Should Christian Higher Education Be “Safe”?

In many Christian circles, secular colleges and universities can sometimes get a bad rap. Parents are warned that their children will “lose their faith” in these environments and that professors will intentionally undermine their beliefs. Politically conservative Christians routinely express their belief that American colleges and universities are out to brainwash their kids with leftist propaganda. (I remember being at the receiving end of some pointed evangelical defensiveness when I taught religion at a secular community college and my students treated me as the enemy, not knowing I was a believer.) While I think this card is often overplayed (and I’m not alone; see also here) it helps to explain why so many young people and their parents look to Christian colleges and universities as a “safe” alternative to the threatening world of secular higher education. But should any education be completely safe?

This week I had an informal yet interesting conversation with recent Johns Hopkins graduate and Hebrew Bible scholar, Andrew Knapp, about the role that “crises of faith” might play in the pursuit to acquire an education and how Christian colleges and universities respond to such crises. Last year Andrew shared part of his own journey over at Peter Enns’ blog and he raises tough questions for Christian educators to grapple with. His post reminded me of a discussion that went around my own campus a few years back about how a Christian degree should be marketed to parents. Should a Christian institution market itself as a safe alternative to state schools and research universities?

I remember joining others who offered a bit of pushback against the notion that I should be expected to fulfill a spiritual version of in loco parentis and reinforce whatever notions of orthodoxy my students might bring to the class. Like Lewis’ Aslan, genuine learning, though always good, is never completely safe. Any education worth its salt will challenge student assumptions, pose uncomfortable questions, and problematize traditional dualities by illuminating tension and nuance. This is what Rick Ostrander calls turning our “skin to the wind” – being brave enough to throw off our layers of protection and face the winds of learning, even when they’re harsh. While most Christians no doubt feel the stakes are higher in biblical studies or theology, I know that the process of discovery can be a bit dangerous for students of history as well and produce its own level of cognitive dissonance.

Having said this, the goal of challenging student assumptions is not to produce crisis and angst for its own sake, of course. I’ve found that its can be tantalizing easy to make students question their convictions, yet this doesn’t mean it is edifying to do so. At the end of the day, Christian higher education is supposed to produce graduates whose faith is robust and has intellectual depth. For all the struggle to be a learned individual, students should walk away with a faith that is stronger and better for having taken this path. And it is good to feel a sense of responsibility to the parents who are paying thousands of dollars for me to contribute to the intellectual and spiritual well-being of their children. As Knapp suggests, the Christian college or university should first and foremost be a place where struggle, doubt, and crisis can take place within an affirming and edifying context.

Obviously, there’s a basic tension here, and I’d be interested in readers’ perspectives.

  • Should we be expected to reinforce the beliefs that parents want their students to have?
  • Should the integration of faith and learning be a form of indoctrination or an avenue for questions and doubts?
  • Should students at Christian colleges and universities get a dose of cognitive dissonance in a way that might be similar to a secular education?


2 thoughts on “Should Christian Higher Education Be “Safe”?

  1. I teach English and Literature at a Christian college and am currently developing a new Multi-Ethnic American Literature course. In the process I’ve done a lot of reading and I think it’s safe to say that Multi-Ethnic American Lit written in the 20th century is full of sex, violence, and strong language. I’ve probably discarded three readings for every one that I’ve chosen.

    This presents a problem: If I teach only selections that do not contain objectionable material I’m not fairly representing the realities of life for many ethnic groups and I’m being intellectually dishonest. If I include”R-rated” material I am inviting objections from students, not to mention their parents.
    Here are a few ways I’ve chosen to approach this:

    1. Clarify the difference between a literature class at a Christian college and a “Christian literature” class from the beginning. This may seem obvious but some students have only been exposed to “Christian” texts.
    2. Have students discuss the value of reading stories about characters who make choices that don’t line up with their own values. I have this discussion early on before we get into the readings in the hope of raising issues like generational sin, competing worldview, etc. For students raised in Christian homes, I think it’s easy to pass judgment without understanding contexts. I don’t want to challenge their beliefs about what constitutes sin, but to learn compassion for the sinner. I also want them to know, to some extent, what a world without God can look like. I want to teach them to face the world with open eyes, but I want to do it gently.
    3. Choose readings that push limits judiciously, and prepare students. This is the hardest one because it is a judgment call and different families have different standards. I don’t choose anything with gratuitous language, sex, or violence and I there are lines I won’t cross (even though they were crossed repeatedly when I was a student at a secular college). I ask myself if another reading will accomplish the same objectives without the objections. I also don’t put potentially objectionable readings back to back.

    To answer your questions, then: I don’t want to indoctrinate and I do want to challenge students’ thinking, but not simply for the sake of cognitive dissonance. In my opinion, at its best the Christian college classroom teaches students how to respond to sin in the world not by ignoring it but by responding to it as Christ would. This is how I hope to frame the discussion.

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