A Crisis of Value

Readers responded in remarkable numbers to my posts on building better K-12 schools in America. Thank you for your energy and ideas. I plan to write much more in the weeks and months ahead about this enormous challenge in our midst.

In tandem with the K-12 crisis of educating our young people, universities are in the center of some powerful forces that threaten to bring down the university as we know it. We are faced with nothing short of a crisis in higher education. We face what I am calling a crisis of value for the university of our day.

Let’s unpack this. I concur with so many voices today that the American university is in a state of crisis. I choose my words carefully. As never before in our lifetimes, perhaps as never before in the history of the American university, we are faced with a crisis of value.

We are seen as costing too much, and our prices are perceived as spiraling out of control. Legislators have run out of money for our public universities. Our pressure in the private university comes through increasing levels of financial aid as the financial circumstances of our students and their families diminish in a brutally tough economy.

Are we worth the high price? Is a college education necessary anymore? When the world is coming apart at the seams, isn’t a liberal arts education just a bit frivolous? Isn’t the academy just a bit too elitist, grown flabby, and self-indulgent? And what about this Christian thing — isn’t that quite fundamentally irrelevant to what a university is all about? And perhaps even unconstitutional?

I think we must have compelling answers to these questions. I believe we all must be thinking together about just these questions.

These challenges are real and threatening, no doubt about it. But I am absolutely convinced that the Christian university stands in just the right place with just the right purpose to answer these questions about true value. We must stay vigilant and attentive. We must be smart and savvy. We cannot have our heads in the sand. But we are poised. We are strong. We know what we are about. We are headed in the right direction. Our identity and our purpose and our quality are clear and certain.

At Seattle Pacific University, and at other faith-based universities across the country, I think we must work hard to define and nurture and articulate our theological soul. We do not have the luxury of preaching only to the choir, of talking only to ourselves. We must speak, winsomely and effectively, into a sometimes suspicious and hostile culture.

N.T. Wright’s most recent book is called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. I have made some big statements that this book just may have changed my life.

Listen to this. Wright says that what the disciples discovered in Jesus was “a way of being human which nobody had ever imagined before.” That may be one way of describing our distinctive identity as a university. “This was a way of generosity and forgiveness, a way of self-emptying and a determination to put everyone else’s needs first. . . .” It was the way of “humility, charity, patience, and chastity,” something unthinkable as virtues to the ancient Greeks (Wright, p. 131).

This is where the Christian university can begin to find our real value. We have a chance, in this place, in new ways every day, to discover in Jesus “a way of being human” that will blow the minds of the culture around us.
That’s the deeper value we have to offer the world.

Note to readers: This post includes material first presented in President Eaton’s Autumn Quarter 2010 State of the University address.

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Categories: Character, Education

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