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President’s Postscript | Christian Colleges & The Common Good

by President J. Derek Halvorson ’93


On the fifth of march, 1780, Jonathan Mason—a Boston attorney who preceded John Quincy Adams in the United States Senate—delivered an address marking the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. He opened that speech with the assertion, “That the greatness and prosperity of a people depend upon the proportion of public spirit and the love of virtue which is found to exist among them, seems to be a maxim established by the universal consent and … experience of all ages.” Like most of the Founders, he believed that the fate of any democratic republic depended in large measure on the virtue of her citizens.


What does this have to do with Christian higher education in the 21st century? Christian colleges and universities have maintained a commitment to the cultivation of virtue in their students that other educational institutions have abandoned.


Colleges and universities trace their roots back to the Middle Ages. As Europe began to enjoy an economic and political resurgence in the 12th and 13th centuries, and as the bureaucracies of emerging nation-states and an increasingly robust church infrastructure began to develop, the need for educated men to fill administrative posts in both church and state grew. Universities grew out of monastic schools to meet this need, in places like Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. The faculties of these universities operated under an assumption that the true, the good, and the beautiful were one and inseparable. Hence, progress in intellectual and moral and aesthetic formation was interrelated. The cultivation of virtue in students was regarded as a necessary aspect of higher education.


This perspective persisted in the American colonial colleges, where the end of learning was not just the acquisition of knowledge but right living, and where that end was pursued in a context designed for the intentional cultivation of Christian virtues. The founders of Harvard and the other colonial schools saw the purpose of college as shaping students’ souls.


American higher education’s emphasis on the unified task of intellectual and moral formation persisted until the late 19th century, when a new model for higher education appeared on the scene: the research university. In this new model, born in Enlightenment Germany, the virtues that were exalted were not those of the monastic schools, which had defined the character of colleges and universities up to that point. Research universities instead celebrated individual accomplishment, the production of knowledge for knowledge’s sake (disconnected from goals like human well-being or the public good), and the dissemination of information and skills (disassociated from the formation of character). They cherished the virtues of diligence, precision, productivity, calculation, control, ambition, rationalism, and individualism.


Sadly, that shift has had consequences. As former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis has observed:

Universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings (Excellence Without a Soul).


It’s in this context that Christian colleges and universities stand out as distinctively beneficial to the common good of our society. Whereas the mass of higher educational institutions have abandoned the historic aim of cultivating virtue in students, Christian colleges are decidedly “old school.” For Christian colleges, the cultivation of virtue is a shared aim of the entire institution. Faculty, staff, coaches, and administrators alike believe it is their responsibility—their calling—to equip and inspire students to seek the common good.


Christian colleges help to shape the kinds of virtuous citizens, the kinds of human beings, that are crucial to the health of our society and the vitality of our republic. Their graduates are people whose education, whose schooling, in the “old school” vein, incorporates intellectual and moral formation. Our country needs more men and women like this, needs institutions that will form them, needs institutions that can serve as exemplars for an “old-fashioned” model of learning that cultivates in young men and women the virtue so vital to the maintenance of a republic.