Sacred Education

A recent story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger describes the dynastic culture of some of the newer evangelical colleges. Presidents of such “universities” as Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, and Liberty, were drawn from the sons (not daughters) of the founders. Mostly they seem to prefer to name their schools after themselves, it seems. What strikes me as odd is not the dynastic succession—after all that is common in both business and Bible—but that society seems so content to see the explosion of evangelical colleges while holding traditional higher education in a strangle-hold. According to the article by Mark Oppenheimer, combined enrollment (online and in-person) at Liberty is over 100,000. For comparison, the full-time equivalent at Arizona State University (recently the numerically largest university in the country) is shy of 77,000. We bemoan the conservative evangelical impact in government and stop the flow of money to mainstream scholars of religion (among other disciplines) and wonder what’s wrong.

Education is costly. There can be no doubt about it. Still, most academics (apart from a few who’ve learned to sponge cynically off the system) are willing to work for modest wages. We don’t get into this field for the money. No matter how tall they build their towers in New York, or Dubai, some of us will believe it’s all vanity and that the life of the mind is more than a myth. But we will be the ones shouted down by the majority welcomed with open arms at Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, or Liberty. And it’s not with justice for all. Exclusion has always been the name of the game.

Higher education was established (largely by churches) with the premise that an educated society would be a prosperous, forward-looking one. And while some of those church-monied ventures took off (who can catch up with Harvard or Princeton?) they’ve left their Protestant roots far behind. In a society where bigger is, by definition, better, what hopes do universities founded with education in mind really have? You can put Ph.D. after your names whether you studied at Harvard or Bob Jones. Ours is a society of great equalization. Unless you happen to have one of those degrees from a suspect, secular university. You can see pretty far from atop the Mound in Edinburgh. Far off into the Kingdom of Fife and your mind is free to wander far beyond that. You can’t see as far as America’s shores, however, and if you want to get ahead here the safer money is invested in the dynastic colleges of the recently departed.

Evangelist at Arizona State

Evangelist at Arizona State

2 thoughts on “Sacred Education

  1. I suppose the non-evangelical institutions could try to start a subsidy pool funded with the tithes of atheists and secular humanists (a different one than the IRS). Of course, as we see, those folks don’t “organize” the way churches do, so we’re stuck with the government, a few generous benefactors and raising the price tag on students — a rather uneven and unmatched model when compared with the one that sells salvation. Yes — what hope, indeed? This is where one begins to feel slightly guilty about imagining the calamity of a dynastic scandal to help re-balance things. But even those scandals seem to have little impact anymore, once the monolith is up and running. Sigh.

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    • I think you’ve hit on one of the main keys, M.K. Organization. Apart from a few organized atheist or humanist groups, the move away from organized religion has left a kind of individualistic entropy of society. Evangelistic religions still maintain the grouping ability that allows them to channel funds into the directions they want to develop. Ironically, they have recognized the value of higher education in a way that secularists have not–or at least secularists have not shown substantial interest in developing. It is a sad irony.

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