Many students at Christian college are closet adherents of anti-Christian attitudes.

We Should Spell the College V. I. P. S-t-u-d-e-n-t

As an avid crossword puzzle fan, hopelessly hooked on the habit and needing at least one a day to satisfy my addiction, I confess to a feeling of satisfaction when I encounter the clue “College V.I.P.” accompanied by four blank squares. That allows me, in a moment of professional pride, to print out the word D-E-A-N. Yet, having been involved in Christian higher education for a quarter of a century, I realize that my answer, despite its ego-reinforcement, is incorrect and that the puzzle maker should have provided seven spaces for the more appropriate response: S-T-U-D-E-N-T. For I am persuaded that, of all of us who belong to the community of post-secondary academe, the most important members by far are those who make up the student body.

The overarching purpose of the Christian liberal arts college is not to perpetuate its own existence as an institution, or to preserve intact the religious tradition of the elders, or to protect a culturally dictated life style, or to provide a safe haven from worldly temptations, or to prove that evangelicals are as good at scholarship as anyone else, or even to always please its constituents. Its raison d’etre is the students and their development. Everything else—including facilities and curriculum—and everyone else—including faculty and administrators—are secondary and subordinate to this. That college fulfills its mission best that most effectively provides opportunities for students to grow.

We must focus on the young men and women who matriculate at these schools. Who are they? What are their needs? What can the Christian college do for them that is not being done elsewhere? Answers to such questions will provide helpful insights into what Christian higher education is really all about.

It is, of course, impossible to generalize accurately about the young people who make up the student population of Christian colleges. Therefore some of the characteristics I name will not necessarily apply to all students. There are, however, certain common traits.

The typical Christian college student is the product of his or her environment. He or she has been influenced by family, elementary and secondary schools, peer group, church, and wider culture. Each of these makes its own indelible impression upon the college-student-to-be.

Since the American family, including the Christian family, has undergone great changes during the last decade, it is not surprising that the kind of eighteen-year-old it produces differs from the counterpart of ten years ago. Parental surveillance continues to be exercised more diligently here than in the non-Christian home, but there seems to be a greater distance between parent and child than used to be the case in the 50s and 60s. Close familial relations, traditionally thought to be essential to wholesome childhood development, appear to have fractured. In too many instances teenagers from evangelical families have not been encouraged to develop an adequate sense of self-worth. Despite the strong desire to break family ties and be on their own on a college campus, many students are not prepared to cope with the problems that this sudden transition creates.

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The church has also played a part in molding the mind of the Christian college student. Whatever sophistication, or lack of it, characterizes the Christian faith of such a youth is attributable principally to the church. Cheap grace, easy believism, self-depreciation, and simplistic explanations of complex biblical statements are bound to leave their mark on impressionable young people. All of this becomes part of the spiritual baggage that they bring with them to college.

Community schools exert powerful influences too. Because Christian parents do not ordinarily possess either the skill or the inclination to analyze what goes on in the public school, elementary and high school teachers have almost unlimited authority in forming the attitudes of our youth. And, because the principle of separation of church and state has imposed an impossible so-called neutrality, relativism has become the unchallenged educational philosophy, saturating the curriculum as well as the minds of those who are exposed to it. Parents tend to be upset by Johnny’s failure to read, write, and do simple arithmetic; yet, the much more damaging effect of this kind of precollege education is its subtle indoctrination of our sons and daughters with a commitment to a philosophy of secularism. That undercuts the essential elements of the Christian faith we allege to be supernatural.

Peer groups also help to form the college-student-to-be. Although adults, too, including Christians, capitulate to the insistence of their peers (e.g., trying to keep up with the Joneses of the neighborhood), adolescents, given their tendency to find most satisfaction through their friends, are potential victims of peer influences. The social cliques with which many Christian teenagers affiliate have few, if any, Christian convictions. The pressures they exert on the Christian college student-to-be tend to create, at best, a moral-religious schizophrenia.

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The whole surrounding culture has its effects as well. Movies, television, magazines, best-selling novels, and advertising all relentlessly bombard young people with secular views. Even a cursory look at these things will convince even the most permissive-minded Christian that Christian young people could end up prisoners of a highly secularized culture.

Yet young people enroll in Christian colleges. More than a few of them are, if the truth were known, closet adherents to presuppositions inimical to bone fide Christianity. Too many students have ideas about salvation and sanctification that are alarmingly naïve. Increasing numbers of them are pessimistic about the possibility of positive change, either within themselves or within the institutions of society. Therefore, most students do not vote and, unlike their counterparts of the 60s, do not identify with noble social causes. They tend to have a consumer’s attitude, doubting the value of education unless it guarantees an opportunity to develop marketable skills in the world of barter and trade, which will insure the accumulation of this world’s goods.

Long before orientation week begins, faculty and administrators on the Christian college campus must raise these questions: What should be done to enhance the growth of these young people in the right direction? What are the developmental tasks characteristic of these particular young people? What do they think they need? What do they really need?

Perhaps the most conspicuous and basic need is to recognize the lordship of Christ over the believer’s life. That will affect every aspect of your thinking and acting. Also, the student needs to develop a Christian world and life view. So much else depends on this. In addition, the student must know who he is and appreciate himself. This is necessary for forming correct relationships. And the student must attain maturity and autonomy. Arrested development is a condition to be pitied, intellectually, physically, or spiritually. This list is far from exhaustive. Yet it highlights some of the needs of the typical Christian college student. The college that has its priorities in proper order and has a loving attitude toward its students will place the meeting of these needs high on its educational agenda.

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In the first place, the Christian college will, both by precept and practice, accentuate the biblical concept of the lordship of Jesus Christ. All assumptions, all affections, all affiliations, and all decisions should be subjected to his sovereign authority. This must be taught in every academic discipline. It must be exemplified in every institutional practice. No student should graduate from a Christian college unaware of this.

In the second place, every attempt will be made to emphasize and to illustrate a genuine integration of faith, learning, and life. Dichotomies between the secular and the sacred have no place on the Christian college campus. Christ’s total lordship implies a single kingdom. Your world and life view must provide a framework that at least makes possible the fitting together of every piece of life into an interlocking whole. Good theology and good psychology go hand in hand. A proper understanding of the Bible and a proper understanding of biology are never at odds. True integration is not easy to do. Yet, it is a primary responsibility of the Christian college.

Third, and closely parallel, the curricular and extra-curricular programs will stress the concept that “all truth is God’s truth.” This is not a pious slogan, merely to be publicized in institutional literature to placate constituents who have doubts about our loyalty to Scripture. It is, rather, axiomatic of truly Christian education. For example, if all truth is, indeed, from God and, in some way, descriptive of him, then we have a rationale for our confidence in the proposition that truth found in a laboratory experiment and everywhere else will be at harmony with truth found in the Bible. God cannot contradict himself. Furthermore, if all truth, without exception, originates from God, then the Christian should be willing to follow truth wherever it may lead. The unity of truth is an essential Christian idea. Every student in a Christian college should be required to reckon with it.

Fourth, there will be serious attention given to the matter of the construction of value systems. The possibility of making decisions apart from evaluative criteria is not an option open to any person, including the Christian. Even the rejection of values requires some sort of axiology. The choice, therefore, is not between values and no values but between values that are compatible with Scripture and those that are not. No specific, tightly constructed system will be formulated by faculty and delivered intact to students for rote memorization. Rather, students will be encouraged to critically examine prevailing systems and to carefully construct their own. Every student in a Christian college, not just philosophy majors, should be assigned the hammering out of a satisfactory value system.

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Fifth, the humanizing effects of a liberal education will be highlighted. Our world has seen the sorry results of a highly technical training of people apart from truly humanizing aims. Nazism, which plagued Europe and threatened the world forty years ago, should serve as a constant reminder of the threat that this kind of narrow, skill-oriented education poses for mankind. The Christian who understands Christ’s teaching about the importance of persons over all else but God himself ought to be first to propose a humanizing education. Christian colleges, for the same reason, should provide a curriculum designed to provide opportunities for making its students sensitive to the priority of human beings over institutions, traditions, rules, and everything else this side of the Triune God.

Sixth, the beauties and advantages of variety and pluralism will be pointed out. As creator, God demonstrated his delight in heterogeneity by his diverse creation. He has made us as we are, with all of our differences. The black person can say, “Black is beautiful,” not merely to give him a sense of importance, but because it is, indeed, beautiful. So is yellow and brown. And white. Ideas do not need to resemble each other exactly to be approved by our heavenly father. They can range as far afield from others as the boundaries of biblical revelation will allow. Tolerance and respect for variety must be taught.

Seventh, the influence of the “liberating arts” will be prominent. We need to be freed from prejudice, parochialisms, provincialisms, illogical thinking, and all else that inhibits the free exercise of the mind. “Liberal arts” refers not so much to a collection of certain courses as it does to a way of dealing with all subjects to develop in the student abilities to think critically and analyze reflectively. It has to do with the why more than with the what. It tries to reactivate the God-given tendency to ask questions with which all people are born. And it is learned best by example. The end result of all of this is to help the student think and act “Christianly.” There are ways of thinking that are genuinely Christian. There are ways of acting that are distinctly Christian. If graduates of Christian schools are not demonstrating their abilities along these lines, then God will eventually write “Ichabod” over the movement.

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Yet, despite their shortcomings, Christian colleges, and especially evangelical liberal arts colleges, seem to be getting the job accomplished. Recently I made a list of the recognized evangelical leaders. After composing this illustrious roster, I determined where each of these people had received his or her college education. With practically no exception, all of them had attended a Christian liberal arts college.

We still have unfinished business in Christian higher education. First, there is the matter of egalitarianism in admissions to Christian colleges. A visit to almost any campus will bring to view a certain homogeneity among students that symbolizes either the reluctance or the inability to reach out and to draw in those to whom our type of education has not been available. There is still too small a percentage of blacks, for example. Older adults also are conspicuous by their absence.

Second, we have not yet learned how to make black and latino students completely welcome. We must not try to make them white.

Third, we have been unsuccessful in helping students recognize the vast difference between getting a degree and receiving an education. Many degree-holders are far from being educated. Learning for the sheer sake of stretching every faculty of your being is hard work, but it is also immensely satisfying. Mere meeting of graduation requirements entitles someone to hang a diploma on the wall. Receiving a genuine college education, by contrast, allows a person to live richly in the present as well as in a future that will be vastly different from today.

Fourth, we have not, as yet, differentiated as clearly as we must between manipulation on the one hand and free choice on the other. The former is appropriate for training; it is the way animals are conditioned to perform tricks. The latter is fitting for human beings made in the image of God. It is easy to manipulate. It is risky to give the student freedom to be himself. The outcome of the former approach is comfortably predictable. The result of the latter approach usually turns out much better—or much worse—than we had anticipated. Yet we must have sufficient confidence in God to allow this necessary freedom.

Fifth, we have not been as careful as we should be about the kind of examples we are. The most potent kind of learning takes place indirectly, on the subliminal level as a student observes a teacher, in and out of the classroom. What students see makes a deeper impression on them than what they hear them say. Attitudes toward learning, worship, social relationships, and living a Christ-like life are formed mostly from watching admired adults in the campus community as the latter make their way through a normal day. Those of us who have this awesome responsibility need to make sure that we illustrate the truth as well as proclaim it.

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Sixth, we have done too little in a determined effort to create a high level of performance expectancy on our campuses. There are certain schools in our country where, as soon as you walk onto their grounds, you become immediately aware, without anyone telling you directly, that your best efforts are taken for granted there. The very atmosphere communicates it. Creating and maintaining this kind of climate will go a long way toward calling forth the best, most Christ-honoring use of the students’ talents. It takes a long time to build it, but the efforts are worth the work involved.

Seventh, we have usually failed to be in the vanguard of what I like to call “frontier thinking.” We have tended to be followers rather than leaders in the world of scholarship and educational practice. Innovation has belonged to nonevangelical colleges. It is difficult to break the mold. Tradition is so firmly entrenched. What few innovative steps we have taken in my own institution have met with considerable inertia from the establishment outside. Yet ours is a dynamic, not a static, society. Change is inevitable. To be continually current a school must always be changing. I hope that we can expect to see a greater degree of creative leadership in higher education coming from our Christian colleges.

Eighth, we have not kept the bridges between campus, home, and church as strong as they ought to be. When students change, sometimes drastically as a result of their learning, they are not the same persons as they were at the time of leaving home for college. Consequently, there is a greater distance between students and parents and between students and the church when students return. I think that the educative process has failed when college-educated young people cannot continue to relate cordially and empathetically with fathers, mothers, and pastors.

Tensions will always be present on the Christian college campus. Grappling seriously with hard questions and facing up honestly to paradoxes inevitably produces stress and strain. Those who highly prize comfort and ease will always look askance at a place where dissonance seems to be pandemic. Yet there must be tension for, as any student of pedagogy knows, imbalance in the human organism is the essential prerequisite to learning. Creating a milieu in which Christian young people who, while passing through one of the most turbulent transition periods of their lives, can find opportunities for dynamic development as whole persons is a high-risk business. Thank God there are those willing to take on the assignment.

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G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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