The Purpose of Christian Higher Education

Humanities Are Essential to Forming Humans

Our young people are abandoning the Church and/or their faith in droves. If you are reading this, you likely knew that already. Many explanations have been offered for this exodus. Perhaps the Church is failing to equip its teenagers; most of them cannot articulate their faith, beliefs, or practices. Perhaps it is due to academia’s hostility towards religious conservatives. Or perhaps it is just symptomatic of the more general decline of Christianity in the U.S. Plausibly, it’s a combination of these factors (and others).

When Christian parents contend with these findings, one common reaction is to think, no problem, I plan to send my kid to a Christian school. Our aim here is to challenge this reaction—or more accurately—to refine it.

Hasty Assumptions

Reactions of this sort often assume that Christian educational institutions are all roughly on par with respect to their Christian identity, and so long as one sends their kid to a school that takes its Christian identity seriously, the bulk of the danger is avoided. Of course, one might naturally respond, I understand there are schools that self-identify as Christian (say, for historical reasons) but are in fact only nominally Christian. I plan to send my kid to a genuinely Christian school—one that explicitly endorses orthodox Christian views.

Our contention is not that parents sometimes send their kids to colleges which they mistakenly believe are more than nominally Christian institutions, though that no doubt happens. It is not particularly difficult to identify and avoid such schools; that would be a patronizing lesson for us to give. Rather, what we desperately hope to point out is that many genuine, Christian schools—institutions that are biblically sound, theologically uncompromised, largely free from external socio-cultural forces, run by smart, devout Christians—are nevertheless failing our young people.

A school could be genuinely Christian in the sense just described, yet still fail to teach students how to articulate their faith and explain their religious beliefs and practices to a hostile culture. It’s not hard to imagine a school that checks all the right theological boxes, whose front-facing brand is exactly what we might hope for from a serious Christian school, but whose curriculum is no different than the curriculum of the nearby state school with a couple of bible classes and chapel sprinkled on top. What can a school like this offer a young Christian who has been thrust into an increasingly secular world without the tools to make heads or tails of all they are encountering? Surely, not enough.

And is that the best we can offer our young people—an emulation of the world’s educational values and systems plus a mandatory chapel requirement? Our answer is categorically no.

A Properly Ordered Education

What, then, should we be looking for? In our view, what makes the critical difference between the genuine Christian schools that make the aforementioned mistake and those that do not is not how tightly they bind Christianity to their institutional identity, but what they ultimately believe about the end or purpose of education.

Here’s a claim that may sound radical to you. A well-designed and well-ordered institution of education must be organized in such a way that the humanities are clearly the subjects to which all other subjects point. This may be surprising, but it naturally falls out of three widely held Christian views.

1. God exists as a personal being.

2. Human beings resemble God more than any other created thing.

3. The aim of humanity is to know God.

If our purpose is to know God, and humans are uniquely made in His image, then the humanities are rightfully placed at the heart of Christian education. This is not to say that students are somehow adrift or foolish for majoring or focusing on some area outside the liberal arts or humanities. But it is to say that such students should see their disciplines as serving the humanities just as Einstein saw:

“It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. … [It is] essential [for students to] acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. [The student] must possess] a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good. [Without these such a person] more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.”1

If God exists, then a liberal arts institution ordered in such a way that knowledge of God through knowledge of humans and God’s other revelations to humans must be at the pinnacle—at the very top of the curriculum. Perhaps, more importantly, the facts of God’s existence and humans being made in His image imply that every one of us, indeed every human being in the world must direct their lives towards knowledge of God and knowledge of humans. As John Calvin nicely put it:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; … On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. 2

Shaped by the World

It is quite clear that most institutions of higher education are ordered towards the practical subjects. In India and China as well as the US, degrees in business, engineering, medicine and medicine-related fields, law, and other areas of practical concern are at the top of the educational food chain. Around the world, today’s universities are increasingly ordered towards the useful or productive disciplines and are increasingly shunning, mocking, and even closing down the liberal arts (minus science and math, although even these are struggling at many institutions) and humanities departments.

Now, in some cases, such shunning, mocking, and closure makes sense because a decent amount of liberal arts and humanities programs have abandoned the study of human nature as such and have become tools of the political left or the political right. In other words, a decent amount of liberal arts and humanities departments have ceased being places where knowledge of the human and humankind’s close resemblance to God are the main point. Instead, such departments have become politicized; made into subjects that are no longer ends in themselves but are now mere means to something else. But even in universities and colleges where politicization has not clearly occurred, the humanities and liberal arts are neglected.

It’s not hard to see why the practical arts are more valued than the liberal ones… if Christianity is false. If matter is the most fundamental reality, then our education curriculums should reflect that. Subjects that focus on matter and the manipulation of matter should be at the top of the curriculum and all other subjects should be in service to them. The primacy and ultimacy of matter would make subjects that study it the most important, the most fundamental, and the ones that get us closer to what is most real. So, the fact that most secular colleges and universities are now ordered accordingly—and the fact that more attention is given to them by politicians, parents, students, and just about everyone else—makes perfect sense.

The Christian should recognize that this is upside down and backward. And yet, even at many Christian institutions of higher education, the focus is on the practical or applied subjects. The subjects that give value to every other subject have been demoted while the subjects that merely sustain our bodies have been promoted. This drift can be slow and nearly impossible for parents to detect if they are not keen to see what we are pointing out.

Interestingly, hardly anyone lives their life as if matter is all there is. No, we spend our free time pursuing various loves, desiring deeper, more meaningful relationships with family, friends, spouses, ourselves, and God. We intuitively understand that our lives get their meaning and significance from being in healthy, well-functioning relationships with others. We all live our lives as if what really matters at the end of the day is love, beauty, goodness, and truth. That’s what a liberal arts education is directed towards. So, we live much of our lives as if the liberal arts really are where life finds its value and meaning, but we have come to a point where most of our education pays lip service at best to the humanities. Our lives scream to us that literature, philosophy, theology, history, art, etc. are the most important subject matters, the subjects that make applied versions of physics, biology, chemistry, agriculture, business, and medicine worth doing. And yet our educational systems scream the exact opposite.

Surprisingly, then, judged by a teleological metric, Christian institutions often fare no better than secular ones. It should be of no surprise to us that as we drift from the educational mission to foster closeness to God, we thereby forsake our young people.

Nothing we have said suggests that the problem we started with has an easy fix. But if we do not recognize that our educational institutions have been—down to their very core—problematically shaped by our world, then we aren’t even looking for a solution in the right place.

In the end, our exhortations are two-fold. First, to those of you wondering about where to send your kids to college: You already know to be wary of secular colleges and universities. But you must also be wary of the growing number of colleges that wave a Christian flag but have lost sight of what a Christian educational institution ought to be—one that is fundamentally designed to foster knowledge of—and closeness to—God. As we have argued, this is best accomplished through the liberal arts.

Second, to our brothers and sisters at Christian colleges of all sorts: we are at an important crossroads. Beyond the official stances of our institutions, consider what in actuality guides our administrative decision-making. Are our decisions primarily guided by practical ends (e.g., endowment growth, increased graduate placement and earning, etc.) or do we aim primarily to produce graduates who know and love God deeply? These things are not exclusive; no one is suggesting we must trade one for the other. But how our institutions structure their priorities will make all the difference. May we recognize the gravity of our stewardship.

Image Credit: Providence Christian College, Pasadena, California.

Show 2 footnotes
  1. Einstein, Albert. 1954. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Wings Books
  2. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book I, Chapter 1
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David Alexander

David Alexander serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Providence Christian College.

Isaiah Lin

Isaiah Lin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Providence Christian College.

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