What Does It Mean for a College to be "Fundamentalist?"

Adam Laats, a historian of education at SUNY-Binghamton and the author of the I Love Your But You’re Going to Hell blog, is working on what promises to be a very interesting book on the history of Christian higher education.  (We wrote about it here).

In the course of his research Laats is wrestling with the question of what makes a fundamentalist college “fundamentalist.” 

After discussing how definitions of fundamentalism put forward by Joel Carpenter and Matthew Sutton do not explain the fundamentalism that he is encountering in the history of these colleges, Laats writes:

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton CollegeBob Jones UniversityBryan CollegeBiola UniversityThe King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.
When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”
Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

Laats is on to something here.  Fundamentalist colleges certainly uphold fundamentalist theology, but what makes such colleges “fundamentalist” has a lot more to do with student life and their approach to learning.  I would say that fundamentalist colleges–both today and historically–have survived because they are safe places.  The are not only safe places where young fundamentalists can find Christian friends and spouses and be protected from the “immorality” of the secular university, but they are safe places because a young fundamentalist can attend such a college and leave with his or her faith in tact.  

Fundamentalist parents are often more concerned with indoctrination (in fundamentalist doctrine), purity, and separation from the “world” than education.  They fear the kinds of ideas–biblical criticism, evolution, etc.–that will destroy their child’s faith.  If you are an adult fundamentalist who believes that the “world” is full of threatening intellectual forces that could jeopardize the soul of your son or daughter, it makes perfect sense that you might send him or her to a fundamentalist college.  The separatist impulse of American fundamentalism is best illustrated in the movement’s approach to higher education.

I am looking forward to Laat’s book.