Perish the Pressure to Publish (part 2)

A two-part exploration of the role of research at the Christian liberal arts college.

March 7th, 2012

Part one of this two-part series ended:

So how ought Christian colleges and universities in North America—most of which are more like the monastically rooted liberal arts colleges of the colonial period than like German research universities, and most of which would reject outright the narrow and reductionistic instructional goals of the modern research university—conceive of their purpose?

And what place ought research—the dominant aim of the modern university—have in the Christian liberal arts college?

First, it ought to be reiterated that within the sphere of Christian higher education, intellectual development is a central calling. Scripture is clear that we, as Christians, are to be about the renewing of our minds, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 10:5). This objective is always pursued in support of higher ends—the giving of our whole selves as living sacrifices, which is a reasonable response to the gift of salvation we have in Christ (Romans 12:1)—but it is the particular calling of Christian educational institutions, and Christian academics, to be focused on this intellectual discipleship. That said, this calling must always be pursued in view of the larger aims that it supports. For Christian liberal arts colleges, or the professors in them, to pursue only the intellectual development of their students with no thought for the spiritual and moral formation of those same students is to deny the complex and multifaceted biblical view of the human person. Scripture depicts humans as beings made of both body and heart—not simply minds trapped in bodies—whose inner person, or heart, is comprised of intellect and will and emotions. This rich biblical anthropology necessitates a view of education that addresses all aspects of the person, even as it recognizes the particular sphere that an educational institution occupies. A Christian view of education must be anti-reductionistic—not content with simply supplying students with the right answers or the best information (though that is critical), but concerned with shaping the whole of the person in the image of Christ.

Christian colleges are generally well positioned to take up this calling. Because of their faith commitments, they are naturally concerned for the spiritual well-being of their students. They also have historical connections to an older model of higher education, along with its attendant institutional structures, that is geared toward formation of the whole person. In an important article entitled "How the Liberal Arts College Affects Students," UCLA emeritus professor of higher education Alexander Astin argues convincingly that there is no better model for transformational education—education that shapes the hearts and minds and attitudes and behaviours of students—than the residential liberal arts college.1 Based on a review of data on student outcomes, both educational and existential, from hundreds of colleges, Astin asserts that "the quality of undergraduate education provided by the residential liberal arts college appears to be unmatched by any other type of institution."

For those of us who have benefitted from this sort of education, this bold assertion makes a lot of sense. A place where students know faculty and faculty know students; where the students with whom one attends class are the same students with whom one eats and sleeps and worships and plays; where conversations that begin in classrooms spill over into hallways or faculty offices or the dining hall or the dorm room it seems quite natural that such a place has the potential to powerfully shape both the mind and the heart of a student. While our Christian colleges today may not meet the stringent Carnegie classification requirements for categorization as a liberal arts college (most offer too many pre-professional programs to enter into that rarified air), it is nevertheless the case that they would meet the criteria for residential liberal arts colleges that Astin sets down in his article. The tight-knit learning communities on Christian liberal arts college campuses, still bearing some marks of their medieval monastic predecessors—life in a dormitory, shared meals, chapel services, individual study, group discussion—are well-suited for the cultivation of virtues that can make students good scholars and good Christians.

In this sort of context, research can play an important role.2 Its role, though, becomes that of a handmaiden to the larger project that constitutes the end of Christian liberal arts colleges: forming thoughtful Christians. Faculty in these colleges (along with the administrations that support them) must work hard to resist the prevailing paradigm—depicted so starkly in Bauerlein's essay—of research as summum bonum of the academic endeavour. This resistance no doubt takes place in many Christian liberal arts colleges, although there is also undeniable, subtle, and powerful cultural pressure to default into the academy's prevailing mode of making scholarly publication the true indicator of successful professorial work. After all, it is in the research university that all of our professors are trained. Most readers of Comment will recognize that there exist telling examples of professors who have had lasting impact on generations of students despite the lack of an impressive publication record. One need look no farther for such an example than Al Wolters's reflection on the life and work of H. Evan Runner. Nevertheless, it is always tempting, even in our Christian liberal arts colleges, to view those who are living up to the research ideal, those who are publishing prolifically, as the real academic stars.

Research as handmaiden to teaching may sound unappealing to those of us trained in research universities. It has, however, the potential to make us much more dynamic and effective in our professorial calling. I want to suggest that this is true in at least three respects.

First, active involvement in a research program can make us better teachers. For one thing, our own efforts to learn make us sensitive to the hard work of learning faced by our students. Furthermore, engagement with primary source material and involvement in broader scholarly debate can expose us to material that would be of benefit to our students. At times, this connection may be difficult to envision, but at other times it is a delight to discover that research can unearth valuable material or insights. On this matter I can speak from experience: My own research focuses on strictly cloistered Carthusian monks and their response to the Reformation. One might not envision much in the way of useful material in a topic like this, yet my research has provided insights that inform my presentation of a host of different subject areas as well as influencing the way I think about the higher educational endeavour as a whole.

Second, active involvement in a research program is an important way for faculty in Christian liberal arts colleges to model for their students Christian calling, generally, and Christian intellectual vocation, specifically. One of the tremendous benefits of the residential liberal arts college is that students come to know their professors as more than simply talking heads at the front of a lecture hall. And while a dynamic lecturer can no doubt influence a student, that influence is exponentially greater if that lecturer is also someone whom the student knows and who the student witnesses in active pursuit of a research program. In many respects, education in a Christian liberal arts college is a form of discipleship, intellectual and spiritual. For faculty to model for their students a Christian intellectual life that is professionally competent and engaged is critical to the success of this discipleship, whether those students become academics themselves or pursue callings in business, the professions, the ministry, or domestic management.

Third, while students are the faculty's primary concern in a Christian liberal arts college, it is nevertheless the case that the expertise that faculty developed via their academic training and the nature of their calling as professors provide them with the skills and platform to speak into larger conversations. In some instances, this may mean contributing to ongoing conversations within their academic disciplines. In so doing, faculty may have opportunities to participate in unfolding our understanding of the created order within which we live. In other instances, faculty may have opportunities to speak into conversations taking place within the church—either within their particular denomination or within the church universal. In this case, they are afforded the chance to serve the kingdom of Christ not only through the work they do in teaching students but also through the application of their academic expertise to pertinent issues.

Practically speaking, it is not easy to maintain commitment to a research program while also bearing the burdens that come with teaching in a Christian liberal arts college. It demands a great deal of professors, and it runs counter to the prevailing winds in academic culture. It requires that faculty and administrations find ways to celebrate teaching and mentoring while still providing some room for the pursuit of a research agenda. And in any case, for faculty in a Christian liberal arts college, the maintenance of a commitment to research has to be undertaken in view of the overarching purpose of those institutions.

In his critical assessment of Harvard University—and, by extension, American higher education—former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis makes the following assertion:

Universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings.

Would that the same never be said of Christian liberal arts colleges. May we instead undertake our research in the service of shaping thoughtful Christians for service in the kingdom of Christ and in the world.

Notes

1 Alexander W. Astin, "How the Liberal Arts College Affects Students," Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 128.1 (1999): 77-100. This issue of Daedalus, entitled "Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts College," is a helpful resource for those interested in the history and character of these institutions.

2 It is interesting to note that Astin finds residential liberal arts colleges to be the only institutions where faculty members are able to maintain an emphasis on both research and teaching, and student orientation. See Astin, 90-91.

 

Dr. Derek Halvorson is president of Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

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