The Value of Christian Higher Education

The Value of Christian Higher Education

Fall 2021

An interview with Shirley Hoogstra, David Brooks, and Anne Snyder

Leaders on CCCU campuses understandably recognize the value Christian higher education has not only for the students, faculty, and administrators on campus, but for their communities and society as a whole. But for those outside the world of Christian college and university campuses, the question persists: Why does Christian higher education matter? CCCU President Shirley V. Hoogstra hosted a conversation on this topic with two prominent thought leaders. 

David Brooks, one of the nation’s leading writers and commentators, has been an op-ed columnist for The New York Times since 2003 and also appears regularly on PBS NewsHour and Meet the Press. He is the bestselling author of several books, including The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life and The Road to Character. He is also the founder of Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute, which aims to build social trust to address the root cultural cause behind many of America’s social problems. 

Anne Snyder is a writer and convener committed to exploring questions of class and culture, moral beauty, and a beatitudinal faith. A graduate of Wheaton College, she serves as editor-in-chief of Comment Magazine and the host of Breaking Ground, a collaborative web commons created in 2020 to inspire a dynamic cross-section of institutions, thinkers, and practitioners to respond to the major crises of the year with wisdom, courage, and clear sight. She is also the author of The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Renewing Our Social and Moral Renewal and the host of The Whole Person Revolution podcast.  

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Shirley Hoogstra: Anne, as a Wheaton grad, you’re familiar with how Christian education shapes students. What have you found to be some of the most valuable things from your Christian college experience in your life and career?

Anne Snyder: I  became a Christian in high school after spending my childhood overseas and navigating my teenage years in an aggressively secular setting. So I found Wheaton to be both culture shock and [a time when] I had never been so excited by learning in my life. 

[First], the disciplines were integrated. Somehow math could relate to history, could relate to theology, and so on. I wound up as a philosophy major, which I’m sure hammered [the integrative feature] home even further. That horizontal way of thinking has shaped my brain in ways that probably made it difficult to get a job right out of college, but have proven to be really handy in my role as an editor. Wheaton gave me lifelong curiosity around connections, around questions of why. 

Then, there was [the fact that] Wheaton didn’t operate purely in the intellectual domain but rather offered a whole sense of head, heart, and helping hands, and a building of community. You were meant to deepen your intellectual life in relationship with each other and with the faculty. And then there was the fact that, at a Christian college, you are ultimately seeking truth housed in the person of Jesus Christ. What’s neat about a Christian education is that you’re seeking truth but, fundamentally, it’s driven by love, and love of a particular historic figure. 

That whole-person integration has just transformed the way I write, the way I have followed my footsteps and convictions, the way I have had to sometimes make hard, less popular choices. … I had a bit of a light-bulb moment, just in the last few months, of realizing that it’s actually hard for me to think in an individualistic or siloed way. … That has its strengths and weaknesses, but I think [Wheaton]’s formation meant that I am always thinking in terms of webs and connections.

Hoogstra: Yes, there’s an emphasis now on a singular or vocational training, but you can see how the type of educational experience you had lasts a lifetime. David, you went to the University of Chicago, but you have spent a lot of time on CCCU campuses, engaging students and faculty. From your perspective, what comes to mind when you think about Christian higher education?

David Brooks: I call [the University of Chicago] “the Wheaton of the South Side” because it’s kind of like a Christian college — we had sacred texts. We would dive into a long tradition of scholarship and a traditional moral philosophy. The key thing [about my experience] was that our professors taught us that if we read these books carefully, we would know the secret of life. 

And there’s a problem with the modern university, which has become a research university that emphasizes specialized knowledge. The problem with that, as a colleague of mine once wrote, is that it makes asking the big questions, like the purpose of life, seem not only inappropriate but unprofessional. You can go to a research university and never ask the big questions. … 

Years ago, Anne and I did a bunch of seminars for research on what became The Road to Character. And all the academic places we went — including Yale, where I was teaching — had good discussions, but Wheaton’s was the best, because the professors not only read the books [we were discussing], but they were used to applying [the lessons] in their lives. They were used to saying, “No, here’s how you should think about that relationship.” Or, “Here’s how you think about that vocation.” It was not simply a set of academic exercises. So it was using a text to produce a certain kind of life that I found at Wheaton and a lot of the other CCCU schools I’ve been to.

Hoogstra: Using a text to build a certain kind of life — that goes to the idea of eulogy values and résumé values that you have written about. If you’re using the text to build a certain kind of life, you’re going to get a eulogy-values life.

Brooks: Yes. If you read Homer, you have a certain conception of the good life built around courage and service to the city. If you read Exodus, you have a version of the good life that’s dedicated both to obedience to law and commitment to the community. If you read Matthew, you have a version of the good life devoted to grace and self-sacrificing love. These are different moral ecologies. At Chicago, we couldn’t say one was better than the other; they said, “Pick one.” At a CCCU school, that’s not the approach. The approach is that one is better than the other — one is the true way.

And that doesn’t solve all your problems, but you have a sense of what is your ultimate devotion. The absence of an ultimate devotion for a lot of people these days is a very disorienting thing, which I think leads to a lot of fanaticism. You don’t know what ultimate truth you’re surrendering to or have an ultimate vision of the good. What are you shooting for? What are your goals? If you don’t have a sense of goals, then your life just becomes one of wandering and anxiety, because you don’t know who you are or where you are going. …

Hoogstra: Do you think that Christians are actually offering this approach to the world enough? It would seem to be an antidote to the polarization that we’re having in our culture. So why aren’t Christians being leaven, a more pervasive influence to transform things for the better?

Brooks: When I talk to CCCU schools, many times my message is the same: First, be not afraid. Second, you have what the rest of the world wants. The whole country is filled with spiritual hunger, with no vocabulary to articulate it, and Christian colleges have the vocabulary. 

But [often Christian colleges have] a feeling of siege mentality and of being under assault, whether for following traditional sexual ethics or other issues. That sense of being under assault produces what I’ve described many times as a combination of a spiritual superiority complex combined with an intellectual inferiority complex. It creates a sense of, “We can’t really go out into the world and say what we’ve got because they’ll hate us.” 

Hoogstra: When you say “siege mentality,” of course, I see that occuring. But I think that for us as leaders in Christian higher education, there has to be a conviction that we will not take on that mindset of siege. We will be responsive or even proactive, but we will not be under siege. The Creator God is not so fragile that he cannot take care of anything for which we would be under siege.

Brooks: You can speak to this more than me, but ever since I’ve been going to CCCU campuses, the students have always shocked me by how self-confident they were and how uninterested they were in some of the culture war issues. I remember my first visit to a Christian college, Seattle Pacific, and I was interviewed by a student journalist who had metal piercings going up and down her face. And I was like, “Oh, this is not what I expected.” Visiting Wheaton for the first time, I expected to find a bunch of megachurch kids. But they were very dissatisfied with that model. And I find, especially in the last four years, there’s just a gigantic generation gap between the young and the old. Anne, I think it’s more interesting to you to figure out how to be a Christian than it is to [determine] how Christians should operate in American politics.

Snyder: Yes. Since I’m running a magazine now that is grounded in 2,000 years of Christian social thought, I have been drawn into a variety of conversations, potential projects, and initiatives around Christian witness in the U.S. or, say, fixing evangelicalism. And those are worthy and needed. But in my own Christian education — and I think this is true for many students and alumni I meet from Christian colleges — Christianity is very much the light and the lens by which you view the world and how you see and treat others. And this is no dismissal at all of those who are called to the church and are called to ministry full-time, but I think there is something freeing about that. Christianity is your core identity, but it is also the adjective [to what you are doing] for society. 

I’m really drawn to local faith actors who may be running a rehab center, or people who are doing interesting racial reconciliation work in Detroit or working with the disabled. I’m interested in the local manifestations of Christians being Christians, where their faith informs their entire strategy of how they serve those who exist on the margins. That seems to be where the kingdom is unfurling these days, and dwelling there keeps my hope alive. 

I think at the broader national level, we get sucked into a very politicized scene, where the levers of change seem confined to hashtag messaging. It’s a lot of words, it’s a lot of coalition building. And somehow I find that those levers fit very uncomfortably with Jesus’ model of influence and social change. There’s something to be said for those 12 disciples and that small replication model that I watch flowering in a million places, often quite small and local. But this broader national Christian thing has become [a matter of] using political weaponry, political words, political strategy. I don’t know exactly how to get out of that, but it’s almost like two different Christianities.

Hoogstra: When I used the word “leaven,” I was thinking of influence on a national level, but what you’re talking about is leaven that is influencing these local, organic, genuine community spaces where people are living out a desire to be Christian. It’s like the Weave project you’re working on [at the Aspen Institute] — isn’t this part of the leaven that is at the ground level?

Brooks: Yes, it’s how it’s embodied rather than studied from a distance. That’s why I say there’s personal knowledge and there’s objective knowledge. One of my heroes is a philosopher named Michael Oakeshott. He makes this distinction between technical knowledge and embodied knowledge. Say I wanted to cook a lasagna. I could read a cookbook, and it will give me some ingredients to put in my lasagna. But if I really want to be good at it, there’s a certain knowledge that only a chef has through experience. That’s embodied knowledge. And that’s knowing when to deviate, that’s knowing when to make an exception, that’s creativity. 

And so, in my view, Christianity is not against objective knowledge, but it offers a different kind of knowledge. In the Bible, the word “to know” is not solely a rational thing; it’s also very emotional. When Augustine thought of knowledge, he didn’t think of it as studying. He thought that it illuminates us into being a certain person. And even as neighbors, we illuminate each other into being certain sorts of people by the presence we bring into the room, or the quality of the attention. So it’s a relational form of epistemology that gets lost in modern science and, frankly, in modern liberalism, which wants to reduce everything to technique and proposition.

Snyder: I remember friends and I from my college days discovering the truth of this for ourselves: “To love is to know, to know is to love.” There is something about becoming knowledgeable because you love something. David and I often discuss the interpretation of the two Adams in the book of Genesis — Adam I and Adam II. Each one of us has these two Adams within us. Adam I is the one that masters, that desires to win, is very ambitious, wants control over your domain, and seeks excellence. Adam II is the one that is softer, has a desire to seek virtue, to humble oneself before God, and to humble oneself before others. And when we were getting to know each other, David would joke that my Wheaton education had really made me great on Adam II, but we had some work to do on Adam I. He wasn’t wrong, and I’ve since had some more rigorous moments on my own career path where Adam I has had to be sharpened. But I’ve often found that there’s still a dominant impulse moving out of love of God and love of other. A love that motivates excellence in, for example, hosting a gathering, in clarifying a thought in writing, in performing a piece of music. It’s a different way of framing David’s notion of embodied knowledge, but this love factor feels vital to the distinctiveness of Christian education. 

Hoogstra: To talk about love within education — isn’t that such a unique attribute for an educational institution, to say that a person is the embodiment of love? That you can and should explore that with real depth? What kind of community did you find at Wheaton, Anne, that allowed you to explore some of these things?

Snyder: I found there such a coherent community — it was faculty, students, administrators. One of my most powerful mentors was César Gomez, who served on Wheaton’s custodial staff and who I first got to know on a college trip to Honduras. Especially for someone coming from a secular educational context, the exposure to such a broad range of exemplars [on campus] of what it meant to follow Christ was huge — all of these people in their different vocations, different activities, different personalities. … And then to say nothing of the friendships and the drama of being in your 20s while you’re trying to figure out all of these things — friendship, romance, etc. — while you’re discussing these ideas and challenging yourselves. There’s something about the coherence of a community that in and of itself was showing me the many different flavors of the Jesus Way of life. 

Hoogstra: Yes. I want my grandchildren to be able to have that opportunity to have that formational community. … David, I want to go back to the weavers in communities you are exploring. Are you finding any connection between faith and those weavers in the community? 

Brooks: Weavers are people who build community in their local neighborhood. We have a friend in Houston who would help undocumented men who’d suffered paralyzing industry and construction accidents. He gave them diapers and catheters and wheelchairs and connected them with social workers. So he gave them lives of dignity and service after horrific accidents. Agnes McKeen in Oregon, her son died by suicide, so she works with families struggling with suicide. Charles Perry in Chicago, he served time in prison, so he works with gang members to try to head them off [that path to prison]. 

I would say about half are faith-driven. In the South and among the Black community, they talk more about [faith] than in the north among the white community. So half are faith-driven, half are not, but they’re all going to be in right relationship with each other, serving some ultimate good. You never meet a weaver who says, “I’m doing this for a couple of years, but I think I’ll quit and go become an accountant.” They know why they were put on this earth, and they want to be in relationship with others.

I think the one thing that faith does is that it sometimes strengthens endurance. We have a friend who has an organization in Shreveport, Louisiana, and he runs hospitality houses, settlement houses. And in some of them, there are married couples who are looking after 40 kids or 30 kids or 20. Looking after three kids is hard. Looking after 20 or 30 is really hard. And to do that year after year, it gets hard to sustain that level of resilience unless there’s some higher calling there. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.

Hoogstra: Do the weavers have communities themselves? Or do you find that there’s a need for them to have this kind of community that supports them in this extraordinary work?

Brooks: Yes, they tend to loneliness as they are working. A friend of ours runs an organization where they mentor 2,000-3,000 kids in the city. That’s just a gigantic undertaking — organizing these networks of relationships. And so she’s giving, giving, giving; the phone’s always ringing, but who’s giving to her? So I think for a lot of people in these roles, self-care becomes super important. I used to scoff at that phrase, but I think they hunger for each other’s company because they’re in the gift-giving business and not in the receiving business.

Snyder: It’s similar to how many parents feel. We’re in an age where people’s schedules are so unique. We’re all very protective of how we run our time. There isn’t that sense of sharing — you don’t have a neighborhood sharing a car anymore, for example. I think a lot of these weavers do feel they lack that sustaining village behind them where we’re all sharing the same norms. I think part of David’s idea when he started this was to inspire more of us to exist in this self-sacrificing but interdependent logic so that woven net would be built. That way, these superstars who are gifted relationally and are constantly serving don’t burn out. 

Hoogstra: Yes. One of the things I hope for this discussion is not only to identify what is going well in Christian higher education, but also to identify those areas where we can activate in new ways because of our unique educational approach and our values. This is an example — coming together as a community to help these weavers seems like a unique opportunity for those who have gone through a Christian higher education. 

So, speaking of value, what are one or two things that you would suggest to Christian university leaders about better articulating the value of the enterprise? 

Snyder: I don’t know if they can necessarily say this about themselves, but I say it about them as a graduate and as someone who feels like a real beneficiary of Christian higher education. In an age where everything is so ideological, … there’s something about an educational institution that is founded on an utterly different category of value. That is, this embodied knowledge that is oriented in the person of Christ. It’s not ideological in the same way. I realize this gets tricky as we talk about Christians and public life these days, but these kinds of faith-based institutions are vital for our democracy. When I speak to public intellectuals that feel suffocated by what you can and can’t say on elite college campuses, if they have gone to speak to a [Christian college], they talk about this surprising grace and intellectual oxygen in the room. There’s some freedom in the questions that are being asked on Christian college campuses that are not immediately shrouded in ideological suspicion or definition. I think that’s an important strength to learn how to defend and hold.

Brooks: I spend a couple days at Westmont [College] every year with students and alumni, but what focuses me is the alumni. We have just general discussions about life and all its aspects, and it occurs to me during those discussions that college can bring to an adult alumni life things that a church may not be able to bring to that life. And so there’s the natural progression: You go to a Christian school and then, for adult formation, you go to church. But a college like Westmont has resources that a church doesn’t have — a faculty and students and all sorts of things, which in some ways is going to be a richer experience. I would love to see the schools function the way some secular schools do, where your summer trips are with an alumni association. It’s a process of continuing the education involved in the places. 

So that’s one thing I would say. The other thing is needing a balance. I teach at Yale, and when somebody at Yale puts a paper before us for peer review, we’re really unpleasant human beings — the virtue of charity is not observed in these circumstances. But sometimes there is an “iron sharpening iron” that comes out of these projects. There’s a balance between niceness and rigor. And finding the right balance is something I think some schools may struggle with.

Snyder: When I graduated college, I felt like I was part of a generation — and I think this is still fairly true — where the commencement speech was, “Change the world!” I think in the realm of justice, that’s great and important, but understanding “change it” versus “serve it,” I think, is what a place like Wheaton certainly did for me. What I find in a lot of Christian grads is there is this deep appreciation for being taught to think like anthropologists — you’re taught to be very curious about the context in which you live. Get that context first, and then you find the pain points and serve in a way that has some redemptive arc. And that’s just a different approach [than a secular school]. You’re not necessarily graduating as advocates who are outraged and have all of these formulas of how you need to change to the institutions. Agency is good, and feeling empowered to shape things is fine, but without a normative framework toward the good, that [agency] is simply reactive. I worry that we wind up producing people who harm a lot of things. In my own Christian college experience, we learn that we are ambassadors, yes, but we are here to be of service; there is pain out there, and we bear the wounds of a God who bleeds for this [same brokenness]. So find the wounds and staunch them. It sounds subtle, but I think it profoundly affects the posture with which we pursue the public square, our local place, and our vocations.

Hoogstra: Last question. It’s been a hard year. If we were in a room with presidents and other CCCU leaders, what words of encouragement would you share with them?

Snyder: This is a specific, almost too-concrete action plan. But every person I know — especially those who don’t have Christian faith — if they find themselves invited to a Christian college or university, their whole impression of Christianity in America, and of those schools, usually shifts toward the good. Most Christian colleges, at their best, embody a radical hospitality that I hope they could just lean into even more. … I have never met a secular person who has walked away [from a Christian campus visit] having had a horrific experience. Not to be overly cliché here, but I do think love has a way of disarming. It’s rare to find that in a place that also is intellectually rigorous. 

Brooks: I would just say that what this country needs more than anything else is strong institutions. Faculty, we are not always institutionalists — we write our books, we get to stand in front of classrooms and opine before young people. But it’s often about us and not about the institution. But when you’re a college president, and you’ve more or less lost control of your schedule, because there are so many constituencies to serve — when you’re doing home visits to raise money; when you’re worried in the middle of the night because you hear a siren coming across campus, and you’re wondering if it’s one of your kids — all these are important forms of institutional service. 

I just had a conversation with three retiring college presidents. One was Michael Scales from Nyack College. In extremely tough times, he preserved this wonderful institution where thousands of students have cycled through and been influenced by him. Another was Nathan Hatch from Wake Forest, and he leaves Wake Forest as a pioneer in a university that thinks seriously about character. Again, thousands [of students] will go through Wake and be influenced by him. And the third was my own college president, Bob Zimmer at the University of Chicago. Over the course of a number of years, he took us from being a very good school to being an extremely good school. These are three examples of where leadership made 90% of the difference. And so it can be a thankless job, an exhausting job, but it really is an important job.