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Preparing for Academia

Today’s Christian graduate students, for many disciplines, have little choice other than to study at the modern-day equivalent of the University of Babylon. For those graduate students who want to pursue a career in academia, there is the additional difficulty of working in colleges and universities with intellectuals who believe the God of the Bible is, at best, an irrelevancy and, at worst, a stultifying influence on the progress of humanity.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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When the prophet Daniel was a young man, he and three friends were enrolled in the equivalent of an Ivy League graduate program for government bureaucrats. While studying under their captors, they remained faithful to God’s law and mastered the curriculum, excelling above all King Nebuchadnezzar’s pagan magicians and astrologers. After revealing and interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel became one of the highest officials in the empire.

Today’s Christian graduate students, for many disciplines, have little choice other than to study at the modern-day equivalent of the University of Babylon. For those graduate students who want to pursue a career in academia, there is the additional difficulty of working in colleges and universities with intellectuals who believe the God of the Bible is, at best, an irrelevancy and, at worst, a stultifying influence on the progress of humanity.

To be sure, there are a few colleges and two or three universities in the United States where Christian views are esteemed above all others. Yet many programs of study, particularly at the graduate level, are not to be found at any of these. Furthermore, most of these schools are plagued by bad theology and practical problems with the execution of the ideals of Christian education. Many Christian students find that they are better served by attending a state university. There, at least, the pluralism is a state university. There, at least, the pluralism is easily identifiable and a degree from such schools appeals to a wider range of employers.

This lack of intellectual leadership should be particularly embarrassing to Christians when we remember that many of the most prominent and widely respected schools in our nation began as explicitly Christian institutions. The royal charter founding William and Mary in Jamestown, Virginia establishes the college “to the end that the Church of Virginia may be furnished with a Seminary of Ministers of the Gospel, and that the Youth may be piously educated in Good Letters and Manners, and that the Christian Faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God...” Harvard has a similar charter.

What Christian Higher Education Is Missing
Graduates of some Christian colleges and universities are being dreadfully shortchanged. There are several reasons for this, I believe. First, some of these schools cannot figure out what they want to be. Is the institution a training ground for the Christian leaders of tomorrow? Or is it an extended youth group? The youth group strategy does a great job of attracting young people who would like a few more years to enjoy their pseudo-Christian subculture and feign interest in actually learning and maturing. If classes are not too difficult and if the chapel services are entertaining enough, maybe some non-Christians will attend and be converted. This path to winning over students has produced thousands of poorly prepared graduates who find that most employers, venture capitalists, graduate schools, and others are not terribly impressed by a four-year membership in a youth group. If the school is truly a training ground for Christian leaders, it will be a rigorous academic environment. The quality of the education, both philosophically and technically, will demand the best of students and faculty. Less serious students are either not admitted, or soon discover that they need to pursue studies elsewhere.

Second, there is little sense of a Biblical worldview at many of these schools. Kingdom-building includes more than soul-winning. Every thought must be taken captive to Christ. Every discipline literature, chemistry, economics, law, and all the rest must be moved toward consistency with God's Word. No aspect of human inquiry can remain untouched. Yet many of the lectures in Christian colleges are merely knock-offs of their non-Christian counterparts, with horrendously inadequate or nonexistent Scriptural supports where one would hope to find them. A subtle message gets through all of that worldview stuff matters little because majoring in X just gets you a ticket to job Y, where you will then be better able to witness to your co-workers. Or, perhaps, so that you can earn enough money to give to worthy Christian causes. That, after all, is the only way to justify being in such an occupation instead of full-time Christian service. This confining worldview means that majors related to full-time Christian service (e.g., counseling, education, and youth ministry) are flooded with students, while business and science departments struggle. The Reformed position is quite distinct at this point. A full-orbed Biblical worldview sees that serving Christ full-time is a) not an option, and b) entails far more than evangelism. Failing to reform each of these occupations or areas of study puts limitations on the reach of Christ's kingdom. The Great Commission, after all, enlisted the disciples not only to preach the gospel but to teach the nations to observe all things that Christ has commanded. Where God's Word speaks to science, economics, art, or medicine, He requires obedience.

Third, where Christian colleges and universities do present a worldview, it is increasingly out of accord with Scripture. Even at colleges supported by some of the country's most theologically conservative denominations, the infection runs deep. Many parents consequently prefer to send their 18-year-olds to secular institutions where there is no pretense of a Christian worldview, than to a college where unbiblical teaching in the name of Christianity can snare an unwary or immature believer.

There are several very small Reformed colleges that have fairly successfully avoided these shortcomings, yet they are often discounted by students because of their size or lack of customary accreditation. One is New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho; another is Christ College, with campuses in Lynchburg, Virginia and near Atlanta, Georgia. However, although the undergraduate education one may receive at these institutions is superior in many respects to most Christian colleges, there are limitations to the extent of training they offer. The variety of course offerings is small because of the small number of students, and none of these schools offer graduate level courses. Until such schools are sufficiently capitalized to begin successful graduate programs in a wide variety of disciplines (probably several decades from now), many Christian students are going to be looking to the University of Babylon for graduate education.

How a Christian Can Prepare for Graduate Study
While I was at Clemson University, the campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship often told our Bible study groups that Christian students should study twice as hard as our unbelieving fellow students. Not only did we need to study what was necessary to excel in our classes, but also that which was necessary for a Biblical understanding of the subject matter. That admonition should be taken to heart by every undergraduate, and especially by those who are considering graduate school. At the graduate level, the workload is usually so heavy that a Christian student will not have adequate time to begin the process of developing a Biblical view of the discipline. In fact, I would encourage a Christian student to reconsider pursuing an advanced degree in an area where he has not already devoted considerable time to studying the subject in light of Scripture.

Many Christian colleges produce graduates who are ill-prepared for graduate school. There are a variety of reasons for this, some of which were discussed above. Two of my fellow graduate students in the economics Ph.D. program at Auburn were graduates of small Christian colleges that left them weak in some areas, particularly mathematics. The schools may have done a fine job of instilling in them a Biblical worldview, but developing a Biblical view of a subject is not the same thing as knowing the subject. One of my friends had to teach himself calculus the first year (not easy), and another had such great difficulties with the mathematics that he dropped out of the program (he resumed studies later at another institution and has done very well).

Sometimes the problem can be headed off by departing from the usual bachelor's degree course sequence. For example, instead of taking the easiest math courses, take the most difficult ones that will satisfy the requirement. Because a decision about graduate school is often made late in the college career, making up for the deficiencies in the undergraduate education might mean additional courses tacked on at the end. That may mean a formal, independent readings course directed by a professor, for credit, or a course at another school.

Some graduate programs have very high attrition rates, and it is well worth asking current graduate students about the dropout rate (and other matters) before committing. Good stewardship demands it. Many Ph.D. programs have a battery of tests at the end of the first year that serves to weed out poor performers. A year is a lot of time to spend before finding out that you get to go home with no degree (though some programs will send you packing with a master's degree as a consolation prize). A high attrition rate does not mean that the program should not be considered a well-prepared student might do well but it might indicate that more preliminary work is advisable before enrolling.
Reforming Academia
Increasing the flow of intelligent, Reformed Ph.D.s out of our universities is only part of the solution. Much of the reform of academia is going to come from outside ivied halls, from those who have far fewer letters appended to their names. First, Christian business leaders who direct their donations to small, struggling Reformed colleges for scholarships, special programs, facilities, and endowed chairs can have an immeasurable impact. Other schools may be positively affected when they discover that moving convincingly in a Biblical direction will attract quality students, faculty, and funds. Second, Christian think-tanks and student ministries have a powerful influence as they help students develop a Biblical worldview. As student preferences change, colleges must respond to their clients.

This is not a transformation that will occur overnight, and academia is not going to change without corresponding changes in other parts of society. As with any Biblical reform, the change must come at the instigation of the Holy Spirit through effective preaching and teaching of the Word of God. For this we must fervently pray and hope.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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