Five Big Questions about Christian Colleges

A couple things got me thinking about the big questions that I would want to explore when it comes to academic life in Christian colleges.  First, on January 26, Danny Anderson (whose post on Philip Roth will, if our luck holds out, see some sequels soon) posted the following question on his Facebook wall:

Let’s see if Facebook is a better forum for this than Twitter. I think that colleges need to re-think introductory courses. Instead of simply thinking of them as pre-requisites, how can they be made more exciting and valuable for the development of the whole person? Is the answer interdisciplinary? Go back to the Trivium? I’d love some opinions about this, academic or not.

Then, on January 29, a friend and colleague from the history department, who splits his work load hours between teaching and administration, came to me with a story and a request.  In a conversation with another colleague (and friend) from the Physical Sciences area, the question arose what the biggest problems were, in terms of academics, at our college.  The historian realized that he had never enumerated such a list (we humanities types tend not to make lists as often as our friends in the sciences), and rather than make such a list in isolation, he decided to ask some other colleagues what policy priorities we think should drive administrative discussions-to-come.  Thus his visit to me: he wanted to know my top five.

As is my wont, I dodged the question.  For one, though I’m aware of problems when they arise, I’m not all that aware of them on an ongoing basis.  That’s why I’m rotten administration material, by the way.  More importantly, though, I don’t know that I could invent five policies that I think should be enacted.  I’m not even sure that I’ve thought carefully enough about the “problems” about which I most like to gripe to name them truthfully.  Instead, I’m inclined to ask five big questions that might in turn inform how we think of what counts as a “problem.”  (I’m inclined to leave the hard intellectual work of policy-writing to those more gifted there.)  So here, for my colleagues and for our readers to chime in on, are five questions that I think we should start asking as we imagine the life of the Christian college:

  1. How much should student transience shape our core curriculum?  This one would likely be my own number-one concern, largely because it affects the way that Christian colleges think of ourselves in relationship to our students on a very deep level.  One impulse that I’d like to see us pursue further is to imagine our Christian college as an educational experience unlike what’s available in other places.  On the other hand, I grant, thinking on this through the eyes of our admissions folks, that presenting to potential students a set of courses that “trap” them at our school makes recruitment harder.  I appreciate the fact that we’ve held strong in requiring a significant course of theological study (a faith-and-learning course for freshmen, three Biblical studies classes, a theological ethics course, and a required theology capstone for seniors) as part of our own curriculum, but I’d like to see us free our faculty to design rhetoric, history, science, literature, and other courses without being automatically bound by what other colleges are already doing.  I realize that students want to carry credit hours with them when they go there or skip courses here because they’ve done it there.  But, to propose outrage, perhaps those other colleges should get a chance to look at how we do things and learn a thing or two.  I set out thinking that I would propose big-picture ideas to influence each of these, but for this one I really don’t have any ideas other than trying to convince Admissions personnel (and potential students) that the risk of a truly local core curriculum (and perhaps even major curricula) might position us, among local institutions, as a true innovator and thus render us attractive enough to stick around.
  2. To what extent can we diminish the lopsided hierarchy of “general education” and “major” courses?  This is one that Danny Anderson’s question got me thinking on.  I can’t help but trace this one back to the notion that college is mainly job-training more than soul-shaping.  (I realize that such a cultural phenomenon is to be resisted rather than vanquished, hence the “diminish” rather than an “abolish” in the question.)  When the traditional liberal arts become mere “prerequisites” to the real work of job-credential-generation, there’s no wonder that students hate our core classes, and when students hate our core classes, I can’t muster any surprise when they lie and cheat to get past the junk classes and on to what’s important.  (Such problems are prevalent at American colleges across the spectrum; don’t think that Christian colleges are immune.)  Even less surprising are the resentment, grumbling, and other nastiness that happen when a core class has the temerity to happen AFTER one’s major classes.  (That’s the theology keystone, for those following along at home.)  What I’d like to see as a counter to this would be a different approach to course sequencing, one that required genuine prerequisites to continue to prerequisites (mathematics before upper-division science, kinesiology before hands-on athletic training) but to bring some courses (theology, rhetoric, perhaps physics or astronomy) to the culmination of education, communicating to students that the education part of education situates the whole of the career-preparation rather than standing between the students and their uneducated (in a fairly literal sense) aims.  Such an approach wouldn’t have a chance in Gehenna to nullify careerism, but I have a hunch that systematic attempts to make our core about formation for mission, a course of education that frames rather than merely preceding one’s major, might intensify this movement of resistance.
  3. What metaphors do we have at our disposal to re-imagine relationships between campus ministry and academic programs?  Some days I’m at a loss, I have to admit, to say how our classrooms connect to the big hall where our weekly convocation services happen.  Right now, geography seems to provide the controlling metaphor: we cross a high bridge to go to a large, loud place to be spectators at convocation, then we return across that same bridge to go back to what we do as professors and students.  There are two worlds, each of which we inhabit for a spell but neither of which really talks to the other.  What we value in “our” world–dialectic learning, constant interaction with students to see whether what’s happening is really doing anything with them, personal responses to student curiosity–seems almost entirely irrelevant in the “other” world of loud music, followed by one person speaking unilaterally to hundreds.  If I could once more propose an outrage, I wonder whether we could re-imagine Spiritual Life as a network of communities-whose-members-speak-to-each-other rather than a pair of weekly performances-for-hundreds, something more like Latin American Christian Base Communities and less like a megachurch gathering.  Or, to put it another way, why not make “small groups” mandatory and concert-hall gatherings optional?  I imagine this as an academic concern because I can easily imagine major- or even school-based communities that genuinely incorporate formation-for-mission into studies this way, as opposed to the big concert-hall model, which if anything militates against such incorporation.  We’ve already got built in the time and money commitments to disciplined spiritual life; why not move it around a bit?
  4. Whether theology remains the queen of the sciences or no, what sort of polity do our departments inhabit?
    As far as I can tell right now, the sciences have no queen at my college, and there’s a fair bit to be said for an array of city-states rather than an absolute monarch as the controlling metaphor for the college.  When it comes to the ways that mathematicians teach number theory or computer programmers teach programming, even if someone gave me dictatorial power, I’d be inclined to govern according to subsidiarity, allowing questions best handled locally to get handled locally and saving the power of higher authority for bigger-picture questions.  The problem, of course, is that what constitutes big-picture questions is itself at stake.  Thus as a literature teacher, I sometimes wish I could assume a certain (arbitrary, no doubt) level of historical familiarity when I teach old texts and a basic grasp of science when we read modern stories.  But that’s an English-department gripe about the biology and history areas, not a philosopher-king’s view of the big picture.  The point here is that, without more reflection on the relationships among the departments, my own inclination is to continue the passive-aggressive, ignore-and-gripe cycle, and I have a hunch there are better ways to be.  I could imagine our college’s investing some load-hours (even if they’re overload hours) into a robust program of interdisciplinary courses (built into the mission-framing curriculum that I described above), preferably team-taught by faculty from different departments, as much to benefit us teachers as to enrich our students’ imaginations.
  5. Could we imagine ongoing, dialectic relationships among students, professors, administrators, and graduates’ employers?  Right now students come to us with all the confidence in the world that they know what it takes to “get a job,” and almost invariably the study of literature and philosophy figure, in their estimations, as obstacles to rather than helps for that journey.  I know that our teacher-education department does a fine job staying in conversation with local schools, and I wonder whether other departments might be capable of such things.  Right now the connections between English departments and those who hire management for companies seem to happen in magazine articles, hardly an efficient medium.  As a teacher of rhetoric and literature, I do wonder whether, with a clearer idea of our students’ tendencies and shortcomings when they graduate, I could more intentionally deploy the soul-shaping potential of literature and rhetoric so as to benefit both our students as “individuals” and their communities of coworkers.  (If there are examples of liberal-arts faculties interacting with potential employees, I’d like to know of them.)  As with some of the other ideas here, I realize that economics (not the academic department but the abstraction) stands in the way of anything I could imagine, but perhaps others have more useful imaginations.

So there are my five big questions and some vague ideas of ways that a small Christian college might take them on.  What do you good readers think?

2 thoughts on “Five Big Questions about Christian Colleges

  1. I went to UCLA, which I imagine is significantly different in myriad ways from a Christian College. We hated the gen ed courses because they were all so boilerplate and generally taught in class sizes of 300+. It just seemed like a hose of information without much significance. The best ones I took were in summer, with a class size of 50 taught by an assistant professor who cared. So, that may not help the discussion at all, but I can’t really speak to much else.

    1. OwenPaun I’m sure it is, but I do see your point, and I think it might shed some good light on why Christian colleges’ gen-ed courses are the way they are.  After all, if the big colleges’ registrars are going to accept transfer credit from the little guys (and vice versa), they’ve got to have some sense that there’s some analogous content there.
      I suppose my hangups with transience and gen-ed are similar to my hangups on grade-inflation: certainly nobody would deny that grade inflation happens, just as few would deny that gen-ed courses don’t have much flexibility to innovate.  But in both cases, the one who decides to be the first to go is going to suffer: the institution who decides unilaterally that “C” means average is going to lose all of its pre-med students quickly, and the institution that goes St. Johns (assuming it’s not St. Johns) is going to run off every student with any ambition to transfer in or out.  Like I said above, it would take a monumental risk to step out on that, and I’m not sure I’d want the institution that pays my bills to be the one taking that risk.

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