The Idea of a Christian College

The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today's UniversityThe Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University by Todd C. Ream

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was not what I wanted it to be. That may be my own fault. When I read an interview with the authors, I was immediately interested. As someone who graduated from a Christian university, did graduate work at another Christian university, and will soon resume teaching at my alma mater, I believe an articulation of the idea and ideals of what is distinct about Christian higher education is much needed. From my experience, many students, many faculty, and even many (most?) administrators don’t have a cogent or cohesive understanding of what Christian education means. I made the assumption that this book would be written to academics to fill this need.

What it was instead was a freshman connections textbook. Maybe that’s okay. Many Christian colleges (mine included) have an “Intro to College” course that freshman take their first semester with a goal of introducing them to the philosophy and history of higher education in general and their own institution in particular. This book seems pretty clearly to have been written for such a course. Ream and Glanzer use scripture, history, and the words of scholars both historical and contemporary to argue that Christian education is unique in its (ideally) holistic approach with the goal of forming complete individuals who love God and love learning. This is, they claim, in contradistinction to secular universities in which learning has no true goal or telos beyond career preparation or the propagation of particular academic disciplines. They argue that against the fragmentation and individualistic ethos of the modern university, the Christian university has a distinct and separate mission with the classical understanding that all knowledge must hold together and find its completion in knowledge of God. They also briefly introduce students to the work of Christian scholars like Noll, Polkinghorne, and Hauerwas.

There wasn’t much I disagreed with in this book. Ream and Glanzer are consciously building on the work of Arthur Holmes, who is quoted throughout. I have not yet read Holmes’s 1987 study, but according to the authors that work focused on a Christian college in the traditional liberal arts sense: a place where knowledge is passed along but not where new knowledge is necessarily created. Because of the rise of Christian research universities in recent years, the authors believe it is time for Christian institutions to give more mind to the creation of knowledge and the conduct of research in a Christian context. Here they seem to be following the likes of Marsden and Noll in arguing for an evangelical life of the mind and love of learning. (Note: though the language is inclusive and we’re treated to a summary of the rise of medieval universities in a Catholic setting, the book is definitely written from an evangelical perspective.)

My major complaint with the book was its delivery. I had hoped it would be a good book for a faculty discussion group to provide an avenue into some of the key topics Ream and Glanzer emphasize: in particular, the challenge of holistic education in the face of pressures toward technical or vocational training. I quickly realized academics were not the intended audience. With the “college life” vignettes beginning each chapter and the concluding discussion questions, this is a freshman college text. A good one, maybe. I’d have to try it out with a class to be sure. But a challenging and insightful text for college faculty and administrators? Not so much.

2 thoughts on “The Idea of a Christian College

  1. Vicki Osborne- Blakemore

    This is interesting. I would agree with what you term the author’s approach in education from a Christian perspective. Yes, the goal being a a holistic approach with individuals who love God and love learning. I would also believe that many secular universities are also using the same holistic approach. The difference is the encouragement to self-discovery. While Christian universities approach from a place of faith, the secular encourages students to discover their faith. While the latter may seem a bit daunting and risky for the Christian world, the outcome can sometimes be a deeper faith with stronger roots. it is true that we risk the students not believing completely as they were raised, however they may have stronger knowledge of why they believe. I would love to read something based on the Christian student who attends a secular university and how faith evolves from that perspective.

  2. boldsaintcroix Post author

    Thanks for the comment! I agree that there are non-Christian universities out there taking an approach similar in some respects to what Glanzer and Reams consider the classical educational model. (St. John’s College and other secular “great books” schools immediately come to mind.) And you’re right about Christians in a secular educational context. By being forced to develop their own approaches to faith integration, they often do in effect what many Christian schools fail to do in practice: cultivate a meaningful interaction between a student’s faith and the material that they’re studying. I think what the authors of this book would argue against is an approach that treats faith as something external to education, similar to the danger of treating faith in day to day life as something external to work or finance or our public lives. If faith involves participation and living in community and immersion in a tradition of learning based on Christian texts and traditions (hopefully beyond simply spoon-feeding dogma), then I think a Christian school is going to be distinctly different in this context than a secular one.

    Finally, there’s the question of “why?” This is a question I think Christian schools– especially with rising costs and competition and the subsequent need to “justify” the investment with long-term career payoffs– are still struggling to answer. Classically, education was about becoming a certain kind of person. More and more, it’s about being able to get a certain kind of job. The two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, but if we emphasize the latter to the neglect of the former (especially at self-proclaimed Christian institutions), then I think that’s a big problem.

    If you’re interested in a perspective from a secular education approach, you might try EXCELLENCE WITHOUT A SOUL: DOES LIBERAL EDUCATION HAVE A FUTURE?, by Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard. I haven’t read it, but it’s mentioned by Glanzer and Reams.


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