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New Horizons

A Case for Christian Higher Education

Judith M. Dinsmore

Back when Geneva professor and OP elder Dr. James Gidley was a student, student loans weren’t a thing. Had he walked into a bank and asked for one, he said, “they would have laughed me out of the lobby!”

Nobody’s laughing today. The Pew Research Center reports that Americans “owed more than $1.3 trillion in student loans at the end of June [2017], more than two and a half times what they owed a decade earlier.” Students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree owe a median of $25,000; postgraduate degree holders are at $43,000.

As debt-averse Calvinists, these numbers probably make us itchy. They don’t sit well with Gidley, either. The cost of higher education has risen faster than inflation for years and contributes to what Gidley calls a vicious cycle: “As schools cost more, parents demand more of them, which then costs more money. The high expense, then, is driving the pragmatic view of school.” Students think that if they’re going to attend, it had better be worth their while in dollars.

The High Cost of Non-Christian Education

But after looking at the price tag, many students opt out of Christian higher education. After all, if one has grown up with Christian training in home or school or both, how difficult can it be to navigate a secularized student environment—especially if it’s cheaper?

“I don’t think that’s good thinking,” Geneva College president Calvin Troup said. “It’s common thinking, but not good thinking.”

It doesn’t look closely at the cost of that secularized environment, he claimed. The general education courses at a secular school, where each student begins, are the courses most permeated with an anti-Christian bias. It may not be flashy or in your face, but it is “intellectually profound and pervasive,” Troup said. He speaks from experience: in one case, he was teaching at a large public university and hanging out in the faculty lounge. The professors were swapping strategies on how to fix the big campus problem of “all these students from our state who are too Christian and too conservative,” Troup remembered.

A 2017 study done by the Gallup-Knight Foundation backs him up. In its findings, college students were more likely to perceive that liberals are able to freely express their views on campus (92 percent) than conservatives are (69 percent).

One dad of a freshman told Troup about the message he heard from a state school during welcome week. “We see our job as unlearning everything you’ve learned at home,” the college told its incoming students, “and re-teaching you to become a global citizen.” Secular higher education may not have chapel on Wednesday morning, but they are evangelizing nonetheless.

And counteracting their message is hard. “You will not have a God Is Not Dead experience,” Troup said. In that film, a Christian student disproves a hostile professor. In real life, Troup explained, non-Christian PhDs are not nearly that inept. “You might survive with your Christianity intact. But you’d get eaten alive intellectually. It’s not a fair fight.”

To flip it around, what students won’t encounter at a secular school is the “positive, Christ-centered, high-octane, Christian intellectual tradition of a biblically integrated core that you can get at a good Christian college,” he said.

More Than a Data Download

Derek Halvorson, president of Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, honed in on a different concern with secular higher education.

Historically, he explained, higher education has been intricately connected with spiritual formation. With the rise of the research university model in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, higher education “became all about the production of knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge for practical purposes.” The result, he says, is that most institutions have abandoned themselves to a shallow vision of education: giving oneself the skills necessary to get a job that makes money.

“There’s a very strong unspoken undercurrent in American education about helping you become successful—and they define that success by your economic status or your general happiness,” Halvorson observed.

In contrast, the goal of schools like Covenant is pretty obvious. “One of the great benefits of the Christian college is that their ‘hidden curriculum’ isn’t all that hidden,” Halvorson said. “We tend to be very forthright about what we’re hoping to accomplish and what we’re hoping to see in the lives of our graduates.” Their goal as a college is not to “transition data from one brain to another brain,” but to make disciples.

“We’re not just trying to get people to understand certain facts; we’re also trying to teach people to love certain things, to long for certain things,” he said. “We view education as the formation of people intellectually and emotionally and spiritually.”

This holistic perspective should be old news. Reformation Bible College (RBC) in Ligonier, Florida, sees itself as a direct inheritor of the rich tradition of liberal arts. “We are not in any way an innovator or unique in the twenty-first century,” its president, Dr. Stephen J. Nichols, said. “We see ourselves as meaningfully connected to our past and part of a tradition that we find has a great value of life in the present.”

At RBC, students take classes in the great works of art, literature, and music, as well as the Bible and theology. Nichols happily admits that it’s not a school for everyone—although it’s currently at capacity and expanding its facility—but also that it’s more than just a pre-seminary undergrad school.

“Being compelling communicators of the written word and of the spoken word are almost essential skills to success in whatever students do… The most timely education is a timeless education. We’re preparing students for careers that maybe don’t even exist yet.”

With this “timeless” education, RBC is attempting to reclaim the uni in university—the “one-ness” of cohesive educational offerings. What’s offered in fragmented secular education may have great practical use but is disconnected from a larger moral or ethical framework—and often disconnected from a historical perspective as well, Nichols said.

The Great Divide

This fragmentation, Gidley argues, goes deep. An inhabitant of academic worlds for forty years, Gidley has witnessed a widening gap between the “two sides” of a traditional campus: the humanities and the sciences. On the one side, humanities faculty in America in the last century have given over to relativism. “Any claim to truth they see as just a way to justify power,” Gidley said. The other side, the sciences, spends all their time hypothesizing, testing, and deducing—“philosophically, they haven’t gotten past 1750.” One side is saying that there is no truth, the other side is constantly occupied in finding out the truth via the scientific method.

Gidley uses as an example biological determinism versus transgender advocacy: a prominent biologist recently made the case that all social behavior is biologically determined, and yet simultaneously, transgender advocates routinely dismiss biological reality in favor of psychological conviction. There is a wide gulf between the claims, yet they coexist on college campuses. “The humanists and scientists get along by never talking to each other,” Gidley concluded.

But he cautions that Christians make the same mistake when they view the sciences as morally neutral. OP parents might break out in hives, for example, if their child attends a secular university for gender studies—but without a qualm ship them off to the same school to pursue a biology or engineering major. Although the Enlightenment-era philosophy of a system of statements from which one deduces other truths is somewhat compatible with Christian doctrine, an Enlightenment-influenced Christianity runs the great risk of “reducing faith to an ideology,” Gidley explained.

As Troup said, a lack of coherence costs.

The conversation between the humanities and the sciences does take place at some institutions, Gidley said, some—but not all—of which are Christian colleges. “These are the places to receive a true education,” he advised. 

Building Up Rather than Tearing Down

Halfway through our interview in Dr. Troup’s office, his assistant knocked on the door. A campus tour was in the hallway. Troup jumped up, grabbed a stack of booklets from his desk, and went out to address the touring students. This happens frequently, I was told. Troup will pause whatever he’s doing to chat with tours and give them each a copy of the “Foundational Concepts of Christian Education,” a fifty-year-old document that is the philosophical basis of the school. One portion reads, “The goal of Christian education is the development of mature students who, as individuals, have well-integrated personalities; and who, as well-oriented members of society, are building the kingdom of God in the family, the church, the nation and the world.”

In a previous academic role, Troup would point students looking for research advice to a constructive hermeneutic. “Don’t stand back and critique evangelicalism—it’s so easy!” he would tell them. “We’re a mess! What you write will not help anyone. Much better to do some kind of constructive work.” The gifts that we have as Christians, academic and otherwise, Troup argues, must be used for the building up of the church. Criticizing family, church, nation, and world is the easy way out. Actually building the kingdom of God is far more difficult.

In a recent survey of Covenant alumni, 96 percent of respondents reported that they remained committed to the Christian faith and 95 percent that they are regular members or attenders of a local church. Contrast that with the 40 percent of churched high-schoolers that Barna Group reports as still being in the faith after college.

“Not only are [our students] being well-equipped for their vocations after college, but they’re also having their commitment to the local church, the body of Christ, reinforced and encouraged through their experience on our campuses,” Halvorson said. “Our graduates are inclined, when they leave Lookout Mountain, to stay in the local body…and to do so from a thoughtful and biblically informed perspective.”

There’s plenty for the church to lose if it loses Christian higher education, he considered.

If students decide to attend a Christian college, it will certainly take their time, and money, and energy. But it might be more than worth their while. And worth the church’s, too.

There’s been a lot of research done, Halvorson said, about how to build a unified vision that hangs together: “The best way to do it is to put people into a residential learning community where they read texts together and talk about ideas together and watch examples of others in the community [so that] their lives rub up against one another—and, well, that’s not the cheapest way to do diploma delivery!”

The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, July 2018.

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