Some weeks ago I woke up to Twitter going crazy. I opened the video that was getting so much attention, and there was my friend and former colleague, now president of Evergreen State College in Washington State, facing an assault by a wildly angry group of students. You could hear some of the exchange: “F*** you, George. You talk so f***ing much. Just shut up, George.” These comments were directed at the president of the university! It made my heart sick, and not only for my friend. Here was yet another signal that something is deeply broken on our campuses.
The university is one of the great institutions in the history of Western civilization. And yet it feels like something is slipping away. Watching this video and witnessing so many other scenes like it, I feel the aching need for our nation to regroup on where our universities are headed. We need to get back to a bedrock question: What exactly is the university for? These scenes cry out for a wholly revised vision for higher education in our day.
The moment is ripe, then, for a book like Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in A Fragmented Age. The authors are three professors, Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream (the first two from Baylor University, the third from Taylor University). As I pondered this stimulating book, I began to glimpse the outlines of a renewed vision for the future of the broken university. This book is sweeping in concept, grounded in historical research, utterly relevant to contemporary concerns. The focus is ultimately on the Christian university. And the animating question can be put like this: What if the unifying center of the university, its soul, were reclaimed by a winsome faith in Jesus Christ? There is plenty of warning here for the Christian university, with all of its success, not to become complacent. But there is even a suggestion that the secular university might benefit as it examines the consequences of hollowing out its own soul.
Loss of Unity
The authors have an ambitious goal: to mine the rich history of the Christian university, going all the way back to the 12th century, in order to propose an overarching narrative that will address the fracturing of our fragmented age. They tap into a rich tradition of reflection on the purpose of the Christian university, emanating from thinkers like John Henry Newman, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mark Schwehn, Mark Noll, George Marsden, Stanley Hauerwas, Jaroslav Pelikan, Arthur Holmes, Duane Litfin, and many others. Restoring the Soul of the University draws on this heritage. But it also steps forward with fresh energy about how we might move beyond our own moment of fragmentation.
The book begins with the likes of Hugh of St. Victor, who in the 12th century was master of the School of St. Victor. The authors lift up this surprising resource as one key historical touchpoint for shaping the soul of the university. Hugh believed his students were created in God’s image, a foundational presupposition. He believed, then, that the curriculum should seek to restore that image, through “instruction, meditation, prayer, performance, and contemplation.” These were the practices, of course, of the medieval monastery. The authors say Hugh wanted to “combine the best of the monastery with the best of contemporary learning to transform the world.” “Instead of deconstructing truth,” a popular practice of our own day, Hugh believed the academy should build up the truth, so that its students might discover “joy instead of emptiness or cynicism.” In this fascinating story of Hugh of St. Victor, we find a reminder of how the Christian university began with a strong and compelling unified purpose.
Our authors trace this unity of purpose, identity, and belief throughout most of the Middle Ages. When the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris were founded, Christian theology—which the authors define broadly as “the worship, love, and study of God”—was seen as the animating center that gathered learning into a unified whole. But over time, even through the flowering of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, cracks in that unity began to appear.
Theology was dethroned from its perch as “queen of the sciences” and ultimately pushed to the back rooms of the house of learning. But what would hold the university together in its absence? Was its purpose to serve the nation by forming thoughtful citizens? To further scientific discovery? To reclaim the classics as the centerpiece of education? As the fragmenting began, the search was on for a new unifying purpose.
In the end, the modern university settled for what Clark Kerr, president of the University of California in the early 1960s, called the multiversity. During those tumultuous years, Kerr famously concluded that there was not much one could (or should) do to counteract the complex forces that had splintered the university. As the authors make clear, the consequences of this splintering have permeated every corner of university life: the role of the professor, the shape of the curriculum, the dynamics of student life, the impact of big athletics, and the explosion in the ranks of administrators. The multiversity ultimately hollowed out the soul of the university that once enjoyed unity of purpose. When the soul of the university becomes frayed or altogether absent, the whole learning enterprise begins “falling to pieces.”
A New Flourishing
Fortunately, the book’s goal is not merely to tell a story of fragmentation and collapse, thereby feeding doomsday fears. Ultimately, Glanzer, Alleman, and Ream articulate a vibrant future for the Christian university. They recognize that, when talking about the crisis of higher education, we are “often referring to some sort of moral or spiritual core of the university” becoming lost. And this is where the Christian university steps into the picture as a viable alternative.
From the beginning, the authors set out to explore “what it means for the soul of the university to be saved.” In order to restore that soul, leaders and faculty must locate and vigorously promote a “central identity.” Remarkable things happen, for example, when a university can gather together in vibrant worship. The threads of unity stretch out into the whole fabric of the community when Scripture is read, studied, and meditated upon corporately. Unity is restored when professors begin from a center of belief and move outward toward their disciplines. Distant or warring factions within the university find healing when the gospel of reconciliation, love, and kindness generates a deep commitment to grace-filled community. These are the kinds of core assumptions that every administrator, every faculty member, every student-life coordinator, every coach, and every board member must know and articulate.
“When an entity loses its core identity,” the authors contend throughout this book, “fragmentation abounds and the negative implications of a split personality then become a possibility.” To shape the work of a radically new kind of university, “one needs an overarching identity and story with a substantive vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful that allows one to prioritize multiple, competing purposes.” And here’s the thing: Leaders—meaning presidents, faculty, staff, and student leaders—need to trumpet this core identity at every opportunity. If Jesus Christ is the transforming center of the university, they need to say it over and over: on campus, downtown, in class, in the residence halls. To establish a core identity, everyone needs to know the story and tell the story. Leaders should be among the most vocal storytellers.
This book does not look back with false nostalgia for some imagined golden age. We know the task ahead will not be easy. It’s tempting to rest on the laurels and current health of so many Christian colleges and universities, but there are strong headwinds now blowing in our faces. Beyond threats to religious freedom, the inadequacies of our economic models, and different forms of political, social, and cultural opposition, we must resist complacency about the pervasive power of the model of the secular university.
“The multiversity with a fragmented soul,” the authors claim, “has now become the norm and even the model that all universities in a liberal democracy are expected to follow.” Should this shape the character of the Christian university? Well, what if we can reverse the pattern of influence? What if the Christian university, by living out its Christ-centered identity, can help its secular partners see why having (and cultivating) a distinct “soul” is so vital to the mission of higher education? If Christians wish to reorient and redirect the broader trend, they need “to think in whole new ways about how to envision, create, and structure universities and the academic vocation of a university with a soul.” All of this is precisely the work ahead for those of us who love and serve the Christian academy.
I share the passion of professors Glanzer, Alleman, and Ream for breathing new life into the institutions of modern higher education. I share, especially, their deep conviction that the Christian university is the most attractive path toward recovering a unity of purpose for higher education. As this book demonstrates so ably, the deep and nourishing roots of the Christian university wait to be tapped in fresh ways in order to restore a vibrant university with purpose. The promise of the Christian story has always been to offer up a vision of human flourishing for our broken world. May that vision shine with splendor from the halls of learning at the Christian college and university.
Philip W. Eaton is president emeritus of Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World (IVP Academic) and a forthcoming book, Sing Us a Song of Joy: Saying What We Believe in an Age of Unbelief (Wipf & Stock).