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I wrote recently on this blog about Robert Cox’s distinction between “problem-solving theory” and “critical theory” In that post, I suggested that we ought to be graduating students who are capable not only of solving the specific problems that will arise in their work, but also of thinking critically about the institutions in which their work will occur. Future teachers, for example, ought to be prepared not only to educate children but to reflect seriously on how schools might be hindering the work of education. Future nurses should know not only how to heal, but how to carefully consider the ways in which hospitals might be making healing harder to accomplish. I argued that to spark this kind of reflection, we ought to confront students with radical critiques of their intended professions. A truly radical critique will go “to the root,” (the Latin word radix means “root”) and is therefore likely to advocate something much stronger than mere reform. By the time they finish the critic’s book, students should be wondering whether the work they want to do or the institution they want to work for should even exist.

Of course, most students are not going to join the revolution. Nor should they, at least not necessarily. The goal is not to send them off to burn it all down; the goal is to kindle a sense of duty to principles that stand above the rules and regulations, above the procedures and “best practices,” above the codes of professional ethics. Sometimes such principles do compel us to light the match, or simply to walk away, and one mark of a genuine “critical theory” is that it does not start by assuming that reform is always best. Some things cannot be reformed. But the same principles can also suggest that reform is the better way. I hope that when my students encounter a critical perspective on their chosen profession, they leave not only with a heightened capacity to notice what’s wrong but also with a heightened capacity to imagine what making it right might involve. If they are going to join the institution, not the revolution, how might they participate in redeeming that institution?

If redemption is in order, they will have to start by getting clear on what it means for an institution to “fall.” The work of Alasdair MacIntyre is quite helpful on this point, and I often find myself channeling him in class. In After Virtue and elsewhere, MacIntyre distinguishes institutions from “practices.” A practice is, for example, running marathons. It’s a human activity that aims at a purpose and is shaped by that purpose, which limits what the activity can and can’t be. An institution is made to house a practice, to make it possible. An institution is a set of rules, rules that work as incentives. You could run 26.2 miles without entering an organized race. We organize races, with rules and specifically with prizes, to encourage the practice. But the key thing about institutions is that they can also destroy practices. By offering a prize for winning the race, the institution has made cheating a possibility; now you can get in a car, get out at the finish line, and take the prize, all without engaging in the practice of running. So, institutions are supposed to make practices possible, but they can also make practices impossible. When everybody starts cheating, we forget how to run.

A “fallen” institution undermines the practice it is built to support and removes the limits that constitute that practice. An institution is fallen to the extent that following its rules means not engaging in the practice. Think about the use of grades in higher education, for example. Grades, as incentives, can encourage students in the practice of learning. But we all know it is perfectly possible to get good grades without really learning anything, and not just by literally “cheating.” I know lots of students who have excellent grades and empty heads, and they actually have empty heads because they have excellent grades. These students do not “cheat”; but they are cheating, in the deeper sense I have in mind. They are taking a car to the finish line and calling themselves runners.

Wherever the rules of the institution have, in this way, become obstacles to engaging in the relevant practice, in pursuit of the ostensible purpose, there is room for reform. If they are going to participate in redeeming the institutions in which they will do their work, students need to have a clear and even distinctive sense of that purpose. They should graduate not just with marketable skills but with strong ideas about what it means to educate (future teachers), to heal (future doctors and nurses), to enforce the law (future police officers), to buy and sell (future businesspeople), to make music (future musicians), or whatever the case may be.

To this end, students should be wrestling in their classes with competing conceptions of institutional purposes. Regardless of their intended career, they can start with the institution in which they now find themselves “working” (studying): Is the point of education to produce workers, to make citizens, or to create and redeem learners and learning (and these are not the only three options)? Depending on the answer, the institution called “school” will look very different, and so then will our ideas about the scope and necessity of reform. An educational institution that does very well at producing workers will not need reform if we agree that this is the institution’s only purpose.

Even the simple knowledge that there are competing conceptions can spark the kind of critical reflection that students will need if they are going to participate in redemptive reform, because professions, and the programs that train future professionals, often take their purpose for granted. Education is a little different, because there is already such a loud debate about its purpose, and so it is harder to bury our assumptions. But the same question lives at the heart of every institution, even those that appear more settled.

For example, many doctors (and many patients) seem to take for granted that the purpose of medicine is to prevent suffering and death at any cost. If they are right, then they will see only success, not failure, in our culture’s relentless medicalization of death. But if we have another purpose in mind, then the medicalization of death will be a cause for reform, and a provocation to think critically about the rules and regulations that do the medicalizing. Case studies, much beloved of professional programs, can introduce these issues; but too often they are not connected to the question of purpose, and so they turn into exercises in the application of rules. This is training for compliance. Instead, case studies should call the rules themselves into question, by asking students to consider concrete situations in light of higher principles that are up for genuine debate, not just in light of legal requirements and ethical codes.

That is the kind of pedagogy that graduates professionals with strong ideas about institutional purposes. We should recognize that such pedagogy is likely to form people whose ideas, or whose attitudes toward their ideas, are at odds with the institutions in which they will do their work. They will thus have to grapple with the perennial challenge of being in an institution, while not being of it – to use the familiar formulation about the relation between the Christian and “the world.” There are no easy answers to that challenge; I think the best we can do is to show students examples of people who are doing it. But in my estimation, many of our programs do not even raise the question; they aim to produce graduates who will be not only “in” but quite thoroughly “of” their institution. To the extent that that is true, implementing the suggestions I have made here would mean reforming those programs themselves.

A meaningfully Christian university, to be sure, will insist not only on exposing the hidden assumptions about institutional purposes that too often render their professional programs functionally secular. Ideally, Christian universities will graduate students who have not only strong but strongly Christian ideas about those purposes. This does not preclude disagreement amongst Christians about the point of particular institutions. But it does mean that our debates should be guided by a shared question: what is the distinctly Christian conception of law, or medicine, or education? The Christian conception of medicine, for example, will be rooted in the Christian gospel – which is not only the story of Christ healing the sick, but also the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. It will therefore prioritize compassion, but it will certainly not treat death as a failure, and even as it urges the relief of suffering, it will take extreme care not to empty suffering of all its meaning. Institutions informed – or reformed – by such a Christian understanding of medicine’s purpose would be noticeably different from the institutions – including the church-run hospitals – that we currently have. Professional programs at Christian universities surely ought to be in the business of reimagining such institutions.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy and Director of the Honors Program at the University of Dubuque, and Associate Editor at Front Porch Republic.

One Comment

  • Maureen.Perianayagam says:

    Hi Adam,
    I really appreciated your insight on ‘Redeeming Fallen Institutions’. As a sessional instructor in the school of nursing, I noticed that there is an increase in the student enrollment for the Baccalaureate Science in Nursing program, from various religious denominations other than Christianity. On the first day of my lab class, I asked the students as to what made them choose this particular institution for their nursing education. The various responses I received made me feel “Awe”. A few students said, the main reason for their application to a religious institution was a shorter waiting list compared to secular universities in the province. Some other students said that the nursing profession is highly graded post pandemic, and it pays well along with great benefits. Some other students said that the religious institution is the closest to their home and it made the commute easy. From the students responses I can assess their sole intention to be at a religious institution for their nursing education. On one hand the religious institution needs to meet certain quota in their yearly admission to successfully run the nursing program. On the other hand, there are several non-Christians students getting admission to the nursing program due to convenience. In this situation, as a Christian nurse educator, I must ask your question ‘what is the distinctly Christian conception’ of Nursing? Are we incorporating the concept of Christian view of Nursing in the curriculum? And how it is taught and evaluated in every nursing subject? Are we enforcing the concept of Christ loving nursing care into our students’ minds?
    Next, I believed that offering a prize for winning is ethical, as it promotes determination, perseverance, and positiveness. I never thought that offering a prize would lead to cheating. Maybe I’m pretty naive. After reading your post, now I wonder whether it is worth honoring someone’s achievement or success, What if they do not deserve and the whole time they were cheating? God helps me……
    God Bless.