In the past two weeks I’ve been privileged to represent IWU from California to New York City. The society in which we are preparing our students to serve is impressively rich and diverse, stimulating and bewildering.
This blog post is “unfinished. ” It is mostly in the nature of musings that these travels have stimulated.
We spent several days in the colorful mosaic of Southern California. I love southern California. For some reason, it feels like “home” to this transplanted missionary kid from the Philippines. But, not much about southern California is like Grant County, which really has become home to me, and is the place that shapes the university community I have grown to love. Here’s the question that this visit raised for me.
How much of the identity, ethos, and vision of our Midwestern Christian university is “Christian, “ how much is “university, “ and how much is “Midwestern?”
We flew from California to New York City for a meeting between independent college presidents and the leaders of some of the major philanthropic foundations – Mellon, Hewlett, Teagle, Bill & Melinda Gates, Helmsley Charitable Trust. We met in the beautiful TIAA-CREF building in Manhattan. Not much about New York City is like Grant County. I’m less of an East-coaster than a West-coaster, but New York City is a fascinating place. New York City is a visceral reminder of the power of cultural and economic centers, of the easy insider strength wielded so unselfconsciously by cultural elites. Here’s the question New York City posed for me.
Can a Christian university like IWU prepare students to make the world a better place by succeeding in the centers of global influence like New York City? If so, how do we do this?
Dr. Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, reminded us of the difference between charity (short-term relief of current problems), and philanthropy (systemic solutions to long-term social needs). This made me reflect on the vision we plant in our students’ minds.
Are we preparing our students for both short-term impact and long-term significance?
The latest edition of The Chronicle Review, the excellent higher education opinion journal published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has two articles that seemed germane to my reflections on the place our Christian university occupies in the national landscape.
In an article entitled, “Why Can’t the Sciences and the Humanities Get Along? “ David Hollinger (professor of history emeritus at University of California at Berkeley) reiterated the ideal that defines the modern university.
“When Immanuel Kant called on people to ‘have the courage to use their own understanding, ‘ to ‘dare to know,” he had in mind a broad expanse of inquiries, including those in the arts and sciences, and even the testing of truth claims offered in the name of religion. . . . That ideal, directing us toward truths that are discovered, not divined, [truths] that are grounded in evidence and reasoning rather than tradition or intuition, is the most important common heritage and resource of the entire modern professoriate.” (The Chronicle Review, October 18, 2013)
Cal Berkeley is as close to the cultural center of American higher education as a university can be. So it’s fitting that Hollinger articulates the defining identity of the modern university so strongly. Universities exist to discover and teach truth – truth that is “grounded in evidence and reasoning rather than tradition or intuition.” This is not simply a definition of the modern university. It is a definition of truth itself.
To what extent does this ideal define our Christian university? To what extent can we embrace this ideal? In what ways is this ideal an uncomfortable yoke for our Christian university?
Intriguingly, in this very same issue is a refreshing article the likes of which I seldom find in the higher education literature. Carla Arnell, an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, offers a wonderful personal reflection about her life as Christian faculty member in her article “An Academic Among the Pews.”
“I’ll confess,” she says. “I’m one of those oddballs who define themselves as both spiritual and religious. I attend church weekly, I observe my religion’s liturgical seasons, and I participate in my church’s fellowship opportunities and service projects. But because any mention of these ritual behaviors has so often occasioned bewilderment, astonishment, or embarrassment among my academic peers who see themselves as intelligently ‘beyond religion,’ I find myself pausing to consider why I bother.”
Her article is one of the most compelling explanations for a non-religious audience of academic peers of why an academic values her faith and religious life. Arnell’s personal life of religious faith infuses her life with thanksgiving, beauty, empathy, self-transcendence, celebration, and continuity between past and present.
What is striking is that while Arnell’s article is a beautiful portrait of an academic’s personal faith, any application of this life of faith to her academic work is implied at best. She is not discussing the way her faith shapes her academic life. She is simply explaining what she, as an academic, values about her personal life of religious faith.
At our Christian university we live in two worlds – the Enlightenment world of evidence and reason, and the Christian world of faith, worship, and service. At our Christian university we unite these worlds. For us, the academic ideal of the pursuit and teaching of truths about serious and important things (to paraphrase Edward Shils), is inconceivable if it is not shaped by immersion in the world of faithful belief and practice.
How does this way of seeing the world and our contribution to the world’s store of truth shape the way we educate our students?
These have been my musings over the past weeks. What do you think? I’d love to hear your answers to my questions.