Investing in the Christian mind
Christian study centers show what universities were meant to be
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This fall, I had the honor of speaking at the launch of the new South Carolina Study Center in Columbia, S.C. Occupying a charming historic white house across the street from the University of South Carolina, the SCSC is just the latest representative of a bold new movement that is challenging Christians to rethink the nature and purpose of higher education. The term “study center” may evoke images of Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri and its various offshoots, retreat spaces offering a space for reading, rest, reflection, and mentorship for Christians and seekers alike. But the Christian study center movement, though inspired by Francis Schaeffer’s compelling blend of faith and scholarship, has forged a model for engagement at the very center of modern intellectual and cultural life—the public research university.
Since the formation of the first Christian study center at the University of Virginia in 1975, the Consortium of Christian Study Centers has grown to include 38 member institutions. Initially, most did little more than offer a thoughtful Christian add-on or occasional antidote to whatever was going on in the neighboring university: a C.S. Lewis reading group, perhaps, or public lecture on faith and science. Today, however, as the university finds itself in a state of moral and intellectual collapse, the study center movement has a crucial role to play in modeling what it means to pursue higher education in the first place.
It is, after all, no secret that most of our universities are a mess. The seemingly uncontrollable rise of tuition, most of it going to fund bloated administration and student lifestyle perks rather than actual teaching and scholarship, is running up against the inexorable fact of demographic decline and the diminishing economic importance of a college degree. With fewer people likely to apply for college, the only way for institutions to support their sprawling campuses is to lower admissions standards, a trend that has accelerated rapidly in the aftermath of Covid-19 and the educational chaos it visited on America’s high-schoolers. Of course, as more and more university departments see their primary role as political activism, SAT scores don’t matter as much anyway—who needs good grades when you have a passion for justice?
These trends, together with an increasingly stifling free speech regime, in which professors are regularly reported for their “micro-aggressions,” have contributed to a landscape in which universities exist more to fund sports entertainment than for any actual learning. What little education remains is likely to be confined to the sciences and technical fields, as many institutions abolish whole departments once dedicated to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness through the liberal arts.
Many institutions have responded by effectively accepting that most of their programs are a charade to pay the bills, and creating little liberal arts colleges within the broader university, where rigorous reading and inquiry still takes place. Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, and the Thomas Jefferson Center at UT-Austin, are promising examples that have inspired many imitators.
Still, without acknowledging Christ as the center, these programs rest on an unstable foundation. The university, after all, was a Christian invention. Pagan polytheism could never provide the unified account of reality that would integrate all sciences within one truth. Islam had unity, but no space for free inquiry. In medieval Christendom alone, the university arose as a community of scholars free enough to pursue truth through questioning and debate, and yet humble enough to accept the integration of all these truths under the discipline of theology. It is no surprise that with the waning of Christianity in the modern world, our universities have lost this delicate balance and become cacophonous academies of self-advancement.
Whereas the original Christian study centers catered largely to students, many today are realizing that faculty need them just as desperately. For Christian scholars called to the task of higher education, many universities have become altogether suffocating. There is little room to say what one really thinks, or teach on the truths one most cares about, and very few students have any interest in listening. Christian faculty, then, urgently need educational spaces alongside of the great universities where they can actually educate, openly discussing the deepest questions of life with one another and with eager learners.
Today, the Christian study center movement is poised to offer something much more than some Christian window-dressing to the intellectual life of the university; it can offer instead a picture of what the university was meant to be: a community of shared learning that receives the gifts of God and reflects them back into the world.
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These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.