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Some Thoughts on Education (8) – FAQs Should Christians Attend Secular or Christian Colleges?

*Important note*: those of you who have talked to me about college already know that I honestly don’t have clarity on this question. What I write here is far more speculative than what I normally write, so please keep that in mind as you read.

I remember a strange class during the end of my last year in Law School. My professor was a partner at a prominent law firm, but he also had a PhD in English and a Master’s in Theology. His expertise, and the work he was teaching us, was Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. I don’t remember the context that prompted his rant, but he said the following. “You all think your education is complete now and that you have learned a lot. But you have learned nothing. Absolutely nothing. . . . I take that back, you have learned something worse than nothing—you have all learned deconstruction and moral relativism. That’s it. And you swallow those false philosophies whole because they are disguised as critical thinking. But none of you have learned critical thinking, none of you even know what that even means. You’ve all been given a crap education, but it has been hidden by the fact that moral permissiveness is not judged, but rather encouraged, and most of you are too young to feel or recognize the consequences of living a libertine life. The Roman Emperors of old hid the lost liberty of their subjects with bread and circus; we hide the lack of a truly liberal education behind beer, hookups, and big-ten football. My advice to you all is to recognize that you are completely uneducated and to seek to become learned men and women. Law school trains you to be clerks because we don’t have a legal system built for free individuals; it is a decadent and Byzantine. We teach you to be clerks to navigate this labyrinth, to do things a talking chimpanzee could be trained to do. Don’t settle for that. Become a learned individual. College did nothing for you, but don’t let that get in the way of leading a learned life.”  

That stuck with me. And while I don’t agree with everything he said, there was some truth in it. I think his critique is especially true in the humanities. I think of a student that loves Jane Austen and goes to college to study English Literature. There is a good chance that this student will be taught that Jane Austen had a “false consciousness” and that the only thing one can learn from her books is how oppressed women were by marriage and how men concocted a system of morality to keep women in subjugation and that Austen, unfortunately, was unable to overcome this system but instead held to and propagated it. In short, the student will learn absolutely nothing about Austen, but only that his or her professor reads her books through a Marxist lens. But not only will the student learn nothing, their enjoyment of Austen will undoubtedly be diminished as will their appreciation of Austen’s wholesome, and often humorous, moral lessons. I don’t know the extent to which Humanities departments are dominated by ideology, but I do know there is far greater opportunity for ideology to completely take over a subject in the Humanities than in math or science departments or the trades.

I see problems in contemporary higher education that I believe it is important to point out, but as I mentioned above, I don’t have a recommendation on college. I think that K-12 education should be Christian by default, but I am not sure that is the case for college. There is value for an adult student to engage with the secular world and in some fields (medicine, law, e.g.) a secular education is the only option. But I also don’t think that the main thing that derails the faith of Christians in college is ideas—we can teach, and often do a good job teaching, apologetics. I think the greatest difficulty of a secular college is the moral permissiveness that is accepted and even encouraged.

I went to a concert at The Union recently with my daughter and we saw a number of young ladies that were dressed unchastely to a degree that I am not sure I have ever witnessed before. Human beings are formed profoundly by our communities and I can’t help but think how living in that environment would influence my daughter. When we talked about it she said things like, ‘that is gross and I would never dress like that.’ And I told her that it is easy to see this clearly after being in an environment for two hours, but much more difficult after being in the environment for four years. Things that seem odd, gross, and even wrong soon seem normal with familiarity.

Ultimately we are raising children, not programming machines so there is no right “code” that we all need to enter. Some children that go to secular colleges go wild and rebel against their creator, others grow immensely in the face of opposition, and still others muddle through, neither losing their faith nor growing and spend years after the fact putting the broken pieces together. Conversely, some children go to a Christian college and grow immensely under the direction of wise and godly teachers, while others feel like they are being force fed their faith and come to hate and reject it.

When thinking through what is best for my children I think I would ultimately hone in on two questions: (1) what does my child want to study? Is it something that is likely to be dominated by ideology in a secular education setting and therefore, at best, end up being a complete waste of time? And (2) does my child have the maturity to live in a morally permissive environment where drunkenness, recreational drug use, and sexual immorality are the norm? When thinking through this second question I would consider: are there strong Christian communities around to help Christians live faithfully in the midst of the secular university they are interested in? I would be hesitant to send my children to a secular university that did not have a strong church or parachurch ministry that he or she could join.