Churches and the Decayed Culture of Learning

by Matthew Raley

In a New York Times op-ed piece, “Your So-Called Education,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa expose key failings in undergraduate institutions. The B.A. does not mean what it used to, they report, and there are structural reasons for its decline. Their sharp criticism raises questions about our cultural foundations for learning, not just in colleges but in another educational enterprise, the local church.

"Les-Parents-Terribles series: Will you read that chapter over again...," Paul Gavarni, 1853, Art Institute of Chicago

Arum and Roksa followed several thousand students in more than two dozen undergraduate institutions over four years. They found that in “a typical semester . . . 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester.” The average student spent 12-13 hours per week studying, half the time a student would have spent in the 1960s.

With such minimal work, tests show that a large proportion of students make no significant progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing.

And for this students and their families pay the equivalent of a home mortgage?

The causes Arum and Roksa identify are all institutional, but raise cultural questions that are beyond the scope of their study.

The investments of colleges and universities are one cause: fewer tenured faculty, more counselors who attend to social and personal issues. “At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.”

The empowerment of students is another cause. Federal Pell grants are dispersed to students, not institutions, which means a student takes dollars wherever he or she decides. The evaluation of faculty emphasizes student assessments, making it difficult for a professor to advance unless he or she is popular. All of this tends to make students think like consumers who insist on being satisfied with the school’s “service.”

Unfortunately, undergraduate schools could adopt all of Arum’s and Roksa’s sensible reform proposals and never revitalize learning.

Consider the significance of schools’ spending on counselors. Social dysfunctions are driving that expenditure: drinking, drugs, cutting, sexual crime, STDs and other public health dangers, and mental health issues like depression. Undergraduate culture is often a degraded underworld. Where does learning fit in such a context?

A key cultural foundation for learning has always been strong family life, and we’re seeing the consequences of family decay.

Consider also the spending on gyms and sports programs. This too expresses a larger cultural reality: we are obsessed with entertainment and activities. How could learning be anything but a sideline where leisure activities are so exalted.

And the empowerment of students as consumers of education? This is quite simply an abdication of authority, a capitulation to our culture’s relentless leveling of all points of view below the only one that ultimately matters: that of the divine Self.

Which brings me to the other educational enterprise I mentioned, the local church, which should be a prime mover in rebuilding a culture of learning — and in the past was exactly that.

Churches today are so enslaved by the same culture of dysfunction, leisure, and consumerism as colleges that one struggles to envision churches as centers of learning. In fact, the idea that a church might be an educational institution is only dimly remembered, when it is not violently rejected. American evangelicals are likely to see this priority as snooty.

But how exactly are Christians to restore a degraded culture if they can’t think critically, or reason about complex issues? And how are they supposed to gain those skills if they know little about the history that made us who we are? And how — really, how exactly is this supposed to happen? — how are they going to apply the gospel to their lives if they won’t read?

Evangelicals seem to think bumper stickers, petition drives, and fun music are enough to “take back the culture.” They have forgotten that our duty in Christ is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

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3 thoughts on “Churches and the Decayed Culture of Learning

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  1. Classical Christian education is, I believe, a big part of the answer to many of these ills. Naturally, the gospel comes first. But if we think covenantally, as passing on the faith, I think classical Christian education is one of the most powerful means available to do so. It’s Christ-centered, intellectually rigorous, and appeals to the whole person. If you’ve never heard of it, I would highly commend it to your attention. Look up the Association of Classical and Christian Schools to get a flavor for it, or read Douglas Wilson’s book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.

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