Should I Enrol at a Public or Christian University? A Guide to the Invisible Curricula (Part 1)

A colleague recently told me she made her decision on which university to attend based on the fact she saw a deer on campus while visiting. We can certainly be inspired by a sign. Or we can do a deeper investigation of the options. I’ve got credits from 11 different institutions of higher learning, and visited at least a dozen more to do reviews of campus ministry programs. Students today have dozens of options and the choice can be dizzying. Assuming you’re accepted, how do you know which institution is suitable for you?

Students often assumed that attending a university is an active decision. “I will go to X university and study.” In fact, student life is also predominantly a passive experience: the routines or liturgies of your daily life and worldview are to a large degree pre-set. The university curriculum and the available extra-curricula shape you. University is a place where you go to be formed. These are passive expressions–something is being done to you there. Student may feel like they are autonomous agents who critically assess all things, and that they are being taught to “think for themselves” but in fact that is a myth.

This is incredibly important. The university years are critical: critical to your profession, to your friendships and probable marriage, and to your likely geographic commitments. These are pivotal years. Universities shape you in their image, narrative, and priorities. They get to your heart, and they offer you a dream.

University of Ottawa has an enticing slogan: “Adventures start here.” University of Windsor is more self-oriented: “This is your time” and Crandall University more institution-based: “Imagine thriving here.” The University of Alberta wants you to imagine you have no limits: “Infinite Possibilities start here.” Guelph University thinks more environmentally: “Improve Life.” Redeemer University focuses on the worldview of the education: “A degree you can believe in.” And for an allusion to a great hymn of God’s faithfulness, look to King’s University: “Bright hope for tomorrow.” Really, they are all selling you not just job certification, but a worldview.

Think of the word “school” for moment. It’s a community in which you get schooled. You go there to learn within a “school of thought and life” or tradition. There may be many paradigms on offer, and you may feel like you have a consumer’s power of choice to pick and choose, but the reality is that the classroom screen has been set before you arrive, and the range of options is always limited. Screens reveal, but they also conceal, so be careful. That’s one meaning of a “screen”: it’s something that hides things.

If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.
– Wendell Berry

A handy way to think about this to ask “What is the curriculum here?” Curriculum comes from the Latin meaning “to run a course” and if you think of your university years as a marathon, with peaks and valleys, coaches and parents, water stations along the way, regulated by signposts, roads and paths, and officials to record your achievements, it’s not a bad metaphor. Dr. Leslie Owen Wilson has a short primer available on the internet that names 11 different kinds of curriculum and I’m going to examine a number of them below.

Remember: the course is pre-set. You can stray off-track a little, but not too far if you want that certification at the end.

This is important because we often think mostly of our major, our program: journalism, art, business, or history. But in fact, there is much more to consider along the way! What shapes you beyond the classroom is the invisible curricula. I’ve attended about a dozen different universities and visited dozens more along the way. Your choosing of university is a project in spiritual discernment, and the answer isn’t so cut and dried. So be patient with me and see what I mean by invisible curricula.

My guiding assumption here is that life in Jesus Christ is closest to the structure of reality, and it offers the best way for human flourishing, individually and collectively. Secular norms have their gifts, but they often reduce life to one or two of its components (eg. materialism) and thus distort the meaning and vitality of the whole. But Christian universities are smaller and may not have the training you seek. They, too, can offer a limited worldview–potentially retrenched and insular.

So: which university is best for you? All universities should be in pursuit of the truth, beauty, and goodness of creation and be about bringing justice, development, and peace to the wider society. This is the cultural mandate given at creation to human beings and making something of the world is a fundamental part of being human. Universities intend to serve the wider culture, for good or ill, and Christians should be part of the dialogical and pluralistic endeavour that all universities are meant to be.

Millennials are said to love diversity, although it’s not always a diverse diversity with a robust framework or formation process. Some sort of worldview pluralism (mine derives from Abraham Kuyper) is something we need to learn to foster, and that’s done through the formation of a certain set of virtues: like empathy, tolerance, patience, and courage (see Russ Kozits). Where can you best learn such virtues? Let me look at some of the curriculum on offer. In this Part 1, we will look at the overt curriculum, the phantom curriculum, and the null curriculum.

The Overt Curriculum

The overt curriculum is teaching that is suggested by your course syllabi and comes through the classroom lessons and assignments. Whether it’s engineering, sociology, or kinesiology, the curriculum is what is taught by the professor. The curriculum-in-use is similar: what your textbooks say, what the powerpoint presentations directly communicate. This is what most people think universities do, and consider it to be “what is taught.”

“A student is not a container you have to fill but a torch you have to light up.”

  • Albert Einstein

At a public university this will include secular values: humanitarian, scientific, universalist, inclusivist. These can be explicitly taught. Such is the nature of secular orthodoxy, founded in Enlightenment convictions troubled by postmodern doubts. At a Christian university, it will be no surprise that Christian values are taught: love, respect, self-sacrifice, service as well as confession and reconciliation. You will get Christian theology, Christian doctrine, couched in North American language and values; this is often troubled by the secular universities’ curricula, as they are bigger and more powerful and have the arm of the government and its regulations behind them. Christian universities are independent of direct government oversight, but not exempt from the law or what their certification as a university requires them to do.

In what follows you will see it’s much more complicated than that, and let’s begin by saying that immediately after the overt curriculum is given, a shift begins. The received curriculum—what the students take in and remember–is already different. What they recall a month later and what enters into their worldview and what ends up making a difference in their life choices–that’s already a different story!

I know this because as a professor, what I thought I taught, and what students tell me I taught, say, on an exam, are often very different, and at times, totally opposed! The overt curriculum and the received curriculum are related but certainly not identical. But there is more to the invisible side of the curriculum.

The Phantom Curriculum

The phantom curriculum is not taught in the classrooms but is absorbed often unconsciously through the messaging in the mass media of the university and its student culture. It forms the hopes and dreams of students without the student being fully aware they are being formed. To use the name of a popular CBC radio show, we are “under the influence” of such media.

So if the slogans of the school (and I just cracked open the website for the University of Western Ontario) are phrases like “Your Degree, Your Way” and “Own Your Future” and “Invest in Yourself,” there is a way of life being cultivated: one focused on yourself, without reference to a larger community, let alone a transcendent reference point. Beneath the obvious message lies a deeper message: You are a consumer buying a product. It’s all about you. People are shaped by the culture they live inside. More succinctly, we become the stories we are told, and the messaging in a secular university will often be materialist and individualist.

photo from pixabay

I have degrees from both Christian and public (secular) universities. There is a difference, just in walking the hallways—what posters are on the wall, what art graces the lobbies, the intentions of the architecture and decor. At Redeemer University, the slogan was “Learning is for Serving” when I attended. Now, I see “A Degree You Can Believe In” on the website. This is a different message, suggesting it’s not about you, but about faith and service. It’s a different story to live inside.

Now that commercial brands have their own retail space on our universities, they bring their messaging with them. Some Christian universities have done the same. So there may be conflicting messages on the campus, some more sanctioned than others.

The Null Curriculum

This is a fascinating concept: every university has a curriculum that does not exist. A curriculum that is not there and so it’s not taught. Leslie Owen Wilson draws on Elliot W. Eisner (1994) for her definition here, and the quote she cites is telling:

It is my thesis that what schools do not teach may be as important as what they do teach. I argue this position because ignorance is not simply a neutral void; it has important effects on the kinds of options one is able to consider, the alternatives that one can examine, and the perspectives from which one can view a situation or problems (Eisner 1994).

The null curriculum is what is not taught.

Now the public university, more so than the Christian university, is a contentious place. There are multiple stories you could live inside, many which outright contradict each other: capitalist or socialist, modern or postmodern, psychological or metaphysical. Not conservative or liberal, generally speaking, as it’s well known that the public university has become more homogeneously liberal in the past 50 years. But you can find a conservative subculture if you look diligently for it.

To be sure, they will not teach from a Christian perspective or offer rituals that shape you in the death and resurrection symbolized in your baptism. Of course! What about the few Christian professors on campus? In fact, Christian professors have told me they are afraid to come out of the closet as Christians, as they feel a hostility to their faith. So they perpetuate, much to their chagrin, the closed secular/materialistic paradigm.

Not all. You will find Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish faculty that are quite open about their faith. Some Christians, too, may offer some subtle self-disclosure.

Christian universities are the opposite in some ways. The identity politics of the secular university may be more subdued in the Christian university, although most campuses now are deliberately addressing matters of race, gender and sexual orientation. But you probably won’t have a Neo-Marxist professor, you won’t be told to “think and grow rich” and the student culture will not openly encourage binge drinking. “Safe sex” (a misnomer if there ever was) and free condoms won’t be celebrated in the hallways encouraging a hook-up practise. Some lessons just won’t be on offer in a Christian subculture, and that’s the null curriculum.

You may say: being exposed to such secular expressions can help you grow as a Christian. This is true: Christian universities can seem too sheltered and paternalistic for some. So my advice to those who choose Christian university: take a course at a nearby secular university. Get involved outside your Christian university. Nullify the null curriculum!

If you are on a public university: be sure to nullify your null curriculum, and be formed in Christian community. The forces at work in your life are invisible and often unrecognized; don’t be fooled into thinking you rise above them, or counter them by your savvy intelligence. More than any creature on the planet, we are shaped by our environment, moulded by our society. It’s hard to swim against the current, but only what is fully alive will at least try.

For the other half of this blog, check here, where I explain the electronic curriculum, the hidden curriculum, and the concomitant curriculum you need to consider as you choose a university.


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