In an ongoing effort to think practically about how to instantiate the liberal arts in modern confessional Lutheran higher education, I return to two ideas I posted earlier in skeletal form: (1) reform of one or several existing institutions; and (2) establishment, within or connected to one or several of the existing institutions, of a separate unit, department, or school.
(1) It is an admission I make, quite frankly, with deep sadness that reforming one or several of the existing institutions within institutionalized confessional Lutheranism (LC-MS, WELS, ELS) is an impossible task. One sager than I some years ago kept reminding me that “you can’t change culture.” And, in fact, that’s what has grown up around the Lutheran colleges and universities: a culture that, like all cultures, perpetuates itself. I have described this culture in other posts. “Worth Reading” and “What?” of 21 November 2009 are perhaps the most extensive; “Gymnasium for Everyone” of 21 January 2010 gives some historical insight into how we got from there to here.
So I’ll spend no more time on the culture as it is, except to remark that it’s not only the case that the present culture cannot be re-formed along the lines of a model of education inspired by Wittenberg; it’s also the case that the “new” North American confessional Lutheran model of higher education has gathered a force and momentum of its own so that it is constantly in the process of becoming more like what it already is. Here, no arguments suffice, because Wittenberg education, a Renascentes musae education, has no traction. It’s a foreign language treated as a clanging cymbal. Many readers of this blog know whereof I speak.
(2) That said, while it may be impossible to re-cast an existing institution in the Wittenberg model, much like what swept across the German universities in the Northern European Renaissance, it may be possible to convince one or more of them to grow a new appendage: a radical (in the sense of fundamentally) liberal arts school, department, or college within an existing institution. Now, it is the case that many institutions presently either claim to be liberal arts colleges or have colleges of liberal arts and sciences. And yet none of them are radical liberal arts institutions (or even what you might call moderately liberal arts schools), but are the catch-all for everything from speech therapy to social work to theology to history to pre-physical therapy. (Put another way, today “liberal arts” frequently means the hotch-potch of disciplines that don’t “fit” elsewhere, hardly the intentionally and well formed curriculum that radical liberal education requires.) The budget for this institution-within-an-institution would be separately kept from that of the sponsoring institution and be made responsible for managing its own costs, faculty, and curriculum, funding itself, and charging its own tuition. Models for this approach exist in Christ College at Valparaiso and in the erstwhile Paracollege housed at St. Olaf College.
What speaks for this model are the following: (a) it does not require the acquisition of a new campus, just the hewing out of some moderate space on an existing campus; (b) like the “university of Christendom” model, it shares what can be shared; (c) it may attract to itself students who enroll in the sponsoring institution for other reasons or other curricula; (d) it may otherwise have a leavening effect on the host institution; and (e) accreditation can be eased by the sponsoring institution’s accreditation.
What stands in the way are the following: (a) it may, no matter what financial and institutional protections are in place, be forced to compete for scarce resources with other branches of the institution it finds itself in; (b) the positive impact of the student peer group is diluted; (c) it requires a change in present college culture significant enough to open space for itself; (d) it may itself, through institutional pressures, be brought into comformity with alien standards, curricula, etc.; (e) its accreditation will rely upon general accreditation agencies that cannot be expected to have adequate criteria.