Skip to main content

Many of our students are required to read Plato’s Gorgias at some point in their college careers. Occasionally, and after some reflection and discussion of the text, those students come to appreciate just how high the stakes are for those confronted with the Gorgias’s central question: how should one live? Socrates, Plato’s protagonist, champions the philosophical life, which for him involves a sustained commitment to moral craftsmanship. He rejects his fellow citizens’ preoccupation with power and affluence, the pursuit of which produces people who are corrupt and enslaved to the tyrannical impulses of their appetites. Instead, Socrates urges his listeners to cultivate those virtues that are conducive to a good and happy life.

In stark contrast to Socrates, Callicles—Socrates’ nemesis and immoralist parexcellence—promotes the acquisition of skills that are (he thinks) required for a productive and self-sufficient life. He rejects Socrates’ understanding of the good life due to its putative inability to call our attention to “more important things,” where by “more important things” Callicles has in mind the skills that are advantageous to the citizen who has them.1 Those who fail to acquire such skills will find themselves lacking the expertise necessary for getting on in the world. As Callicles explains, people who give themselves over to a life of moral and philosophical reflection

turn out to be inexperienced in the laws of their city or in the kind of speech used to deal with people in matters of business, whether public or private, in experienced also in human pleasures and appetite, in short, inexperienced in the ways of human beings altogether.2

While the practices Socrates extols may be appropriate for a time and in moderation, those who commit themselves to them wholeheartedly fail to ever do or say anything useful or worthwhile.3 For this reason, Callicles urges Socrates to abandon his preoccupation with “the good life” and practice “an active life, and do it where you’ll get a reputation for being intelligent.”4 Leave behind the life of moral self-reflection, he urges, and emulate those whose practices yield: security, longevity, proper social standing, and other goods typically prized by most people.5

For many students, this advice appears to be fairly sound. That they should find Callicles compelling (at least on the subject of education’s purpose) is not surprising. Typically students appraise the value of their education according to the practical aptitudes it presumably bequeaths. According to Frank Donoghue, the tendency to assess education in this way is reinforced by a culture marked by “an unconditional reverence for practicality and usefulness.”6 The idea that higher education should be for the sake of moral formation will ineluctably strike many students as strange or quaint. How, they might ask, is moral formation conducive to earning a wage or acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in one’s chosen vocation? This question’s governing assumption is as clear as it is lamentable. Donoghue expresses that assumption in the following way:

Higher education is job training, however academics like to think otherwise. The training in many instances may be general, theoretical, and abstract, but its very purpose places the academy in the service of its country’s, and increasingly, the world’s employers, the mercantile and industrial interests.7

For Donoghue, the market forces governing higher education are ineluctable, and humanities professors especially must prepare themselves for an institutional transformation whereby they “will be absorbed into broader categories of professionals and service workers.”8 This assessment of contemporary education is no doubt sobering, but it deserves careful consideration by those who are convinced that moral pedagogy is—or ought to be—a salient fixture of higher education. For, arguably, the ascendancy of careerism and disciplinary specialization in the university has forged an academic culture in which moral education is less likely to occur. Warren Nord confirms this observation. He says:

Surveys of incoming freshmen show that they value higher education chiefly for the jobs that their degrees will buy them (and the money they will make in those jobs). They are not the only ones. More and more, parents, legislators, and policy makers think of education in economic terms (whether the goal be jobs for my kids, educated workers for my business, or American competitiveness for success in the international marketplace). Not surprisingly, higher education has become more narrowly practical in response to the utilitarian values, pressure, and policies of the larger culture.9

There are reliable historical analyses that account for the displacement of moral education in the modern university, most notably Derek Bok’s Universities and the Future of America,10 Bruce Wilshire’s The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation,11 Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University:The Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality,12 and Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End.13 This introduction will not duplicate what these authors have argued already. Yet it is worth noting that the conclusions of these analyses are virtually unanimous: higher education has “become increasingly uncoupled from more traditional emphases on virtue and the search for moral truth.”14

The account described in the previous two paragraphs takes on an ironic dimension when considering it in the context of Christian education. On the one hand, many church-related universities portray themselves as institutions for whom moral education is a governing objective. And why should they not? After all, what makes Christian education distinct is a presumed desire to shape students into people with thoughtful yet deliberately Christian commitments and moral sensibilities (or perhaps into people with a knowledge and appreciation for those commitments and sensibilities). On the other hand, professed support for this sort of education may seem incongruous with emerging realities. The Christian college or university is shaped by the same cultural and economic forces that govern higher education as a whole. It, too, has become more professionally-oriented and accommodating to those whose interests are largely vocational.15 This trend is understandable. Many church-related colleges and universities have small endowments and insufficient support from their sponsoring denominations. They are under constant pressure to maintain target enrollments simply to avert institutional deficits and the elimination of staff or programs in which there are too few majors. For these reasons (among others), the Christian college or university will almost certainly feel compelled to seek financial stability by developing “flagship programs” and promising prospective students an education that is relevant and well-suited to prepare them for the job market. Yet it is precisely this institutional trajectorythat (arguably) threatens moral formation as a central educative aim.

We recognize that church-related colleges and universities sometimes require courses relevant to character development (most notably theology and ethics), and in fact these courses may play a positive role in encouraging students to think more carefully about matters that are central to the Christian moral life. Unfortunately, often these courses are often part of a general or core curriculum that is ambiguously connected to students’ major field of study.16 They play no decisive or obvious role in students’ moral development. One may wonder, as Stanley Hauerwas does, whether the inclusion of these courses is but “a desperate attempt to supplement what we fear students do not get as part of their general university education.”17 Indeed, presumably a robust model of moral education would consist in something more (and richer) than the inclusion of a few courses in which morality is a subject of discussion.

These institutional realities motivate the present volume. If character formation is an objective of higher education (especially Christian higher education), then the subject deserves more sustained attention by faculty and administrators alike. Moreover, Christian teacher-scholars should actively challenge those educative trends that threaten to forestall the creation and maintenance of effective moral education. The contributors to this volume challenge those same trends in various (and sometimes indirect) ways.

Our lead article, by Perry Glanzer of Baylor University, situates the discussion of moral formation in a wider institutional context, offering both a diagnosis of the modern university and possible Christian correctives. Beginning with a recent book by C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), that diagnoses problems in the contemporary university writ large, Glanzer contends that Christian colleges and universities “possess tremendous resources” that enable them to counter some of these problems, such as the fact/value dichotomy and the inability to define what is human. By attending to the moral formation of students, Christian institutions begin to overcome these problems. However, they also tend to accept the institutional structures, assumptions, theories, and practices that animated the formation of the modern, secular university. They tend toward the same empty moralizing that Sommerville criticizes, because they fail to restructure curricular and co-curricular practices and fail to challenge the underlying assumptions of student development that undergird these practices.

Thus far, argues Glanzer, generally Christian colleges and universities have seen moral formation as providing additional value, on top of existing structures, rather than as an aim requiring institutional restructuring. Such a restructuring, he contends, must involve changes in both curricular and co-curricular realms. Moral formation cannot be limited to pedagogy. Instead, Glanzer argues that both general education and student development programs must aim toward forming students in the distinctively Christian desires to love God, creation, and our neighbors. Christian student development professionals must work to transcend the developmental theories of Lawrence Kohlberg, William Perry, and Carole Gilligan, which treat students as atomistic individuals.

Although Glanzer’s work on this question continues, he offers three specific suggestions for how Christian student development theorists should proceed: they should draw on the lives of Christian saints as models for students’ journeys; they should treat students as encumbered, loving selves embedded in relationships; and they should treat their campuses as spaces to engage in Christian practices such as reconciliation. Although Glanzer concedes that the path of institutional restructuring is a challenging one, he contends that “such efforts will prove worthwhile as we come together and determine what it means, in the light of God’s grace, to be fully human.”

Glanzer is wise to draw our attention to the need for curricular and co-curricular restructuring in order to cultivate the full humanity of students. Nevertheless, such institutional-level changes will not come quickly or easily. Thus, even within their current structures and contexts, professors at Christian colleges and universities need to re-imagine pedagogical aims and instantiate pedagogical practices in order to promote the moral formation of their students. The next two essays in this issue offer Christian educators conceptual frameworks and practical examples from the classroom for cultivating the moral emotion of wonder (and the virtue of hospitality in which wonder participates) and the virtue of humility.

Teri Merrick, a professor of philosophy at Azusa Pacific University, defends the pedagogical aim of fostering in students a disposition toward wonder as “a pious and indiscriminate welcoming of the unexpected.” Furthermore, she argues that such openness to the novel, strange, and particular—to entities beyond one’s conceptual grasp—is a “constitutive element” of the Christian virtue of hospitality. Following a historical treatment that highlights the shared conceptual core of “wonder” as well as disagreements about whether or not it ought to be cultivated in learners, Merrick outlines contemporary, “subversive” accounts of hospitality, notably those of Elizabeth Newman and Christine Pohl. In doing so, she provides a distinctly Christian perspective on the virtue of hospitality and its component emotion of wonder, thus defending wonder as a legitimate aim for Christian educators. In the latter part of the essay, she highlights pedagogical strategies and classroom experiences aimed at and illustrative of the cultivation of wonder while simultaneously avoiding the promotion of the vice of curiosity. Although her essay is rooted in the discipline of philosophy, it contains wisdom for professors across the curriculum. She urges all of us to consider the moral dangers of ignoring the anomalous and the particular in order to gain “complete and certain knowledge” and encourages all of us to welcome the strange and the stranger. Thus, we may come to meet Christ in unexpected places—in the many and varied “others” that we encounter in the academy and in life.

In the third essay of this special issue, Heidi Lee argues that the Christian virtue of humility should be reintroduced into literature classrooms. Lee, a professor of English at Messiah College, affirms the importance of fostering critical thinking in our students, but she claims that all too often we mistakenly equate “critical reading with simply being critical.” Instead Lee proposes that approaching texts with humility and reading them with a charitable, generous, hospitable spirit enhances our learning. Appreciative, positive listening must precede or at least accompany the distrustful dissection of texts. Lee contends that

Christian literary scholars might better serve their students and their profession by decoupling the notion of critical thinking from that of suspicion and by replacing it with reading strategies that emphasize a posture and attitude of humility as well as deeply analytical dialogue.

Along the way she makes the case that many have misappropriated Paul Ricoeur’s phrase “a hermeneutics of suspicion,” which, when understood rightly, actually directs us to adopt humble reading strategies that develop students who are “discerning readers rather than scornfully suspicious readers.” Lee also offers pedagogical narratives and concrete tips, including classroom practices and homework assignments, that help us train our students to read more attentively and wisely. Beyond the typical aggressive, arrogant dismantling of texts, Lee calls us to ask questions of texts humbly and to view them as gifts that have something to teach us. In the end, she says, this desirable posture of humility engenders “more effective learning for all involved.”

This special issue concludes with Richard McClelland’s challenging essay, “Moral Education: Too Little, Too Late?” McClelland, an associate professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University, thinks that university-sponsored programs of moral education are ill-suited to improve the characters of our students. His argument relies on conclusions culled from the biological sciences and social psychology. The cumulative results of these disciplines suggest the following: the pedagogical methods typically employed in standard university curricula cannot facilitate students’ moral betterment. According to McClelland, the “verbal and propositional character of most curricular representations” will not likely be availing for those whose moral development is largely complete. For “the basic dynamics of individual moral development . . . are such that most of our students come to us already fully formed.” This conclusion ought not to suggest that there are no forms of moral pedagogy that might aid in the moral betterment of students. Moral transformation, he thinks, is possible. But we should realize that such transformation must be in accord with the realities of human biological and social development. He says: “Whatever influence we might have on [students’] moral development will have to be consonant with that evolutionary heritage and can, at best, hope to be part of a life-long influence of cumulative experience.” How might we exert such influence on our students? According to McClelland, the moral development of our students requires they be habituated within a comprehensive social setting capable of producing sentiments, intuitions, and goals different from those found within the prevailing culture. In short, students need what he calls an “alternative custom complex”—one that “operates according to a different set of moral intuitions . . . and thus generates an alternative form of socialization.”

For McClelland, then, success in facilitating students’ moral betterment ultimately requires that our academic institutions “establish a critical distance between [themselves] and [their] own methods, structures, mores, values, and purposes, and those of the dominant culture from which [their] students are drawn.” This harsh reality, he argues, poses a difficult dilemma for us. In an effort to fulfill their commitment to moral education, universities might attempt to become independent, self-supporting enclaves governed by their own unique practices, beliefs, and ends. Doing so, however, is fraught with potential hazards such as (among other things) community reproach and loss of donor gifts. Or, these institutions can remain subservient to the “custom complex of the dominant pre-existing culture” and avail themselves of societal favor and support. Yet this alternative would almost certainly make their professed commitment to moral education something of a sham. Thus he says that institutions that prefer to take this route “will face little hostility from the surrounding dominant culture, but will undermine decisively their own stated mission and present themselves to their (critically minded) students and other constituents as profoundly fraudulent.”

We hope these essays encourage Christian colleges and universities to make character formation more than just an auxiliary aim of professional preparation, even if this requires revising their current practices in a way that befits their institutional commitments. As a collection, the essays highlight the need for such revision to occur on multiple levels. The essays by Heidi Lee and Teri Merrick remindus of the importance of pedagogical practices aimed at the cultivation of distinctively Christian virtues. Perry Glanzer ’s essay highlights the need to revise aims and practices at the level of the curriculum and co-curricular programs. Finally, the prophetic tone of Richard McClelland’s essay calls us to consider the role of each and every aspect of college or university life in the formation of students’ characters if we are to have a shaping influence upon virtues and vices that are already well established by factors prior to and outside of the college or university community.

Read together, the set of essays in this issue point out the possibilities for and barriers to the kind of moral education argued for by Socrates in the Gorgias. Precisely because of this tension they call us both to work and to hope, recognizing that Christian virtues cannot be cultivated in our students without the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We trust that God can work in and through the many structures and processes within the college or university to form persons who grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

Cite this article
Shawn Floyd, Stephen Moroney, Matthew Phelps and Scott Waalkes, “Introduction to the Theme Issue: Christian Higher Education as Character Formation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 371-377


  1. Gorgias, trans. Donald J. Zeyl (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 484 c-d. In his reflection on the Theaetatus, Robert Roberts identifies within Plato’s writings a similar contrast between a moral and merely technical education. See his “Free Love and Christian Higher Education,” in The Schooled Heart: Moral Formation in American Higher Education, eds. Michael Beaty and Douglas Henry (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 55-71.
  2. Ibid., 484d-e.
  3. Ibid., 485e.
  4. Ibid., 486c-d.
  5. Ibid., 486d.
  6. Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 12.
  7. Ibid., 85.
  8. Ibid., xvii.
  9. Warren Nord, “Liberal Education, Moral Education, and Religion,” in The Schooled Heart:Moral Formation in American Higher Education, eds. Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty(Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 30.
  10. Derek Bok, Universities and the Future of America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).
  11. Bruce Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990).
  12. Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University:The Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1996).
  13. Anthony Kronman, Education’s End (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
  14. Nord, 30.
  15. For Donoghue, this trend suggests that universities will continue to “bend to corporate expectations about what a university should teach and how it should operate; more directly, they will accommodate student demands about what would make a college education worth the time and money spent on it” (83).
  16. This concern receives extensive attention in Shawn Floyd, “Morally Serious Pedagogy,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36.3 (Spring 2007): 245-261.
  17. Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana: Schooling the Heart in the Heart of Texas,” in The Schooled Heart, 110.

Shawn Floyd

Malone University
Shawn Floyd is Professor of Philosophy at Malone University.

Stephen Moroney

Malone University
Stephen Moroney is Professor of Theology at Malone University.

Matthew Phelps

Malone University
Matthew Phelps is Professor of Psychology at Malone University.

Scott Waalkes

Malone University
Scott Waalkes is Student Success Fellow and Professor of International Politics at Malone University.