Sunday, October 26, 2008

Presbyterian Colleges and the Presbyterian Establishment

My essay Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment is making its way through the church's cadres. I saw a thoughtful response the other day from a seminary professor who asked why I did not look to Presbyterian colleges for help in rebuilding the Establishment leadership that the denomination once had. This is an excellent question; I should, indeed, have addressed it in the essay at greater length. I have, though, addressed this question in Called To Teach: The Vocation of the Presbyterian Educator, a volume I edited with Duncan Ferguson.

Presbyterians have devoted more efforts to creating educational institutions than any other Protestants in this country. Our teaching vocation has never been aimed simply at educating Presbyterians, but has always been part of the Reformed vocation to be stewards of society. Presbyterian colleges were not created to develop a Presbyterian Establishment, but rather to educate a mixed leadership for all of society.

All the same, Presbyterian colleges, as well as other institutions - camps, synod schools, retreat centers, as well as seminaries - have historically been important in bringing together people who then form the linked chain of denominational leadership. Before the Sixties, more Presbyterian colleges saw nurturing an informed Christian and Reformed consciousness among Christian and Reformed students as part of their job. Since the Sixties, though, most Presbyterian colleges, the one I teach for included, have moved to an arm's-length appreciation of their denominational heritage, or cut ties with the church altogether. At the other end of the spectrum, a few Presbyterian colleges have become strong and explicit Christian colleges, but often by becoming generally evangelical rather than specifically Presbyterian. Moreover, the Presbyterianism practiced at these officially Christian colleges is as likely to be suspicious of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as not.

There is an interesting plurality of PC(USA)-related colleges who have been trying to develop a stronger Presbyterian dimension within a larger academic identity. These schools are likely to have a disproportionate share in nurturing Presbyterian leaders in the future. If we are truly to rebuild the Presbyterian Establishment, we should look to this ember maintained by the dimensionally Presbyterian colleges.


JMott said...

As you would imagine, the same issue has arisen among the Catholic institutions. The issue of Catholic Identity at these institutions has been crying out for an address as it slowly slips away, thus questioning the purpose behind them to begin with.

My high school has a very blunt teaching priest, and one who does not find much "identity" with the jesuits. The jesuits being the most prominent catholic teaching order creates a rift, and that catholic identity might be lost as a result. The same might be said for the various Presbyterian sects, but I'm not schooled enough on that to speak insightfully.

However, I think the most significant reason behind keeping religion and education at arms length is the issue of credibility. For various reasons, education (ideally) is an open expression of ideas leading to discovery. To many, the idea of religion creates a skew on that open expression, thus leading to skewed discoveries. In the fight for scholarly prestige, institutions of higher learning seem to be keeping religion at bay in order to appear more scholarly (an attempt not always proving beneficial).

You mention the fact that institutions attempting to maintain a true Presbyterian identity have produced more Pres. leaders (the same is true with Catholic institutions and priests). The question that the lay school board might ask is: Are they producing more rocket scientists/rhodes scholars/Ph.Ds, etc. as well?

The question then becomes...which is more important to us? In an academic environment with rising costs and greater competition, the answer is often found with the alumni who make more money and can then give more back...the bean counter conundrum.

Gruntled said...

I think the full ecology of higher education has niches for Catholic institutions of all degrees of seriousness about their Catholic identity. And each of the orders sponsoring colleges and universities has a distinctive charism, which can also be develop to a greater or lesser degree. If every college is chasing only rocket scientists and CEOs, most will lose their distinctive point.