What (Public) Good Is a Christian University? Answer #2: Teaching

When we turn to teaching, several public goods come into view.

Let’s begin with something pretty basic. The Christian university contributes to society through offering university training with funding otherwise not available to governments via taxes or donations. It is a well-established fact that many parents are willing to pay extra to send their children to a Christian university and many donors will support Christian education that will not contribute to the public university down the street. Thus we see that more money is made available for the educational enterprise if Christian education is allowed to flourish. And when one can make the case to government officials that more money is available, government officials tend to pay attention.

Second, the Christian university contributes to the public good by educating at a high level. Alas, not all Christian colleges and universities have set a high standard for their academic work. But they ought to have done so, since Christianity affirms this kind of activity as obedience to God’s commandments and therefore it should be done with excellence. (The prophet Malachi has some stern things to say about people who offer to God what they would not dare to offer to their governor.)

Third, and this point is worth elaborating, the Christian university trains and motivates citizens in a worldview – the Christian worldview – that encourages values of benefit to society at large.

The Christian university trains students in the virtues of honesty, diligence, patience, thrift, altruism, and more. These values are hardly to be taken for granted in contemporary society, especially given the anomie, hedonism, and even nihilism so common in secular universities and in the intelligentsia at large.

Moreover, the Christian university trains students to respect other people – indeed, to go beyond this contemporary bromide to “respect others” to love other people, and particularly those people one would be inclined to hate: one’s enemies. In societies such as ours that are desperate for goodwill of this sort and for actual models of neighborly cooperation, no one should ignore the resource of Christian universities training exactly the kind of citizens our societies need. Indeed, it is one of the great public relations challenges of Christian universities to show that we do teach these values, rather than the values we are suspected of teaching, namely, contempt for others and self-righteousness among ourselves.

Christian universities can offer still more along these lines. We should be manifesting a theoretical and practical embrace of pluralism under a robust confidence in the providence of God over the whole world. We should be forswearing Christian imperialism for an intentional Christian participation in the “mixed field” of the world.  We can assure our contemporaries that we are not training foot soldiers for a Christian theocracy we hope is just over the horizon. We are training citizens who respect the variety of outlooks and values we see around us and who engage them as citizens should: with curiosity and patience, with eagerness to see the good and willingness to recognize the bad, and in all things with the determination both to contribute to and benefit from the common good.

Traditionally, to be sure, most Christians have believed that the best sort of society is a society run by Christians according to explicit Christian values. Increasingly, however, Christians are not so sure that this is God’s will for society – at least, not until Jesus himself returns. In the meanwhile, it may well be God’s will to allow the wheat and the tares to grow together, and for us to make the best of our world in concert with our fellow citizens who, whether they name the name of God or not, are doing God’s will in the world when they, too, make shalom.

Therefore Christian universities teach respect for institutions as divinely ordained, rather than as hopelessly corrupt, and encourage students to enter into them with goodwill. At the same time, Christian universities teach realism regarding human potential, whether individual or corporate. Thus we seek to instill hope in our students about the potential of cooperating with God and our fellow creatures in making shalom in this disordered, but still fruitful, world. We also train students to expect evil, in ourselves as well as in others, and thus to plan for it and not be perpetually shocked and upset by it. Christian universities thus inculcate a valuable perspective on a global culture disoriented by the effects of greed, yes, but also of mere sloppiness and even by the unintended bad consequences of some policies and actions originally intended for good—as the current economic crisis amply demonstrates in every respect.

What public good is a Christian university? Enough to keep praying for it, keep donating to it, keep sending students to it, keep teaching, studying, or otherwise participating in it, and keep defending it.