Should Colleges Indoctrinate?

James Davison Hunter is a sociologist teaching at the University of Virginia. Five years ago he published a book entitled Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University Press, 1987). It was based on research he had done in American Christian Colleges. Here is one of his conclusions:

We can see the multiple ironies of Christian higher education. On the one hand, Christian higher education historically evolved into precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to be, that is, into bastions of secularity if not anti-Christian sentiment. Contemporary Christian higher education, on the other hand, produces the unintended consequences of being counter productive to its own objectives, that is, it produces individual Christians who are either less certain of their attachments to the traditions of their faith or altogether disaffected from them. Education to the degree that it is not indoctrination, weakens the tenacity with which Evangelicals hold on to their world view. In sum, Evangelical education creates its own contaminating effects. And the more Christian higher education professionalizes and bureaucratizes (that is, the more it models itself institutionally after secular higher education), the more likely this process will intensify. (p. 178)

All of us know wonderful exceptions to this claim —people who are stronger in their faith and deeper in their grasp of biblical truth and more capable of defending it than if they had not gone to a Christian College. I put myself in that number. Many of you at Bethlehem are also in that number.

But surely Hunter is not whistling in the wind. He has no fundamentalist axe to grind. To the degree that he is right, what are we to say? What I want to say is this: “indoctrination” is not the only alternative to faith-weakening education. In our day the word “indoctrination” usually refers to unthinking transmission of tradition. But I would affirm strongly that this is not the only alternative to the secularizing effect of Christian higher education.

The real alternative is a faculty made up of great Christian thinkers who are great lovers of God with profound allegiance to the truth of God’s word and razor sharp discernment of all the subtle idols of our age. What is needed is great teachers with great hearts for the great old verities of the faith that they hold because there are great reasons for holding them — reasons that will stand up to hard questions.

What destroys faith is when little academic minds and little hearts for God niggle away at magnificent and precious Realities with no remorse . . . when there is no great love for God and his word and no great passion to see the truth of God magnified and defended with profound credibility and authenticity. . . when faculty demonstrate their academic standing not in the really great and difficult task of constructive explication and justification of truth, but in the simple and adolescent task of deconstruction and cynicism.

I have sat under Ph.D.’s who never have grown up. It has never even occurred to them that they might bear the responsibility of being the elders and fathers in Israel. Or the mothers in Israel. Instead they were the homeboys who still thought it is cool to call mother “my old lady” and who were embarrassed if the evidence pointed to the truth and beauty of something old.

Our problem is not that “indoctrination” is the only alternative to education. It isn’t. Our problem is that so few people have ever tasted great Christian education or seen great Christian thinking going on from a profoundly God-centered perspective in an atmosphere where students can feel that the faculty would gladly die for Jesus.

Pastor John

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