The Missing Factor in Higher Education
The history of American higher education might have changed radically if Harvard College had pulled off an incredible feat when looking for its first president. The college's Puritan founders offered the position to the most innovative Christian educator of the time, the amazing Czech John Amos Comenius. He never came.
Comenius's fame derived from his theological and practical advances. He set forth the theo-logical proposal that all people, including women and the poor, should be educated, because all are made in God's image. He created educational techniques that appealed to all the senses—for example, his Latin grammar text Orbis Pictus was the very first illustrated book in print history.
When it came to the purpose of higher education, however, Comenius shunned innovation. His illustrated book hints at what he saw as a primary aim of education. An invitation at the beginning bids the reader, "Come, Boy, learn to be wise." He later described the university as "a permanent assembly of wise men" and "a factory for wisdom." Comenius represented the expectation, now nearly 400 years old, that universities should help students cultivate expertise in the conduct of a good life—a quality the Book of James identifies as the mark of wisdom (3:13).
Today, however, the idea that professors should dispense moral wisdom is passé. Contemporary universities consider themselves sources of technical expertise for professional practices. If their professors dispense advice beyond their discipline, it usually concerns matters of public policy or political life.
Consequently, professors operate with a narrow conception of their vocation. As one professor admitted, "There are many of my colleagues who would say, 'Look, we are at a university, and what I do is math; what I do is history. Moving into [moral or spiritual development] is not my competence.'" I have found not one secular college mission statement that claims to provide students with wisdom.
What caused this shift away from wisdom? And are Christian colleges and universities any different from their secular counterparts?
Many historians lay blame for the abandonment of the pursuit of wisdom on the development of the research university in 19th-century Germany. Faculty who taught and trained at these universities grew more concerned with producing knowledge and passing it along than with forming the whole student. As one historian has described it, the student became "a mind to be loaded with facts like a tank car with oil."
Research professors also began to change their view of knowledge. Knowledge simply became technical expertise in one's discipline. A recent book by Yale professor Anthony Kronman, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2008), contends that this approach marginalized broad topics related to life as a whole, as subjects beyond one's narrow field of expertise began to seem like unprofessional distractions.
But these factors do not fully explain the change. Early research universities still thought they should form students morally. In 1876, Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of America's first research university, Johns Hopkins, claimed that "everyone agreed" that the job of the university and its faculty was "to develop character—to make men." The university "misses its aim," he continued, "if it produce[s] learned pedants, or simple artisans, or cunning sophists, or pretentious practitioners." But these factors do not fully explain the change. Early research universities still thought they should form students morally.