Marsden and Mouw on Thriving Christian Colleges

Today I read a short essay by George Marsden, visiting professor of religious and intellectual history at Harvard Divinity School, on the thriving state of evangelical Christian colleges and universities. Most of these colleges and universities are associated with an organization called the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and they are growing at a rapid rate. Marsden argues that this growth is related to the fact that Christian colleges offer a kind fo education that is no longer available at Ivy League schools, public universities, and community colleges. He writes:

Harvard is driven by so many competing careerist and ideological interests that there is little attention either in the curriculum or among faculty (who are rewarded only for scholarship) to fostering healthy personal and moral growth among its students. If that is the case at Harvard, one can imagine the incoherence of the educational experience at the huge state universities and the many community colleges where the vast majority of America’s collegians get their degrees. Most of what students study involves practical skills in preparation for careers. Liberal arts are incidental to most undergraduate experience. The best hope for “community” is found in fraternities and sororities or more likely just in a dorm containing many sub-groups of those who happen to find common recreational interests.

Marsden believes that the educational experience at Christian colleges and universities today is equivalent to the education students received fifty years ago at places like Harvard. Evangelical academics do very good work in the humanities and sciences. As a result, Christian colleges can build strong faculties comparable to most other schools in their regions.

And those who think that evangelical Christian colleges are bastions of conservative politics are wrong. Those who draw these stereotypes should visit one of these campuses–as Alan Wolfe did a decade ago– and witness for themselves the diversity of political perspectives among students and faculty. It is true that Christian colleges have their share of conservative faculty, but I have found that this creates a very vibrant and diverse political community–a kind of political community that would be hard to find in the faculty lounge at most Ivies or state universities.

Marsden continues:

While increased academic excellence is a factor in the growth of evangelical colleges, probably more immediately important in the decisions to attend such colleges are the coherent supportive communities that provide the context for such education. Being part of a community that is supportive of one’s faith is one attraction. But there are many other benefits to being at a smaller campus where there is a strong sense of community and one is likely to find many kindred spirits. Nonetheless, when people are deciding whether to pay the considerable extra cost for such a college experience the fact that these schools are genuinely competitive academically helps justify the decision. Such schools offer curricula that have the sort of coherence that larger and more diverse schools typically lack. Every student, even in specialized technical areas, is likely to have some substantial exposure to the liberal arts. They will also take a few courses in the religious tradition itself. Moreover these academic offerings come as part of a larger communal educational experience that they can share with many who have similar interests and concerns.

Yes, evangelical colleges do have their limits. The development of a diverse student body is difficult at these schools. (Yet, I might add, the percentage of minority students at Christian colleges is comparable, if not higher, than elite private institutions. Check out this story about Jerry Falwell speaking at Duke University). Furthermore, students at Christian colleges are not exposed to the advocates of diverse ideas in the way that students at other colleges are. As Marsden notes, Christian colleges can try to remedy this problem through inner-city semesters and study-abroad programs, but it is just not the same.

If it is true that the average graduate of a Christian college is receiving a first-rate liberal arts education, then what will be the effect of this positive trend on evangelical churches? Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is concerned :

What I do worry about in all of this is whether the evangelical churches are prepared to receive and nurture the students graduating from these colleges and universities. On many of these campuses, Lilly-funded programs on the importance of seeing one’s daily work as “vocation” have inspired students to see so-called “secular” occupations as Kingdom service. They are looking for the kind of preaching and sacramental life, as well as continuing education, to which they have become accustomed on their undergraduate campuses. If the evangelical churches fail to meet their expectations, they will go elsewhere. It will not likely be in the direction of liberal Protestantism—more likely they will move toward Anglicanism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

This is something for evangelical Christians to think seriously about. As Christian colleges continue to develop intellectually curious graduates–those who are no longer products of the evangelical culture Mark Noll described in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind–evangelical churches are going to have to offer them a theologically-informed, intelllectually vibrant, and historically rooted version of the Christian faith. Are evangelical churches up to the challenge?