on teaching and learning in the field of German may cause the attentive reader to wonder about the omission of foreign language instruction in the volume, not counting fleeting references in the broadly-inclusive chapter on the humanities. The inattention to teaching and learning in the modern or ancient languages is in this case symptomatic of a larger issue in contemporary Christian higher education, even if it must remain outside the limits of the current review.
In the disciplinary section, Chris Firestone’s essay on teaching philosophy is also exemplary. Particularly welcome is his reflection on the need to “show philosophy’s limitations” (which could also be applied to any other discipline) and on the associated Christian virtue of humility. In the final section of the volume, Micah Watson’s essay on “Faith, Ethics, and Culture” and Felix Theonugraha’s essay on student life (“Faith, Learning, and Living”) are likewise noteworthy and, with the disciplinary essays discussed immediately above, contribute significantly to the volume’s overall value.
The daunting size and hefty price tag aside, a number of factors may unfortunately limit the breadth of the volume’s readership and the ultimate impact of the work. As with almost any collection, the quality of the contributions is decidedly uneven. Some chapters are overly reliant on secondary sources, reading less like original essays than reviews of the relevant literature. There is a privileging of the merely cognitive, to the neglect of the affective and behavioral aspects of education—and to matters of practical application. Points of possible tension between the work of a theological seminary, a comprehensive university, or a liberal arts college are inadequately explored, if not ignored altogether. The underlying theme of preventing secularization notwithstanding, the absence of a specific controlling question to which the contributors are responding manifests itself at times in a certain absence of direction. Even more than most collections of academic essays, the volume suffers from some of the same fragmentation or even compartmentalization so many authors themselves bemoan.
If the book as a whole does not constitute required reading for those entering a Christian college community, it nonetheless merits the attention of academic leaders at all levels. Individual components of the volume might well serve as starting places for conversations with a wide range of faculty and staff. Resisting the many impulses in Christian higher education to “go secular” will obviously require more than words on paper. This volume nonetheless represents one small contribution, in the phrasing of one essayist, to keep “the ‘Christian’ in Christian higher education.”