Are Christian Colleges “Comfort” Colleges?

Last week Bloomberg posted an op-ed from Steven Gerrard, a philosophy professor at Williams College who was disturbed by what he saw as the decline of free speech at that elite private college (#1, again, in this year’s U.S. News rankings). Even as I could empathize with some of his concerns, I found it an odd piece to read, given my own location.

Gerrard recalled a 1993 address by historian Frederick Rudolph, who said that Williams’ first two centuries had seen it evolve from its origins as a Christian college, first becoming a “gentlemen’s college” and then a “consumer college.” But that stage was not permanent, said Rudolph, the consumer version of Williams would eventually make way “for the as yet undefined next era in the college’s history.” That era had arrived for Williams and other elite liberal arts colleges, concluded Gerrard:

The controversies over free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like are symptoms of this shift. They are currently considered controversies because the colleges are in transition, and many do not realize that the old standards no longer hold. Once the transition is complete, the “correct” side of the controversies will become central to a school’s identity — just as faith was to the Christian college, self-confidence was to the gentlemen’s college, and alumni devotion and achievement were to the consumer’s college.

Some have suggested naming this new college “the therapeutic university” or “the woke college.” I prefer “the comfort college,” because it combines the emotional component of the first with the political elements of the second. Our students are comfortable in their opinions but uncomfortable with their lives, finding their world and the Williams campus a threatening place. Once Williams’ transition to comfort college is complete, the students will expect to find their college truly comfortable in all respects.

Morgan Hall, Williams College – Creative Commons (Tim4403224246)

Like Gerrard, I’m a humanities professor who is dedicated to the liberal arts and academic freedom. Unlike him, I work at an institution of higher learning that was founded as a Christian college — and remains one. In Rudolph’s terms, Bethel continues to be “defined by a transcendent Christian purpose,” one that would be familiar to the people who founded a Swedish Baptist seminary in 1871, a secondary academy in 1905, a junior college in 1931, a four-year college in 1947, and retitled Bethel a university in 2004.

While Bethel’s rising tuition has made its college student body increasingly affluent, we never made the transition that Rudolph attributed to Williams, from a Christian to a “gentlemen’s” college. I encountered a similar arc recently in reading Harold Nicolson’s biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s father. A fiercely proud graduate of Amherst College (#2 on that U.S. News list), Dwight Morrow argued during a presidential search in 1912 that Amherst was no longer chiefly concerned with training ministers, but “to give an all-around training to men who would take a large part in the business affairs of the nation.” But only men, and then from a certain social class and religious background. (“I am not sorry to have seen the gentlemen’s college go,” Gerrard admitted, “it certainly would not have welcomed a Jew like me, much less my daughters, and many, many others.”) To this day, over 18% of Williams’ students descend from the top 1% of earners — vs. 4% of Bethel’s.

It’s abundantly clear that Christian colleges like Bethel have, however, become at least as much a “consumer’s college” as a Christian one. I’ve written again and again about this, both bending enough to make economic arguments for the value of what I teach and yet still questioning if a university like ours can truly be both Christian and shaped (in Rudolph’s definition) “by a zealous attention to the academic market and the student as consumer.”

(Incidentally, that tension will be at the center of the talk I’m giving next month at Point Loma Nazarene University.)

But if it’s unclear to me if our “transcendent Christian purpose” can be reconciled with sensitivity to market conditions, it’s even less clear that we’re becoming anything like Gerrard’s “comfort college.” Perhaps the “therapeutic” half — out of what I find a largely admirable commitment to personal care of the whole person, in the curriculum and co-curriculum — but nothing like the “woke” college he pits against free inquiry.

I read these complaints every so often, and never know what to think of them. On the one hand, I can imagine how what Gerrard describes as the “vital, necessary and welcome” representation of historically underrepresented voices and perspectives can be accompanied by “an agenda that runs counter to true diversity and inclusion,” as

this laudable attention to the language of inclusion turned from a psychologically realistic sensitivity into a harsh and confrontational tribal marker. Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death.

But whether or not that’s actually happening at once-Christian colleges that have moved through Rudolph’s spectrum, I don’t see it happening where I teach. (Maybe I’m too naive or unobservant, or teaching in the wrong area, or simply too moderate to understand conservative grievances.) In my classes and others, in faculty and student research, I see nothing like what Gerrard calls “the devaluing of knowledge” or “social death” for those on the wrong side of “wokeness.” In the humanities at Bethel, I see people continuing to ask complicated questions of themselves, each other, and the authors and audiences of the texts they read, with humility, hospitality, empathy, and in no expectation that things will resolve neatly. We make each other uncomfortable, make mistakes together, apologize to each other, and continue to seek better answers together.

But I also see a majority-white community going through the hard, often awkward work of becoming something more like the vision of Revelation 7:9. With our chief diversity officer, I think “I can honestly say that when it comes to diversity I am not asking any Christian to do anything that is not in their values to do.” Nothing we’ve done that might fall under “diversity” or “inclusion” seems to me to contravene our valuing of truth-seeking, but it does mean that we’re living more into the vision for Christian higher education described by one of Gerrard’s fellow philosophers.

Wolterstorff, Educating for ShalomIn Educating for Shalom, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that seeking truth by itself is insufficient, if it can’t respond “adequately to the wounds of humanity — in particular, the moral wounds… When I say that the moral wounds of the world must find a place in our curricula, what I mean is not just that we must teach about justice — though we must; I mean that we must teach for justice. The graduate whom we seek to produce must be one who practices justice.”

I’m not sure anyone was complaining about colleges being “therapeutic” or “woke” at the time he wrote, but in any event, Wolterstorff simply thought that he was describing education that was biblical:

…[Scripture] does say that the cries of the poor, of the oppressed, and of the victimized touch God’s heart, and it does indicate that the groans of God’s created but now polluted earth bring tears to God’s eyes. We are touching here not on issues of taste or judgment but on issues of right teaching, of orthodoxy. We are touching on our understanding of the nature of God. If a college is to commit itself to serving the God of the Bible, it must commit itself, as an academic institution, to serve the cause of justice in the world. I find no detour around this conclusion. The God who asks Christians to go into all the world to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ is the very same God who loves justice.

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