The Pietist University in the 21st Century (part 1)

I’m currently editing the manuscript for our new book, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons, due out from InterVarsity Press at the end of the year. Most of the chapters are written by current and former colleagues from Bethel University, but I’m happy to chip in with an introduction and conclusion. All this week I’d like to give you a taste of the book by sharing a draft of my conclusion, “‘Their Mission is Innovation’: The Pietist University in the 21st Century.” Please use the comments section to let me know what you think — whether you want to suggest changes or particularly affirm something, it would be helpful to get feedback before I turn in the manuscript.

Christensen and Eyring, The Innovative UniversityHow we teach and mentor students, prepare them for service to others, conduct research, navigate the challenges of life together, and reach out to neighboring communities can scarcely escape the influence of economic, political, demographic, and technological forces that seem to be restructuring higher education as we know it. Universities, claim Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, “are both at great risk of competitive disruption and potentially poised for an innovation-fueled renaissance.” They warn that, “to play its indispensable function in the new competitive environment, the typical university must change more quickly and more fundamentally than it has been doing” (The Innovative University, pp. xxii-xxiii).

How to change? Christensen and Sayre urge colleges and universities to better understand the “DNA” of their own institutions as they seek to be innovative. Doing so, they argue, would help such institutions resist the temptation recklessly — and expensively — to emulate inappropriate models. From that perspective, this is precisely the right moment to seek a “usable past.” No one doubts that a small, tuition-dependent university like Bethel must sharpen its sense of distinctiveness in order to stand out in a too-crowded marketplace. But as Youngme Moon, one of Christensen’s colleagues at Harvard Business School, has observed, organizations seeking differentiation tend to imitate their competitors, producing a “myth of competitive separation” (or “heterogeneous homogeneity”) rather than offering something genuinely unique (Different, p. 13).

If we were to combine these insights, we would likely end up back at Richard Hughes’ argument that Christian colleges have no choice but to draw on usable pasts. Instead of the panicked imitation of trendsetters or the awestruck emulation of secular elites, Christian colleges and universities must differentiate themselves by understanding the religious traditions that provide their DNA.

At the same time, Christensen and Sayre decry how, “In the spirit of honoring tradition, universities hang on to past practices to the point of imperiling their futures” (p. xxii). So how do we reconcile the usable past with a changeable future? How do we know when to change and when to stay the same? As a conclusion to this book and a prompt to continuing conversation, let me suggest how Pietism may help those who value Christian higher education both to embrace change and rethink innovation.

University of Halle-Wittenberg
The University of Halle-Wittenberg today – Creative Commons (ContactNi)

First, if Pietism is as much ethos as movement [I’m drawing here on a distinction made by Roger Olson, one of our contributors], then we should not bound our image of Pietist higher education too rigidly within any particular frame. Bethel University today, after all, looks quite different from the eighteenth-century University of Halle (start with the fact that some 60% of Bethel’s student population is female, vs. 0% for its early modern precursor), yet we might plausibly describe both as Pietist universities. Bethel of one hundred years from now might be just as different, but just as similar. In fact, given Pietism’s innate suspicion of institutionalized forms of Christianity, Pietists would likely regard with suspicion any Christian college or university that has remained relatively static over any prolonged period of time.

But if avoiding innovation suggests that an institution would rather preserve than renew itself, carelessly embracing innovation can present the same problem. It’s possible, for example, that the changes required for a school like Bethel to survive a restructuring of colleges and universities will prove inimical to what we’ve described as a Pietist approach to Christian higher education. I hasten to add that there are limits to which any Christian institution of higher learning ought to absorb the values of market-driven competition. Christian colleges and universities, unlike other institutions in a market economy, do not exist for their own sakes, but to further the mission of God in this world. Better we shut our doors, liquidate our assets, and redistribute them to other outposts of the Kingdom than survive at the cost of compromising our mission.

Tomorrow, in the second part of the conclusion, I consider the case of online education.

Read the next post in this series>>


2 thoughts on “The Pietist University in the 21st Century (part 1)

  1. HI Chris
    You may want to check the second line of the paragraph beginning, “First, if Pietism is as much ethos,….” I’m not clear on the use of the word BOUND.
    Also check the 2nd sentence in the next paragraph beginning, “It’s possible, for example, that the changes…” Maybe leave out “of colleges and universities”?

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