10/14/97 Speakers explore distinctives of Christian higher education

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--Christian institutions of higher education should govern themselves differently than secular colleges and universities, declared speakers at Union University, Oct. 10-11, during a conference on "The Future of Christian Higher Education."

Stan Gaede, provost of Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif., said secular notions of multiculturalism -- rampant at many American universities -- should be rejected by Christian schools.

"Our approach to diversity must be mission-driven, because if it is not we will be in deep trouble," Gaede warned. "Either we will find ourselves embracing a relativistic conception of diversity or reacting against it with some kind of mindless uniformity. Neither are appropriate to a Christian institution."

Gaede acknowledged "multicultural experience" can be valuable for a Christian educator. "It can lead to greater understanding (and) enable us to be more compassionate, sensitive human beings."

But he urged conferees to keep in mind the central issue for all believers. "We are followers of Jesus Christ. He calls us to embrace certain kinds of diversity and not others."

As an example of how Christian groups should reject some types of diversity, Gaede referenced a resolution passed by messengers to the 1997 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, urging a boycott against The Disney Company.

The pro-homosexual influence typical of much of American academia could likewise be seen in the reaction of the much of the American media to the resolution, Gaede indicated.

"One cartoon I saw pictured Mickey Mouse locked up in stockades with two glum-looking 17th-century Puritans looking on with the words 'Southern Baptists' emblazoned on their clothing," Gaede recounted.

"This is an absurd caricature, since it is equating a rather anemic request not to purchase a product of a particular company to a legal arrangement in which governments persecute non-conformists. The differences could not be more stark."

Regarding appropriate diversity, Gaede asserted a need for many Christian colleges and universities is to employ a higher percentage of women as faculty members and administrators.

"We are going to do a better job of educating both male and female students if they find themselves in and out of the classroom interacting with men and women professors," Gaede said.

He added the administrative tasks of a college can be improved and made more effective by the inclusion of both women and men in decision- making.

"I think we work better together than apart," Gaede said. "We will treat each other better, we will consider more and better options and we will come to better conclusions if we are people with a nice mix of men and women."

Joel A. Carpenter, provost of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., said secular educators often question the legitimacy of the very notion of Christian higher learning.

But Carpenter suggested it's also erroneous to view Christian higher education as merely traditional education plus religious content.

"The notion of a Christian college education as mainly a 'value- added enterprise' -- adding faith and values to the realm of knowledge as already determined by the secular academy -- is positively destructive," Carpenter said.

Rather, he said, Christian universities should integrate their doctrines and beliefs across the entire spectrum of academic disciplines.

Robert Sloan, president of Baylor University, Waco, Texas, voiced a similar line of thinking.

Academic areas such as mathematics, biology, chemistry, sociology, literature and history "are legitimate spheres where each of us asks larger questions," Sloan said.

These inquiries include considering "the presuppositions of our disciplines (and) larger questions about order and the existence of order," Sloan continued. "All of our disciplines can involve these 'macro- questions' of transcendence and meaning."

Christian institutions need to encourage faculty members to integrate their faith into academic disciplines, said Claude O. Presnell Jr., executive director of the Tennessee Foundation for Independent Colleges.

"A number of our faculty within our Christian colleges and universities struggle with how to think Christianly about their disciplines," Presnell said. "We have lost unification of knowledge under the lordship of Jesus Christ."

Presnell said reflection on God and the Bible can be a key to solving the problem. "Can a business professor Christianly teach employee relations when she has never paused to contemplate the justice and mercy of God? How can a biology professor fully articulate the uniqueness of humankind ... when he has spent more time meditating on Darwinian theory than the wonders of God?"

Likewise, Christian colleges and universities should encourage their students to become "critical thinkers," said David P. Gushee, associate professor of Christian studies at Union.

"Critical thinking is the ability to interact with ideas, rather than merely react -- to sift them for their truthfulness and value, rather than accept or reject them out of hand," Gushee stated. "Frequently, no one has ever challenged (students) with such a goal. ... Sometimes students respond to the request for critical thinking by trashing everything they read in class. ...

"Professors at Christian universities are uniquely positioned to model consecrated critical-mindedness and consecrated intellectual curiosity."

Co-sponsored by the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the conference was hosted in cooperation with Union's Center for Christian Leadership.

Karen Longman, CCCU vice president for professional development and research, told conferees Christian schools are increasingly requiring their students to participate in unique ministry projects before graduating.

"Many of our schools have moved from requiring simply foreign language to including a cross-cultural experience or cross-cultural courses" as part of curricular requirements, Longman observed.

She said the influence of such a policy can be both positive and profound.

"Getting students into a setting that causes them to experience 'the other' -- whether it's working with senior citizens or inner-city kids -- for as little as one month appears to substantially affect the total impact of a Christian liberal arts education," Longman said.

She suggested such an experience is especially needed by those currently attending universities.

College students "need to realize that the world does not revolve around them. Have you noticed that's a problem?" Longman asked, as many in the audience chuckled and nodded with agreement.

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