The Christ-Animated Learning blog recently ran a review of Mark Noll’s important book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind because it was recently reissued with a new preface and afterword. One of the original critiques Noll made concerned evangelical graduate education. He wrote in the original 1994 version, “Nowhere in the Western world is it possible to find an institution for graduate training—that is, for the training required to teach at evangelical institutions of higher learning—that exists for the primary purpose of promoting Christian scholarship defined in a Protestant, evangelical way.”1 I noticed that in the new “Preface” or “Afterword,” Noll did not return to the topic of graduate education, so I thought I would provide an update.
Despite the massive growth of graduate education in Christian universities, Noll’s concern remains valid. I, along with some of my doctoral students, recently undertook a theologically-guided discourse analysis of the 638 graduate programs at the 41 top-ranked Protestant Christian universities in the United States, the vast majority of which were evangelical. Almost all of these have started since 1994. The question is how Christian are these graduate programs? To try and answer that question, we looked at the marketing, objectives, and curriculum of these programs. We then looked for Christian language or elements within these areas. Here is the disappointing news: we found only one-third of the graduate programs demonstrated even one piece of evidence demonstrating Christian distinctiveness.
Why might this be the case? I will share an example from my own experience at Baylor University that demonstrates the major tension that these graduate programs face. Currently, Baylor is trying to sustain being a Christian R1 university. Indeed, Baylor wants to expand its graduate program offerings to increase the number of graduate students. This goal sounds promising especially when one considers Baylor University’s Guidelines for Preparing a Proposal for a New Graduate Degree. Among other things, they require new graduate proposals to have “A statement of need along the following dimensions:
- Does the proposal conform to the mission: to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community?
- Does the plan help us reach our vision: to enter the top tier of American universities while reaffirming and deepening our distinctive Christian mission?”
These guidelines would appear to address the scandal of Christian graduate education.
Yet, the problem comes with implementation. Some of the recent graduate programs recently passed by our Graduate School do not have a Christian element in them, or the Christian element receives little more than a brief mention. In other words, we do not follow or enforce our guidelines at times. Now, why would that be the case?
The answer comes down to numbers, goals, and priorities—the executive leadership wants to increase the number of graduate students to sustain our R1 status and compete with other R1 institutions. I also know that many other Christian institutions need paying graduate students to support programs and making them too Christian could reduce one’s possible recruiting pool (indeed the feedback our department received from a Baylor faculty committee regarding a recent Ph.D. proposal was that it was “too Christian”). In these cases, the choices we make about Christian graduate education come down to the age-old conflict between issues such as prestige, money, and our Christian identity (Mt. 6:24). Christian graduate programs have to choose their master (note: in case you are wondering, I first raised my concerns expressed here to Baylor academic leaders privately).
Beyond this problem, a second one exists. Simply creating and actually enforcing Christian guidelines for the creation of graduate programs will always be insufficient if faculty are not intellectually and theologically equipped to develop these programs. Although hiring committed Christian professors is a valuable starting point, many of these professors have little previous academic experience thinking about what it might mean to have Christ animate their discipline, much less a Ph.D. graduate program. It shows when they try to answer how the new graduate program they are proposing relates to the Christian mission of the university. Institutionally, universities give inadequate attention to helping professors develop in this foundational area (see our recent study of these efforts). The result is graduate programs at Christian universities will mimic secular graduate programs unless they implement steps to develop robust Christian faculty development.
Some Creative Innovations
We need a creative vision of what it means to develop Christian graduate programs. Unfortunately, there are few Protestant models of what this might look like. Thus, we need Christian imagination to see how this might happen since we cannot merely follow models that already exist. I suggest an alternative path with courses and co-curricular activities.
1.Christianity and the Vocation of a Graduate Student: We need to expose our graduate students to the best Christian writing and research about how Christianity relates to the vocation of being a Christian graduate student. Christian institutions should offer all of our graduate students an interdisciplinary Grad School 5101 course that introduces students to the idea of what it might mean to engage in intellectual life from the Christian perspective. Some possible texts could include: Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll (Eerdmans), The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship by George Marsden (Oxford), The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by A. G. Sertillanges (Catholic University of America Press).
Moreover, we should be providing redemptive identity integration by teaching Christian professionals how to integrate their Christian identity not only with their professional identity but their other identities as neighbors, friends, family members, stewards of their bodies, stewards of nature, stewards of money, etc. I have authored a book meant for undergraduates in this area, Identity in Action, but it could be used with graduate students as well.
2.Christian Scholarship. We need to teach students to interpret their disciplines and their practice of those disciplines within the Christian narrative and tradition. To do so, every graduate program should offer a course that examines the best Christian thinking about the discipline. For example, CSR recently asked professors from numerous Christian colleges and universities to send me some of the most important writings that discuss their discipline through the eyes of the Christian faith. You can find the list here. In contrast, based on the Anthropology Ph.D. proposal that I recently examined at our institution, I doubt our anthropology graduate students will ever discuss anthropology through a theological lens or read the basic text in the field that addresses Christianity and anthropology: Brian Howell and Jenell Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, 2nd ed. (Baker Press).
3.Incorporate Christian views of teaching into the pedagogical training of graduate students within departments and across departments. Every Christian graduate program should provide students with opportunities to learn how to teach Christianly. We know that most secular Ph.D. programs neglect teaching future Ph.D. students pedagogy. Christian institutions should offer such a course and not simply offer pedagogical education that mirrors what secular institutions offer (something I often see). The readings for a course on teaching Christianly in higher education could include On Christian Teaching by David Smith (Eerdmans), Servant Teaching: Practices for Renewing Christian Higher Education by Quentin Schultze, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning by David Smith and James K. Smith (Eerdmans), and/ The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching by Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan Alleman (Oxford). This course is particularly important because more of our graduate students are teaching more of our undergraduates. If we claim to offer Christian education, we should educate our graduate students not simply to teach, but also to think about how to go about teaching in a Christian manner.
4.Offer Incentives!!! Offer Incentives!!! Christian universities often simply do not offer incentives for faculty to develop in this area of Christian graduate program development or teaching.
- One way to encourage the creation of such courses would be to offer a one-month summer sabbatical for professors in various disciplines to revise graduate courses in light of Christian theological perspectives. Honestly, this approach would be a very inexpensive way to encourage the incorporation of Christianity/theology into the graduate program proposal.
- Furthermore, the university could offer sabbatical funding for faculty to spend time exploring and writing about questions of faith and learning in their discipline and creating graduate courses. In this way, faculty could engage in the type of personal scholarly development they need to approach these questions with scholarly sophistication.
- Incentivize graduate students to participate in opportunities to engage in conversations or training about Christian scholarship and teaching, since requiring students to do classes does not always work. Although I have been critical of my institution in this blog post, I want to point out that this point is one area where it currently is exemplary. The Baylor Graduate School funds a program for a small cohort of graduate students that encourages the kind of conversations that I believe all graduate students at Christian institutions should have. In all likelihood that is all that will be possible in many Christian graduate programs. Few Christian academics are interested in thinking imaginatively and theologically about the intellectual disciplines that already exist or those that are yet to come. The pressures, norms, and theories they imbibe from the secular academy and the dominant political story are simply too powerful to resist. They are driven by survival or other stories, causes, and narratives.
In light of this last observation, Noll’s observation from his 1994 work still applies today, “For evangelicalism as a whole, not new graduate schools, but an alteration of attitudes is the key to promoting a Christian life of the mind.”2 As we can see from this overview, Noll is still right both about the scandal and the need for changing attitudes, particularly among those Christian academics creating and leading graduate programs.