Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, has been accused of slipping into the liberal abyss many times since its founding in 1860. As a recent graduate, I’m often asked if Wheaton in 2022 has finally “gone woke.” Yet similar controversies over Wheaton’s role as a flagship evangelical institution have persisted for generations, owing to the school’s distinctive and outsize role in American Protestant Christianity.
The real problem at Wheaton College runs deeper than culture-war effervescence: Few students care about or even understand the mission of Christian intellectual formation. At Wheaton, when students pick up a book for a course, they usually ask only two questions: “Will this help me get a prestigious job?” and “Will this further my personal relationship with my savior?” Wheaton students tend to focus on practical career training and individual spirituality, giving little thought to how liberal learning can enhance one's spiritual life or the importance of intellectual formation in the Christian tradition.
One example of this at Wheaton would be the ever-declining number of humanities majors and the general reluctance of business and STEM students to engage in those subjects, even when required. This decline has led to recent faculty lay-offs in English and theology even as the college launches an engineering program.
But even humanities students get caught up in the careerist mindset, talking about their education as if it was merely one consumer preference among many. Though these students enjoy their studies, they do not see intrinsic value in learning and passing down Christian culture across the ages. The humanities can be an edifying hobby, but non-professional intellectual formation has no claim to any special, protected, or elevated status for many humanities students at Wheaton. As college students are treated more as consumers than knowledge-seekers, what they learn and for what purpose becomes merely a consumer choice.
But what is proper Christian intellectual formation?
In his treatise On Order, St. Augustine describes the seven classical liberal arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), guided by philosophy, as containing all knowledge one can acquire apart from revelation. Philosophy is second in rank only to theology because a honed intelligence is not an end unto itself, but a means to more intimate knowledge of God’s creation. Many evangelical parents and students do not take this view, regarding the study of philosophy as a malformative and, worse still, unemployable endeavor. The study of philosophy as a bridge between theology and the other sciences is mainly understood as an advanced credit niche.
Cs evangelical faith and the intellectual commitments of its faculty deserve praise for how why
s religious culture
With college costs ballooning, students (and parents) are less willing than ever to invest in an education whose benefits aren’t monetarily quantifiable. Rather than going “woke” in recent years, Wheaton’s real transformation has been into something of a . The culture is such that many students would have no problem with Wheaton abolishing its humanities classes and becoming exclusively a business/STEM school while maintaining its thrice-weekly chapel requirement. After all, such an arrangement would allow students to acquire practical training within a spiritually active community.
Ignoring this central reality leaves students vulnerable to the secularizing forces of the market and ambient culture. If Wheaton does eventually go “woke,” it won’t be for theological or political reasons. It will be because economic and social pressures have forced it to abandon the Christian intellectual heritage that allows us to see beyond the idols of our times.
James Diddams writes from Wheaton, Illinois.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.