Saturday, April 19, 2014

The unique positive contribution of Christian universities

Hunter Rawlings is a former President of Cornell University, which is avowedly secular, and was co-founded by Andrew Dickson White, notorious for promoting the conflict thesis: that science and religion are at war with one another. Rawlings is currently the President of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 60 of the leading North American universities.

The Princeton Alumni Weekly recently published a talk by Rawlings, Universities on the Defensive. In it he gives four essential reasons why the colleges and universities in the USA are the best in the world. I want to reflect on
2) they are a crazily unplanned mix of public and private, religious and secular, small and large, low-cost and expensive institutions, all competing with each other for students and faculty, and for philanthropic and research support; 
I wonder why Rawlings thinks this.
Why might universities based on Christian values play a positive role that complements secular ones?
Here is what I think.

First, regardless of what you think of Christianity its influence is central to understanding much of the history, literature, and philosophy of the Western world. Yet, in secular universities there can be a tendency, both in teaching and research, to "censor" this or paint Christianity in such a negative light that it is not possible to appreciate this important influence. This leads to slanted and inaccurate knowledge.

Second, secular universities can be easily swayed by commercial interests and a functional view of education and research. Rawlings discusses this in his talk. It is all about training graduates so they can get high paying jobs and research should have commercial benefits. In contrast, Christians should view scholarship and education as having intrinsic value. Furthermore, education is not just for the gratification of the individual but is equipping the student to serve others and broader society, regardless of renumeration or acclaim. These competing perspectives can push secular universities in a more positive direction.

I don't want to gloss over that Christian universities have their own deficiencies. For example, scholarship and teaching can be hindered by narrow doctrinal perspectives and a fear of new knowledge. Here, secular universities put them under healthy competition and can complement them well. Hopefully, Christians in secular universities also help move them in these more positive directions too.

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