I'm trying these days to catch up to all the mail coming in from readers, so let me send a group reply to those who have written me with concerns about Christian colleges on the slippery slope to secularism. (My mention two months ago of James Burtchaell's book about the decline of Christian colleges, The Dying of the Light, engendered some letters about how to keep hope alive.)
I'll get into this difficult subject in a roundabout way. The University of Texas, where I teach, is owned by the citizens of our state. Sadly, many Texan views are not represented at the university: UT suffers from the same liberal/radical dominance that cheats students at other schools. But, in theory, the university espouses universalism: UT is to represent the universe of thought within the state. Professors are to be of all different views, and students who are shopping for a worldview should have broad choice.
Small liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, are known for their distinctives. Colleges such as Oberlin and Reed teach liberalism. Grove City College and Hillsdale, even with its recent problems, teach conservatism. Christian colleges should help students develop a biblical worldview in major academic areas and on the major issues of the day. Denominational colleges should stand by their denominational standards.
The American quilt is made much more interesting by such differences. The likelihood of professors and students finding the place that's right for them is increased. Those who want to be at a college unified by a particular faith, where people work together to uphold a common outlook, have that option. Those who want to be at a sometimes bizarre, often stimulating, three-ring circus of a university unified only by a football team, when it wins, can choose that.
The problem comes with mismatches-such as when professors at a small Christian college start wishing they had all the anarchic freedom of professorial life at a large state university. As professors pay attention to academic journals or conferences and start thinking they have more in common with their counterparts at big universities than with folks in the pews beside them who may be less scintillating, literate, and witty, centrifugal force increases.
The process accelerates when some faculty members begin using those godwords, "academic freedom," and demanding license similar to that which professors at state universities have. Typically, other professors, as well as administrators and trustees, find it difficult to speak against the godwords. Instead of insisting that professors uphold denominational standards in the classroom and in publishing, some boards of trustees violate their trust, and soon the "Christian" college is almost indistinguishable from its state-funded brethren.
It should be obvious that a college, if it is going to call itself Christian, cannot have an anything-goes academic freedom in which, say, one professor is pro-Trinity and one is anti-Trinity. Christian colleges should require their professors to adhere in their teaching and writing to the Bible, and secondarily to denominational creeds and confessions (such as, for Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession of Faith). Professors at denominational colleges should also agree not to oppose decisions of their general assemblies, denominational conventions, and so forth. Does that keep professors within a particular college from going with the flow of their academic disciplines? Yes, but if Christian colleges are to be maintained in the face of the secular liberal pressure that dominates most colleges and universities, there is no alternative.
Good Christian colleges are now the very few lambs that are not bleating among a flock of over 1,000 American colleges and universities. They need to defend their distinctives. A Christian college should be able to guarantee to parents that biblical standards are upheld in the classroom and in assigned readings, not undermined. Christian college professors who would be more comfortable in the environment of a state university or a theologically bland private institution should join one. Ironically, some Christian college professors who rebel against denominational authority, and act as a negative force by passing on such attitudes to their students, could have an enormously positive role at institutions like UT, where they could challenge the predominant materialism and show cynical students that Christians can think.
Maintaining distinctive Christian colleges is so important that boards of trustees must sometimes stand up to faculty pressure. Israelites 3,000 years ago demanded a king so they could be like the nations surrounding them. Some Christian college professors today want academic freedom to be king so their colleges can be smaller versions of the University of Texas. For the sake of students and parents, and for the glory of God, the small amount of diversity remaining in American higher education must be maintained.