In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor recently argued that Wheaton College’s accreditation, as well as that of several other religious colleges, should be revoked on the grounds that the schools’ required statements of faith violate academic freedom. I write not merely to defend Wheaton’s right to exist, but to express my gratitude that it does exist.
Wheaton is an Evangelical Christian college in Illinois that houses the C. S. Lewis papers. I went there recently for a dialogue on C. S. Lewis and reading carefully, even reverently. While I am neither specifically Evangelical, like Wheaton, nor a Christian of any denomination, I joined a community of such scholars and leaders there to explore what it would take to cultivate deep reading in our educational institutions and culture. I knew how much my own Jewish upbringing had contributed to my sense that reading carefully can open up worlds of thought and spirit.
C. S. Lewis’s beautiful short book An Experiment in Criticism presents reading well as an achievement not only of the mind but of character: of discipline and self-restraint. When describing what careful examination of a work of art or of a text requires, he writes: “We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. . . . We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. . . . The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is to surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
Reading well is at once a powerful and a fragile practice. In our time, the technology of interruption has outpaced the technology of concentration. It takes a certain reverent respect for what an artist has made to give the work sufficient attention (and love) to allow its full depth to emerge.
Attentive study also requires daily work. The report Academically Adrift documents that as many as 35 percent of college students study less than five hours a week. On average, students are studying only 12 to 13 hours a week; this is half as much as a full-time college student spent studying in 1960. One of the saddest clichés (or excuses) I often hear is that “the most important learning in college happens outside the classroom.” What a shocking capitulation — to lose the vitality of the classroom conversation as the main event of college life, as the place where careful daily preparation meets the intense engagement of fellow students and teachers. Reflecting on my time at Wheaton, I wonder whether communities of faith might offer models for fostering academic excellence, by nourishing it with such things as meditative daily practice and a sense of reverence when reading.
For those who insist that only secular institutions can fully cultivate students’ minds, I would offer a wager: Let’s compare the academic growth of similar students who attend a religious school such as Wheaton with students who go to secular colleges. We could compare the growth in student performance during college in areas such as literacy, math, science, even critical analysis. Let’s grade their papers blindly; I think we would be surprised by what we found.
There are policies at Wheaton with which I disagree, but disagreement must not tempt us to banish difference but instead should spur us to look harder. We have institutions in the Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Jewish traditions that all live their identities in diverse ways and bring valuable resources to bear on students’ academic, personal, and civic development. If students want to further both their intellectual and spiritual development at an accredited religious institution, if they feel they will learn best in that kind of setting, if they want to be part of a community that has a faith tradition (often not their own), they should have that option, with federal aid. It’s a wonderful thing and a source of strength that we have religious diversity among our institutions of higher education.
— David Coleman is president and chief executive officer of the College Board.