Tag Archives: education

Knowledge for Sale

Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education (Infrastructures)Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education by Lawrence Busch

Neoliberalism is undermining the values of higher education, according to this concise treatment by Michigan State University sociologist Lawrence Busch. Neoliberalism here is not, as a conservative Christian reader might assume, the liberal boogeyman who has hijacked the university and turned it into a godless secular factory for producing “Darwinist minions,” as (no joke) one student labeled my own. Rather, the neoliberalism Busch discusses is something more widespread (at secular and Christian universities alike) and to be honest a lot more frightening. Busch’s neoliberalism is an economic paradigm, one which most of the world is happily following, a paradigm that says free market competition is the surest means to happiness and prosperity. The neoliberalist ideal is to get governments out of the way wherever possible, let competition thrive, and let the assumedly politically neutral processes of free markets work.

Unfortunately, Busch argues, neoliberalism is a flawed dogma, and its effects become most insidious when they begin influencing higher education:

From neoliberal perspectives, markets are about producing efficiencies and thereby maximizing wealth and liberty. But markets can also be about other values besides efficiency. It is precisely because markets may be designed to optimize or maximize many different values that they must be considered a form of governance rather than some naturally occurring or logically justifiable phenomenon. (132)

The problems with neoliberalism and its march toward ultimate market efficiency are numerous, and Busch highlights only a few in his survey of recent critiques. To start with, markets are not actually natural and free; rather, they are created and regulated, and because of this they can be crafted to enshrine certain values and ignore others. Markets tend to prioritize private goods over public goods. They reduce societies to a collection of isolated individuals who are supposed to make market choices based on self-interest and flawed knowledge. They value certain types of knowledge and ignore others. All of this, Busch argues, makes the acceptance of neoliberalism by governments throughout the world problematic, but these issues become even more heightened when they intersect the values of the university.

Busch makes arguments for the problems of privatizing knowledge, of creating partnerships between private companies and public universities, and of seeing education as a purely individualistic commodity as opposed to a social good at public schools supported through public funds. These universities were founded on the belief that the knowledge they produced and the citizens they educated were public goods and should thus be funded by the common purse. As market forces have been introduced to (supposedly) make higher education more efficient and competitive, this has instead the effect of walling off the commons. Knowledge becomes seen as proprietary, a means of generating income for universities that are seeing their public support continually cut. Bureaucracy proliferates to protect this knowledge, to compete for funds, to seek corporate support or partnerships, and to enhance controls and efficiencies. In short, universities become more like businesses.

For many, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I hear constantly that the field of higher education is changing and that we have to change with it if we hope to remain competitive. The problem though, and Busch’s primary point, is that universities by their very nature are supposed to do things that in themselves critique and at times openly contest the neoliberal paradigm, revealing it to be the value-laden (not neutral or natural) system that it is. The kind of goods created by universities are not private goods, and they are not always amenable to market forces. Indeed, some of the most important work of universities is the production of “slow knowledge,” results of investigations that take years or even decades, that cannot easily be monetized and that may never have a payoff in dollars and cents. Such research is devalued in a university unduly influenced by neoliberal pressures. In addition, certain forms of knowledge (humanities and the arts, for instance) become seen as luxuries because they don’t have the same market value in the way STEM fields do. Instead of being seen as essential forms of knowledge for perspective and cultural literacy, a common and not a private good, they become seen as a poor investment for students and thus an easy target of cuts for administration. Finally, market pressures applied within the university undermine the freedom to pursue (and support) research that exposes harmful effects of big business or corporate sponsors, an obviously corrosive influence on how universities ideally function.

Such examples might seem obvious, but Busch’s concern is that concepts of competition, efficiency, and market forces have become so ubiquitous in our society that they become seen as tools to apply in any situation, regardless of context. They seem so natural in our lives, the way we run our businesses and the way many of us wish we would run our government, that they begin to be seen as self-evident axioms for the way society should be organized. The problem though is that when administrators trained in a business mindset begin applying these paradigms to the university, the university’s ideals and purpose become compromised.

We talk about competing in a “knowledge economy,” where higher education begins to be seen “solely as an investment in one’s self, an investment designed to enhance future earnings.” (49) (Again, I hear language like this all the time.) The danger, Busch argues, is that technoscientific knowledge prioritized in this way (technical training to get a job) is only one aspect of knowledge, and our market economy biases us toward giving it too much value. Rather than an economy of knowledge, Busch claims, we need to recognize that we function in an “ecology of knowledge,” where things like local knowledge, cultural knowledge, moral knowledge, and social knowledge are tools in our epistemological toolbox alongside technoscientific knowledge.

The market economy is not the end all and be all of the good society or what it means to be human. Yet our application of its modes and models to the university threatens to silence one of the strongest voices we have for critiquing, questioning, and broadening that view.

Free to Learn

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for LifeFree to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was homeschooled a bit growing up. It wasn’t by choice, and I so suppose it wasn’t actually true homeschooling. Rather, I had a “home-bound teacher” who delivered my assignments and lessons for portions of eighth, tenth, and eleventh grades when I was too sick from chemotherapy to attend classes. So this, to be fair, probably colors my perspectives on alternate schooling options: for me, going to public school was always a privilege. It was something I got to do when things were normal and healthy, and I enjoyed it immensely. Public school meant interacting with my peers; it meant a challenge, a chance to meet new people and experience new things. And by the time my illnesses were behind me and I could attend high school consistently for my senior year, it was in truth a long-time goal realized. I enjoyed every aspect of it (at least in retrospect).

So again, this all colors how I see public school. And to be fair again, I’m probably the kind of person that the current paradigm of schooling serves best anyway: introverted, structured, competitive, and motivated. I was always good at school. I found it challenging and stimulating, and I was dutiful enough to work around it or through it when it wasn’t. I played– and enjoyed— the game: honor roll, AP classes, scholarship applications, etc., etc.

But for me growing up, school– with all the structure and adult-directed learning– was school, and what wasn’t school, was free time. That is, my days and my summers were rounded out with lots and lots of unstructured time. I didn’t do organized sports or really any other extra-curricular activity on the weekends, in the evenings, or over the summers. Those times were empty and open, free for reading, exploration, and play. (Yet I was always excited and definitely ready when summer was done and school started again.)

According to the Gray in Free to Learn all this openness and freedom is a very good thing. Indeed, the author goes a lot further than this in his arguments, but we’ll get there in a second. For now, we’ll start with what we agree on: kids need freedom to play, and they learn through open, unstructured play with other kids that’s not directed by adults, ideally play among a wide age range of other children. There is, according to Gray, an assault on this freedom of childhood underway in the constant erosion of free time into structured, measurable, adult-directed activity. This is the paradigm of our school system, but it continually encroaches elsewhere as well in the host of activities and events well-meaning parents push their children into. The loss of childhood play isn’t simply something to be wistful about and something that stresses out both parents and kids– more than this, it stunts one of the best ways kids learn.

This is the theme of the book: that we misunderstand learning in children. We think it’s something that is done to them instead of something they do themselves. By marshaling a wide array of cognitive and developmental studies as well as anthropology on hunter-gatherer groups (which Gray thinks embody the ideal of learning), the author makes the claim that the best and most natural means by which children learn is playing: free exploration, discovery, imitation, and mutual instruction. Our institutionalized public schools have it exactly backward: structured, goal-driven, mandatory instruction is what crushes the naturally curious drive within kids to teach themselves according to their own interests and inclinations.

As an appeal for the necessity of free play in an overly-structured world (a world that is equally fearful for the safety of children and dismissive of their abilities), this book is quite compelling. As an appeal to reform the way we educate, it’s something I could even get behind. But the author is not a reformer: he’s a revolutionary. This isn’t a book about the right balance between freedom of play and the role of structured education. For Gray, there is no proper role for the latter in the lives of children.

My fondness for public education–both in my own experience, in that of my children, and as something I believe can create and foster diversity, community, and opportunity when done right– as well as my role as an educator may make me a biased reviewer. But I think Gray’s view of public education is a one-dimensional straw man, easy to demonize. Moreover, his summary of the history of education, through four general stages of hunter-gathering play-learning, to the rise of agriculture, through the Middle Ages, to Protestant America is simply wrong. The Middle Ages were not a time when stepping out of line would get you burned at the stake, and institutionalized learning in monasteries and cathedral schools did not exist to bring about submission to an ecclesiastical order. These tropes are embarrassing and lack any real historical context. If such generalizations were indeed the case, how is it that institutionalized centers of learning were so often the place from which new, subversive, dangerous, and beautiful ideas so often at odds with secular and ecclesiastical authority emerged? In addition, his history of education takes no account at all of one of the primary roots of Western education: the philosophical schools that flourished throughout antiquity and evidenced a very different kind of learning, a dialectic that challenges the free-play/structural-authority duality he sets up.

Again, I would be the first to agree that kids need more time and freedom to learn by just being kids. Yet the irony is that often public schools provide the best opportunities to play in ways, with tools, and with other kids that many children would otherwise not have. I still remember the “Writing to Read” lab at my elementary school, where pre-literate kindergartners were put in front of computers and encouraged to play at writing. We typed out phonetic stories before we could read. I loved it. We had no computer at home at this point, no way to engage in this kind of exploration outside of the classroom.

The experience of my own children so far in our public school system’s dual-language magnet is similar. Sure, my pre-schooler could stay at home and play during the half-day he’s in a classroom. But in that classroom, he’s playing with kids from other backgrounds who speak other languages. He’s learning to play in Spanish. That’s something we couldn’t give him on our own.

Of course, we as a family probably have the resources to make “unschooling” (the author’s preferred approach) work for our kids if we decided it was best. But what about all the kids who come from families who don’t? What about kids who find their way to freedom through a school library, a teacher who challenges and engages them, the resources of a public school classroom? This remains my primary complaint against the individualistic mindset of the home-schooling movement: it pulls away the energy and passion of those families who really do want to do education well, who want to help make our classrooms places of freedom and learning, who have the resources to help change the system. It takes those children and those parents out of our community schools, and it abandons both the schools and those kids who most need them and who need our help to make the system better. To me it seems like reactions to books like Gray’s become simply another form of white flight: but now instead of abandoning our inner cities because we lack the inclination to build community together, we’re doing the same thing to our classrooms.

Plus, I’m not entirely convinced that play is the only way to learn. Sure, I’d like to chop this book in half and give the second half (the half that doesn’t include Gray’s awful history sections) to teachers, administrators, and parents with the appeal to resist more standardization and regimentation and to take back free play approaches to learning. Yet I’m not willing to completely jettison an approach to education that still has a place for memorization, drills, and learning things that don’t seem immediately appealing to the learner. From my own experience, I know there have been many times I’ve found meaning and wonder in something I didn’t initially want to read but was told to (assigned to) by a teacher. I didn’t want to learn the tedious trigonometric identities (or the Latin grammar or whatever), but I found later that those tools were the grammar necessary for doing elegant mathematics (or engaging the heritage of the Western tradition). I’m enough of a Burkean conservative to maintain there are aspects of our cultural heritage everyone should be exposed to at a young age, an age when they might not even realize why these things are important or want to learn them at the time. I still believe there are or can be “authorities”– teachers, guides, mentors– who can lead children into a body of knowledge and help them absorb, engage, and explore it.

Gray’s book will convince you of the value of free play, which is something we probably need to be reminded of today and continue to champion for our kids. But I won’t follow Gray as far as he wants to go. I think if you talk to many experienced teachers, they would say that Gray hits on one side of the dynamic tension they try to maintain in their classrooms: between children as self-directed learners on the one hand and the curriculum as a tool that has merit above and beyond a child’s particular interests on the other (and, of course, to hell with the standardized tests). I’d prefer to live there, in that more difficult tension, working to find an approach to education that holds both of these in balance.

The Fall of the Faculty

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It MattersThe Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something wrong with American higher education today, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor who has worked at multiple prestigious U.S. universities, is convinced he’s identified the primary component of the problem: college administrators. His work, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, is a polemic against the spread of what he refers to as the “administrative blight” that has proliferated throughout higher education in the past several years. Administrators and faculty are engaged in a war for control of the fate of the university, Ginsberg argues, and he makes it abundantly clear which side he believes actually has the best interests of the university at heart.

It’s a stance that will likely seem reasonable to most faculty. Indeed, Ginsberg’s unwavering sarcasm and biting criticism against the armies of what he calls “deans, deanlings, and deanlets,” their self-aggrandizing campaigns and their academically watered-down programs, makes the book quite entertaining to read. And it would have been more entertaining, if one could escape the suspicion that he’s partially right. His primary argument is that administrators exist primarily to promote their own agendas and expand their own influence, and that this often has very little to do with the primary job of the university, which is teaching and research.

The work will resonate (either positively or negatively) with anyone in higher education, though Ginsberg’s vindictive tone (comparing administrators in various places throughout the work to blight, disease, cancer, and even stronger metaphors) eventually wears a bit thin and is in places unfair. But hang around with any group of faculty for long, and much of what he says will start to sound familiar.

Though I don’t go so far as Ginsberg, my own institution has seen a recent proliferation of administrative levels, and we can all name administrators for whom we don’t have a very clear idea of what it is they actually do. The bureaucratic fuzz-speak on efficiencies, best practices, missions statements, and outcomes that is easy target for ridicule in business settings has become more and more a part of university life in my (very short) experience. Things are changing, outside forces seem to be trying to reshape and restructure what happens on university campuses, and people like Ginsberg are taking note (and getting angry).

For Ginsberg though, any new administrative program is an attempt by administrators– career professionals, in Ginsberg’s evaluation, with little research or teaching experience– to expand their realms of influence and undermine the power and influence of the faculty. It’s a conflict between administrators who wish to run the campus like a business (primarily to their own benefit, Ginsberg claims) and the faculty who are actually responsible for the teaching and research that is the university’s true purpose. Get rid of most administrators, Ginsberg argues, and not many folks on campus would actually notice. But get rid of the professors, and the work of the university grinds to a halt.

Ginsberg, using a mix of anecdotes and hard data, begins his case by outlining the recent growth in total number of administrators in higher education, contrasting it with trends in faculty growth, and explores (and explodes) the rationals often offered for these trends, including financial pressures and outside accreditation requirements. He then provides his (rather snarky) analysis of what administrators actually “do,” explains the ways their cross-purposes with faculty actually end up impeding the university’s true mission of research and teaching, and blows the whistle on attempts to use things like diversity and cultural sensitivity as covers for further expansion of administrative bloat. He takes particular pleasure in highlighting the many recent accounts of inside dealing between trustees and university administrators as well as stories of fraud and spending that have come to light in some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Ginsberg includes a chapter on the rise and fall of the tenure system in the United States, which he (rightly, I think) believes is central to concerns regarding academic freedom. In Ginsberg’s narrative, faculty tenure came about in the first half of the twentieth century through a partnership with university administration and faculty to help build strong universities and shield them against interference from political forces and powerful board members or trustees. Now, however, tenure is seen as an antiquated relic that keeps universities from functioning effectively and prevents administrators from exercising complete power over potentially troublesome faculty.

Finally, Ginsberg ends with an appeal to the university’s mission and ethos and those charged with maintaining it: the faculty. Faculty, he says, have been complicit in the growth of administration and the erosion of their own influence because they’d rather teach and do research and are happy letting administrators shoulder the burden of day to day bureaucratic concerns. However, historically many administrative posts were held by faculty in temporary or part-time positions, a practice Ginsberg believes was healthier for the university because it prevented the bifurcation in values and methods between administrators and faculty that has taken place today. He provides some ideas of what can be done to stem the growth of the all-administrative university, offering a tentative call to arms (tentative because he admits it may be too late).

Before I respond more fully on Ginsberg’s approach, I have a small quibble with his analysis of administrative growth. He tends to be uniform in seeing this growth as a bad thing, but there’s one aspect I don’t think he takes into account, and that is the growth of research centers. Here I’m speaking from my experience as a graduate student, where places like the “Center for Science, Technology, and Values” or the “Center for International and Peace Studies” were major players in supporting and fostering research and teaching at my institution. Each of these centers had to supply a small cohort of administrators to make their work possible. Here, one could make the case that the growth of administration and even bureaucracy helped bridge the divide between development and alumni relations (as each of these centers bore the name of rich donors or administrators) and actual research and scholarship. Likewise at my current (much smaller) campus, similar centers are where some of the most exciting scholarship is taking place. Albeit both these centers are headed by faculty members, but they likely entail some administrative growth, especially if they continue to expand.

Apart from that, I agree with much of what Ginsberg has to say, but where I depart from him is in his evaluation of motives. For Ginsberg, administrators are always the bad guys, and their motive is simple self-enlargement. Perhaps it’s from my own experiences at smaller, faith-based universities, but I see the very real divide between administration and faculty that Ginsberg has outlined less about bad guys and good guys and more about differences in philosophy. At my own institution, for instance, I genuinely believe most of the faculty and administrators have the best interests of the college at heart. Frustration here arises though because we seem to go about pursuing that interest (and understanding it) in different worlds, using different (and often mutually incomprehensible) languages and practices. Instead of the outline of a war, which Ginsberg has provided, what would have been much more helpful to me is an outline that would have helped me understand the world of administration.

Perhaps Ginsberg believes such worlds are simply incommensurate. He touches on some of the relevant differences in his text as, for instance, when he explains in his introductory chapter:

Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing not only new knowledge but new visions of society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what Stanley Aronowitz has aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering more or less sophisticated forms of vocational training to meet the needs of other established institutions in the public and private sectors. (p. 3)

What we begin to see are different (and sometimes mutually incompatible) views of the purpose of education, what I’ve referred to as the impossible tight-rope between constituencies and interests that my own administrative team has to walk (and does so largely successfully). The university, some tell us, has to stay relevant to remain solvent. Plus, we’re beholden to our denominational roots and support. So there’s a strong motivation to not do some of the things that college professors sometimes get in trouble for: being critical, helping our students to think and ask difficult questions even when we’re uncertain where the answers will fall. There’s a conflict of interests– a tension– between these two worlds, which is why there needs to be trust but also checks and balances (like tenure).

Another quote from Ginsberg:

As one prominent higher education accreditation official and former college administrator recently put it, though once seen as a route to “personal growth and development,’” higher education today should be understood more as, “a strategic investment of resources to produce benefits for business and industry by leveraging fiscal and human capital to produce a direct, immediate and positive financial return on those investments.” (p. 10, quote from Ronald L. Baker, “Keystones of Regional Accreditation: Intentions, Outcomes and Sustainability,” in Peter Hernon and Robert Dugan, Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 1.)

And here we get back to the discussion of what education should be: whether vocational training, liberal arts education, or (more likely) some combination or balance of both. This is a debate that needs to happen, but it’s not going to happen in administrative retreats, planning sessions, or meetings with consultants. It must happen through dialogue and debate that involves (perhaps primarily) the faculty.

Ginsberg touches on this as well:

Even when their underlying motivations may be questionable, professors are obligated, at least in public, to present strong intellectual justifications for their positions. In turf wars among faculty members, victor is most often secured by those who succeed in framing the issue and offering the most compelling philosophical or scientific arguments on behalf of their cause. The best faculty debates have an educational value. (p. 84)

By contrast most administrative “debates” don’t really ever become debates, as they’re usually top-down directives issued from behind closed doors, even when they purport to be setting the plans or identities for the entire campus. Secondly, as Ginsberg notes, administrative decisions tend to simply be adoptions of “best practices” from other universities or even other industries with little intellectual justification provided. I agree with Ginsberg that the power of the faculty should not be curtailed, especially not the power to be agents in setting university course or policy, because the faculty have the expertise and the vested interest in the research and teaching for which the university itself exists.

I don’t think Ginsberg is fair with his evaluation of administrators as people, but I’m a bit naive and I also tend to give people as people the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I’m at a small institution where I can (for the most part) directly see how administrators work to make my job possible. But I think he’s right when he talks about the different worlds we live in. And this is where the crux of the matter lies.

So what is to be done? Ginsberg offers a few concrete suggestions, which I’ve modified into my own list of modest proposals specific to my own university, outlined below. My academic environment is very different from the ones in which Ginsberg has spent his career, but we share many of the same perspectives and values. We’re part of the same profession, and we both have an ideal of the university we’d like to see preserved, sustained, and developed. To that end, I propose that we:

1. Bring back tenure. As mentioned above, the tenure system is not perfect, but it’s an important balance against administrative authority. Even when the administration is largely benign, tenure is essential to academic freedom. The case could be made that this is even more important at a smaller institution, where personalities and politics have the potential to play a more direct role in conflicts between administration and faculty. The power to dismiss senior faculty members who have been vetted and promoted through due process should rest with the faculty as a whole and not the administration alone.

2. Give faculty representation on the board of trustees. As anecdotal evidence at my own institution supports, the trustees (who carry much of the power of the university, at least in theory) exist in a different world from the faculty. They’re made up of ministers and lay leaders in the community, with backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints that often differ widely from those of the faculty. It’s clear that effective leaders in this environment are those who can navigate between and have credibility with both of these disparate worlds. However, an easy step toward bridging these worlds and increasing faculty agency would be for the faculty to elect a small number of their own members to serve as representatives to this board.

3. Assign administrators some teaching load. This suggestion does not come from Ginsberg’s book but is especially suited to bridging the faculty/administrative divide at my own institution. Many of the faculty feel administrators live and work in a different world than we do as faculty, and many administrators have told me the same thing. This disconnect is heightened by differences in background; even when we want the same things, we don’t speak the same language. As a teaching institution, however, we can all agree that what happens in the classroom is essential. Requiring our administrators to bear some teaching load (or at the minimum requiring that any new administrative position have teaching load built into it) would not only bring faculty and administrators together as colleagues, it would also keep us planted in the same context with the same priorities. Moreover, administrators bearing some teaching load could go a long way to providing limited course release for faculty who wish to pursue research and scholarship but whose current course loads make this impossible.

I think Ginsberg is on to something in his treatment, though his acerbic tone isn’t going to win any administrators over to his side. And that’s not his point: Ginsberg is sure the battle lines are drawn, and he’s articulating a desperate faculty rearguard action. I’d like to think we’re on the same side, just speaking different languages. Unfortunately, I agree with Ginsberg that some of the language and values college administrators have adopted is largely incompatible with what I believe the true values of a liberal arts education actually are, but I haven’t yet given up hope that we can’t bridge those divides and do good work together.

College: What’s the Point?

College: What's the Point? Embracing the Mystery of the Kingdom in a Postmodern WorldCollege: What’s the Point? Embracing the Mystery of the Kingdom in a Postmodern World by David B. Van Heemst

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At the university where I teach, David Van Heemst looms large. He’s a fixture in the political science department, where his enthusiasm and knowledge have shaped his program and continue to impact the lives of hundreds of students. In the years that I’ve been a part of this academic community, I have never once heard a student say a negative word about one of his classes. Van Heemst clearly has a vision of the Christian college experience, and it’s one that shapes his teaching and his interactions with his students. Not having been a student, I was curious about what this looked like, and the easiest way to find out seemed to be exploring the book he’s written on that subject.

College: what’s the point? is Van Heemst’s manifesto on the role of college as a series of opportunities through which students can become a part of God’s redemptive narrative during their four years at a Christian liberal arts university. The book encapsulates Van Heemst’s enthusiasm, his passion, and his mission in teaching. It’s built upon not only his broad knowledge on a variety of subjects related to higher education, social justice, healthy relationships, and Christian formation but also upon his experiences over the past decades teaching and observing college students.

Audience is important here, and I quickly realized that the book is not a work about choosing a college or whether or why college in general is important; it’s not a book examining the philosophy behind Christian education or attempting to answer the question of whether one should go to college or the relative merits between vocational and liberal arts training. The audience here is those who have already arrived, the students who for whatever reason have decided upon college and have found themselves at a Christian four-year institution. Now that they’re here, regardless of how they arrived, this is what Van Heemst wants them to hear: an impassioned call to making the most of these years, to grasping them as god-given opportunity to engage in god-given work.

For Van Heemst, there is one reason for college, one purpose behind the years spent in such a community, and it’s summed up by the book’s subtitle: “Embracing the mystery of the kingdom in a postmodern world.” Van Heemst begins the work by setting up the confusion and disillusionment that many students arrive to school with (though he may be overplaying this a bit for a place like Olivet, where many of the students seem to arrive quite content with the worldview they’ve inherited). He celebrates what he sees as the genuine desire of students for real meaning in their lives, a meaning he believes that the world at large has not been able to supply them with. That meaning instead can be found in a life of service to God and his kingdom. This is the primary message of the entire book– how to view and experience the formative college years in a Christian, missional context.

Van Heemst first explores three important questions a college student must explore: whether there’s a point to anything (his engagement with nihilism is an important theme of the book), what would happen if one didn’t go to college (or rather, what would happen if one wasted the opportunity college provides to become “a quality person”), and which worldview or narrative will shape one’s life. For this last question, he broadly outlines the appeals and pitfalls of the “ancient” (which he characterizes– a bit problematically– in broad terms as Platonic), modern, and post-modern views of reality. He contrasts these with a Christian view of reality and spends the second part of the book examining the Christian imperatives to work for peace and justice and to wrestle with God’s calling on one’s life to pursue these in a broken world. Finally, Van Heemst examines three primary ways in which a young Christian will be shaped socially and intellectually by his or her college experience: in mind, by friends, and in the search for a mate (more on this last in a moment).

As a political scientist, justice and peace-building play a huge role in this narrative, though Van Heemst implies that there are broader and more abstract ways these can be pursued than direct social engagement– such as through the arts or the natural sciences. Social justice is what he knows and is passionate about though, and one of the great strengths of his work is the testimonies he provides of students who came to college, had their eyes opened regarding the world’s injustices, and then went out into that world to begin the sometimes seemingly futile task of working for change. The whole work, but especially these passages, resonates with passion and hope; the book is a sermon, an appeal, to incoming students to not waste the time and opportunities that they are given but rather to see them all as sanctifying circumstances to grow as a person and as a servant. If you’re looking for a book that synthesizes the ideals of a private Christian liberal arts education– a place to gain tools, passion, and perspective– this is a good place to be begin.

There is, however, one chapter that to me seems highly problematic, and that’s the chapter on healthy sexual relationships. Here Van Heemst outlines the traditional view of Christian sexuality and challenges students to keep sex in the proper context of marriage. In the process, however, he makes explicit the assumption that marriage is the natural end-state of all Christian relationships. It’s the familiar mantra students hear again and again about coming to college to find one’s mate. As he states at the beginning of the chapter, “After all, the question isn’t whether you’ll have sex, the question is when you’ll have sex.” The option of singleness or a life of chastity– which has always been a part of the historical Christian tradition and often prized as a more excellent calling than the life of marriage– is reduced to a single hypothetical bullet point. There was a chance here to bring a new depth and dimension to a discussion that continues to alienate many young people, but it was missed.

Finally, in as much as the passion that bleeds through every page of this work is challenging and laudable– and indeed I found myself personally challenged by the author’s call to deeper social engagement, to seeking ways to bring peace and justice into my own community– the copy-editing for this volume is inexcusable. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a comma Nazi, but even with reigning in some of my normal pickiness the book is littered with sentences of rough, uneven, and sometimes downright unintelligible structure due to inconsistent comma usage. On top of that, there are proliferate typos of an extent that make certain entire passages unclear: god for good, up for us– even entire omitted words abound.

The ideas in this book are solid. Indeed, I would say that any incoming student– who has already committed to attending the sort of Evangelical school that Van Heemst represents here– should read and be challenged by this book. Van Heemst represents the ideal of a Christian education: college as an opportunity to have one’s worldview challenged, to have one’s comfortable bubble pricked and one’s eyes open to the depth of cruelty and injustice in the world, and as a place to be given the tools, the training, and the spiritual and social support over four years to do something about it. Van Heemst gives the call in this book to join and fully engage with such a community with his characteristic passion, depth of knowledge, and experience. These are not simply ideas; this is something he is doing with his own teaching and career. College: what’s the point isn’t simply an appeal to students; it’s the heartbeat of a Christian educator.

The Idea of a Christian College

The Idea of a Christian CollegeThe Idea of a Christian College by Arthur F. Holmes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m still not convinced there is such a thing as “Christian scholarship.” A weak version of the definition of such a thing might be that it is simply the recognition that all scholars carry presuppositions and assumptions into their work. The Christian’s will be Christian and should have the same bearing as a materialist’s, as long as such presuppositions are acknowledged. A stronger version of the definition of Christian scholarship would be that because all truth is God’s truth, all real scholarship is Christian scholarship. Both of these seem to me so wide as to be non-definitions. At the end of the day, Christian scholarship is simply that which is produced by Christian scholars. Much of it cannot be (and should not be) distinguished from the scholarly work of a secular scholar. The only real difference is the life of the person creating it.

In this respect, to me it seems that more important than the question of what is Christian scholarship are questions of what a Christian scholar looks like, what the role of scholarship in the life of the Christian is, and what sort of environment can best cultivate and articulate answers to these questions. It is the last of these questions that Arthur Holmes, a philosopher who spent the majority of his career at Wheaton College, sets out to explore in his book on the nature of Christian education at Christian colleges. (The cover of my edition says that this is a “Philosophy of Chr. Ed for Laymen,” but the cover also looks like it was designed by a seven-year-old, so I’m not sure how seriously to take that designation.)

For Holmes, Christian scholarship depends on the integration of faith and learning. This can happen in many different contexts, but Holmes is writing specifically for one context: that of a Christian liberal arts college. The distinction between a liberal arts college and vocational schools—seminaries or Bible colleges, for instance, in the Christian tradition—is a very important one. A liberal arts education, Holmes explains, is specially suited for the cultivation of Christian scholarship, because it is here that careful philosophical thought is nurtured and Christians develop the tools for a critical examination of both their own assumptions and those of others. A Christian liberal arts college needs to be a place where the virtue-forming aspects of education are emphasized: not “what can this education do for me?” but “what will this education do to me?”

This is a slender, highly accessible volume, similar in size and scope to the more recent “reexamination” of the topic (with the same title) by Reams and Glazer that I reviewed not long ago. Perhaps because I read the Reams/Glazer work first, there was much of the Holmes volume that did not seem new (though Holmes’ prose is sharper, and his philosophical training shows through to good effect in comparison to the latter volume). The primary point of departure between Reams/Glazer and Holmes is that Holmes focuses on a very specific type of institution, while Reams/Glazer attempt to update and expand this to the “Christian research university.”

Holmes’ book, though originally written in the 70s, remains a very relevant challenge and warning to Christian higher education today. This is encapsulated in a quote that Reams and Glanzer re-use as an epigram for one of their own chapters:

A community that argues ideas only in the classroom,
a teacher whose work seems a chore,
a student who never reads a thing beyond what is assigned,
a campus that empties itself of life and thought all weekend,
an attitude that devaluates disciplined study in comparison with rival claimants on time and energy,
a dominant concern for job-preparation
—these can never produce a climate of learning.

At least from my experience, these warnings ring very true.

I found his articulation of the purpose of a liberal arts education most compelling:

The question to ask about education, then, is not, “What can I do with all this stuff anyway?” because both I and my world are changing, but rather “What will all this stuff do to me?” This question is basic to the concept of liberal arts education.

I want my students to understand this. The goal of education is not to present certain bodies of information by the most entertaining, engaging, and effective means possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but that’s vocational training. A liberal arts education is about beginning a conversation—with scholars and texts and ideas—that will continue for life. Not with the goal of getting a certain type of job or certification but with the goal of becoming a certain kind of person.

Holmes also has vital things to say about academic freedom at Christian colleges and the balance between remaining a community of faith and yet not existing to indoctrinate students into a particular school of thought: A college is Christian in that it does its work in a Christian way, not by encouraging an unthinking faith to counterbalance faithless thought. Students and faculty must have the freedom to question and explore with diligence, reason, and humility. In a Christian college this ideal takes place in the context of community. Liberty without loyalty is not Christian, but loyalty without the liberty to think for oneself is not education.

I’d like to think most Christian college administrators and faculty are familiar with this book. I’d really, really like to think that. In the meantime, I’ll be asking my honors students to read portions of it in the fall.

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.