The Idea of a Christian College

The Idea of a Christian CollegeThe Idea of a Christian College by Arthur F. Holmes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m still not convinced there is such a thing as “Christian scholarship.” A weak version of the definition of such a thing might be that it is simply the recognition that all scholars carry presuppositions and assumptions into their work. The Christian’s will be Christian and should have the same bearing as a materialist’s, as long as such presuppositions are acknowledged. A stronger version of the definition of Christian scholarship would be that because all truth is God’s truth, all real scholarship is Christian scholarship. Both of these seem to me so wide as to be non-definitions. At the end of the day, Christian scholarship is simply that which is produced by Christian scholars. Much of it cannot be (and should not be) distinguished from the scholarly work of a secular scholar. The only real difference is the life of the person creating it.

In this respect, to me it seems that more important than the question of what is Christian scholarship are questions of what a Christian scholar looks like, what the role of scholarship in the life of the Christian is, and what sort of environment can best cultivate and articulate answers to these questions. It is the last of these questions that Arthur Holmes, a philosopher who spent the majority of his career at Wheaton College, sets out to explore in his book on the nature of Christian education at Christian colleges. (The cover of my edition says that this is a “Philosophy of Chr. Ed for Laymen,” but the cover also looks like it was designed by a seven-year-old, so I’m not sure how seriously to take that designation.)

For Holmes, Christian scholarship depends on the integration of faith and learning. This can happen in many different contexts, but Holmes is writing specifically for one context: that of a Christian liberal arts college. The distinction between a liberal arts college and vocational schools—seminaries or Bible colleges, for instance, in the Christian tradition—is a very important one. A liberal arts education, Holmes explains, is specially suited for the cultivation of Christian scholarship, because it is here that careful philosophical thought is nurtured and Christians develop the tools for a critical examination of both their own assumptions and those of others. A Christian liberal arts college needs to be a place where the virtue-forming aspects of education are emphasized: not “what can this education do for me?” but “what will this education do to me?”

This is a slender, highly accessible volume, similar in size and scope to the more recent “reexamination” of the topic (with the same title) by Reams and Glazer that I reviewed not long ago. Perhaps because I read the Reams/Glazer work first, there was much of the Holmes volume that did not seem new (though Holmes’ prose is sharper, and his philosophical training shows through to good effect in comparison to the latter volume). The primary point of departure between Reams/Glazer and Holmes is that Holmes focuses on a very specific type of institution, while Reams/Glazer attempt to update and expand this to the “Christian research university.”

Holmes’ book, though originally written in the 70s, remains a very relevant challenge and warning to Christian higher education today. This is encapsulated in a quote that Reams and Glanzer re-use as an epigram for one of their own chapters:

A community that argues ideas only in the classroom,
a teacher whose work seems a chore,
a student who never reads a thing beyond what is assigned,
a campus that empties itself of life and thought all weekend,
an attitude that devaluates disciplined study in comparison with rival claimants on time and energy,
a dominant concern for job-preparation
—these can never produce a climate of learning.

At least from my experience, these warnings ring very true.

I found his articulation of the purpose of a liberal arts education most compelling:

The question to ask about education, then, is not, “What can I do with all this stuff anyway?” because both I and my world are changing, but rather “What will all this stuff do to me?” This question is basic to the concept of liberal arts education.

I want my students to understand this. The goal of education is not to present certain bodies of information by the most entertaining, engaging, and effective means possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but that’s vocational training. A liberal arts education is about beginning a conversation—with scholars and texts and ideas—that will continue for life. Not with the goal of getting a certain type of job or certification but with the goal of becoming a certain kind of person.

Holmes also has vital things to say about academic freedom at Christian colleges and the balance between remaining a community of faith and yet not existing to indoctrinate students into a particular school of thought: A college is Christian in that it does its work in a Christian way, not by encouraging an unthinking faith to counterbalance faithless thought. Students and faculty must have the freedom to question and explore with diligence, reason, and humility. In a Christian college this ideal takes place in the context of community. Liberty without loyalty is not Christian, but loyalty without the liberty to think for oneself is not education.

I’d like to think most Christian college administrators and faculty are familiar with this book. I’d really, really like to think that. In the meantime, I’ll be asking my honors students to read portions of it in the fall.

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