The Pietist University in the 21st Century (part 2)

This morning I’ll continue my preview of the conclusion to our forthcoming book, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons, with a section considering how Pietists might respond to one popular “disruptive innovation” within higher ed. It resolves to the claim that gives the conclusion its title…

Decision makers will need to discern carefully whether or not an innovation, whatever its economic benefits, serves the mission of their institution. Most of the choices will not be black and white. To adapt a favorite example of Clayton Christensen, Henry Eyring, and other “disruptive innovators”:

Stack of tablets
Licensed by Creative Commons (IntelFreePress)

Could a Pietist university exist purely online, without any face-to-face instruction or residential experience?

While I have my own answer to that question, the Pietist tradition provides resources for those on both sides of that debate.

At its best, online education promises to make higher education more accessible to more of the population, by reducing costs that keep college out of the reach of lower-income students. That goal would warm the heart of August Hermann Francke, whose educational innovations in Halle were made available to all socioeconomic classes. The global potential of a model of education not bound to a particular place evokes the transnational reach of the Halle and Herrnhut Pietists who pioneered Protestant missions.

Advocates of online education might also appeal to Pietists’ historic eagerness to take advantage of the changing media of their day. “Thanks largely to the work of the Pietists,” Douglas Shantz concludes (noting the proliferation of Bible translations and commentaries put out by that movement), “the eighteenth century is rightly considered ‘the century of the Bible’” (An Introduction to German Pietismp. 205). In nineteenth-century Sweden pietistic evangelicals like the Baptists who founded Bethel were simply called “readers” (läsare), connected by common use of the Bibles, devotionals, tracts, and newspapers churned out by the increasingly efficient printing presses of an industrial age.

But if what takes place in a Pietist college is more about the transformation of persons than the acquisition of information, can such change take place within a model trumpeting its ability to let students learn on their own terms, in their own time, in comfort and convenience? Evangelical Covenant educator Karl Olsson thought it necessary that at least some educational experiences would “end in a mood of fear and trembling; no student ever matures who has not felt the earth shaking beneath his feet.” Profoundly uncomfortable and inconvenient, such world-changing transformation had to be mediated by a relationship between the student and a teacher who “will see his student as a person and will be a steady, firm, but gentle midwife of the soul” (from Olsson’s 1961 address to the North Park College faculty, “The Meaning of Comprehensive Education”).

Olsson’s contemporary, Bethel president Carl Lundquist, likewise concluded that

Carl Lundquist
Carl H. Lundquist – Bethel University Digital Library

in the end the impact of one life upon another is probably greater than the impact of an idea or a method of teaching or a favorable physical setting…. At Bethel we want our young people to enter into personal contact with their teachers, and we hope to keep such academic paraphernalia as the curriculum, course credits, class hours, and examinations from getting in the way of this relationship. (from Lundquist’s 1959 report to the Baptist General Conference)

[For more on Olsson and Lundquist, see my article in the Winter 2011 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review, “Recovering a Pietist Understanding of Christian Higher Education.”]

Does online (or any “distance”) education permit “the impact of one life upon another”? Can we form “whole and holy persons” apart from an embodied community?

Perhaps, but in evaluating online education or any other potentially “disruptive” innovation, Pietist educators ought to bear one principle in mind: Their mission does not depend on innovations; their mission is innovation.

I’ll conclude this preview tomorrow by explaining what I mean by “innovation,” focusing on the Pietist interest in the new person, new church, and new world.

<<Read the first post in this series               Read the last post in this series>>


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

  1. A very thought provoking post. I utilize e-learning for some of my courses, but they are technical subjects. To me a good Christian education is about building relationships. This would be more difficult in an online environment.

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