Sunday, April 26, 2015

How do my Christian values shape my view of the university?

Recently I gave a short talk to a group of academics, many of whom were senior professors, about this issue in the context of how univerisities are changing rapidly.

Universities have distinctly Christian origins, going back 500 years.
Not only was the study and teaching of theology at the centre of the first universities, whether Oxford or Princeton, it underpinned the whole philosophy of institution. The idea of a secular university is an innovation of the last century.
The idea of the university as largely a commercial entity is a product of just the last 40 years.

As a Christian I think there are three core values (scholarship, people, and transformation) that shape my view of what a university should be. It is not necessary to be Christian to have these values. Some humanists would share them. A nice example is the eminent literary critic Terry Eagleton, who is a Marxist and atheist. He recently wrote a nice piece The Slow Death of the University, reflecting similar values.
However, for me personally, these values are deeply rooted in Christian theology.

All truth is Gods truth and has intrinsic value, regardless of any potential commercial benefit. Yet in a world marred by sin, real authentic scholarship is difficult and plain hard work. It requires sustained effort and support in the long term. It is hard to measure quality.

People are made in the image of God. They have intrinsic value and are to respected, regardless of their gifting, performance, or achievements. People are complex social and psychological beings. They cannot be reduced to numbers, metrics, or commodities. Staff are not “human resources” to be mined, exploited, and discarded. Students are not “customers” who are “always right” and to be pandered to. Nor should they just be seen as a source of revenue.
Universities are communities. This means that democracy, transparency, and collegiality are important.

Education should transform students. The values, goals, convictions, knowledge, and skills of graduates should not be the same as when they first enrolled. Furthermore, education should equip them to serve others, not just advance themselves professionally and financially, or increase their egos and social status. Education is not just about getting a piece of paper that will enable them to get a high paying job. Graduates should serve the common good and transform society.
Research should also transform society, not just in economic terms.
It can increase appreciation of beauty, wonder at the physical universe, heal diseases, create models for conflict resolution, lead to technologies that reduce pollution, …

It should be clear that these values are in complete conflict with the neoliberalism that now rules most universities, and nicely critiqued as a religion by Paul Tyson.

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