The “Farce” of Christian Higher Education

One thing I’ve learned in 3+ years of blogging is that the format tempts you into thinking that there are thoughts that will never be thought unless you think them, and words that will never be said unless you say them. So I’ve tried to avoid having a hair trigger — occasionally restraining myself from publishing even when it’s on a topic that’s very much in the wheelhouse of this blog.

Take, for instance, the recent pair of attacks on Christian higher education by professors Peter Conn (“The Great Accreditation Farce”) and his son Steven (“Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?”). Samples of each:

Peter Conn
Peter Conn – University of Pennsylvania

By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.

Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious. (Peter)

Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity.

Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. (Steven)

Now, I’m a product of the supposedly “untrammeled inquiry” pursued at the purely — at times militantly — secular schools I attended, from preschool all the way through my doctorate. And yet not only am I on the faculty of a Christian college, but I’m editing a book about Christian higher education and preparing to attend two conferences on Christian scholarship this September.

So I recognize that were I to respond to the Conns’ largely misbegotten arguments, I’d be open to accusations of having a vested interest in defending what they see as a fundamentally fraudulent enterprise. And I fear that I’d allow the passion of a still-recent convert to seep into my writing.

Fortunately, there’s really little need for me to say anything in response. I could hardly improve on the wide range of counter-arguments offered by Stanton Jones, Alan Jacobs, Rod Dreher, Tracy McKenzie, John Fea, Thomas Kidd, and Darryl Hart, among others.

To sample just a few of the points they raised, let’s turn to the three on that list who serve now (or did until recently) at Wheaton College, the chief target of Peter Conn (and mentioned in passing by Steven):

Alan Jacobs
Alan Jacobs – Baylor University

I taught at Wheaton for twenty-nine years, and when people asked me why I stayed there for so long my answer was always the same: I was there for the academic freedom. My interests were in the intersection of theology, religious practice, and literature — a very rich field, but one that in most secular universities I would have been strongly discouraged from pursuing except in a corrosively skeptical way…

Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. (Alan Jacobs)

…many recognize today that all knowing starts somewhere in faith. We all take some assertions as givens on which to build our structure of knowledge. [Nicholas] Wolterstorff argues that the best contemporary understanding of reason comes not from generic humanity stripped of particularities. Instead, the “learning of the academy is unavoidably particularist.” It is best, he argues, to critically embrace one’s unique perspectives on the academic task and mix it up in the give-and-take of the free market of ideas. (Stanton Jones)

Not just because he is a fellow historian (like Fea, Hart, and Kidd — and Steven Conn), I think McKenzie’s reply has particular weight, offered as it is from the perspective of a widely respected scholar who spent the first two decades of his career at a state university before coming to Wheaton.

…while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success [at University of Washington], my soul was always deeply divided.  I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis.  In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”  Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

…If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton four years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more. (Tracy McKenzie)

These posts are all worth reading — even if, or especially if, you happen to be sympathetic to the Conns’ arguments but aren’t all that familiar with Christian colleges beyond what you, like they, read in the New York Times. (In all honesty, I shared some of their assumptions about the nature of Christian colleges until I hit the job market and actually started learning about schools like Wheaton — which was wise enough to grant me only a preliminary interview.)

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Liscobeck)

But precisely since Christian colleges have been so well defended, next week I want to offer a different kind of response. It’s not a reply that a Christian college professor like me should be able to write, if the Conns are correct about the absence of academic freedom at schools like Wheaton and my employer, since my goal will be to affirm where they have legitimate concerns about Christian colleges.

More precisely, I’ll try to reframe a couple of their concerns from the point of view of someone who actually inhabits and studies the world of Christian colleges and universities.

One thought on “The “Farce” of Christian Higher Education

  1. My dept chair for many years was an episcopalian graduate of Calvin college. I remember an argument we had with a colleague who,had doctorates in both history and art history who,asserted that a Christian college, by definition could not have a philosophy department.

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