13 November, 2010

Why Not Accept the Status Quo? An Open Letter to Ray, a Skeptical Lutheran Reader

Ray, a reader of RenMus, has left some provocative comments on the last post, Well, Of Course. The present post attempts to address them, and, as you can see, I’ve organized these thoughts around answering the question, Why not accept the status quo in contemporary confessional Lutheran higher education and, by implication, work with and within it?”

Coat of Arms, Wittenberg
The answer to this question is, in some sense, the entirety of this blog. But let me try to condense things as much as possible. First, the status quo in confessional Lutheran higher education hardly resembles anything distinctly or even noticeably Lutheran. I don’t think there’s any big secret here. In the vast majority of its programming, what the average synodical conference college does differently from, say, Cardinal Stritch (just to take an example with which Ray will be familiar) is so minuscule that students, especially those in satellite campus and evening programs, have to make an effort to discover any unique residuum of Lutheranism. This, by the way, puts the lie to the notion that opening the doors of Lutheran institutions to all comers is really “missional.” This is a pious self-blandishment and -deception at so many levels. First, it’s an extremely expensive way for the church to fulfill the Great Commission. Second, because the residuum of Lutheranism is so scant, it’s frequently the case that most non-Lutherans can enter and exit a great many Lutheran colleges without so much as a brush with the bracing claims of Scriptural, Lutheran theology. Third, as it’s sold it’s a terrible bait-and-switch scheme, even though the “switch” never really occurs (see “Second,...” just above). One might add that while the church certainly is and must be engaged in works of love toward the world (charitable and human-care undertakings), it is not clear to me that higher education, especially with a steep price-tag attached to it, is such an offering. The church’s charity is charity (“Come, buy without money!”), not charity on the back of student debt.

That’s the Lutheran theology element of the critique. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there are not Lutheran theologians at the Lutheran colleges. I’m not saying that those theologians do not teach Lutheran theology. But that also does not mean that I am saying that all of the Lutherans are really Lutherans, either, nor that all the faculty are actually Lutherans, much less ones who can give what could be identified as a reasonably articulate account of Lutheranism. But therein lies the problem.

Ray wonders whether eschewing such professional-preparation courses as pharmacy or exercise science or what have you is a wise move on the part of those who advance a Wittenberg higher education. In other words, the question is “Why can’t RenMus and the professional and pre-professional courses of study just get along, i.e., exist side-by-side, in the same institution?” Answer: Because they can’t. Please note, that’s the “can’t” of impossibility, not the “can’t” of “uneasy, but liveable relationship.” There are many reasons for this. First, students are important to other students’ education. In fact, some educators identify “peer-group” as the single most important factor in a student’s college-years intellectual development. The peer group in a “multi-versity” is so broad and uneven that it has a corrosive effect on the entire student body. If one’s experience in higher education has been with high-quality liberal arts colleges, this factor will hardly have been apparent. However, it is a reality. A conversation can be only as good as its weakest link. If higher education is something like a sustained conversation between students and students and students and faculty, etc., the impact of the recalcitrant is utterly destructive. It would be like going to a Star Trek convention only to find that more than 50% of the people there wanted to talk about Desperate Housewives.

Second, when an institution of higher education, especially a Lutheran one, develops programming that is not characteristically Lutheran, that is, that lacks an account for why Lutheranism needs that program, the motive is always the profit motive (despite our pious self-blandishments; see above). This motive opens the floodgate to an Iliad of evils, not least of which is prizing and prioritizing the new programming over the “old standard.” Not only is it the case that the concerns of the Evangelical Lutheran Church are represented in an attenuated way or not at all in major curricular decisions (such as core requirements), but now the entire curriculum is shifted to meet the needs of what I like to call “grabby” professional and pre-professional programs. The argument might go something like this: A legitimate business major doesn’t have room for a heavy distributive core. Now, since everyone at institution X earns the B.A., the B.A. requirements across the institution need to be curtailed to accommodate the professional programming. Again, the church’s interest is derailed. Not only that, but as mentioned above, this places serious students of, say, theology or history or chemistry in a class with students who regard all of those courses as hoops to jump through (Desperate Housewives fans in a conversation with Trekkies about Star Trek). Again, the impact is corrosive on the student body. One might argue, even, that theology fares even worse in this scenario than the students (and therefore the students with it): as Robert Benne has well pointed out, the marginalization of theology on campuses has the effect of reducing it to what he calls a pietism, wherein religious feelings are expressed in the vaguest of terms (“God is great, God is good.”) and not brought into real converse with the intelllectual project or academic disciplines of the institution [see the post Worth Reading]. Thus to put a RenMus program in an existing institution is something like throwing the lambs to the wolves; there’s that bit about pearls, too.

Third, a Lutheran skeptic might wonder why a RenMus higher education could not or would not benefit, financially, from being attached to an institution with income-generating (?) programs [on this see Steve Gehrkes monitory words in several comments on earlier posts]. In other words, why not use, say, a pharmacy program to underwrite a Wittenberg humanistic education? First, see the arguments above. Second, if generating income to support core programming is the goal, I can think of many ways to make money more effectively than by skimming the slim margin off tuition payments for a professional program that, in any case, provides a distraction from the institutions purpose.

There are more universal concerns here, too, and unfortunately this post has grown way too long. But let me add a couple of points. First, the professional programming mentioned above is animated by an entirely different value system from that that underlies Wittenberg higher education. In Wittenberg higher education, that is, the higher education that the Evangelical Lutheran Church has at its heart, the goal is theologically learned and conversant laity and clergy. The education itself, while ordered to the goods of the church, state, and individual, takes what looks to us today like an indirect route to those goods: it mines the past for the present and the future. Carl Springer in his recent talk at CTSFW [click here, and then click on Listen/View Conferences and Events; then click on Lutheranism and the Classics; then click on Wise, Steadfast, and Magnanimous] points out that Lutherans, by habit and even by confession, “back” into their future. The future is unknown, except for the eschatological horizon when Jesus will return. The past is known. And we approach the present and future on the basis of what is known, using (again, a quaint notion) the best that has been thought and written in the past. In other words, the notion of utility that partially animates Wittenberg education should not be confused with utilitariansim, which is what animates professional programming. Second, it is always the case that the proliferation of programming takes the eye off the ball. Efforts at an administrative, curricular, financial, admissions, development, and PR level that can and should be aimed at advancing and fostering an ongoing encounter with Lutheran theology, developing awareness of the Wittenberg reformational approach to the life of the mind, foregrounding the Christian life of vocation (not vocationalism) become so scattered that what is said about the important core purpose of the institution becomes something like background noise—perhaps at most a kind of mood lighting or light God-“musack.”

Penultimately, given the reality on the street, even approaching an institution that presently exists in order to create something like a Wittenberg curriculum would require showing up money in hand. In other words, it is not the case that present institutions will simply divert funds from what they are already doing to develop a Wittenberg curriculum. Since that’s the case—that is, since it requires starting from scratch anyway—it’s best to keep it at a safe remove from what history has shown to be the inexorable progresss of a typical confessional Lutheran institution of higher education.

Will this mean teaching a handful of students in a trailer park in Northern Wisconsin? No, it must not; for it all to work properly, architecture, location, curriculum, faculty, governance, financing, admissions requirements, student body, etc., must all work together, that is, be expressive of the same animating idea or ideal. As I’ve tried to show above, just one element being out of whack can and most frequently does have a long-term and irreversible deleterious impact.

Finally, I express my thanks to Ray for putting his finger on and pressing the issue. Much of what has been said here has been alluded to or touched upon lightly in other posts; the fruit of Rays prompting, Why Not Accept the Status Quo? attempts to draw a line from RenMus’ critique of contemporary confessional Lutheran higher education to the envisioning of a better way. 

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone from a supposedly liberal arts Catholic college that is currently drowning in pre-professional programs: Amen!
"Not only that, but as mentioned above, this places serious students of, say, theology or history or chemistry in a class with students who regard all of those courses as hoops to jump through (Desperate Housewives fans in a conversation with Trekkies about Star Trek). Again, the impact is corrosive on the student body": Double Amen!

Bethany Kilcrease

Steve Gehrke said...

A short comment from someone who teaches in professional programs: Wouldn't/couldn't/shouldn't an educational institution open the eyes of the 'hoop jumpers' to the more fundamental questions raised here? Couldn't a Wittenberg education lay the foundation for a high quality professional education?

I understand that students who don't want to learn can't be taught. But inspiring students to want to learn is part of a teacher's job. It's also the hardest thing to do, much harder than figuring out to convey the course material effectively. My greatest admiration is reserved for professors who can motivate students to work hard to learn a subject they didn't initially think they were interested in.

I do find it necessary to have some outstanding, highly motivated students in a program to bring up the overall quality of the education. Students do tend to work to peer level and need some role models among their peers of what is possible to achieve and the effort required to reach it.

Amberg said...

"My greatest admiration is reserved for professors who can motivate students to work hard to learn a subject they didn't initially think they were interested in. "

And how can we have such teachers unless they have the conviction that what they are teaching is more important than what everybody else is teaching? But an orthodox Lutheran classics or theology teacher who goes to a public University or a Concordia with this frame of mind will meet with more resistance than we would like to admit.

In fact it is this resistance which has marginalized the professional students from the classical students.

How do we over come the resistance?

Steve Gehrke said...

Amberg - I'm unclear as to what the resistance you refer to is, or in what sense professional students are marginalized relative to classical students. As a result I can offer no response to your question. Can you explain?

Ray said...

Jon, this is a thoughtful reflection on Lutheranism and liberal arts, and certainly underscores your point that the exclusivity of teaching the liberal arts is every bit as important as the fact they get taught at all. I think, however, you may have misunderstood my comments and questions. You re-frame my take as: “Why not accept the status quo in contemporary confessional Lutheran higher education and, by implication, work with and within it?” This both begs the question, in the classical sense, and recasts my question as the conclusion.

I think more accurately, my question is: how do you most effectively transcend the status quo? How—not what. That, of course, leads to the question, what is the goal? Is it Lutheran liberal arts in any way it can be achieved or is it Lutheran liberal arts, in an institution devoted solely to that pursuit and in the absence of any interference from professional programs and other tangents? If the latter, as you propose, what examples can we look at to determine how we get there?

You say: “[G]iven the reality on the street, even approaching an institution that presently exists in order to create something like a Wittenberg curriculum would require showing up money in hand. In other words, it is not the case that present institutions will simply divert funds from what they are already doing to develop a Wittenberg curriculum.” I should think so, as long as everything they are told that they and their students are unworthy of any participation in your project. On the other hand, the reality on the street that I see is a higher education system in our country that hasn’t yet found room for an institution truly and purely dedicated to a confessional Lutheran liberal arts program.
Again, my question is not whether, but how. So, how does it get done if not standing on the foundation (however shaky) of already existing institutions? And how do you persuade others to support an all-or-nothing, black-and-white, no-middle-ground project?
I yield back the remainder of my time to let the pros talk.

Ray