Some years ago I was teaching in Sewanee at The University of the South. That was during the depradations of what I’ll call the Spellings régime in the U.S. Department of Education. It seemed like every day there was more and more bad news spilling out of the agency. And the agency had the colleges by the you-know-whats. Federal money had long since become the unsalubrious life-blood of colleges and universities; and receiving it meant pleasing accreditation agencies. The news from the top, from Republicans suspicious that undergrads were being hopelessly brainwashed by useless liberal professors with nothing better to do than use their lecterns as bully-pulpits for Marxism and feminism and postmodernism, was that colleges and universities must now measure student outcomes. In other words, if a student set out to learn history, the colleges and universities needed to measure what the student had gained from his or her years of education. (Little did the Spellings régime realize how completely and dehumanizingly it had drunk down the Marxist-materialist thesis; see below).
Now, this isn’t a plug for useless education. So hold your horses. This is a critique of using fiat and mandate tied to financing to force quantifiable, socially and economically “productive” outcomes. In fact, it's a critique of quantifiable socially and economically productive outcomes. If you’ve caught the liberal arts bug yet, you’ll know where this is going.
Liberal education has never thought of itself in terms of social and economic “outcomes,” whatever those may be. It operates with a completely different framework. It says something like “you are what you read.” And so it reads. And it reads what has emerged over the years to typify, challenge, change, re-trench, reinvigorate, repristinate, etc., that which, in the most traditional of ways, is good, beautiful, and just. Notice you don’t see “quantifiably economically and socially productive” as one of the criteria.
To put it differently: we read Homer not to become better social workers or engineers, but to become better humans, or rather, to understand our own humanity (and if we do that, we'll probably become better social workers and engineers, but that's for another time). Why? Because Christian liberal education begins with the premise that the human being, who stands as the crown at the center of all the Triune God's erstwhile and ongoing creative activity, whom, as a race, God Himself in human flesh redeemed through the spilling of His blood, whom, socially broken, God Himself reintegrates into the communion with Himself and of His people through the rich and daily forgiveness of sins in the one, holy, sanctified Church—that that creature in its essence cannot, dare not, without great affront to God Himself, be boiled down to a cog or consumer unit in a world that, at the end of the day, is deprived of spirit and soul and remains nothing but material, the atoms exchanged in the ongoing ebb and flow of primal energy.
Talk about two fundamentally, radically different visions of humanity. In the one, mankind is no better than a squirrel, except that he can be trained better and more intentionally—a mere accident of an impersonal Big Bang with the added bonum of an instinct that can be tamed; in the other, mankind from Adam to the last person is endowed with body and soul and spirit and loved and given to unceasingly, in body, soul, and spirit, by a God who is a Personal Being whose very essence it is to love and give, first within in His Being, from Father to Son, and back, etc., but so infinitely that it spills forth toward created beings which, from their creation to their redemption to their sanctification are nothing if not given to by God.
But back to the Spellings regime: what Margaret et al. formulated was the (perhaps unwitting?) death-knell of liberal education: a policy that forced colleges and universities—even Christian ones, even Lutheran ones!—to buy into the basic premise that humans are but cogs and consumer units. That was step one. Step two was to get rid of anyone she didn’t get a harumph out of.
That's when she, as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, "barred the American Academy for Liberal Education [AALE] from accrediting new institutions or programs for at least a half year." Because they read books. And because they operated with a premise about being human that differed from the truncated Spellings vision. I'm glad to say the AALE seems to be doing better these days, even if it, and liberal education, are not yet out of the woods.
All of that by way of saying that in those days I was down in my cups (albeit, when figure of speech reprised reality, I opted for the Lutheran malt-and-hops version of "wherever two or three [Episcopalians] are gathered, there's a fifth"). It was at those times, that my colleague and good friend Chris McDonough would remind me, not without a bit of nationalist pride, that Irish monks once took to the hills with nothing more than the few books they could gather in their arms--this, of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization lore.
It was just a few good books. I am reminded by this of so much of what we know about Lutheran history, but that rarely gets isolated like I'm going to do now. One thematic strand woven into the history and fabric of Lutheranism is that it is, finally, about a few good books, and all of them about One Good Book, aka The Good Book. It's about reading. It's about reading closely, and well, and taking seriously the claims books make on you. In the world of Scripture, words aren't just words, they're powerful things. They do what they say. God's words do what they say, and the correlate of this, one often overlooked, is that other words do what they say, too. You are what you read. In other words, if you're going to be a learned, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran, you have to read like a learned, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran.
That's why Lutherans care about books. The story of confessional Lutheranism in North America is the story of words and books. Words mattered. And words matter. You can't re-write the Augsburg Confession with Samuel Schmucker and remain Lutheran. The confessional Lutheran laity arrived in this country poor and destitute. But they had their books: their hymnbooks, their Small Catechisms, and their Bibles. Because words mattered, so did books.
But not all of them. Knowing a few good books well is worth a great deal more to being a learned, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran than knowing many books.
Perhaps this serves as a principle in Lutheran higher education, then: books matter. Good books matter. Knowing how to read, and read well and intensively, matters. And if this serves as a principle of Lutheran higher education, then it stands that at the center of Lutheran higher education is the reading of good books. Lutheran higher education not only can, but even must, concentrate on this center.
This alleviates so much of the burden of institutional culture that has developed, in line with the materialist premise betrayed by the Spellings régime, in modern Lutheran higher education. It means that a good, confessional Lutheran education will focus not on the scholasticism of modernity (just as the reformed University of Wittenberg rejected the scholastic apparatus for a bracing encounter with primary texts). It means that a good, confessional Lutheran education won't replace reading good books with doing good deeds (read: service programs and the like). It means that a good, confessional Lutheran education can--even must--be constituted by the reading of good books.
This has curricular, and therefore institutional, repercussions. It means that the curriculum of the confessional Lutheran college can, may, must be devoted to the reading of a "few good books," to the classics of the West, the repository of what is, traditionally, good, beautiful, and just. It means that an institution can, may, must concentrate all its resources on just that.
And with that comes freedom. Such an education does not require massive, expensive facilities, but small, well-appointed seminar rooms; it does not require competing with business for its best minds, but dedicated, educated, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran educators who think a few good books are important enough to forego a handsome salary (which does not mean they shouldn't be well paid, just not exorbitantly); it does not require amassing a student body of consumers for whom one college is better than another on the basis of its amenities, just students who wish to become learned, eloquent, and thoughtful Lutherans.
A venture like this promises to be small. But that's fine. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. And a few good books in the arms of fleeing Irish monks [read: learned, eloquent, thoughtful confessional Lutherans] are enough to preserve the modest thing we might call "Lutheran civilization," a civilization that, in its cultivated sense, is one of few good books, and of The Book.