Posts Tagged ‘Christian education’

The Idea of a Christian College by [Arthur F. Holmes]This little work, revised in 1975, distills the thinking of one of the most profound conceptual minds behind the modern history of Illinois’ Wheaton College, arguably the flagship of the North American ‘Christian Liberal Arts College’ fleet. Phrases like ‘all truth is God’s truth’ and ‘the integration of faith and learning’ subsequently became common and even anodyne slogans of Christian liberal arts colleges throughout North America.

But in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Holmes was breaking new ground in defense and cultivation of the Christian college. The desire to break free from an inward-looking and fearful Fundamentalism never lay far from the surface. The book still expresses itself with an almost alarming lucidity and is perhaps as much a counter-cultural manifesto in these pragmatic times as it was when Wheaton’s great philosophy teacher was holding forth with his English accent and scribbling the lines of this book with his forceful pen.

Two of the book’s nine chapter titles are questions. The first makes its query in the broadest possible terms: Chapter 1, ‘Why a Christian College?’.

In this opening salvo, the author alleges a veritable jungle of ignorances and misconceptions about what a Christian college is actually for. In this spate of ground-clearing, Holmes is already arguing against a protective and certainly a defensive purpose for such an institution. Holmes finds the answer to his ‘Why?’ in the interpenetration of two distinctives, the educational and the religious. Educationally, the Christian college exists not in order to indoctrinate but rather to educate in ways that are both deep and daring. Religiously, such a college does not keep its piety separate from the other disciplines that come in for research and teaching. Rather it engages all appropriate disciplines from a faith commitment that is articulated and foundational.

From Holmes’ perspective, theology is bound to exercise a sort of queenly function in this endeavor, even if the author is at pains not to allow his queen rights of tyranny. Significantly, ‘Theological Foundations’ is the title of the book’s second chapter and, in a manner of speaking, of its first declarative chapter. Holmes discerns four theological pillars for the project of the Christian College. First, the fact of creation means there is much to be explored and investigated, all of it coming from a Maker’s good hand. The bugbear here is Gnosticism, which would counteract Holmes’ program by placing that truth which is worth one’s while in the sphere of the esoteric, far removed from the creative sphere that humankind is invited to and charged with investigating.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Holmes capitalizes ‘Gnostic’, inadvertently pointing his reader to a defined religio-intellectual movement that can be historically located rather than to the general disdain for the created physical realm that he clearly intends. The gnosticism he wishes to rebuke is with us today as an unorganized and largely unreflective set of mind whose exponents know little both of the historical Gnostics and of the family resemblance that Holmes glimpses in them.

The second pillar is the human person, a complex and rich feature of creation who is at his or her best when curiosity ranges wide across the created plain. Indeed, ‘(T)he educator’s task is to inspire and equip individuals to think and act for themselves in the dignity of persons created God’s image.’

Third, the fact that the realia that present themselves to us are the work of a single, benign Benefactor means, first, that all truth belongs to God no matter where it is found (that is, not exclusively nor even principally through the lens of theology) and, second, that truth is a unity no matter how beguiling its complexity. Faith, then, does not impede one’s quest to engage and understand truth; it empowers it: ‘Faith is neither a way of knowing nor a source of knowledge. Faith is rather an openness and wholehearted response to God’s self-revelation.’

Holmes’ fourth theological pillar is the oft-referenced ‘cultural mandate’. Human beings are cultural creatures. As such, we imitate God as we engage with and create culture. ‘To confess God as Creator and Christ as Lord is thus to affirm his hand in all life and thought. It is to admit that every part of the created order is sacred, and that the Creator calls us to exhibit his wisdom and power both by exploring the creation and developing its resources and by bringing our own created abilities to fulfillment.’

The Christian College’s theological foundations, then, fuel a robust and fearless education enterprise.

In his third chapter (‘The Liberal Arts: What and Why?’), Holmes traces the historically shifting lines of what has come under study in the enterprise to which we now refer as ‘the liberal arts’. But he is more concerned to move beyond this ‘extensional definition’ to an ‘intensional definition’: ‘the liberal arts are those which are appropriate to persons as persons, rather than to the specific function of a worker or a professional or even a scholar’.

One might consider Holmes’ person as person here to be the second accusative often attached to the verb ‘to teach’. That is, one teaches something to or for someone. His emphasis upon the formation of a person sets his approach and indeed the practices of a ‘liberal arts college’ off from vocational and other forms of education. There may be no more violent rupture than this between the author’s program and the pragmatic spirit of the age that renders unremarkable proposals to assess the value of an educational institution principally or even exclusively by counting the dollars its graduates earn within, say, ten years of their departure from it. Holmes believes that educating the person represents a larger and more compelling ambition than that, nor will he concede that to do so is not to attend to matters of a graduate’s employability.

When we ‘make a person’, in Holmes’ view, we are dealing with a multi-faceted though integrated creature. He or she is a reflective, thinking being, a valuing being, and a responsible agent. There is a place for other kinds of education, Holmes avers, but it is the particular remit of liberal arts education to provide ‘an opportunity to steward life more effectively by becoming more fully a human person in the image of God, by seeing life whole rather than fragmented, by transcending the provincialism of our place in history, our geographic location, or our job.’

Because the entire trajectory of Holmes’ apologia for liberal arts education tacks towards the formation of a person rather than the transmission of skills, Chapter 4 (‘Liberal Arts as Career Preparation’) flows as something other than the rearguard maneuver to which it might otherwise have been reduced, particularly in the face of prevailing notions that any education worthy of one’s dollar must demonstrate a short path to a (well-)paying job. The author is entirely convinced that the liberal arts education is solid preparation for a vocation, but not via a mechanical or short path. Rather, Holmes argues, such education forms a complete person who is eminently employable precisely because she has been pressed into significant scrutiny of her attitude towards work, exposure to a wide breadth of education, and development of conscious values that are patient of articulation. In a day in which one’s vocation may include serial dedication to a sequence of jobs, this—in Holmes’ view of things—is the kind of applicant that any employer should be loath to overlook.

Although an unsympathetic reader might by this point have begun to conclude that Holmes wants the church qua church to keep hands off the education of its young, his deep dive into how faith and learning integrate suggest otherwise (Chapter 5: ‘Integrating Faith and Learning’). Here Holmes argues that if a mature faith does not lie at the root of a Christian liberal arts college’s shared life, then it ought to abandon the adjective ‘Christian’. Yet this centering of Christian faith at the core of the college does not take us back to the notion of indoctrination.

Sometimes even interaction (reviewer: between faith and learning) has been repressed in favor of indoctrination, as if prepackaged answers can satisfy inquiring minds. Students need rather to gain a realistic look at life and to discover for themselves the questions that confront us. They need to work their way painfully through the maze of alternative ideas and arguments while finding out how the Christian faith speaks to such matters. They need a teacher as a catalyst and guide, one who has struggled and is struggling with similar questions and knows some of the pertinent materials and procedures. They need to be exposed to the frontiers of learning where problems are still not fully formulated and knowledge is exploding, and where by the very nature of things, indoctrination is impossible.

Holmes moves on from a soaring paragraph like the one just quoted to survey four approaches to the integration of faith and learning: attitudinal, ethical, foundational, and ‘worldview’. He finds a thoughtful Christian appropriation of each of these approaches as the needed, if composite, thing. The volume’s chapter four is, as one says, worth the price of this little book all by itself. Nearly fifty years on, this propositum rings remarkably undated.

It is patently obvious that ‘academic freedom’ is nowadays either a push-and-pull activity within Christian educational institutions—and not merely the Christian liberal arts college—or a topic of derision by secular critics who regard it as impossible within a religious framework or both. Holmes recognizes the dilemma that the alleged existence of the thing surfaces. His sixth chapter, entitled simplify enough ‘Academic Freedom’, addresses ‘(1) why academic freedom is important in the Christian college, (2) how it may be conceived, and (3) some criticisms it meets.’ His discussion is prefaced by a simple definition of his principle term: ‘Academic freedom is the recognition that faith and intellect, like love, cannot be forced and must not be, if each is to play its part in relation to the other.’

Holmes is also cognizant of the damage that is achieved in its absence.

To deny academic freedom is historical suicide. Rather than confirming men in the truth it will drive them from it. Rather than cherishing orthodoxy it will render it suspect to every inquiring mind. Rather than developing the intellectual resources essential to Christian thought and action it will stifle them. Rather than launching a strategic offensive into the citadels of secularism it will incarcerate us in the ill-equipped and outdated strongholds of past wars.

Holmes’ summons to professors to attach the words ‘responsibly’ and ‘carefully’ to their practice of academic freedom will not satisfy all trustees and all alumni, nor indeed will it be applauded by all professors. But it does set off academic freedom in the context of a Christian college context from that intellectual unaccountability which imagines itself devoid of presuppositions and is in other ways painfully and historically naive. One imagines that Holmes would agree that academic freedom is a core principle that in practice is a matter of constant negotiation. 

If the book’s high-water mark has been reached by its fifth or sixth chapter, this does not imply that subsequent chapters represent a winding down. Rather, for example, Chapter 7 (‘College as Community’) anchors all that has been said in a realistic—one might even say unsentimental—view of the college community. Perhaps today more than at the time of writing, ‘community’ is patient of a number of interpretations. Holmes would doubtless reject the most romantic of them, for he is convinced that community is not easily achieved and is built around the reality that the college community’s common cause is educational. One belongs to and participates in this community because one has chosen to learn and to do so in the company both of teachers and of other student learners. One can imagine elements of community that Holmes would happily discard on the grounds that they make little or no contribution to learning. 

Having suffered through chapel services in which the speaker appears to be on a mission to discredit learning, this reviewer finds Holmes’ take on college chapel to be particularly helpful:

So can the college chapel service that is a regular part of community life in the Christian college. It should not be peripheral to the educational task but should constantly renew the vision of a Christian mind. When the well-intentioned speaker discourages intellectual pursuits or cultural involvement or political action, he turns off many students. Chapel speakers should realize that a Christian college exists to cultivate the intellect and involve people in their culture, and that it is therefore more than a conserving influence in the world. A college is Christian in that it does its work in a Christian way, not by encouraging an unthinking faith to counterbalance faithless thought. If education is God’s present calling to students, then no question arises about whether God or studies comes first, for God is to be honored in and through studies. Compartmentalization has no place on the Christian campus.

Holmes constructs his penultimate chapter (8, ‘Experience is not Enough’) around two premises. First, ‘experience alone is not understanding.’ Second, ‘Education requires understanding.’ About a half-century after the book’s first printing, it is challenging to recognize Holmes’ erstwhile antagonists with completely clarity, though it is not difficult to name their daughters and sons. One can surmise that he was battling a reduction of education to quasi-educational ‘practical experiences’ as well as the corresponding diminution of rigorous reflection that accompanies this, as other, reductionisms. Regardless, the chapter’s final paragraph suggests a certain baring of teeth at the approach of adversaries, whether intramural, extramural, or both.

Liberal education develops the person. It is an open invitation to join the human race. Christian liberal arts education is an invitation to become increasingly a Christian person. But neither the excitement of traveling in Europe, nor the trauma of living in a ghetto, nor simply looking at paintings or making them, not unexamined religious experience and service activities can develop an educated person. Experience must be humanized if it is to be educational; to be humanized it must be educated. In the final analysis that is why raw experience is not enough; uneducated experience cannot educate. Experience alone is not education.

This reader was drawn inexorably towards the final chapter with its promised personification of the author’s argument for a certain kind of education. In his ninth chapter—‘The Marks of an Educated Person’—Holmes considers two fictional but highly recognizable individuals who have enjoyed the benefits of a liberal arts education but in fact have not emerged from the process with the desired qualities. His final page is dedicated to a description of another. Her name is Pat, and Holmes’ profile of her is worthy of quotation in full though it will easily signal the five decades that have passed since he conjured her image.

Pat is widely read. She has read Plato and Augustine, Shakespeare and William Faulkner. She’s acquainted with both Bach and Bartók, and enjoys Monet and Picasso. She thinks of them all as her friends. But she does not brag: she wears these friendships lightly.

Pat is alert to the issues of the day: she feels the injustices of apartheid and admits there are ambiguities in Nicaragua. She listens to the other side, rather than reacting with an outburst of ridicule or anger. She measures her judgments before she acts, and before she votes. Her vote, in the end, is the kind of vote a democracy needs—informed, principled, and caring—not just blindly partisan. Her friends tell me she always gets to the heart of an issue.

Pat is aware of some new developments in science and technology, biology in particular, and the moral dimensions of genetic research both interest and concern her greatly—even though her major was literature. She continues to read, to learn, to grow, for she realizes that however large the circumference of her knowledge, just as large are the borders of her ignorance. Yet she doesn’t worship either knowledge, or art, or influence, or even her relationships with her friends. She worships the One from whom all blessings flow, the One who gives but also takes away. Whatever her abilities, whatever her development, whatever her accomplishments, she blesses the name of the Lord.

Pat, I say, is an educated person.

Beyond longing for the increase of Pat’s tribe, what ought one to do with a little and old book like The Idea of A Christian College?

One might begin by placing it at the center of intentional conversation in any number of Christian educational institutions, whether or not they aspire to the moniker ‘liberal arts’. The work is accessible, compelling, and remarkably up to date in the light of its age.

Holmes never insists that the kind of education he describes is the only or even the best kind of education. One suspects that he would wish a thousand flowers to blossom, though he would tenaciously resist any attempt to uproot his particular plant. What he persistently—and by this reviewer’s lights, effectively—combats are the short-cuts, the settling, the mere self-preservation cum indoctrination, the gnostic alternatives to engaging the world as it comes to us, the vicious and purblind pragmatisms that claim to know what is ‘relevant’ and what is not. 

One might wish to query Holmes as to whether the Christian liberal arts education he admires is, is not, or can be made accessible to more than a sliver of the globe’s inhabitants. Alas, he is not present to respond. One guesses, however, that the response we cannot hear would begin by a gently persistent probing of the assumptions behind such a question.

This reviewer, feet firmly planted in a South American context that no one would call privileged, is convinced that—no matter where we begin—Arthur Holmes’ little apology for something larger, more beautiful, and more enduring would move us higher, move us closer to a shared life of learning and teaching that is worthy of all our sweat and tears.


Read Full Post »