Spring 2010

Jesus College

– Aaron Mesh

Correcting misconceptions about America's Christian colleges.

Tell people that you graduated from a Christian college, and you can expect a common series of reactions. First they express wonderment at the exotic customs of these institutions. (At Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, from which I graduated a few years ago, these included daily praise and worship before classes, mandatory pledges to abstain from drinking and sexual activity, and a performance of Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple from which most of the profanities and references to extramarital sex were excised.) Next comes the suspicion that you are a closet fundamentalist, secretly harboring the belief that homosexuals are eternally damned, or that Adam and Eve kept pet dinosaurs. Finally, there is a confession of relief that you graduated as someone “so normal.”

In Seeing the Light, a brisk survey of 10 U.S. Protestant colleges—ranging from tiny New Saint Andrews College in Idaho, with a student body of 200, to Texas’s Baylor University, with 14,500—Samuel Schuman attempts to correct some of the misconceptions. A chancellor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Schuman is the author of Old Main (2005), a study of small liberal-arts schools much like his own. Noting that enrollment at religious schools is booming (the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities reports that during the 1990s its member campuses grew by nearly 50 percent), he turned his attention to these institutions, which, he found, are buoyed by “a strong sense of focused mission,” since administrators don’t have to worry about pleasing a wide swath of constituencies. But he also observed a tension between the aspiration to academic respectability and the effort to maintain an unwavering commitment to church doctrines, a paradox ubiquitously referred to in school curricula as “the integration of faith and learning.”

Schuman’s administrator sensibility makes him a better cultural analyst than investigative reporter. In visiting his subject schools (as well as three Roman Catholic colleges, for the sake of comparison), he relied chiefly on the testimony of students and faculty, who reported that religious belief is organically blended into the classroom, though never at the expense of rational instruction. This is reassuring, though one wonders what Schuman would have seen had he sat in on a lecture or two. If he did, he doesn't mention those firsthand findings. But he has an eye for the telling detail (Anderson College, a Baptist school in South Carolina, has soothingly renamed its chapel program “The Journey”), and he precisely dissects each school’s traditions. “Perhaps what I am seeking to describe here,” he writes in a chapter on the hermetically Presbyterian great-books program at New Saint Andrews College, “is a consequence of taking Calvinism with the utmost sincerity: There is belief and there is unbelief; there are the saved and the unsaved.”

Schuman finds that America’s Christian colleges, with roots reaching deep into the colonial era, are far from a monolithic arm of the religious Right: New Saint Andrews might as well be located on a different planet from Michigan’s Calvin College, where students vehemently protested the 2005 campus visit of President George W. Bush. But the schools face a common problem: Each seeks to facilitate intellectual inquiry while ensuring that graduates leave with the same central beliefs with which they entered—chiefly, that God exists, is engaged with the world, and personally cares for them. Thus, New Saint Andrews scholars read Charles Darwin’s original texts on evolution “so as to understand, and be able to refute, his arguments.” An undergraduate at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, tells Schuman, “After four years of questioning, you are solid in what you believe.” The kid does not consider the possibility that such assurance might not be the goal of a liberal arts education.

However, the secular academy is hardly less dogmatic. Schuman relays a colleague’s scornful dismissal of Christian schools as “two-bit Bible colleges,” and cites a 2004–05 study by the Higher Education Research Institute in which most college juniors reported that “their professors have never encouraged discussions of spiritual or religious matters, and never provide opportunities for discussing the meaning or purpose of life.” Wherever you go to college, a mind is a difficult thing to free.

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Aaron Mesh is a film critic and reporter for Willamette Week, an alternative newspaper in Portland, Oregon. 

Reviewed: "Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in Twenty-First Century America" by Samuel Schuman, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons