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Academic respectability

Christian colleges that strive after it can expect intellectual mediocrity

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

A few weeks ago, my colleagues at the Christian college where I teach were coming up to me, clippings in hand. "You made The Chronicle of Higher Education," they said, as if impressed at one of their own being mentioned in this periodical of record of America's academic establishment. This turned out to be, however, one of those dubious achievements.

The Chronicle has a column of brief, usually amusing news items from the world of Academe, something like WORLD's "Culture Notes." The lead story was about Billy Graham's granddaughter, who attends Baylor. It seems she objected to some of the reading material she was assigned at that distinguished Southern Baptist university. The school-rather generously-responded by letting her compile an alternative reading list. Among the books she chose, reported The Chronicle, was "Gene Veith's Loving God With All Your Mind."

I think the columnist was shooting for irony, implying that this young woman, by being so scrupulous and narrow-minded, was refusing to love God "with all her mind." To be sure, if she can find a copy of this by now out-of-print book, she will find me arguing that Christians should pursue the heights of education, even in its secular forms. Scripture records how Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were given full-ride scholarships to what was, in effect, the University of Babylon, where they mastered all the knowledge of the Chaldeans, outdoing their pagan peers (Daniel 1). But though all truth is God's truth, Christians can expect conflict in the academic arena. Daniel and his Hebrew classmates faced lion's dens and fiery furnaces because, like Mr. Graham's granddaughter, they refused to "defile" themselves by compromising their convictions (1:8).

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What seems odd today is that such conflicts between faith and learning, between biblical morality and worldly values, are occurring not only in secular institutions, where they are to be expected, but also in overtly Christian colleges. Creationists complain that they are more likely to get jobs at secular schools than at Christian institutions, many of whose faculty are among the most virulent attackers of the new evidence that the universe has a designer. Students at Christian colleges are increasingly protesting pornographic reading assignments and the showing of sexually explicit videos in class. Sometimes they find their faith directly assaulted-in a required religion course.

Why is this? Many faculty members at Christian schools believe their mission is to "open the minds" of their students from narrow, sheltered, "fundamentalist" backgrounds. This they try to do by exposing them to "the real world," challenging their foundational beliefs, and shocking them into an awareness of how provincial they are.

I agree that education is supposed to open minds. But Christian educators need to recognize that the real narrowness that needs to be addressed lies in the stifling materialism and egotism of today's secular culture. The Christian worldview is far more comprehensive, complex, and open to knowledge than any of the competing human ideologies. Sometimes Christian students need to be opened to the richness of the worldview they profess, but biblical truth has to be foundational.

Christian colleges and faculty members are sometimes led away from these foundations by their earnest and almost pathetic yearning to be academically respectable. Plagued by an inferiority complex, many in Christian academia are so eager for approval from their professional peers in the intellectual establishment that they are embarrassed about their Christian identity and try to mitigate it whenever possible. They think their mission is to influence Christianity with their field, rather than to influence their field with Christianity.

This mindset is a formula for intellectual mediocrity. Such Christian scholars are condemned to be followers, eager-to-please puppies underfoot an indifferent master. They will not be critics, questioners, or innovators in their fields. At the very time when nearly every field is facing a crisis of meaning, when the intellectual underpinnings of the culture are coming apart, and when education itself is floundering, Christian scholars and institutions are, by and large, abdicating their responsibility and ignoring their opportunity to provide an alternative.

The more a Christian college becomes indistinguishable from its secular counterparts, the more likely it is to fail. Why should anyone pay private college tuition if the same education is available from a cheaper state college with better computer facilities? The Christian colleges that will survive-and in the present educational crisis will flourish-will be those that are distinctly different from their secularist competitors intellectually, morally, and theologically.

In the meantime, I hope her professors congratulated Billy Graham's granddaughter for demonstrating the intellectual virtues of independent thought, critical thinking, and the courage to question authority.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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