Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

The Case for Christian Colleges

(Jan Erik Posth/Getty Images)
They provide a refuge of quality instruction and intellectual diversity 

The first college class I ever sat through was a political-science seminar attended by a score of impossibly sophisticated undergraduates, each separately sure of the rectitude of his or her convictions. I was not enrolled. Rather, I had come to campus as a high-school senior simply to “get a sense of things” (I quote from memory a long-lost admissions brochure), to “drop in” and determine whether the university was worthy to receive me into its ranks the following year.

It is no exaggeration to say that what I saw in the classroom that morning helped set the course of my life. Gently, but with the relentlessness of a major weapons system, the professor set about dismantling the false certitudes of both the Left and the Right, revealing to her startled students the extent to which their supposedly ironclad opinions were in fact plated with unexamined assumptions, faulty science, and groupthink. The issue under consideration, if memory serves, was capital punishment, but at the end of the class I couldn’t have said with any confidence where the professor stood.

More and more these days, I wonder whether such teaching isn’t going the way of cursive handwriting and the slate chalkboard.

To assert merely that our nation’s university system leans leftward is to understate one of the most grievous flaws in contemporary American life. Every year, hundreds of thousands of well-meaning parents send their sons and daughters to school blithely unaware of the extent to which those students will be shaped — in classroom, dorm, and quad — according to rigid ideological precepts.

The data, for those who care to look, are as depressing as they are unsurprising. According to a landmark 2007 study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, 90.2 percent of American faculty categorized themselves as either “liberal” or “moderate,” while only 9.2 percent identified as “conservative.” Characterizing his findings in a 2016 essay in the Los Angeles Times, Gross acknowledged that “even among professors who chose the label moderate, liberal political opinions were quite common.” Furthermore, he allowed, there lay a gulf between the professoriate and the public at large: At the time of the study, only “a fifth of all American adults described themselves as liberal” while “about half of the faculty did.”

In the years since Gross and Simmons first corroborated what conservatives had long known, more-recent data have told a similar story. A 2016 study in Econ Journal Watch, for example, found an 11.5-to-one Democrat-to-Republican ratio in 40 leading social-science departments across the country. Another analysis, performed by Hoover Institu­tion fellow Samuel J. Abrams the same year, uncovered a six-to-one liberal-to-conservative ratio among faculty nationwide and a stunning 28-to-one ratio at New England colleges specifically.

As a consequence of these findings, education reformers on the right have understandably focused much of their attention on burning down the whole crooked house, responding to trigger warnings and the banishment of right-leaning speakers with schemes to eliminate tenure at public universities, publish embarrassing student-debt-to-earnings ratios, and steer young people toward alternative credentialing. Judged according to the principles of, say, game theory, such maneuvering makes sense. If progressives have turned college into a mechanism for the elimination of conservative ideas, then the Right is surely justified in seeking to diminish higher education’s cultural clout.

With respect to my torch-bearing colleagues, however, I’d like to propose a different path. Like a sick child, like a treasured possession left too long to rust, the American university system is too dear to abandon. If anything, we should be sending more students to college — opening up further avenues of funding, both public and private, even as we pursue policies that might lower tuition or challenge the progressive domination of our campuses. Colleges will have to change, to be sure, but in the meantime conservatives would be wise not only to celebrate but to actively advance the interests of those institutions that are educating students properly right now.

Would it be self-interested of me to suggest that Christian universities have moved to the head of that class?

That I can ask such a question straight-facedly might surprise readers for whom the phrase “Christian college” evokes images of color-coded sidewalks (lest the sexes mingle) or steely Puritans dangling sinners over the mouth of hell. While it is true that students at Christian schools are likely to hear the gospel (a religious institution that didn’t at least try to proselytize would be highly suspect), it’s just as accurate to point out that many Christian universities have assembled what conservatives say they want: an intellectually diverse faculty with whom students may freely debate the ideas that have informed modern human existence.

Those ideas matter more, not less, in this angry, ignorant age, and it is to our discredit as conservatives that we have often seemed ready to cede their exploration to those whose inclination, at the first sign of disagreement, is to stifle, censor, shame, and shout down. Too many of us have fled the halls of academe.

If we have nudged our children toward certificate programs and apprenticeships because we believe that the university system (and in particular the liberal-arts model) is irredeemably broken, then we have merely acted in error: The liberal arts thrive on our Christian campuses. If, however, we have embraced the pessimism of certain Republican governors, then I must respectfully posit that we have been foolish. It may be good politics to threaten the tuition subsidies of French-literature students (Matt Bevin, Kentucky) or lament the career prospects of anthropology majors (Rick Scott, Florida), but such thinking is both cynical and shortsighted — the intellectual cousin of Malthus’s panicked reaction to so many people. What the economy will or won’t make use of is determined by the men and women who build it, in ways we cannot always anticipate or, in some cases, even imagine.

By all means, let us work together to reduce student borrowing and loosen the grip of leftist radicals. (Culling the administrative herds assembled to achieve regulatory compliance would help solve both problems.) But let us not pretend that a broadly educated citizenry is a luxury we can’t afford, or that the humanities and sciences have everywhere been replaced by political indoctrination or such absurd coursework as “zombie studies, underwater basket weaving” and “tree climbing,” to borrow Donald Trump Jr.’s memorable formulation.

Neither let us convince ourselves that the utilitarian vision of college as job training is sufficient if our goal is the preservation of a republic. In his contribution to the excellent 2015 collection The State of the American Mind, sociologist and education researcher Richard Arum (a co-author of Academically Adrift) draws a straight line between the job-training mindset and the failure of students to develop “dispositions associated with civic engagement.” This state of affairs, he writes, has “consequences for . . . the capacity of future citizens to engage and participate actively in a demo­cratic society.” While it may be a stretch to argue, as C. S. Lewis did, that “if education is beaten by training, civilization dies,” it is not at all difficult to perceive a connection between a populace that has been taught to think and the glimmering fire of freedom. Or to say, with Thomas Jefferson, that a “liberal” education makes people “worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” If, anno Domini 2018, a university will contribute to that work, it deserves all the respect, support, and encouragement that conservatives can give it.

Which brings us back to Christian colleges. (Yes, the institution I toured and enrolled in so many years ago was one of them.) Perhaps because people of faith are bound by a deeper ideology, Christian schools have largely managed to avoid the political homogeneity that has stricken so many of our secular universities. In every Christian institution I’ve visited or where I’ve had the pleasure to study, interview, or teach, Republicans and Democrats have mixed profitably (if not always easily) in the service of a more important mission than creating another generation of activist drones. Further­more, since Christ’s followers are in the habit of believing that truth both exists and matters — “the truth shall make you free” and all that — Christian colleges are uniquely positioned to resist the relativism that has corrupted the average American campus so thoroughly. It is no longer enough to say that the broader professoriate occasionally confuses right and wrong. Rather, it has sought the elimination of right and wrong as categories, replacing truth with “your truth” and reality with an ever-evolving pastiche of political orthodoxies.

Can we agree, as conservatives, that our 18- to 22-year-olds deserve better?

If we’re going to give it to them in today’s higher-education marketplace, we might begin by discarding certain uncharitable myths: that Christian education somehow isn’t real, for example; that it’s only for those people; that Christian academicians are, in the end, no better than their secular counterparts. Of course, Christians can be bad teachers, and false prophets still prowl. (If a Christian school’s religion professors consistently publish in the “Queering God’s Love” and “Social Justice in Gomorrah” vein, flee.) Yet given the choice between the foibles of believers and the willful malice of our secular colleagues, I see very little choice at all.

What, then, are conservative parents to do? Defend Christian colleges from hostile bureaucrats. Give money to our scholarship funds. Keep an eye on the work of our faculty.

And, yes, send us your children.

Graham Hillard — Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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