This post was adapted from a longer white paper for Christian practitioners working in student success offices. For those interested in joining the conversation, please contact Sinda Vanderpool at Sinda_Vanderpool@baylor.edu.

Helping students achieve “success” is an increasingly important topic within the research and practice of higher education. In addition to helping students accomplish personal goals, institutional leaders are motivated to hit certain retention and graduation thresholds in order to maintain tuition revenue streams and prestigious metrics. Although these metrics specify presumably favorable outcomes in the short-term (such as retention, campus engagement, graduation, and job placement), current scholarship often neglects the ends towards which these outcomes are (or ought to be) aimed. As a colleague of ours asked the other day, “success for what purpose and toward what end?”1

What is a successful student? Higher education has taken a number of forms throughout history, each with its own way of defining student success—successful students were good humanists, good citizens, or good leaders.2 Today’s definitions of student success have become increasingly transactional. Success is linked to quantitative outcomes and the practical utility of a degree.3 Students gauge their “success” by their answers to pragmatic questions: “Will I be equipped for a job? How much money will that job make out of college? Over a lifetime?” These questions seem to suggest that students are customers on the hunt for “goods” that can only be attained after earning the credential college provides.

Although critiquing a utilitarian view of education is nothing new, today’s forms of utilitarian thinking are marked by more modern, individualistic impulses.4 To view education in this way perpetuates, as James K.A. Smith describes, “an egocentric way of looking at the world, as if all these things were there for me, and for me to do with them as I please.”5

We suspect many reading this are, at this point, nodding their heads in agreement with the shortcomings of current definitions of success. But before we place the blame fully on students (faulty as their consumeristic approaches may be), or “culture” (faulty as some underlying ideologies may be), we must begin with some self-reflection. In what ways have we as staff and faculty perpetuated such a consumeristic view of students in how we talk about or evaluate them? What elements of our student success initiatives stoke the fires of expressive individualism?

Far too often, student success is defined with only institutional goals in mind. This means that we evaluate the effectiveness of colleges and universities based on of the type of students they can attract and retain, and not by how much learning or transformation takes place.6 Therefore, student “success” is implicitly linked to the ability of an institution to collect students with the best high school GPA or rankings, standardized test scores, and—more recently—various forms of diversity (ethnic, gender, SES, etc.). These are important numbers, but, over time, talking about success in this way can subtly (or not so subtly) shape our imaginations in such a way that college becomes merely a place to perform—not a place to be formed.7

In response, we find ourselves drawn instead to the definition of student success implied by Hugh of St. Victor who believed the goal of higher education was “to restore within us the divine likeness” that was marred by the fall.8 The benefit of this definition is that rather than defining success according to the individual or to society it is, instead, rooted in God, “the Creator of all that is good.”9 But this, of course, raises larger questions: “Is that restoration possible in four to six years, or even this side of heaven? And what would it actually look like?”

These practical questions lead us to the theological work of Bishop Robert Barron, who—similar to St. Victor—believes “resembl[ing] the divine” is the goal of Christian transformation.10 He defines Christian transformation using the biblical term metanoia, which he translates as “go[ing] beyond the mind that you have…to change [your] way of knowing, [your] way of seeing.”11 Transformation in this sense is not mere cognitive understanding. Instead, “it has everything to do with [a] radical change of life and vision, with the simple (and dreadfully complex) process of allowing oneself to swim in the divine sea, to find the true self by letting go of the old [self-elevating] center.”12

A transformation that leads to seeing rightly, according to Bishop Barron, requires a shift of the soul that changes the lens through which one sees the world. Rather than a limiting lens that shrinks and tries to contain the world, Barron suggests we should utilize an expansive, God-centered lens. The limiting lens, he suggests, is a defensive strategy of the “terrified and self-regarding small soul,” wherein a self-elevating ego grasps for control because it sees God (knowingly or not) as a rival or “competing supreme being.”13 This competition is not merely with God, but with all others. “When the ego has made itself the center of its universe, then all other things and people are potential or actual rivals, and they must be kept at bay.”14 Whereas the limiting lens results in a smaller vision of the world in an effort to control it, the more favorable expansive lens does the opposite. The expansive lens is the way of seeing associated with “the well-ordered soul, the psyche that has centered itself exclusively on Christ and whose energies and powers have found their harmonious place around that center.”15 Barron continues, “when we surrender in trust to the bearing power of God…we can let go of fear and begin to live in radical trust.”16 Therefore, although an expansive lens makes a person smaller in comparison to the world, they are nonetheless more secure because their well-ordered soul is secure in God’s authority over the world.

Bishop Barron was describing Christian transformation for all of life, and not merely for education, but we believe a Christian view of student success cannot be separated from the new way of seeing he describes. Indeed, the two selves Barron describes lead to two different approaches to education which correspond to the two lenses. Educational efforts that cultivate the autonomous and ego-driven self aim to make the world smaller, limiting possible threats. Knowledge is acquired safely and as a form of gaining control over the world. Cultivating the well-ordered self does the opposite. Because of the security one finds in focusing on Christ, education can be used to expand the one’s view of God and his created order without fear.

Although few administrators would claim the ego-driven self (and corresponding limiting lens) as the goal of their student success efforts, it has become the de facto approach of student success scholarship and practice. Contemporary student success efforts use the language of “self-authorship” and are tied to the “expressive individualism” that provides avenues for students to “give expression to [their] own feelings and desires.”17 It is not that autonomy and individual expression are inherently wrong, but when they are the goal (even at Christian institutions), education becomes an egocentric consumeristic project.

Unfortunately, those working at Christian colleges have been quick to implement these approaches without reflecting on the assumed ends and outcomes of researchers without a Christian foundation. Their resources can certainly be valuable, but they are incomplete. So how can we define true student success? We need to help our students find a new way of seeing that provides individual expression in the context of their true, well-ordered self, which bears the image of God both individually and in community. Further, we need to challenge ourselves to serve students in ways that bear this image.

With all this in mind, we define student success as something distinct from the life-long project of sanctification, and yet also part of it. We believe that the college experience ought—ultimately—to help further the restoration of the divine likeness in students by helping them to “go beyond the mind that they have,” to see the world expansively through the cultivation of the well-ordered self. The more they see rightly, the better equipped they will be to order and enrich their “loves in the context of [their] most important relationships and human practices.”18 This ordering of loves and relationships is similar to what Wolterstorff describes as living in shalom: being in right relationship with God, others, and nature.19 Recognizing that this transformation, this ordering of loves, is a lifelong project, we submit that a significant goal of our work is to help students define these as the ends towards which their lives are aimed. Thus, student success must be bound to a particular understanding of human success—of human flourishing.

Footnotes

  1. We are thankful for the input of Dr. Wesley Null of Baylor University on an early draft of our larger document.
  2. Clark Kerr,The Uses of the University, 5th ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); John R. Thelin, A History of American Higher Education, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
  3. James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005).
  4. For examples of critiques of the utilitarian approach see, for example, John Henry Newman and Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University, Notre Dame Series in the Great Books (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982); Neil Postman, The End of Education : Redefining the Value of School, 1st ed. (New York: Knopf, 1995); Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Higher Learning in America, Foundations of Higher Education (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995).
  5. James K. A. Smith, The Devil Reads Derrida : And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 40.
  6. Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, “From Teaching to Learning :A New Paradigm For Undergraduate Education,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 27, no. 6 (1995): 12–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.1995.10544672.
  7. For a discussion on the power of language to shape institutional imagination see Darin Davis, “Seeking the Common Good by Educating for Wisdom,” Christian Scholar’s Review 49, no. 4 (2020): 343–53; The juxtaposition of performance and formation comes from Carl R. Trueman,The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020).
  8. Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor, Reprint, Records of Western Civilization (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, c. 1130/1991), 61; More on Hugh of St. Victor can be found in the excellent book Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream, Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017).
  9. Dempsey Rosales-Acosta, “Reflections-Contribution of Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta S.S.L., S.T.D. Regarding the ‘White Paper’ Theology of Students’ Success in the Context of Catholic Education” (Unpublished manuscript, March 25, 2021), 3.
  10. Robert Barron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (New York: Crossroad Pub, 1998), 186.
  11. Barron, 5.
  12. Barron, 9.
  13. Barron, 6, 246.
  14. Barron, 224.
  15. Barron, 211.
  16. Barron, 6.
  17. The concept of “self-authorship” comes from Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to Promote Self-Development (Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2001); Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, “Self-Authorship as the Common Goal of 21st Century Education,” in Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship, ed. Marcia B. Baxter Magolda and Patricia M. King, 1st ed (Sterling, Va: Stylus Pub, 2004), 1–35; Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 46.
  18. Todd C. Ream and Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College : A Reexamination for Today’s University (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013), 3.
  19. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Clarence W. Joldersma, and Gloria Goris Stronks, Educating for Shalom : Essays on Christian Higher Education (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004).

Theodore F. Cockle

Baylor University
Theodore (Ted) Cockle is a higher education scholar-practitioner pursuing more theologically animated forms of leadership, administration, and education. He is in the final stages of a PhD program in Higher Education Studies and Leadership at Baylor University.

Sinda Vanderpool

Baylor University
Dr. Sinda Vanderpool has been at Baylor since 2004. She holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a B.A. from Davidson College. She serves as the chief student success officer on campus as the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Enrollment Management.

David Q. Hao

University of St. Thomas - Houston
David Q. Hao, MA, JD, serves as the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at the University of St. Thomas (TX), and is a proud Baylor alumnus (BBA ‘08).

2 Comments

  • Lindy Scott says:

    I appreciate this post because it helps us see some essential problems of higher education, from a truly Christian perspective, and points us towards a healthier path. These are some good first steps towards restoration.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    In 2008, David Purpel published an article entitled “What Matters”, a critique, based on Micah 6:8, of the hidden curriculum impacting the American education system, a curriculum which served “the individualistic ends of social and economic advantage” rather than goals reflected in the Micah verse of developing students who are “morally responsible, dwell in community, seek justice, and care for others”.1

    I would suggest that the title of that article is where Christian administrators and faculty need to start in developing a definition of success that will equip students–and administrators and faculty–with a spiritual vision that will propel their in a truly good direction.

    1Purpel, D. E. (2008). What Matters. Journal of Education and Christian Belief, 12(2), 115–128. https://doi.org/10.1177/205699710801200204