Christian Universities: Moving Ahead by Standing Still

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The fall term has begun in North American universities and colleges, and what’s increasingly distinctive about Christian institutions is that as North American secular universities continue to evolve, the Christian ones aren’t changing.

To be sure, some of that refusal to change isn’t positive. Some Christian schools manifest regrettable attitudes and policies toward women, racial minorities, and people of other religions and philosophies. Some Christian schools continue to pay their employees as if they are missionaries to foreign countries, rather than professionals having to pay North American prices along with everyone else.

Some Christian schools insist on a defensive narrowness of outlook that amounts to indoctrination rather than true education. And some Christian schools suffer from administrations backed by business-oriented boards who have no conception of faculty governance and no sense that it might be well for the directors of a school to include in their number at least some people with professional experience in higher education.

Let me leave my complaints at that for today, however, because I want to celebrate a positive point. Christian universities and colleges are becoming increasingly distinctive not only because of their faithfulness to traditional doctrine and commitment to spiritual transformation, but also because of their academic convictions and commitment to traditional university ideals and practices.

Increasingly, that is, Christian schools are distinguishing themselves by maintaining a commitment to humanistic study, by which I mean taking the human person seriously as deserving of respect as a multifaceted agent charged with responsible freedom and capable of both loving creativity and wicked destructiveness.

Such schools continue to foreground the humanities and fine arts, yes. That in itself is increasingly unusual. And you can still study novels and poems and plays at Christian schools as literature, for example, rather than only as sites of ideological conflict and power struggle that then require students to decide and declare where they stand amid fractious campus politics.

But these schools also refuse the reductionism of humans to machines or animals or viruses that is so common in secular faculties of social science, natural science, education, social work, health care, law, and so on.

Increasingly, moreover, Christian schools maintain a distinctively personal scale, refusing the long-term trend toward larger and larger classes with less and less attention paid to individual students’ needs, both academic and otherwise. Christian schools are generally still small, personal, and friendly, and troubled students slip through the cracks much less silently and invisibly than they do elsewhere.

Christian schools also continue to offer a distinctively wholistic education, and in two key respects. First, the same overall worldview is maintained from course to course and also from classroom to playing field to dormitory to chapel. So everything connects with everything, while at a secular university, diversity (to put it kindly) is all.

Second, Christian education takes seriously the whole person, so that what happens on the court or on the stage or in the cafeteria matters right alongside what happens in the laboratory or the library.

Finally, Christian universities and colleges generally hold the line against the widespread increase in teaching by part-time/junior lecturers. If you want at least most of your education supervised by experienced PhD-holding professors whose only job and central focus are these students on this campus, rather than hoping to catch the attention of harried and under-paid adjuncts, you’ll do better at most Christian schools.

(Having been an adjunct instructor myself, I certainly mean no disrespect to this cadre of faithful labourers who often do brilliant work and almost never get paid what they’re worth. But they themselves wouldn’t prefer that kind of education.)

Interestingly, that is, quite apart from all the considerable “value added” to an education conducted according to Christian doctrines and principles, I’m asserting that Christian universities and colleges in Canada and the United States are becoming more and more distinctive from other universities by simply remaining faithful to the traditional values and practices of the university itself.

So if you or someone you love are considering enrolling next year in a Christian university, consider this: The education there might be better for you not only because it’s Christian, but also because it’s still, in truth, a university.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).