Stranger in a Strange Land

More than a decade ago, Fr. James Tunstead Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of College and Universities from Their Christian Churches created a stir in higher education. Burtchaell argued that historically religious colleges in the United States had gradually weakened their denominational ties and abandoned any meaningful religious identity and mission. Citing an array of case studies, Burtchaell documented with a kind of sardonic glee the vague and pious rhetoric that institutions regularly used to cloak this transition and decline.

Samuel Schuman’s Seeing the Light presents itself as a refutation of Burtchaell’s massive volume. “I obviously disagree with [Burtchaell’s] thesis,” Schuman writes. “I believe that the light still shines brightly.”

Whatever one thinks of Burtchaell’s argument, Seeing the Light does not respond to it, much less refute it. While Burtchaell spent most of his time tracing the history of numerous mainstream Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities, from Ivy League schools like Dartmouth to Catholic institutions like Boston College, Schuman’s book attends almost exclusively to evangelical Protestant colleges. His motive and intended audience differ sharply from Burtchaell’s. As the longtime chancellor of the University of Minnesota-Morris, a public liberal-arts college, Schuman is concerned to persuade a wider—mostly public—higher-education community that religious colleges are not, as members of his own faculty regularly described them, “a bunch of two-bit Bible colleges.”

For anyone who knows church-related higher education, this makes the book a curious read. Like other writers in the genre, including Burtchaell, Schuman presents case studies, based on personal visits and survey questions, of a range of evangelical Protestant institutions, from the large and well known—Baylor, Calvin, Wheaton—to small places like Anderson University in South Carolina and Northwestern College in Minnesota. He discovers, and reports as news, that these institutions differ greatly in composition and character; that many have talented faculty and bright students; and that the questions of faith, learning, and campus morals are addressed in various and complex ways. While Schuman’s attitude toward his subjects is positive and respectful, there is an undertone reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s remark likening a woman’s preaching to a dog’s walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Schuman genuinely admires much of what he finds, especially at places like North Park University in Chicago, an institution of the Evangelical Covenant Church that maintains its strong religious commitment while reaching out to its racially and ethnically diverse urban neighborhood. Still, the author’s lack of familiarity with the nuances of conservative Protestantism is apparent. For example, he contrasts socially conscious “outward looking” North Park with “pietistic” colleges that turn “inward.” In fact, the Evangelical Covenant Church and North Park are both deep expressions of an originally Swedish pietist movement. Historically, pietists were often highly committed to social concerns. They objected not to religious social action, but to elevating doctrine and hierarchy over personal piety and practical faith. In this respect they were not unlike certain strands of contemporary American Catholicism.

While Schuman portrays places like North Park positively, his account of other institutions, like New St. Andrew’s College in Moscow, Idaho (eleven faculty, two hundred students), hardly seems designed to allay the condescension of the secular academic world toward religious colleges. New St. Andrew’s great-books faculty includes a creationist biology professor whose students read Origin of Species in order to refute Darwin, and an advocate of “Christian math” who addresses such questions as what the Trinity tells us about the nature of numbers.

Schuman’s concentration on the highly distinctive evangelical Protestant colleges means that his book is hardly an account of “religious colleges in twenty-first-century America.” In fact, he ignores other kinds of serious Protestant colleges, and he devotes but one brief chapter to three Catholic institutions: Thomas Aquinas College in California, Villanova University, and the College of New Rochelle. This trio is chosen to suggest the range of Catholic institutions, but as Schuman fails to point out, only Villanova is representative of the large majority of Catholic institutions. His brief description of Villanova, which focuses on its Augustinian character and emphasizes ethics and social-justice issues, is favorable but scarcely illuminating for anyone interested in the deeper issues facing contemporary Catholic higher education in the United States.

The College of New Rochelle, founded by the Ursulines in suburban New York, is the only institution that appears in both Burtchaell’s Dying of the Light and Schuman’s Seeing the Light. Schuman’s treatment of CNR’s religious identity is as relentlessly upbeat and affirmative—even pollyannish—as Burtchaell’s was mocking and gloomy. From neither account will the reader learn much about the complex and varied dynamics of the numerous colleges founded by American sisters, or their often courageous struggles to sustain their mission in a world where religious women are increasingly few—in academia or elsewhere.

For some readers—though not likely the audience persuaded by Burtchaell’s jeremiad—Schuman’s book may serve to overcome stereotypes of Christian universities as inherently primitive contradictions in terms. But the question of whether “the light” is dying or shining—whether religious higher education is doomed or flourishing—can too readily substitute for more probing inquiries into what it means for religious universities in the modern world to “shine” in the first place.

In his conclusion, Schuman’s analysis takes a provocative turn. Here he asks what higher education can learn from these religious colleges, and he suggests that the academy could genuinely benefit by incorporating the spiritual and moral dimensions of human life. Public institutions, he writes, “ought to draw on religious colleges’ experience in this regard, even if they cannot imitate it.” The two most important issues in contemporary American higher education, he asserts, are environmentalism and internationalism, and he concludes, “I am not persuaded that it is possible to do justice to either without touching on matters of the spirit.”

Schuman also notes that the overt emphasis on moral and behavioral standards on church-related campuses, while “conservative” by general American standards, creates an ethos of mutually affirmed ideals and accountability that is often missing at public universities. In this connection he lauds the development in recent years of “creedal” or “covenantal” statements on moral behavior—note the borrowed religious language—that have begun to appear on some state university campuses, such as the University of South Carolina’s “Carolinian Creed.” Schuman does not expect that these statements will be universally observed by all students; after all, not all Wheaton College students “put on” compassion, kindliness, and patience as their Community Covenant enjoins them to do. “But,” he says, “in our often testy world of higher education, just to affirm that this is the way we should behave seems to me valuable.”

These assertions, and much of Schu-man’s book, will hardly come as news to people who know Christian higher education. And his almost exclusive focus on the most fervently intentional sector of religious colleges—the evangelical institutions aligned with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities—will leave readers largely clueless about many of the serious issues facing mainstream Catholic and Protestant institutions today as they seek to maintain their religious traditions in the prevalent academic culture.

Schuman’s “outsider” conclusion—that religious affiliation, and indeed religion itself, can foster qualities the academic world sorely needs—might bolster efforts to revitalize the relationship between faith and the academic enterprise in general, and not simply within the evangelical universities on which he concentrates. Pronouncing on whether “the light” of religiously informed learning is dying or brightly shining shouldn’t be left to polemicists or prophets alone. Still, those who want to shed light on the matter ought to be sure their lamps are bright and properly focused.

Published in the 2010-03-26 issue: 

Mel Piehl is professor of humanities and history at Christ College, Valparaiso University.

Also by this author
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