I stumbled on a diatribe from Christian Smith in The Chronicle Review from January 9, 2018 entitled “Higher Education is Drowning in BS”. It is a prophetic lament for a scholar who sees the “disastrous political condition” of his country directly linked to the failure of its institutions of higher learning. He maintains that universities don’t ask the big questions anymore, and have become “fragmentversities” of the hyperspecialized, run like factories that put prestige and money as their highest values. Swamped with the jargon of “solipsistic language games” and the “culture of offense” on one hand, and quantitative metrics and “science envy” on the other hand, they run mediocre programs in which students and professors self-censor in order to publish or keep their jobs. Careerism and credentialing turn universities into dysfunctional systems that now “embody the problems they were intended to transcend and transform: unreason, duplicity, refusals of accountability, incapacities to grasp complexity and see the big picture, and resorts to semi-masked forms of coercion.” This, he concludes, “puts at risk decent civilization itself”—a “colossally tragic” situation in a world that no longer recognizes the meaning of tragedy.
There is much of value in higher education today, to be sure, but this is a lament about deep internal rotting in the system—from someone within one of America’s great Christian (Catholic) universities (Notre Dame). I’m not going to suggest that the Christian academic network of Global Scholars and Christian universities are righteously above this cultural malaise and that we hold the key to rectifying this situation, but we are entrusted with a Christian vision which Smith suggests offers hope: “We will need people with the capacity to retrieve and revitalize the best of higher education’s past and restructure it organizationally in ways that are most effective in the future.” Part of that “past” is our present in Christian higher education, and by putting the Big Questions of life, death, love, justice, and human flourishing in front of our research and teaching, we can, by God’s grace be a small leaven in the loaf of global higher education.
For sure, just by the fact that we are much smaller than the sprawling educational empires of state run and Ivy League schools gives us opportunity to be more humane, dodge some of the pitfalls of prestige-mongering, and ignore the pressures of having to keep our place in the top five. But we still scramble to keep our enrolment up, and do aspire to more public recognition. Still, I like to think we put the pursuit of wisdom before credentialing, emphasize community service as a form of research, and know the names of our students–which means seeing them as more than potential future scholars but as whole persons with layers of needs, obligations, passions, and abilities. We surround ourselves with symbols and rituals of God’s kingdom–a new world of healing, help, and hope–and that has to make a real, tangible difference.
Smith points to some other sources of reform for the juggernaut of academic institutions today, but he admits its like turning around a giant ship. We need more than better research to save an educational system that seems to be running amok. Unless convictions change, behaviour will not change, and so structures will not change, either. Laments like Smith may be one place to begin.