Christian author and president of Ligonier Ministries R.C. Sproul tells the story of his experience as a young father visiting his daughter’s school for the first time. Six weeks into his daughter’s first grade year at a public school in Boston, Mass., Sproul attended an open house for parents in which the principal was to explain the school’s programs and goals. The principal proceeded to review in rigorous detail how each activity undertaken was based on the latest research in child education and how it contributed to specific aspects of the children’s development. When they were done, the principal asked the parents if they had any questions, which at first was met with only silence and blank stares. Finally, Sproul himself spoke up: “Sir,” he said, “I deeply appreciate all that you’ve done here, and I am overwhelmed by the amount of care and precision that has gone into the planning and execution of this curriculum. But I do have one question. Could you tell me what is the overarching purpose you are trying to achieve here? In other words, what kind of child are you trying to produce and why?” The principal looked at Sproul mutely for a several moments and then said, “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that question.” To which Sproul replied: “I respect and appreciate your being so open and honest. But frankly, your reply terrifies me.”
Sproul’s question could, and I think should, be posed to any educator, whether those teaching first-graders or those like me, working with college students. What kind of person are my colleagues and I (at Taylor University) hoping to produce or at least have a hand in shaping? If we, like that principal, have no answer to Sproul’s question, then the parents of our students, too, have good reason to be worried, if not terrified.
In an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 4, 2004), Vartan Gregorian argues that American higher education is suffering from a “major failure” to make sense of the unity and value of knowledge, and is degenerating into a mere job-readiness program. Increasingly, colleges are taking what Gregorian calls the “Home Depot approach to education,” turning themselves into “academic superstores, vast collections of courses, stacked up like sinks and lumber for do-it-yourselfers to try to assemble on their own into a meaningful whole” (p. B12). Colleges offer a vast array of general education and specialized courses but it is “devoid of…context and coherence” (ibid). What is critically absent is any sense of what it means to be an educated or cultured person. So Gregorian issues an urgent call for college professors and administrators to “reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge” (ibid).
Notice that Gregorian’s worry is essentially the same as Sproul’s but just on a higher educational plane. It is interesting to note that the events recounted in Sproul’s story occurred about forty years ago. So his daughter’s generation are today’s college professors whose lack of unifying vision Gregorian laments. There is indeed a crisis in American higher education today, and Gregorian diagnosis it well. But conspicuously absent from his essay is any sense of the problem’s cure. His plea for colleges to “reconstruct the unity of knowledge” is futile unless some of us actually know how to go about doing this.
Another curious detail in Gregorian’s essay is his choice of terminology. He does not call for a construction of the unity of knowledge but a reconstruction, which suggests that American colleges once enjoyed a unified approach to education. So where did that go? And how might we bring it back? Could it be that what we need is to rediscover the unifier of knowledge which we somehow lost along the way?
In the first chapter of Colossians the apostle Paul writes that by Jesus Christ “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). And a little later Paul says that “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). If Paul is correct-and I suspect he is-then we have found the true unifier of all knowledge, the remedy to the crisis in higher education described by Gregorian.
Many people still labor under the delusion that a “neutral” education is possible. Their recipe: Insert soul here; add factual data of diverse kinds; increase ambient social temperature; allow to incubate for three and two-thirds years; and-boom schnitzel!–an Educated Person. As if human beings really could be completely impartial and dispassionate. As if education was a simple matter of pouring facts into persons. As if there was such a thing as a view from nowhere.
One of the virtues of postmodernism is its rejection of the myth of neutrality, whether regarding education or any other sphere of human activity. There is a person-relativity to knowledge, the postmodernists tell us, and even if we cannot agree with their extreme pronouncements about relativism, we Christians should acknowledge this much. The ultimate reality is a Person, and absolute truth is relative to that Person. What American higher education has lost is not a “what” or “it” but He who is the source of everything and brings meaning and purpose to all human activities, from learning to laughter to lovemaking.
As regards our current crisis in higher education, as with so many things in life, to discover the cause is also to find the cure. Once upon a time in this country all our great colleges and universities were founded on Christ. Harvard’s motto was typical: “veritas in Christi gloriam” (truth for the glory of Christ). Jesus was the center around which they orbited, but over time they drifted out of that orbit. The image in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” comes to mind: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre; The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Jesus Christ is the true Falconer, the launching point of all knowledge and the center from which all wisdom derives. But less and less our culture hears his call.
The loss of the unity of knowledge in higher education is a consequence of the rejection of a Christian worldview. The only way this unity can be reconstructed is through Christian education. The bad news is that higher education has fallen a long way, and the road to cultural redemption will be hard. But in Christ there is always good news. A millennium and a half ago things looked really bad for Western civilization. Radical skepticism had prevailed in a war ravaged and disease stricken culture. Truth and the unity of knowledge appeared as lifeless corpses. Who would have thought the best days were yet to come for Western Civilization?
So what reconstructed the West? What brought us out of the Dark Ages and into the light? Was it not the gospel? And how did the Christian worldview survive such difficult, apparently hopeless times? It was Christian communities, an underground culture of hope, centered on Truth and devoted to the Christ who unifies all knowledge. In short, Christianity saved Western Civilization. I don’t know if we are heading into another dark age, as some have suggested. But whether or not that’s so, the West needs to be redeemed again. And if Christianity saved Western civilization once, it can happen again. It can happen through the same underground culture of hope that pulled it off the first time. And Christian colleges can be as pivotal as they were the first time. The founding of the universities of Paris, Bologna, and Salerno were decisive for the advance of Christian thought in the 13th century and beyond. Christian higher education must play a similar role in the years to come if we are to see a true redemption of Western culture.
Now, to return to Sproul’s question, my colleagues at Taylor and other Christian colleges do have an overarching purpose. We do know the kind of person we are trying to produce-a person whose Christian worldview permeates the whole of his or her life. By God’s grace we can still hear the falconer, and it is our job to enable our students to do so as well. Whatever our specialties, research projects, disciplinary paradigms, or technological preoccupations, we must not forget whom we orbit. It is he who holds all things together and “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
As a parent who spent the weekend dropping off my freshman son at Taylor, this post was very reassuring. Thanks goes to you and the other staff members for not taking his education lightly and centering it around the one whom all things orbit.
words of wisdom to ponder, and fortunately i have been met with this line of thinking in my classes @ iwu…this is a timely reminder as i am pressing on through student teaching
(still wondering how i can balance the education of my own children with the desire to reach out to the children in the public school machine)