By Robert Joustra
January 3, 2014
Staring down the barrel of 2014 my gut is that we’re living on the cusp of a renaissance of the Christian college, of its rediscovery not as merely ‘Christian’ education, but as public education. The tipping point on recycling elusive brands like ‘liberal arts’ is coinciding with a post-secular moment, one in which the ends of public service, of the common good, have started to redefine the means of liberal arts.
The idea that human knowledge is plural, and useful human knowledge must therefore have a plural character, lacks the subversive ethos that it once had during the halcyon collegiate days of positivism. Postmodernism became post-secularism, and the coffee shop zeitgeist has feasted to bursting on a deconstructive hubris, a perpetual suspicion of singular, positive arts and science. Selling liberal arts as brand has become like selling me sweeties and bonbons by walking me through the recipe: boring, we properly complain. We just assume you didn’t botch the basics, enough with the complicated recipes, show me the sweeties.
What makes liberal arts subversive is its intent, not merely its content (and the latter was determined by the former). Liberal arts is a public project. In the ancient invocation, it was a series of skills and subjects designed as essential for making a free person, an active person in civic life, a person trained in the meaning and pursuit of the common good. Liberal arts, to use Charles Taylor’s categories, is therefore an operative mode for which the common good, an active civic life, is its moral end. Taylor is very clear on this distinction because, he argues, we often make the mistake of inverting our operational modes and our moral ends, making our modes absolute, and ends in themselves, which not only leaves them listless but also increasingly meaningless. A project of human knowledge and education that lacks intent, that lacks a moral end, suffers the worst kind of fragmentation. “A politics that does not encompass the direction of society ceases to be politics at all,” argues Oliver O’Donovan. Knowledge without love, to paraphrase St. Paul, is a clanging cymbal. Or as Pope Benedict XVI put it, knowledge is never purely the work of the intellect.
The North American post-secular moment is timed for Christian academies, of all levels, to rediscover their public calling. Not, I hasten to add, to prove ‘our’ relevance, as though relevance were something to chase, but rather to demonstrate solidarity; not on the outside trying to get in, but in the sure confidence that we are already in. And so we can shed the insecurity that decades of so-called secularization has inbred in religious people, as something like second-class citizens, and join in the common, proximate, work of our public life.
This is not merely an academic project, though that work is not incidental. Dan Drezner complains that Janet Yellen’ss recent testimony before the Senate Banking Committee demonstrates a prejudicial policy-relevance of some academic disciplines, like economic theorists, which are for some reason largely understood as important, whereas others, like international theorists, are at best tangential to policy makers. What do academics as public servants make of this? Real concern, certainly, but probably also some overdue introspection on whether our academic structures are geared toward self-perpetuating, and maybe ghettoized, academic recurrence, rather than public service. Imagine a system that rewarded academic achievement on measurable benchmarks for public service, on knowledge mobilization plans that put professional thinking persons persistently and maybe even a bit obnoxiously in the face of policy makers.
So far as I can tell there is no such project as a Christian academy that is not a public project, that is not, even if it eschews the label and operative mode of liberal arts, doing the moral work of liberal arts: the formation of public servants, the work of common service. That seems to me intrinsic in the label ‘Christian,’ seeking the welfare of the city. Far from the ghettoized complaints religious academies are often subject to, their very ethos, by definition, orients them toward the moral end of liberal arts. That’s what makes me confident 2014 is the year of the Christian College, and there are more than a few presidents and colleges well on their way to seizing that moment. That’s exciting news for the new year, not just for Christian academies, but for North American society.
- Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.