21 November, 2009


This blog is devoted to one relatively narrow topic, confessional Lutheran higher education in North America, which is, arguably, in crisis. The intent of this blog is to re-think the confessional Lutheran higher education endeavor by extracting what it might, could, and should look like from the theology and intellectual structure of the Wittenberg Reformation.

Why is this necessary? The lies we tell ourselves.

As anyone might observe about institutional confessional Lutheranism in contemporary North America, it frequently does business backwards. That is, it begins with the way things look and are, now, and attempts to justify them on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the practice of what's called contemporary worship. I'll let you fill in the blanks, but consider how this recent document "grandfathers in" contemporary worship practices.

In the matter of higher education, we've also managed to drink our fair share of the KoolAid. What is good is what we have now, we tell ourselves, and then we extrapolate higher education's purpose and mission from what has become institutionalized in our colleges, universities, and seminaries. And here we've told ourselves some lies.

Like the argument for justifying the curricular mayhem in our colleges and universities: it's better to have Christian personal trainers, physical therapists, business people, and media workers than non-Christian ones. Therefore we support programs in exercise sports science, pre-physical therapy, business, and media design. While I certainly--certainly--am not devoted to the proposition that the Church's only interest in higher education is church workers (pastors, teachers, deaconesses), I am devoted to the proposition that confessional Lutheran higher education does not have an inherent interest in placing Christians in the professions. As Luther famously quipped, it's better to be ruled by a competent knave than by an incompetent Christian. The point being that the good to society derived from one's conduct in a professional vocation cannot reliably be linked to one's profession of Christianity or not. A good and principled engineer can design an interstate bridge just as well as a good and principled Christian engineer. There's no debate about that. And since that's the case, it raises the question, once again: what interest does the Church have in preparing [Christian] business people, physical therapists, media designers, personal coaches, and the like?

I'd argue that the Church's interest in higher education is the creation of a laity and clergy that is theologically literate and conversant. Let's leave it right there: the Church's interest in higher education is a theologically conversant and literate laity and clergy.

This certainly doesn't mean that we should convert all of our colleges and universities into glorified bible colleges. What it does mean is placing theology not at the margins of the educational endeavor, but at the center. And it means the construction of an intellectual apparatus that can support real theological thinking. Such an apparatus includes: the basic languages (German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew in an and/or way), a sustained encounter with The Greats (literary, musical, scientific, mathematical, etc.), a focus on rhetoric in writing and speech (the canon of invention, today so sadly represented as evidenced in the presentation of silly papers and speeches on insignificant topics can be repaired by turning rhetoric back on the materials of a solid education).

What does this look like on the ground?

As with all things, there are good, better, and best answers. There are also bad answers; and bad answers to this question are evident in scads: limited resources directed toward curricula in which the Church has no inherent interest. There's an easy litmus test you can use when you look at program offerings in institutions of Lutheran higher education. You can ask yourself, when your cursor slides over an academic program, two questions. Question one: Can the Church survive without a [name the professional vocation]? Question two: Is the theological task of the Church aided by study of [subject/program]? Using this litmus test, a significant proportion of programs, minors, and majors in the colleges and universities of institutionalized confessional Lutheranism in North America could be eliminated (along with the significant monetary outlay required to support them--salaries, accreditation costs, infrastructure, library holdings, etc.).

Answers on the good end of the worst<-->best spectrum show moral, financial and human investment overwhelmingly (I'd argue exclusively) in traditional liberal education, configured any number of different ways. One way is a lock-step curriculum, as practiced at St. John's College (non-sectarian), Thomas Aquinas College (Roman Catholic), or New St. Andrew's College (orthodox Reformed). This model has a great deal that commends it. Another way is what has become known as the traditional American liberal arts college departmental structure (think Top-50 liberal arts colleges) with a strong distributive core. Many colleges claim it, but few have it. Most of them fall short in two ways: the existence of majors outside the traditional liberal arts, such as those mentioned above in "Lies we tell ourselves," and the failure to provide a rigorous, integrated core. Shortcomings in the core have traditionally been in foreign language and remain so. Mathematics is increasingly underrepresented. In some curricula, requirements have become so diffuse as to be meaningless. And the carry-through into the rest of the curriculum is often problematic (writing and speaking at responsibly high rhetorical levels should not cease after English 101 and Speech 101, but be enhanced throughout the curriculum).

1 comment:

Steve Gehrke said...

Jon, having just learned of your blog this weekend, I would just like to say that I wholeheartedly agree with the vision you've expressed here - speaking as an engineering professor and confessional Lutheran. I look forward to the continuing conversation. Hopefully I can throw out some good and better ideas and not too many bad ones. Steve