Voices

Cultural cringe

What evangelical donors should remember about higher education

Issue: "Bush's moral mandate," Nov. 13, 2004

November and December of their senior year in high school are crunch time for students thinking seriously about college applications. Those months are also crucial for college administrators thinking about donors. Rising costs-housing, faculty, services, buildings, not to mention insurance-mean colleges need money. Students represent money, but not enough. That's where donors come in.

But donors, to give wisely, need to understand the minefield that higher education has become. To teach in college, a person must earn a Ph.D. With few exceptions the only universities granting such degrees are large, secular institutions. Their basic worldview is naturalistic; questions of ultimate reality or God are at best interesting and at worst threatening to the hard-won intellectual freedom of the Academy.

For the prospective Christian professor, this gauntlet is daunting. It's no wonder that many find a way to secularize their minds and protect their faith in some other part of their being, a process that may not even be conscious. Some call this cultural cringe, caught between two worlds, needing the approval of each. Author and University of Southern California philosophy professor Dallas Willard describes the situation this way: "It is the academic that today governs the idea systems of our world and opposes traditional views of human nature-specifically, the Judeo-Christian or biblical understanding of human life."

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In an essay for the introduction to a new edition of a very old book, the fourth-century On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis wrote that every age has its blind spots, assumptions about reality that people unknowingly hold in common. These assumptions, Lewis says, are like the air we breathe. The antidote to this condition, Lewis says, is to read old books. Not that people in other times had no blind spots; they did. But they had different ones. The light of their understanding reveals the dark spaces in our own. And that is what a true education should do.

Potential donors to Christian colleges need to know that ideas matter. Further, they must understand how the minds of professors are formed. Then, fearing no idea, they must measure ideas by the standards of logic, Revelation, and the experience of God-fearers throughout history. This does not mean that college courses should be locked into any narrow pietistic tradition. Nor does it mean any idea is to be censored.

What it does mean is that all ideas must be weighed and considered. Students in Christian colleges and universities should understand the major lines of thought from Aristotle to Jacques Derrida and beyond. But they must also understand what biblical thinkers have said and thought about those same things. Their education, as C.S. Lewis argued, must be deeper, richer, and broader than that gleaned in any other educational setting.

This fall, as students' thoughts turn toward applications and administrators' thoughts turn toward finding ways to fund their institutions, let donors begin to think about their responsibility in supporting the enterprise we call education. Toward that end, let me suggest some reading and then a few questions for donors to ponder.

There are two books no donor should leave unread. The first is The Soul of the American University by Notre Dame professor George Marsden, a quality history that tells how American universities became what they are today. The second book is The Secular Revolution, edited by Christian Smith (see World, Sept. 18), a volume that begins where Mr. Marsden left off. It is a clear view of the process that has shaped American intellectual life since 1900. It depicts the sources of the cultural cringe that haunts evangelical educators.

With these two books in hand, ask these questions:

1. Do professors believe that historic Christianity describes reality? Does Christianity contain a unique body of knowledge that can be studied and learned?

2. What shapes the minds of professors? To whom are they most loyal-the colleges where they teach or the professional associations that govern their field of study?

3. What is the attitude of professors toward their task-to build up their students' faith with knowledge or to raise questions about it?

4. What programs does the college sponsor to help its professors deal with the intellectual challenges inherent in earning a secular Ph.D and professing Christian faith?

5. What responsibility does the college and its professors believe it has toward students, parents, and donors? When you get the answers, the real work begins.

-Roberta Green Ahmanson is a California philanthropist and writer.

Roberta Green Ahmanson
Roberta Green Ahmanson

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