Bill Hager of UGA’s Christian Faculty Forum apparently distributes this essay periodically, because I remember reading it a couple years ago, and it showed up in my inbox Monday morning. I enjoy its invocation of T.S. Eliot’s somewhat-famous reflections on Christian education, but I also like its shift of focus away from students’ “safety”:
I know parents who want their children to go to a school with Christian roots because they think their children are less likely to get involved in drugs, less likely to get AIDS, less likely to fall in love with a non-Christian, less likely to… well, it’s a long list — but the list goes right down to less likely to end up wearing a ring in their lip.
I don’t want to make light of these parental concerns. But my concept of Christian higher education travels in a different direction than rules of student conduct. I happen not to think that Christian higher education should be safe. I think Christian higher education should have an edge to it, just as it was dangerous to hang around with Jesus.
Of course, if a school gets even a little dangerous in my tradition, the label “liberal” immediately surfaces (even though, in my experience, Milligan’s graduates tend to be more loyal to the particulars of our traditions than are graduates of our Bible colleges). But no matter: I still think it’s better to be dangerous.
He does not leave the questions with vague answers either, giving a nice definition from the world of economics as he explores what teaching at a Christian college might involve:
I mention all these because the difference between Christians in higher education and Christian higher education is not minor, cosmetic, or even converging. Christian higher education should be radically different. And if my French were better, I would say, vive la difference.
Teaching. It probably goes without saying that when a physicist at ACU teaches Bernoulli’s theorem, it is not taught differently than it would be taught at UVa. When I teach the economic principle of elasticity of demand at UVa, I am confident the same formula is taught at ACU.
But when I teach the economic theory of income distribution at UVa, it is not fair game for me to ask: What might the Biblical principle of gleaning — leaving some extra grain in the fields for the poor — teach about income distribution in an industrialized society?
But one can and should have this kind of conversation in Christian higher education.
This is called integration: integrating the Christian faith with one’s discipline. It is not easy to do. And it will involve different shapes and forms in different disciplines to take the Bible’s great themes of Creation, Fall, and Redemption and weave them into classroom discourse.
To my mind, this is the great distinctive between Christian higher education and Christians in higher education. The classrooms and laboratories and seminar rooms of Christian higher education are places where faculty and students are free to explore topics that are, to some extent, off-limits to Christians at secular universities, or simply irrelevant to the academic discourse at secular schools.
I know that passage ranged longer than a block quote in a blog should, but the thought is so solid that I couldn’t help myself.
The essay also explores questions of grades and prestige, wondering in text what an alumni magazine might look like if a school praised those things that Paul praised and regarded as worthless what Paul found worthless. Then he encourages faculty at Christian colleges to take mentoring seriously and to enjoy the opportunity to teach in ways that simply are not available to professors in secular colleges.
All in all, I dig this little piece. Granted, it’s a view of things that makes the grass look greener than sometimes it can be in an actual Christian college week to week. But it’s nice sometimes to think about what places should be as well as what they’ve become.