In the era of declining enrollments, Christian colleges and universities face two perennial questions: what are the defining features of Christian education, and why are they worth a higher tuition rate than the state school down the road? Christian colleges offer many distinctive features, including chapel, single-sex residence halls, and required courses on theology or the Bible. In the classroom, faculty regularly pray before class, connect course content to Scripture, and teach from a Christian worldview. These are all good things, but are they enough to produce the goal to which Christian colleges aspire: the transformation and renewal of students’ minds? (c.f. Romans 12:2)
Many colleges seem to assume transformation of mind will occur if they teach from the perspective of a Christian worldview. Yet, the mind is more than the sum of our beliefs; it is shaped by our imagination. Cognitive psychology and philosophical theories of action suggest much of human behavior is guided by underlying dispositions of mind and heart, rather than rational deliberation (e.g. consciously applying a Christian worldview). What our students imagine and desire to be good is formed less by information, and more through the practices of everyday life. In the modern era, a secular vision of reality (what Charles Taylors calls the modern social imaginary) seems to have become the default. Christian colleges and universities embrace the mission to transform minds, but their work occurs at the intersection of three spheres that rely on vastly different norms and assumptions: the academy, professions, and the church. Even when the academy and professions are not overtly anti-Christian, they may be rooted in assumptions related to the created world, freedom, and the human person—manifested in everyday practices—which conflict with the mission to transform minds. Christian colleges may affirm a Christian worldview, but to what extent do they rely on routines and practices that unintentionally foster secular (of the age) dispositions of mind and heart?
On the surface, practices of modern education seem to be morally neutral, but often they cultivate dispositions that are antithetical to Christian formation. Consider the use and abuse of PowerPoint in the college classroom. The beauty, goodness, and depth of many topics cannot fit within the container of the PowerPoint lecture, yet it has become a default means of transferring information to students—in part because it is so efficient. The overuse of PowerPoint encourages students to imagine their education as the collection of useful facts. Previous cohorts of students digest these useful facts and turn them into flashcards on sites such as Quizlet, which further reduces the incentive for deep engagement with course material. Students whose educational experience is defined by sitting through PowerPoint lectures, studying on Quizlet, and taking multiple choice exams learn to envision the world as raw material to advance their careers, rather than creation imbued with God’s grace and love. This approach to education does not transform minds, but instead conforms them to a secular vision of reality.
Christian colleges may also perpetuate a secular mindset when they treat courses instrumentally—as a mere means to sharpen students’ reading skills or critical thinking. A liberal arts education ought to strengthen these skills, but the motivating purpose of the liberal arts is to read great literature and explore great ideas for their own goodness rather than just their instrumental uses. This instrumentalizing mindset is perpetuated when students and their advisors talk about courses in the liberal arts as something to “get out of the way”—a chore that must be completed (sometimes by taking a test or taking a summer course at community college) in order to get on to subjects that are directly relevant to one’s future career. This box-checking mentality is a sure sign of a secular imagination, one that is unable to recognize – or care about – the inherent goodness of creation. This inability to know and love the goodness of creation limits people’s ability to know and love their Creator.
A final way that Christian colleges may unintentionally perpetuate a secular mindset is by exalting the importance of worldly success. Thumb through the alumni magazine of the typical Christian college and you’ll see honors heaped on those alumni whose careers are deemed a success, as indicated by their prestige, fame, and income (all for the glory of God, of course). Scripture speaks of the proud being humbled and the humble being exalted (cf. Mt 23:12); not so the alumni magazine. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with worldly success. Colleges ought to celebrate such successes while devoting equal attention to celebrating alumni whose mission field and influence have a smaller scope. The problem with granting too much priority to worldly success is that it signals to alumni, parents, and students what the institution considers to be truly important—even if it would claim otherwise. Students and alumni already feel enough pressure to measure themselves by their accomplishments; they likely need the reminder that their life, career, and worth are not measured by worldly standards of success. Failing to stand in opposition to these worldly standards can perpetuate a secular vision of career, wealth, and self-worth.
Of course, PowerPoint lectures and accolades have some place in Christian education, but colleges that fail to properly prioritize the highest ends of Christian education are complicit in perpetuating a secular mindset among their students. Many Christian colleges prioritize “hiring for mission,” and rightly so. But the mission of Christian colleges is not merely to offer a secular education administered by people who pray before class and intersperse their lectures with Bible verses. Even if professors affirm a Christian worldview, their practices in the classroom may undermine their efforts to form students’ hearts and minds. Christian colleges serious about the mission of transforming minds must have the courage to question whether they have unwittingly embraced structures, routines, and assumptions that perpetuate a secular mindset among students. Otherwise, they will end up graduating students who may be practicing Christians but practical atheists.