I realize this advice comes a little late for high-school seniors, and their families, in the final stages of deciding where to enroll for college this fall. But news about continuing developments at Erskine College in South Carolina suggests maybe the advice is always timely.
The Erskine news comes as a follow-up to my column here last July 4, where I reported that the denomination that sponsors Erskine-the 30,000-member Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church-had voted to appoint a blue-ribbon committee to investigate reports of doctrinal drift among the faculty both in the liberal arts college and in the denomination's seminary on the same campus.
Last week, that committee submitted its report to an unprecedented specially called middle-of-the-year meeting of the denomination's highest court. The result was that, by a two-to-one majority, the court voted to replace the existing board of the college and seminary with a board more likely to reflect the denomination's more conservative stance. If so radical an action has taken place in the last century or two in American higher education, no historians I've read have noted it.
By all reports, the parliamentary debate that led to the board's housecleaning was civil and restrained. The same could hardly be said of the blogging and internet squabble that engulfed the Erskine alumni family, the ARP denomination at large, and even outside observers like the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It's a fundamentalist takeover," one worried mid-'90s Erskine graduate wrote me. "It's about time!" said another.
Nobody argues that you can't get a good education at Erskine. By at least one measure, the college's graduates enjoy some of the highest acceptance rates for graduate study to be found among all the nation's liberal arts schools.
What critics argue, though, is that students can't assume that they will get a Christian education at Erskine. What you might expect instead is a high caliber secular approach-basically ignoring issues of faith or the supernatural. And in at least one classroom, these folks charge, you'd best be ready for an approach that produces as many doubters as enthusiasts for orthodox Christian thinking.
To be sure, that same situation has existed for a generation or two at hundreds of so-called Christian and denominational colleges and universities. Along the way, thousands of Christian families have entrusted their sons and daughters to institutions they considered "safe," only to discover that they were getting little more than a warmed-over version of what they might have gotten (for a good bit less money) at the state university down the street. At least in picking the avowedly secular school, families could set their defenses.
What's different now at Erskine is that the issues have been made very public-and the strongest action imaginable has been undertaken by the most responsible parties. Some folks fret about possible mass firings from the Erskine faculty. But my guess is that the new board, operating from a revised set of bylaws, will be careful and methodical while restoring the college and seminary's historic commitments to biblically shaped learning.
But its work won't be easy. The original board of the college has already taken the new board to civil court. And the regional accrediting agencies are already worrying publicly about possible "outside influence" on "academic freedom." Nor is it easy for a college to turn on a dime, changing its image to attract enough students who want a more explicitly focused education.
Which brings me back to that original piece of advice for students, and their parents, as they go shopping for the right college. Yes, of course: Read the brochures, the websites, and the mission statements. Ask hard questions of the admissions counselors. Visit the campuses and check out the tone of student life.
But here's the main thing I'd suggest. It's an education you're after-isn't it? So before making any commitments, sit in on at least a handful of classes. And don't just walk away then from the classroom. Go up, pointedly and politely, and tell the professor you're thinking of enrolling there. And ask very directly: "Can you tell me how your teaching is different because you're a Christian? Can you tell me how your trust in the Bible affects your teaching?" Pay close attention to the answers you get.
I have a hunch the folks at Erskine will welcome that kind of questioning in the months and years ahead. We could wish that were the case at every college or university that calls itself Christian.
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