The COVID-19 Rethink Not Being Asked by Christian Colleges
May 28, 2020
Robert Sloan wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition entitled, “How COVID-19 Is Changing Christian Colleges” (May 28,2020). It is because I have such great respect for Dr. Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, that his comments regarding the changes impacting Christian colleges deserves close attention.
He begins with a tone of humility, which is refreshing. His focus as a university president is on the physical and financial health of his University. He is correct in noting that the pandemic will “accelerate necessary changes in higher education.”
His first observation concerns the anticipated increase in remote course delivery. He calls for “new models for delivering education.” While this observation is obvious, it is also superficial. The deeper question we should be asking now in this time of pandemic reassessment is “What is the purpose of education?” Concerns with delivery mask this deeper and prior question? Is it to get a job? Is it to become a better person? Which approach best serves which objective? If we mask the deeper questions, we will inevitably arrive at a more superficial answer.
There will be more courses available online and more traditional courses taught in a hybrid manner. But changes in educational delivery mask the deeper question about the purpose of education and the requirements of a transformative educational experience. Sloan approaches this question as if embodiment is an optional variable in the learning process. His recommendation that introductory classes be online and upper level classes be taught in in-person smaller seminars belies the fact that it is the college freshman who is most in need of accountability and academic role models. Currently one-third of college freshmen drop out after their first year. Many don’t know why they are at college and others lack the discipline for assuming the rigors of a college education. His methodological suggestion will only serve to worsen this problem. We can expect that college graduation rates will further decline—currently only two-thirds of college students graduate. The rhetorical language about “personal interactions” and “human interface” do not fully take into consideration communications guru Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the “medium is the message.” An online medium says something about the content.
Sloan then wants to emphasize the “distinctive character of Christian education.” By this he limits what is “distinctive” to an intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian. This rationalist, cognitivist anthropology, in fact, denies a distinctly Christian anthropology. Calvin University philosopher James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation warns, “Because the church buys into a cognitivist anthropology, it adopts a stunted pedagogy that is fixated on the mind. So rather than calling into question this reductionistic picture of the human person, the church simply tries to feed different ideas through the same intellectual IV.” So when one advocates for a “Christian worldview” that is not consistent with a Christian anthropology, one is not actually applying a Christian worldview however noble one’s intentions. Smith continues, “I’ve been suggesting that education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is more fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of person.” Such an education demands embodiment and a methodological commitment to incarnation. Jesus’ disciples were formed by following him on a dusty road day-by-day not correctly answering a Scantron test on the differences between worldviews. When education loses sight of embodiment, relationship, and ritual, it has adopted a superficial pedagogy not worthy of being called “Christian.” A Facebook “friend” is something entirely different from a real friend. One hundred and fifty Facebook birthday acknowledgements is not the same as receiving an actual birthday card in the mail. So let’s not naively pretend that “we can add personal dimensions to an online experience” and still be talking about the same thing as a face-to-face encounter. This is an example of a methodological cultural accommodation not worthy of the difficulty and messiness of Jesus’ incarnation. Evangelicals are very poor in thinking Christianly about the application of technology. We need to read again Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and Sherry Turkle. Technology is never ethically neutral.
Elsewhere I have argued that colleges can be placed in three buckets: certificate colleges, credentialing colleges, and wisdom colleges. These are three college models working on a continuum that move from the least transformative to the most transformative. Sloan indicates that Houston Baptist University leans toward the certification and credentialing end of the spectrum. He advocates for degrees oriented to marketplace preparation not personal transformation. For this reason it is logical for him to advocate for a greater collaboration between the university and the world of “business commerce, ministry, and nonprofit service.” In doing so greater efficiencies can be found, degree programs shortened, and administrators empowered against accreditation agencies for more market flexibility. This is logical… unless the goal is the personal transformation of the student, which in Christian parlance is called “discipleship.”
As if compensating for this de-emphasis on embodiment and discipleship, Sloan then ends by appealing to a culture war dog whistle, “religious liberty” and then returns to a pietistic conclusion of “protecting and preserving our Christ-centered mission” by quoting Romans 8: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
While nothing can separate us from the love of God, there are educational approaches that will weaken a biblical understanding of what my love of God requires. Smith concludes, “What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire—what they envision as ‘the good life’ or the ideal picture of human flourishing. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcate a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing a vision into the heart by means of material, embodied practices.” Perhaps the Covid-19 rethink should be forcing us to ask a different set of questions. Let's not be afraid of the deeper questions.
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