The High Technology Challenge

We are entering a revolution as far-reaching as the one that followed Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The survival of some of our Christian colleges is at stake in a struggle with the high technology revolution. Their significance for several decades to come will be determined by the way they respond to the challenges (see “Christian College Enrollment Trends”).

Just what is “high technology”? There is no definition that is universally accepted, but the key element that distinguishes “high” technologies from other types of technology is their dependence on information or communication systems (see “What Is High Technology?”) The close identification of high technology with the concept of the emerging information society is no accident. Whether in genetic codes or computer codes, understanding and using an information and communication system is what really matters. Understandably, therefore, the most immediate high tech problems for the majority of Christian colleges concern computers and other electronic communications and knowledge systems.

Books And Computers

These information and communication technologies are in the process of altering society and education as fundamentally as did Gutenberg’s technology for printing books. They are altering the way people think and learn and value. Therefore, they are challenging current practices in American higher education, including Christian higher education.

The advent of Gutenberg’s printing press technology changed both the method of learning and what one needed to learn. It replaced hand manuscripts and rote memorization with a more efficient means of storing and transfering information. In the same process, it redefined what was worth knowing. Printing eventually broke the knowledge monopoly that university professors who read their carefully guarded lectures held over scribbling students. And it also broke the church’s monopoly on divine truth as it opened the mystery of the Scriptures to every literate layman. The book offered knowledge equality to everyone who could read. In addition, a person no longer had to know every detail a book contained; he only needed to know where he could find information and what it meant. No wonder books were attacked as a tool of the devil. Computers now share similar abuse.

Knowledge Is Power

Print on paper will continue to be important, of course. Like the book, the computer can store information in readily accessible form. But unlike the book, the computer can also manipulate the information. It can do mental work for us. It can “think.” An integrated electronic information and communications network can answer important questions and solve significant problems. Individuals, organizations, or nations with such systems at their service have immense advantages over those without them. In an information society, knowledge is power.

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In hard times such as those Christian colleges face in the 1980s, success in the competition for dwindling numbers of freshmen and declining funds will depend in large part on the ability to deal wisely with high technology. They will have to offer that technology to their students and use it in their own operations. Many people will need to learn new ways of doing things. Morale may suffer when technological disruptions are rubbed into the wounds left by lower enrollments. And at the same time, these mostly small, mostly nonendowed colleges will have to avoid going bankrupt.

Change Without Changing

The rapid rate at which these information and communication technologies are developing will challenge the adaptability and resilience of the Christian colleges. The majority of them are liberal arts institutions organized and supported to be bastions of stability, not centers of change. They are designed to preserve values, not promote a technocratic revolution. They are oriented to teaching rather than research. They study the past, not the future. How can they influence the information society if they cannot speak its language?

The liberal arts—like high technology—lack a universal definition. Usually the term implies a broad education in varied fields of study, verbal and artistic expression, analytical and synthetic thinking. Each college would claim more than this, few would claim less, and every one would claim uniqueness for its particular version of educating the whole person.

As these colleges work for significant survival, even the concept of “Christian liberal arts” is likely to undergo modification. The Christian college must be able to attract students and donations. Christian college graduates must be able to find jobs in the world of microchips, communications satellites, laser video discs, and gene splicing. Almost every corner of the successful institutions will be touched before the revolution is over. The trick is to change without changing, to adapt without blindly adopting. Without destroying their identity or losing the essence of the liberal arts, they must transform themselves into colleges as different from the present type as the present type is from a pre-Gutenberg university. Those that do it well will be the influential Christian colleges of the twenty-first century, the ones the church and the rest of the world will listen to and support.

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The Industrial Past

Today’s Christian colleges are creatures of America’s industrial era. Most of them were created between 1860 and 1960 during the golden finale of American heavy industrialization. Their founders typically sought to ensure that the college would perpetuate certain religious beliefs and values in the midst of that industrial society. Thus, their purposes have tended to center on transmitting a body of knowledge, imparting skills, and inculcating life values and behavior patterns. They have adapted well to a church and society that look to them as a special source of broadly educated spiritual and organizational servants and leaders. Christian college graduates have provided an important alternative to the university-trained specialist on the one hand, and the Bible-college-trained specialist on the other. The Christian college taught about the industrial world, and even pointed out its evils, but also sent liberal arts graduates into it and drew contributions from it.

In terms of employment, the industrial society reached its peak in America around 1920, when slightly over half of all workers were employed in manufacturing, commerce, and industry. Then the industrial decline started, and by 1976 more than half the working population was employed in information, knowledge, and education. A social and economic revolution was under way. Interestingly, Christian colleges responded by placing more emphasis on “the major” or specialization at the expense of any common conception or high valuation of general education. The common question is, “What is your major?” rather than a query about general studies.

As generalists in a world of specialized industrial workers, Christian college graduates stood out and moved naturally into leadership roles. As specialists in a world of knowledge workers, the difference between graduates of Christian and secular colleges begins to blur. The effort to develop a distinctively Christian collegiate experience, based on the constant interaction of Christian beliefs with all courses and activities, has matured just in time to have its best insights captured in print or video for use on any campus, secular or Christian. That is the nature of information flow in the high tech information society.

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Christian College Enrollment Trends

The number of freshman students the Christian colleges enroll is closely related to the number of students graduating from high school each year in the United States. That number has been declining since 1980, and enrollments at Christian colleges are beginning to reflect this trend. Nationally, the number of high school graduates is projected to decline about 20 percent from 1980 to 1990, with the only respite being a modest upswing in 1987–88.

From 1981 to 1982 the number of high school graduates nationally dropped approximately 1.2 percent. However, figures released by the Christian College Coalition indicate that some Christian colleges are bearing more than a proportionate share of the reduction. The total opening full-time freshman enrollment at all these colleges together fell 7 percent during the same period. Since some Christian colleges maintained or even increased their enrollment, the declines at the others have been precipitous and catastrophic.

Many have attributed the surprisingly large decline to the compounding effects of unfavorable economic conditions and reductions, and uncertainty in government student-aid programs. Others point out that a few colleges with extreme circumstances may have caused much of the change. Although some Christian colleges are still saying publicly that they expect to grow or maintain their current size, recent experience suggests that reality may soon destroy such optimism.

Evangelicals have consistently made up about 20 percent of the nation’s population, and the number of evangelical high school graduates is expected to follow the national patterns, including significant regional variations. In short, Christian colleges are trying to cope with nationwide declines in the size of their traditional pool of freshman prospects.

In order to avoid, or at least minimize, enrollment declines when the total size of their student market is declining, Christian colleges are competing more aggressively with one another. They are also trying to market themselves to students who otherwise would be expected to attend secular institutions. Such groups as the Christian College Coalition are attempting to assist such efforts by clarifying the differences between secular and Christian higher education in the lives of alumni. Whether or not such efforts eventually prove successful, some colleges have already reduced faculty and cut budgets to ensure financial and programmatic stability with fewer students. Others surely will follow as the great wave of enrollment declines sweeps in.

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Christian colleges have grown as the student population grew, especially between 1960 and 1980. But now there will be fewer students, and Christian colleges are beginning to adjust, not painlessly and not always with very good long-range planning or strategic marketing. But they have been adjusting nevertheless. Fewer Christian college students means fewer Christian college professors, and thus a smaller pool of Christian writers and thinkers. And the decline now starting in the number of evangelicals graduating from college will soon have its effect on the size of seminaries and Christian graduate schools, inducing faculty reductions in that sector of Christian higher education as well.

Christian colleges must join the high tech revolution if for no other reason than to keep this decline to a minimum.


The “Mentafacturing” Future

By the year 2000, over two-thirds of all Americans will spend most of each working day creating, storing, retrieving, organizing, revising, teaching, learning, sending, receiving, or otherwise using information. In such a world, machines will do most of the “physical labor,” and people will think. Knowledge will be, as many experts already feel it is, a nation’s most important economic resource. Not factories, not farms, not nuclear weapons, but knowledge.

The Latin roots of the word “manufacturing” suggest “making with the hands.” Many of those working hands, however, already belong to computer-controlled industrial robots. In the world now upon us we need a new word, “mentafacturing,” to suggest “making things with our minds, doing things by our silent commands.” Integrated systems for computer-assisted design and computer-controlled manufacturing allow a programmer engineer to alter a product or create a new one by giving new instructions to the automated system from the computer terminal in his office or living room. Mass production is no longer obligatory; customized production becomes the norm. In a mentafacturing world, to imagine is to make. Creative imagining becomes a critically important ability, and the life of the mind the central arena of human endeavor. Considerable irony hides in the possibility that many Christian colleges will find it difficult to adapt to such an environment. The industrial past seems much more comfortable than the mentafacturing future.

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In Every Home

What will life be like in a high tech, mentafacturing, information-based society? In each home, there will be a centrally located, compact, computer-and-communications center or “comcenter.” It will handle all voice and “print” communication, such as sending an electronic letter or receiving and displaying the latest news and weather forecasts. Most everyday transactions, especially banking and paying for purchases, will be conducted electronically. Many people will actually shop from their homes or offices electronically by using interactive computerized “yellow pages” called videotext, that give full pricing and product information on every item in an entire shopping mall. Videotext is already in wide use in France and is currently being used by test markets in the United States.

The comcenter will receive TV and radio programming, of course, but it will also play inexpensive laser video discs of digitally recorded music, entertainment, and education. One disc will contain a complete encyclopedia, another the Bible, a full unabridged concordance, and a complete home Bible study library, including all the best-known Bible commentaries. Other discs could offer the best Christian college professors in the nation delivering all the lectures for a liberal arts degree.

With the comcenter you can get a recommendation about a health problem from the health diagnosis data base, or legal advice from the legal advisory data base. You can get a stock market report and execute trading orders. You can check the library holdings of a distant seminary or university and get a copy of the desired pages. You can find just about any kind of information in thousands of on-line data bases, each with the latest information. Eventually, top caliber college freshmen raised with a comcenter at home and its equivalent at school will not want, or even know how, to function without one.

Student Recruitment

In such an environment, the critical question for Christian colleges is how to distinguish themselves adequately from secular alternatives to attract the necessary quantity and quality of students. It is those students who have in the past allowed Christian colleges to claim a leadership role in the church and society. The high tech challenge is not just a question of finding money for student computer access or video disc storage in the library. High technology raises for many prospective students the larger question of whether any Christian college education is worth the extra cost and effort.

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Most students go to college because they expect a college education and diploma to help them obtain a fuller life and better job than they could otherwise expect. The steadily growing career emphasis of most Christian liberal arts colleges responds to this reality. The Christian liberal arts have often been called an education for living, but most Christians need to “make a living” as well. Most Christian students also seek a place where they can grow spiritually and socially, and most prefer not to go too far from home. They will not attend a college that cannot meet these expectations. If more than one college can meet all their criteria, however, most families will select the college with the lowest net cost after figuring in financial aid. The price discounting colleges use to attract the students they want further erodes their income and long-term vitality.

The thriving parachurch organizations and other Christian ministries that serve students on secular campuses and the less radical mood at most secular institutions have reduced the environmental advantage of the Christian campus. Large universities can provide students with access to the latest technology and may also have more status when a graduate goes high tech job hunting. Various estimates place the number of people who will need computer skills to do their jobs at between 50 and 75 percent by the end of the decade. Almost as many will also be using computers at home. Eventually, an education that does not provide thorough familiarity with the computer as a tool of daily life and learning will not be attractive at any price.

The Electronic College Guide

Increasing numbers of prospective students will make their first judgments about college options by entering their interests and abilities into a computer terminal that accesses a college information data base. For example, they will enter how far from home they want to go, how big a student body they would like, and what activities they want to participate in. The computer may take information about aptitudes and interests, high school grades and activities, and family finances, and recommend which college looks like the best choice. The system will eventually allow students to apply right on the spot through their terminal.

What Is High Technology?

First of all, what is technology, high, low, or otherwise? In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul suggests that technology is what results from human striving for “greater efficiency.” Technology replaces spontaneous, “natural” ways of doing things with a consciously designed system of actions. Technology is about more efficient means, about the best way to achieve an objective.

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In this broad sense, technology touches every aspect of modern life as a contradictory combination of the best and worst in mankind. Where technology allows good ends to be more efficiently achieved, it seems a blessing, a beautiful outworking of the image of God in people. Where technology dehumanizes and simply improves efficiency toward evil ends, technology seems a curse, another expression of human depravity.

Planting corn in straight rows and chopping the weeds with a hoe is a technological system. Automobiles, typewriters, injections of antibiotics, and nuclear missiles are technologies also. Each bears the fatal flaw in the technological definition of efficiency: technological solutions have to be applied to narrowly defined problems, and the increased yield or efficiency achieved in that narrow problem area normally creates new problems elsewhere. Planting corn in rows with all competing vegetation removed leaves the soil more vulnerable to erosion and the corn plants more vulnerable to pests and infestations that thrive on high concentrations of the host plant. Automobiles move people efficiently from one place to another (assuming that other technologies have provided smooth, safe highways and well-stocked service stations), but the efficiency in transportation is obtained at the cost of polluting the environment with noxious gases, to say nothing of the “inefficiency” of millions of human injuries and deaths caused by automobile accidents. Nuclear missiles are an immensely efficient technological system for destroying the life and property of “the enemy,” but the radioactive cloud will also rain on those who made the missile.

What is currently called “high technology” or, more popularly, “high tech,” can be distinguished from other technologies by the crucial role of information codes or systems. This special role of information has made the computer the most obvious symbol of the information society, though the same focus exists in other high tech areas. For example, genetic engineering seeks to solve a vast array of problems by directly altering the DNA information code that controls cell activity. Traditional plant and animal breeding technology works slowly with naturally available genetic material. High technology gene splicing can create totally “new” plants or animals with combinations of characteristics that would never exist normally. The key is understanding and manipulating the information code of the cell.

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In a totally different arena, organizational management traditionally has focused on getting things done by controlling the efforts of other people. The high tech approach to management steps back and views the organization as an abstracted open systems model, constructed (usually on a computer) of information that describes what is happening inside and outside the organization. Managerial decisions are made to affect the appearance of the computerized model.

Because the information-based approach is such an efficient technology, high speed information and communication systems are the essence of current high technology. Systems that create, capture, move, organize, and retrieve information have high payoff and thus high priority. The revolution in electronic communications systems during the twentieth century is a direct response to the fundamental maxim of the high technology information society: knowledge is power, and knowledge is directly proportional to the speed and accuracy of our information. High technology is restructuring the industrialized mass-society in which we have been living and giving us new options and new versions of timeless human problems.

God can “think” things into existence. He created the universe by his word. Now humanity with high tech tools moves from manufacturing to mentafacturing. As man’s high tech tools make his powers more godlike, the results of not using them with divine wisdom become all the more dangerous. To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the mentafacturing high tech world, everything looks like an information system. But where is the wisdom in all the knowledge, and who will define worthwhile knowledge with almost unlimited information? That is the question God has given us to answer in the age of high technology.


Some of these systems do not now, and may never, allow students to identify and select only distinctly Christian colleges. Christian colleges will need to be on such systems. They may also need to develop their own system, with a data base that enables student prospects and their parents to avoid catalog rhetoric with objective information that really helps students get a feel for the important differences among various Christian colleges and know whether they will “fit in.” The computer will alter the ways students obtain their information and make their decisions about colleges. Christian colleges will have to anticipate such changes.

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High Tech Teachers And Learners

What becomes of teaching and learning in such a high tech environment? Electronic modes of learning will profoundly alter the role of the Christian college teacher. Successful professors will devote much of their time to developing self-paced courses and course elements on various electronic media. This activity will require them to spend much of their time deciding what needs to be learned. Their live interaction with students will be devoted to discussion based on what the student has already mastered in the electronic learning systems. Almost every live-taught course will have as a prerequisite certain mastery scores obtained through electronic learning. The definition of a college degree will be restated to acknowledge these new approaches, and the nature of a college education will reflect the increased importance of personal interaction and small seminars in the high technology setting.

The New Christian Liberal Arts

The college curriculum is a zero-sum game; if something is added something must be dropped. When modern foreign languages were added, for example, Greek and Latin requirements were eliminated. In addition to obvious additions such as computer courses, three areas will require more curricular attention: creativity, futuring, and normative theory.

With so much information so readily available, creativity and problem-solving skills will become increasingly important. Christians view creativity as one of humanity’s highest activities. The mentafacturing environment will provide immensely powerful tools that will require commensurate creativity. The proclivity of a technology to create new problems as it achieves its objective, plus the tendency of high-speed naked information to provide half truths and disguise reality, will intensify the need for leaders who can devise supratechnological solutions to complex problems. Such creativity can be taught—but what will be replaced in the curriculum? The decision will not be an easy one to make.

The Christian college experience will also have to develop in students more tolerance for instability, rapid change, high levels of uncertainty, and future-focused thinking. A few futurists are working in some Christian colleges already. Many more will be needed to prepare Christian leaders to help individuals, organizations, and the church sort out alternatives and act wisely. Futuring can be learned, but it takes time.

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Most theory is simply descriptive. If the future is like the past, theory predicts what is likely to occur. This presents Christians with two serious problems. We do not expect the future to necessarily be like the past, nor can describing what does happen substitute for describing what should happen. Normative theory will have renewed importance and replace simple descriptive or predictive theory. Christian colleges will have to be sure their graduates know how to distinguish between typical and normal, common and correct, how things are and how they ought to be.

All these new learning goals and methods will require older elements of the Christian liberal arts curriculum to be reshaped or replaced. Education will be much more individualized. Word processing will be the normal vehicle for creating “written” work of all kinds. Spelling errors will be automatically eliminated. Learning how to learn will be an even higher priority as colleges discover how to prepare and continue to serve life-long learners.

The Future Of The Christian College

Christian colleges have a wide variety of alternative futures. Some of these futures are more desirable than others, and nothing guarantees the significant survival of any Christian college except its ability to continue meeting the needs of the church and society it serves. The Christian college is in a special position to resist the dehumanizing effects of ubiquitous high-speed electronic information and communication systems. It has to be able to help the church distinguish between mere information and the worthwhile knowledge that can lead to true wisdom. It must find ways to change its academic programs without involving the faculty and administration in a destructive “academic war.” It must find wise ways of dealing with the human hurts that are the constant companion of rapid change.

Technology is assuming the role of prophet in society, telling us which way to go by showing us how to get there. But prophets only lead when people follow. As a prophet, technology is arbitrary and witless. The question is where are the true prophetic voices that will teach people how to develop and use technology wisely, how to master technology rather than serve it blindly? Perhaps some of those prophetic voices and the wise “followers” will come from the Christian colleges; perhaps not. Each Christian college must prayerfully write its own future as it attempts to take the greatest advantage of the high tech revolution.

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