I have made no secret of my disagreement with the historical and theological reasoning Mark Noll employed to lump together dispensationalists, holiness churches, and Pentecostals in his indictment of evangelicalism’s anti-intellectual impulse. Yet Noll and George Marsden, among others, have rightly pointed out how activism operates as a fundamental force within evangelical identity. This operation has both positive and negative consequences, one of which is, no doubt, a culture that devalues the characteristics necessary for the cultivation of the life of the mind.
I was reminded of this recently when reading Russell Moore’s pleas for a less frenzied approach to life and his response to Andrew Sullivan’s call for a resurgence of monastic otium—the ora of ora et labora. Moore directed his criticisms of the “frenzied activities” of our internet age toward the church world, with its drive for more ministries and greater growth coupled with a definition of success akin to “bigger is better.” But his criticisms hold true for evangelical universities as well, and the temptations of a tuition-driven approach to financing.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the financial exigencies that many evangelical universities face. When you couple these exigencies with smaller endowments, you can understand why many evangelical schools succumb to the temptation to fuse activism with a push for growth of the student body; or, even to see the push for growth as the way activism should unfold. The activism of the university becomes growth with a purpose, and that purpose is both to shape future generations and to generate solid streams of revenue.
It would seem, on the surface, to be a win-win. Evangelicals train up generations of young people who become activists in their own right and thus transform a culture from the ground up. The result is a teaching-driven approach to university education as a way of forming and shaping student character in order to unleash activism. This is the context for worldview curriculum at many evangelical universities. It easily goes with an emphasis on training a generation of activists who go out and impact the culture. Such an approach also underscores the importance not simply of teaching, but of getting involved in students’ lives so as to form them spiritually. Faculty at many evangelical schools are encouraged to teach a lot and to form students through some form of involvement in university life.
The heavier teaching loads and investment in “student life” at the university can generate a frenzied pace all on its own. Once you add to the mix the new platforms that the internet provides, the distinction between public and private becomes blurred as the university begins to encourage students to reach out more to faculty and require faculty to respond more quickly to students. This is especially the case at universities that push online learning. Weekends cease to be weekends, but simply part of the twenty-four-hour cycle of the internet age when there really is no “off” time.
To be sure, there is a broader history that fuels this approach. Many evangelical schools emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, during the debate in American education between research and vocational models of university training. Second- and third-tier state universities were first formed as teachers’ colleges, technical institutes, and agricultural colleges, in part to raise up a work force that would serve the economic engine of the state. They operated within the vocational model of higher education, which was to train a workforce primarily with economic ends in view. All one needs to do is read a good history of the American state normal school to notice how many of the state regional universities began as “normal colleges,” and in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s changed their names as they expanded their reach.
The evangelical emphasis on mobilizing the laity to bring about change in church and society fit well with the emphases of the vocational model of university training. This did not mean that the humanities had no place within evangelical institutions, but it did mean that they served vocational ends. This also allowed evangelical schools to fuse biblical studies as part of a humanities curriculum that gave them a distinctive DNA. The model of the research university never served the activist and vocational ends of most evangelical institutions. Even today, evangelical universities tend to think less about time for research and writing and more about how to facilitate character- and worldview-formation among their student bodies.
Evangelical activism, mobilization of the laity, and the vocational model of university training find a native environment in the frenzied internet age. When one adds to them a tuition-driven approach to university finances, they become a potent mix that creates a culture resistant to the very practices necessary to promote the life of the mind. Like an invasive form of plant life, they choke out any push toward the leisure required for study and prayer. Even the very term leisure is associated with sloth—a deadly sin—because it is understood in purely economic terms, rather than in terms of the monastic otium necessary to the life of the mind.
There is a way for evangelical universities to advance the life of the mind. It involves the partnerships between Christian professionals and Christian schools that have built so many para-church organizations. These partnerships could fund the campus centers that promote and facilitate research. Many evangelical schools have already moved in this direction. Moreover, since theological and moral reflection is a species of discernment, evangelical institutions could easily connect the classical Christian practice of discerning the times and the spirits with advancing study as a necessary prerequisite for well-grounded activism. Activism without discernment is blind. Yet, this solution will not work if the very centers that have been created simply become another mechanism to reinforce the activist culture, or if they are funded initially and then given a slow death as spending priorities shift. In short, evangelical universities need long-term partnerships with evangelical professionals to create “pockets” of otium on their campuses as a way to resist the potent mix of traits that make it easy to surrender to the frenzy of a digital generation.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.