Review: Dreaming Dreams for Christian Higher Education

Dreaming Dreams of Christian Higher Education, David S. Guthrie (Foreword by Bradshaw Fry; Afterword by Eric Miller). Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2020.

Summary: A collection of presentations given over a twenty year period on realizing the dream of Christian higher education by a leader in Christian higher ed.

I’ve worked for more than four decades in collegiate ministry in public university settings. My colleagues and I have wrestled with the task of seeing students formed in Christ: in character, formational practices, witness and service, in intellect, and the pursuit of their callings. Often, one has the sense of working across the grain of the social, institutional, and intellectual context of the public university. I’ve sometimes dreamed of what it might be like to attempt this work in the Christian college context, one that I think would embrace our aspirations with a context aligned with those aspirations.

David S. Guthrie has dreamed similar dreams over several decades of ministry and academic leadership in the Christian college context. He’s served as a professor, student life director, and an academic dean. This book collects presentations given over this period in which he sets forth his own thinking articulating both what is mean by “Christian higher education” and how that might be pursued as an academic institution. Many of these were given during Guthrie’s time at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a small college in the Reformed tradition located northwest of Pittsburgh.

The opening presentation is on the idea of a Christian college, acknowledging the disenchantment with efforts at student transformation, at intellectual integration, and the shortcomings of the ideals of a liberal arts education as a vehicle for this student transformation. Guthrie explores the barriers of the wider academic context, the institutional structures of a school including departments and majors, and the wider context of anti-intellectualism in evangelicalism.

The second presentation articulates critical tasks for the project of Christian higher education. He puts forth three:

  1. Helping students to see more and see more clearly, more clearly. This is about Christian perspective and the continuities and discontinuities of that perspective with wider cultural perspectives.
  2. Helping students discern the times and know what to do. In another presentation, Guthrie writes about educating for godly wisdom.
  3. Helping students to understand calling and vocation. In contrasts to societal careerism, Christian education grounds students in a vision of their own lives and service in the light of God’s kingdom.

These two presentations ground the remaining essays in this volume. He argues for a much more integrated curriculum than simply a collection of gen-ed requirements connecting Christian thought with the different academic disciplines. Elsewhere he leans into the issue of student context and argues for grounding codes of conduct with a priority on student learning and on the Christian convictions at the core of the institution. He addresses student life and the need for those working in this area to prioritize their own professional development.

Perhaps one of his most prophetic talks was on academic leadership, particularly amid the pandemic. Drawing on the work of Ernest Boyer, he articulates the crises of presidential succession, wrong-headed leadership, lack of leadership, and confusion about the goals of higher education. He commends prioritizing good communication, keeping problems in perspective, staying well-informed, taking time to be creative, and having an inspired vision. For institutions he calls for curricular coherence, educating for the common good, teaching excellence, strong campus community, and equality of opportunity.

I found myself wondering as I came to the close of the book, what progress Guthrie had seen from his own efforts. I wish there had been an essay on his Geneva years, what they accomplished or failed to accomplish, what they learned. Perhaps that time is still too close. While he does not explicitly answer that question, he contends that he keeps dreaming, while also lamenting the lack of a theology of culture among many faculty, the embrace of silver bullets rather than substantive curricular change, the persistence of standard disciplinary and departmental structures, among others. He concludes with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s description moving beyond the historic isolation from culture in the early Christian college movement and more recent emphasis on Christian scholarship to a focus on what it means to be Christians in society.

Guthrie’s presentation offers an overview of the writing on and discussion of higher ed issues of the last thirty years. Reading between the lines, I suspect that Guthrie has seen the vision of higher education realized among many students and colleagues while the wider institutions of Christian higher education remain relatively unchanged or even in greater peril. I think that is both why Guthrie has not stopped dreaming and why he laments. Institutions need to look at the results they are achieving and ask how those reflect their structures, and as Guthrie discusses in one essay, the lack of a compelling institutional “saga.” This is an important book for all of us who dream of a new day of Christian scholarship and recovery of faithful Christian presence in the world of higher education.