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.
Wheaton draws such scrutiny thanks to its delicate position in the evangelical-fundamentalist divide that separated much of American Protestantism in the twentieth century—a divide writers like Carl Trueman and Aaron Renn have chronicled. Whereas populist fundamentalists are characteristically antagonistic toward mainstream culture, evangelical institutions like Wheaton have long embraced a less overtly hostile, more winsome approach to the broader world.
It’s a difficult balancing act: Wheaton is far more theologically conservative than many Christian schools, yet it doesn’t make opposition to liberalism central to its identity. Although Wheaton is counter-cultural enough to have been regularly engaged in litigation against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate, it is unlikely that its president, Philip Ryken, will be publicly rebuking “critical race theory” anytime soon. Twenty years ago, when Wheaton grad Michael Gerson was George W. Bush’s esteemed speechwriter, Wheaton embodied the socially conservative leg of the Republican fusionist coalition. Wheaton’s position may be less clearly defined now that fusionism is passé, but this does not mean that current concerns of apostasy should be given any greater credence.
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.
These days, Christian colleges offer “worldview formation,” a mission that began in the mid-twentieth century as other elite colleges gave up any pretense of adhering to their religious heritage. Worldview formation complements Augustine’s classical Christian pedagogy when it fulfills two criteria. First, students must be inducted into long-running conversations on questions of lasting importance (for example: What role should art and aesthetic experience play in the life of a Christian? What constitutes a proper relationship between church and state?). Second, students must be taught to recognize the continuity of their own beliefs with broader Christian intellectual history.
Careerism—a value structure in which professional success suffocates all else—is endemic to every American liberal arts school, Wheaton being no exception. With this in mind, any college aspiring to liberal education must be anchored to something transcendent. Wheaton’s evangelical faith and the intellectual commitments of its faculty deserve praise for enabling students to view education in more than just careerist terms. But the institution falls short of fully inculcating not just how to read great texts of Christian civilization but also why engaging such texts is inherently beneficial.
Like evangelicalism more broadly, Wheaton’s religious culture among students tends toward populism and individualism, wherein all that one needs to live for Christ is a Bible and a willing heart. The idea that non-vocational education is an intrinsic good, or even beneficial for spiritual formation, is viewed at worst as antithetical to this egalitarian spirit and, at best, maybe subversive to it.
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 finance feeder school. 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.
Wheaton’s culture of ahistoricism is even more pronounced than its careerism. On the surface, there seems to be little appetite for experiencing one’s faith as an inheritance transmitted through thousands of years of Christian civilization. But the fact that many evangelical students who enter Wheaton denominationally indifferent end up leaving as converts to Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy suggests that such an appetite is not whetted through the college. Its administration and trustees would do well to remember that the body of Christ isn’t merely alive in the present but transcends time and space. Full participation in the body of Christ requires knowledge of one’s place in that living chain.
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.
Image by Sea Crow via Creative Commons. Image cropped.