Educating for Wisdom

For someone who both works in a Christian university and researches the history and theory of Christian higher education, it’s been exciting to see a national publication make that model of formation the cover story of an issue, as Christianity Today has done for March.

I already posted a brief mention of the CT article that highlighted Alaska Christian College, a Covenant Church ministry), and I’ll have something to say next week about the magazine’s dual interview with two leading Christian college presidents. Today let me engage in more depth with the article by Baylor education professor Perry Glanzer, “The Missing Factor in Higher Education,” which happens to connect nicely to the revised mission and objective statement that we in the Bethel University History Department adopted last summer…

Perry Glanzer
Perry Glanzer - Baylor University

Glanzer has written widely on moral formation in education, most recently (with Todd Ream) in 2009’s Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education. (See also his article on “redemptive moral development” in the Summer 2010 theme issue of Christian Scholar’s Review, on “Christian Higher Education as Character Formation.”) In the CT article, he contrasts the historic emphasis of Christian educators on the university preparing students for wisdom (Glanzer quotes proto-Pietist Jan Amos Comenius as calling the university both “a permanent assembly of wise men” and “a factory for wisdom”) with present-day notions of the university’s purposes:

Today, however, the idea that professors should dispense moral wisdom is passé. Contemporary universities consider themselves sources of technical expertise for professional practices. If their professors dispense advice beyond their discipline, it usually concerns matters of public policy or political life.

Consequently, professors operate with a narrow conception of their vocation. As one professor admitted, “There are many of my colleagues who would say, ‘Look, we are at a university, and what I do is math; what I do is history. Moving into [moral or spiritual development] is not my competence.'” I have found not one secular college mission statement that claims to provide students with wisdom.

All of which leads Glanzer to ask:

What caused this shift away from wisdom? And are Christian colleges and universities any different from their secular counterparts?

Daniel Coit Gilman
Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908) - first president of Johns Hopkins University

To the first question first… While others have pointed to the increasing specialization of knowledge that came with the development of the research university in 19th century Germany, Glanzer finds that explanation less than persuasive — since the founding president of the first American university created in imitation of the German model, Johns Hopkins University, “claimed that ‘everyone agreed’ that the job of the university and its faculty was ‘to develop character—to make men.'” (And, starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women.) Instead, Glanzer blames the declining place of wisdom or moral formation on the rise of public universities, which supplanted church-related schools as the chief higher educators in this country. (Before 1865, over 90% of undergraduates attended church colleges; today, over 90% are educated by state schools.) The public land-grant university is a wonderful institution for other reasons (as I’ve blogged before), but Glanzer points out that:

  1. The purse strings of such institutions are controlled by state legislators, who “expected [and still expect, I’d add] these universities to produce technical experts and civil servants, not liberally educated, wise humans.”
  2. Without denigrating the importance of academic freedom, such schools “do not have the freedom to form the whole person,” since “government oversight and Establishment Clause strictures preclude more vigorous forms of moral and spiritual instruction.”

The second problem doesn’t pertain to private Christian colleges and universities, of course. And while they face other financial pressures that might incline their leaders to privilege kinds of education other than the models Glanzer is praising (to universities seeking to draw more students, especially via online programs, he warns of the temptations to drop “theological and moral distinctives or to gear curricula toward building professional qualifications”), the rest of his article shares research that seems to indicate that Christian institutions of higher learning retain wisdom as a central aspiration of education. Citing research by Donna Freitas, he takes special note of moral formation at the member-institutions of the evangelical Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

I’ll encourage you to read the rest of the article, in which Glanzer shares his vision for CCCU and other Christian colleges can continue to cultivate wisdom. But let me close by sharing how some of his emphases show up in the mission and objectives that our department adopted over the summer. (You can find the full mission/objective statement at our department blog, plus some comments that I wroteearlier this year.)

The Bethel University History Department
A view of the Bethel University History Department from my office

In pursuit of a mission to prepare “students who are ‘bilingual,’ imaginatively comfortable in a historic past and actively engaged with the present,” we identified two broad objectives:

1. Our students will gain a broad knowledge of human history, deepened by the integration of Christian faith and learning, the recurrence of marginalization and interconnectedness as historical themes, and the development of their own particular passions and interests.

2. Our students will cultivate wisdom, so that they can live skillfully in the present day, serving others and glorifying God wherever they’re called.

I’ll come back to wisdom momentarily, but since Glanzer also folds moral and character formation into his definition, I’ll just note how the “virtues” language he borrows from scholars like Mark Schwehn and Douglas Sloan echo even in the first objective. While that section stresses the acquisition of historical knowledge broadly construed, it also emphasizes that Christ-like study of the past ought to form virtues like humility, hospitality, and — perhaps most important — empathy. For example, here’s our discussion of marginalization as a point of emphasis:

We affirm that our faith and learning are necessarily interrelated, so courses will frequently lead students to consider what is distinctive about the discipline of history as Christians practice it. While students should expect to see their professors model varying philosophical and methodological responses to this question, we share the guiding assumption that historians who follow Jesus Christ ought to imitate him in paying special attention to those on the margins of society: the poor, the oppressed, and the alien, to name but a few groups. Rather than simply repeating comfortable narratives of power and privilege, we will seek to tell the stories of those who are powerless and dispossessed. In particular, our courses will consider categories like gender, class, and race that have often been used to perpetuate injustice.

Such emphases demand that we work even harder to develop a basic skill for historians: empathy. We affirm that history is not merely the collection of an objective set of facts, but requires us to be aware of our own subjectivity and to develop the imaginative understanding necessary to see the world as others see it. As a special focus, we will be hospitable to those of different religions and ideologies.

Then wisdom itself becomes the guiding aspiration for the second objective. We’re using wisdom in the sense that Eugene Peterson does, in his introduction to Proverbs in The Message, as “living skillfully,” in the world but not of it. Here’s the extended explanation:

As important as it is for our students to gain a broad knowledge of the past, we view our task as more formative than informative. Above all, we hope to form our students as followers of Jesus Christ who “busy themselves on Earth” though “their citizenship is in heaven” (in the words of The Letter to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic). While they sojourn in this world, our students will “busy” themselves in a variety of callings, but all to two basic ends: what the Pietist educator A. H. Francke summed up as “God’s glory and neighbor’s good.”

To do this requires not merely knowledge, but wisdom, which Eugene Peterson defines as “the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.”

In particular, we believe that this provides an important justification for the cultivation of skills that, for their own sake, don’t conduce to wisdom (reading, research, writing, speaking) and would certainly show up as goals in the most secularized history department. But we frame them in terms of asking questions, seeking answers, and sharing in conversation with others — all essential skills for sojourner-citizens who neither accept this world and its values and assumptions as all that exists nor completely reject this world and its inhabitants in their haste to “get to heaven.” We also affirm that these skills are necessary in a wide variety of vocations, including all those named by Glanzer in his discussion of the importance of Christian professors helping students ask complex questions: “With great sophistication, Christian professors should reflect on and communicate what it means to be good in such non-work vocations as being a friend, neighbor, citizen, son or daughter, future spouse and parent, or being a steward of creation, culture, and money.”

Which leads to a final observation about our department… That no mission document or theory of Christian formation can take the place of our professors’ fulfilling their commitments to the kinds of educational activities that Glanzer rightly stresses — teaching, mentoring, and modeling for students what it looks like to live with devotion and integrity.

What do you think? Ought colleges and universities to be “factories of wisdom,” or to engage in moral formation? Are Christian institutions of higher learning better suited to such tasks than their secular cousins?


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