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From the June, 2004 issue of Touchstone


Pass-Fail 101 by Joel Tom Tate

Pass-Fail 101

Joel Tom Tate on Three Ways to Make or Break a Christian College

The college I attended as an undergraduate, like most Evangelical Christian liberal arts colleges, had what we considered a rival school. We were shamefully prone to casting aspersions on its spiritual state, hinting that it was barely a Christian college anymore. We felt, admittedly, some unwholesome delight at the failing of another school, but also a pride that we were among a dwindling handful who were true stewards of the Evangelical heritage of higher education.

The rumors and sleights were usually poorly founded and ill motivated, but there was something to them. Even students chafing at our school’s high expectations for their behavior and agitating for certain changes were, for the most part, concerned about the health of Christian higher education and about the universal susceptibility to institutional drift. We knew intuitively what history clearly tells us: A college that seeks to be actively Christian in its identity and purpose is perched precariously in a place from which it can easily slip in any number of directions, and it is much easier and more likely to succumb by invisible degrees to some form of secularism than to remain in its place.

My parents and three of my grandparents attended the same college in the Midwest. When my grandparents went there, it had a strong faith identity as well as accountability to its founding body. When my parents went there, it still identified itself as a Christian college and had most of the trappings, but changes in admissions standards, faculty hiring practices, and its relationship with the founding body had already made the move to a secular form of higher education a fait accompli. By the time I looked at colleges, it had dropped every pretense of being Christian in identity or purpose.

Many things contribute to a school’s gradual change in identity. My purpose here is to present three changes in orientation that lead to that change in identity over time: the change from ministry to the Kingdom to ministry to the student; from teaching the truth to teaching the range of alternatives; and from forming a Christian community to accepting the culture’s norms for student life.

Kingdom or Student

During my sophomore year, I attended a good many chapels, but only one I can recall with any clarity. I can still remember where I was sitting, and I can see the chapel speaker in my mind’s eye. He was explaining that a student ought to think of education, especially education at a Christian college, as a matter of vocation. And if it is a matter of calling, the student ought to think of college as his first job out of high school. I remember sitting in my seat with an uncomfortable feeling as the implications sunk in.

I, being a clever college student, had persuaded myself that because I had paid for the privilege of attending classes, those classes were mine to skip. I now thought that perhaps I had been wrong, perhaps I had an obligation to attend those classes for the sake of something as big and as outside of myself as the Kingdom of God. It occurred to me that if college was my vocation, I could no longer approach classes as a game where I was in competition with the professor to try to get from him the best grade I could without doing the things he required from me as a student.

And I realized that I could no longer think of myself as the consumer of a product. As a freshman I had thought I was paying for and working toward a degree that would open the door to a certain kind of lifestyle. That degree, with all that it implied, was the product. By the end of my sophomore year, however, I was coming reluctantly to the conclusion that I myself was supposed to be the product.

When asked if a Christian college ought to be primarily a ministry to the Kingdom or primarily a ministry to the student, many would be tempted to think it was a false dichotomy. After all, you could hardly expect to accomplish one without doing the other. If you focus on ministering to the students, who are, after all, an aspect of the Kingdom, you will be advancing the cause of the Kingdom indirectly. And if you are determined to minister to the Kingdom by providing it with well-educated men and women of character, the efforts you put into educating them will be a matter of ministering to them.

In practice, however, the two orientations entail different practices and different results. If a college does not exist for the sake of the Kingdom, it cannot expect its students to be there for the sake of the Kingdom. If it exists for the sake of the student, no one should be surprised if the students at that college are there for their own sakes. A college that shifts from intentionally providing a service to the Kingdom to merely providing a Christian alternative for its students will not only be doing its students a disservice, but will find it difficult, and eventually impossible, to hold onto its faith identity and purpose.

Truth or the Alternatives

Christian educators face one of the most difficult challenges imaginable. To insist on the idea of truth and to have the temerity to claim that some ideas are untrue means losing all relevance in a culture in which relativism is the pervasive ideology and in an academy in which it is the unrelenting dogma. Some are tempted to resolve that tension between the truth claims of Christianity and the relativism of our culture by suggesting that the educational value of the truth is limited and that teaching beliefs that are not true is essential to educating Christian students.

The thinking goes something like this: A student who is presented with a truth claim by a respected teacher will unthinkingly accept it, and his intellectual development will be arrested at that point. Later on, when he is outside the cloisters, he will be confronted with persuasive arguments against the received truth he had held so naively, and he will crumble in the face of doubt. It would be much better for him while still at the Christian college to be exposed to and confronted with all the viewpoints on every issue, so that he might discern for himself the truth of the matter and thus internalize it in a way that he could not otherwise.

And there is much truth in this. A college has no business protecting its students from differing points of view, if such a thing were even possible. Students often hold the truth they receive in a shallow embrace, ready to discard it for something more convenient or appealing if given enough of a reason. It is certainly a challenge for a teacher not only to present the truth to students but also to motivate them to choose it over the alternatives and commit themselves to it.

But it is wrong to suggest that the truth is self-evident and that a student provided with all the alternatives will eventually choose it freely, and that truth claims endanger the educational process. We have forgotten what everyone knew at one time: that the truth is a precious thing, and a thing to be cherished, zealously defended, and confidently espoused. There is no need to be coy about it, or to be frightened of its articulation lest some fresh-faced, idealistic student who is, as yet, unaware of all of the (ultimately failed) arguments against it, finds himself challenged after he graduates.

The accommodationist who finds himself caught between Christianity and relativism will say that students are very impressionable regarding the truth claims of orthodox Christianity. But the same person will claim that students are so un-impressionable and savvy that no manner of persuasive lie can seduce them so long as the truth is presented somewhere in the hodgepodge of ideas with which they are inundated.

The truth is a thing difficult to arrive at and dearly to be held on to. And lies are dangerous and seductive things, to which wise and learned people can be alarmingly susceptible. This is something that our grandparents (who sacrificed to found or sustain many of these schools) knew and we have forgotten. In this cultural climate the tentativeness and restraint that would be admirable in a bull in a china shop looks more like a detestable quality in a soldier who is engaged in a fight for something important.

When a college loses confidence in the educational value of the truth, and teaches ideas that are not true, even if it is trying to ensure the students’ confidence in the truth, it is doing its students a disservice and is, in the end, undermining its own faith identity.

Community or Culture

Many Christian colleges have an unpleasant habit of referring to their community as a “bubble” or something of the sort. It’s a term meant to convey the distinctness of the college from the world around it. Many, and not only students, often assume that living in a bubble is a bad thing and indicates the dangerous unreality of the college community. They might be surprised to find that the college was designed and founded by people who unabashedly sought to create a community different in its life from the culture, a city on a hill, a “bubble.”

The rules and policies of the Evangelical liberal arts college have always been at least a little out of step with the world around them. That is simply in the nature of things. The rules are not just prudential, which is to say that they are about more than behavior management and the sound government of an academic community. The college aspires to more than defining the lowest limits of acceptable behavior.

A policy restricting visitation between the sexes tries not only to prevent unchastity but to encourage chastity, for example, by helping friendships grow without being distorted by sexual intimacy. It is important to understand that the effect of such rules is more than the sum of their parts. Individually the policies may be restrictive, but cumulatively they are instructive, in the sense that together they say something important about a way of living. Never mind that it is not a way of living that is often practiced outside that bubble. It has the potential to be a beautiful way of life and that beauty comes through the rules.

In The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien gives us a picture of a place dramatically out of step with the “real world.” His Rivendell is an elvish haven, a place of safety where the constantly harried heroes of the story can recover from their wounds and prepare themselves for the tests and trials ahead of them. It is not a place for them to live indefinitely. After leaving Rivendell they will face horrible evil and endure constant peril. But they will be able to draw from their experience and be nourished by the conviction that there is an ideal worth defending and attaining to, because they have seen it.

And so it is with college. The argument that Christian colleges are not enough like the real world is like suggesting that Rivendell fails the heroes by not being enough like Mordor. A Christian college is properly an elevated thing, a city on a hill, a marked departure from the world around it. The strength of Rivendell keeps the evil things at a distance for a time, allowing the heroes to sojourn, to grow strong, and to make sound plans. To listen to the critics of Christian colleges, you would think that the very strength of Rivendell is itself sinister, enfeebling the heroes and needlessly delaying the inevitable.

The thinking goes something like this: “Students need to make their own decisions. If colleges make all the decisions for them, they will graduate as moral infants.” This argument masquerades as an argument for more authentic virtue. The critic suggests that enforced policies become a substitute for personal virtue. And while that is a possibility, there is absolutely no reason to believe, considering our fallen nature, that personal virtue will blossom in the absence of enforced policies. Some things must be lived out to be appreciated, and many of those same things must be mandated if they are to be lived out.

As a student at a college that asked all the members of its community, students, staff, and faculty, to abstain from alcohol, I learned a great deal from observing professors who did not share the college’s convictions about alcohol but nonetheless sublimated themselves for the sake of something else. This virtue of humble submission, when adopted by the student, is often the one that makes all the other virtues so virtuous. A believer who has not learned to judiciously submit himself to authority will end up being of little use to the Kingdom.

The college that peels away its policies in a supposed effort to stimulate more authentic virtue in its students only denies them the opportunity for this greater virtue. And in lowering the expectations, they send the message to their students that virtue and integrity need not be difficult or costly.

Students are often tempted to deride the character of their community as being ridiculously old-fashioned and embarrassingly out of touch with contemporary culture. That is a natural result of the tendency of those formed by the wider culture to evaluate the community of faith in terms of the culture’s normative standards, rather than the other way around.

So it should come as no surprise that students chafe at lifestyle expectations that are higher than those placed on them at home or (for those from stricter homes) that are placed on their friends at schools without a faith identity. In fact, they do more than chafe; they object on principle. The beauty of a lifestyle that intentionally reflects biblical standards for life in community is lost on them when all they can see is the embarrassing gulf between the comfortably low expectations outside of their community and what they consider to be the unreasonably high expectations from within.

When a college finds itself apologizing for having high expectations of its student’s lifestyles—for not being enough like an unredeemed world—it is already on its heels. A community of faith need not apologize for policies governing the behavior of its members unless those policies fail to meet basic standards of biblical interpretation. When students protest a policy, rather than going on the defensive and trying to moderate or even eliminate it, a college ought to accept the educational mandate and teach the policy and the bigger thing it points to: the beauty of a Christian life.

The Stewards

Christian colleges continue to outperform their secular counterparts in recruitment of new students. And yet the pressure on these colleges to conform to the normative characteristics of a secular education is intense, from within and without. Most of us can name two colleges that have lost the faith identity and purpose it once had, for every college that still holds it.

When those given stewardship over a college are committed to the success of the Kingdom of God, it can produce men and women of intellect and character. But the college must not exchange the loftier goal of serving the Kingdom for the more myopic goal of ministering to its students, neither must it lose confidence in the educational value of the truth, nor must it apologize for policies that illustrate the excellence of Christian life.

Joel Tom Tate is the Director of Student Activities and the Campus Minister at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vermont, in addition to being the pastor of North Chittenden Wesleyan in North Chittenden, Vermont, where he lives with his wife Christine, their three daughters, and a flock of ducks.

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“Pass-Fail 101” first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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