University education: a necessary evil or just plain stupid?
A conservative Christian might be forgiven for thinking that these two phrases are the only accurate ones available to describe pursuit of a college degree in the America of 2007, given the slew of recent books, articles, and lectures coming from certain quarters of the evangelical world. Some argue that higher education should be sought only in rare circumstances. Others say that a bachelor’s degree is desirable and even necessary for credentialing purposes, but that students should employ nontraditional methods to complete their “schooling” in record time and avoid actually sitting in a classroom or talking to a professor if at all possible.
Before I discuss the potential benefits of the Christian university,1 I should point out that in most cases, even though I am a professor myself, I greatly respect the men (and occasionally women) making these arguments and am sympathetic to their cases.2 It’s true that American colleges and universities contain great numbers of students who are wasting their time and their parents’ (and the taxpayers’) money and who would be better off somewhere else. It’s true that almost all state schools and, sadly, many Christian institutions are cesspools of secularist dogma and cultural Marxism. It’s true that parents often improperly and unnecessarily abandon their responsibilities by sending their unprepared sons and daughters to live with hundreds or thousands of their immature peers. And it’s true that getting a college degree in the usual method can be extremely expensive.
Even from the professors’ point of view, university life involves a number of headaches. Bureaucratic styles of management can hamper the effectiveness of those with good ideas that are too “outside the box.” Solid proposals can become casualties of “turf wars” among professors or entire departments. Depending on the school, faculty may be trapped in a “publish or perish” system that downgrades meaningful interactions with students, or, at the opposite extreme, they can be so overloaded with teaching responsibilities that they have no time to pursue serious scholarship. Even at Christian institutions, often there is no shared sense of vision that unites the faculty in their work.
So is there any merit to the traditional university approach, or should Christians abandon it?
The University at its Best
The ideal university is a Christ-centered community engaged in the building of God’s Kingdom through the pursuit of truth. I use the term community intentionally with its traditional connotations in mind: a setting where there is real communing, where “everyone knows everyone” through frequent face-to-face interaction.3 Size is an important sociological characteristic of a university; if it grows much beyond 1,000 students, it rapidly becomes impersonal and, in my opinion, loses much of what makes the university experience valuable for both students and faculty.4
Several crucial groups make up the university community: professors, students, staff, and administrators. In addition, the university requires the support of peripheral groups (alumni, donors, etc.) to pursue its mission effectively. If the university is properly focused on its mission, the faculty and students are the two most important of these groups.
The professors continually add to the accumulated knowledge of God’s people through their scholarship. A key benefit of the university environment is that groups of scholars can collaborate together instead of working in isolation. Sometimes the greatest research library in the world is not as valuable as insights gleaned from face-to-face conversations with other professors. For example, I am currently involved with colleagues on two research projects (which, I hope, will be of some benefit to the church) that would never have been thought of had it not been for the intellectual atmosphere at my university.5
Of course, professors are also responsible for training the university’s students for dominion-oriented lives under God. In some cases, this entails helping students discover their calling. In others, it involves teaching skills vital for a career in, say, medicine or computers. However, these things can and often should be done outside the university setting for and by students who are highly motivated and self-starting. What the university is uniquely equipped to provide is, again, the collegial environment that provides a breadth and depth of learning unavailable to students working in isolation or in all but the most elaborately organized homeschool organizations.
One of the benefits of this environment is simply the availability of facilities due to economies of scale. For example, even the most avid chemistry student working on his own is unlikely to have access to the laboratory equipment necessary to apply the theoretical knowledge he has learned from textbooks unless he has managed to acquire an internship or low-level position with a research facility. At a university, this student gains access to that vital set of tools.
However, the more important benefits of the university arise from putting together in close proximity a number of godly minds in pursuit of a common goal. Management majors can brainstorm together on business plans. Journalism majors can work through strategies for harnessing the power of mass media. Artists and musicians can feed off each other’s creative energy to produce new works and perform classics. Writers can inspire and challenge one another to produce essays, fiction, and poetry. Of course, the key to all this activity is a Christ-honoring purpose and spirit.
Naturally, it is easy enough to form associations of like-minded individuals to pursue each of these objectives outside the university through the Internet. But a group whose primary interaction is face-to-face is much more effective, and these are a good deal harder to form and sustain outside the university, even if one lives in a metropolitan area.
Christian Universities in the Real World
What I have been describing may sound idyllic: a harmonious interaction and continual intellectual and spiritual cross-fertilization among faculty, students, and support groups united by a common purpose. It’s true that this is rarely if ever achieved in real universities made up of fallen men and women. But at a number of Christian institutions, groups are striving for this very thing and, more often than not, realizing it in bits and pieces.
Although my own university is by no means ideal, allow me to illustrate the benefits of the collegial environment by using our Great Books honors program as an example. Honors classes (maximum size: fifteen students) are conducted in a conference room with the professor and students sitting in high-backed chairs around a large table. Students come to class having read an assigned text from one of the Great Books of Western civilization, such as Augustine’s Confessions. In addition, they have prepared analytical questions about the text for discussion. “What did the author mean by employing the phrase X?” “Is the central theme of this book connected to that of the work we read last week?” “What is the appropriate application, if any, of this theme to the Christian life?” The class is conducted as a discussion amongst the students, guided by the professor and anchored in the text. The goal is not to “share feelings,” but to find Christian answers to eternal questions confronting all human beings.
Students who go through this program almost invariably testify that it is a life-changing experience. Part of this reaction stems from the fact that many of them have never encountered the Great Books or the ideas found in them. (Hopefully, this is not true of children from families who read this magazine.) But what provokes this response is more fundamentally the process of helping each other to deeper understanding of ideas.
Costs and Benefits
Is this a “practical” endeavor? Is it worth the cost in time and money? I am the first to admit that the Great Books course sequence I have described is not utilitarian, at least in the sense that term is generally understood. The concepts confronted and skills learned in these courses are not technical or tied to any specific career. However, the students who master them become more reflective and more effective people. They receive training of a kind unavailable to them at home, a healthy broadening of perspective (in a Biblically grounded rather than a multicultural, politically correct sense) and inoculation against numerous worldly fallacies that frequently ensnare people in all walks of life. They leave the university better equipped to take dominion than they would have been able to otherwise, oftentimes with godly spouses they met in the program.
The approach certainly seems to be working. Off the top of my head, I can think of five students who graduated from our Great Books program in May. Two of them are headed to law school; one is going into a journalism internship; one has a standing job offer from the Bureau of Investigation in a neighboring state; and the fifth is in Uganda on a development mission trip after receiving the highest award given by the faculty each year for outstanding achievements as a student.
I agree with Dr. Gary North that one should never pay retail for a college education. And for most Christian students who have received a solid homeschool or Christian school education, there is no need to do so. In all likelihood, they will test out of a year’s worth of classes through CLEP or Advanced Placement exams. They will probably qualify for substantial academic scholarships at most institutions to which they apply because they stand out amid the crowd of average government school products. They may get religious scholarships if they attend universities affiliated with their specific Christian denominations or fellowships. If they possess particular talents valued by their universities (athletics, music, etc.), they may receive scholarships for those. Finally, they may be able to secure scholarship or fellowship funding from external sources such as civic organizations, corporations, or foundations. With just one or two of these awards, the capable Christian student may be well on the way to having the cost of his education covered.6
I highly recommend a university education to bright students who can find a Christian school that is serious about its mission and has done a decent job of resisting the numerous intellectual cancers that have flourished in the mainstream of academia since the nineteenth century. In the company of godly professors and fellow students with whom to collaborate, the young Christian may learn and grow more than he thought possible. The Christian university is an institution with eight centuries of tradition behind it; it’s not time to bury it yet.
1. I have read enough Rushdoony not to attempt a defense of state universities.
2. Although there are others, I am thinking primarily of Doug Phillips and Dr. Gary North, both of whom have been significant influences on my own understanding of what the Christian life entails.
3. The term community has been sorely abused in recent years. Commentators routinely use the word in reference to megalopolises of millions of people, even though, as Otto Scott pointed out in the Easy Chair conversation on Romanticism, a defining feature of the modern city is the life of anonymity it affords to its inhabitants; the only things they have in common with their fellow urbanites are a sewage system and an electrical grid. Even more absurdly, we are frequently subjected to talk of the “international community” and the “global village,” as though there could be any meaningful shared experience among individuals on that distant and abstract level.
4. Sometime last year, my dean showed some professors an article describing exhaustive research concluding that undergraduate students who attended small liberal arts colleges received educations comparable to or better than those given at large schools; moreover, the students who went to the small schools testified to much greater personal growth than their counterparts at large universities did.
5. In a recent article, even Dr. North wrote that his most productive period intellectually was the 1980s, when he had daily face-to-face contact with scholars like Ray Sutton and David Chilton at his church and independent research institute in Tyler, Texas (Reality Check, Issue 601). For most scholars, a university is the only available place to work in that sort of stimulating environment.
6. I know this is possible through my own experience. With a combination of awards and scholarships from various sources, and by employing cost-cutting measures such as living at home, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree without any out-of-pocket expense.