The Non-Pragmatic Private University

Professors, and the colleges and universities they inhabit, are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge. Information can now be tapped by nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, at a low cost…

But what if a university is not an information-based organization? What if schools did something more than inform and credential? What if they were constituted by a complex web of practices transcending the exchange of information? Indeed, what if they were animated by an entirely different conception of reality altogether?

These questions invite us to more carefully consider the identity of, and practice within, the faith-based college and university.

“Christian Higher Education in an Exponential Age” – Kevin Brown and Stephen Clements

Working in private, Christian higher education in the contemporary moment provides a unique vantage point from which to assess the necessity, practicality, and inherent ills of the strange endeavor of building and maintaining a university. We live in the kind of moment where universities (and especially education in the realm of the humanities) are being routinely questioned as regards their usefulness. (Remember Rubio’s [in]famous statement on the fact that we should have less philosophers and more welders during the 2016 primary debates? He has since recanted, but the sentiment remains within the GOP.)

When higher education in general is commodified and reduced to the dissemination of information, and its value is judged based on its ability to “contribute to society,” (read: place adults in the workforce) we have reached the point when capitalism as an ideology has subsumed higher education as a common good. What of the university, then? Especially the small, private, Christian university, which has the primary stated purpose of training ministers and preparing people theologically and spiritually. Such a university holds no inherent value for that kind of society. These questions are not lost on those who work in higher education, especially private higher education. I frequently converse with staff at my own university that are concerned about the future of, not only our university, but Christian universities in general. From my perspective, we currently find ourselves at a crossroads — do we double down on our original mission of training ministers and missionaries, with a secondary focus on marketable degrees, or do we brave the path already forged by others, allowing our distinctively Christian purpose to fade into the background?

But what if, as the quote mentions above, the university’s purpose was redefined? What if neither of these two options are appropriate? If we live in an age where information dissemination is no longer necessary because of technological disruption, perhaps the university can regain its purpose as a shaper of individuals, communities, and society. James K.A. Smith spends time writing on this in Desiring the Kingdom:

I’m suggesting that Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they see themselves as fostering individual ‘minds in the making.’ (219)

Instead of talking about ‘Christian college’ — which makes it easier to traffic in the abstraction of ‘Christianity’ as an intellectual system — perhaps we should instead speak of ‘ecclesial’ college and ‘ecclesial’ universities. If Christian faith cannot be adequately distilled into the formulas of a Christian worldview, but rather is a social imaginary that is carried in the distinct practices of Christian worship, then any institution that would be meaningfully ‘christian would need to be a liturgical institutions of sorts, animated by the specificity of Christian liturgical practices. If education is always a matter of formation, and the most profound formation happens in various liturgies, then a Christian education must draw deeply from the well of Christian liturgy. (221)

The reality is, many public universities have already accepted Smith’s understanding of what the university is meant to accomplish. Without getting into the dumpster fire that is the liberal-conservative debate, it’s clear that most public universities are havens for left-leaning political ideologies, and they do so not by just information dissemination, but by character formation. Christian universities would do well to follow the lead of other universities. The purpose of the Christian university ought to be character and reason formation first. Information, which is so easily attainable now, ought to only be distributed in classrooms at the service of the task of formation.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.