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Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part One: Methodology

My little series on God’s Harvard got me thinking about Christian colleges–I’ve given some thought to how we got them, what they’ve become, what they could be, what they should be, and all sorts of other things. I’ve also been reading a fair number of books about college teaching in general and Christian colleges in particular.

All this is to say that this next little series of posts will itself be a process of working out what’s on my mind, an exploration of how a Christian college should bear influence on the mind, what Christians might have to say on the mind and its life, and whatever else I can, if people don’t mind.

Utopia

Before I begin I should note that my series is by necessity Utopian. Not only am I borrowing certain conventions from St. Thomas More and his literary descendants (Francis Bacon and Voltaire just to name a couple), but since I have neither the resources nor the inclination to start a college of my own (I’m working hard enough to get hired by one), the ideas that I present will necessarily happen in no-place, ou-topos. As Plato, the original ou-topian, notes, such is not necessarily a fatal flaw in a political discussion; its function, after all, is not to lay out policies for a standing state but to provide criteria by which one might evaluate standing states.

Since such generation of no-places must happen in the human imagination (imagination informed and made generous by Christ’s grace, I should hope), and since human imagination is contingent rather than necessary, this particular ou-topia is by definition a work in progress, one which I hope will draw strength from other human imaginations.

How I Will Proceed

I know. You’re only hoping that I proceed.

I imagine this series taking five parts to discuss. In what remains of this post I will talk about how each part relates to the others. In the next part I’ll talk about Christian vocation and how it informs life together in general and academic common life in particular. After that I’ll talk about what truth might look like embodied in a studying community, after which I’ll make a case for the classical liberal arts, recast in Christian categories. Finally I’ll propose a way for Christian liberal arts colleges to relate with research universities informed (I hope) by Christian charity as a philosophical category.

But I should lay out my own ground rules before I proceed to all that.

Christian Ethics Once Again

My methodology is not a set of rules so much as a set of aims, the chief of which is to make this thought experiment an exercise in Christian ethics. As I’ve said before on this blog, the primary datum that makes Christian ethics Christian is the world in the Johannine sense. That is to say that Christian ethics describe those practices that define people who live in the world but not of the world.

Such a starting point might seem innocuous, but the implications are at least this definite: the Christian college exists to serve a world that will not recognize its aims but nonetheless benefits by its existence. The Christian college’s presence in a local community, its graduates’ careers, and its faculty’s interactions within their larger disciplinary communities should, broadly speaking, bless the world without being the world. The shapes of those blessings are not determined prior to the practices of the college, but the ultimate telos of everything the college does should be blessing, whether by telling the truth where powers would lie, striving towards mercy where powers calculate only cost and benefit, or doing whatever else is within the purview of an educational institution. And where said college fails to bless, the community of students and teachers should recognize that as sin.

Why this Experiment? Why not Something Else?

I cannot at the moment articulate anything further than a sense that something is very wrong with the ways that big colleges go about business and further a sense that the small Christian colleges I know are already doing the hard work of bearing witness to a better way to educate. Like Plato looking toward Lacedaemon, I will borrow liberally from those liberal arts colleges I love on my way to a reasoned account of what higher education could be, and I can think of no better starting point than small colleges that imagine themselves as Christian colleges.

That’s the broad shape of my goal; now getting there will likely take some writing. I encourage you CRM readers to join with me as I think about these things. Tell me where I’m off target, and help me to reason through this. Next post will be a broad case for education as part of Christian vocation.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part One: Methodology

  1. >I enjoyed the Chronicle piece and the book chapter. My main questions would be about their methodology: as you know, many folks (perhaps none so much as academics) have intellectual concerns about the one-dimensional spectrum that runs from “left” on one side to “right” on the other and visits neighborhoods called “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” I know that when neoliberal capitalists talk about people and their ideologies, because I’m suspicious of capitalism’s ability to order a good common life I’m liable to land in the “left wing,” yet because I teach Plato and Boethius and 2 Samuel to freshmen, many post-colonialists that I know personally think of me as a “conservative.” As I’ve noted before, I tend to be a Bollingist with regards to these things:Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive. (Walker Percy, The Moviegoer)I do think it’s notable that the American Enterprise Institute is publishing a book chapter suggesting that the academy needs to gear its culture towards friendliness to young families, a set of suggestions that the feminists have been advocating for a number of years now. I think that when neoliberals and feminists agree on something, and when one can make a Thomist/Aristotelian case for the same practice, there might be something there. My hunch tells me that the academy isn’t geared towards liberals so much as dirty old men who don’t mind being bachelors until they’re thirty-eight and marrying much younger women once they’ve landed tenure. (Mary and I were born within ten weeks of each other, before anyone goes there.) For that reason, both young family-oriented conservatives and women in general will have common cause against that system.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | February 22, 2008, 3:43 pm
  2. >Whaddaya think, Nate?Conservatives Just Aren’t Into Academe, Study FindsDivergent life choices may explain the dearth of right-wing scholars By ROBIN WILSON, The Chronicle of Higher Education”…The Woessners have peered into the psyche of conservative undergraduates to find out why so few of them want to earn Ph.D.’s and become professors. Their paper on the topic, “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates,” is available online and will be published as part of a book published in August by the American Enterprise Institute.The Woessners found that liberal students have values and interests that point them to careers in academe, while most conservative students do not.”The personal priorities of those on the left,” the Woessners conclude, “are more compatible with pursuing a Ph.D.”…”

    Posted by Jeff Wright | February 22, 2008, 1:55 am
  3. >Good! You’ve got me interested and waiting for the next installment. There seems to be somewhat of an increased interest in the concept of Christian vocation in recent years (perhaps related to the increase in the Reformed tradition in general?) but it still does not get the attention it deserves. Education as related to Christian vocation should be a worthwhile discussion.”No task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” John Calvin

    Posted by Jeff Wright | February 17, 2008, 11:36 pm

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