Mark Noll on teaching (as a sort of withdrawal) or research (as attending to all reality)

I see this “avoiding the political infighting” as a sort of “Benedict option” for Christian intellectuals. The pull between “teaching-centered higher education” (Mark Schwehn) and what Mark Noll seems to be recommending here is a quite strong internal conflict for me. Truth be told, I’m inclined to teaching for “the virtues of attending to students as people.” However, I find Noll’s appeal persuasive: “the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit.”

“An even more substantial objection grows from a consideration of the modern academy. Surely evangelicals are better off avoiding the political in-fighting, manifest secularization, power mongering, and ideological warfare that so often characterize modern academic life and that have been the subject of sharp public criticism in recent years. 26 If evangelicals inhabit a brackish intellectual backwater, they are still spared the perils of a tumultuous sea upon which ships are going nowhere. A great modern university might keep the sort of inscription that still adorns Kinsey Hall on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles — “Psalm 119: 18. Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” But the reality of what occurs in the research universities often mocks the pieties of earlier generations. When this argument is made with Christian subtlety — as it has been made, for instance, in a recent apology for teaching-centered higher education by Mark Schwehn of Valparaiso University — the argument carries weight. 27 Schwehn’s case for the virtues of attending to students as people as opposed to the pursuit of research as an end in itself, for historically anchored religious conviction over ultra-chic ideological posturing, is compelling. The weight of such an argument means that an appeal for intellectual effort must be precise. In appealing for Christian scholarship, the point is not primarily academic respectability, and certainly not the mindless pursuit of publication for its own sake that bedevils the modern university. The point is rather that the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit, whether that consideration is of social theory, the history of science, other historical changes, the body, the arts, literature, or more. Christian appeals for learning should not ask for a downgrading of teaching, an elitist rejection of insights from ordinary people, or an aestheticism that excludes all but the cognoscenti. They should ask rather that explorations into the broader and deeper reaches of the intellect be considered a complement to, rather than competition against, person-oriented, teaching-focused, and democratically inspired intellectual life.”

Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 29-31.


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