The Future of Christian Higher Education

By David S. Dockery and David P. Gushee
Nashville : Broadman & Holman (1999). xix + 234 Pages.

Reviewed by
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 116-119

 The themes of “future” and “change” are no strangers to the literature on Christian higher education. Alvin Toffler concluded, “I have suggested . . . more radically curative procedures for the society—new social services, a future-facing education system, new ways to regulate technology, and a strategy for capturing change. . . . [D]iagnosis precedes cure, and we cannot begin to help ourselves until we become sensitively conscious of the problem” (Future Shock [New York: Random House, 1970] 430 [emphasis added]). Toffler’s call to develop strategies concerning change and to diagnose the situation carefully prior to remedy has kept many college and university administrators up at night. Contemplating their institutions in the vortex of postmodernist culture, budget realities, expanding technologies, shifting economic trends, faculty dissonance, demographic undulations, and a host of other contemporary demons, administrators can lose institutional bearings like a mariner in a dense ocean fog. Arthur Levine once observed, “In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the Yale Report of 1828 asked whether the needs of a changing society required either major or minor changes in higher education. The report concluded that it had asked the wrong question. The right question was, “What is the purpose of higher education?” (“The Future of Colleges: 9 Inevitable Changes,”Chronicle of Higher Education, October 27, 2000, B10). In light of these observations comes the challenge to all Christian higher educators: “Why do we exist as a unique form of higher education?” and “How do we set proper bearings recognizing the intellectual, social, and cultural vertigo we find ourselves in?” An attempt to offer answers to those haunting questions comes in The Future of Christian Higher Education.

The Future of Christian Higher Educationis the edited contribution of David S. Dockery and David P. Gushee. Dockery is President of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and a commissioner with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. His literary contributions include The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Baker, 2001), Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods & Issues (with David Black, Broadman & Holman, 2001), and New Dimensions in Evangelical Thought: Essays in Honor of Millard J. Erickson (InterVarsity, 1998). Gushee is the director of the Center for Christian Leadership and an associate professor of Christian studies at Union University. H is literary contributions include Christians and Politics beyond the Culture Wars: An Agenda for Engagement (Baker, 2000), Toward a Just and Caring Society: Christian Responses to Poverty in America (Baker, 1999), and A Bolder Pulpit: Reclaiming the Moral Dimension of Preaching (Judson, 1998).

The Future of Christian Higher Educationemerges out of the turbulent waters of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has been undergoing dynamic transformation in the past decade. In addition to the editors proper, contributors to the book include leaders and scholars from within the Southern Baptist tradition, specifically Bob R. Agee, Timothy George, Millard J. Erickson, James T. Draper, Jr., Harry L. Poe, and Robert B. Sloan, Jr. The editors balance the work by including those from the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities (Robert C. Andringa, Karen A. Longman) and from a broad representation of recognized scholars, administrators, and business leaders, including such notables as Joel A. Carpenter, Kenneth G. Elzinga, Stan D. Gaede, Arthur F. Holmes, Kelly Monroe, Claude O. Pressnell, Jr., and Norm Sonju). The Future of Christian Higher Education is not the first attempt to offer new directions to Christian higher education, nor will it likely be the last (cf. J. Gregory Behle, review of Models of Christian Higher Education: Strategies for Success in the Twenty-First Century, by Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian, eds.], The Master’s Seminary Journal 9 [Fall 1998]:234-36).

The majority of the essays that comprise The Future of Christian Higher Education are addresses that have been reworked for inclusion in this edited volume. The majority of addresses were given at the Conference on the Future of Christian Higher Education held at Union University. Additional addresses were taken from a variety of venues, including the presidential inauguration of Dockery, and various commencements, convocations, and Staley Lectures. Such a reworking was evident in the tone of the work as this reviewer often found himself “listening” to what was being presented in the book. Endnotes are provided but appear to be later inclusions of a more generic and secondary nature. The volume is replete with the usual literary citations of Christian higher education, notably George Marsden’s. Soul of the American University (Oxford), Philip Gleason’s, Contending with Modernity (Oxford), and Doug Sloan’s Faith & Knowledge (Westminister/John Knox)—interestingly, all three identified by James Burtchaell as the intellectual trilogy of Christian higher education (The Dying of the Light [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998] ix). Carpenter’s essay “Sustaining Christian Intellectual Commitments: Lessons from the Recent Past” even uses the trilogy as a structural outline for an address (107-14).

In addition to referencing the trilogy, The Future of Christian Higher Education offers the standard quotes and remarks frequently associated with Christian higher education. These include Tertullian’s familiar quip “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and Church?” and Abraham Kuyper’s famous statement, “There is not one single inch of this universe about which Jesus Christ does not say, “This belongs to me!’” At numerous points the reader is reminded of the Christian heritage of American higher education, usually with the standard references to the founding of Harvard, including discussions of its motto, In Christi Glorium , and references to the early “Laws, Liberties, and Orders of Harvard College—Every one shall consider the main end of his life and studies to know God and Jesus Christ . . .” (cf. Josiah Quincy, History of Harvard University [Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1840] 515). Though such formulaic allusions are predictable, they do not diminish the quality of the essays.

In response to the stock literature citations and quotations, this reviewer would liked to have seen greater interaction with, and incorporation of, recent research on higher education as foundational to a discussion of the future. General references to the Chronicle of Higher Education appear, but the heavier peerreviewed research is largely absent. One point this reviewer is particularly interested in is the recent phenomenon of institutional conversion endemic within Christian higher education circles. A hard look at the motives for converting Christian colleges and Bible institutes to “University” status and how that decision factors into a vision of Christian higher education would have been an interesting and welcomed discussion.

In spite of a certain predictability in the materials used and cited, a fairly simple use of largely secondary and parochial sources, and the motivational tone stemming from rhetorical genesis, The Future of Christian Higher Education is a solid reminder of the issue that the Yale Report of 1828 raised: “What is the purpose of higher education?” or in the case under consideration, Christian higher education. The book is not prescriptive about the future; rather it raises fundamental issues worth considering. In that regard, it offers a valuable contribution to the literary dialogue. Both administrators and faculties would do well to discuss these issues vigorously. The work raises several important and often overlooked questions, including the place of scholarship and research in a Christian academic context and the question of spiritual formation and the Christian professor—issues often ignored in the literature. While emerging out of the ethos of the Southern Baptist convention, the volume is not bound by denominational ties. The editors have attempted to represent a wide spectrum of Christian higher education in the book. Previous reviewers have clearly appreciated the contribution of the work to the conversation concerning the purpose and direction of Christian higher education.

The Future of Christian Higher Educationraises two fundamental questions: “Why do Christian colleges and universities exist and what might their vision be for the future?” The answers to these questions, and the conversations they invoke, are too important to ignore. Often absorbed with the task of navigating the turbulent skies in which they find their institutions, campus leaderships often fixate on budget spreadsheets and enrollment projections. We would do well to look up from such instruments and to the horizon. The work of Dockery and Gushee offers an excellent starting point.