Faith and Learning
Edited by David Dockery | Review by: Thomas Kidd
David Dockery, ed. Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012. 560 pp. $39.99.
How badly do Christians need Christian education? And what exactly does Christian education entail? The answers are not always obvious. Even among evangelicals, there is no consensus about whether to put children in Christian schools, or at what level. If parents send their children to a Christian school, it is most likely to be at the collegiate level. Students often make key decisions about their faith in college, an unparalleled time of intellectual formation. Many figure that the extra expense of a private Christian college is worth it. Still, factors such as financial resources and children's personalities factor into the decision, made for the most part without official pressure from churches (excepting some Anabaptist and Reformed traditions).
Prophetic voices throughout the past century as varied as J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen have insisted that placing children in state-backed, secular schools at any level is unlikely to produce Christian adults capable of proper thinking. Even if secular education is not overtly anti-Christian, these critics say, it tends to produce people who are vocationally trained rather than seriously educated. As Dawson provocatively wrote in 1961, state schools seek to create functionaries for bureaucratic and industrial systems; they form “worker ants in an insect society.” If these prophets are right, then some formal Christian education is extremely important for training intellectually adroit Christians.
Most secular colleges and universities (including formerly religious schools) have long since transitioned “from Protestant establishment to established nonbelief,” as the subtitle of George Marsden’s seminal Soul of the American University put it. But many schools have also turned away from the classical aims of education in general—great texts, great ideas, and great questions—in favor of technical training with which, ostensibly, students may “get a job.” Many Protestant schools founded in America’s first two and a half centuries of higher education now carry only vestiges of a Christian identity—if any at all. True, some have held on to, or even enhanced, their Christian commitment (Wheaton College in Illinois, and my own employer, Baylor University, are two examples). Leading Christian colleges and universities know that secularization is an elemental threat. They hopefully understand the essential task of hiring orthodox, practicing Christians with a personal stake in the advancement of the school’s spiritual mission.
What to Do?
But even assuming a school maintains its Christian vision, what exactly is a Christian college supposed to do? Some would emphasize that spiritually oriented student life, from regular chapel services to revivalistic events, will help ensure that students emerge from college with an intact Christian commitment. Others would focus on ethics, integrity, compassion, service, and other qualitative aspects of the Christian university’s culture.
What about the intellectual content of Christian higher education? Although one would think that academics frame the core purpose of Christian schools, elite-level secularization has presented Christian scholars with a major challenge: how does an institution align faith with academic content dominated today by skeptical and naturalistic perspectives? Professors and administrators have sought to reclaim the historic Christian intellectual tradition for new uses in our era.
We have made major progress in this educational quest over the past 20 years, witih David Dockery of Union University in Jackson, Tennesee, helping to lead the way. He has guided Union for almost 17 years, and his recent Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Education is the latest addition to more than 30 books he has written or edited. This remarkable scholarly record makes him one of the most prolific college presidents in America.
Faith and Learning is an ambitious, comprehensive series of essays that will help readers contemplate what Christian college education should mean, and on what foundational principles it should rest. Dockery and his co-essayists contend there is a historic Christian “view of things that has character, coherence, and unity” and that “stands in sharp contrast with counter theories and speculation offered by those opposed to biblical revelation.” Proper Christian education, they argue, is broadly confessional and orthodox, and deeply dependent on the riches of church history, from the early church fathers, to medieval scholars, to Protestant luminaries such as Calvin, Bunyan, and Edwards. Of course, the Bible is key to any sincerely Christian curriculum. As Gregory Alan Thornbury’s unhesitating essay puts it, the goal of Christian education is “biblical fidelity and an adherence to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
Readers will find many of the essays, especially in the first half of the book, broadly applicable to Christian higher education and the believer’s intellectual life. Readers will not find all the essays equally profitable, of course, and some may wish to skim some of the more discipline-specific chapters. (However, I certainly enjoyed essays outside my specialty, such as those by Mark Bolyard and Jeanette Russ on science and math.) I also wondered why Dockery included relatively few non-Union authors—three, by my count—in a book with 24 essays. For some, this lack of institutional breadth could raise questions about the volume’s applicability outside of its home context.
In general, however, Faith and Learning succeeds as a fine handbook on major issues in Christian education. For Christian professors, administrators, students, and parents of school-age children, the volume is a very helpful guide for revisiting the content and purposes of a robust Christian education.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University, and is senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.