Choosing Your University: Part II

In my first blog on this subject, I explained that students are shaped by more than just their chosen program: there are other, more invisible forces that shape their lives for good or ill. In that blog I explained the overt, phantom, and null curriculums of a university. Here I explain the electronic, hidden, and concomitant curriculums that make up every student’s learning career. All are important to consider when you make what may be one of the largest decisions of your life.

Choosing a good program is only the most obvious part of your learning journey.

The Electronic Curriculum

It used to be that students only read the textbooks and what they received from the school library. Maybe they had a few personal books and subscribed to some hobby magazine, but the sources of information were quite limited. Ah, but that world is no more, not even in the majority world. Whether you are in the Christian or public university, this curriculum is as close as your fingers to your phone.

The electronic curriculum is the lessons learned from data gathered on the internet, including social media and the bazillion websites on offer across cyberspace. Some of this may be class-related, but most of it probably is not. Wilson warns:

Much of this information may be factually correct, informative, or even entertaining or inspirational. But there is also a great deal of other e-information that may be very incorrect, dated, passé, biased, perverse, or even manipulative. 

“No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.”
– G. K. Chesterton

I have written at length about the profound effect this new digital world has on students today, and much of it for the worse I’m afraid. We cannot underestimate the power of the electronic curriculum in shaping the lives and worldview of the next generation. It may be, in the end, the most influential curriculum of all, as students spend as much time, if not more, on their phones, pads, and lap tops than in class lectures (or church!)

Some of this could be edifying. There is top quality news, views, and kingdom clues on the internet. But it takes a certain discipline to stay tuned to the best the internet offers.

The Hidden Curriculum

The hidden or covert curriculum is what teaches students by the very structure of the institutions they inhabit. These are the everyday routines we don’t even think of that shape us in subtle but very real ways. For example, Wilson says:

the sequential room arrangements; the cellular, timed segments of formal instruction; an annual schedule that is still arranged to accommodate an agrarian age; disciplined messages where concentration equates to student behaviours where they are sitting up straight and are continually quiet; students getting in and standing in line silently; students quietly raising their hands to be called on; the endless competition for grades, and so on. 

The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment.

  • Jacques Ellul

So that’s unconscious, but understood in the very movement of our bodies. Public universities are typically bigger, and run on tighter schedules of scale and efficiency. Christian universities are typically smaller, and can run more loosely. They also may have rhythms built-in to the schedule not available on the secular campus: for chapel, for Advent and Lent. There is another layer of time at a Christian institution that gives meaning to our academic time. The church calendar.

I want to add another “hidden curriculum” that Wilson doesn’t mention. It’s the overall worldview of a university, which I would contend is ultimately religious, and tells us who we are, what the problem with the world is, and what the solution must be. This can be explicitly stated in a highly reflexive classroom discussion, but it usually goes unsaid. It is implicit in the theories that are championed and in the language that dominates discussions, and in the gasp of a professor or classmate when something is said that challenges its taken-for-granted status.

If you want to read more deeply into the dominant paradigm of the post-modern university, I recommend Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology (2014). He’s talking about sociology departments, but what he calls their “sacred project” is really close to that of public university administrations across North America. It’s a religious orientation that remains undeclared, in which people are first of all autonomous agents, oppressed by institutions and traditions, who ought to follow their individual desires, unencumbered by any outside influence. This is often mixed with a form of cultural Marxism that divides people into assumed antagonistic groups (male/female; white/black; rich/poor; straight/queer).

The concern for justice within this worldview is certainly one with which Christians share overlapping concerns. But whose justice? The foundations with which the Christian enters the dialogue (a generous God, the need for reconciliation) raise contentious differences with the secular frame (see Tim Kellers A Generous Justice). Regardless, Smith gives much more detail on this sacred project, with loads of evidence mostly from the dominant culture of American universities. Canada is a milder form of the same secular orthodoxy, as the polarization here is less intense.

I go into more detail in the dominant implicit religious orientation of the university here. My colleague wrote a blog about something related: the implicit goal of upward mobility in university here. Higher education as a means to money and status! Every student need to ask themselves: why am I going to university? What motivations are being shaped within me?

Christian Universities, if they are in continuity with the historic Christian tradition in an intentional way, tend to be the opposite of the liberal secular public institutions: they will feel more conservative, but you’ll be able to find professors and groups, too, that would call themselves “progressive.” By the very fact that a university is Christian in its mission, however, puts it at odds with the dominant secular culture in Canada, where historical Christianity is seen as the source of the problem (and to be honest, it has been in many ways, but the critique of such history carries very Christian foundations!) Ideally, the Christian faith is the home of a cultural minority which, if the cross is at the centre, has an ethic open to confession, repentance, and downward mobility. Humility and service, in following Christ, should be virtues that are championed on numerous levels of student life.

It’s generally true that minority groups are often more aware of their worldview, and especially religious minorities are more upfront about their worldview commitments. But there may be a conservatism, or capitalist orientation, sometimes in the form of prosperity theology, that one drinks in the water of a Christian university. This should not be so, but it’s possible. The water is never pure at any university, and Christian schools try to be more deliberate sticking to an explicit mission; but being human, they can fool themselves, too. All universities carry these six curricula that I’m describing!

The Concomitant Curriculum

These are the lessons you learn while at university that are outside the university culture—what you are taught at home, by your extended family, your old friendship network back home, in your workplace, in your military or athletic community on the weekends, and most significantly, by your religious community. As a Christian, your church. Concomitant meaning naturally accompanying something—at the same time.

You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”

– Mahatma Gandhi.

Unlike in the secular university, in the concomitant curriculum things like tradition, ancient rituals, ethnicity, and morality loom large. These are the very things the modern university either downplays or unravels, but they are for most human beings on the planet, the ballast of life’s journey. There can be something toxic in some families and churches, to be sure. Deconstruction and healing will be necessary, reconciliation and re-training. But for the most part, nurturing healthy, Christ-centred habits and values within a community setting are what gives us stability, character, and a more abundant life. A good university education will help you cultivate this vital aspect of your humanity, and not deprive you of them.

On a public university, this is where campus ministers and student ministry can play a vital role, refining and solidifying your tradition, keeping you connected to family, church, and mission. Campus ministries can be your life-line in the white water of campus life and while I won’t say too many definitive things here, I will say this without qualification: if you are at a secular university and you don’t make campus ministries a priority in your life, you will likely be lost. Your faith most certainly will not flourish. You need a guide for the journey, and while a church is also vital, you need a guide that connects your faith to your university training. Church should not be a compartmentalized escape from campus life, but an engagement with its culture of learning and prophetic cultural witness. Campus ministries, connected to church, can be that life-line for you. As communities of faith, and as mentors for life.

In a Christian university, if you come from a Christian family and ethnic group, there is relative continuity and harmony between home and school. Campus ministry may seem redundant at a Christian institution, but most Christian universities have some such office–for pastoral counselling, chapel planning, faculty development, and as a prophetic voice to the campus echoing the values it purports to hold dear.

Remember, university is usually only four years of your life, but family, church, and work will be life-long. Keep up a meaningful dialogue with your concomitant curriculum! Conversations with your parents, pastors, and mentors are the most important conversations of your life in many ways. So find a Christian mentor you trust and meet with them regularly. There is nothing better to keep you oriented in the midst of the dizzying white water of the campus and those late adolescent years.

So: Public or Christian Formation?

I haven’t yet come down and advised in one direction or another. Of course Christian universities are closer to my values, and they disciple students towards ends that are much closer to what I confess as a Christian professor. I teach at Christian university.

But I’m the executive director of an organization that works primarily with public universities, urging professors to integrate their faith with their learning, teaching, writing, and activism. In fact, as a former campus minister, my life has straddled the two worlds of Christian and secular education for decades. Sometimes public university is where God calls and equips.

What should an aspiring student do? Pray for wisdom and good advice. See what programs are available and make plans to construct for yourself a whole-of-life curriculum that trains you for the vocation God has called you to serve within. Visit universities, talk to professors, examine architecture, student life, nearby churches, and see where the formation ecology leads you deepest into the good life of God’s kingdom.

My concrete advice for everyone? Spend a summer or better, a year among the poor; preferably, outside North America. Then go to Christian university for at least a year and get a good grounding in theology and philosophy. Make some friends that might encourage you for life in your walk with God. Then go to the public university to get the certification you need to serve, but don’t see it just as a means to an end, like a consumer; see it as a place to grow, and arrange your daily liturgy in a way that ensures you know the overt curriculum, are aware of the hidden and null curriculum, resist the worst of the phantom and electronic curriculum, and develop a healthy, rock-solid concomitant curriculum.

Seek first Christ and his kingdom and everything else will find its proper place. That would be my summary of how you should arrange your university experience.

“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

― C.S. Lewis

Your Career or Your Calling?

There is one more curriculum I have not discussed: the internal curriculum. This is apparently different for every student, and has to do with their own values, habits, and mental framework. It’s what processes the other curriculums. It is socially delivered and received, but individually retained. I want to end with what I’ll call the divine curriculum which I hope will be the lodestar for this internal curriculum.

I was a campus minister at Brock University in the 1990s, and their motto was “Your Career Begins Here.” It’s a rather crass way to look at higher education, but one that reflects the culture and its priorities: self-actualization and self-advancement. The word “career” comes from the French carriere meaning “road, racecourse” and links back to the Latin “carrus” meaning “chariot.” This nicely links back to the meaning of curriculum, the race course.

If you are a Christian, let me say this in bold, and imagine the capital letters: Your university journey is not first of all an individualistic running competition against others with the goal of winning big. It is first of all a calling, a sacred vocation that may include some wilderness time. Your goal should not be to run fast and get ahead, but to listen, to follow, and to find a place to serve. If it is seen as a course or way, it is a journey not of winning, but of faithfulness and discovery. Not of advancement, but of servanthood. Not for personal gain, but in search of wisdom. Not alone, but with selected others. And it will lead through the desert of uncertainty and wounding, if it is to be truly formative.

Your model is the cross of Jesus Christ. This means entering to the suffering and brokenness of the world, and giving yourself and your gifts to participate in the restoration of community and the planet. Your mission is to be a redemptive influence in some corner of the culture that needs healing, whether it is marketing, management, medieval history, meteorology, mining, mountain biking, metaphysics, ministry or mothering. There is not a single discipline or job on this planet that does not cry for some renewal, some healing, some imaginative turn to greater wonder, creativity, and hope.

It’s not about you. It’s not about your salary, your status, or your success. It’s about something much larger, much more intriguing and challenging and fulfilling: God’s sacred project, the saving of the world, the missio Dei. There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more meaningful, and nothing more worthy of your time, talent, and treasures. Give yourself to something as big as God himself. His kingdom, not your own, or God forbid, some other empire.

Further Resources:

Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby. The Outrageous Idea Of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students, Baker 2010. A good field guide based on George Marsden’s book The Soul of the University which has just been re-published in a new edition (25 year anniversary edition).

C.S. Lewis. The Abolition of Man. 1943. A good introduction to the subjectivist turn (and a critique).

Daniel Taylor. The Myth of Certainty: Trusting God, Asking Questions, Taking Risks. 1992. (Half fiction, half non-fiction).

John Stackhouse. Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World. Oxford, 2018. A great Canadian introduction to thinking about your life for students. What are Christians to be doing in the world?

Two Short Videos

Story of Jane – video from Redeemer University (3 min)

IFES Video: Engaging the University (2 min)

Campus Ministry Groups (there are many more)

Christian Reformed Campus Ministries

Intervarsity Canada

Power to Change Canada


2 thoughts on “Choosing Your University: Part II

  1. Well done, Peter. Especially the last two paragraphs! Judy Cook

    On Sun, Jan 16, 2022 at 10:28 PM Sensus Divinitatis wrote:

    > Peter J. Schuurman posted: ” In my first blog on this subject, I explained > that students are shaped by more than just their chosen program: there are > other, more invisible forces that shape their lives for good or ill. In > that blog I explained the overt, phantom, and null curriculum” >

    Liked by 1 person

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