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Against Consumerism in Christian Higher Education

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scholarshipOver at The Gospel Coalition, Hunter Baker reviews Abraham Kuyper’s newly translated Scholarship, a compilation of two convocation addresses given to Vrije Universiteit (Free University). He offers a helpful glimpse into Kuyper’s views on Christian scholarship, as well as how today’s colleges and universities might benefit from heeding his counsel.

Recommending the book to both students and university leaders, Baker believes Kuyper’s insights are well worth revisiting, particularly amid today’s “tremendous upheaval in higher education”:

All universities, and certainly Christian ones, face a landscape in which students have been largely replaced by consumers. The change is not the fault of the students so much as it is a consequence of the extraordinary rise in tuition prices during the past quarter century. Instead of seeing education as a good that enriches lives and provides learners with tools and habits useful to making a career, we’ve embarked on a course in which students all but demand to know which career and exactly how much money….

…Kuyper has much to say to both students and institutions in these century-old addresses. He would resist the transformation of the university into something more like a business. In light of his idea of sphere sovereignty, I think he’d say a school is a different kind of endeavor than a profit-making business—and I think he’d be right. Universities (including Christian ones, especially Christian ones) must find a way to reduce the market-driven nature of their activities…At the same time, students must place more emphasis on developing scholarly (in the best sense of the word) habits and less on simply progressing toward a credential.

In his own book, The System Has a Soul, Baker dedicates three chapters to the role of Christian scholarship in broader society, articulating many of these concerns about the state of higher education, and echoing many of the same  themes he observes in Scholarship.

The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political LifeIn a chapter that covers a range of recent developments, from the ever-increasing secularization in Christian universities to the commoditization of academic credentials at large, Baker concludes that Christian institutions face particular risks, but also have a unique opportunity to shine and flourish:

The new situation is both a potential threat and a boon to Christian colleges and universities. It is a great threat to the extent that these institutions simply try to participate as just another organization in the market offering a service that can be obtained from many other providers. If Christian schools go in that direction, they will suffer from an inability to compete on price with state universities and discount online retailers. They will also suffer a diminution of their mission because market imperatives will eventually overtake those of faith.

On the other hand, the new reality is a boon because it offers an opportunity to excel where Christian colleges should have an ad­vantage. If the great mass of educational content is commoditized, then the college that is able to differentiate itself can make a com­pelling pitch to students and their families. Christian colleges can successfully argue that the best education connects with the mind, the body, and the soul.

Accordingly, when Christian institutions have done their job well, they will offer students the chance to work with professors who are trustworthy and insightful mentors who are ready and willing to lead students in a learning community. Christian colleges should be great citadels of educational integrity, trust, insight, and community excellence in the pursuit of truth about the world, its Creator, and humanity. In other words, if Christian colleges are committed to being Christian rather than simply acting as educational institutions with Christian ornamentation, they should have the wherewithal to survive and thrive in the changing environment.

Purchase Abraham Kuyper’s Scholarship.

Purchase Hunter Baker’s The System Has a Soul.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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