Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I Like Christian Colleges

I’ve spent the last several days listening to a series of public lectures from Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco (you can access them on iTunes from the UChannel podcast), the subject of which was, “Does College Matter?” Delbanco’s answer, as you might imagine, was “Yes, but not in the ways you think it does.”

Once a college diploma became the minimum requirement for most jobs (a relatively recent development), American society had to find a way to justify pushing people into going. It came up with a social model: It’s good for the culture at large, both financially and intellectually, to have a lot of college graduates. Delbanco disagrees, saying that you can’t force a primarily financial model onto something as nebulous as a college education. No, he says, the reason college is valuable is that it is valuable for the individual—or at least it can be.

Almost all colleges in America two hundred years ago were religious schools, including Harvard (Puritan), Yale (Congregationalist), Princeton (Presbyterian), Columbia (Episcopalian), etc., etc. You can still see this heritage in some of the school mottos; Columbia’s, for example, is “In Thy light shall we see light,” even though the school no longer has a religious mission.

Even after the Ivy League (and other, smaller private colleges) abandoned their status as divinity schools, the mission of the university remained mostly the same, at least according to Delbanco: Teachers must transmit the accumulated knowledge of the ages (possibly creating some of their own, it’s true), and in so doing, they must help create and develop the whole student. College, in other words, was supposed to make you a better person—that’s what the doctrine of in loco parentis was meant to accomplish.

I think most professional academics would scoff at that idea nowadays. Their job may be to transmit an increasingly narrow field of knowledge (which is why humanities folks typically don’t know much about the sciences and scientists don’t know much about the humanities, a development that has taken place over the last 150 years). But it certainly isn’t to make students better people—we’d never dream of telling people how they should live.

And we don’t. Students run wild at universities, at least according to the horrifying statistics Delbanco quotes—your average undergraduate, he tells us, watches four hours of television per day (and presumably that doesn’t include the hours she spends on Facebook or text messaging), binge drinks at least once per month, and feels no qualms whatsoever about buying her term papers online. He tells a tragicomic story about two friends of his, Harvard professors, who spend each graduation day pointing out students they personally knew cheated and who nevertheless graduated with honors. Character doesn’t seem to count at college anymore.

Further, we’ve disconnected all knowledge from itself. Students attend a biology class on one side of campus, take the bus to their literature class, and see absolutely no connection between the two. Part of the problem is doubtless that we don’t treat education as an end but as a means to an end—you go to college not to learn (or to develop character) but to get a piece of paper that will allow you to enter the workforce.

Delbanco, however, says that the reason students can’t, by and large, connect their classes, is that the university lacks a cohesive philosophy. Columbia, perhaps, doesn’t have this problem as much as some schools; their Core Curriculum of Great Books requires that all students learn a little about all areas and discuss them with the same students and the same teachers. But most schools, it seems, don’t have many cohesive goals other than attracting good students and raising their position on U.S. News and World Report’s annual college ranking list.

I’d never heard of that particular list until it was time for me to apply to graduate school. I applied to exactly one school for my undergraduate work—I honestly have no idea why—and it was an unranked school, a combination Bible and Christian liberal-arts school. In my days at Toccoa Falls College, they seemed to admit just about anyone who applied; the rumor on campus was that the average student SAT score hovered around 950.

I had my problems at TFC; the place just about drove me nuts sometimes. But as I look back on it from an increasingly large distance, I see everything they do right. TFC and other religiously oriented schools are not subject to the problems of larger and sectarian schools. My alma mater’s motto is “Developing Character with Excellence,” and I think that, unlike Columbia’s, that slogan is in earnest. Christian colleges seem to be the last refuge of legitimate character-building in academia.

Further, since the school revolves around a Christian worldview (and a fairly specific one—as far as I know TFC administration still hasn’t made it official, but the school has always been closely affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance), the problem of disconnection is to some extent abated. All the classes, from the humanities to the sciences, are oriented toward theology—sometimes this may get ridiculous, but only a student who doesn’t pay attention could see his classes as disconnected from one another. The unofficial motto of the school seems to have been “All truth is God’s truth.” That puts everything on the same foundation.

My major research area these days is the intersection of theology and literature, and I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be able to do that if I hadn’t gone to a college where the teachers were convinced the two were built on the same ground.

By the way, I am not trying to suggest that Christian colleges are the only ones that can achieve a healthy balance of character development and underlying philosophy. I do think it must be easier for a school with a set doctrinal statement, one that does not have to deal with the pluralism of the student body at a major university. But I’m sure it’s a goal that can be met in some way by even the largest and most secular of schools. I’m just not sure what that would look like.


FJ said...

I went to a military school (USMMA). Now there's a place where you can develop "character". After all, not many schools give you "command" responsibilities.

ethan said...

Actually Michial, TFC's motto is "Developing Character with Intellect", but same idea.

Thanks for this. I'm forwarding this post to my father, who toils endlessly at TFC for the same ideals you point out. I agree with you: my time at TFC was full of many frustrations, but now that I've been out for a couple years, I look back with increasing gratitude for the scope of the education I received.

Michial said...

Tell him I'm sorry for any difficulties I called him; I was not a very nice person when I went there. But now I'm starting to understand.

stanford said...

I may be the biggest proponent I know of Christians going to secular schools...but I think you are mostly right about this. I didn't learn to integrate fields of learning until I was able to see them each as sub-specialties of theology (a world view shift I partially credit to InterVarsity but mostly credit to Wheaton).

There is an interesting disconnect between your fields and the sciences, though. For the sciences, the academy serves mainly as a vocational school. You simply can't do engineering (or biology or medicine or law) without 6 years of specialized learning. The University seems like the appropriate place to do that, but it has transformed the institution into something it never was. I had an (excellent) engineering professor who once said:

'I am not in the service industry. I am not providing you a service. I am generating a product. I am making engineers.' His point was that he was not beholden to us, but to the engineering community for the content of his curriculum. But I think there is something salient to your discussion there.

Sorry, that rambled. Very provocative post.

Tim Rhodes said...

Great post. I'm with you and Ethan. The longer I've been out of college the more I appreciate and value my time spend at TFC.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I'm never one to shy away from saying I told you so, and I remember our early conversations about my memories of Milligan and yours of TFC. Perhaps 2 years at UGA are what it takes to start recasting memories the way we have.

As you no doubt know, I agree with the content of your post here; given the German model of researchers-who-happen-to-teach, the medieval model, in which Theology is Queen of the Sciences, starts to take on an appeal that is undeniable.