The 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.