Review: Restoring the Soul of the University

restoring the soul

Restoring the Soul of the UniversityPerry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman and Todd C. Ream. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history of the fragmentation of the modern university including its loss of soul, the impacts that this has on various facets of university of life, and the role theology can have in restoring that soul and healing that fragmentation.

One of the clearest conclusions in reading contemporary literature and analysis of higher education is that there is no clear idea of what a university is for. Or rather, there are multiple contested ideas from educating for citizenship, to provide the skills needed to work in today’s knowledge economy, to serving as a critical adjunct to that economy by working alongside government and industry to tailor curriculum to aid economic growth. Then there are the rare individuals who still insist that universities have something to do with helping young men and women explore life’s larger issues, life’s meaning and purpose, helping them live into what it means to be fully human and part of the human community.

The authors of this work, following Chancellor Clark Kerr’s description of the multiversity, propose that all of this is indicative of an institution that has lost its soul, that there is no shared animating purpose, no story that frames its sense of mission and its values. All the different constituencies that are competing to shape the university have fragmented and there is nothing to mediate between these fragmented identities.

The book consists of three parts. The first part traces the history of the university from its beginnings with Hugh of St. Victor and the University of Paris. The vision began with a vision of the academic castle with theology preeminent over the disciplines, in which learning occurred through both meditation upon and disputation around authoritative texts. Unfortunately, making theology preeminent tended to isolate theology from engagement with the other disciplines. This flaw widened as theology and philosophy became separate disciplines, increasingly not in conversation with each other. Then in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, European universities were increasingly controlled not by church, but by government. The beginnings of American universities seemed to hark back to the early vision. But after the Civil War, the European ideal of the research university and the rise of science took over. From a set curriculum, the elective plan proposed by Charles Eliot turned the university into an academic buffet of courses rather than a common curriculum. Universities became simply a collection of departments competing for students attentions leading to the secular multiversity of the present.

Part two explores the impacts of this fragmentation. First of all is the fragmentation of the life of a professor, torn between teaching, research, publishing pressures, and service, between one’s institution, and one’s subdiscipline. With no common story to give curricular coherence, curriculum increasingly is defined by majors with general requirements a faint echo of a once common curriculum. The competition for students leads to a rise of student services outside the purview of the faculty and a tension between curricular and co-curricular life. The growing size of universities, the expansion and sophistication of services, and government requirements add a new group of people to the mix, administrators. Lacking a significant narrative to bind the university together, athletics, and particularly football at many institutions serves as the multiversity’s new religion. The rise of new technologies and entrepreneurial figures has resulted in new delivery systems in online and for-profit education, challenging traditional models.

The last part of this work re-imagines what a university, particularly a Christian university, might look like if theology was granted a central and formative role in the life of the university. To begin with this assumes a willingness of theologians to open up their conversation to other academics and for academics in the other disciplines to be open to explore theological implications for the paradigms and practices of their disciplines. It means not penalizing theologians whose academic work reflects this interdisciplinary engagement rather than narrowly focus in their own theological sub-disciplines. Their vision goes far beyond a virtuous veneer to the standard practices of teaching, research and service. They write:

“Although we agree with the importance of practicing virtue in the academic calling, we contend that any approach to integrating virtue must not prioritize teaching over scholarship or service but should instead prioritize the role of the triune God and God’s theological story in defining, directing, and empowering the virtues that sustain excellence in these practices and help promote flourishing academic communities. We doubt broadly defined virtues on which we all agree can sufficiently reorient the academic vocation. After all, professors need a compelling identity and story that will motivate them to acquire certain virtues. Instead, Christians must think about virtues such as faith, hope, and love as well as other fruits of the Spirit, in the light of a theological narrative and realities that usually do not enter standard secular reasoning” (pp. 245-246).

The authors then explore how this reconsideration of theological narrative and reality shape academic disciplines, co-curricular life and academic leadership. The authors’ vision is that it may be possible, at least within Christian universities to recover the “soul” of the university in understanding how the Christian story informs all of life in the university.

In assessing this work, one must first acknowledge the valuable work the authors have done both in summarizing the history of the university, helping us understand how we have reached our present place, and the shape (or shapelessness) of the fragmentation that is the defining realities of our present-day universities, Christian, private, or public. They give us a valuable survey, which some will dispute in detail, but in broad outlines does much to inform someone wanting to understand higher education today.

For those working in the Christian college and university setting, what the authors assert should not be cause for much controversy, in principle. In fact, the forces that have shaped these schools as mirror images of the secular university are not insubstantial–whether we are talking about the shape of the theological guild, the disciplines, athletics (as the authors, two of whom are Baylor faculty well know), and the rising co-curricular bureaucracy. There is a need for a combination of humility and vision shared by university faculty and leaders from these various sectors if this is ever to have a chance of being realized. Perhaps it might grow from “test plots” where people with a larger vision come together.

What hope is there for secular, public universities? I cannot visualize an institutional transformation that “Christianizes” such places. But might it first of all be helpful for Christians within these “academic villages,” whether students, faculty, staff, or administrations to begin to think more rigorously about how the narrative of their faith ought to shape their daily life and presence in this place? Might there be significant value in private and, when appropriate, public conversations that reflect how theology might inform and enrich our inquiry and practice in every dimension of life? Might students, trying to connect the various “reality bites” of their lives find in the Christian story, the “liberating arts” (in the authors words) that bring coherence to both their studies and their lives? Might this collaboration of students, faculty, theologians, and ministry leaders cultivate a counter-cultural, lived story that in proximate ways witnesses to “the restored soul” that is the mark of the Christian story?

I cannot guess what difference this might lead to with these institutions. But Christians in these places must consider what story will shape how they live. The paucity or richness of the theological narrative that shapes these lives will determine whether they will be fragmented or will flourish. The case these writers make is one all of us working around the world of higher education will do well to heed.

 

2 thoughts on “Review: Restoring the Soul of the University

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: September 2017 | Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: The Christian Academic Vocation in “Restoring the Soul of the University” | Emerging Scholars Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s