As a new academic year gets under way, the writing is on the wall: higher education might well be lurching toward a period of creative destruction of the sort that has affected many other sectors of the economy in recent decades. Mention of “the University of Phoenix” or “MOOCs” or “the Minerva Project” strikes fear in the hearts of the tweed-wearing set, just as hand-loom weavers once trembled at the sight of textile mills. But the present moment offers religious college and universities a propitious opportunity. In fact, many have been quietly keeping aloof from the very things that have soured so many on the state of higher education.
The patchwork of faith-based schools in this country is a vital legacy of the American experiment in religious liberty. In the 19th century, when many European nations were centralizing education as a function of the modern state, the United States became a virtual hatchery of private, small church-related liberal arts colleges. From large institutions today such as Notre Dame and Baylor to smaller ones like Providence College, St. Anselm’s, Westmont College, Hope College, Valparaiso University, or my own institution, Gordon College on Boston’s North Shore, these schools have defied many odds, weathered many crises for the chance to compete in the current predatory ecosystem of higher education.
But the changes afoot today also pose challenges. For a brighter future, these schools will need to do more than look enviously at the Ivies or anxiously at their peers; they will have to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.
It begins with people, and not virtual ones. Personal mentoring and leisurely interaction between faculty and students have long been the heart of faith-based education. Neither the soulless PowerPoint-driven lecture hall nor any amount of MOOCs can substitute. Education about things that matter, Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, is often more about emulating a person than mastering a precept. Developing lasting mentors and true friends over the course of four years hardly figures in college rankings. But perhaps it is the factor that matters most.
In loco parentis was perhaps not such a bad idea after all. In a debauched hook-up and drinking campus culture trenchantly dissected in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, curfews, visiting hours, and behavior codes seem not altogether beside the point. My college has all three. Radically, on our campus, men and women still visit separate bathrooms.
Young people are called to a vocation, not a career. Thanks in part to a major grant initiative by the Lilly Endowment to faith-based schools several years ago, the Protestant idea of a “calling” or “vocation” has been reinvigorated; vocation is the new “V-word” on many campuses like mine. Ideas about it vary according to the particular environment, but they share a common vision that 18- and 19-year olds should think of the arc of their lives not primarily in terms of credentials, prestige, or power, but in terms of a calling to a higher good, an orientation of the whole person away from vices such as sloth, pride, and avarice and toward virtues such as justice, prudence, and charity. Many can lead an interesting, distinguished or successful life; few, a good one.
Finally, education is about doubling down on the liberal arts ideal, on what Plato and Platonists ever since have regarded as the exhilarating eros of truth-seeking — something lost on rightist utilitarian approaches to learning and sneered at by guardians of leftist orthodoxy on elite campuses. Great books courses, common core programs, capstone seminars flourish at many religious colleges, in which young people still converse with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Erasmus, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Tocqueville, Jane Austen, and many more. And such figures are not treated simply as benighted foils to our enlightened present nor as fodder for sophisticated deconstruction, but rather in a manner, to quote Donald Kagan, “to keep alive the possibility that the past may contain wisdom useful to the present.”
In the early Middle Ages, monasteries preserved the highest in the classical world for posterity. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians provided a clear theological rationale for this: “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things.” Schools like my own earnestly desire to carry forward this ancient dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, between intellect and piety.
To be sure, many colleges not explicitly religious share some of the values of religious schools. And religious school themselves are far from perfect. Their rhetoric can exceed their reality, their budgets show much red, they may fail to fully practice what they preach, and some persist in confessional polemics of a bygone era.
But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity. Most importantly, they recognize that the dignity of our humanity, particularly in the realm of learning, longs for a transcendent horizon, a supreme wisdom and highest good — what Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Thomas Albert Howard is professor of history and directs the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College, in Massachusetts.
Over the past five or six years, as I walked the halls or stepped into the faculty mailroom, copy room, and faculty/staff lounge at the community college where I teach, I have been struck by the noticeable absence of faculty. And I don’t mean part-time faculty, who -- despite making up nearly 70 percent of all community college faculty -- have always been nearly invisible on campus.
I mean full-time faculty. Simply stated, they’re just not around as much anymore.
What’s changed? The growing number of full-time faculty teaching courses offered entirely online.
At my college, several faculty teach entirely online and, other than professional development days, are rarely on campus. More typical is the full-time faculty member who now teaches one, two or three courses of his or her five-course teaching load online. (I myself don’t teach online, for reasons I’ll explain later.) While not completely absent from campus, these faculty aren’t nearly as present as they were when I began teaching 28 years ago.
The connection between teaching online and being off-campus hit home when I asked a friend who teaches full time and entirely online at a community college in Illinois about a department colleague. He replied he hadn’t seen his colleague in a year and thought perhaps he was on medical leave. It turned out that the colleague wasn’t on medical leave, but rather was teaching entirely online. The two never saw each other and were now more like independent contractors than department colleagues.
Whether community college faculty is teaching online effectively and students are learning remains open to debate. In its “Research Overview: What We Know About Online Course Outcomes,” the Community College Research Center reports that ”online course taking was... negatively associated with course persistence and completion”; and that “lower performing students” — the very type of students enrolling in community colleges — fared worse in online courses as compared to face-to-face courses. Faculty who teach online at my college report similar findings.
But it’s not higher attrition rates that worry me about teaching online. What worries me, and what’s not open to debate, is the dwindling presence of faculty on campus, which is particularly troubling for community college students, who now have even fewer opportunities to interact with faculty and students inside and outside the classroom.
Why does faculty presence on campus matter?
Community colleges are typically commuter schools. Students arrive on campus, attend classes (often scheduled two days a week), and leave. Yet research on community college students finds that student engagement with faculty and fellow students inside and outside the classroom is crucial to student retention and academic success. The 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement found that “[d]ata consistently show that students are more engaged in the classroom than anywhere else” (my emphasis).
According to Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, “[r]esearch shows that the more actively engaged students are — with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals.” The Pearson Foundation’s 2010 Community College Survey found that “[t]wo-thirds of students believe that in order to succeed in community college, it is extremely or very important to have access to academic advisors and to establish relationships with professors.”
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that community colleges that rely heavily on part-time faculty have higher attrition rates and lower graduation rates — part-time faculty have (even) fewer opportunities to engage with students. In short, student engagement with other students and faculty on a community college campus promotes retention and academic success.
One of my students described the importance of classroom-based interaction in a course evaluation. “My mindset was that it was just going to be another English class, and I was not going to try my hardest or get much out of it. I was taking it as a class that I needed to get out of the way for my program of interest. As time went on I realized how into teaching you were and that the people in the classroom really wanted to learn and to get something out of the class. I then decided that maybe I should apply myself and that was the best choice I made the whole semester.”
It’s highly unlikely this student would have had a similar realization in an online course that offered no face-to-face interaction.
When I reflect on my undergraduate education, face-to-face interaction with faculty had profound effects. I can’t imagine James Woodress, my American literature professor, having such a powerful and positive influence on my life, if, as a student at the University of California at Davis, I hadn’t taken his English courses in a classroom, and if I hadn’t gotten to know him inside and outside the classroom. I have watched the poet Gary Snyder on YouTube, and as good and as interesting as that is, it doesn’t compare to the experience of being in a classroom with him.
Community college students often state they take courses online for the sake of convenience and/or because of a harried life -- two reasons accepted without debate -- in order to get done with school as quickly as possible. The course becomes merely an obstacle on the path to accumulating credits.
And community colleges -- driven by convenience, economics, and, ironically enough, the completion agenda -- are quick to respond to “customer demand” by offering more and more online courses.
But instead of promoting an online model of education, community colleges should be doing more to keep faculty and students on campus and to foster a classroom and campus-based culture built upon a sense of academic engagement and community. That may sound outdated and unfashionable, but it’s a model of education that, as research supports, actually increases community college students’ chances of being academically successful.
I will never teach online. As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “I have no wish to learn distanced methods of teaching simply to satisfy students who do not want to relate to me: teaching from afar would violate my own identity and integrity and only worsen the situation.”
I want to be part of an academic community and to teach in a classroom with students whom I get to know so that (as has happened in the past month) when I walk into my local pet store I know the cashier, a current student; or into the pharmacy and I know the tech, a former student; or attend a local concert and I know the musicians, most of whom are former students. I smile every time my wife tells me “we can’t go anywhere without bumping into one of your students.”
To engender that sense of community requires being present on campus and interacting face to face with my students. That’s not possible with the invisible lives of the online world.
Keith Kroll is an instructor in the English department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
So henceforth we have a whole new category of eminent religious figure: Pope Emeritus. I don’t know if the expression will catch on, but at least it’s less irreverent than the meme describing the current situation as Popus interruptus. (That’s proper cod-Latin, by the way. Please don’t feel obliged to correct the grammar.)
It can’t continue this way for long. Easter falls on the last day of this month; as a Catholic friend puts it, “The show must go on.” Those of us who are neither believers nor gamblers have no real investment in the outcome, of course. But the office and its claim to authority are intriguing, even so, and I spent part of the weekend reading a couple of dialogues between Vatican dignitaries and eminent secular thinkers.
The most recently published of them, Belief or Unbelief: A Confrontation (Helios Press, 2012), is also, oddly enough, the earlier of the two. It consists of a series of open letters exchanged, in the pages of a newspaper, between Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, who at the time of his death last year was a cardinal. In his introduction to Belief or Nonbelief?, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox notes that Martini -- besides being a prominent scholar of the New Testament and the organizer of an annual standing-room-only lecture series for nonbelievers -- had been spoken of “as a possible future pontiff.”
The occasional reference in their dialogue suggests that it originally took place circa 2000 as part of what Florian Schuller, the director of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, calls “a very intensive, open, and committed discussion” under way in Italy “between intellectual representatives of the credenti (‘believers’) and the laici (‘secular persons’).” The colloquy between Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger making up The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (Ignatius, 2006) was held at the Academy in early 2004, about 15 months before the cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI.
From Schuller’s introduction to The Dialectics of Secularization, it’s clear that the exchange between the philosopher and the pontiff-to-be was arranged with the example of the Italian discussions in mind. Schuller sounds an almost diffident note. “We in Germany,” he writes, “seem to lack a common philosophical dialogue on the basis of different positions that are interested in each other (as in Italy) or structures that permit a plurality of world views to engage in a societally institutionalized yet completely free conversation on a high level of reflection (as in France).”
On the other hand, Habermas can engage in a public dialogue on religion and secularity without anyone expecting him to clarify whether or not he believes that Adam and Eve shared Eden with the dinosaurs (as in America). No doubt Schuller’s chagrin is heartfelt, but from this side of the water it can be difficult to credit.
Max Weber once referred to himself as “religiously unmusical” – not hostile to religion, that is, but temperamentally unable to respond to whatever it is that inspires or motivates faith. To judge by his writings on religion over the past decade or so, Habermas is a religiously unmusical person trying very, very hard to feel the rhythm. By contrast, Eco can actually carry a tune (he cites Thomas Aquinas with an evident passion for nuance and implication) even if he says he lost his faith in his early 20s and addresses Cardinal Martini from the standpoint of a nonbeliever.
In his exchange with Ratzinger, as elsewhere, Habermas maintains that (1) the modern, democratic, constitutional state does not require metaphysical legitimation, but (2) religious traditions, which do involve large claims about the nature and meaning of the universe, provide something crucial to making society livable, since they transmit and sustain values that otherwise would be pretty scarce.
All citizens may be equal in the eyes of the law, at least in principle. But recognizing formal equality is one thing, and respecting the dignity of others, or feeling an imperative to reduce their suffering, is quite another. It is, in short, a careful if rather vigorless effort by an adherent of “methodological atheism” (as Habermas describes himself elsewhere) to acknowledge that religious faith is not just the un-integrated remnant of pre-modern culture.
Nothing in Eco’s open letters to Martini is incompatible with what Habermas has to say, but they strain less to make room for the idea that believers and non-believers might be sharing a world together, rather than just putting up with each other. He begins with the point that even the most secular-minded people may find something fascinating about the biblical notion of an apocalyptic end of the world. And in the book’s closing pages he writes, “I’m not in favor of instituting a clear-cut opposition between believers in a transcendental God and those who don’t believe in any notion of a superior being.”
Eco and Habermas, then, are Unitarian Universalists, in the sense of the old joke that UUs believe in one God at the most. And their opposite numbers from the Vatican are as patient and indulgent of them as possible. It is the appropriate response to dealing with thinkers who are stumbling in the general direction of absolute Truth. (Lest my Catholic mother-in-law read this and take it the wrong way, let me make clear that it’s Martini and Ratzinger who regard the church as possessing absolute Truth. Indeed, they both spell it with the capital T.)
The worldly philosophers struggle valiantly to make some accommodation between the pious and the profane. The cardinals respond in kind. But in the end, each poses what is essentially the same question to their interlocutors. “It’s difficult for me to see,” Martini admits, “how an existence inspired by” the standards of “altruism, sincerity, justice, solidarity, [and] forgiveness” can be upheld universally “when their absolute value is not founded on metaphysical principles or a personal God.” Ratzinger warns of “the hubris of reason that is no less dangerous” than blind faith. The atomic bomb is preeminently the product of human intelligence exercising itself. And what guidance will keep us from succumbing to that hubris? It can only come from Whoever created reason in the first place.
Not a new thesis, by any means. It's one of the oldest strategems of Christian apologetics: You value compassion, charity, forgiveness, etc. Those values must have a basis, or else they are arbitrary. And if you don't think they are arbitrary (if you don't think that the difference between empathy and viciousness is simply one of taste), then you implicitly believe they have a source, hence a creator, hence God. The merits of the argument have been debated in dormitories for ages, and in the Vatican for even longer. But Eco insists on a reality that can't be reasoned away:
"It seems evident to me that someone who has never experienced transcendence, or who has lost it, can make sense of his own life and death, can be comforted simply by his live for others, by his attempt to guarantee someone else a livable life even after he himself has disappeared. Certainly, there are those nonbelievers who are not at all worried about giving meaning to their own death. There are also those who claim to be faithful but would be willing to rip the heart from a living baby in order to preserve their own lives. The power of an ethical system is judged by the behavior of the saints, not by the benighted cuius deus venter est [whose god is the belly]."
Eco is suggesting, then, that there are unbelieving saints, just as there are pious psychopaths. I have no idea how they would get canonized, but it's an uplifting idea.