Part Two of our Interview with Gene Edward Veith
In Part Two of the interview, we’re talking about how to prepare our kids for college–and whether they need to go to college at all! But don’t miss Part One.
3. Sometimes, parents send their children to a Christian college thinking they will escape the most dangerous pitfalls of secular education. Are there any pitfalls in Christian education? What are the chief temptations you’ve observed for freshmen starting at a Christian college, and how would you advise them to prepare?
Well, many Christian colleges crave acceptance by their secular peers, and in some cases they promote the secularist ideas in a vain attempt to seem relevant. Other Christian colleges, such as here at Patrick Henry College, are more sophisticated than that, recognizing the errors of secularist thought and building up students in the Christian intellectual tradition. Actually, I think Christian colleges have a great advantage today, if they will only take it. Postmodernism is intrinsically anti-intellectual and leads only to academic dead ends. If there is no truth, what is there to teach? Why even have education at all? And we are seeing the decline in actual knowledge and learning in the mainstream colleges and universities. (See the new book Academically Adrift, written by secular scholars who document the collapse of learning even in some of our best regarded colleges and universities.) Christians, by contrast, do have a basis for truth and thus for learning. Christian colleges can fill the void and keep learning alive, like the monasteries did during the barbarian rampages of the first dark age. They can do the same for the new dark age that we are, arguably, in today. A few Christian colleges are taking up the challenge.
One syndrome in a lot of Christian colleges is that professors feel they need to “broaden” their students’ minds. These Christian kids, they reason, have only known Christianity and have had very restrictive experiences. We need to challenge their beliefs. We need to expose them to ideas they had never considered before so that we can open their minds. Some professors, who themselves may be very strong Christians, use this method, even saying that they will build back up what they first tore down. This is a bad technique. To be sure, a college education involves getting exposed to new ideas. Some Christians are indeed resistant to learning. But a good Christian professor opens minds by building on the faith their students have, showing that Christianity is not just a narrow little option among many. Rather, it is so much bigger than all of the partial man-made systems and ideologies. A Christian worldview is vast and comprehensive (because it is true and has its origins in the revelation of the One who created all things). It can be a framework for understanding and appreciating everything that is true, good, and beautiful–including insights from pagans and secularists–so that we can hang all of education upon it.
4. What three books would you recommend a Christian high school senior read (or devour) before going to college, or starting a career?
Hard question, and the three might vary depending on the person and his or her interests and personality and concerns. These are in addition to the Bible: (1) C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (showing the intellectual rigor of Christianity). (2) G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (showing the imaginative power of Christianity, the “romance of orthodoxy,” which may even be more important in facing up to the postmodernists, who are not much affected by intellectual rigor). (3) Pascal’s Pensees (showing the emotional and personal, as well as the logical, truth of Christianity, which, again, can be especially helpful, in a deep way, in today’s climate).
I by no means would include anything I had written in that company, but I might mention that I wrote a book designed for this very purpose entitled Loving God With All Your Mind.
5. Practically speaking, how important is a college education to a Christian young person today? I.e., is it necessary for a successful career?
The best college education has nothing to do with a successful career! If we are going to break our bondage to secularism, we must resist the postmodernist ideologies of pragmatism (something is only valuable if it “works” to advance my agenda) and materialism (my life consists only of my physical needs and desires). Ancient education was divided into two categories: (1) education for slaves (education servilus), which was restricted to teaching the slaves to do a particular job, to contribute to the economic system, and to conform to the demands of the society that enslaved them; and (2) education for the free (education liberalis), which equipped students of the Greek democracy and the Roman Republic to be free citizens who could come up with the ideas, knowledge, creativity, leadership, and virtues necessary for self-governance and the pursuit of excellence.
Today’s dominant approaches to education, both in the public schools and in the universities, are essentially a revival of the education for slaves. To be sure, those with “successful careers” may be well-paid, but they still think and act like slaves. The alternative, which Christians are recovering on every level, at schools and homeschools, is the “classical liberal arts.” Colleges used to be built around the liberal arts–and the marks are still present in most colleges–and although we also use colleges for career preparation, the liberal arts dimension, is still the most important for our civilization and for a fulfilling life. It is possible to get an education for freedom in most colleges today, but you must know what you are doing and plan carefully. Many of the best Christian colleges–including here at Patrick Henry College–are self-consciously recovering the Christian approach to education, which combines the liberal arts with Christian catechesis.
Of course “successful careers” are important, but I would suggest thinking of them in the very different Christian paradigm of vocation. Not, what career should I choose that will make me successful in the sense of making a lot of money, but what has God equipped me to do best and what is He calling me to do? Most Christian finds that the “successful career” comes as a side-benefit to responding to God’s call, whereas if you follow success as an end in itself, you can lose your soul in pursuing it. God might indeed call you to a profession that does not need a college education, and that is supremely worthy, since it comes from God’s hand. At the same time, I would say that even if you work as a mechanic or some other kind of craftsman, you still need to be free, so that you should pursue an education on your own, simply by reading. (I wrote a book about this too: God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.)
Lots of food for thought! At Redeemed Reader, we’re thinking all the time about how to raise Christians who are culturally aware yet spiritually true. “When the earth totters and all its inhabitants, it is [God] who keeps steady its pillars” (Ps. 75:3)–may God keep us steady in this tottering world! An interesting dystopian take on vocation can be found in the YA novel Divergent.