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Christian Education and ‘Intellectual Compromise’

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I have very mixed reactions to the accounts of Christianity and higher education given by Rod’s recent correspondents, but the anonymous Christian professor makes a really vital point about the dangers of the “narrative of Christian oppression.” When I directed the faculty Faith and Learning Program at Wheaton College, years ago, I regularly told younger faculty, “If you submit an article or book for publication and it gets rejected, always, always, always assume that it’s because your work wasn’t good enough.” The assumption of anti-Christian prejudice gets you off the hook for improving your scholarship; ultimately, it makes you listless and lazy and increasingly prone to playing the victim card. Even when you have good reason to suspect such animosity, pretend you don’t, and get back to work.

So props to the Anonymous Christian Prof for noting the dangers of that way of thinking. But not for this:

But there is a second reason that the abandonment of secular institutions by Christians is a shame, and I will be blunt. Contemporary Christians — taken as a group — do not have the intellectual heft of their secular counterparts. The best scholarship, the highest quality thinking, still goes on at secular institutions. To go to a Christian institution involves — by and large – an intellectual compromise.

First of all, the claim is phrased imprecisely: by “contemporary Christians” I assume she means individual academics? But she then goes on in the next sentence to speak of institutions. So I don’t know whether the charge is that individual Christian academics are not as smart as other academics or Christian colleges and universities aren’t as academically rigorous as their secular counterparts. And it’s hard to answer the charge, given that there aren’t very many Christian colleges and universities, and that their institutional missions tend to be quite different than those of secular schools. Also, many faculty at Christian institutions either were (like me) educated wholly at secular universities or in some mix of Christian and secular schools.

But I will say this: I believe the kind of education students receive in the Honors College at Baylor, and at Wheaton, is in most respects far superior to what they would receive at secular schools of greater academic reputation and social prestige. Indeed, in my years at Wheaton I often heard comments to this effect from visitors. I think for instance of a professor at one of America’s top ten universities who said to me, after spending some time with one of my classes, “Your students are better informed and ask more incisive questions than mine do.”

I could adduce more examples, and explore more comparisons, but let me conclude with this: If this professor’s commendation of Wheaton’s students has at least some validity, how might we account for this state of affairs? I would point to three factors:

1) At Christian colleges, students and faculty alike tend to think of learning as a project in which the whole person is involved. Information is not typically separated from knowledge, nor knowledge from wisdom. The quest for education is less performative, more earnest than at many secular institutions. People are more likely to think and speak of education as something that leads to eudaimonia, flourishing.

2) A closely related point: Christian institutions tend to think quite consciously that their task involves Bildung, the formation of young people’s characters as well as their minds. So in hiring and retention they place a greater emphasis on teaching and mentoring than is common in secular institutions. (There are exceptions, of course, but even the most student-centered secular institutions cannot, because of their intrinsic pluralism, specify what good personal formation looks like.)

3) Perhaps the most important feature: Christian teachers and students alike can never forget that their views are not widely shared in the culture as a whole. We read a great many books written by people who don’t believe what we believe; we are always aware of being different. This is a tremendous boon to true learning, because it discourages people from deploying rote pieties as a substitute for genuine thought. No Christian student or professor can ever forget the possibility of alternative beliefs or unbeliefs. Most students who graduate from Christian colleges have a sharp, clear awareness of alternative ways of being in the world; yet students at secular universities can go from their first undergraduate year all the way to a PhD without ever having a serious encounter with religious thought and experience — with any view of the world other than that of their own social class.

Working in Christian institutions, especially because of this alertness to possible alternative beliefs, has been essential to my own intellectual development. Among other things, it has helped me learn to write for multiple audiences, while always keeping near the forefront of my mind the intense relevance of learning for life. I think it is largely because of, and not in spite of, my workplaces that I have been able to write for some of the most academically rigorous presses in the world, and to do so from an explicitly Christian point of view. Does that sound like “intellectual compromise”?

AnonProf says, with what appears to be satisfaction, “At my school we don’t talk about our religious or political identities in class.” At my school we talk about them all the time; we work through them, struggle with them, see them altered by experience and reflection — we put them on the line. In that sense our classrooms aren’t “safe spaces” at all. “Of course they’re not safe,” I’m tempted to say,” “but they’re good.” What happens at secular institutions like the one AnonProf teaches in may also be good, in its own way, and a better choice for some students, including some Christian students. (In education, one shape definitely does not fit all.) But that it’s intrinsically academically superior is an unsustainable claim.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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