In their recent, much-noted indictment on the failure of higher education in America today, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa point out that “the future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively.” Their book is called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Their conclusions are deeply troubling, to say the least.
“We find disturbing evidence,” they conclude, “that many contemporary college academic programs are not particularly rigorous or demanding. Moreover, students rarely seem to focus on academic pursuits; many appear to be academically adrift in today’s colleges and universities.” According to Arum and Roksa, we are failing at the job our society has called us to do. It appears we have become so inwardly focused on ourselves that we are failing at our own stated aspirations to graduate students who will make a difference in the world.
We who are leaders in Christian higher education must answer these indictments for our colleges and universities. We must determine whether our students are being equipped to “think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively,” and if we are failing, we must aggressively go about reorienting ourselves around these goals.
But as I read these damning assertions about the failures of higher education, I kept thinking there must be something more to our aspirations for a college education. Part of the reason, perhaps, that students seem to be “academically adrift,” is that the university of our day is not giving them a compelling reason for why they should master these skills. Is it enough to pursue financial security and success, for example, as the goal of education? Are we adequately connecting the pursuit of skills and competencies with a big and meaningful idea for their lives?
This is where the purpose of the Christian university must enter the picture. We have something more to offer our students. As Christians we have a vision for our lives and for our world that is much bigger than ourselves. We are called into God’s promise that he will make all things right in the end. This is the hope in which we do our work, master our skills, accomplish our learning. We are called to bring hope into the world we serve. Now that’s a big idea that can reframe the reason for learning.
We recognize the need to master the competencies so much needed in our world, but we master those skills so that we might align ourselves with God’s love for his world. God wants all of his children to flourish, and it is our job, as educators and leaders, to keep our eyes focused on that goal. Perhaps then we and our students will find ourselves, not adrift in our academic work, but energized and focused and emboldened.
Note to readers: This post by President Eaton first appeared in the CCCU Advance magazine and is reprinted here by permission.