I’m not usually inclined to agree with Allen Guelzo–but given his contrarian tendencies, agreement would almost constitute failure for him. However, his recent reflections on Christian higher education in Touchstone magazine are worth noting (HT: FT’s Evangel blog).
Faculty want to be left alone because, for the most part, their primary allegiance is to their professional guild, “a largely closed community of practitioners,” says Louis Menand, “who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields” (e.g., history, chemistry, physics, sociology, and so on). Allegiance to the college fades far back in the wake of the academic career. Faculty think of themselves as historians, chemists, physicists and sociologists first, rather than as members of a certain college faculty, because that’s where the mobility is.
This means that, even for Christian colleges, there is only modest incentive for a faculty member to buy into a Christian college’s worldview paradigm. Given the atmosphere of financial fragility, the resources to reward the development of such a worldview are simply not there, and the professional cultures in which faculty are trained are actively hostile to it.
The yardsticks by which I have been measuring the decline and fall of many Christian colleges have been, I admit, secular ones: endowment, admittance rates, and so forth. All of these I could cheerfully agree to dismiss if they were the price being paid by a college for its commitment to a forthrightly Christian identity. But they are not. In pursuit of Rolodex presidents and guild-minded faculty, too many Christian colleges are actually begging to be judged by secular standards. They are, in effect, trying to serve two masters. I am simply taking them at their word.
Christian higher education, if it has anyraison d’etreat all, is in the business of handing on a tradition, not of piling up research or conferring credentials—in other words, its real “core business” is education. If Christianity is a revealed religion, then the content of that revelation is both fixed and authoritative; it does not bend, wilt, or evolve gradually into something else. It will not be improved by research into religious phenomena. Thus, the Christian college may recover, re-emphasize, and reform, but it will not re-design.
This will be a great loss because Evangelical higher education really does possess a reason for the “core business” of educating. Evangelicals really do believe that there is a transcendent meaning to learning, that the love of learning is indeed akin to the desire for God. In fact, believing this, the Evangelical college ought to be the one place that really has a foundation from which to hold back the vast outpouring of cultural bilge, from violent video games to proletarian entertainment.
It comes as no shock to discover that secular universities can find no cultural consensus, since they abandoned that a long time ago; and it is not news, since Ex Corde Ecclesia,that Catholic colleges and universities are far from being of one mind on their identity. But it will mean the end of yet another important cultural alternative if Evangelical colleges, one by one, go down—or worse, pull themselves down, because their leaders and their faculties could not make up their minds what core business they were in, and sat in silence.
It might not be too late, but it might be getting late.