What are the distinctive values which undergird and inform Presbyterian higher education?” These two questions drove the discussions at the annual Presidents Conference of the Association of Presbyterian Churches and Colleges in Charlotte in early April.
The questions were raised first by John Kuykendall, retired president of Davidson College.
He reminded his colleagues that education long has been “a jewel in the crown of Presbyterianism.” From John Calvin’s academy in Geneva to the mission fields around the globe, such academic institutions “all seem to have been premised upon the presupposition that literacy (even more than cleanliness) is immediately next to godliness.” Kuykendall cited others supporting this view. “Roland Frye suggests in one of his essays* that the very special genius of Reformed/Presbyterian education is the basic idea that every venture in scholarship learning is conducted as a negotium cum deo – as a ‘dealing with God’ on a direct and immediate basis.” (“Protestantism and Education: A Preliminary Study of the Early Centuries and Some Suggested Principles,” unpublished paper, 48).
Educational endeavors, so designed, reflect Augustine’s credo ut intelligensia (I believe in order to understand.) Kuykendall added: “If we believe that God is the Author of all that is true, should we not also be obliging ourselves to say that we understand in order to believe?”
He acknowledged that the convergence of intellect and piety is fraught with peril. “The specter of ‘the slippery slope to secularism’ – the ‘fading of the light,’ if you will – has haunted prognostications for Christian higher education as long as any of us in this room have been hearing them. And yet we persist in the effort.”
He outlined how different schools have approached this effort in different ways. Some see themselves as extensions of the Church’s mission, or embodiments of its virtues, or liberated offspring set free to engage the world on its own terms, he said. Schools may take different paths, but he urged the educators not to disparage any of the paths taken.
Nevertheless, he said that a Presbyterian college must emphasize “‘character as much as it does learning, piety as well as erudition, and civic virtue overprivate advantage’,” referencing Christopher J. Lucas’ American Higher Education: A History (p. 112).
The relationship between Presbyterian churches and schools of higher learning depends on both parties valuing it. “In recent years, the church has ‘pulled away’ from our colleges,” mostly by drastically reducing funding, Douglas Oldenberg, president emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary and former General Assembly moderator, told the educators. Trends in church and culture have caused schools to drift away from the churches, too. “It is a sad and deeply regrettable commentary on our culture today that the word Christian in the minds of many people connotes that kind of Christian community and that kind of Christian faith, with which few of us in the Presbyterians Church (USA) would want to be identified,” he said. “I think that it is critically imperative that we resist allowing the extreme right wing of the Christian Church to ‘co-opt’ the word Christian and make us uncomfortable with it, and we must urge the faculties of our church-related colleges to help us give the word Christian intellectual integrity and credibility once more.”
Stephen R. Haynes noted how many colleges including his own have prepared faith-filled mission statements, and then have proceeded to disregard them. The minister and professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., also serves as director of the Rhodes Consultation on the Future of the Church-Related College. He cited the marketing process as an impediment to the Christian identity of some schools. “Admissions departments commonly deny reassuringly that they have any Presbyterian affiliation,” he said regretfully.
Storm Bailey, associate professor and coordinator of the philosophy program at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, spoke to the central role played by faculty. Many believe that any tilt toward religion precludes the possibility of academic freedom.
Bailey challenged the simple bifurcating of such options. “I hope that qualifications of commitment or of belief are factors in faculty hiring at all liberal arts colleges (church-related or not),” he said. “Does such commitment require the subordination of Christian commitment? Does a practice of full and robustly defended academic freedom oppose or compromise religious commitment?” he asked. “I’ll argue that it does not.”
Seeking truth is both a tenet of academic freedom and Christian commitment, neither of which has to be subordinated to the other, Bailey pointed out. “Christian vision and mission don’t have a monopoly on truth-seeking, but Christian vision and mission can and should promote it — as well as anybody – and better than many.”
Mary Brown Bullock, past president of Agnes Scott College did not leave the burden on faculties’ shoulders. “One of the primary tasks of a college president is to give visionary leadership that links a university’s founding values to its future aspirations,” she said. Doing so requires the formation of a coherent vision that “honors the past, lives the values of the past, but prepares the institution for the future.”